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Two Decades of U2
The Story Behind The Exhibit

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U2 Curatorial Column


In the Name of Love: Two Decades of U2, the new exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum, had its genesis about 23 years ago. Back then, in 1980, I was the Los Angeles bureau chief for Rolling Stone magazine. I was also an avid buyer of import singles. Every week, Id trek off to the record stores in search of new singles, primarily from the U.K.

One time I came across a single called 11 OClock Tick Tock. It was by an Irish group called U2. Id read about them in the British music press, so I bought a copy. I loved it. A little while later, I picked up another U2 single called I Will Follow. It was even better.

Back in those days, when record companies had lots of money to throw around, it was common for them to offer to fly journalists to see bands. One day I got a call from a friend of mine at Warner Bros. Records. The call was about U2. Warner Bros. had a distribution deal with Island Records, the company that had signed U2. The band was playing two gigs in London, and the record company wanted to know if I would like to go see them. No strings attached. If I didnt like them, I didnt have to write a story.

It was around Thanksgiving, so I figured I could use my holidays and go check them out. At the time, U2 was based in a London apartment, while they ventured out for a series of gigs around England. The day I arrived, their PR guy from Island invited me over to meet the band. I was immediately taken by how genuine and polite Bono, Adam, Larry and the Edge were.

At the time, which was early on in my career at Rolling Stone, I was covering a lot of punk and New Wave bands, and, for the most part, they all reeked of attitude. Either they wanted to shock you with how weird they were, or they were totally obnoxious. The members of U2, on the other hand, werent trying to impress or shock.

It turned out that the band was playing a show in Coventry, England, the next night, and they invited me to tag along. The date was November 24, 1980, and we headed out in a van from London to Coventry. It was just the four band members and their road manager, who served as the driver.

Looking back, its funny to think how young the members of U2 were at the time some of them were still teenagers. Bono and Adam were both 20; Larry and the Edge were 19. As we drove along, we discussed music I remember the Edge going on about Tom Verlaine and Television and talked about religion, politics and the weather. Occasionally, when things got boring, theyd pull out a Bible and read.

The Coventry gig, at the Polytechnic, was akin to seeing a band in a high-school gymnasium: crappy acoustics, crummy environment . Even so, it immediately became clear that U2 was special. It didnt matter where the concert was taking place. Their sheer power and passion, coupled with Bonos ability to break down the barrier between the stage and the audience, completely knocked me out. I thought they were amazing.

Two days later, I saw the band at Londons legendary Marquee club, and they were even more impressive. By the time I returned to Los Angeles, I was converted I thought U2 was one of the best bands I had seen in a long time.

Part of what appealed to me about U2 was that they were different from almost every other band that was around at the time. They were not great musicians. Like many bands of that era, they were inspired by the punk movement, and by the belief that you did not have to be a virtuoso musician to form a rock band. But unlike many of the punk bands, U2 were not nihilists; they didnt want to destroy the world. They were optimistic, they were honest, and they were passionate about rock and roll. In many ways they were the perfect blend of the punk bands like the Clash and the great rock stars of the Sixties, like Bob Dylan and John Lennon. They believed that music mattered, and that through your music, you could touch peoples lives. They had also set their sights high: in that first interview, inside the van on the way to Coventry, Bono told me that they wanted to be one of the great bands, in the tradition of the Stones, the Beatles or the Who.

Rolling Stone ran my story with a headline that read, U2: Here Comes the Next Big Thing. I dont think any of us at the magazine knew how accurate that prediction would be. I stayed in touch with the band, and I was present for their first American show, on December 6, 1980, at the Ritz in New York. I caught them a couple of times the next year, once again at the Ritz and at a Los Angeles bar called the Country Club. Though I was a little disappointed when October came out, I thought they were turning into a terrific live band. Then, when they released War, in March 1983, I thought they were finally delivering on the promise I had seen a year and a half earlier in England.

By this point, I was the music editor of Rolling Stone, so I assigned myself the task of doing another story on the band. I once again caught up with them in the U.K. and accompanied them to a string of shows in London, Glasgow and Liverpool. I returned to write a fairly lengthy feature story in Rolling Stone, and I began talking them up around the office. I thought they deserved to be on the cover on the basis of their music alone. But as any magazine editor knows, the cover is what sells an issue, and Jann Wenner, Rolling Stones editor and publisher, didnt think U2 was recognizable enough to sell enough issues. So the story wound up inside.

