Known Johnson

April 3, 2005

U2: San Diego Sports Arena, March 28, 2005

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom @ 11:27 am

We drove over to San Diego Sunday night, not really getting on the road until about 8pm. I had been hoping for more like 4pm, maybe 6pm, but as my friend Josh has a gaggle of kids, they had the usual Easter Sunday rituals to take part in which resulted in their three kids receiving 11 easter baskets. It’s good to be a kid.

Because I rarely do long late night drives, there’s one thing I never realized about driving at night: when driving for long periods of time, it becomes incredible boring, as the world around you consists of the interior of your car and the distance in front of you the beams of your headlights extend. Beyond that the world exists only in splashes and pinpricks of light, making it impossible to judge your progress. Not seeing the usual landmarks along the way makes for a strangely desolate experience.

There’s a portion of the drive into San Diego where you ascend some mountains pretty quickly, careening around some surprisingly tight turns. Most times this is simply an interesting portion of an otherwise uneventful drive, but at night, the winds whip down the mountains and onto the road in completely unpredictable patterns. A little more defensive driving than usual is required, but at night it’s a whole different experience. “Hairy” was a term I used to describe it later. It should also be noted that this passage through the mountains occured deep into our drive, and a couple hours after my traditional bedtime, and the severe sleepies were also at play.

The clock in my car stereo read 2:00 am when we arrived, and we both made mental notes that the local time was one hour behind, making it really only 1:00.

Josh’s in-law’s place, a surprisingly large townhouse, served as an escape from the Arizona summer doldrums for them. It was immaculately kept and, for a home that’s hardly used, it was filled with all kinds of knick-knacky ephemera the type of which I can never quite understand why anyone actually buys. Frog statues out front holding a sign that says “welcome home,” a lop-sided ceramic house that looked at first like a very strange vase but turned out to really be a scented-candle holder, farm-related kitchen decorations, picture frames with comical animals adorning the borders. I just don’t get it. I see stuff like that and I think “This is just more crap I have to clean.”

I took the smaller bedroom and I laid my cellphone by the bed, in case Alissa needed to get to me, noting that the time said 1:30 and that it was correct, as my cell synced with the local time and it matched the time on the clock by the bed. I quickly fell asleep, only to be awakened at some point by a heart-pounding realization. “There’s someone staring at me,” I thought. I move a little and the person moved the same way too. “There’s a person staring at me and mimicing me.” Realization set in: “That’s a mirror, dumb-ass, and that’s you.” I went back to sleep, heart slowing to a normal rate. I now realize how it feels to be a kitten or a puppy when they first encounter their reflection in a mirror.

We had agreed to wake up no later than 8:30 so that we could get down the San Diego Sports Arena to assess the situation there. I knew I would wake up early, regardless of how tired I am. If the sun’s up, generally so am I, and as soon as the sun began lighting the room my brain slowly shifted from “sleeping” to “groggilly, grudgingly awake.” I glanced at the clock, which read 6:50 am. My tired brain remembered that our clocks were an hour behind, so it was really 7:50, so I jumped up and took my shower, getting ready quickly so as not to wind up using the hot water while both of us were using the two showers. It was only after I’d fully gotten dressed that I grasped that my feeble early-morning brain had completely screwed up any semblance of sense I could make from time and that, yes, if the alarm clock says that it’s 6:50, it really is 6:50. In Arizona it’s 7:50, but I’m not there right now so that doesn’t mean a thing.

It was too late now to get back in bed. I was up, dressed, and ready to go. Josh was hard asleep upstairs, leaving me with more than an hour to do . . . well, nothing. Luckily I had somehow managed to actually prepare by bringing a book, so after figuring out the correct combination of buttons on both a TV remote and then the satellite remote I sat down in a very large, very comfortable easy chair, put my feet up on the ottoman, and read to the accompaniment of inane morning-show chatter on TV. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was to be the most relaxed I’d be all day.

