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Encounters | An occasional feature

24 years later, a U2 fan remembers jamming with the band in Tampa

Picture it: You're 15, a gangly high schooler wearing Bermuda shorts, pink sneakers and a mighty mullet, and you just ditched class to see the hottest rock band in the world. In the middle of the show, the lead singer picks you — you! — from a crowd of 11,200, and pulls you onstage to play with the band.

Matt Simmons has pictured it. A lot.

He's 39 now, and he can't even guess how many times he has been asked to tell his story. Sometimes he wished he didn't have to.

"I really don't want the thing that happened to me when I was 15 to define me as a person," says Simmons, of St. Petersburg. "Nobody likes to admit that they had one thing that they peaked at, at 15."

Still, who could forget the night he got to jam with U2?

• • •

By the spring of 1985, Lakewood High School sophomore Simmons had been playing his used 1979 Fender Stratocaster for two years. He was into Rush and had seen the Kinks, the Stones and the Who in concert.

Matt's older sister, Rosemary, a clerk at Asylum Records, introduced him to U2 through imports and live bootlegs.

"They were really doing something different," said Simmons. "With Rush, it was all about guitar heroics. The Edge was doing really simple things, but things that served the songs, creating a mood and atmosphere."

Fast-forward to May 2, 1985. U2 is at the USF Sun Dome on their Unforgettable Fire tour. Matt and Rosemary, 17, skip school, arrive early and stake out a spot up front. And as U2 plays I Will Follow, Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year's Day, they edge ever closer to the stage.

Late in the show, Bono — not known for his guitar skills — emerges for an encore carrying a six-string, strumming four chords: G, D, A-minor and C. "Those four chords on a guitar are more important than all this lighting rig, the amplification, fancy stadiums, the lot," he says. "Because they're the same four chords that anybody in the audience that has a six-string guitar can play."

The bit serves as the intro for one of the simplest songs in the history of rock music: Bob Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

After a couple of verses, Bono pipes up again. "Any guitar players here?"

"Throngs of people threw their hands up in the air," Simmons says now. "The difference was, I had a few people around me, friends of mine, and they knew that I played guitar. So they were pointing at me."

Bono looks at Matt, then cues security to pull him across the barricade. The singer hands Matt the guitar and whispers the chords in his ear. "Wait'll you see this!" Bono shouts to the crowd.

The song kicks back up. Simmons strums along. And to the band's evident surprise, he doesn't choke. The kid is rocking out with U2.

Then Bono leaves the stage. So do The Edge and bassist Adam Clayton. For a moment, it's just Simmons and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. playing to the fans.

But soon Simmons has a moment of panic: He can't remember how the song ends.

"It was going to be a big rock finish; you could kind of smell it coming. And I looked over at the Edge, and he tilted his neck over and gave me a look like, It's going to be a G."

That's the memory that stands out for Simmons — one of the greatest guitarists alive, watching him play, reading his mind, nudging him in the right direction. It's the moment he realized that he was actually jamming with the band and that he wasn't just some kid who hit the rock concert lottery.

His time onstage lasted two minutes and 23 seconds — and, in a way, the next 24 years.

• • •

"After that," Simmons laughs, "I was kind of a big deal."

A reporter tracked him down at school the next day (he was wearing his U2 concert T-shirt). A couple of bands asked him to join. "It didn't turn into a record deal, surprisingly," he deadpans.

People recognized him in public. Still do, actually. Facebook has helped him connect with fans who were at the concert, including one who sent Simmons a photo of himself onstage.

Since then, Simmons has bounced around among several local bands. These days he's a guitarist with the Semis, a St. Petersburg rock band known for their wild stage shows.

Simmons — now married and an IT director for the Pinellas Realtor Organization — says playing with Bono and the Edge was the catalyst for a lifetime of making music. But he won't be at the show on Friday.

U2, he says, has gotten a little too big for him.

Soundcheck: Listen to a bootleg of Simmons' performance with U2 at blogs.tampabay.com/tbt. Also, find the Times' review of the show.

Traffic: With 70,000 fans, it could be a mess. Tampa Bay, 3B

U2 goes big

The lads from Dublin will be larger than life Friday at Raymond James Stadium with a giant stage and a huge crowd. In Weekend

Suggest an Encounter

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2924.

24 years later, a U2 fan remembers jamming with the band in Tampa 10/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 8, 2009 8:42am]
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