When I wrote my weekly Clash feature last Friday, I was inspired by this list of groundbreaking debut albums. You’ll note the Clash’s debut album isn’t on it, but that aside, it’s a great list all around, and I was particularly pleased to see U2’s Boy (1980) mentioned along with the first efforts of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Television and Jimi Hendrix. Boy is an outstanding album in its own right, but, as I will explain, I have a personal fondness for it.
You know, it’s easy to make fun of U2 these days. They’ve become old and established and, to pork-pie-hat-and-ironic-t-shirt-wearing hipsters, the band’s sort of holier than thou social activism is, I guess, so 1980s. Because to people who think South Park is edgy and meaningful – as opposed to juvenile and nihilistic – the worst sin of all is to believe in something.
But it’s just as easy to forget that at the time U2 released Boy, they were making music that nobody else was making, that nobody else had thought of, and that, frankly, nobody else could have pulled off. Rock ’n roll being perhaps the most derivative music of all, there are damn few bands about whom you can honestly say that. But in U2’s case, it was the truth.
In any event, I was pleased to see somebody else recognize Boy for the great record it is. More than that, though, U2’s debut album has a special meaning to me because it reminds me of my late brother Tom, an outstanding guitar player who, as I’ve mentioned before, died of lung cancer in 2009 at the utterly unfair age of 51.
See, I have this indelible memory of coming home late one night during the summer of 1981 – the summer after my freshman year in college – and Tom, who was living at home at the time, was watching The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, and as I walk into the living room he says, You have to see this. And I sit down and we watch U2 play their first single, “I Will Follow,” on our parents’ Sony Trinitron TV – the first color TV they ever owned – and we’re just sitting there, Tom and me, listening to this ... this ... sound, man, this huge fucking sound – pardon the expression – pouring out of these little speakers on that TV, and it was fucking awesome.
I can literally still hear my brother saying, I can’t believe he gets all that sound out of that guitar ... listen to that ... it’s unbelievable, watching the Edge work pedals with his feet and play layer and layer and layer of chords and reverberating notes, one on top of the other. It was unbelievable. It was like somebody reinvented rock music right there, made something new entirely out of whole cloth, and we were just lucky enough to be there at the time.
The thing is, Tom was four years older than I was, and that’s a difficult age gap for boys growing up. We had been close as little kids; I was the kind of little brother who followed him around the house, around the neighborhood, everywhere – always under foot – and he was the kind of big brother who indulged that. Naturally, though, we drifted apart as we got older, and, by the time he went to high school in 1972, we were barely speaking.
But after he did some traveling and came home, and after I went away to college and came back that first summer, we were working on that, you know. We were reconnecting as kind-of adults, as almost-men, and music was always our thing. Even in the worst times, we could always connect over rock ’n roll. It was the vehicle that brought us back together over the years; the thing that healed wounds and gave us something to talk about, and to kind of appreciate one another.
Anyway, that’s what rock ’n roll is, I think. It’s a deejay mentioning a record that came out more than 32 years ago, and instantly I’m back in my parents’ living room, sitting there with my older brother who’d drifted apart from me and me from him, but we were coming back, slowly, and we’re sitting there not really saying anything but both getting it, you know, and so we’re communicating maybe more than we had in a long while, and it – sitting there, watching this insanely awesome fucking thing – was part of our coming together a little bit more; and now that he’s dead and gone that means a whole lot to me, more than I can really express.
You know, I don’t believe in a lot of things these days. Maybe that’s a function of age, or maybe that’s a function of being a jackass. But whatever that is? That’s what I believe in.