Achtung Birthday

[So this is a little different update-wise, as what follows is a revised and updated version of  a two-part piece I first wrote back in 2010. Nobody in their right mind will want to delve back 11 years into the past to find them, so what we have below is a combined and revised piece about one of my favorite albums of all time, which turned 30 this past week.]

30 years ago this very week (November 18th for those keeping count) I ducked out of school on my lunch break, drove to the local record store, and bought this:

I have a confession to make – I am a U2 fan. I realize that’s an un-cool statement to make, given that U2 are not cool by the normal standard. The only thing cool about U2 is to viscerally hate their pompous, earnest stadium rock (the same grief Coldplay gets – and another band I quite like, so there). Somehow, Radiohead gets a pass because they’re all arty and serious, but their fans are the biggest shitheads around and worse than people who constantly berate you for buying a Mac instead of a PC, because these things supposedly matter. But I am a U2 fan; I have all their albums, saw them in concert several times, and even liked Songs of Innocence, the free album they released in 2014 that everyone else seems to hate despite it being a pretty solid collection of songs.

This all has to do, I realize, with the age I discovered them.

I discovered them in 1987 when The Joshua Tree was released and you couldn’t walk the street without tripping over “With or Without You.”  For an impressionable early teenager, the great thing about U2 was that they weren’t what was clogging the airwaves at the time – Bon Jovi and Warrant and “Unskinny Bop” – they were serious, they had a conscience, they were all about Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 16: Photo of U2; L-R: The Edge, Bono (waving flag), Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr performing live on The Tube TV Show (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

Another reason I responded to them was, by this point, I was still the “new kid” at my school and at my new hometown. We’d moved in August 1986 and while I made friends, I still felt like something of an outsider. And as so much of The Joshua Tree is about alienation, and fear, and desire, it was like handing a glass of ice water to a man dying of thirst. So I dug U2, but not in a huge way. I didn’t get The Joshua Tree until Christmas 1987 (on Vinyl), and had to make a cassette copy to listen to on my walkman. Of course, the U2 steamroller had just got going when they dropped Rattle and Hum – the album and the movie, and went from “cool, serious band” to “overexposed” in a heartbeat. I saw Rattle and Hum in the theater, and as it was my first exposure to the band in something of a live setting, my appreciation for them deepened. The only concerts I’d been to by that point were Jan and Dean, Donny and Marie Osmond, and a pre-Private Dancer Tina Turner, so seeing Bono’s ego projected larger than life was a sight to behold. But more important, the theater sound system was the best stereo one could imagine – the walls were shaking. Needless to say after the experience I was a full-on fan, no longer just a casual one. I bought up their back catalog and nearly wore the cassettes out. The fact that R&H is not a good album by U2 (or anyone else’s) standards is beside the point – it was the right album, and the right movie, at the right time. I was a fan now, and I anxiously awaited their next album.

And waited. And waited. And waited …

B0W1XG Iconic graffiti on Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery

1988 became 1989, which became 1990 and then 1991 and there was no sign of a new album. Unlike this internet age where you have that information at your fingertips (true or rumored), in the early 1990s you either read about it in Rolling Stone or Spin, or you heard nothing. One advantage of the wait was I filled the gap by discovering other bands who would become as important to me as U2 – Midnight Oil, INXS, REM, The Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, and many more. Summer 1991 saw the first Lollapalooza festival, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and by September the Pixies released Trompe Le Monde, and Nirvana released Nevermind.

Think of that: 1987 was The Joshua Tree, Bon Jovi, Warrant and Unskinny Bop; 4 years later was Pearl Jam, Lollapalooza and Nirvana. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union was on the way out, and still nothing new from U2. A lot can change in four years, but an even bigger change was coming.

In late September of 1991 I picked up the newest issue of Rolling Stone (with Guns n’ Roses on the cover – remember Use Your Illusion?). And in the news section there was a small blurb about U2’s new studio album being readied for release. The title was Achtung Baby, with the first single “The Fly” set for release in October.

I thought it was a joke. Really? They’re calling it Achtung Baby? They’re releasing a song called The Fly? This, from the band behind the painfully earnest Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum? It had to be a misprint. They couldn’t be serious.

Could they?

