Walk On: The Witness of U2

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Before U2 returned to Nashville last week—thirty years having passed since the last time they performed here—Matthew Perryman Jones decided to get some friends together to play some of their favorite songs from the U2 catalogue, a testimony, of sorts, to the witness of four Irish guys, and a way of saying thanks to the biggest band in the world. Nashville author David Dark got things started by telling the crowd, “I don’t know how to explain myself to myself apart from U2.”

That sentiment was shared by most of the performers—a lineup that also included Sarah Masen (w/ Bulb), Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Thad Cockrell, Mike Farris, Stephen Mason, Kate York, and Griffin House. Each artist told us how they had discovered U2’s music in middle or high school, how their songs assured them that they weren’t alone in the world, and how their horizons had been expanded by the encounter. Matthew Perryman Jones told us about the first time he saw them live, on the Joshua Tree tour, and how he walked out of the arena listening to the people around him in the parking lot still singing the last song, and he thought: “So that’s what music has the power to do.” One by one, before singing a favorite song, each artist bore witness to the work of U2’s music in their lives.

As is to be expected whenever a group of people are deeply moved by a work of art—be it a poem, song, movie, painting, or anything else—there will be others who don’t understand and respond with rolled eyes or mocking comments. When one artist made the claim that he feels like U2 saves his life about every five years, I saw some in the crowd suppressing laughter and looking annoyed by what they considered hyperbole. I felt differently.

As a teenager, I heard people talk about this band called U2. I even heard people say that some of the members were Christians, and that there was something of depth and value in their music. But raised as I was to disdain rock-‘n-roll, it was all laughable because, come on, they used drums and electric guitars, an obvious sign of rebellion against God.

I didn’t come to appreciate the witness of U2 until years later in my early twenties. I met a childhood friend for drinks one afternoon and we spent five hours catching up, trying to explain to each other, and to ourselves, where our journeys had led us and how we were attempting to make sense of life and adulthood. We traded books and CDs over the next couple of years and at some point he gave me a mix CD of his favorite U2 songs. The first song on it was “Walk On,” and he introduced it by telling me about an experience during college, an unspeakably hard time for him. Among other things, his parents were going through a difficult divorce, and he couldn’t always see a reason to keep on going. At the end of each day, he would take a walk around the campus, ending up at the bluff overlooking the city, listening to U2 on his headphones. More than once, he told me, the only reason he didn’t take one more step, the only reason he didn’t give up hope and go over the edge of the cliff, was Bono singing these lyrics:

I know it aches,
And your heart it breaks,
And you can only take so much.
Walk on, walk on.
…Stay safe tonight.

[audio:WalkOn.mp3]

Today, my friend is a good father to two beautiful girls and a loving husband to his wife, at least in part because of the witness of U2. Even if I had not had similar experiences with their music myself, I would still be grateful to them for my friend’s sake.

After the U2 tribute show, I was at home, finishing up work for the evening, and I pulled up U2 in my iTunes and played some of my favorite songs. I listened to “Walk On,” and when it ended I hit play again. Twice. And then I put away my work, turned up the stereo and played it again.

Crawling into bed that night, I picked up the book on my bedside table, Ian Cron’s Chasing Francis, a biography of sorts in which a man documents his spiritual journey through journal entries addressed to St. Francis. I opened the book to the page where I had stopped reading two nights earlier and picked up where I left off. Here’s the first thing I read:

Dear Francis,
A few years ago I went to a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City, just three months after 9/11. Most of us in the arena that night probably knew someone who’d died in the Twin Towers; we’d lost three people in our church alone. I’ll never forget the end of the concert. As the band played the song “Walk On,” the names of all those who had died were projected onto the arena walls and slowly scrolled up over us, and then up toward the ceiling. At that moment the presence of God descended on that room in a way I will never forget. There we were, twenty-five thousand people standing, weeping, and singing with the band. It suddenly became a worship service; we were pushing against the darkness together. I walked out dazed, asking myself, “What on earth just happened?” Of course, it was the music. For a brief moment, the veil between this world and the world to come had been made thin by melody and lyric. If only for a brief few minutes, we were all believers.

