Putting the fan in fanatical

 

Music worshippers don’t come much more intense than U2’s international posse of followers, writes BRIAN BOYD, as the band’s Croke Park dates approach

MERCEDES HAS one of Larry Mullen’s drumsticks, a signed photograph of the Edge, and has kissed Adam Clayton on the cheek. In June, the 34-year-old dental assistant from Bilbao travelled by coach to Barcelona to be somewhere near the top of the queue for U2’s opening show of the tour. She refers to the journey with no sense of irony as a “pilgrimage”.

She has travelled to see the band 28 times now – beginning with the Zoo TV tour, her first ever live-rock show – and, work and money allowing, she is planning to see this present tour at least five times before it leaves for the US in September. “After tonight, I’ll see them in Paris, then Amsterdam, then London twice,” she says. “The one I really wanted to go to was in Croke Park in Dublin, but I had a holiday booked for that time from way before they announced the tour. But I still might change that.”

What Mercedes loves and hates about a new U2 tour, apart from the “ecstasy” of the shows, is the chance to meet up with fellow U2 fanatics (she encountered others on a band internet forum and the group now share hotel rooms). She hates the logistics of fitting in as many shows as possible: the tickets, the travelling, and the “newcomers” – would-be fans with less than five years “service” who push and shove down the front the most. Her boyfriend spends a lot of time and

money going to see Real Madrid play, her father gets to as many Formula One races as he can; her great love is going to U2 shows. “Zoo TV was the first ever concert I went to. I didn’t even have any of their records at the time. I bought all of them over a year, then I joined the official fan club, and then I met so many people who felt just like me about the band.”

For Mercedes, the attraction is not just the music. “It’s them. It’s what they stand for. It’s how they treat their fans so well. For those of us down the front, it’s like a big party with friends. I’ve met two of the band very quickly but I’m not really extreme, like some of the newer fans who follow them back to the hotel and hassle them.”

A look through the various online forums about the band reveals that U2 fans can take many different shapes, ranging from the casual yet still committed, to the “all in” ultra-obsessive. There are those who endlessly parse the band’s lyrics for hidden messages, those who discuss the Edge’s personal guitar technician in great detail, and those who seem to immensely enjoy verbally abusing other fans for getting facts wrong or daring to suggest one album is better than another.

U2 themselves have always said that they have a special connection with their Italian fans (the word “ardent” doesn’t really do them justice) but Italy has now been overtaken by El Salvador in the fandom stakes. It all began with the song Bullet The Blue Skyfrom The Joshua Treealbum, which Bono dedicated to the then war-torn country. The band have never played in the country but there is a prominent “U2 Veni!” (“Come and play U2”) campaign there, which aims to get one million signatures.

The main movers behind U2 Veni came to Dublin last February to hand-deliver their petition to the band’s management. Hearing of the campaign, the band’s Irish publicist arranged for the fans to visit U2’s studio – and the band suddenly appeared and played some songs from the new album.

In Boston, Pamela Bracken runs a music travel agency that brings people to “event” shows around the world. Having travelled previously to events in the Sahara desert, Havana, New Orleans and South America, she reports a healthy interest among her US client-base for this weekend’s U2 show in Croke Park, with people genuinely excited about seeing the band playing a hometown show. She’s put together a whole weekend of activity for her 20-strong travelling group. On arrival, the party will dine in the Clarence Hotel (part-owned by Bono and the Edge), and will later go on a U2 walking tour of the city, which will take in the band’s studio and other U2-related landmarks around Dublin.

One of the travelling party is Maggie Hajj, a thirtysomething managing editor from Texas. Over the years, she has seen the band live just four times, but feels a lasting connection to their music. “U2 have been the soundtrack to my life,” she says. Hajj first got into the band aged 13 with the release of The Joshua Tree.“I found U2 at a particularly sensitive and emotional period in my life,” she says. “Adolescence is never fun but as the child of Lebanese immigrants, it was even less so. I was searching for an identity, for someone who understood what I was feeling and a way to express myself.

“Something about U2’s lyrics spoke to the deepest part of me. It was like they really knew what it felt like to be alone and misunderstood. It also helped that I thought Bono was hot-looking.”

As Hajj grew up she became interested in becoming an activist because of the band’s music. “There is a desire for a better world, a message of hope in their music,” she says. “I remember sitting in the cinema watching Rattle and Humand laughing at the silliness of it all, but when Bono gave that ‘F**k the revolution’ speech, I felt my hair stand on end. And it still has that effect on me.”

Hajj has measured out her life in U2 albums: “My first real romantic disappointment wore out Achtung Baby. Pre-iTunes I would scour obscure record stores for vinyl and B-sides.When I went through a period of severe postpartum depression, U2 literally saved my life. It sounds crazy now, but I remember sitting in my car one day at an intersection, waiting for the train to go by, thinking, ‘All I have to do is drive on to the tracks. That’s it. It will only take a second.’ I didn’t do it, of course. On the way home, Stuck in a Momentcame on, either on the radio or CD, I don’t remember.What I do remember is pulling over on to a side street, and crying harder than I had in my entire life.”

Hajj is happy enough to be a fan “from afar . . . The reason I’ve only seen them play four times is because they’ve always toured at inconvenient times in my life,” she says. “My favourite ever concert of theirs was when they played El Paso – my hometown – with Zoo TV.”

To travel to Dublin for the Croke Park show, Maggie had to negotiate with her non-U2-fan husband. “I have tried to convert him, to no avail. Last March was our 10-year wedding anniversary, and I cajoled, begged, and promised to forgo holiday/birthday presents for the next year. I may have even promised to try and get pregnant again. I hope he has forgotten the last bit.

“I cannot imagine what it will be like to see them on their home turf. The other day as I was listening to a live version of With or Without You, I wept thinking about doing the last ‘oh oh oh oh ohs’ with their country folk. Yes, I am a grown woman, wife, and mother to a pair of seven-year-old girls. But U2 means something indescribably special to me.”