There have been a few prized moments over the course of rock 'n' roll's first three decades where a band put on shows so inspiring that you not only wondered if the band could get any better, but if rock 'n' roll itself could get any better.
It's a process that began in the '50s with Elvis Presley, who seemed to summarize all that was wonderful about the music and he, indeed, stood as the ultimate . . . until the Beatles enriched rock 'n' roll with an innocence and ambition that became the new standard.
Until Bob Dylan . . . until the Rolling Stones . . . until Jimi Hendrix . . . until Creedence Clearwater Revival . . . until the early David Bowie . . . until Bruce Springsteen . . . until, now, U2.
The Irish rock quartet opened a two-night stand Tuesday at the Coliseum with a masterful performance before a capacity crowd of more than 71,000.
Though the 90-minute concert didn't cover nearly as wide an emotional landscape as Springsteen's nearly four-hour shows at the same stadium two years ago, it was, within its limits, equally captivating. In fact, U2 made the transition from indoor arena to stadium easier than Springsteen.
The latter thrives on a one-on-one intimacy with the audience, sharing dreams and confiding fears in ways that invite the listener to explore his or her own reactions. U2's approach involves creating a sense of community in the audience.
In the seeming effortlessness of the band's moving to a stadium setting, it was easy to miss noticing just how radical a force U2 represents in rock. Without any of the aggressive assault of heavy metal or punk forces, U2 has climbed to the top in rock without even a token nod to such conventions as songs about teen love or reckless rebellion or even a simple party time rave-up. By focusing attention on serious issues about government morality and individual honor, U2 has opened the boundaries of rock in a way that should help shape the music for the rest of the '80s.
As majestic in places as the Who's rich "Who's Next" period, U2's music is fuller than Springsteen's, and Bono Hewson's lyrics, shaped by his own Christian beliefs and largely liberal sociopolitical outlook, weave questions of spiritual and social conscience into deeply moving and universal statements.
U2's music, exquisitely arranged on record, is enriched live by the audience's singing. More than in the simple, celebratory way it might sing along with an old Beatles song like "I Saw Her Standing There" (which was played over the sound system during intermission Tuesday), the crowd sings along along on several numbers with such cleansing passion that it becomes a virtual choir.
Like Springsteen, U2 reaches for art's highest goal by trying to inspire its audience. The difference is that Springsteen, on his best nights, makes you feel good about yourself. U2 makes members of the audience feel good about each other--and its performance gains power the bigger that audience gets.
There will no doubt be nights in this still-young Irish band's career where it reaches even new heights--and rock itself most certainly will continue to evolve, but there was a sense of magic in the Coliseum on Tuesday that will stand among the great shows in Los Angeles rock history.
The crowd was slow to arrive, perhaps held back by the threatening skies. There were occasional sprinkles throughout the early evening, including parts of the opening act--former Sex Pistol guitarist Steve Jones, who invited a volunteer from the audience on stage to sing on his old band's most incendiary tune: "Anarchy in the U.K."
The stadium was about two-thirds full by the time the Pretenders arrived shortly after 8 p.m. for the band's first local appearance since guitarist Johnny Marr, from the Smiths, joined Chrissie Hynde in the group.
In the more than 45 minutes before U2 took the stage, the crowd heard a carefully selected taped salute to rock's early greats, including recordings by Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and ending up with a series of Beatles sing-alongs, including "Twist and Shout" and "All You Need Is Love."
The accumulated energy, however, surged as the lights dimmed and U2 walked on stage in a serious manner that made clear that the band was not--as many groups might in returning on a triumphant tour to a city where they first achieved success in the United States--going to simply come out and celebrate past glories.
Bono Hewson, wearing a cowboy hat and brown leather vest, sang "Where the Streets Have No Name," a statement of determination to battle against disillusionment, with an energy and bite that made the lyrics seem to apply to the band's own radical mission in rock 'n' roll: I want to run/ I want to hide/ I want to tear down the walls/ That hold me inside.