If I were to try to describe my experience at the Nashville U2 concert, standing in the inner circle, twenty feet from the stage, Bono at times just six feet away and singing his heart out, I imagine my words would sound a bit like Ian’s. I don’t know how to articulate what it feels like to stand in the middle of 45,000 people as they sing “Walk On” at the top of their lungs, or what it was like to watch as Bono stood back and listened to the crowd singing the first verse and chorus of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” letting the thunder of that multitude of voices wash over him, or how to convey how special it was to hear Bono and The Edge segue into “The Wanderer,” the first live performance of the song they’ve ever done—a song they wrote and recorded with Johnny Cash.

And of course there’s the moment everyone is talking about; after the band took their final bow and was about to walk off stage, Bono noticed a guy holding a sign that read “Blind Guitar Player.” Bono told him to come up on stage, called for his guitar, and hung it around the man’s neck. The blind man wanted to play a song for his wife and started strumming the opening chords to “All I Want Is You” as Bono took the lead vocal. “You say you’ll give me eyes in a moment of blindness,” the lyric goes. At the end of the song, as the guy started to take off the guitar, Bono stopped him and told him to keep it, concluding an unforgettable evening for that man and for the rest of us gathered that night. I walked out of the stadium with my friends, sore and sweaty and tired, but most of all, grateful for the witness of U2.


30 Comments

  1. Chris Yokel

    I too was first introduced to the music of U2 in my early twenties. Their first album that I purchased was “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”, and it still holds a special place in my music collection, and my now expanded U2 collection. It probably does sound weird to some people, but I was ministered to by those songs, and their music opened up whole new possibilities to me at a time when I was starting to get disillusioned with a lot of “Christian” music. Like many other artists, U2 has definitely shaped my own music and art, and still inspires me today.

  2. JWitmer

    Funny… I too was in my early twenties when I was introduced to U2 as anything but another “wicked rock band.” The album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (with Walk On, Grace, When I Look At the World) did more to help us through a job loss and difficult miscarriage than anything but the support of our closest friends. I’ve since grown to appreciate much of their work, but ATYCLB remains my favorite album.

    Planning to see them live for the first time later this month!

  3. Jaclyn

    As one currently in her early twenties, and just now really discovering U2 (though I realize now I’ve always been moved by “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), I’m really grateful for their musical witness.

    I just love this–

    “…we were pushing against the darkness together…”

    “For a brief moment, the veil between this world and the world to come had been made thin by melody and lyric.”

    Thank you so much for posting this!

  4. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I’ve been a U2 fan for most of my life but this show was my first chance to see them live. Like Stephen, I don’t really know what to say except to tell you that it was a massive event in my life. I’ve never heard, seen, or felt anything like it, and I will certainly never forget it.

    I think there’s something absolutely compelling about a band that is not only the most successful and long-lasting act in the world, but who can stand in front of 50,000 people and sing “where were you when they crucified my Lord?” without irony, or satire and still be adored by fans, secular and Christian alike.

  5. Laura Peterson

    U2 in the Rabbit Room. Excellent. I’ve been mostly absent from the RR since I saw them in East Lansing on June 26th, poking around U2 websites instead and checking my local library catalogs for their older albums. I’ve been a casual listener since I was introduced to “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” in high school, but seeing them live for the first time has put me on the track to true fandom, I think. A friend and I grabbed a quick dinner at a tiny pizza place before the show, and before our meal she prayed for the concert and thanked God for the band and its lead singer, “who has been seeking God all his life.” That phrase has stuck with me, and I think it’s an apt descriptor of Bono and the boys- no matter politics or past mistakes or future failings, I really do think they are “pushing against the darkness” with their life’s work, and I am grateful for that earnest example as I try, albeit in less of a rock-star way, to do the same.
    P.S. I just popped over to the U2 website to verify that I had the name of the album right, and who should I see featured in their twitter stream but frequent RR faces Dave Bruno and AE Graham. Woohoo! Fans everywhere!