I began to wonder … by now I was well into the left of the dial music that was slowly sweeping across the land. By the time AB dropped on November 19, 1991, would I even be interested? Would I even care? This was not a new phenomenon; in years since I’ve fallen in love and then out of love with lots of bands. Some were just brief affairs of an album or two, some lasted years before fizzling entirely. Some I still listen to and buy their new releases, but it still feels like a sense of duty more than something I genuinely want to hear.

Late October, “The Fly” was released. I didn’t so much hear it as see the tail end of the video on Much Music when I got home from school. It was a good 30 seconds before I realized it was even U2. Bono was wearing these goofy wrap-around shades; The Edge was wearing his soon to be ubiquitous knit cap and (gasp) bell bottoms. This wasn’t the U2 of The Joshua Tree, and the music wasn’t like anything U2 had done before. I was intrigued, but after the low-fi sonic assault of Nevermind, this slick, studio stuff seemed more self-indulgent than anything else.

There was still a month before releaseon a trip to the record store to grab Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, I happened upon a cassette single (a.k.a. “cassingle”) for The Fly.

I picked it up too and on the way home gave The Fly a listen.  I listened to it several times, along with an included remix, and an instrumental track they did for a Royal Shakespeare Co. production of A Clockwork Orange.  It was all very … different, but as is the case with anything, the more you listen, the more it tends to grow on you. So everything was in flux come November 21 when I left school at lunch to hit the record store. You see, this was THE DAY Achtung Baby hit shelves. To risk restating the experience of buying it, click HERE if you haven’t already. Done? Good.

When I walked into the record store, the owner was playing what I would later learn was “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” but I was all eyes at that point, and not ears. I looked for the new release rack and finally found what I was looking for. It took me a minute, because the first thing you notice about Achtung Baby is its cover.

It was off-putting, coming from a band who had up to that point selected a single image for their cover art:

So right away it didn’t look like U2, but that didn’t discourage me, obviously, because I threw down for the cassette copy, as I didn’t own a CD player at this point, yet had a Walkman, a boom box and a car stereo with tape deck. I paid for it, declined the bag, and ripped the cellophane off the case on the way back to my car. I slid behind the wheel, fired it up and popped in Achtung Baby. The test signal rolled first and I set levels, and then, music …

ZOO STATION

When it started, it sounded like my stereo speakers were broken, and it wasn’t until Bono started singing that I realized that was the entire point. Given the last U2 song released was the melodic All I Want Is You (well, that and a cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day” from the Red Hot + Blue compilation), it was music from a different planet, but still very much U2. I really wasn’t crazy about it to be honest, but now I can’t imagine the album without it.

EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING

Now this was more like the U2 I knew – a sweeping rock anthem, blending the old and the new. The “rhythm and blues” influence of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum was gone, and it harkened back to The Unforgettable Fire in its “European feel” but by this point it was clear that AB was a totally different beast.

ONE

Here we go. Some songs take several listens to “get” but “One” was one I got the moment I heard it, and is probably their best known, best loved song. It’s apparently a popular song at weddings too, which blows my mind because if you listen to the lyrics, you realize pretty damn quickly it’s not a love song. With lyrics like “You ask me to enter/ but then you make me crawl/ and I can’t keep holding on / when all you got is hurt,” it is ironic their most popular song is also their most misunderstood. It’s hard to think of this era in music and with U2 to be “Classic Rock” but One is a classic and now recognized in roch circles as one of thegreatest songs ever written. Even people who hate U2 will couple that hatred with the admission that “One” is pretty good.

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

It’s about Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus, told from Iscariot’s perspective, but for me, it seemed to speak to what I was going through at that time in my life; an on-again-off-again relationship with a girl who was much more into me than I was into her, being stupidly into someone else who I had no chance with. And by the time I realized I had made a big mistake it was too late. She’d moved on, and told me it would be the end of the world before she reconsidered.

WHO’S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES

A nice salve after the bitterness of the previous tunes, it’s one of the lesser tunes on the album, at least for me. I think it is for U2 also, given how the fact it was a single, it really isn’t remembered. It’s the closest to a Joshua Tree-era tune on the album and stands out for it.

