The Irish are experts at grieving -- and no band is more blessed at putting grief into song than U2. Last week Ireland's greatest contribution to music (along with Van Morrison) brought its "Elevation" tour to New York's Madison Square Garden; with its towers turned to dust and its people brought low, no city was in more need of elevation.
It was my first visit to New York since Sept. 11 and the sorrow that hangs over this supremely self-confident city made it seem strangely unfamiliar. I bumped into an old acquaintance on the street one evening; he was hurrying to a counseling session for his two young children. They go to a school, he told me, that was near the World Trade Center and they saw too much that morning. He is a big man, from an established New York family, and I had remembered the way he seemed to plow through life. But now he seemed bent-shouldered in mourning.
He urged me to visit a SoHo gallery on Prince Street that had been turned into a photo archive of the city's calamity -- hundreds of professional and amateur pictures of war-torn lower Manhattan, the sale of which is benefiting the orphans of Sept. 11. When I went the next day, a line of somber people stretched down the street and around the corner. Inside the gallery, the crowd shuffled quietly and respectfully from one haunting image to the next, a crushed fire helmet, a man collapsed in tears on the shoulder of a policeman. The photo exhibit, titled "Here Is New York," has become one more wake where the city bids farewell not only to its dead but to its sense of invulnerability.
But it's the wound known as "ground zero" that attracts the most people. They come by the thousands each day, the suffering and the morbidly curious, like the crowds drawn to the statues of bleeding saints. The morning I visited, a blaring headline in the New York Daily News warned that the monumental pile of rubble is a toxic dump. As soon as I got out of my cab at a National Guard roadblock near the site, the stench announced itself, as alarmingly wrong as the smell of an electrical fire. I walked past Trinity Church, ghostly in its coating of dust, its wall covered with flowers and posters with condolences from mourners who have trekked from London and Bali and Tel Aviv. We filed past a police barricade, one block from the wreckage. On the corner, a street vendor wearing a gas mask sold red, white and blue scarves. There were hundreds of people on the streets, but it was as quiet as a funeral procession.
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The noise level at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, the second of U2's three sold-out New York shows, was a lot higher, but there was a similar seriousness of purpose. One of the most frequent criticisms of U2 over the years -- aimed mainly at lead singer and lyricist Bono -- is they take themselves too seriously. They clearly see their mission as spiritual as well as musical, although this is leavened by occasional self-mockery. ("Have you come here to play Jesus/To the lepers in your head?") But the audience on Thursday night was on the exact same wavelength -- they had come to party hard and to cry, and U2 delivered the Irish wake they were looking for.
No rock band's body of work seemed more appropriate for the occasion. U2's songs have often ached with suffering and loss, from "One Tree Hill" to "Peace on Earth" ("They're reading names out over the radio/All the folks the rest of us won't get to know/ ... Their lives are bigger than any big idea.") And some of their music is a direct rebuttal to the cycle of terror and revenge that has wracked their own land ever since they were boys. When, in the middle of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Bono screamed, "I'm so sick of it," his anguish seemed to resonate throughout the arena, although New York's suffering has decades to go before it matches Belfast's.
When Bono sang "wipe your tears away," he touched his face with an American flag someone had handed to him from the front rows. "How long must we sing this song?" asks Bono in "Sunday," and the answer might come soon, at least as it relates to Northern Ireland's homegrown terror. The week U2 came to New York, among the only hopeful international news was the report that the IRA had finally decided to dismantle its arsenal, in part because of the revulsion against terrorism even among key Irish-American supporters in cities like New York and Boston after Sept. 11.
There was a chord of nationalism in the air at Madison Square Garden -- people waving the Irish flag ran around the upper aisles and more than once a loud round of "USA, USA!" erupted from the crowd. But Bono's comments on the war were more elliptical. Between songs, he spoke of the need to "destroy their weapons" and he vowed, "We're not going back."
Yet much of the band's song selection was pro-peace. If war was unavoidable, Bono seemed to be communicating, it was not an occasion for celebrating. The band underscored the costs of war with their version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," which Bono and a host of other stars recently recorded to aid the victims of Sept. 11. And they used "Pride (In the Name of Love)" to pay tribute to America's great apostle of nonviolent struggle, Martin Luther King, punctuating the song with a video clip of his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech delivered the day before he was shot, which always brings a catch to the throat: "I may not get there with you ..."
U2's main mission that evening was to bind New York's wounds, a role that musical concerts and TV benefits have played very effectively in recent weeks. The crowd was eager to celebrate its besieged city, and the band gave them the perfect opportunity when they broke into the opening chords of their metropolitan homage, "New York," from their most recent album, which was quickly greeted by a collective roar and thousands of fists pumping the air. Bono introduced the song by praising the city's "tolerance, attitude, courage and heart." But the lyrics about New York's global diversity now carried a bitter irony: "Irish, Italian, Jews and Hispanics/Religious nuts, political fanatics ... Living happily."
The concert often verged on becoming a religious ceremony, with the Edge's distinctive chiming guitar never sounding more celestial. For secular baby boomers like me, raised on the idea that music can save your soul, emotionally charged shows like this have provided the only opportunities for catharsis during the past few weeks.
The evening's emotional peak came when the band played "One." As Bono sang, "We're one/But we're not the same/We got to carry each other," a massive white screen behind him was suddenly filled with the names of the flight crew and passengers from United Flight 175 and American Flight 11, as well as the firefighters and police officers who had lost their lives on Sept. 11.
The names scrolled up the screen and then kept slowly ascending toward the ceiling, ghosts of white light against the vast darkness of the arena's cathedral heights. Next to me, a woman with tears in her eyes held up her cellphone so, she said, a friend who could not be there could hear the song.
Toward the end of the show, Bono urged New Yorkers to lay down their sorrows and launched into "Walk On" ("And I know it aches/And your heart it breaks/And you can only take so much, walk on"). The song's closing stanza urges us to leave behind "all that you fashion/All that you make/All that you build/All that you break." I know the blessing the band meant to give, that you can find solace in transcending worldly cares. But for me, someone who lacks this Buddhist sense of clarity, it was too hard to let go of the physical symbols of what we have lost.
The next day, I bought a beautiful black-and-white print of the lower Manhattan skyline as it once was, dominated by the gleaming World Trade Center towers. I had forgotten how soaring they were. A Russian street vendor was selling these eerie portraits of the past and he said he was doing a brisk business. I wanted something to help my 7-year-old son to remember.
He is dazzled by skyscrapers and mountain peaks and is forever asking questions like how many Empire State Buildings, piled end on end, it would take to reach the top of Mount Everest. Last fall, we took him to New York for his first visit. After eating dinner in an Italian restaurant in Tribeca, he and I stood outside on the sidewalk, staring up at the impossibly tall towers, bathed in moonlight and mist. We tried to count every floor. It was the last time I really gave them a good look.