  6. Troy Lucas

    To be brief…you just described my experience in Baltimore, within the inner circle and within feet of the band that seems to be portraying what could still be right with the world. Thank you so much for this post! And to U2, you are an inspiration!

  7. Jen

    Chris: Me too! Atomic Bomb was my first U2 album. I remember wandering around my college campus between classes, playing those songs over and over. “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” and “City of Blinding Lights” are still so magical to me.

    I was very fortunate to see them on the first leg of the 360 tour in October 2009. They were way at the top of my must-see band list, and, as everyone else has said, there are no words for it other than a beautiful experience. Nothing compares to standing in the middle of a football field with thousands of people singing “Where the Streets Have No Name.” By far one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. (Muse opened, and they were pretty great too. :))

    So wish I could’ve gone to the tribute show in Nashville! Sounds like it was a special night.

  8. JJ

    U2, one of my favorite discussion topics, which doesn’t ever get discussed in my usual circles outside of occasional mocking of whether Bono is a Christian or not and whether a Christian should listen to them.

    But I digress, I wish I could pinpoint exactly when I fell in love with all things U2. I had friends who were long time fans and turned me on to them. It was probably in 95 or 96. I bought Joshua Tree (of course) and a few other older albums and geared up for the release of Pop. Initially I was (if memory serves me right) disappointed, but grew to love that album in the years that followed. I’ve been there on day one for every album since, including all their best of collections even though I had all the CDs with those songs on them (except the B-sides, which I was glad to have).

    While U2 is not on my regular playlist these days (I’m listening now though thanks to this post), and my tastes have gotten significantly heavier in recent years, I can always listen to U2. They always move me. Once I start listening to them I find myself going through all the albums on my iPod looking for my favorite songs and usually end up on a U2 kick for days.

    It’s a dream of mine to see U2 in concert one day. I saw their U2 3D at the Smithsonian in DC a few years back. That was the next best thing to seeing them live. Live will be better though. Hopefully some day.

  9. Erik

    Thanks for this post. I became a fan in the mid 80’s as a 10 year old kid. I saw them in 1992 and again in 2009. The whole stadium singing amazing grace and then “streets” was a worshipful experience. Ironically I blogged about this subject last night. Good to know others “get it”!

  10. James Peach

    It really is strange how people can be so dismissive of what others say about artists who have impacted their lives. You would think that those people who rolled their eyes haven’t had a similar experience with an artist, but I think that most people have that feeling about something, someone. So why are we irritated when people tell us about their own? I don’t get it.

  11. Paul Capps

    One of my most moving moments of communion was taken during a U2charist. The contrast of the robed ministers, the simple cup and bread with the lyrics of Sunday Bloody Sunday, Beautiful Day, Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Walk On and more playing to scenes of God at work in the world on a screen…unforgettable. Try it at your church sometime.

  12. Ashley Elizabeth

    I’d read a lot about U2 concerts (as an aside, buy the book Walk On- it’s fantastic) and as the concert day approached, I was a little afraid I had pumped them up too much in my mind. A worship experience? Really? When the guy behind me keeps spilling beer on me and the couple in front of me keeps making out? (Seriously guy in front of me- she’s going to dump you in a few weeks, so focus on U2) I was afraid I was going to make it into something out of desire and not reality.

    When we began to sing! Oh when we began to sing, my soul had settled the matter. Looking to the Heavens singing about not yet finding it and begging the Lord to give me the grace to keep looking was as close to honest prayer as I had seen in quite a while. To sing Amazing Grace with 50K people all in different places and stages of that grace was pure beauty. To be charged by Sunday Bloody Sunday with the reminder that Freedom has not yet come (temporally) to every place on the Earth pushed me over the edge.

    It was a worship service in the sense that for 2 hours, my soul was pointed to the Almighty of my understanding. It was very real to my soul and I hope I’m not making too light of it’s effects and affects. I have been changed from a night I feared wouldn’t live up to it’s hype. Amazing. Just amazing.