SO CRUEL

For some strange reason, the song that becomes before the side break on pretty much every U2 album becomes my favorite on that album, and So Cruel fits that bill. It’s simple and melodic, and sets up the two songs that follow. One of the things we lost with the rise of the CD is that “act break,” the song that holds its spell on you as you flip the cassette or album over; something to linger while you wait for the next track. So Cruel still does that.

THE FLY

If you hear any U2 on the radio these days, The Fly is going to be one of them. No 90s compilation or playlist is complete with this roaring beast of distorted guitars and distorted voice. It was U2’s firs new music in three years and it sounded unlike anything they’d ever done. I didn’t realize at the time how this song and that video would be the blueprint for what was to follow. U2 had long wanted to “redefine” the concert experience and what the subsequently pulled off did just that and that influence can be seen and felt to this very day.

MYSTERIOUS WAYS

The first time I listened to Mysterious Ways, I didn’t like it. It was too “dance” too “House”, and as a self-import and, self-involved 18 year old, those things were just wrong. Now, it’s my favorite song on the album after So Cruel, and best played loud. Go figure.

TRYING TO THROW YOUR ARMS AROUND THE WORLD

To this day, every time I hear it, I think of a very particular scene; me, driving the streets of my town after dark. It’s winter, the ground is covered with snow and every street feels abandoned. There are no people out and fewer cars, but the music coming from the stereo is warm and soothing.

ULTRAVIOLET (LIGHT MY WAY)

There’s a scene in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Jean-Dominique Bauby, paralyzed by a stroke, is remembering a trip he took with a mistress, and as we segue into the flashback, the first strings of Ultraviolet can be heard, before BLASTING into the big intro. The image, of the mistress from behind as she sits in the passenger seat of a convertible, her hair whipping in the wind, is now forever associated with this song, but it remains one of my favorite tracks on the album. U2 resurrected it from limbo for U2 360 tour as an encore, as a throw to their fans, who by all accounts were thrilled to see some lesser-known known songs make the playlist.

ACROBAT

Its refrain of “don’t let the bastards grind you down” has become my personal mantra. They try their best, and sometimes it looks like they’ll win, but I always bounce back and am still here when so many of them have gone.

LOVE IS BLINDNESS

The somber closing to a joyous and yet bitter collection of songs. A downbeat song they closed shows on their tour with and didn’t diminish the high everyone felt coming out of it.

So despite Nirvana and Pearl Jam, RHCP, Ministry, Soundgarden and countless others occupying the sonic landscape of 1991 – surely the last great year in music we’ve seen – AB remained lodged in my tape deck for months, it seems, and remains my favorite “winter album” — yes Achtung Baby makes me think of snow and chilly air. A lot of stuff happened in those remaining weeks of 1991 and AB was the soundtrack to it. Hell, when I started college the following fall it was still out there, still playing in record stores, still blasting from dorm rooms – albums had a longevity then that they don’t have now. In fact, in the 30 years since then I don’t think I ever stopped listening to it.

In March 1992 I got to realize a dream of the previous five years and saw U2 on their now legendary Zoo TV tour. I cut afternoon classes and drove the three hours with three friends, spent a good part of the day wandering the city near the venue, and got to see The Pixies (my still-favorite band, and people behind what was and remains my all-time favorite album, 1990s’ Bossanova) open for U2.

I was at this show, though sadly not this close to stage.

It was, of course, an amazing show and an amazing experience – but I realized much later that seeing U2 live represented the climactic moment of my love for that band. I’m still a fan, and will be until I die, even though they’re not the pinnacle of my musical taste like they were. Seeing Zoo TV was the conclusion of that period of my life, which was changing quickly. I graduated High School three months later, I moved away to College five months after that (and ended up living down the street from where I saw U2 barely half a year before). I saw them again in August of that year, and then thirteen years passed before I saw them once more, on their Vertigo Tour, general admission, right up front. That was the last time I them perform, live, because nothing could top that experience outside of being their personal guest or something.

People change and music changes, and 30 years can seem like 30 years, and can also seem like just last week or last year. The agonizing wait for an album is gone – music gets leaked, officially or unofficially – in the case of Songs of Innocence it can appear, wanted or not, in your iTunes downloads.

