All That You Can't Leave Behind

They were hobbits. They were pot smokers. In 1981, they were just kids called U2.

At some point during U2's concert at the Target Center Friday night, Bono will talk about the first time the band played the host city, as he has at almost every stop on this "Vertigo" world tour. He will invoke the words "First Avenue" (or "Uncle Sam's," as it was) and, in doing so, remind himself and all gathered that U2 may have started in drummer Larry Mullen's cramped kitchen in Dublin, but their roots are in tiny clubs all over the planet.

It was April 9, 1981. U2's first record, Boy, had been released the previous year. I had read about it in New Musical Express and ordered it from Ryan at Hot Licks on Hennepin Avenue--now a parking lot. The day the import-only vinyl arrived, Chico brought it out from behind the counter, looked at the photo of the wide-eyed child on the cover and said, "Cool cover, man. Who are these guys?"

After posing for this photo at First Avenue/Uncle Sam's, U2 returned home to play at their junior high graduation ceremony
Greg Helgeson
After posing for this photo at First Avenue/Uncle Sam's, U2 returned home to play at their junior high graduation ceremony

I only had a vague idea. Bands were sprouting up everywhere and everyone was inspiring and competing with everyone else. U2 was "one of us, just like us," according to Man Sized Action drummer Tony Pucci, who was working stage crew that night. "We were young punks in bands, too. I told Larry, 'Hey, man, I'm a drummer, too,' and he let me hit his drums. They were just another bunch of guys going through town."

When U2 hit Minneapolis, some lumped them in with the so-called New Romantics, along with the likes of the Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen--albeit with a powerhouse single in their holsters, "I Will Follow."

Matt Wilson was the 16-year-old drummer for U2's local opening band, the Panic. The future Trip Shakespeare leader and his mates spent the month before the show reading about U2 in Rolling Stone, listening to Boy, and getting pumped to play in front of their new heroes from across the pond.

"We hadn't been around very long, and we were so excited to play for these guys. We envisioned them standing there, taking in every note," recalls Wilson. "We played this incredible set, even faster than we usually played. We were sweating when we were done; it was like the show of our lives. And then we watched them walk in through the back door next to the stage as we were tearing down our stuff. It was crushing."

Former Sam's/First Avenue booker Chrissie Dunlap recalls that tickets were "probably 10 dollars" (top-end tickets for the sold-out Target Center show go for $160) and most who were there agree that no more than 500 people were in attendance.

As for the show itself, former Hüsker Dü and Sugar leader Bob Mould recalls that "they didn't have enough material, so they did 'I Will Follow' twice." Wilson recalls, "I don't think I'd ever seen that much concentrated dry ice before. I just remember them moving in and out of the mist, and there was this sort of sense of a religious happening."

U2 was on the second leg of their Boy tour, which took them to clubs such as the Paradise (Boston), the Ritz (New York City), Park West (Chicago), Merlyn's (Madison), and Ol' Man River's (New Orleans). Longtime Sam's/First Avenue DJ Roy Freedom recalls, "They asked me and [fellow DJ] Kevin [Cole] to come back to the dressing room, because they hadn't met any American kids on their tour. I think they thought this was going to be their only shot in America. We smoked pot with 'em and talked about music and had a good time."

"They were like the nicest Catholic school boys you could meet," recalls Wilson. "They talked about chess; they were really into chess. They gave us their beer. They didn't drink."

While the Beatles' visit to Minneapolis in 1965 was thoroughly documented, U2's exact itinerary 25 years ago is only hazily remembered. Legend has it that the band pulled into town the day before the show and rehearsed--an account that varies significantly from the scenario of Friday's reported fly-in, fly-out timetable. Longtime U2 watchers contend that much of their sophomore album October was cooked up on the First Avenue stage during practice, including "I Threw a Brick Through a Window."

A bootleg exists of that Boy-era Sam's show, the title of which comes from how Bono introduced the band that night: "We're called U2."

Like many such beginnings, precise memories of the night now require a gong to ring a bell. "Let's see...it was a really nasty night, really cold, but warm and electric inside," says Tony Pucci, who will attend the Target Center show with his sons, John and Mike, and his wife, Rita, who was up front for the Sam's show in 1981. "All I remember," she says, "was Bono had his foot up on a monitor, and it slipped down and stomped on my arm. I had a huge bruise for days."

The day of the show, photographer Greg Helgeson and Sweet Potato music scribe Martin Keller hung out with the foursome. The band lounged on beds at the now defunct Normandy Hotel, and Keller and Helgeson accompanied them to sound check. Helgeson shot a portrait [above] in the southeast corner of the club.

"They were very confident," says Helgeson. "Marty's Catholic, so the conversation was about Catholicism and world politics and religion, which, in the long run, fits in."

Keller's memories of his brush with what might be the biggest rock band in the world are not unlike the article he wrote after the fact--in a box somewhere, and difficult to access. "They were all little," he says. "They were Hobbits. Who knew they'd get as big as they did? They were very young. They struck me as kids, like, 'What are these guys doing on the road? They're a long way from home.' But they owned the stage once they got on it."

Jim Walsh can be reached at jwalsh@citypages.com or 612.372.3775

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