Shooting craps

When it comes to Las Vegas, the gambling and the naked showgirls and the 99-cent shrimp cocktails aren't really what make it seem so different from the real world. It's the bizarre architecture: Huge public buildings the size of Versailles or Blenheim Castle or the Kremlin abound there--while outside is America, the place U2 has been obsessed with for years.

What these Irishmen like about America are Elvis, neon, and the Delta blues. But a glance down the Boulder Highway toward the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl on April 26, the night of U2's first concert in three years, shows a glimpse of another America--one that has been laid waste by consumer culture, one full of L-shaped shopping malls and MacFrugals and Home Depots, one lined with one-story beige stucco buildings. It's a place where even the luxury condos look like the worst kind of Russian gulag.

This is the America of the '90s--unbeautiful, unromantic--and it's up to U2 to imbue this horrible landscape with glamour and significance. That, after all, is the self-appointed task of rock and roll, and pop culture itself: to make the mundane seem meaningful and bright so we, the people, can take some sort of pride in our era.

As a band, U2 has always taken this responsibility very seriously, whether by waving a white flag and shouting "freedom" from atop a speaker stack, as the band did on Under a Blood Red Sky, or by launching the pointed Zoo TV tour, which aped and magnified the conventions of television in order to expose its evil machinations. This time around, U2 has taken on the task of exploring consumer culture and the part they themselves play in it--a theme that is, alas, somewhat disheartening, however cleverly done.

U2 has done it by blowing up familiar corporate images into Fiberglas icons and spending lavishly on special effects, and they chose to open this tour--which pulled into Dallas last Monday, May 12--in Vegas, the spiritual home of crass commodification. The result, however, is that instead of commenting on the commodification of American culture, U2 now seems to be competing with it. The tour was launched in a Kmart and is symbolized by a giant golden arch that will top every stadium at which it arrives; it is, according to the band itself and prepublicity in the Los Angeles Times and on ABC (which recently broadcast an hour-long prime-time television special called U2: A Year in Pop--the lowest-rated hour-long special in network TV history, excluding paid political programming), the biggest and most costly blahblahblah ever.

In addition to the 100-foot-high Fiberglas arch, the 110-foot high Fiberglas olive-on-a-toothpick, and the 35-foot-high spinning disco ball disguised as a lemon, there's a 150-foot state-of-the-art video screen that uses 22 miles of cable, 120,000 connectors, and 150,000 pixels made up of 1 million colored LEDs.

The tour also uses a traveling crew of 200, plus about 250 local workers on each site, leapfrogging three stages across the country. Like E.L.O.'s 1978 tour (in which the band played from inside a glowing spaceship), Pink Floyd's The Wall tour of 1980, and the Rolling Stones' 1991 Steel Wheels tour, U2's PopMart is more about spectacle than it is about music. But because it's U2, there is a sense--or perhaps it's just a hope--that the spectacle itself is going to be imbued with meaning.

In theory at least, U2 is trying to contextualize the loss of passion, commitment, and intimacy that growing older (not to mention playing stadiums) engenders in rock stars, and starting the tour in a consumer heaven such as Vegas--under the shadow of a giant olive, lemon, and golden arch--is all part of this recontextualization. But starting in Las Vegas has other implications as well: Since its release on March 4, the band's latest album, Pop, has undergone the same surprising sales slump that has afflicted many other name-brand groups (Pearl Jam and R.E.M. come to mind), dropping out of Billboard's top 10 in a mere three weeks.

Moreover, many of the 62 stadium shows the band has booked through December have yet to sell out. The PopMart tour is the first American stadium tour by a rock band since the phat-rock year 1994, when the coliseums of the earth were filled by such bands as the Eagles, Pink Floyd, and the Dead. The band had hoped to net $400 million, but it's costing U2 $1.5 million per week to keep it on the road. Good initial press is essential to the success of this phenomenally costly tour, and U2 has done all it can to guarantee it gets it.