We stopped for some breakfast before heading down to the arena. Both of us being fan club members (I had joined shortly prior to tickets going on sale at his urging to get tickets for us at this show,) our assumption was what the rumors we’d read on the internet had said – that fan-club members would be a part of a lottery sometime that morning to gain entrance into what has become known as the “bomb shelter,” an elliptical area surrounded by catwalk upon which Bono and possibly the other band members might walk during the show. This was the elite area on 2001’s Elevation tour, filled with ecstatic fan-club members who had earned their right to be there by being long-time fans that bought up every little U2 logo-adorned piece of memorabilia the world had to offer, and often followed the band from city to city. The lottery, however, was not to be – at least not in the way we had figured. So we stood.

It became clear pretty quickly that no one really had any idea what was going on. Some fans that had arrived the night before had taken to numbering their hands in hopes of insuring their spot very close to the line’s head, but that was all for naught. There may have been two lines, one for the fan-club members and one for the non-members, but the truth, pieced together from several different stories, appeared to be that everyone would get in at the same time, with no advantage given to those fans who had forked over the extra fan-club fees year after year. It was actually more annoying than that: entrance into the bomb shelter was not based on fan-club membership, nor on status in line, but simply on luck. Our tickets would be scanned and a computer would randomly pick some general admission tickets, fan-club member-owned or not, to occupy the ellipse’s interior, making standing in line a tactic of no real advantage except in how far back from the outside of the ellipse you wanted to stand. The fact that the “winning” ticket would be allowed to have one non-winner accompany them into the elliptical area was less generous than it sounds: many “three or more” groups had to determine who would be lucky enough to go . . . and who might be stuck by themselves for the whole concert. All this because, as some officials stated, the band got tired of seeing the same faces night after night. As someone else in line commented, it must be really rough having to see the faces of the most die-hard, buy-anything-U2 fans every night.

Meanwhile, we stood. With no way to know if we’d get into the bomb shelter, and no other way of ensuring a spot close to the stage, we had no choice but to stand there with the hundreds of others doing the same thing. And we came entirely unprepared. No cooler, no drinks, no reading materials, no headphones for my Ipod, but most importantly, NO CHAIRS! Around 11:30, Josh took off for Home Depot, located across from the arena, in hopes of finding some cheap chairs to sit on until 6pm or so. Moments after he walked away, and I saw a guy coming back with a Target bag, I would have a flashback to Josh’s wife’s suggestion Sunday night before we left: “Why don’t you guys take the kids’ walkie-talkies in case you get separated?” Our reaction? “Nah.” After all, why would we get separated in line together?

Nearly an hour later he came back empty-handed, Home Depot having nothing that matched the criteria of being both cheap and foldable so we wouldn’t have to throw them away. I then set off for Target, where I knew from asking several people that they would have some cheap foldable camping chairs. Unfortunately, by the time I got there all of those had been grabbed by all the others in line. I was left with the only option being buying some really ugly $20/each folding beach chairs. Not the $5 solution the camping chairs would have been, but when you have flat feet that ache after standing a mere hour, $20 for a chair you may never use again is a bargain. As soon as I grabbed two, I ran into the guy who had been standing in front of us in line, who introduced himself as Gerardo, who was also searching for chairs. After showing him the chairs I bought, he had a solution: buy this one remaining four-chair and table set for $35, we’ll split the cost, and I can take the remaining two chairs and table home. Deal.

Back in line, we unpacked the set, finding that two of the plastic grommets that held the table’s canvas top to the legs were broken. Well, we didn’t need the table anyway. I pulled out the chairs, handing them to the our line-mates and Josh, then unfolded the last one for myself, only to find that one of the plastic grommets holding the seat cloth to the front legs was broken. Great. Unfortunately, we didn’t really have much of a choice – it was either deal with this or pack it all up, walk all the way back to Target, get a refund, and hope they still had beach chairs. We chose to deal.

A short while later, one of the plastic grommets on Gerardo’s chair popped off as he sat down. Shortly after that, as I shifted carefully in my chair, having noted the straining of the fabric wrapped around the top of the leg-post, the second plastic grommet on the other side of my chair snapped.

