With a Song in My Heart: E is for…

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” – U2, 1992.

I can kick this post off by reassuring readers that it won’t be quite as heavy as yesterday’s.  Instead we’ll just offer a few paragraphs about one of my favorite bands, one with whom I have savored and at times rued a two-decade-long love/huh? relationship.  (You’ll also note that I appear to be constitutionally prohibited from in-depth appreciation of bands from my own side of the Atlantic.)  U2 first came to my attention in the mid-early-80’s when they were transitioning away raw, angry Irish proto-punk into more mature, textured material that wasn’t all allegorical retellings of the Troubles. I can say that now that my vocabulary has developed substantially; back then it was only a matter of taking the slightest interest in the Unforgettable Fire poster on my cousin Brad’s bedroom wall.  Even when their legendary Joshua Tree album dropped a few years later they didn’t really register for me.  They seemed too serious, too dire, too preachy.  What is interesting to me now, as a devoted fan, is going back and realizing just how many of Bono’s lyrics are intended to be about God, but that like the best pieces of art (or religious texts, as it were), you can interpret them to mean, or be about, whatever or whomever you want.

What do U2’s songs mean to me?  Well, let’s go back and talk a bit about how I finally got into them.

1997 for U2 brought the release of Pop, what is probably their most polarizing album, setting aside the art-for-art’s-sake Passengers misfire.  (Given the aforementioned Christian focus of Bono’s lyrics you could assign a double meaning to the title of this one as well:  Pop – Poppa – Father – God.)  The lead single was “Discotheque,” a foray into 90’s club music, featuring an appropriately cheesy video which had Bono and company donning the garb of the Village People and performing an easily mimicked hip-thrusting dance.  My playlist had grown stale and I was hungering for something fresh, and this fit the bill.  For once, those dour Irish dudes seemed like they were having some fun, and I could get into this.  The trouble was the rest of the album wasn’t so great.  Aside from one beautiful standout (“Gone,” which should have been a single but wasn’t for whatever reason), it remains a hard-to-listen-to mishmash of misbegotten experiments and half-finished ideas.  But no matter, the fish had bitten into the hook and I began to mine their back catalogue.  That’s when I found Achtung Baby.

I’ll happily argue with anyone who doesn’t think it remains their best album by a mile.  Almost like a greatest hits collection, there isn’t a single song on there that can’t stand up to years of replays.  In rock journalist Bill Flanagan’s terrific book U2 At The End of The World, the band talks about how the album took much of its inspiration from Nighttown in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and as such follows a wanderer who, seduced by more hip-thrusting rhythms, descends into an orgiastic abyss,  confronts his soul and winds up spent and wrecked in the damp gutter as the dawn finally begins to break.  Backed at every harrowing step, of course, by some simply marvelous tunes.  Now I don’t remember enough of what I read of Ulysses (i.e. almost nothing) to draw all the connections for you, but listening to Achtung Baby uninterrupted, start to finish, does feel like an odyssey of sorts, and you do find yourself feeling a bit worn as the closing track “Love is Blindness” fades away, but the journey’s been worth it.

So it’s ’97, I’m spinning Achtung Baby and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” nonstop, and driving my friends bonkers by being the worst version of a U2 n00b (U200b?) you can imagine, prattling on as if I’d discovered them.  “Did you guys know that Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson?  Did you guys know that the first time Axl Rose heard ‘One’ it made him cry?  Did you guys know that they used to be called Feedback?  Did you guys know…” and so on and so forth.  Looking back on it even I would have told myself to shut up.  But when you’ve found something that fills a void you weren’t sure was even there, your first instinct is to share the news far and wide, and be incredulous that not everyone else mirrors your admittedly insufferable enthusiasm.

