by Billy Cerveny
I read today that it has been 34 years since U2’s,The Unforgettable Fire, came out. Hard to comprehend. On April 30, 1985 I saw this concert at the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum. I was part of the first generation of MTV watchers. I wore checkerboard Vans before they were ironic, I knew the difference between piercing your left vs. your right ear and I thought the Keytar was cool. At that point, I liked U2 but I only really knew the songs Sunday, Bloody Sunday and New Years Day because their videos were being played in ruthless rotation. The night of the show, Red Rockers opened (anyone remember the song China? #stillamazing) and my friends and I listened as we snuck bent cigarettes out of a soft-pack of Marlboro Lights someone had stolen off their parent’s bedside table.
I admit that I can be cynical when people describe things as “life changing.” It’s an over-used phrase (I confess I too am an over-user of the phrase). Most of the time when we say that in relation to positive experiences (i.e. those things that are not tragic or traumatic) we say it because we lack the vocabulary to articulate how deeply something has moved us in a particular moment. “Life Changing” (especially when we are talking about art) is more times than not shorthand to say something has painted a picture, sung a melody or lyric that perfectly articulates who we are, where we are and what we feel at a specific point in time. As monumental as those experiences can be, they might honor our particular moment, but they rarely change the way we see and approach the ones to come. That being said, there are those experiences that not only bless a moment but also give us a new lens through which we look at and approach the world.
When I saw The Unforgettable Fire tour, I was 16 years old with a testosterone powered chip on my shoulder. I had become a Christian less that a year earlier and had very little understanding of what had happened to me when I met Jesus. I just knew. I just believed.
The night of the concert, U2 opened with the song, 11 O’Clock Tick Tock. It was as though each consecutive song was part of an archeological dig into the center of my heart. 45 minutes in, The Edge went to the center of the stage and played the opening riff to Bad.
That was it.
I will never forget rising to my feet as every hair on my body stood up with me. It was my heart packaged in a 4 minute musical slug. I couldn’t say it then, but it was an experience of what I now know to be hope. Yes, hope in the moment, but also a forecast of hope.
Now, if I were reading this it would be easy for me to cringe at what I just wrote (I kind of cringed writing it). It sounds like the melodramatic machinations of a grown man trying to inject wisdom into the angst of a 16 year old. A forecast of hope? Really? Lighten up. Trust me, I get it. I have the same emotional allergy to things like that. And I would agree with you except for the fact that as a 16 year old boy standing in the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum, I remember one word that flipped over and over in my heart like a coin: Jesus.
The last song that U2 played that night was 40. For those that don’t know, this is a song written from and around Psalm 40. Towards the end, everyone at the show was singing the chorus at the top of their lungs as each member of the band left the stage except for the drummer, Larry Mullen Jr.: “I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song...How long to sing this song? How long to sing this song? How long? How long? How long? How long to sing this song?” The drums eventually stopped. The lights came on, but the crowd kept singing. This went on for the next 30 minutes as we filed into the large dirt parking lot that ran along the bulkhead of the St. John’s River. Nobody wanted it to stop. Most people didn’t realize it (including me), but they were singing a song that had been sung over them since the creation of the world. As I climbed into the back of my mother’s Cadillac Cimarron and we pulled out of the parking lot, the voices began to fade, but I kept singing. I kept singing because deep down I knew the answer. How long to sing this song? As long as this song would be sung over me. Forever.
Truly, life changing.