Meanwhile, I had started corresponding with Bono. We would send each other books and tapes of music we liked. It turned out that one of the books I sent him would influence their next recording. When The Unforgettable Fire was released, I continued my campaign to get them on the cover of Rolling Stone. Somewere in my attic I have a whole slew of memos to Jann Wenner advocating that U2 be on the cover. In March 1985, he finally relented, and the band made its first appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone. The cover headline read: U2: Our Choice Band of the Eighties. The next five years would prove us right.

It wasnt until two years later, with The Joshua Tree, that U2 became one of the biggest bands in the world. To many people, they were a new band. But the reality is that they had already been together for a decade. They had paid their dues, and they had taken the long road to success. Then, at the end of the decade, it seemed as if things might fall apart. At a show in Dublin in December 1989, Bono announced that U2 had to, in his words, go away, and just dream it all up again.

I, like others, worried that the band might split apart. But out of that tension came one of my favorite U2 albums, Achtung Baby. I can still remember when U2s longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, came to New York in the fall of 1991 with an advance tape of the album. I met him at his hotel room, and he played the entire record for me. It was stunning. And I was particularly taken by the song One. To this day it is one of my absolute favorite U2 songs.

I managed to catch several shows of the subsequent Zoo TV tour, but this period would mark the end of my relationship with U2 as a Rolling Stone journalist. I decided it was time for me to move on, and I took a job as vice president of product development at Elektra Records. (The person who hired me, appropriately enough, was Ellen Darst, who had long been U2s U.S. management rep.) But within a year, I would again change jobs and our paths would cross again.

In January 1994, I was hired as the Chief Curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The Museum was scheduled to open in less than two years and, at the time, there were precious few artifacts that were worthy of exhibiting. It fell to me to acquire enough historically important pieces so that the Museum would be respectable when it opened in September 1995.

One of the first groups I contacted was U2. Everybody in their organization told me I had to talk to Larry Mullen Jr., who had been squirreling away bits and pieces related to the bands history since day one. So Larry and I met for lunch in New York. First, he said he was worried that a U2 exhibit might make it look as if the band was trying to promote itself. He wanted to make sure that wouldnt happen. Finally, we hit on the idea of doing an exhibit that focused on U2s early years, from its formation to the War album, the logic being that many of the groups fans would not be as familiar with that period.

I arranged a trip to Dublin, where I met up with Larry at his house. He took me next door, to another house that was filled with cardboard boxes. Nothing was organized, but it was clearly a treasure trove. In digging through the boxes, we uncovered a early bio of the band, when it was still called the Hype and when Adam Clayton was acting as manager. We also found a ticket to a Hype show and a poster advertising an early show at which the band was billed as The U2s. Among the more intriguing items were rejection letters from two record companies, Arista and RSO. The RSO letter was addressed to Mr. P. Hewson, and it informed him that the demo tape he had sent to the label was not suitable for us at present.

Other gems included a birthday note, written to Larry by the other band members, as well as manager Paul McGuinness and producer Steve Lillywhite; Bonos first guitar; the first U2 T-shirt, silk-screened by Larry in a school art class; Bonos handwritten lyrics to The Ocean; and the trophy the group won at the 1978 Limerick Civic Week battle of the bands. Larry agreed to loan all of those items, plus several others, to the Museum, and we created a small exhibit devoted to U2s early years.

One of my other goals as curator was to make the Museum more lively and colorful. Architect I.M. Pei had designed a beautiful building, but it was awfully sterile. I thought that stage props might liven the place up a little, and, as it turned out, U2 was looking for a home for the Trabants from the Zoo TV tour. They put me in touch with Willie Williams, their set designer, and he created an installation featuring four cars and the Zoo TV sign. At first, Mr. Pei was not too happy about the display; in fact, his exact words were, You are trying to make a junkyard out of this museum. In the end, though, he enjoyed the installation, which greets visitors as they enter the front door of the Museum. 

A few years later, in 1999, the Hall of Fame co-curated an exhibit, Rock Style, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibit featured the greatest rock and roll outfits from the Fifties to the Nineties. Everything from the Beatles Sgt. Pepper uniforms to Elvis Presleys jumpsuits. By this point, U2 had done both the Zoo TV and PopMart tours. I thought it would be great if we could include Bonos costumes from those two tours. I contacted the group once again, and, with the help of their wardrobe master, Fintan Fitzgerald, we acquired five of Bonos costumes: the Fly, MacPhisto and Mirrorball Man from Zoo TV, and the Bubble Man and the Lopsided Man from PopMart.

