Friday, November 26, 2010

U2 and public lament for Pike River Miners

U2 played in Auckland last night, Thursday 25 November. (For my review of the US leg of the 360 degree tour, go here). It was also a day of national mourning for the loss of life at the Pike River mine, with flags flying at half mast, with multiple church services and bells tolling in memory. (For more of an overveiw of coverage go here)

What would you do if you were a visitor, being paid (loads of) money to entertain the masses on what turns out to be a day of national mourning?

Well, here is the NZ Herald summary of what they did:

U2’s Bono said the band felt privileged to be here especially at a time when hearts were aching and so raw.

Struggling for the right words to convey his condolences for the people of Greymouth, he said: “People deal with grief in all sorts of ways. In Ireland, we sing”.

Bono then launched into “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

The names of the 29 mining victims scrolled across the screen as the band played “One Tree Hill”, a song penned for New Zealander Greg Carroll who was the band’s roadie.

I wasn’t there (my turn Wednesday in Melbourne), and I’d love to hear from those who were at the concert as to how this came across, and what else – visuals, lighting, performance – were added in (You can’t reduce a U2 show to just lyrics and words on a screen).

But some quick comments from the perspective of lament
– Bono’s introduction, with a spare, almost poetic, use of words
– the acknowledgement of multiple ways to grieve
– the link to one’s own tradition “In Ireland, we sign”
– the use of a song to allow people time to breathe
– the naming of names, helping people face reality

U2 and public lament is nothing new. Here is what I wrote in regard to their playing in New York so soon after 9/11. (It is part of a chapter in a book on U2 due for publication next year).

a live concert, and most particularly, a U2 concert, is one of few “public space experience” left in our culture. (Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses, 29.) This is especially so in relation to the 3rd leg of the Elevation Tour, which was played immediately following 9/11 and the Slane Castle concert. Parra noted: “Before the start of leg three, fans had speculated whether U2 would be playing Bullet the Blue Sky again in post- 9/11 America.” (Parra, U2 Live, 259) Can the world-changing events of 9/11 change a song?

While “Bullet the Blue Sky” did not appear in the first concert at South Bend, Indiana, from then on, “things [were to] return to a more familiar order. Bullet is back in the set, but the images of guns and war are no longer projected on the screens. Instead there are more abstract pictures, distortion and ‘snow’.”(Parra, U2 Live, 259) With specific reference to this notion of “communal memory”, Parra summarized this leg of the tour: “What their audience seem to want right now is a sense of community, of togetherness, which is something the band have always been good at delivering – and has been at the core of the Elevation Tour since its conception.” (Parra, U2 Live, 258) With careful attention to sampling, in this case video sampling, a song can change and a public space can be humanized.

U2 took incredible live performance risks on this leg, Again we see the use of samples – including scrolling the names of those killed in 9/11 on video screens and inviting on stage New York firemen. Again we see the use of visual and theatrical samples in the creation of public space through the humanizing of communal memory.

As the audience remembers and weeps, the band is allowing, as Bono sought in the initial writing of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a “shouting at God …. Abandonment and displacement … Honesty, even to the point of anger.” (Bono, Selections from the Book of Psalms)

In sum, the use of sampling is essential in allowing a world to change a song. In so doing, a complex range of factors are being negotiated. It is the creative genius of U2 that allows them not just to perform, but to re-perform, and in a way that allows communal memory to be created, a spiritual exchange to occur, as U2 “go for the heart, without preaching.”

Many similarities between the way U2 publicly process lament in the Elevation tour and now in 2010 after the Pike River Mines. The use of names, the taking of risks, the willingness to lament in public space and engage communal memory.

And for folk trying to get their head (and heart) around the linkages between U2, lament and the song One Tree Hill (which was central to last night) here is another excerpt which I wrote last year:

A number of explicit Biblical references in “One Tree Hill” lend itself to a reading of the song in relation to lament and hope. The subject referred to in the first line of the chorus changes through out the song: the initial “You ran like a river oh, to the sea” becomes, by songs end, “We run like a river to the sea.” This is an articulation of the inevitability of death, as expressed in Ecclesiastes 1:7: “All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the place where they go, the rivers keep on going.”