  13. PaulH

    I will never forget my U2 reckoning moment.
    I respected U2 but I had yet to get their music under my skin.
    It was a hot Saturday afternoon in a dusty downtown movie theater with about 3 other people watching ‘Rattle n Hum’.
    I was overwhelmed. I cried for most of the film and could not pinpoint why other than I was overcome with musical emotion.
    I will never forget that day.

  14. Phil Quagliariello

    I have been a U2 junkie since high school in the nineties. I have been to several shows, 2 so far on the 360 Tour, and 2 more yet to come this summer. I have been in the Inner Circle both shows so far, and my first one, in Charlottesville, VA, was nothing short of epic. I have many friends who are not U2 fans, and really, that makes no sense to me. I think people think that there’s no way that U2 can be “Christians” because they occasionally drop the F bomb or are controversial, but I can’t think of any organization, Christian or otherwise, who has done more for the cause of spreading Hope and Love in the world today than U2. If the church today would put it’s money where it’s mouth is and actually reach out to the Hopeless and Oppresses, instead of wasting their money on flat screen TV’s, leather sectionals in their lobbies, and Starbucks in the foyer, maybe they could have a positive impact on the world today. A U2 concert, especially in the Inner Circle, is one of the most incredible examples of community I’ve ever been a part of. Can’t wait for Philly and Pittsburg!!

  15. JJ

    “I think people think that there’s no way that U2 can be “Christians” because they occasionally drop the F bomb or are controversial.”

    I’ve read a few great interviews with Bono over the years (and another one yesterday) where Bono makes an explicit confession of faith. Is his language a little salty? Sure. Does that automatically disqualify him? That’s crazy. I know I’ve said the same words in the privacy of my car while in traffic that he says from a stage. Yet some Christians want to hold him to their picture of what a Christian is supposed to look like and what they think his political affiliation should be. I may disagree with many things Bono believes politically, but he cares more for the poor and downcast than any politician or rock star I’ve ever seen. And isn’t that the heart of the gospel?

    I reread an old interview yesterday from 2005 was where he talked about Grace vs. Karma. The guy sounds like C.S. Lewis when he talks apologetics. Here’s a quote:

    “Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: He was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says, No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: ‘I’m the Messiah.’ I’m saying: ‘I am God incarnate.’ . . . So what you’re left with is either Christ was who He said He was—the Messiah—or a complete nutcase. . . . The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me that’s farfetched.”

  16. Colin W.

    Thanks for a great story. It’s like you have been reading my mind for more than 25 years now – this story is what my heart has been trying to write, explain, about U2. And either you “get it” or you don’t.

    I’ve been 5 feet from Edge on the Vertigo tour, all the way to 6 rows from the top of Sun Life Stadium in Miami last week, and it’s always amazing. It energizes me, recharges me, changes me, finds me, every time.

    I told someone about their concerts, that yes you stand the whole time. Yes, everyone around you is singing every word to every song (OK, so we didn’t know the words to North Star until the second chorus). She commented that at the concert you are there to hear the band, not other people. And that’s just it – I’m there to become the music, to not listen and watch, but to experience, participate, push the music from down in my soul to way up beyond where I can see. It really is an experience like no other.

    My favorite moment, every time, is the opening of Where The Streets Have No Name. Not my favorite song, but hearing it live, the raw energy is overwhelming.

    Every single chance I get to see them I will. I have to.

    P.S. Someone tell them to play Bad live for me already …

  17. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    The Rolling Stone interview from several years back where Bono discussed grace vs. karma was excerpted from the book Bono: in conversation with Michka Assayas. It’s a great read. I highly recommend it.

  18. sevenmiles

    All I could think to add was the latest U2 song to capture me. These words have changed how I approach leading worship. Magnificent.

    “I was born, I was born to sing for you
    I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
    And sing whatever song you wanted me to
    I give you back my voice from the womb
    My first cry, it was a joyful noise, oh, oh

    Only love, only love can leave such a mark
    But only love, only love can heal such a scar
    Justified, till we die you and I will magnify, oh, oh
    Magnificent, magnificent, oh, oh.”