Thus, tonight--April 26, 1997--is D-day for U2. The band has spent the past two weeks in Vegas rehearsing, and now the countdown is on. People have been tailgating in the parking lot outside the stadium since 5 p.m., entertained by the Blue Angels practicing their aerial maneuvers overhead. The atmosphere is happy and mellow, quite unlike your usual stadium-parking-lot scenes; compared to the rest of Vegas' public events, this is a church picnic.

Tony and Maria are two people who came to party and have stayed to listen; unlike most who come to Vegas, they're having a run of luck. A bubbly Hispanic couple in their mid-thirties, they drove all the way here from Palm Springs--about four hours--without tickets just to party outside the stadium and listen to U2. To their delight, 500 tickets have just been put on sale at face value ($54), augmenting the 500 put on sale two days ago.

The gesture--announced on every local radio station--has caused the scalpers who have been lining the Boulder Highway since 2 p.m. to take a huge bath, though it has made Tony and Maria's weekend. "We would have been happy to be outside just to feel the emotions of everyone here," says Maria, as Tony forks over $108.

Tony is incoherent with delight. He says he saw U2's Zoo TV tour in '93 and has been a fan ever since. "But I don't want to talk about it," he says, waving his ticket emphatically. "Man, I can't even discuss it, it was so good."

Maria, however, has never seen U2. "And look what a beautiful night it is!" she says enthusiastically. "It was crappy in L.A., but it's beautiful here, like, because U2 is here!"

Tony and Maria are symptomatic of why, from a practical point of view, Vegas is a good place to begin a tour. It has a finite metropolitan area, a relatively intimate 37,000-seat stadium, and hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms. More important, Vegas is a beacon for writers and celebrities, few of whom are able to resist its vulgar lure. And few have, judging by the rows of press in section 130. Besides an international contingent, there are representatives from Seattle, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Jose, Newark, Los Angeles, and USA Today. And so many more.

Given ticket sales, one has to wonder whether the public really considers this event a significant one in the annals of rock, or journalists have been coerced into covering it through a sort of group hysteria. "They've done a great job of exciting our curiosity about the tour," says Jon Pareles of The New York Times with a shrug when asked why he's covering the show a month before the (poorly selling) New York dates. "My paper has a national audience; that's why I'm here," he adds.

Other critics around him agree that it's a newsworthy event, but their opinions must be taken with a grain of salt, since going to Vegas is such fun. One critic from Salt Lake City says her paper insists she file three stories from here: She has chosen to do the David Cassidy show at a casino, the Evergreen drive-through-wedding-chapel story, and this.

Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, one of the band's biggest cheerleaders, is the most adamant of all about the importance of covering this event. "This is the most important band in 15 years, and this is an important tour," he opines. "I think the amount of press here is just an indication of the stature of the band."

Hilburn has already done three stories on U2 since the release of Pop, including one filed from Dublin and one previewing this tour from Vegas the week before. (The Los Angeles Coliseum show, slated for June 21, is nowhere near sold out.)

"I think this tour is making us ask ourselves a question regarding rock's future," Hilburn insists. "So few bands these days are selling, which shows a dissatisfaction with conventional rock. So to see a band go out [on the road] with this kind of confidence is great. It asks us, as journalists, to see whether this is just a cycle we're going through, or if there is something fundamentally wrong with rock as we know it. Can rock still be a mass phenomenon that means something to people again? And if this doesn't work, what will?"

Hilburn doesn't think the press is being coerced into helping the band's advance ticket sales, in spite of his three partisan stories. "I think it's a dangerous game for the media to take sides like that," he says. "You just have to state your honest opinion of whether it's good or not and not be an advocate. Rock and roll belongs to the public. The media shouldn't champion something. They should just cover it."