U2 have released six albums and a couple of compilations since Achtung Baby, and what keeps me buying the new ones even though none have lived up to its standard, is the idea that U2 remain seekers and questioners.  They subscribe to the concept that faith unchallenged is not true faith, and are ever reinventing themselves and their sound to pursue the glaringly contradictory aim of a brutally necessary yet realistically unachievable goal:  solving What It’s All About.  However, this approach can test the patience of those fans who only want to hear the old Joshua Tree classics reinterpreted with some new guitar licks (i.e., The Rolling Stones Career Plan, patent pending.)  When you’re trying for that elusive objective as well, your heart is more forgiving of the missteps no matter how awkward or brash – especially since theirs tend to sound much better.  U2 have been called pretentious, phony, egotistical, preachy, hypocritical and even clueless, but they’ve never been accused of being boring.  Their ability to surprise is like that of life itself – built in the DNA.  Though they may never again equal the achievement that is Achtung Baby, their choice to not rest on those laurels is an admirable one.  Go away and dream it all up again, as Bono once said.  What is even better than the real thing?  Knowing that the questions, and the choice to pursue those questions, are sometimes more valuable than the answers.

Of faith and learning

A friend directed me to a recent piece in The Toronto Star about how Ontario schools have seen a surge in parents requesting that their children be excused from classrooms when the subject being taught conflicts with their religious beliefs (eg. evolution).  This follows the incident several months ago involving a Catholic school board leader who was pilloried in the press for breaking Godwin’s law while trying to explain why her board refused to permit gay-straight alliance clubs on campus (she infamously and quite stupidly said “We don’t allow Nazi groups either”).  This is one of those areas where there seems to be no middle ground; you either believe these parents are standing up for their faith and their most cherished values against offensive secular indoctrination, or you think they’re utter ignoramuses trying to shield their poor kids from truth and consequently crippling their ability to function in the real world.

If you have to pin my belief system down to a single philosophy for the sake of reference, I’m probably closest to what’s called a secular humanist.  I like to know how things work and I’m unsatisfied with the explanation that life functions as it does because of the will of an insubstantial being who decided my fate long before I was born.  Yet I acknowledge that there are numerous things I don’t understand and never will – and I’m okay with that.  Rather like how not knowing the ending encourages you to keep reading the book, I’m happy for the continuing mysteries of the universe, because they keep me asking questions, keep me exercising my intellect in pursuit of truth.  I recognize that I will never know everything, but I can always learn more.  A man does endless reps on the rowing machine not because there is an acme of idealized muscular strength he needs to reach, but because he wants to make himself ever stronger.  That’s the most wonderful thing about learning; there will always be something new to learn, and, if one is to extend the metaphor of the gym, simply working your chest and avoiding the leg press will only make you look like Donkey Kong.  Shutting out the acquisition of knowledge because said knowledge fails to dovetail with ideology results in a state of imbalance – an inability to complete the equation or to advance the cause of truth.

Faith is not an easy journey.  Whether it is faith in God, faith in one’s fellows or faith in oneself, it requires strength.  Where extreme believers such as those who demand little Johnny not hear a peep about Charles Darwin fail their children in teaching them that lesson is in sending them the message that their faith is so brittle it cannot stand challenge.  Unchallenged faith is no faith at all – it’s blind obedience, and I also suspect that the vast majority who consider themselves spiritual do not like to think of themselves as mindless followers.  I have also never understood why some can’t accept the precepts of science while continuing to keep faith, that every word of the Bible has to be literally true for any part of it to have any weight.  After all, scientific thought built the iPad on which you’re tweeting your screed against the evil atheist school system.  It would seem to me that anything as universal as “God” cannot and should not be codified in human language, that the very concept defies the limits imposed upon it by the twenty-six letters of our alphabet.  It remains an unanswerable question, but one that demands pursuit.  Faith, then, is the sense that there is an answer worth going after – and if one is to approach understanding, then you can’t arbitrarily discount the information that might help you get that infinitesimal step closer.  Deciding that my mind’s made up and I’m going to stick my fingers in my ears when someone says something that contradicts it, is sacrificing that most precious gift of free will, the most important quality that guides our brief journey across life.

I’m not saying that what I believe is what you should believe.  Everyone deserves the chance to figure it out for themselves, because that’s the only way it’s going to work.  It’s our mandate as human beings to not abdicate our responsibility to learn all we can while we’re here, otherwise life is truly Shakespeare’s poor player strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, the tale told by the idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.  Let the kids learn about science in school.  Let them learn about God in church.  And most importantly, let them learn enough to be able to make up their own minds.

John Lennon, the toppermost of the poppermost

A message that endures.

