[Ed. note: This is the 1st in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about the visuals and videos that U2 has employed over the years to complement its music. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
Many of us who follow U2 are at least as interested (if not more interested) in the band's live performances as in their studio albums. For me, U2 would not be U2 without their concerts. A U2 show is an unparalleled experience of music, art and emotion. More than one fan has referred to a U2 concert as a religious experience.
Energetic music is only partly responsible for the atmosphere created at a U2 gig. Another essential component is the imagery -- the lights, colors, pictures, symbols and staging all work to support the underlying themes of a U2 show. Nothing is left to chance. Every lighting effect, video clip and stage design is developed with thoughtful purpose. Willie Williams, U2's mastermind for state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind visual artistry, has been orchestrating these elements for 30 years.
I love what U2 does on stage because I am a visual learner. Others learn by touching or hearing, but I experience life best by seeing things. Perhaps that's why, though I live in California, I've flown across this nation -- as far west as Hawaii and as far east as North Carolina -- to see U2 live. Bono has often said, "Live is where we live." I agree.
Many moments impacted me visually on the recent 360 tour, but one song in particular stood out. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" delivered a powerful mix of music, lyric and imagery, providing a chorus of meaning and emotion to reflect on. Before you read on, check out the video from U2 360 At The Rose Bowl. While you're watching, ask some questions like, "What is that writing on the screen?" "Who are the people pictured there?" "Why is the stage washed in green?" "What's up with Bono and the American flag?"
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" has evolved through its live performances over the last three decades. Bono notes that it was originally written "to contrast Easter Sunday with the death of 13 protesters in Derry on Bloody Sunday [gunned down by the British Army in 1972]," and that "melodically the suggestion of the lyrics stood up to the test of time." But he also admits that he plays with and updates the lyrics according to how he feels and where he's singing.
On the Joshua Tree tour during the filming of Rattle and Hum, Bono paid tribute to those who had just lost their lives as a result of an IRA bombing in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland (Nov 8, 1987). Eleven people were killed and 63 were injured. The anguish of that moment was released as Bono screamed the now infamous phrase, "F--- the revolution!"
The song was again adapted on the Elevation tour during the filming of U2 Go Home: Live From Slane Castle. Bono memorialized the 29 people who died in an IRA bombing at Omagh, Northern Ireland, in 1998 by reading their names. On the Vertigo tour, the song became a comment on the Mideast conflict with chants like "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed, it's true, all sons of Abraham," and iconic imagery including a tattered headband that read "CoeXisT" depicting the Muslim crescent moon, the Jewish Star of David and the Christian Cross.
During the 360 tour, the meaning once again shifted to focus more tightly on the conflict in Iran. The first hint of this message is heard as the band concludes the frenzied party song "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" with Bono collapsing to the floor while an indistinct chant of Mideastern stylings fills the stadium. The chant is actually a sample from the song "Beshno Az Ney" recorded by Sussan Deyhim, an accomplished performance artist and native of Tehran who now lives in the United States. The Persian lyric she sings is taken from a poem by Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi mystic who lived in Persia (modern-day Afghanistan and Iran). The poem, translated as "The Song Of The Reed Flute," is a lament of separation, loss and pain.
Deyhim's mournful lyric continues to wail from the 400-ton stage as Bono cries out, "A change of heart comes slow … What's going on in the world?" Overhead the massive screen displays a woman wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, and some foreign script. The Persian writing scrolling across the display is text from the Rumi poem, which begins,
Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
how it sings of separation:
Ever since they cut me from the reed bed,
my wail has caused men and women to weep.
I want a heart that is torn open with longing
so that I might share the pain of this love.
Whoever has been parted from his source
longs to return to that state of union.
Our days grow more unseasonable,
these days which mix with grief and pain.
But if the days that remain are few, let them go; it doesn't
matter. But You, You remain, for nothing is as pure as You are.
(Translation by Kabir Helminski.)
As the text from the Rumi poem scrolls on, the pictures morph into images of men, women and children protesting recent election results in Iran. Just months prior to the Rose Bowl concert, in June 2009, peaceful demonstrations rocked Iran, and the world, calling attention to the controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As thousands of people poured into the streets of Tehran, charges of voter fraud surged from the nonviolent protesters. The government quickly responded with armed force, killing and jailing an untold number of Iranian activists. The uprisings became known around the world as the "Green Movement."
Back on the stage at the Rose Bowl, images, music and lyrics converge in a bold message. The voice of a holy man emerges after 800 years through state-of-the-art speakers and screens crying, "Listen!" Bono lifts up praying hands, calling out, "Tehran and all who love freedom, we're speaking to you, can you hear us?" In a moment of spontaneity, as nearly 100,000 sing a chorus of "oh-oh-oh" on cue with Larry's angry snare, Bono serenades an American flag that has been tossed to him by a fan -- an ultimate, serendipitous instant of irony. Hovering over the flag Bono begins, "I can't believe the news today, I can't close my eyes and make it go away. How long, how long must we sing this song?"
With the stage washed in green and the anthem in full swing, the message of love, anger and hope is clear; U2 stand squarely with the imprisoned, the disenfranchised, and the suppressed voices of freedom that live under the hand of a brutal dictator.
I stood 15 feet in front of The Edge at the Rose Bowl and this is an image I'll never forget. In the midst of it, I saw a man gripping a guitar, barely moving from his spot, intensity on his face, eyes closed as if in prayer with the sweetest of words on his lips, "Tonight, we can be as one." We -- Americans, Iranians and the world.
Bono has famously said that "this song is not a rebel song." In Michka Assayas' book Bono, In Conversation, he recalls, "We became students of nonviolence, of Martin Luther King's thinking. We wrote 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' as a way of refuting the armed struggle. The irony was that a lot of people thought 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' was a call to arms, a rebel song for a united Ireland. It was about unity …."
Did you see "Sunday Bloody Sunday" at a 360 concert this last tour? If so, you were treated to an amazing and artistic message that went far beyond the lyrics of a hit song. Through images, music and the voice of a 13th-century poet, U2 continued their never-ending pursuit of peace and nonviolence, crying out in a wilderness of oppression and injustice for the way of love. Go ahead and watch that clip from the Rose Bowl again. Maybe this time you'll hear -- and see -- it.
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2011.