U2 kept my soul tender: Reflections on the profound influence of the world’s most famous band

U2 in concert.

When Jon and I went to the U2 concert in late June, I merely expected to have an excellent time rocking out. I didn’t expect that it would spark a full summer of serious reflection on the way my soul has been formed by listening to U2 over the past three decades.
U2 in concert.
We were in the nosebleed section, but it was awesome anyway.

When I was 12, I shared my seventh grade English class with a cute boy. (This isn’t too surprising, as I was of the opinion that there were lots of cute boys in my school.) This particular boy wore a U2 T-shirt — I think it featured art from the album The Unforgettable Fire — and he did that standoffish-pre-teen-boy thing that I always found so appealing. So, of course, I did what crushing girls do — I decided to check out that band.

This must have been 1987. I had heard singles from The Joshua Tree, listening in on my brother’s radio (set perpetually to WXRT), then dissolved myself into the album after discovering it in his stack of CDs. That led to the purchase of War (on cassette), where I first heard Bono sing about conflicts raging in Ireland. One by one, every other album found its way into my collection. I subscribed to their fan magazine Propaganda. I studied what Amnesty International was all about and how U2 was connected to them. I sent away for my own U2 shirt by mail-order. And I waited impatiently for the next album.

Those pre-1993 albums were the soundtrack of my teenage years. So many intense memories wash over me when I listen to them again:

  • Huddling on the maroon velour backseat of our 1983 Buick, listening to October on my Walkman, wearing an apricot-colored mock turtleneck tank top, white denim skirt, big earrings, and even bigger hair.
  • Sitting at my brother’s desk, transcribing the lyrics to “With or Without You” and pondering the words as a poem. I thought it was the most beautiful song I had ever heard.
  • Slicking back my hair with gel one summer in an attempt to look more like Bono. (Why this seemed like a good idea, I cannot fathom.)
  • Gathering with friends in Annie Ethridge’s basement and listening to Achtung Baby together shortly after its release — then feeling very mature once we figured out that “achtung” meant “watch out” in German.
    So cool.
    Don’t feel bad — I wasn’t always so cool at age 12. This was a Halloween costume.

Developing a music obsession around age 12 or 13 seems to be pretty standard fare. And I was not devoted solely to U2 — there was plenty of Sinéad O’Connor and Sting and Prince and R.E.M. in the mix as well. But what feels remarkable to me, in retrospect, is the way U2’s music offered healing for wounds that rested in my subconscious at that time. About two weeks before my tenth birthday, my father had died suddenly of a massive heart attack — an event that left me with a lot of pain and few tools and resources with which to sort it out. Mostly, I just stuffed it all down into the crevices — not the healthiest practice, but something I view now as a mercy for that time in my life. My generally cheerful and good-natured self did, however, respond eagerly to songs that expressed pain and grief — and U2 is particularly gifted, I believe, in their ability to address suffering while also offering hope. Their skill at translating “longing” into music was just what my soul needed at the time.

It didn’t register at the time that Bono’s own mother had died suddenly when he was only 14. Somehow, I had no idea that their song “I Will Follow” was written while Bono processed his mother’s death. No wonder it resonated so clearly with my own experience. The only thing my pre-teen self knew was that I was soaking up the music like it was life-giving water. In those moments, I listened in the privacy of my headphones, hesitant to reveal the way the songs’ emotional intensity connected with my own soul (lest others catch on to the deep knot of grief I kept safely hidden away).

Still today, when I listen to a song like “Tomorrow” (from October) that oozes loss and pain, my inner teenager is startled. “Good heavens, Bono. Aren’t you embarrassed? How can you show that much emotion in front of all these people?” I have, in my adult years, become much more comfortable with my range of emotions, but there is still a faint shadow of shame that hovers over the grief spectrum.

Fast forward a few years. In my twenties, my devotion to U2 dulled a bit. I always enjoyed hearing their new albums, but didn’t feed on them in the same way I did when I was a teenager — and those early albums felt so intense to me that I couldn’t listen to them casually. When U2 came to Chicago to play live, I decided to forgo getting tickets — “Too expensive,” I said. I do remember a profound experience on the train one autumn day, listening to “Stuck in a Moment” (from All That You Can’t Leave Behind) and hearing an invitation out of my own struggle with depression and anxiety. But mostly, Jon and I listened to Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams and Lotus. We enjoyed life as newlyweds, and then we had a couple of cute babies — and I gave up listening to music for my own pleasure almost entirely.
The Claw.
U2 played under this alien structure, which we and many others referred to as “The Claw,” in their 360° tour. Photo: Jon Boyd, Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois. July 5, 2011.

On July 5, 2011, Jon Boyd called me from his office, asking if he thought we could find a sitter on the spur of the moment — friends of ours unexpectedly gifted us with tickets to the U2 concert that they couldn’t use. (Thank you, Nate and Kristi!) We scrambled to get a sitter (thank you, Alicia!) and headed down to Soldier Field with our bikes. I had hardly even listened to No Line on the Horizon — life was too busy and full with our five- and three-year-old daughters. All that played on our speakers during those days was Raffi, Laurie Berkner, and They Might Be Giants kids’ music. (When would I possibly have time to listen to real rock & roll?)

