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Wide awake in Europe with U2

One man's pilgrimage is another's stirring tour through the new Old World

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / October 2, 2005

‘Vertigo’

Legs climb high. Steel sways. Angels do not speak. A dove waits.

Beneath the windows of the cathedral dome: Vienna.

Height and history conspire and spin.

A stage where Wagner rang. A balcony where Hitler sang. Guard towers watched. Ideas and iron knocked the city down. Skyscrapers waltz. The Danube is not blue.

East, a stadium. New minds wander.

Waiting for the chorus. Swinging to the music.

Do they know they must reach higher?

Hello, hello.

'I Will Follow'

Guitar chords and drum beats sprint from the stage into the new black of the Vienna night, and a lone voice makes a promise.

In the sanctuary of Ernst Happel Stadium, thousands of arms touch sky.

U2 has finished its first song, ‘‘Vertigo,’’ introduced to the world by an iPod commercial, and is turning back to the beginning, to 1980 and ‘‘I Will Follow,’’ the song that launched them out of Dublin.

It is early July, the middle of a European tour by the world’s biggest rock band. In the next week, U2 will play three stadiums: first in Vienna, outpost of old Western Europe; the next in Chorzów, Poland, deep in the old east; then Berlin, the long-split city that is a capital again.

I will follow.

'City of Blinding Lights'

Bono struts. His arms stretch wide, as if to soar. He calls out to the crowd:

‘‘Sexy people!’’

Nine songs into the set, a high steel fence behind the stage sparks into a wall of dancing light. A rhythmic chorus bows in devotion.

Bono sings:

‘‘Oh, you look so beautiful tonight in the city of blinding lights.’’

It is as if this is all just rock and roll. A party.

Bono sings again:

‘‘I’m getting ready to leave the ground.’’

‘One’

At the eastern edge of the Czech Republic, midway between Vienna and Chorzów, low hills border a fertile band of flat earth.

A worn Zetor tractor navigatesrows of potato plants. The tractor sprays and stops. Out steps a man with clean blue eyes.

Jaroslav Andel, at 45 all muscle and calm, tells a story: His grandfather, owner of five horses and three cows, worked this land until the early 1950s, when the new communist

government claimed it all. Since the Velvet Revolution kicked the communists out of Prague in 1989, Andel has fought to reclaim five of his family’s original 35 acres.

On a nearby road, cars commute from a city of Italian shoes and Japanese laptops to another of plump dumplings and cold pilsner. From a ridge top, newmoney houses stare down.

Andel, a logger by trade, owns one cow and one horse. He cannot get a good price for his potatoes at market. Will he sell the land? Develop it? Anything would be better.

‘‘But . . . , ’’ Andel says, ‘‘my grandfather would turn in his grave and cut my throat.’’

''Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own"

An animated figure seven stories tall strides onto the right half of the light-panel-turned-video-screen behind the stage.

The figure is a man dressed in dark trousers and a white shirt. His head is a blank white ball. No eyes. No ears. No mouth.

Bono takes off his trademark sunglasses for this song about his late father. Bono's live image is broadcast on the screen, opposite the relentless pace of the faceless man. His voice soars:

''Can you hear me when I Sing, you're the reason I sing."

The crowd quiets. Do others hear the questions I hear? I tilt my notebook toward flashing light, and scratch:

''Son pleading -- uncontrolled. Father steady. Dad knows. Who really knows? Who is leading whom? Where are we going? Why?"

''New Year's Day"

Nine small crosses decorate the base of a monument that rises near the concrete smokestacks of Kopalnia Wujek, or ''Uncle's Mine," set in the heart of industrial southern Poland.

When 6,000 coal miners struck in solidarity with shipyard workers in December 1981, the general who was also the prime minister struck back. Helicopters rained tear gas on the crowd. Soldiers killed nine men at the main gate.

A humid afternoon 24 years later: Some 500 men file through a new gatehouse at shift's end. Most are freshly showered and wear trousers and collared shirts. Only the ink black stuck to their eyelids hints of the underground.

One miner, Bernard Bremer, crosses a leafy park to a cafe. He sits before a tall glass of Tyskie beer and a plate of cabbage, pork, and tomato sauteed in oil.