In the meantime, Gerardo had informed us that he had come with his wife from Mexico specifically because U2 weren’t playing south of the border and had not done so since 1997’s Popmart tour. According to Gerardo, when U2 played Mexico City, the Mexican President’s son had wanted to meet the band backstage shortly before showtime. For whatever reason, Bono’s security people had disagreed with this and a scuffle of some sort ensued, after which the band declared they would not return to Mexico, and fans like Gerardo were left with the option of either not seeing them or making a special trip out of the country to do so. They weren’t the only ones who travelled from another country to see the band: behind us was a quartet of people who had flown from France on Saturday night specifically for this opening night show and who would be boarding another plane home the next morning. I didn’t feel so goofy for speeding 400 miles across the night-time desert the previous night after hearing that.

The interesting thing about standing in line is that it’s simply not as much fun to do as an adult. There are difficulties which, as a teen, you just ignored, like eating, or using the restroom, or simply being comfortable. None of that mattered, and, likely, just added to the excitement. An ordeal like standing in line was to be proudly related for the rest of your life, proof of your unending devotion to whatever act you were going to see that week. But as an adult, I don’t so much care anymore – I simply want to see a show. In all honesty, were it not for Josh’s fanaticism, I wouldn’t even be in line, and, most likely, wouldn’t even be seeing the tour even back at home. Not that I dislike U2, but ticket prices for actual seats are ridiculous, and I like cheap. The general admission tickets, while anything but cheap, were at a price point that at least made them appear cheap in comparison to the more comfortable, more expensive options.

The day wore on slowly with breezes off the nearby ocean occasionally whipping up into cool blasts of wind. We knew that at some point we were facing the inevitable calls of nature: hunger and restroom needs. The only food-related places relatively close appeared to be the AM/PM gas-station minimart, the Target foodcourt, and a Chili’s restaurant. The choice was pretty obvious there, and we decided that rather than go with the take-out option at Chili’s, we’d each take turns going to Chili’s to sit and be comfortable for at least a little while. I took the opportunity to call Alissa, who had assumed like I did that we’d be out doing something interesting and/or fun, and related what increasingly sounded like a ridiculous ordeal for an adult to put up with for a concert. At least we knew we’d be close, I said more to assure myself more than to explain to her, and there was still the hope that the rumor was true, that the fan-club line would get the chance to fill the bomb shelter.

By 4:30, security guards came around and told everyone to pack up their belongings and get them to their cars. This raised some hope that we might get a slightly earlier entrance to the arena, but it was not to be. Chairs stowed away in our cars, we simply stood for another two hours as the sun creeped lower in the sky, and as the winds off the ocean became more persistent . . . and very cold.

By 6:45, I was shivering uncontrollably, whether simply from the cold or just from exhaustion and a day of crappy food. I wanted inside, now, and I wanted to be warm again. In fact, I just wanted to be home at this point, sitting comfortably on the couch awaiting something likely inane on TV. The furthest thing from my mind at that point was seeing a band – I just wanted to be comfortable.

At this point, it’s probably good to note that among the genes I am passing on to the beautiful baby boy or girl growing in my wife at the moment include those that have endowed me with flat feet. And I do mean flat – I have nothing that resembles a typical footprint. You know when your feet are wet and you step on something you can leave a visible footprint on, and you have that C-shape that arcs from the ball of your foot to the outside edge, then back in toward the heel? I don’t have that. I make big flat triangular shapes. The reason it’s good to know this at this point is that I’ve been standing for several hours, and with my flat feet, especially as I’ve gotten older, I simply cannot endure the kind of stamina-requisite activities that others can. I can’t run particularly well, I can’t walk long distances, but most of all, I can’t stand for long periods of time. And I’d already been standing far longer by the time the doors opened than I know I can handle. I did what I could, shifted from foot to foot, stood on the outside edges of my feet, but it was all to no avail – my feet were in excruciating pain, and there was, by my calculations, at least four more hours of standing between now and when U2 left the stage. This was going to be a long night, after a very long day.