At 8 p.m., the stadium stands are still not filled because of traffic on the Boulder Highway, the sole route leading to the stadium. But the spacious sky is big and flaming, the air balmy, and just over the stadium walls one can see the desert, harsh and empty. It's a gorgeous night--and a fitting background for opening act Rage Against the Machine and its impassioned litany of songs expressing dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of capitalism and American society.

"Put it in your ass!" "You do what they told ya!" Yadda-yadda-yadda. Rage has always been an impressive live band, but what gives these guys the right to point fingers? From an industry point of view, they work well in a corporate setting--signing to a major label (Epic), playing every tour, and expressing, in carefully measured dollops, adolescent rage aimed at the evil of "the system."

Rage is currently the acceptable face of rock revolution--exactly what U2 was 13 years ago, when it launched the tour that spawned the Under a Blood Red Sky album and video. But those days are gone forever, and the blood-red sky has gone magenta. In place of the flag, there is now a giant disco ball, which will, later in the show, move to the middle of the arena and burst open, revealing the members of U2 dressed in campy Devo outfits. But that's all yet to come.

In a show almost identical to U2's Monday-night stop in Dallas, the band marches on stage at 9:15, escorted through the very heart of the crowd onto a catwalk. They open with "Mofo"--a song whose chorus goes, "Mother mother, sucking rock and roll/bubble poppin' sugar dropping rock and roll"--followed by "I Will Follow," while behind them, a giant screen broadcasts giant color images that have been pixelized. On-screen, the band members look like cartoon figures.

For the next 90 minutes, that screen is the show, hypnotizing the viewer through music that ranges from the incredibly familiar ("Pride," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Mysterious Ways," and "Daydream Believer," the latter as rendered by the Edge) to the nine new songs from the album Pop. Visually, it is breathtaking. From the graphics inspired by Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring to more abstract images exploding on-screen, there are moments when the images on the video screen are so absorbing and so beautiful they leave you stunned and breathless.

But musically, there is many a dull moment--the ballad "Please," the long intro to "Discotheque," and the false start on "Staring at the Sun" (which can probably be blamed on first-night jitters). When the Edge sings "Daydream Believer," it feels like a time-waster, easy kitsch. Yet such older songs as "One," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and--especially--"Bullet the Blue Sky" are spectacular.

But was it worth going to? It depends on what you want from U2 these days--a band, something more, something far less. As visual art, there's no doubt the tour succeeds brilliantly; but as a mere rock concert, it's by no means certain that, stripped of its vivid visuals, it isn't just mediocre. U2's techno-disco fails on the same level that all dance music fails: It works as body music, but as an intellectual statement it's stagnant.

The vast scale of the video screen serves to make U2 completely anonymous--which may well be the point. After all, irony and distance are easier to act out than passion; by relying on themes as detached as those of alienation and consumer culture, the band members have found a way to rationalize the lessening of their own commitment to rock. And really, who can blame them? In the past few years, the public has seen others copping techniques that superstars have perennially used in the face of aging--remaking their images, turning to drugs, committing suicide. In comparison, U2's reaction--to subsume itself in soulless technological artistry--is by far the best one yet.

Still, it's hard to feel entirely good about what the PopMart tour says about the state of rock. The Bono who waved that white flag is going to be missed, and Rage's Zack De La Rocha (or Liam Gallagher, whose band Oasis will be opening some U2 dates this summer) seems unlikely to cut it in comparison. Frankly, for rock to succeed, it has to have a message--and, even more important, a sentient message-bearer.

At least one can take heart in knowing that however complex and fabulous technology gets, a listener is still thrown back on the bare bones of music and its ever-so-mysterious ways; it was true of E.L.O. in 1978, and it's true now. I never thought I'd say that what I liked best about a U2 show was its special effects--but then, I never thought I'd see the day when I'd walk into a Hard Rock Cafe--site of the tour's official after-show party--and see a sign that read, "The only notes that matter come in wads," signed by the Sex Pistols. Somehow, that seemed a fitting statement to end the evening on--detached, ironic, and utterly conflicted.


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