It was Christmas in July this week, as Riley and Ryan finally got to enjoy their big gifts from last Christmas: Taylor Swift tickets for her, and for Ryan, tickets to see U2. The concerts just so happened to fall on back-to-back Saturdays. Riley had her big night with Veronica at MetLife Stadium a week ago, and this past weekend, it was the boys’ turn.
Ryan was super excited for the show, his first real concert. He loves U2, whose music has been in steady rotation on his iPod for years. From songs that debuted 20 years before he was born to their newest album, Ryan loves all of their music. He knows the words. He asks about the meaning of various songs.
In other words, he’s just like I was at his age. I was probably 12 or 13 when I saw U2’s concert film “Under a Blood Red Sky,” filmed in the eerie mist and rain of Colorado’s Red Rocks amphitheater. I was hooked, most especially by the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” an anthemic song about the long history of the “troubles” in U2’s native Ireland.
There being no World Wide Web back then, I remember going to the public library to learn about the incident that inspired the song, an effort that probably involved studying reels of microfilm from the research room.
Like a lot of U2’s best work, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a haunting, painful song. And though I haven’t found personal meaning in it the way I have with another U2 anthem, “Bad,” the song, even more than 30 years after I first heard it, has the ability to make the hair on my arms stand up.
It has the same effect on Ryan. As we prepared for the concert, we looked up set lists from recent shows. I compiled a comparative list on his phone so he could familiarize himself with the songs we were most likely to hear.
I asked him what songs he most wanted to hear. Among that list: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “With or Without You,” “Running to Stand Still,” “Beautiful Day,” “City of Blinding Lights,” and, for me, “Bad.”
U2’s music affects Ryan the same way it does me. I’m not sure I’ve listened to “Bad” any time in the last several years without my eyes welling up, as the song takes me to a very helpless place and brings feelings of pain and frustration boiling out of me. I was on a walk with Ryan recently when I noticed him blinking back tears and rubbing his eyes. As he was wearing headphones, I knew, without asking, the culprit: he was listening to “With or Without You.”
I love that music has that kind of effect on him. I love even more that the music he finds most poignant is the same as it is for me. In many cases, the same exact songs I listened to over and over on my record player in my room, contemplating the meaning of life as an awkward middle-schooler.
Saturday night, Ryan was almost as excited as I’ve ever seen him. I asked, and he said it was just behind our visit to San Jose in terms of his anticipation. We took the train into New York City. We observed the thousands of people waiting in line in the brutal heat for general admission seating. Ryan received complements on his “Under a Blood Red Sky” t-shirt (another Christmas gift). We headed out for a New York City pizza near the arena before settling into our seats well before showtime.
Ryan didn’t mind the wait. His excitement was such that every time a roadie did a sound check on one of The Edge’s guitars, he asked “is that Bono?” Facebook friends had told me what cue to listen for to know when it was showtime, so we were ready when the house lights went down.
Ryan jumped up as we spotted Bono making his way to the stage through the floor crowd. He had a look of wide-eyed amazement as the opening notes of “The Miracle of Joey Ramone” enveloped the arena crowd. He filmed some video snippets and posted one to Instagram (where earlier he had posted a photo of our tickets) but he hardly spent the concert on his phone. He danced. He sung. He hung on every word. Each time a new song began he asked me immediately what song it was.
Just before the end of the first set, I saw drummer Larry Mullen Jr. get up, put on a snare drum, and began to march the catwalk that separated the main stage from the smaller, secondary one at the far end of the arena. Having studied YouTube videos of the current tour, I knew what that meant.
As he began to pound out a militaristic, marching beat the crowd rose to its feat in anticipation of the song to follow.
So did Ryan, ready as he was to sing along to “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
I wish I could have captured the look of rapt attention on his face. Because when I saw it, I saw myself. Specifically, the 13-year-old version of me, listening to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in my room, wondering what it meant that “this song is not a rebel song.”
As the crowd sang in union Ryan put his arm around my waist for a moment and we swayed back and forth, chanting the chorus at the top of our lungs. As the song faded to its conclusion, Ryan looked at the pictures of victims of the bombing described in the song that were displayed on the video boards and asked me who they were.
I explained, as best I could between songs, the meanings of the lyrics. It was as if I was talking to that teenage boy, 30 years ago, pouring over microfilm in the library, trying to learn everything he could about his favorite song, as if doing so would bring him closer to his favorite band. In that moment I thought briefly about the connective power of music, both between an individual and his memories, or, in this case, between father and son.
I have seen U2 five times now, each at a different stage of my life. Each concert was full of moments that have stayed with me over the years, but I’m not sure any will prove as lasting as the one with Ryan during “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on Saturday night. I can only hope that we’ll get to experience it again.
Ryan definitely wants to. Just as I missed out on “Bad” (a song I’ve only seen live once, and which U2 played at its Sunday night show — thanks a lot, Bono!), he didn’t get “Running to Stand Still.” I guess we will just have to keep trying.