I know it’s fashionable to claim a lifetime hatred for U2, but let’s be honest: If everyone always hated them how did they take over the world?
Beyond that simple mathematical fact, I’ve confessed to a childhood fondness for Barry Manilow and shared with you some pretty squirrelly albums from my personal stacks. Is admitting to a one-time U2 affection really going to damage my credibility at this point?
Boy, October, and War had some really great moments. I also had a tape I made of b-sides a regular customer brought me after a trip to Ireland. The Unforgettable Fire was great with a couple of exceptions, too.
The loathsome, despicable beast known as U2 didn’t come along until The Joshua Tree. If you like that album then go in peace, I mean you no harm. To my ear, though, it was a cloying, pretentious, manipulative, contrived, disappointment. That’s when U2 and I broke up, though we had a one-nighter five years later when Achtung Baby came along. I still think that one is their all around best album.
Back in 1985 I was in the throes of Unforgettable Fire ecstasy, unencumbered by the knowledge that two years hence Bono would disappear up his own ass. That U2 was coming to the Omni was big news. Atlanta was only a three-hour drive — not bad for a concert, but a bit of a haul just to pick up a ticket. Somebody told me that I could order one over the phone, if only I had a credit card. Reluctantly I went to my father for help.
“No,” he said.
“Because it’s my money.”
“I’ll pay you. I just need a credit card to –”
“No. How do I know you’ll pay me back?”
“I’ll give you the money right now.”
“I said no. It’s my credit rating you’re risking.”
Diplomatic relations between my father and me had broken down completely in the wake of what history coloring books might someday call “The Faggoty Lobster Incident.” Messages now came through my mother — directly asking him to broker a concert ticket was a breach of protocol.
Of all the disappointments in my father’s life I was his greatest. We shared a name, and until I was eight a haircut. I was born to be the fighter pilot he never would be, and when I rejected that he decided I would be the engineer that he was.
But I wasn’t. I was left-handed and my brain was broken. In other words, I was damned to be blessed to be an artist. After the favorable review of my portfolio I decided I was going to the Savannah College of Art and Design. My father’s message via my mother: “Go to an engineering school never pay a penny, go to art school and never get a penny.” I enrolled at SCAD anyway, and my mother started squirreling away money to help me.
Anyway, U2. This promised to be the last great outing of high school, if only I could figure out how to get a ticket. Help came from Hal the Drummer’s best buddy Eric, whose parents were more flexible with their credit cards. We pooled our cash and Eric took care of business, and a few short weeks later Hal and I took off for Atlanta in his mini-pickup with the tape deck blaring.
Atlanta was in the midst of major road construction back then: towering pilings supported air, overpasses suddenly vanished halfway above whatever they were passing over. “Jesus Christ,” Hal said. “It looks like some sort of Kubrick dystopia.” We drove through downtown, marveling at the enormous buildings and looking for the Omni.
“Check it out – The Varsity,” I said, pointing to Atlanta’s version of The Beacon Drive-In. Okay, maybe The Varsity was the bigger and better known drive-in, but The Beacon was ours and we were proud of it. There isn’t much in Spartanburg to be proud of: even the peach-shaped water tower is actually in Gaffney. We had the local steakhouse with the chair that Elvis sat in and the Beacon.
It was a working drive-in restaurant, unlike Sugar -N- Spice, which cut out the curbside service long ago. If you want a good souvlaki hit the Sugar -N- Spice. If you want an experience, go to The Beacon.
The restaurant is an ass ugly rectangle with a huge parking lot befitting a drive-in, but bags of onions piled on the patio add some charm. These are used for onion rings, which rarely arrive ring-shaped. No, the poor little bastards land on the plate looking like they’ve been through a chipper shredder twice: once when breaded, and again after emerging from the deep fryer.
The Beacon serves a lot of onion rings, most frequently as part of the famous chili cheese-a-plenty. The dish is sort of like a chili burger’s bastard child with Sloppy Joe, topped with an approximation of cheese and then inhumed beneath a pile of french fries and onion ring-like things. The whole thing is a hideous, disgusting mess, but it is unique to Spartanburg and thus is the town’s unofficial signature dish. Should I stumble across someone from my childhood nothing would establish my Upstate bona fides like the expressed desire for a “chili cheese wif” (i.e., “wif” fries and rangs).
Of course, you have to top off your chili cheese-a-plenty with a sweet tea and a dish of ice cream sprinkled with rainbow-colored statins.
When not dining at the curb one orders cafeteria style at The Beacon, and for decades a man named J.C. presided over the line. His job was twofold: 1) Shout the customers’ orders to the kitchen staff standing five feet behind him; and 2) Keep the line moving. The Beacon is a busy place, so J.C. herded the cattle/customers to the troughs quickly. If one hesitated when it was time to order, J.C. demanded that he “step out of line, step out of line.” But order perfectly and one was rewarded with his sonorous shout of “chili cheese a plentayyyyy,” or its truncated alternate, “chile cheese wif!”