But it wasnt until May of 2001, when U2 came to Cleveland for the Elevation tour, that the group actually saw the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The day after their show at the Gund Arena, the group and its entourage came by for a special tour, and they loved what they saw. They also said that they would like to contribute more to the Hall of Fame.

With that message in hand, I proceeded to contact the band through their office in Dublin. I sent faxes and e-mails for the next several months, but I heard little in return. Then, about a year after their visit, in May 2002, I got an e-mail from one of the people at Principle. She said that the group was interested in doing a larger exhibit at the Hall of Fame and she suggested that I send a wish list of items that we would want.

I was already a big fan of the band, as were several of my staffers -- Amanda Gittins, Jenny Williams, Meredith Rutledge and Jackie Clary. So we sat down and drew up our ideal wish list of U2 artifacts. I sent the list off to Principle, and a few days later, I got an e-mail message back saying that the band had virtually all of the things we had requested.

Having been at the Hall of Fame for almost 10 years, I have to say that this almost never happens. We always send wish lists to artists, and we are lucky if we get a handful of the things we ask for. The band assigned Fintan Fitzgerald the task of pulling everything together. Among the things that Fintan sent us were Larrys first drum set, his Hitman outfit from PopMart, Adams Poptart outfit from the same tour, the four Zoo Station uniforms from the Lemon video, Adam and Larrys Evil U2 outfits from the Elevation video, and the Edges No.7 outfit from the Elevation tour. He also sent us the Stars and Stripes jacket that Bono wore at the 2002 Super Bowl and on the cover of Time magazine, as well as the green Gretsch guitar that Bono played at the Super Bowl, Edges Fender Stratocaster from Rattle and Hum, and Adams yellow bass from the PopMart.

It was a terrific beginning, but I felt that a U2 exhibit had to include more than just colorful costumes and instruments. I decided to contact Ned OHanlon and Maurice Linnane, of Dublins Dreamchaser Productions. Ned and Maurice have done a lot of video work for U2; they also produced the last few Hall of Fame induction dinners, and they are responsible for the fabulous multimedia presentation about our inductees in the Hall of Fame wing. I called and asked if they had anything they could loan. They said they had the animation cels from the Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me video from the Batman Forever soundtrack. Ned also had Salman Rushdies handwritten lyrics to The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

But even more important than that, Ned and Maurice told me about Steve Iredale, U2s longtime production manager. According to them, whatever Larry didnt have, Steve did. So I contacted Steve, and he told me about some of the items he had picked up in his nearly 20 years with U2: Bonos handwritten lyrics to Out of Control, Bad and When Love Comes to Town. A note from Bono to B.B. King about the latter song. Newspaper clippings from the bands appearance in Sarajevo. Obviously, he, like Larry, was a pack rat and a key to the exhibit. I made plans to visit him in Dublin in November 2002, during my Thanksgiving vacation. I also got in touch with Susan Hunter, Paul McGuinnesss assistant. Susan helped us acquire various tour-related materials from Paul and from the groups longtime road manager, Dennis Sheehan. She also helped us get two more Bono manuscripts: his rewrite of New York, changed after the September 11 terrorist attack, and his lyrics to Stay. Then I contacted Ellen Darst. She had various items related to U2s early tours of the States during the Eighties. Finally, as word leaked out over the Internet about our exhibit, numerous U2 fans began contacting the Hall of Fame about their collections.

In the end, the exhibit was a collaboration between the band members, the people who work with them (management, Dreamchaser, etc.), and their fans. Many members of my staff even contributed items from their personal collections. And producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno were also very generous.

Because of this collaborative effort, we have been able to present what I consider to be the most comprehensive exhibit the Hall of Fame has ever mounted on one artist. The U2 exhibit covers three floors of the Museum and is presented chronologically: the first floor of the exhibit features Anton Corbijns photos of the group; the second floor features artifacts that cover the groups history from its beginning through Rattle and Hum; and the third floor presents U2 from the Nineties to the present. 

In the end, this is a massive exhibit about a massive group, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is honored to present the bands amazing history to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the Museum each year.