July 1, 2009

To Michael Jackson, from Barcelona

Source: Telegraph.co.uk

By Neil McCormick

U2 at the Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona

U2’s latest tour launched this week at the Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona and came out with a typically ambitious production. Set up in the round in the centre of the stadium, an enormous lighting, sound and visual display rig towered on four giant legs vertically over the stage like an alien space ship. The sci-fi theme was taken to extremes when Bono spoke live by satellite link up to the real International Space Station orbiting earth (actually one of the longeurs of the show, since the crew did little more than wave to their moms and utter platitudes about global unity).

The show did not all go according to plan, with plenty of first night teething problems, to the extent that U2 completely messed up their biggest song, ‘One’ and had to restart it twice. When Bono (aka Paul Hewson) missed his cue for ‘With Or Without You’ and started punching his microphone in frustration, I imagined the astronauts watching from above utter the immortal line “Hewson, we have a problem.” But the huge singalong crowd were in indulgent mood, and filled in the gaps themselves. There is something quite endearing about the way this band, can still be relied upon to mess up on such huge stages. I can’t think of anyone else at that level so prone to falling flat on their faces, yet somehow it only serves as a reminder of the real and fallible people at the heart of not just this spectacle but the whole illusory showbiz hype.

It was a week when we recieved a potent reminder of the destructive power of that particular set of illusions, as another one of the world’s greatest musical stars died in tragic circumstances, with Michael Jackson improbably joining Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and so many more of victims of their own fame. Bono dedicated ‘Angel Of Harlem’ (written for Billie Holiday) to him, with 90,000 Spanish fans bellowing “So long, this love won’t let me go”. It was quite something, touching yet celebratory. I am not sure what Jackson would have made of Bono’s rough and ready extemporisations of ‘Man In The Mirror’ and ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ but he would have probably been honoured by the sentiment. And at least the sometimes ungainly Irishman didn’t attempt the moonwalk.

For all the media overload engendered by Jackson’s demise, in Glastonbury, I am reliably informed, the news was greeted mainly with a kind of “damp indifference”. TV crews combed the site to film revellers saying how shocked they were, while bands hastily rehearsed Jackson cover versions, but evidently no one was about to let it crimp their celebrations. It was probably the wrong place for film crews to seek reactions, because, although Jackson was a musician, he existed in an entirely different dimension to Glastonbury, almost a parallel universe of music. He would never have appeared at a muddy, hippy festival, with his synthetic, dance floor pop. Rock veteran Neil Young opened his set with the suitably terrifying ‘Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)’. But despite lyrics like ‘it’s better to burn out, than it is to rust’ this was no sweet dedication to a much loved entertainer, just a blistering reminder of the sometimes lethal nature of the music business. Yet, in the person of this 63-year-old firebrand, it was also a reminder of what it takes to survive.

With the triumphant reunion of Blur and typically stirring appearances of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, we were able to celebrate the work of great pop stars who have somehow negotiated the hubris and ego endemic in showbusiness, and to thrive creatively by concentrating on their roles as musicans rather than celebrities. Jackson was as talented a human being who has ever taken to the stage, but he dwelled in a fantasy realm, creating a false image of himself, burning brightly and briefly in the glare of the spotlight before (like many of our greatest pop idols) being utterly destroyed by fame, his ego inflated, his talent shrunken, his health traduced. For him, really, it was all over by the time he was 30, the last twenty years being a descent into a terrible living hell.

Springsteen, on the other hand, is almost 60, still selling millions of records, still performing with the same conviction, energy and passion as his younger self. For all that Springsteen is a bona fide rock idol, there are no airs and graces, no attempt to blind us with science or mirrors. In Hyde Park, he came on in a grey work shirt that got so soaked through with sweat by the end it had turned black. That’s as close as he gets to special effects. Yet Springsteen and his band deliver arguably the greatest rock show the world has ever seen, and they do it with nothing but the ordinary tools of the medium, their instruments, their songs and themselves. Springsteen’s values may not be as newsworthy as Jackson’s soap operatic tragedy, but for music fans they represent something solid and even noble to hang onto in a fickle (and sometimes dangerous) pop world.

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