Achtung! U2 Shoppers: PopMart '97
All it takes is one look at my calendar for 1997 to know that something must have gone wrong.Across the boxes that represent April 25, 26, and 27, written with verve and multiple colored pens, is: "U2 WEEKEND BABY! ARRIVE VEGAS 9:30 A.M.!" As everybody knows, April 25 was the day U2 launched its monstrous PopMart World Tour at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. Flip ahead to Wednesday, June 18, and penciled into the upper right corner of the box, just like a reminder of an annual tooth cleaning, is: "U2 Oakland. Get Ride."If you can believe that for more than 15 years my name has been synonymous with "the biggest U2 fan I know," if you can believe that my relationship with this band and its music borders on family-like, then maybe you can believe that what's written on my calendar is only the tip of a sorry iceberg that goes way beyond a fan simply losing faith in his band.POP! GOES THE WEASELEven though there was a great deal of hype both before and after the Vegas show, and much was said and written about the tour, there was very little talk about what PopMart was supposed to be about. I gathered the whole thing was intended as a comment on today's disposable culture, and that all the mammoth, expensive, flashy props the band seemed so giddy about were there to serve some obvious parody of what we see every day.But obvious to whom?What proved to be the treachery of "U2 Weekend Baby!" and the first sign that my boys had taken a wrong turn was how seamlessly the PopMart experience had intermeshed with the Vegas experience. You would assume irony was the driving force behind the band selecting Vegas as the city to start its tour, but that being the case, you'd have to expect some sort of contrast between the two entities. For the three days I spent in Vegas, one thing should have been shouting at me: "Hey! This is a gimmick to get your money!" while the other screamed, "This is art, son! Appreciate it!"Not only was it hard to tell the difference between the two, but for an excruciating 15 minutes on Saturday evening -- U2 weekend, hour 33 -- they were exactly the same.The sun was setting on the Las Vegas strip, which, if you've never seen it, is a surreal enough picture in and of itself. Add to the scene my party and I, on a moveable walkway, grinding our way out of the Excalibur Hotel (imagine a 30-story Lego castle, complete with shiny red and blue towers and a moat). We're sleepy and sucking on golden $13 cocktails.The concert had taken place the night before, and army-green PopMart T-shirts were everywhere along the strip. People were still asking me did I like the show? My companions wanted to know what I thought. It's a strange phenomenon, but I've become used to being the biggest U2 fan anyone has ever met. I hadn't as yet spoken definitively on the subject, and was about to mutter another "I'm not really sure yet" when suddenly -- in what felt like an act of god -- the moveable walkway we were standing on stopped moving.We were stunned, standing still in the exact center of a bridge over the moat of the Excalibur. Directly below us, the filthy water in the hotel moat began to bubble. People moved to the edges of the bridge, seeming to materialize out of nowhere to crowd around the moat. By the time a soundtrack queued up on hidden speakers, we were the only ones who hadn't abandoned the moveable walkway, and the throng of people was now six rows deep and piling up fast."OH, IT'S JUST THAT PESKY DRAGON AGAIN!" the soundtrack boomed; what was being played out in the moat, I can only describe as animatronic madness. An enormous pink dragon head reared up out of the moat and blew fire balls toward a miniature-golf-style wizard. People were now running in from the strip and pushing their way through the crowd to get a view at the edge of the moat."Oh, my God!" I said, "I think we're gonna get trampled!"The 15-minute "show" raced toward its climax. Everywhere I looked, there were unforgettable images: to the right a man was holding his girlfriend up as he faced the opposite direction; he supported her with questionable success, placing a hand on each of her enormous butt cheeks. Further down, people were crawling on the ground between legs to get a better look at the "dragon."Something inside me, emanating from the hazy grog of being in Vegas for 33 straight hours, spoke one clear fact: This is evil ... and way too much like the concert the night before."No!" I caught myself resisting with the same U2 reflex I had formed 15 years before when I bought the tape with the song "Gloria" on it. "No. It's not true!"LOVE IS NOT BLINDNESSIn the end, the thought of U2 -- the originators of intimate stadium rock -- wordlessly emerging from a 40-foot mirrored lemon, only to screw up an encore performance of their radio single "Discotheque," proved irrefutable, even to me.And this concert, in which Bono addressed the crowd twice, for a total of four sentences (one of which was "Talk amongst yourselves, will ya," an idea that goes against everything U2 stands for), and carried a $60 ticket price to pay for the tacky, oversized props that went unexplained throughout, was no different from the "moat show" at the Excalibur Hotel. In fact, PopMart was exactly the same thing: an uninspired, impersonal, gimmick-laden moneyfest.What remains amazing to me is that on one hand you have the album Pop, one of U2's most personal efforts, and on the other you have PopMart, the most distant performance I've ever seen from the band.At no time during the Las Vegas concert were the words "PopMart" ever mentioned. At no time was the audience ever let in on PopMart's inside joke. At no point was intimacy ever achieved or even attempted by either the band or the crowd. The entire stadium went nuts during the opening riff of "Pride (In The Name Of Love)," but remained mostly disinterested throughout the new songs. There were no spiritual experiences here; this was just business.U2 was in Vegas, all right, but Vegas was in U2 as well, and not in the clever, ironic sense they had intended. Vegas was in U2 in a bad way, the way it was in Elvis at the end of his career.Jump ahead to the scene at the Excalibur moat the next night: I was staring at the paper cups swirling at the corners of the moat, and they were just like beer bottles clinking around in the Sam Boyd Stadium parking lot after the audience went home.Here was this big scene; the people were ready for it. It happened. It was cheesy. Then there was trash.Following this "U2 Weekend Epiphany," other clues -- chiefly the tour reviews and promotion -- fell into place like a long line of dominoes. They all pointed toward an undeniable truth: PopMart is a horrendous artistic failure.But scarier still is that none of the 38,000 people at Sam Boyd Stadium seemed to have watched the same show I did. All of the media who reported on the concert were too preoccupied with the PopMart gimmicks and the financial hugeness of the tour to notice that the band was on creative automatic-pilot when they brainstormed and performed the show. Add to all this ABC's prime-time U2 special, A Year In Pop, which -- in addition to being narrated by Dennis Hopper and managing to garner the lowest ratings in the network's history -- gave us "Pop Month" on ABC and images of Michael J. Fox plugging his show Spin City in his very own discotheque-style video spot.When exactly did that sound like a good idea? As the biggest U2 fan ever, I'd rather not know.Most importantly to me, however, are the members of the band themselves, who put out a good album, and secured a guarantee of $100 million for the preemptively successful tour. If they don't realize on their own that PopMart is an animatronic, fire-breathing ball of cheese, what will they ask me to swallow next time they come to town -- if there is a next time?I can't help but remember a soundbite from the ABC U2 special, in which Bono is reading a dictionary definition of the word "pop."Pop: a sudden, short, light, explosive sound.For inarguably one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands ever, what a way to go out.