The song journeys through lament; (We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill; The moon is up over One Tree Hill, We see the sun go down in your eyes) to become a protest not just against one death, but against all death (And in our world a heart of darkness, A fire zone where poets speak their hearts). This is linked with being human and the Cain and Abel narrative in Genesis 4:10 (You know his blood still cries from the ground).

Yet lament is not the last word, for the song ends with the hope of reunion (I’ll see you again). This is not a naive belief that all will be well in this life (I don’t believe in painted roses or bleeding hearts, While bullets rape the night of the merciful). Rather it is an eschatology in which the world is changed at the end of time, (I’ll see you again When the stars fall from the sky, And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill”). It has echoes of Revelation 6:12-13: “Then I watched while he broke open the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; the sun turned as black as dark sackcloth and the whole moon became like blood. The stars in the sky fell to the earth like unripe figs shaken loose from the tree in a strong wind.” Despite the need for lament in the midst of our present darkness, there will be reunion with those we love, and have loved, coupled with judgment on present evil. A message of hope indeed.

Posted by steve at 10:13 AM


  1. great reflections. will be really intersting to hear thoughts of those there (once their ears stop ringing!)

    Comment by lynne — November 26, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  2. The visual korus worked. The link to one tree hill powerful and picked up by most. We were in stand this time and more aware of mix of fans verse concert goers. I wanted to act as translator a bit. I was glad they did words not faces as I was dreading that amount of emotion that has been on newspaper front pages all day. Still hoping pronunciation of greymouth was accent and not miss quote. I not best one to gauge level of emotion given what traveling from chch to ak was like when chch airport was mix of party goers and grievers. They did well with mix of tracks, you knew it was coming but got to party a bit first. Ended with amazing grace in one of encores which was nice link. Hard to mix another current event with other politics. Felt a bit of resentment around, not everyone likes preachy u2! Noticed it was recorded, DVD maybe? You know where to find more Steve

    Comment by Jowall — November 26, 2010 @ 11:23 am

  3. I wasn’t there… but had a look online:

    Comment by Paul — November 26, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  4. I thought the crowd singing along to Still Haven’t Found What I Was Looking For was a magic moment. I looked at my 11 year old who was singing at the top of his voice and the look of wonder he had showed he understood how incredible it was to be part of 50,000 people in such a moving moment! Bono stood back and let the crowd sing and it became our song of grief. One Tree Hill was more a watch and remember and reflect, rather than joining in. The koru’s on the screen reinforced what all kiwis know, this is our song.

    Comment by Jan — November 26, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

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  6. second conert heard from the streets of Greenlane. Seems they repeated most but went into JayZ joining in with Angel of Harlem which was missing the first night.

    Comment by jo wall — November 27, 2010 @ 7:33 am


    Comment by Paul Fromont — November 27, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  8. they also had red and white balloons released one was at the end of one tree hill but i can’t remember which ones. red seemed to go with the aids day and the red zone of course. white with the amnesty international and the white ribbon day which is NZ men against DV.

    Comment by Jo Wall — November 28, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

  9. Hi Steve,

    I was up against the rail of the inner stage, in the circle, and had been handed a red balloon beforehand by the Aus-NZ group, U2 fanz, who offered them to everybody in the circle. It was at the point that Bono sings the refrain ‘runs like a river to the sea’ that everyone let go of the red balloons, and a river of red flew toward and over the stage. Bono did look genuinely touched by the effect/moment (and grabbed a balloon!). The same was repeated again the following night. In the previous song, I Still Haven’t Found, the audience sang the chorus quite exuberantly – although the same can be said for the “oh, oh, oh, oh” at the end of Pride.

    Comment by Deane — December 2, 2010 @ 10:58 am

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