All was not lost, however, as we found ourselves about five feet from the outside perimeter of the bomb shelter, close enough that Bono would be just out of reach but would feel like a real human being. Before that, however, openers Kings Of Leon took the stage for far too many similarly boring songs with a stage presence that lacked anything remotely resembling activity. Seriously, guys, move a little, it does wonders for making you seem more active and fun. As each song ended, someone behind us would yell out “That’s one song closer to U2!”

It was in between the Kings Of Leon opening set and U2 that I knew that nature was making a very urgent call and I had no machine with which to answer it. Nature doesn’t leave messages anyway, and if you miss a call like that, you’re going to be very sorry. I looked nervously around for a few minutes trying to decide what to do, hoping the whole time that nature had simply dialed a wrong number and would hang up at any moment. It hadn’t. With one mournful look around me at the packed-in tight crowd, I turned to Josh and said, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to just meet you at the car after the show. I gotta go, and there’s no way I’m getting back here.” As I weaved my way through the throngs of people most of whom didn’t feel like bothering to move for me, I heard several mention that I wouldn’t be getting back to where I’d been. Yes, I realize this people, but it’s either this or I’m going to soak you in urine. And a lot of it.

The line for the men’s restroom was as expected for intermission. With only a few minutes left before U2 was likely to take the stage, everyone had rushed out to use the restroom one last time. Making things worse was a horde of women who had abandoned the women’s room line and instead barged into the men’s room through the exit door and commandeered some stalls, all the while being both hooted at and being the target for yelled comments about transvestites. This U2 crowd was, if nothing else, classy.

By the time I cleared my bladder, I could hear the crowd roar in a surge and I figured the lights must have gone down. Moments later, undiscernable, but loud sounds filtered through the thick conrete walls. I was missing the beginning. I managed to escape the crowded restroom and make my way down the corridors, flashing my “Vertigo” emblazoned wristband at the security staff at several points before I could make my way back to the floor. I emerged from the tunnel just as the opening strains of “City of Blinding Light” blasted out of the speakers, the arena bathed in white light.

I briefly stood by the side of the arena, resting my aching feet by leaning on the wall, then made my way forward, finally ending up about twenty feet back from where my previous excellent position. The outside edge of the ellipse was relatively close, but the real stage itself was another good distance away, probably 50-60 feet from where I currently stood. It occured to me that this staging solution really wasn’t good for anyone but those actually inside the open area – everyone else stood far away from the band, until, at least, Bono makes one of his frequent trips to the catwalk.

“City” may seem at first a low-key opener for a show, but the song only starts quietly – it worked well because it wound the crowd up by the end of the song. Quickly following the song, Bono, backed by Larry Mullen Jr.’s solid beat, barked out “Spanish lessons in San Diego? I don’t think so!” then yelled out the now well-known opening countdown to “Vertigo.” After this, the band would fulfill the hopes of many long-time U2 fans with a set of songs that haven’t been played in ages: “Cry/Electric Co.,” “An Cath Dubh,” and “Into the Heart.”

U2, always the perfect show-men, never fail to impress with their presentation, and this tour is no different. Rather than resort to giant video screens as they have in previous tours, the band utilizes one of the most unique and intriguing image-presentation systems I have ever seen. I hesitate to use the word “projection” because that’s entirely misleading. What the band’s stage designers have done is remove the need to project images, instead using long strings of lighted balls, coordinated in such a way as to present moving images, that descend from and ascend to the ceiling when needed. The effect is striking and strartling, as there is a lo-fi vagueness to some images that allows things to be blended into and out of each other in an artistic fashion. During “Zoo Station,” for example, the balls are lit in such away as to look like static, but can transform into vivid images and words. It’s something that allowed those seated behind the band to actually see both the video presentations and the band at the same time.

