A little over 35 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1987, Bono, the singer of what was then the biggest rock group in the world, U2, vandalized Vaillancourt Fountain at Justin Herman Plaza (now Embarcadero Plaza) in front of an estimated 20,000 people.
Jay Blakesberg, contributing photographer to The Standard, was there to capture the moment. Click on the gallery above to view some key moments from the set.
The unscheduled midday concert—dubbed “Save the Yuppies”—came just a few days ahead of a two-night engagement at the Oakland Coliseum, as the band was touring in support of The Joshua Tree, released in March of 1987.
Bono, the front man of Irish arena rockers U2, was leading his band through “Pride (In the Name of Love)” when he left the stage mid-song and reappeared atop a conveniently placed ladder. He climbed onto the Brutalist sculpture, whipped out a can of spray paint and defaced the public art installation with the slogan “Rock ‘n’ Roll Stops the Traffic.” (Sources differ as to whether Bono knew of a 1971 graffiti incident at the Vaillancourt Fountain in which a political slogan, “Quebec libre,” was spray painted on the structure.)
You can watch the entire show in the video below. Bono’s stunt begins around the 40 minute mark.
Standing back to behold his work, Bono retrieved a microphone, emitted a self-satisfied “Yep” and proceeded to lead the crowd in a “whoa-oh-a-ho” sing-along. After a couple more self-congratulatory remarks, the rock messiah and graffiti artist thanked the audience and returned to singing about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Not at all coincidentally, a documentary film crew happened to be on hand to capture Bono’s grandstanding on celluloid; the scene would be immortalized in the band’s 1988 concert film and hagiography, Rattle and Hum.
Bono’s act of vandalism set off a predictable furor, one that figured prominently in local news headlines, talk radio discourse and watercooler chit-chat. Though the singer was cited for “malicious mischief,” San Francisco DA Arlo Smith declined to press charges. Bono apologized: “It was dumb,” he admitted at a press conference. But that didn’t stop U2 from featuring the footage prominently in Rattle and Hum.
Jay Blakesberg is a photographer based in San Francisco. His images have appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar Player, Relix and other prominent music publications. His book, "RetroBlakesberg – Volume One: The Film Archives" is available on his website, blakesberg.com.
Bill Kopp is a music writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. His books include "Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave," about the influential San Francisco label 415 Records. His website is blog.musoscribe.com.
Bill Kopp can be reached at [email protected]