I’m a U2 fan, but will probably never be as into U2 as I was in 1988-1992 and probably will never be into any band that much again. Music obsession is a young man’s game and it has to be, because that music will be with you for the rest of your  life. When Generation X hits retirement age, rest homes across the world will have Grunge nights, and arguments will break out in the lunch room over the merits of Nirvana over Pearl Jam, just like High School with more wrinkles, more grey hair and less of it. The rec room will be filled with the music of Ministry and Nine Inch nails, and especially U2. I’Il still listen to Achtung Baby regularly, like Doolittle, like Nevermind, like so many other albums that stood the test of time. And, like every memory I have of that year and time of my life, I’ll never stop listening to it.


1991

Thirty years. How can it have been thirty years?

There are milestone years in your life. The years that stand out above all the others. I’ve lived many years, and could pick a good half-dozen or so that stand out. But near the top of that list, 1991 remains that year for me. Musically. Culturally. Personally. It was a time when it felt like I and my generation – Generation X – were coming into our own. Where the movie and music creators we discovered and came to admire were borne of the same age as we were. The same experiences. It wasn’t 1960s or 1970s pop culture redux. It was our culture, our identity. It was U2, Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, Depeche Mode, The Stone Roses, The Pixies, and a bunch of new bands from Seattle called Pearl Jam and Nirvana (we already knew Soundgarden, but bands like Mudhoney, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream and more were discovered at the same time). I’d been dipping my toe in the college and alternative rock pool since 1987 but 1991 was the year I plunged in.

Ask anyone at all connected with the music and culture of Generation X but 1991 remains THE year for all of that. It truly felt like the flood gates had opened. Don’t believe me? The Pixies’ Trompe le Monde, Nirvana’s Nevermind, The Cult’s Sanctuary, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic were all released on the same day. Seven days earlier, Guns N’ Roses released Use Your Illusion I and II, and Hole released Pretty on the Inside. Both Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were already in stores, and the autumn would see the releases of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and U2’s Achtung Baby.

Oh, and Michael Jackson released an album that, while it outsold pretty much all of the above, felt like a relic from a different era. The 80s effectively ended the summer of 1991. Generation X was moving to the forefront, the culture was moving on, and if you were in your teens and early 20s, you were riding that wave.

Very few of my teenage years were memorable, or happy for that matter. Frankly the 90s weren’t all that great either – 1990-1994 were pretty good overall. 1995 through 1998 were shit, and 1999 was great professionally, lousy personally. While my career did eventually take flight, it was amidst a great deal of personal turmoil of the type that really prevented me from enjoying my life even when “great things” were happening. But I feel if I could hop into the Wayback Machine, or hit 88 mph in my DeLorean and travel back in time to relive just one year of my younger life, it would probably be 1991. It was the year that felt different even then. It felt like things were changing, and that the future looked a lot brighter than the past (remember that feeling? Pepperidge Farm remembers). That feeling was 30 years ago.

What both fascinates and troubles me is that 1991’s memories remain fresh, a lot more so than ones from 2011 or 2001 for that matter (outside of 9/11 what does any of us really remember from 2001 anyway?). I remember the Carribean Cruise I went on in March of 1991. I remember my summer job at our small-town local newspaper, of volunteering at the local cable access station to burnish my reel, I remember the first Lollapalooza tour, and seeing so many great bands in their prime. I remember helping my still best buddy move into his college apartment an hour’s drive from my town. I remember beginning my final year of high school. I remember My Own Private Idaho, The Commitments, The Fisher King, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, JFK and Cape Fear.

This wasn’t one of them. Seriously. The Commitments is awesome.

The thing they don’t tell you about aging is that generally you feel like the same person inside that you were when you were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Older and wiser, hopefully, but not so different. So much of my teenage years remains on immediate recall, largely thanks to the music I still listen to. While I do keep up with some contemporary artists – Coldplay, Haim, The Kills, The Weeknd – my heart belongs to the past, and to the music I grew up with. It’s not just music though; it’s a salve that helps me weather the present. If I close my eyes and listen to “In Bloom” and “Alive” and even “Blaze of Glory” , for a brief moment I’m back in the 80s and 90s. Even music from artists I never much cared for – I’m looking at you Richard Marx, Pseudo Echo and Icehouse – I still have fond memories accompanying.

