[Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series that looks at some aspect of U2's history and asks the question, "What if that happened differently?" Future essays in the series will be published as @U2 staffers are inspired to ask, "What if...?"]
On at least one occasion, U2's mirror-ball lemon -- the massive, mobile stage prop from which the band appeared for an encore every night during the PopMart tour -- malfunctioned, trapping them inside. Fortunately for all of us, they managed to escape through a small door in the back of the lemon. But what if the door had also seized up? What if the band were stuck inside the lemon until only recently ... what if they emerged to a world that never knew All That You Can't Leave Behind, the Slane Castle shows of 2001, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, the 360 tour ... what if the band themselves had never experienced the triumphs and disappointments -- and the attendant expectations -- of the early part of the new millennium?
Cue the squiggly lines and flashback music.
Oslo, Norway. Six Months Ago. The 40-ft. lemon slowly thrums to life, barely perceptibly at first but gradually gathering steam as assorted mechanical innards click into place. Cracked mirror panels fall to the ground as the lemon awakens, sending streams of sunlight to the corners of the now-abandoned Valle Hovin stadium. A reindeer sniffing around the edge of the stadium pauses briefly as the upper half of the giant piece of fruit awkwardly begins to rise.
Fourteen years have passed since Bono and the others were trapped inside the lemon. The U2 crew, emergency workers, and hundreds of fans who traveled to Norway with screwdrivers and crow bars have tried to free the band -- all to no avail. Only now, for whatever reason, is the fruit willing to discharge its passengers. As the sun arcs over the Scandinavian sky and the lemon's upper half continues to creak open, U2 look upon the 21st century for the very first time.
New York City. Four Months Ago. The band have agreed to meet in a diner here to discuss what's next for them. Bono, Adam and Larry are chatting about what they've up to since climbing out of the lemon and rejoining society. Bono is finishing a story about a group of businessmen to whom Paul McGuiness introduced him, possible sponsors for a tour U2 are planning.
"So I said to them, 'Smart phone? Looks pretty stupid to me.' "
Larry and Adam laugh politely. Bono smiles. "What have you guys been up to?"
Adam takes a sip of his tea, a tepid cup of Earl Grey. "Well, last night Larry and myself went to see a musical on Broadway, an adaptation of The Lion King."
"The Disney movie?"
"Yeah, it was really cool. The director, Julie Taymor, studied Japanese puppetry or something. Anyway, it was quite the spectacle."
Larry looks up from his cheeseburger. "You should write a musical, Bono."
Edge walks into diner and slides into the booth next to Larry. The waitress -- a matronly type with sad eyes and a bouffant hairdo -- hands him a menu, scowls at him for a moment and walks away without saying a word.
Adam laughs. "Really, Edge, do you have to wear those 'fake muscle' shirts everywhere you go? It's getting embarrassing."
"I have three closets full of them and nothing else. Anyway, they were cool in 1997."
"Well, they're not cool now. Buy yourself a cowboy shirt or something."
Bono looks up from the plate and the forks he's been playing with, building a dinnerware-size structure that resembles nothing so much as a spaceship, or maybe a claw. "What's going on, Edge?"
"Well, I met with a producer today," Edge says, "this guy who goes by the name will.i.am, from the group The Black Eyed Peas."
Larry frowns. "The Black Eyed Peas? Didn't they do that song 'My Humps'?"
"Um, well, yeah. I think he would be good for us, though. He could help us pick up where we left off with Pop, with the whole club music thing."
"I dunno," Larry says. "Maybe it's time we got back to basics -- guitar, bass and drums. I mean, we are a rock band, right? In any event, Pop didn't exactly leave them clamoring for more."
Bono jumps in. Clearly, he's been waiting for the moment when he could discourse on this topic.
"I've been thinking about it," he says. "I've been listening to a lot of radio and going to a lot of clubs. And I've been trying to figure out where we fit in, you know? I've been trying to figure out whether we can still be relevant."
"What does that even mean?" Larry looks annoyed.
Bono presses on, ignoring the question. "Why does anybody need a new U2 album? Everybody's got one. And if we need to find a new audience, then let's go to China or something. But this band should really just f--- off and die. That would be my advice to myself -- unless we can find a way to be both relevant and successful. Being successful is a lot easier for us at this point. We can play very large places, probably, for the rest of our lives. We can do the big music. But can we do small music? Can we still make music that will be played on the radio or in the clubs? That's a big question. I'm not sure that we can ..." *
"Hey, keep it down," the waitress calls out from behind the counter. "You're bothering the other customers."
A hush falls briefly over the table. "Anyway," Bono says, "rock is dead."
Dublin, Ireland. Two Weeks Ago. In a bid to be relevant in the 21st century, and because Paul McGuinness booked a tour before well before a new album was begun, never mind finished, U2 wrote and recorded the album -- now titled See Through In The Sunlight -- with lightning speed. Fans line up in front of the HMV store on Grafton Street days before the record's release.
Anaheim, Calif. Tonight. Angel Stadium. Opening night of what fans are already calling the "Zeitgeist" tour. U2 have adapted the "mobile disco" idea that Willie Williams sketched out before the band settled on the PopMart concept all those years ago. A massive stage, some 170 feet high, stands in the center of the stadium while trucks carrying light towers and huge video screens crisscross the field. "Thumbs up" icons flash across the screens as concertgoers with tour apps on their iPhones "like" a song or some gesture Bono makes from the stage. Crews carrying "reality cams" wander through the crowds capturing unrehearsed scenes -- a scuffle with a security guard here, a beer spilled on an unsuspecting neighbor there -- to be broadcast in real time on one of the screens.
Onstage, the band are tearing through their new single -- the will.i.am-produced "Boom Boom Cha" -- to the thunderous delight of the audience. Tens of thousands of "thumbs up" icons dance across the truck-bound displays. They slip into another new track, the EDM-flavored "I Know I'll Go Crazy If You Don't Go Crazy First, Thus Robbing Me Of The Satisfaction Of Being The Only One Who's Gone Crazy." Another massive roar from the crowd. Bono and the others exchange knowing glances and goofy grins. They lean into the song's final chorus.
U2 are on fire tonight. U2 are back.
* actual quote
© @U2/Boas, 2012.