On Feb. 11, 1982, the New Orleans punk/new wave band RZA opened for an up-and-coming Irish rock band called U2 aboard the riverboat President. Thirty-five years later, U2 returns to New Orleans to headline the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday, this time with Beck opening.
In the following, edited passage from a forthcoming memoir, “Before I Was Me,” RZA singer-guitarist Lenny Zenith, now a writer and musician based in New York, recalls the rush of that sweaty, long-ago night with U2.
On sunny afternoons in the early 1980s, RZA bassist Becky Kury and I listened to lots of records on a porch overlooking Valence Street. We bonded over The Clash’s “Sandinista,” Peter Tosh’s “Wanted Dread & Alive” and U2’s debut release, “Boy.”
The U2 album was our new favorite. The long, anthemic choruses and innovative guitar parts were clearly influenced by The Clash. The album sounded rebellious and sexual, and talked about the transition from adolescence to adulthood — something we had gone through fairly recently.
Becky and I would dance around, belting the lyrics to “I Will Follow” over the porch veranda.
A couple of weeks after playing the record repeatedly, I got a call from Ed White, who was booking concerts aboard the President riverboat. “There’s this new Irish band called U2 coming to town,” he said, “and I was wondering if RZA was available to open for them?”
“Um, hell yeah! We love them! Definitely!” I said, trying to regain my composure.
When I told Becky we would be opening for U2, she screamed. We were ecstatic! We had just lost out to New Orleans R&B legend Lee Dorsey to open for The Clash, so this was a pretty good consolation.
Aboard the President on the day of the show, we had little interaction with the members of U2, other than perhaps a nod or a handshake from bassist Adam Clayton or drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Hyper-focused guitarist The Edge was setting up and testing his many guitar effects. Bono was facing the stage, testing his vocals.
They did a long sound check to make sure everything was just right. It was a thrill to be among just a handful of people watching them play as the President bobbed lazily at the dock.
When it was our turn to sound check, we squeezed our minimal equipment in front of their voluminous set-up. Their amps seemed monstrous compared to ours. The heat from their lighting towers, which seemed to be inches from our faces, was especially intense; we joked later that we all got tans from them.
We didn’t have the wattage to compete with the maelstrom of sound we anticipated from U2, but we were undaunted. We were well-rehearsed and ready to take on the throng.
A long-ago performance aboard a New Orleans riverboat changed U2 forever.
I had selected an appropriately “tough” look for the show: my typical leather motorcycle jacket, a short-sleeved white sailor shirt, red bandanna tied in the style of The Clash’s Joe Strummer (a huge mistake considering the heat) and thrift-store riding boots replete with English spurs.
Our set seemed to go by in seconds, as 2,500 sweaty fans pressed toward the stage. As we closed with the thunderous “Urban Riot,” I got the bright idea to throw off my guitar and stage-dive into the crowd. In my mind, I was certain the adoring crowd — they really adored U2, not us — would hoist me overhead in triumph.
But as I leapt, confused faces gazed up as my body careened overhead. The crowd parted like the sea, hoping to avoid the impact of a 120-pound projectile. I hit a few heads, shoulders and hips as I fell unceremoniously to the floor.
It would’ve been humiliating, except for the guy who, as we left the riverboat later that night, commented, “Hey, dude, one of your spurs caught me in the head. It was so cool!”
I was satisfied with our performance and my impulsive swan dive. A week later, the influential British music magazine New Musical Express, which had dispatched a writer and photographer Anton Corbijn to review U2’s show, called us the “toothsome, Ramones-y, RZA.”
I thought U2 played a transcendent set that elevated the audience emotionally and spiritually. Bono and his bandmates seemed perfectly comfortable in front of those intensely hot lights.
They were super-tight and had perfected a live sound unlike anything I’d ever heard before. The sound man expertly administered the exact amount of reverb and echo to Bono’s vocals to approximate the feel of the band’s records.
The songs were inspirational, soaring and about as close to a religious experience as I’d had since childhood. I truly believe that audience left the President feeling like they had seen the future of rock and roll — in U2, if not in RZA.