1991 has been on my mind a lot, lately, thanks to the rebirth of Mixtape as a TV series I’m developing with Little Engine TV. We’re still in the early stages but there have been some encouraging developments as of late. Nothing I can reveal right now obviously. The general concensus we’ve been getting overall has been that we’re in the right time to start looking back at the 90s, those celebrated but largely forgotten early years of the decade when it seemed the world was changing for the better, an upward climb out of the morass of the 80s. That time in your life when everything good and just seems within reach.

But what is it about 1991 that holds on to me? I had better years. 1992 was right around the corner; an even more pivitol year for me. If there’s one 1991 memory I carry with me, it may be this. November 29, 1991; that was when me and a bunch of HS friends trekked to the local-ish university to see a little band from Boston play on what would be their then final tour.

The Pixies were, and remain my favorite band. Long-time readers of this blog will know that. 1990’s Bossanova remains my favorite album of all time, not because it’s the best Pixies album but because it was the right album at the right time for me. Seeing them in concert was a life goa, and in late 1991 I got my chance.

Anyway, the show. It was tight, hot, raucous. And loud. Boy was it loud. There’s something about live music that reaches deeper than recorded or video. A concert is a gathering of members of the same tribe. Everybody who travels to a concert from whatever location is joining a temporary movement. All united by a love of a band and their music. our case was no different. This concert was about an hour’s drive from our small-town yet we all made that trek. We mingled with people who had driven further, and some who lived nearby (said concert was at one of the local universities). The show was, of course, amazing. But at one point near the end we were all gathered in a group watching the band and I tore my gaze away from the stage to just look at the people I was at the concertwith. Janet, Ana, Charles, Matt, Anthony, Andy, Nathalie, Elliott, Moira, Esme, Katja. All of them. And I reflected even then that in a little less than a year those faces would be memories and nothing more. They had their lives, I had mine, and our paths would likely never cross again. For the most part that held true, even in this connected world of ours. I’m one of a seemingly few people not on Facebook so I have no idea what became of most of them. There’s a couple I keep up with now but the rest are just more memories; faces in a dusty yearbook, if that.

And it makes me think of a similar concert that fell nearly 13 years later to the day – November 24, 2004 to be exact – on the Pixies’ first of many reunion tours. A decade older, playing the “hits” despite never really having a “hit” when they were together in the first place (which should give us all pause to consider what makes a “hit” anyway). I went with a friend, just the two of us, and we had a great time. The band was on point, the crowd raucous. But standing there in that cavernous hall I wondered if any of the people I saw them with in 1991 were there too. I wondered how their lives were going, how they’d turned out. Were they happy? Were they in a good place. Did they remember me?

I never got an answer; if any were there our paths did not cross. After the show we all cleared out back to our cars and began the journey back to the present, back to our 2004 lives. Back to home. But that question, unanswered as it was in 2004, did find one in 2008, when I first got the idea for a comic book series called Mixtape. Mixtape changed my life; I stopped telling stories for others and started telling them for myself. Mixtape opened doors I didn’t realize were even there. It led to Magicians Impossible and all the other successes to follow. And those successes, right to the present with the Mixtape series, all can trace their lineage back to that special year.

The fact 1991 was 30 years ago reminds me that the once far-away year of 2050 is closer than 1991. Where will I be 29 years from now? Will I even be here? Will I even be here next year? I don’t know. None of us does. The last 30 years has taken away friends and family, teachers, classmates and colleagues. Nothing is guaranteed to us; not even tomorrow. I think that’s what makes the past the past, and why our thoughts return to days of yore; because it’s safe, because it’s known. Yet, through the things we loved – the movies, the music, the memories – those days still there. We know how the past ends. The future is frightening because none of us knows what the next day will bring. Looking at the state of the world today, the prognosis is not terribly positive. Sometimes in my darker moments I ponder whether or not I want to see another day, given the road ahead looks pretty dire.

But I keep at it. I keep plugging awy at work and at life, though as written about elsewhere the hard truth remains that while I still enjoy writing I don’t really enjoy being a “writer” and all that being a writer entails; promotion, appearances, the public side of it. So henceforth I am giving up on being a writer and focusing instead on writing. On showing up and doing the work. On being there for my family and for myself. That’s the big takeaway from 1991. That those years pass you by so fast and suddenly you’ve lived a lifetime without realizing it. It makes you want to cherish the days yet to come, because some day they’ll all be done.