In 1981, the miners wanted better working conditions, and freedom. Bremer carried a pick and helped build a barricade between two elevator shafts.

Now 48, Bremer has a lean face modest in its movements. Born in a different time, a different place, he might have been a cobbler, or accountant.

''When [the soldiers] were tearing at the walls, we were afraid. It's human," Bremer says. ''But at the same time, we said, 'We will not let them do it.' "

''New Year's Day" (reprise)

Adam Clayton, stage left, shoulders a heavy bass. Guitarist The Edge, stage right, waits at an electric piano. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. sits back. Bono stands front.

The Edge's single piano notes announce an anthem embraced in Irish pubs and American suburbs. The song ''New Year's Day" opens so completely, so boldly, it feels as though it has been playing for hours, weeks, years.

In Chorzow's Slaski Stadium, a short drive over broken streets from Uncle's Mine, shirts and towels leap into the air. Red from the floor. White from the stands. The Polish flag.

The morning of the concert, Gazeta Wyborcza, the nation's leading newspaper, asked in a front-page headline: ''Will Bono sing about martial law in Poland?"

U2 recorded ''New Year's Day" in 1982. Twenty-four years after Poland's communist leaders declared war on their people, 16 years after that government finally fell, Bono stands before the frenzy and sings:

''Arms entwined, the chosen few."

He turns his jacket inside out to show a red lining. Solidarnosc.

''Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World"

The drum beat began on the album ''War," in a song called ''Sunday, Bloody, Sunday." There is a question in the lyrics: ''How long, how long must we sing this song?"

The record, released in 1983, sprang from what U2 knew early: violence on their native island.

In the 1980s, the band toured from Manchester to Boston to Osaka, with hundreds of stops between. Bono detoured to chaos in El Salvador and Ethiopia. In 1990, U2 took shelter in a recording studio in Berlin.

In the rubble of a fallen wall, the band worked on a defining album, ''Achtung Baby!", and created a high-tech world onstage of talking heads and hanging Trabant automobiles, the weak wheels of old East Germany.

''Running to Stand Still/Acrobat"

Daylight after the Slaski Stadium show, and a gleaming BMW with German plates blows east across the border into Poland. A Mercedes follows.

Just north of the road, backhoes dig into piles of fresh asphalt and dump it on smooth dirt. The highway's two lanes become four: a new gateway into land long torn and traded.

Hitler made Poland his. Stalin came rolling back. Fascism, communism, and capitalism battled above fragile fields.

It is a wonder that cathedrals still stand. That inside one, a young man lifts a thin brush to paint an ancient icon. That old women still bow their heads, hands folded.

Poland is a new member of the European Union. Money now marches in from Germany. No matter that the miner cannot afford the rock concert. No matter that all minds do not forget.

Two U2 concerts down, one to go. A week spent listening to the band's rock 'n roll odyssey on a rented car's CD player.

I stop to buy a cold drink at a service station on the widening highway. A techno song is playing on the store radio. It is bad, but has a strong beat. At 4 o'clock on Wednesday, waiting in line with wandering Germans and Poles, I dance.

''A Sort of Homecoming"

The walkways leading to Olympic Stadium swarm with whistling, whirling masses -- 20-year-olds with tattoos and tomorrow, 50-year-olds dancing gray.

They laugh, crack, and surge, stopping at bratwurst carts and beer trucks before straightening to enter the concrete confines of the stadium built by Nazi strength.

In 1936, Hitler sat in the center tribunal of the new stadium and welcomed the world to the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Marching athletes, from many nations, turned toward the führer and hoisted an arm in salute.

On this night, the money class of new Europe gathers in Hitler's old seats, now lined with soft leather. The stone stadium, like Berlin itself, has been polished and set beneath a protective cover of steel and glass.

''Where the Streets Have No Name"

Bono talks to the Berliners about Martin Luther King Jr.:

''It is not just an American dream, or a European dream. It is also an Asian dream, an Arab dream, an African dream."

Flags of African nations -- giant, in greens, yellows, and reds -- rise on the screen behind the stage. The West will survive. And the rest?

