Nineteen years ago, the first time I saw U2 live at New York's Yankee Stadium, I stood in anticipation, practically quaking with excitement. Last week, as the summer light faded and nearly 70,000 people waited for the band to take the stage at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, I took full advantage of my assigned seat and hoped I'd be able to stay awake all evening.
To help kill time before the concert began, I stared at the giant screen suspended at the center of the band's 167-foot-high, spaceship-like stage as it displayed the time in dozens of cities throughout the world — including Tel Aviv.
U2's lead singer, Bono — one of the world's most politically influential celebrities — likes to challenge his audience to think in global terms. The time zones provided a small clue to the direction of the show.
The two-hour set contained references to Burmese dissident Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, the effort to combat poverty and disease in Africa — a cause for which Bono won the 2007 Liberty Medal from Philadelphia's National Constitution Center — and the exuberance and bloodshed that has marked the so-called Arab spring.
Beyond the visual of the Tel Aviv time, Israel got a public nod from the 51-year-old front man, who pointed out a fan's sign referring to the Jewish state. They've "come all the way from Israel," Bono surmised.
With so many rockers heaping vitriol on Israel, was Bono's utterance a throwaway line or an endorsement? In other words, did the absence of a negative suggest something positive?
I must confess that I'm a huge fan. I first saw the band at a time when the music I listened to helped define me, and U2's lyrics captured a sense that all things were possible. Then, in October 2001 at Madison Square Garden, I watched the group hit all the right notes — and serve up a reminder that the best performers can create connections — at a time when New York City still had a gaping, open wound.
But these are trying times for rock lovers who also happen to love the state of Israel and are sick of listening to so many performers compare it to South Africa's apartheid era.
In the past year or so, too many artists occupying space on my iPod have canceled performances in Israel because of pressure from pro-Palestinian groups. Take Elvis Costello, and Santana. And then there's Roger Waters, founding member of Pink Floyd who's expressed his full support for the Boycotts, Sanctions and Divestments movement and placed blame for the conflict squarely on Israel.
Back in June, Coldplay set up a Facebook link for a song called "Freedom for Palestine" that depicted Israeli checkpoints. Back in January, Macy Gray (who's not on my iPod, I should add) asked her fans to decide whether or not she should cancel her show in Israel. In the end, she performed there as planned.
So here's the 21st century conundrum: Should I delete these artists from my playlist? Would that make a difference?
The world of Facebook and Twitter has made it possible to send a message to artists, as happened in Gray's case. But despite our global connectedness, there's still a distance between artist and audience. Does Dave Matthews actually look at his Twitter feed?
Bono has commented on countless issues throughout the years, but a Google search shows that his comments on Israel are pretty sparse.
Two years ago, performing at pre-inaugural festivities for President Barack Obama, he told the audience that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream isn't just American but is also "an Israeli dream, a Palestinian dream."
In 2005, Bono told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that he was keeping mum on the invasion of Iraq — even though he opposed the war — because he didn't want to alienate George W. Bush's administration, which he was working with to bring medical aid to Africa. Perhaps Bono takes a similar approach to Israel and doesn't want controversy to impede his charitable work.
Or maybe the lyricist who gained fame writing about never-ending violence in Northern Ireland understands the complexities of seemingly intractable conflicts, and is loath to place blame. Bono may not be an advocate, but he hasn't jumped on the Israel-is-an-apartheid-state bandwagon. For a rock-'n'-roll fan whose life has been enriched by Israel — and by U2 — that's something.
It's apparently been 14 years since the band last played Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park. Would it be too much to ask the group — whose songs contain biblical references — to once again bring its sonic delights to Israel? Wouldn't that send a powerful message, not only to Israelis but to people across the globe?
Maybe it's time for a Facebook campaign.