Today is John Lennon’s birthday.  The founder of the Beatles, one of the most fascinating musicians of all time would have been 71 had his life not been cut short by a deranged fame-seeking loner.  Though he has been gone for over three decades, Lennon remains a compelling figure; a man who has been admired, studied, written about, talked about and portrayed by a countless array of performers.  And rarely does a day go by when his most lasting contribution to the world – his music – is not heard on the radio, downloaded by a new fan, performed by an aspiring bar band or discussed at length by those of us still enraptured by his incredible legacy.

Why does John Lennon have such a hold on the world 31 years after his death?  In the pantheon of artists who passed away before their time, why is Lennon the most singular figure?  It can be argued that in terms of their relative impact on music, Elvis Presley was more significant – the man who basically took blues and melded it with country to forge it into rock & roll.  But what is Elvis today?  A punchline, fodder for cheesy impersonators in bad wigs mumbling “Thank you, thank you very much.”  Towards the end of his life, Elvis became symbolic of the worst excesses of the rock star – bloated, hiding in a cavernous mansion, shooting televisions, eating deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and finally succumbing to drugs in his bathroom.  While John Lennon certainly had his eccentricities – the bed-ins, the strange recordings of screaming and warbling passed off as “art” – the main reason he doesn’t turn up in the pages of the Enquirer having just been spotted at a supermarket, is that in his message – one of a lasting hope for peace – there is nothing to mock.
Some stars seem more than human.  They appear, whether intentionally on their part or not, to inhabit a celestial echelon unattainable by we mortals who gaze upon them from afar with admiration.  While John and indeed all four of the Beatles were arguably the greatest and most influential stars of music of all time, what endeared them most to their fans was that throughout the peaks and pitfalls of their career, they always seemed human.  They never took themselves as seriously as they could have given the astronomical heights of their achievements, and remained for all intents and purposes, regular lads.  They were not perfect nor did they pretend to be; they made mistakes, they fought amongst themselves, they spoke from their hearts without filters and without poll-testing and clearing everything through publicists first.  Like the Buddha, they simply were.  The honesty of their music and the positivity of the message that resulted from that honesty could not help but touch the soul.
As The Beatles wound down, John chose to devote himself to the cause of peace.  He was an unlikely messenger for it – a man who admitted his faults, who did not attempt to veil the rage inside.  He could be horrible to those closest to him, particularly to his own family and dearest friends.  But just as only Nixon could go to China, a man like John, full of anger and bitterness towards the world, was the only one who could communicate the need for peace so vividly, so completely and so perfectly.  We all have that rage inside.  We resent the misfortunes that have been thrust upon us through what we feel is not our fault.  We want to scream and curse at the whole world.  We are all that angry boy crying for his lost mother.  And we can overcome it.
John Lennon asked us in the simplest terms, only to imagine peace – knowing that imagining is the first step to making it happen.  Most importantly, he recognized that peace was too important a message to be limited to the leadership of one, it must be a mantle taken up by the many.  In one of his last interviews, John scoffed at the idea that people considered him a guru, or a messiah.  He didn’t want that.  He wanted to make his music and be left alone.  More than that, he specifically did not want people to rely on him to tell them how to look at the world.  In “God,” John steps back from that leadership role, singing, “I was the walrus, but now I’m John.  And so, dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on.”  This line isn’t a cynical rejection.  He knew that people had the capacity to make peace in their own way and that was the only way peace was going to happen.  He still sings it to us today and challenges us to take up the torch in his absence.
In one of his most notorious quotes, John once observed that The Beatles had become more popular than Jesus.  It’s perhaps dangerous ground to tread, but the popularity of the Beatles and of John Lennon can be likened to that of Christianity in its appeal – in its ideal, most uncorrupted form – to the best parts of ourselves.  No matter our stripe, we’re all looking for the answer.  John told us that it was love, but he left it up to us to find that love on our own.  The challenge of faith is in maintaining the devotion to the search, in the recognition that the realization of the objective may never come until the very end.  But the road is worth the walk.  And so on John Lennon’s 71st birthday, we lace up our shoes and set out again with his songs playing on our iPod and his dream alive forever in our hearts.