And, as the sometimes overly earnest, overly dramatic frontman is wont to do, Bono had an emotional moment during “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.” With subject matter that deals directly with Bono’s difficult relationship with his father and his death during the 2001 Elevation tour, the song is undoubtedly a very personal statement, but it was hard not to feel like Bono was hamming it up a bit. He was visibly and audibly choked up as he approached the lines “I don’t need to hear you say/That if we weren`t so alike/You`d like me a whole lot more,” but his reaction to it rung calculatedly false. As he sung the line, he slowly drew his characteristic giant sunglasses from his face, then with one long, slow, exaggerated move, wiped a single tear from under his right eye, and placed the sunglasses back where they belonged. It seemed disengenous. While I understand he might have some emotions singing this song live for the first time, I didn’t appreciate seeing him obviously amping up his reaction to it. It didn’t seem earnest and honest, and I felt a little embarassed witnessing it.

U2 steered clear of too many of their well-worn anthems, but trotted out a rousing rendition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It seems impossible that U2 could get away with not playing some songs, even if they’d promised to bring out some oldies (and already had at this point in the show.) They showcased the majority of the new album, spotlighting 7 of the 11 tracks in prominent roles throughout the show, and each worked very well live. “Love and Peace or Else” in particular stood out, which featured Larry Mullen Jr. out near the front of the ellipse (and directly in front of where I’d been standing with my friend) drumming on a single snare and cymbal to a pre-programmed beat, then running back to his kit to finish out the song while Bono banged on the snare.

During “Pride,” a couple of guys next to me voiced their disagreement with Bono about the issues of racial equality. They seemed particularly angered by the thought of equality, actually, and one of the two repeatedly gestured with his hand for Bono to “bring it on,” and then during every chorus of “one more in the name of love,” would proudly flip Bono the bird. While the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights scrolled on the screens, the two racists began spewing a lot of loud comments that shouldn’t be printed, well, anywhere. I wisely chose to scoot quietly away when Bono launched into a speech about the injustices of inequality in the world, as they went ballistic as he promoted a new charity called the One Campaign (http://www.one.org.) He urged everyone to “sing for Africa” as the flags of the continent’s many nations scrolled past in the backgrounds, then launched into “Where the Streets have No Name,” finishing the trilogy of now Africa-related songs with “One.”

U2 closed with another trilogy of songs, starting fittingly with the recent single “All Because Of You,” followed up by album-closer “Yahweh,” and finally ending on a long, emotional note with the resurrection of “40” as set-closing song. With the Edge and Adam Clayton switching instrumental roles, the band got the crowd singing the chorus, repeating the words “how long” long after the band had left the stage, Bono having left a hand-held spotlight shining straight up into the darkness. Then, suddenly, the lights and arena sound system came on, shocking most fans who had expected a second encore.

What I witnessed at the show was that U2 truly is one of those few “everyman” bands – at least in the sense that everyone can like them, as the varied crowd suggested. Whether black or white, or American, Mexican, French, or any other number of nationalities, and even outright racists, somehow U2 manages to be both politically charged enough to make some change in the world and yet not so overly political that it turns people off. It’s a pretty amazing feat, actually, and it often makes me wonder if Bono is comfortably able to say what he really wants to say, or if he spends a lot of time biting his tongue in fear of alienating some portion of the band’s audience. While they may be hugely successful, they are still smart enough to realize that what’s good for the audience is what’s good for the band, and that, in turn, is good for the world because Bono does something so rare among the rich and famous: he really puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to his political and social outcries. Love him or hate him, you have to admire the man for actually following through.


I’m glad to say the rest of the trip went entirely uneventfully, and was as restful as a 400 mile drive can be. There was one moment of discomforting oddness after the show when, in the middle of the night, I awoke with the fragments of a dream in my brain that involved me travelling a great distance to see my favorite band, Rush, in concert. In the middle of this show, I ran to the stage to present singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee with a painting I’d done of him riding a giant turtle. Geddy was so proud of this gift that he displayed it prominently on his keyboard stand.

This is, apparently, what happens when you eat french toast and drink diet soda at 1:30 in the morning.

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