Et Tu U2?

11/15/2004

Count the Muse among many eager for the release of U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” Set to hit stores next week, the band’s label has its hype machine going full-throttle to build an advance buzz for the CD. Unfortunately, all that hype is working as a buzz-kill for me. And I’ve entered what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross would call the “acceptance” stage in my struggle to come to grips with the death of popular music.

It saddens me even more that it was U2 that put the final nail in the coffin. For nearly a quarter-century, the Muse has thrilled at U2’s music and message. The band and its charismatic front-man Bono have unquestionably been a force for good on this planet. Their powerful songs have enriched many of my moments and–therein–lies the rub.

The incredible thing about popular music is its ability to become ingrained in our being. A favorite song becomes an association with a memory of another time and place that can be instantly and randomly evoked by the whim of a classic-rock station. Really smart people that study brains call this “synesthesia,” when the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another.

Put less clinically, it’s when I hear the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 2004 and am transported to 1964–and I am once again a precocious seven-year old playing it 13-straight times on a juke box in a West Virginia beer garden. That I lived to tell is no small wonder.

U2 has given me many such transcendental moments. With a spin of the disc, “New Year’s Day” becomes New Year’s Eve, 1985 and I’m playing air guitar with equally-inebriated Cubans aboard a cruise ship in Miami. Play “Mysterious Ways” and I’m singing once more with 50,000 revelers in the pouring rain at a sold-out U2 show at RFK stadium. The band even provided the sound-track for my all-time favorite dream in which I was engaged in a fierce food-fight in an Italian restaurant as “Gloria” inexplicably pounded in the background.

It’s a safe bet that the newly-released “Vertigo” will be the next U2 mega-hit, but sadly it won’t take its place among the musical memories of my time. That is assured because of the corporate co-branding deal it cut with Apple, makers of the iPod. Last night, I heard the tune on my truck’s radio and what do you guess appeared before my mind’s eye? Images of Bono’s dancing silhouette on that damn TV commercial. Madison Avenue has officially stolen U2.

The New York Times says “‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’ easily stands alongside the best work of U2’s career.” Maybe so, but in my mind, it will never measure up to the “commercial-free” U2 music that preceded it.

I’m as concerned with U2’s legacy as I am about my selfish interest in keeping their music pure. The gadget of the day nearly always loses it luster as time goes by. How much cache would the band have if they’d sold out earlier in their career? When U2 came on the scene, everybody thought Pac-Man was the coolest thing ever. Imagine that collaboration: “I can’t believe the news today–WAKKA WAKKA WAKKA–I want to close my eyes and make it go away–WAKKA WAKKA–Sunday, Bloody Sunday!”

I know. This has been a long time coming. It’s a cancer unleashed with the arrival of MTV a couple of decades ago. It’s just that the U2/iPod deal moved me from denial to acceptance.

It reminds me of Don McLean’s famous refrain in American Pie, “But something touched me deep inside–the day the music died.”

And that reminds me of a spontaneous sing-along during a whitewater rafting trip in 1989 when….

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