That concert was a turning point for me, calling me back to my true self, reminding me that I was still an adult human on the inside, despite all the peanut butter sandwich crusts and colorful plastic toys that surrounded me. The music, the date night, and the spontaneity of it all felt like a betrayal of myself as a mother — but also an affirmation of myself as a grown woman, complete with a history and interests that encompassed more than the tiny world of little hands and feet I was so absorbed with. And so I learned that these seemingly disparate parts of myself could be integrated into a whole. It turned out that Lucy and Rosie loved the music almost as much as I did — especially “Get On Your Boots,” whose lyrics they sweetly interpreted as “sassy boots” (although they have recently caught on to the true lyrics: “sexy boots”).
Jon and I at the innocence + experience tour.
A little grayer, but still a fan. United Center, Chicago, Illinois. June 28, 2015.

Fast forward once more. I planned ahead this time, purchasing tickets for the June 2015 U2 concert way back in January and studying Songs of Innocence carefully. Their concert theme for this run is “innocence + experience” — walking through their journey and growth as individuals and as a band over the past several decades. Standing there at the United Center (and surely annoying all the other people who were sitting in the third balcony), the experience felt like a retrospective of my own life too, as I had journeyed with them through “Gloria” (winter 1987, shiny peach lipstick) and “Bullet the Blue Sky” (summer 1988, black t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up) and “Mysterious Ways” (November 1991, U2 lyrics scribbled all over my Keds sneakers). Their albums are the soundtrack to my life, and they led me back to take a look at those days.

So I’ve spent the better part of this summer revisiting those old albums. I hadn’t wanted to listen to the older ones in years because the emotional associations are so intense and conflicted for me. But I’ve been dipping my toe in a little bit at a time, tacking a few tracks from October onto the end of a morning run (which, incidentally, seriously improves my pace) or offering impromptu lessons to the girls on our weekend grocery shopping trips, covering selections from from Boy to War to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. (Incidentally, I can hardly express my complete delight that Lucy and Rosie both seem to have absorbed my love for U2, often playing their music independently when they get to drive Spotify in our house.) My memories of childhood and adolescence are notoriously incomplete (it is seriously embarrassing sometimes), so I’ve poked around in old family albums to get a bit of a fuller picture of who I was in those days. I’ve quizzed my best high school buds about details of the concert we attended in September 1993 (Melanie, Maria, and Lainie all reminded me that our small group of cute teenage girls got invited up to stand right in front of the stage, within an arm’s length of Bono). And I’ve been digging around in old journals that are peppered with the letter “i” dotted with bubbles or hearts, searching for clues.

(On the topic of memories, I recently found this incredible quote from Bono (from U2 by U2, page 14) that brought great insight for me regarding my own childhood memory loss:

“I don’t have very many memories from my early life. I’ve talked about this with my brother because he doesn’t have many either. The only explanation we can come up with is that when my mother died, my father didn’t talk about her, at all, ever. So as a result of her being erased from memory, simply through not wanting to go there, I think a lot of other stuff went with her.” — Bono

Just one more way Bono is helping me interpret my own life experience.)

So, what can I say? I’m a fan-girl of the most famous band currently in existence. It feels a little embarrassing at times. I’m not usually one to hop on the latest trend or wave of fashion. But the fact is, we have such a long history that the lads in U2 feel more like my cousins than like a wildly famous band I’m keen on. The fabric of my life is woven together with threads of their work throughout. Although I will probably never meet them personally in this lifetime, I can thank them for the way their music has given me hope and helped keep my soul soft and pliable over the past several decades. And maybe, someday, we’ll get to jam together.
U2 in Gelsenkirchen, August 3rd, 2009
Here they all are at a concert in Gelsenkirchen from 2009. From left to right: The Edge (lead guitar), Bono (vocals), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen, Jr. (drums).

7 thoughts on “U2 kept my soul tender: Reflections on the profound influence of the world’s most famous band”

  1. Dang, but I enjoyed reading this, Ann. Took me back, too. I can see that group of cute teenage girls from 1993 just as clearly as I can see across the room. Well done ——or the ultimate compliment on an AP essay: YES!

  2. Ann, wow! I went to the Joshua Tree concert as a guest of a friend, but because of a boy, too. I haven’t gone back to those songs for the same reason: the passing of the water under bridge can be painful. Thanks for sharing your journey. Hooray for a little gray hair!

  3. So good, Ann! So good to read and so good to hear that you’ve been able to revisit yourself a bit in the midst of busy momhood. I saw the “Boy” concert in Philly when I was in high school and it was one of the most worshipful experiences I ever had. Probably influenced me as a worship leader later. Once in college I was at a low point in my faith and I said to Brad Farris – “I just can’t relate to worship music right now. All I want to listen to is U2,” and he wisely told me that would work for worship.

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