  19. scott d

    I saw them in Lansing, right before the Nashville show. I’m not a “raise your hands and sing it out” kind of guy — ever — but I still haven’t regained my voice. Three friends and I were in awe as we walked to the car after the show, wondering if there was anyone else alive who can do what U2 does. We decided that there isn’t, otherwise they’d be famous for it.

  20. Brad

    The most intriguing thing to me, to hear Bono tell it, is that their goal has always been to be the best rock band they could be. To be the best, to be #1. Their faith has informed and infused their art, but they have essentially just been pouring out into the recordings what has been happening inside of them. It seems that they weren’t trying to create some kind of “spiritual experience” per se, but that has ended up being the result of their being honest in their music. It is that more than anything else that makes their music special. After all, on the music end there is as much of Brian Eno and Danny Lanois as Bono and Edge sometimes. I don’t think I’m expressing this very well, but it is Bono’s ability to stay grounded and be real that endears me to him.

  21. Jim P

    I’m from Chicago and was at the show with Nashville friends and then followed it up with the Chicago show Tuesday night (AIWIY blind guitarist encore then One Tree Hill rare encore, Incredible!).

    This post resonates with me so much. I first learned about U2 from a friend in of all places middle school wood shop class while sanding a part of a clock I was making. They were going on about this new album called “The Joshua Tree” by this group named U2. So I worked some extra chores at home to get the money to buy it on cassette tape. I still have that cassette, worn and tattered with the letters disappearing.

    Their concerts are worship services. Not of the band, but our Lord and Savior. They bring Christ worship to many people who would never set foot inside a church. And may not realize the depth of the words they are singing.

  22. James Peach

    Oh man. Yes. That Michka Assayas book is good. In the preface he talks about scrapping the “follow the band around for a couple of years and write a book about it” idea because Bill Flanagan had completely owned that idea with U2 at the End of the World.

    Lemme tell you something.

    BILL FLANAGAN COMPLETELY OWNED THAT IDEA WITH U2 AT THE END OF THE END OF THE WORLD. It’s incredible. Read it. Who wants to borrow it?

  23. Jessica Thomas

    Very cool. Interestingly, I put a post up about U2 today. I admit to being a little hard on Bono. I lost track of U2 during their marketing glitz phase after the Joshua Tree album. Perhaps in error, I have not purchased any of their music since, although I have heard and appreciated that Bono is a Christian, and it’s fun to listen to their older stuff and hear the subtle Christian messages in the lyrics that I’d never noticed.

    I really love their older stuff, but perhaps I should give some of their newer stuff a try.

    I stand by my statement in my blog post that I think Bono is one of the best vocalists of alive. He is not a “perfect” singer, but wow, does he ever have an amazing ability to pour his soul out while he’s singing, and he’s fearless about it. That’s a true gift. As a singer myself, who can’t rip though my vocal chords like that, I really appreciate his abilities.

  24. Chris J

    Saw the show in East Lansing as well. Everything I had hoped for and more. I’d never been to a U2 concert previously and was in awe for 2 plus hours of how great they are live. One thing that my friends and I walked away feeling though was that it was more than just a concert. It was an “event”. So glad we forked out the big bucks to witness it.

  25. Thomas McKenzie

    @thomas

    I was at the Nashville show. It was amazing, one of the coolest things I’ve ever been to. Glad that you all are resonating with my favorite band.

  26. Scott Swartz

    I went to the Chicago show, and let me tell you, singing with 60,000 others the words “I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields only to be with you…but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” is one of the most spiritual moments of my life. In those moments, we were in church.

  27. Beth Brendle

    I was at the Philadelphia show 2 months after the events of Sept 11…I felt comforted, ministered to, part of a community of grief and worship like I hadn’t felt in any church. I had been interested in U2 and liked their songs since high school in the 80’s when they first got big in America, but from then on U2 became much more to me. I’ll never, ever forget belting out “in the name of love!” with eleventy jillion people while lights flooded the audience. God bless those Irish boys.

  28. Chris Donato

    It was 1988. I walked into the movie theater wrapped in tight jeans and a Metallica t-shirt, with hair down to the middle of my back, unconvinced. I left a believer.

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