Irish rock band aims straight for the heart with message of unquenchable hope

He stands in the middle of the brightly lit stage, a lanky, longhaired teen-ager hesitantly strumming four basic chords on someone else's guitar.

As his confidence builds, the music rings out more strongly -- and an audience of nearly 20,000 breaks out in wild cheers and applause.

The crowd didn't even come to see the boy. They came to see one of the most popular rock groups around today, the Irish band U2. But when Bono, the band's lead singer, picked the teen-ager out of the audience and brought him on stage to play guitar, the crowd embraced him with the same enthusiasm it had been showing for U2 all night long.

It was hardly a page drawn from the book of how to stage your average rock show. But then U2 isn't exactly your average rock band. In fact, the Dublin quartet has so defied traditional stereotypes -- and been so influential among a new generation of rock bands -- that some critics have coined new terms for its music: ``Positive Vision,'' or ``New Idealism.''

Since the release of its first album five years ago, U2 has increasingly refined and expanded a vision of rock music that focuses on a world in need of peace -- and on the power of the individual to help change that world for the better.

``We don't try to avoid the difficult-to-approach subjects,'' U2 guitarist Dave Evans, who is known as ``the Edge,'' said in an interview before the show. ``But at the same time we don't become very negative. I think a lot of social commentators find it increasingly difficult to write about things going on around them without becoming extremely negative. And you know, their optimism just gets all sapped up.

``We've had no difficulty finding that light at the end of the tunnel,'' he adds, ``because primarily what we write about is people, and no matter how bad a situation gets, I think there's always hope for people.''

The band's concern for people and the human condition is reflected in songs that range in inspiration from the Solidarity movement in Poland and political strife in Northern Ireland to the heroin addiction of old school chums in Dublin.

``The Unforgettable Fire,'' the band's most recent and best-selling album, takes its title -- and title track -- from a collection of drawings made by the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. And the album's most popular song so far, ``Pride (In the Name of Love),'' is a tribute to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist.

The band's four members -- bassist Adam Clayton, the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, and lead singer Paul (Bono) Hewson -- got together in high school in Dublin in 1976. Word began to spread that U2's live performances, powered by the Edge's guitar and Bono's commanding stage presence, were a rock tour de force. By 1979, under the guidance of manager Paul McGuiness, the group landed a record deal with Island Records.

Despite numerous comparisons and predictions made then and now, U2's members have patiently -- but persistently -- resisted labeling themselves or their music. In part, that's to allow each listener to draw what he will from the songs. But it also reflects the band's attitude toward the whole creative process.

``We are as amazed as our audience about the music and about what actually comes over,'' says the Edge, who explains that like the other band members, he continually finds new depth and unexpected meaning in U2 songs long after writing them.

``I feel sometimes when we are creating that it's quite a spiritual thing,'' he explains. ``As if we're actually being given something, rather than us crafting a piece of work.''

Lead singer Bono puts it this way: ``There are two types of performers. There are performers that lay claim to their music as being -- you know, that great music is just a reflection of their great self.

``But there's another type of performer,'' he continues. ``He looks at the music as a reflection of greatness, of which he considers himself real lucky to be getting a glimpse into.''

In comments like these, both Bono and the Edge touch on something else that sets U2 apart from many of its contemporaries -- the strong current of Christianity that runs through the band and its music.

Although some U2 songs contain Biblical allusions or references, the band doesn't try to sell religion. In fact, band members have little patience with what they see as institutionalized Christianity. Instead, true to their commitment to the individual's right to think and act for himself, they practice their spiritual convictions on an individual basis.

``I just distrust people who want to change the world, but who don't want to change themselves,'' says Bono. ``All the social evils that we see around us, they're all in a microcosm form in each of us. Who can point the finger?

``It's like what Christ said when they brought the adulteress forward,'' he continues. ``They all expected this great teacher to at least chastise her, to really give it to her good, but he just said, `Let he who is guiltless cast the first stone.' ''

That awareness of the need for individual growth is reflected in the fact that U2's members say their music isn't about answers -- it's about the search for answers. It may also help explain why -- even as their music is enjoying increasing commercial and popular success -- they say they feel they still haven't made the music they want to make. Each expresses that quest in different terms, but Adam Clayton may come closest to pinning down his feelings when he discusses his regard for music as a form of communication and ``healing.''

Audience response on the current tour has brought home to him the power of music. Ultimately, he says, he'd like to make the type of music whereby ``you can play a sound or a song and it doesn't go to the brain. It goes straight into the ear and to the heart. And you plug straight into the emotional plane of a generation of people.''

And what would his message to the heart be?

``I think it would be a very simple thing,'' he says. ``I don't think it would be how to fiddle your taxes. . . . Love is almost too clich'ed, but certainly a security and a sense of well-being. And that's all it needs to be.''

Sara Terry is a reporter for MonitoRadio, this newspaper's broadcast service.

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