J.C. and his sayings are stitched so deeply into the fabric of The Beacon that he appears on signs hung throughout the restaurant: “J.C. says let’s talk and walk!”
But when The Beacon really comes alive is Saturday nights. I don’t know what it’s like these days, but I imagine it’s much the same: the big parking lot packed with kids sneaking beers and copping feels. The biggest change is probably that the Camaros have been replaced with Accords, and the Van Halen blaring from the cruisers’ windows is Tyler the Creator or some such.
Or maybe it’s still Van Halen. The South is all about tradition, after all, and there is no greater Southern tradition than church, which is what the big parking lot was dedicated to on Sunday mornings. Once the Camaros cleared out and the last Bud can was picked up, the family Buicks rolled in for some drive-in preachin’.
So suck it, Varsity Drive-In. Hal and I hail from the land o’ the chili cheese-a-plenty. Besides, we had a concert to get to, so we puttered along in his little truck until we finally arrived at the Omni.
“Cavernous” seems too small a word for describing the Omni, and “zeppelin hangar” seems too clever. In my six short years of concert attendance I doubt I’d seen an audience bigger than five thousand, but the Omni held a good 17k. Our seats were so far up that we were led to them by sherpas. The floor seats were full, but Hal and I were alone in the back forty.
Almost. Several rows down sat two girls who looked about our age. “Let’s go talk to them,” I said. “Then when the show starts we’ll be, like, eight rows closer.” We made our way down to where they were seated and chatted them up. Apparently we did okay, as before the Red Rockers’ opening set was over we had our arms around our new girlfriends’ waists.
U2 hit the stage, one inch tall from our vantage point in the next county. Bono wore a pirate shirt or a white blouse or something like that so that we could see him from the back row, but we didn’t really care. Both Hal and I were too busy trying to navigate the risky transition from arms around waists to hands in back pockets.
“Does anybody here know how to play guitar?” Bono asked, and the audience screamed. Security helped some lucky bastard onto the stage, where a roadie strapped a guitar on him and The Edge told him what to do. “Play an A minor and wear a hat,” he said. Probably. Larry Mullen, Jr. kicked off the song, and the lucky bastard from the crowd had a “naked at the chalkboard” moment. He had no idea how to play guitar. Or wear a hat.
“Does anybody out there really know how to play guitar?” majestic but approachable rock god Bono hollered again, and the crowd screamed. “Seriously, people, don’t fuck with me. My leather trousers are chafing. Can I get some fookin baby powder?”
Security brought up the next victim, The Edge showed him all three chords that he knew, and Larry Mullen counted off the song again. This guy could play, and the crowd cheered the iconic concert moment while two among them slid their hands into strange girls’ Levis pockets. U2 – you, too. Suddenly it all made sense: Bono, Edge, Adam, and Larry weren’t the band – we all were.
They played “New Year’s Day,” too, and I thought about Sherri while I felt up my ad hoc date. I will be with you again. The highlight of the night was “Bad.” Bono plucked a girl from the audience and danced with her like Bruce dancing in the dark with an original equipment Courtney Cox.
At 17,000 seats The Omni wasn’t a huge venue, but it was huge to me. A few months later U2 played for an audience of 72,000 at Live Aid, and Bono pulled the “Bad” trick again. It was much harder at Wembley, what with the stage elevated a good ten feet and a DMZ separating the performers from the front row. People still talk about what a magical moment that was, and I still feel like an asshole for falling for that shit at the Omni. You, too – U2. Suddenly it all made sense: A spy plane flying 50,000 feet above us common people, but with a noble purpose concealing its sneaky subterfuge.
The house lights came up and our new girlfriends whispered and giggled. One finally asked, “Do y’all want to go to The Varsity with us?”
“Hell yeah,” I said.
“I love The Varsity,” Hal The Drummer added.
We paired off, got into the girls’ car and cranked the radio. Sade’s “Smooth Operator” slinked from the speakers, and the girls launched into their well-rehearsed “Smooth Masturbator” parody. Hal and I laughed because they had breasts and we wanted access.
The Varsity was bright, loud and crowded. That’s the best I can do. Those details are stored in my lizard brain alongside “fire hot” and “bear scary.” I wasn’t conscious of “bright, loud and crowded” as a problem until twenty-five years later when I mistakenly visited a shopping mall during Christmas season. In less than a minute the lights were too bright, the din too loud, and the crush of humanity overwhelming. Suddenly I had 1-2-3-4-5 senses working overtime, and I was sure that I wasn’t getting out of that mall alive.
I didn’t feel any of that at The Varsity, yet those sensory details are all I remember about the joint. From humble acorns grow batshit crazy oaks.
We spent the next couple of hours driving around in the girls’ car, taking turns making out in the back seat and praying that no radio song would inspire another wacky song parody that might kill the mood.
On the way back to Boiling Springs I fell asleep stretched on the bench seat of Hal’s mini-pickup, the top of my head nuzzling his thigh. As last great outings of childhood go I could not have done any better.