The Story of the Infamous 1987 Free U2 Concert in San Francisco

An Only in San Francisco Moment with the Most Famous Irish Band in the World: U2.

For years I have walked past that, in my opinion, unattractive sculpture, in the area known as Embarcadero or Justin Herman Plaza. I never gave it much of a second glance or second thought. It turns out that the sculpture was part of one of those “only in San Francisco”, historic moments of epic proportions.

U2 is often considered one of the best rock bands of all time. The beloved Irish band was listed as number 22 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” In 1987, following the success of the “Joshua Tree Album”, the band was on their way to Oakland for 2 scheduled concert performances and took a detour to San Francisco. What ensued following the detour is part of the quirky moments that make this city so unique.

With the assistance of Bill Graham, U2, performed the top secret, free concert on November 11, 1987. The “Save the Yuppies” concert was performed on flatbed trucks, in front of the Vaillancourt Fountain, in Justin Herman Plaza. The concert was the band’s idea. It was very spontaneous and planned in less than 24 hours.

Graham did not allow any information to get in the hands of the press until less than 2 hours before the performance. As soon as the phone calls were made, announcements were heard on the radio. Bay area resident and student at Academy of Art, Robert Quinn, heard the news and was excited. He designed a sign that read SF + U2. He rushed over to Justin Herman Plaza to enjoy the concert. He held up his sign, which was intended to celebrate seeing U2 perform in SF. Little did Quinn know, his sign would be the catalyst for an infamous, “only in San Francisco”, moment.

In 1987, Diane Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco. She was in the midst of a major crackdown on graffiti and tagging, in the city. In Ireland, just days before the concert, Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army political wing, was responsible for a bombing that killed 11 people. Bono saw Quinn’s sign, misunderstood the message and broke out in a fit of rage, halfway through the second song. Quinn knew the singer was angry but did not realize his sign had caused the reaction. Soon other members of the crowd started shouting for Quinn to put down his sign.

Vaillancourt Fountain
Vaillancourt Fountain – Editorial credit: Santi Rodriguez /

Bono, to let out his rage, got on the sculpture, climbed a ladder and tagged “Rock and Roll, Stop the Traffic” on the sculpture. This pissed off Diane Feinstein and she made an example of the Irish Singer, by making him the 346th person in San Francisco cited for graffiti that year. Bono was cited for malicious mischief and ordered to return to court in December. This act of graffiti, would forever be associated with the concert. Many people were upset with Bono, as was evidenced in their criticism in letters to the editor of the SF Chronicle.

Herb Caen, however, did not share in the outrage of many. He defended the band. According to the SF Chronicle, Caen disliked the sculpture and wrote, “Anything done to that abomination — real title: ‘10 on the Richter scale’ — has to be an improvement.”

Bono wrote a letter of apology to SF law enforcement. But; at his Oakland Concert, later in the week, the sentiment was quite different. He invited the sculpture, Vaillancourt, who actually defended Bono. Together, at the show, they created more street art with paint rollers, on the stage back drop. At the show Bono addressed his fans, saying, “Have you ever picked on the wrong band,“ We’re U2. We’re the Batman and Robin of rock and roll. Somebody should explain to Mayor Feinstein there is a big difference between graffiti art and an act of vandalism.”

The graffiti or “street art”, depending on your point of view was removed the same day it was created. Today the Vaillancourt Fountain still remains, with no evidence of the free U2 concert performed in front of 20,000 San Francisco fans. Although I share Herb Caen’s opinion that the sculpture is a bit of an eyesore, its’ role in San Francisco music history makes it kind of a cool landmark to visit. It is now a symbol of a bygone era, when cool, free concerts could be planned in the city, headlining one of the most popular bands on the planet. Now, as I walk by the sculpture, I imagine what it must have been like as a member of the 20,000 people in the audience that day.

Quinn, still a resident of San Francisco is an artist whose work is sold under the Groovy Frisco Brand. Ironically, Herb Caen is the one who is known for saying ”Don’t Call it Frisco”. For better or worse, the Vaillancourt Fountain is now a part of Irish Music history in SF.