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Bono saved from drowning

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Just where does the Zoo TV Outside Broadcast Tour come from? Nothing U2 has ever done--nothing any rock group has ever done--prepares one for how gripping it is as music, how compelling it is as theater, how apropos it is as pop artifact, and how knowing it is about the culture. It takes all the rock 'n' roll cliches, translates them into semiotics, repackages them according to the blueprints of postmodern theory, and comes up with something fresh, something prescient, something ultimately humane. It is nothing less than the new face of popular music.

In this critic's eyes--four stars.

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Tears course down Bono's cheeks. He is trying to think of a rhyme for "Somalia" and having no luck. Finally he realizes that "purple Day-Glo" rhymes with "Sarajevo." That, and positioning the blond a little lower--what is her name?--brings him temporary peace.

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U2 opens with "Zoo TV" while epigrams flash on the numerous and variously sized television screens onstage: "EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG," "BELIEVE EVERYTHING," "ROCK IS ENTERTAINMENT," "OVER 50 BILLION SERVED," "ENTERTAINMENT IS WORK." Bono, in black leather with fly-goggle sunglasses, gyrates his hips like

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Prince.

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Jim Morrison.

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Elvis Presley, opening his Christmas comeback special. "If you're looking for trouble," says Elvis, "you've come to the right place."

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"I love to watch things on TV," Bono says, and armed with a remote-control unit he turns to the largest TV screen and begins to channel-surf. Pat Schroeder on C-Span. "Is she someone?" Bono asks. When he stumbles upon the Home Shopping Network, the crowd roars.

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Bono pulls a woman up onto the stage with him, and they dance slowly, arms around one another. The onstage camera crew moves in for a close-up. The largest of the big-screen TVs above the stage shows the woman's hand curling around the nape of Bono's neck; it is shaking uncontrollably.

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"Tune in Bono's vocals and you'll encounter one of the worst cases of significance ever to afflict a deserving candidate for superstardom. B" (Robert Christgau on The Joshua Tree).

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Camping it up as the ultimate rock star, Bono is free to invest each song with as much throwaway passion as he desires. His emoting only serves to create a more noticeable--dare I say poignant--distance between the surface meaning of the songs and their subtext, a divide that is an essential part of U2's latest album, Achtung Baby. Songs like "One," "The Fly," and "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," which chart a shaky course between ambition and reality, gain new resonance.

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"Much better than Hershey," writes the critic in his notebook, and for a moment he imagines himself devouring a chocolate Bono.

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A buffalo runs in slow motion on the television screens during "One." Really, that's about as preachy as it gets.

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Flames burn in cross patterns during "Bullet the Blue Sky."

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A stagehand in Ku Klux Klan regalia rushes opening act Public Enemy in midset. "Get off the motherfucking stage," says Chuck D. But such cheap theatrics only serve to emphasize the same old story: U2 has never made an album as good as any of PE's last three, but live, in an arena setting, rap--even the best rap--cannot connect with a large audience. The give-and-take essential to the concert experience just isn't there. It's a one-way phone conversation.

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Guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen have mastered the nonchalant grace of arena rock. Clayton and Mullen set a solid, martial beat, freeing The Edge to create his own counterrhythms on guitar, giving the music that soaring, undulating feel that defines the band at least as much as Bono's singing does.

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The Edge shaves irregularly and takes to wearing a fedora and trench coat. Soon, every kid in America who has ever set foot in a Goodwill store is wearing a fedora and trench coat and going unshaven. The Edge walks down the streets of America and he looks like everyone else. Christ, he thinks, there has to be a song in this. But if you write a song that applies to everybody, will everybody buy it, or will everybody ignore it?

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The band pauses toward the end of "Pride (In the Name of Love)," and suddenly the image of Martin Luther King comes to life on the TV screens, delivering the "I have been to the mountaintop" speech.

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Bono tries to pull in Lou Reed "via satellite" for a duet on "Satellite of Love," but the reception is weak. Singing his guts out, Bono involves the crowd in one of Reed's most difficult love songs, while Reed flutters in and out of view on the TV screens--a metaphor for his career. But eventually the reception improves, and Bono cedes the last verse. He stands there, arms folded, and watches Reed sing.

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Lou Reed is at home, sitting in front of the fire reading Donald Barthelme. He pauses, removes his glasses, and ponders: what was it that Bono wanted with that tape of him singing "Satellite of Love"?

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Did you hear the one about the critic who told Bono a joke? When he got to the punch line, Bono laughed once, then wrote him a check for five dollars.

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During "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," Bono pulls two avid female fans up onto the runway that extends into the crowd. He sprays them with champagne and gives one a hand-held camera, and she starts shooting pictures of him as he dances with her friend. She moves in for a close-up. Bono calls to The Edge for help. The Edge strolls out to join the impromptu orgy; in the midst of it, one of the women pulls the cap from his head. The Edge has a glaring bald spot! Bono emits one spontaneous burst of laughter.

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Clayton's bass joins The Edge's guitar at the beginning of "Where the Streets Have No Name," and rows of bright spotlights at the back of the stage come on, illuminating the crowd from the first row to the top of the lawn. The crowd goes apeshit.

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Aragon Ballroom, 1979: Mick Jones and Joe Strummer leap from the drum riser in tandem as the Clash finish their concert with "Capital Radio."

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World Music Theatre, 1992: Jones, wearing a floppy golf hat and baggy clothes and looking like someone you might meet out by the Dumpsters behind the Jewel, strums his way through a punctual 30-minute set with his group Big Audio Dynamite II, the opening act of the night.

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Reuters reports that the CIA has developed a drug that robs rock stars of their charisma. For some reason, however, the drug is effective only on those who possess a trace of self-awareness. Bono is safe.

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The advisory "Digitally Enhanced" appearing in the corner of the screen, President Bush introduces U2, saying, "We will, we will, rock you."

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With images of Bill Clinton and the Democratic convention on the TV screens, U2 concludes the set with "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Stand by Me."

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Bono puts Rattle and Hum on pause on the VCR and goes to the window, where he looks out on the sea. What does it all mean? he thinks. Then, suddenly resolving to write something down, he fumbles in his pockets for a pound note and a pen and scribbles "Ask Eno."

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For the encore, Bono changes into a silver lame suit, complete with matching ten-gallon cowboy hat. Carrying a large mirror, he looks himself over and plants a kiss on his own lips.

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"This is one zoo you won't want to take the kids to," says Roy Leonard. "You'll want to send them all by themselves," and he cracks a smile that can be heard over the radio.

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Bono calls the White House and asks for President Bush. Told by the operator that the president is unavailable, Bono asks her name. "Operator Two," she says. "That's lovely," says Bono, who then leaves a message for the president: Watch more TV.

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Bono walks to the end of the runway and addresses the ambivalent love song "With or Without You" directly to the crowd.

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"The philosophical question hinges on the disaster of Tommy's leadership. At the end, it is he who looks out at the crowd and sings the most beautiful and moving passage of the opera:

Listening to you, I get the music

Gazing at you, I get the heat

Following you, I climb the mountain

I get excitement at your feet" (Dave Marsh).

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Bono and The Edge finish the night with a cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love." As they leave the stage, Elvis's original version comes on the loudspeakers.

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Bono has left the building. Elvis sings on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bobby Talamine.

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