Bono, surrounded by hot lights and electric rhythms, cries from a distant desert plain:

''We're beaten and blown by the windTrampled in dust."

''Staring at the Sun"

A Harvard history professor, when told of plans to follow U2 through Central Europe, referred to Bono as ''the one trying to save the world."

Was the comment meant as mockery? That phrase, ''trying to save the world," has become a dismissive cliche. No one can save the world. Only fools, or egomaniacs, try.

Or . . .

Hours before playing Vienna, U2 takes the stage with Paul McCartney to open London's Live 8 charity concert. Rock and roll for the world's poor.

In Vienna, Chorzow, and Berlin, U2 opens its ballad ''One" with Bono urging 60,000 people to lift cell phones and join the One Campaign. The goal: Eliminate ''stupid" poverty.

Before and after the Berlin show, Bono flies to the G8 summit in Scotland to continue his relentless, reasoned lobbying of the world's most powerful leaders. He wants debt relief for Africa and medication for its children.

Twenty-two years ago, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Bono, then 23, explained: ''I'm not interested in politics like people fighting back with sticks and stones, but in the politics of love."

''Bullet the Blue Sky"

U2 beats into ''Sunday, Bloody, Sunday," and Bono is wearing a headband that reads ''COEXIST."

The ''C" is an Islamic crescent. The ''X" the star of David. The ''T" the Christian cross.

Bono adds new lyrics to the old song: ''Father Abraham speak to your sons. Tell them no more!"

The Berliners chant with him: ''No more! No more! No more!"

Preaching peace in the house that Hitler built?

These fans may be the converted, sons and daughters of those who waged war and had the war come home, grandchildren of those sent off to die in camps, or those who did the sending, so bent and broken in the end that they had to dig potatoes in a city park stripped of trees.

Yet it is in cities like this, home to wealthy westerners who so often determine reality in the world beyond, that the worship must continue.

So, with ''Bullet the Blue Sky," The Edge's guitar sounds a warning, as if to say, ''You are about to go on a journey."

Bono sings:

''And I can see those fighter planesAcross the tin huts as children sleepThrough the alleys of a quiet city street."

The Edge's guitar rages as the image of an F-15 sweeps across a blood-red sky on the screen behind the stage.

Bono, singing slow and true, borrows a line from the American canon: ''Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah . . ."

''Numb"

The morning of the Berlin show, four bombs blow up in the London Underground. By the time U2 takes the stage, an estimated 49 people have died. The number will nearly double by morning.

''I have a prayer," Bono tells the crowd. ''And I hope it's yours: That we don't become a monster in order to defeat a monster. That is my prayer."

''Miracle Drug"

At the opening of ''Love and Peace or Else," static shrieks and feedback shocks: things that speak of doom.

Bono's voice aches for hope:

''Lay your sweet lovely on the groundLay your love on the trackWe're gonna break the monster's back."

Music explodes and the voice commands:

''Lay down your gunsAll your daughters of ZionAll your Abraham sons."

In 2005, there is no keeping the enemy at the gate. The enemy is them. The enemy is us.

Bono answers:

''We need Love and peaceLove and peace."

Guitars spar and stab in sonic fury. Bono stands at a single drum, striking, searching:

Boom! Boom!

''Where is the love?"

BOOM! BOOM!

''Where is the love?"

''Zoo Station"

The official name is Berlin Zoologischer Garten. The station, in the city center, is a static anchor in a dynamic world. It looms, confident, as though no one created it. Single souls move through it, around it, above and beneath. Do they have no other choice?

Commuter trains arrive above ground, subways below. Rumble, shudder, screech.

Outside, neon pulses: ''Deutsche Bank," ''Hitachi," ''Burger King." Mercedes, taxis, and bicycles scatter. Pedestrians wait for signs to tell them ''go."

A woman in red high heels squeals and swings, as if on laughing gas, from one corner to the next.

A teenage boy leans against a concrete bench and pulls a guitar from its case.

The wheels of a suitcase spin past on the sidewalk, clickety-clack.

The boy's fingers, soft, uncalloused, wander across the guitar strings.

A Polizei van whines, and a double-decker bus lurches at a light.

The boy hums.

Contact Tom Haines at thaines@globe.com.

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