Achtung Grandpa: Growing up and getting old with or without U2.


There was a piece in The Guardian today from a fashion designer advising what not to wear if you’re a man over 50.

Crossing over to the wrong side of a half-centenary turns out to be a pivotal junction: you are forced to make decisions on what you should not, as opposed to should, be wearing. A lot of men entering their 50s fall into one of two camps (with a minority bridging the divide): those who have given up, and those who don’t know when to give it up, with the old me falling uncomfortably into the latter. I get that now.

As Diana might ruefully note, I’m 58 and blissfully immune to fashion advice of almost all types. However the headline still spoke to me, slightly repurposed: “What music to keep quiet about liking if you are over 50.”

Just last week over morning coffee she heard me utter a stunning concession. At long last, I’d accepted U2’s irrelevance in terms of new music in larger context. The band has been and will remain a great personal favorite, and in the wider cosmos perhaps second only to the more venerable Rolling Stones as a lucrative heritage act — but that’s still a back-catalog-driven phenomenon.

“Pride (In the Name of Love)” just isn’t going to happen again. Ever.

Simple human chronology isn’t the only factor in this development. Those of us over 50 periodically have trouble understanding that the world has moved on from the heyday of rock and pop acts heard everywhere from Tulsa to Tbilisi. Almost no one under the age of 50 listens to music in the same way as we do, just as my youthful Black Sabbath ears were tuned differently than my dad’s Glenn Miller-tinged memories.

Songcraft is digitalized and hip hop rules. U2 itself is complicit in the confusion, recently trying so hard to remain cutting edge via bells, whistles and production gimmicks that in effect its best songs on the past two albums have been neutered, sabotaged from within.

The point? It cannot matter, since none of them could possibly be “With or Without You” in today’s world.

Regular readers know that I mightily resist the temptation to settle comfortably in a classic rock format, and yet they also recall how important U2 has been to me over the years. It’s not so much being a fan of the music as watching with ongoing fascination these four Irish guys almost exactly my age navigating a career, one that includes lofty achievements and plenty of missteps and screw-ups … just like any of us.

As one fully capable of matching Bono for pretentiousness, it’s funny. Mentioning the 10th anniversary of Bank Street Brewhouse was a painful reminder that NABC’s 2009 downtown expansion was supposed to have been an album like U2’s Achtung Baby — and for me the experience turned out to be more like Oasis’ Be Here Now, with craft beer substituted for cocaine.

(Or maybe the movie Heaven’s Gate, to mix metaphors.)

At least U2 didn’t break up, or have a member leave; new music is a probability, and another megabuck tour. Maybe the group will hire a producer like Rick Rubin and go back to the roots. Accordingly, now that I’m happily employed playing rhythm guitar for my new band, perhaps one of these days enough time will have elapsed for me to fully comprehend the way BSB was tantamount to a nervous breakdown.

Thus we arrive at a nostalgic detour. My favorite period of U2 was Achtung Baby and the subsequent Zoo TV tour. This 2011 review of the “deluxe” edition is a good place to start

This 2011 documentary explains the reinvention. 

This full concert from Glastonbury in 2011 shows how the band chose to present itself 20 years on from Achtung Baby.

I try to avoid these detours, but they’ll happen … perhaps with age, more frequently.