Growing up Bono in the land of The Boss

2017 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival – Day 2
The Edge, left, and Bono of U2 perform at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on Friday, June 9, 2017, in Manchester, Tenn.

It’s hard to be a Bono girl in Bruce Springsteenland.

Philadelphia is a place where the National Constitution Center has an exhibit highlighting Springsteen’s blue jeans (snug) and notebooks full of lyrics (excellent penmanship). And people cry, sometimes several times, when meeting Springsteen at a book signing (Inquirer editor).

Bruce gets down to basics. He’s your buddy with the cold beer dreaming of a better job and dancing in the dark with a redheaded girl. He’s honest and frank, and he’ll be there for you.

Bono? He’s the conversation that happens in the depth of despair, when you’re scared and lost and casting about for a glimpse of light.

Bruce understands the hunger to escape, to run, but often staying put.  Bono casts his eyes upon the world and asks, “What happens when there’s no place left to go?”

Not everyone gets it, that calling to ask questions about faith and death and light, to shout them. Not everyone wants to swim that far down.

U2’s The Unforgettable Fire came out when I started high school.  The vinyl was on the record player in the living room as I did homework, dreaming of being anywhere else.

“Bad” was playing, for the billionth time, when my mother came home.

“I get it —  he’s wide awake, he’s not sleeping,” she said, a child of ’50s doo-wop and Johnny Mathis.  “He keeps screaming it, that’s all I can understand.”

When U2 comes Sunday to Lincoln Financial Field, it’ll be my fifth or sixth time seeing them. I’ve gone whenever I could afford a ticket. They’ve been the sound track to my life, moving through 15 cities to find a place I belonged, from Wisconsin to California to Nebraska and Kansas, off to New York and back to Philadelphia.

There used to be dancing at U2 concerts, back in the days when all Doc Martens were made in England and mullets were sexy.  The frantic pulse of “I Will Follow,” the call and response of “40” in those early, post-punk days. And, later, the sultriness of “Mysterious Ways.”

My favorite song, “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” came out when college ended. My shift as an education/night cops reporter went from noon to midnight.  I’d come home shaken by fires and the sight of blood, and let the Edge’s guitar take me back to solid ground.

Now, walking onto the stage of middle age, I’m back to where I was 20 years ago, trying to find footing, to find faith in a world of random violence and uncertainty. It’s not so much about running anymore; it’s about finding the joy in staying still, gazing at the wide skies and deep oceans. Perhaps U2, each member approaching 60, is ready for the same.

A U2 concert is a completely different experience from a Springsteen show.  Bruce is fun and raucous and physically exhausting, because I’m middle-aged and I can’t dance for hours on end like I did 20 years ago on the pedestal at the Limelight.

I last saw U2 in Philadelphia in 2011 on their 360° Tour.  It was a stunningly perfect summer night in July, breezy and cool, with Lincoln Financial Field packed to the nosebleeds. But something was off, disconnected.  Everyone around was watching the concert through their screens. Bono talked about Burma and the Middle East and devoted a song to Gabrielle Giffords (her husband was in space at the time). Then he pulled out a steering-wheel-size microphone with flashing lights and donned a laser-light jacket.

This time, they’ll be performing the entire Joshua Tree album for its 30th anniversary.  It’s good timing for an album about searching and struggle, with the country in rudderless disarray.  Perhaps U2 can still look upon the vast world, in all its anger and frustration, and make it small, if just for a while, by reciting those big questions once again. Maybe they can borrow a note from Bruce and return to a stripped-down stage, figures howling in the wilderness.

I’m hoping people will put down the screens and go back to where they were three decades ago, teenagers and college students lost and unsure about what comes next.

There won’t be a “Rosalita” to end the show, but we still may find what we’re looking for.

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