I entered high school in the fall of 1983. My sixth period class, the last class of the day, was Speech Communications taught by Wilma Hicks. Mrs. Hicks had led Canby Union High School‘s speech team to glory for a quarter of a century, but I had no illusions of greatness. I just wanted to fulfill a requirement.
A few days into the year, Mrs. Hicks was diagnosed with cancer. She took an extended leave of absence, but was dead within a weeks. Meanwhile, Mr. Stegmeier served as our substitute teacher. I, and every other kid in the Canby school district, had known Mr. Stegmeier for years; he was a substitute teacher at all levels. He was a nice guy, but he didn�t act so much as a teacher he acted as a babysitter. Mr. Stegmeier was a pastor at a local church, and he spent his classtime preparing sermons.
(Throughout my high school career, Mr. Stegmeier called me “Jonathan”, which he knew bugged me. I don’t care what people call me. Except for “Jonathan”. My name isn’t “Jonathan”. In retaliation, I never called him Mr. Stegmeier, I called him “Willy”. Disrespectful, yes, but good-natured. We called each other �Jonathan� and �Willy� for four years, in speech and geometry and choir and chemistry and English and health and every other class but PE.)
While Mr. Stegmeier babysat our speech class, we lounged around the cavernous speech room in Lower B, which was part of a 75-year-old structure that made up a large portion of the school. B Wing was beautiful (though we didn’t appreciate it then), built of rich, dark hardwoods, with towering ceilings and wide corridors. It comprised two levels — Upper B and Lower B — and an ancient auditorium. The home-ec classes were held at one end of Lower B, the journalism and speech classes at the other end. Upper B housed English classes and various special ed and administrative areas.
My favorite part of B Wing was the “secret” rooms. These rooms weren’t really secret, just rarely visited. There were many doors throughout the hall, only some of which led to classrooms. Others led to a teachers’ lounge, the school store (which rarely operated), to the boiler room, to the theater’s control room, etc.
The best door led to the text book storage area, a hot, tight, dark room filled with aging textbooks. In my memory, there was only a single light-bulb, activated by a pull-chain, to light the entire room. It was musty. The boiler room was nearby, and the book room could become very hot. (It’s amazing the books never caught fire!) There were makeshift shelves along the walls, and spanning the center of the room. The school’s spare textbooks were kept here, and to a young bibliophile (yes, I loved books even at the age of fifteen) this room was like a candy store.
(B-Wing was torn down a decade ago and a new main wing was erected in its place. The new structure is a labyrinth of sterile corridors with cookie-cutter rooms and a fluorescent soaked library. It’s impersonal, lacks character, has no charm. B-Wing had its shortcomings (it was a fire trap), but it was a beautiful old building. It had personality.)
While Mr. Stegmeier babysat our speech communications class, the students lounged around the cavernous room in Lower B, earning a required credit just for taking up space. Most of the students were upperclassmen. One of them, Angela Something-Or-Other, became my first high school girlfriend, and was the reason that another upperclassmen beat the shit out of me one day (a story for another time). Another of the upperclassmen in the room was a guy that had just moved to Canby from Colorado. (I have no idea what his name was.)
One day this guy brought in a tape by a band I’d never heard of: U2. “Ha. What a funny name,” I told him. “Yeah,” he said, “but they’re really good.” He asked Mr. Stegmeier for a tape player. Mr. Stegmeier complied and we listened to an album called Under a Blood Red Sky.
I didn�t know whether to like the music or not. At the time I was listening to some Styx and Journey, but was most fond of the New Wave music that had recently swept the country. This band, U2, was straightforward rock-and-roll: drums and guitars and a lead singer with a distinctive voice. We listened to the album a couple of times over the course of a week. I decided I liked it.
That winter, KSKD began to play a song by U2 called “New Year’s Day”. I loved this song the moment I heard it. (But wait! you’re saying. Isn’t “New Year’s Day” on Under a Blood Red Sky? Why, yes it is. But I hadn’t noticed the song during speech class.) The next time we were at the Oregon City Fred Meyer (the source for all of our music in those days), I bought U2�s album War, which contained “New Year’s Day”. Jeff and I listened to this album for weeks on end. The music was fantastic. Rock-and-roll, yes, but rock-and-roll with a passion, with a unique style, with lyrics that resonated in our tiny teenaged hearts. War was the perfect album for a long winter: bleak and aching, with
promises of hope.
Sometime during this year, my friendship with Dave crumbled and Paul became my new best friend. He was also a U2 fan. Between Paul, Jeff, and myself, we soon owned every U2 album (which wasn’t difficult since there were only four of them).
In the fall of 1984, U2 released The Unforgettable Fire. Jeff and I bought the album at the Oregon City Fred Meyer again, this time on tape instead of vinyl. We listened to it constantly, as did Paul. It had a different style than the previous albums, ethereal and moody. “A Sort of Homecoming” is a typical song � full of hope and the expectation of things to come. (The whole album now reminds me of West Side Story’s “Something’s Coming”.) Paul and I listened to The Unforgettable Fire at soccer practice that fall: sun blazing, sweaty bodies, U2 playing at the edge of the field.
In the summer of 1985, U2 performed at Live Aid. I spent all day lying on the couch in the living room of the trailer house, sweating, watching the show. When U2 stepped onto the stage, I turned up the volume. They began to play and I was transported. Their unending version of “Bad” (Live Aid version here) was beautiful, moving, haunting. Bono pulled a young woman on-stage and danced with her. It was magical.
Paul and I began to acquire U2 obscuria. We bought biographies of the band (difficult to find in the mid-eighties) and early 45s, we tacked posters to our walls.
The Joshua Tree was released in mid-March 1987. Before the album was released, KGON played preview tracks. We taped them. My favorite was the dark and brooding “Exit”. “With or Without You” became the first single from the album and was played all over the radio. The previous U2 singles had all but been largely ignored, but this song was climbing the charts.
On the day of The Joshua Tree�s release, Paul approached me and asked me if I wanted to skip school to buy it. I was reluctant — I had only skipped one day prior to this — but agreed. Tower Records in Eastport Plaza had become our source for music (Fred Meyer didn’t carry the obscure New Wave and techno stuff that we’d grown to love), so we drove to Portland and bought the album on both vinyl and cassette. I also bought the “With or Without You” single, the first single that I had ever seen on cassette tape instead of on a 45. We left after break (10:00ish) and were back by lunch.
The Joshua Tree was my soundtrack for the Summer of 1987. In the fall I went to college, and still played the album constantly. There were many U2 fans in the dorm, people who had liked the band even longer than I had. One time I got into a conversation about U2 with a gorgeous young woman visiting from some other school. We played “Sweetest Thing�, a B-Side to “With or Without You”, and we sat in my room laughing. She left that evening and I never saw her again.
During my sophomore year at Willamette I was a DJ at KWU, the campus radio station. I didn�t really want to be a DJ, but I knew that the station got album releases before the stores. Further, I knew that U2 was releasing an album in October. My devious plan worked. When the station received its copy of Rattle and Hum, I was able to “borrow” it to tape it weeks before I could have bought the album.
That was the fall that I pledged Kappa Sigma. One evening a group of us pledges were sitting around being cool, smoking cigars and pipes and clove cigarettes at the fraternity house, when somebody noted that the film of Rattle and Hum was playing near the campus. We threw on jackets and tromped across the wet quad, smoking our cigars and our pipes and our clove cigarettes. We were the only people in the theater (which was good, because we were surrounded by an offensive miasma that could have killed stout livestock), and the sound was poor, but we loved the movie. Afterwards, we sloughed back to campus (smoking our cigars and our pipes and our clove cigarettes) and crowded into somebody’s room to listen to old U2 albums.
In the fall of 1991 I got a job selling Combined Insurance. (This, too, is a story for another time.) The highlight of my insurance selling career was the release of U2’s new album, Achtung Baby, in November. We were canvassing in Hood River at the time, and I had trouble locating a store that sold the album. When I did find it, I sat and listened to it in my brand-new Geo Storm, a quart of chocolate milk between my knees and a box of old-fashioned cake donuts by my side (I was in the process of ballooning from 160 pounds to 190 pounds). I didn’t know what to think. I listened to the album almost constantly for a week, but still didn’t know whether I liked it or not. The sound was new and different.
I grew to like Achtung Baby with time but for the rest of the decade U2’s music left me cold. Bono became a victim of his own hype, of his own smugness, of his own self-satisfaction. He was a parody of himself, an exact image of all that he claimed to despise. The band seemed to lose its focus. U2 became more of political organization than a rock-and-roll band.
Jeff gave me All That You Can’t Leave Behind for Christmas in 2000, and while I admit “Beautiful Day” is a great song in the old-style U2 tradition, I can’t embrace most of the album. It does herald a return to their old sound, but many of the lyrics are terrible. I’m anxious to see what they produce next.
Paul continued to collect their stuff and now has a substantial collection of U2 material. In fact, when I think of U2, I think of Paul. He follows them, always knows what their next project is. He’s a U2 encyclopedia.
Which U2 album was the turning point in the band’s career, the album that spurred them to fame and glory?
For my money, it’s the live Under a Blood Red Sky. This was the album that introduced many of us to U2, the album that caused us to become U2 evangelists. Without Under a Blood Red Sky, I think U2 would be just another Midnight Oil, a rock band with modest success and a cult following but without a fan base to support megapopularity. The live performance at Red Rocks was outstanding; it helped to build a cadre of loyal fans that spread the word about the band.
And the pivotal moment in their career? Without a doubt, it’s their performance at Live Aid. This was the first time U2 had wide exposure, and the band took advantage by staging the performance of a lifetime. Synnergy. Serendipity. Whatever. Their performance brought them to the attention of casual music-buyers that might have otherwise ignored them. From that moment on, they were superstars.