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.

Paying it forward – part deux

Confession time:  I’ve been negligent again.  In the middle of my somewhat obsessive trip through Bondage of late, the ever-awesome Samir from Cecile’s Writers was kind enough to nominate me for the One Lovely Blog Award.  It’s always terrific to be acknowledged in this way by our fellow scribes; as I’ve observed in the past, what else is blogging or indeed writing but the cry into the lonely wilderness hoping for an answer?  Samir and his colleagues over at Cecile’s are really quite amazing; you should check them out, and often – there is always something different to peruse, a new, insightfully crafted exploration of this mad journey of stringing together words to form images and ideas we have chosen to undertake, whether for the love of language, the desire to reach or simply because we were intoxicated at the time.

I’ve also observed that the words matter more than the man behind them, and so in that respect it’s difficult to come up with seven random things about me that would garner any interest beyond that of my immediate family.  Most of what I would consider important to understanding who the guy behind the glasses is has already been divulged in the course of the 175 essays that precede this one.  But I shall give it the old college try:

1.  I have a crippling addiction to red velvet cake.  If there is ever an “RV-Anon,” I could easily be its spokesperson.  Assuming my arteries haven’t been completely clogged by cream cheese icing first.

2.  The only accent I cannot mimic well is Afrikaner.  I can usually spout off a few brief phrases before it starts to devolve into pidgin-Australian meets effeminate German.

3.  I was once chased away from near the exterior set of Days of Our Lives at the NBC lot in Los Angeles because I was wearing a Universal Studios jacket.

4.  Over 90% of my music collection is movie soundtracks – and not those half-assed packages of unrelated pop songs that are released purely for marketing purposes, but genuine orchestral scores.

5.  On a related note, when I am really in a serious spot of writers’ block, the album that has never failed to save me from it is U2’s The Joshua Tree.

6.  Queries for my novel have (finally) gone out to literary agents.  More to come and good news (if any, hopefully) to be shared here first.

7.  I currently (for November, at least) sport a moustache.  Squint your eyes at my gravatar pic and imagine the horrors.

Writing is about breaking rules sometimes too, and to that end, I’m going to deviate from the last requirement of this award just a little bit.  You’re supposed to nominate an additional 15 blogs that you think merit consideration as well.  But I find myself unable to do so.  For one thing, ashamed as I am to admit it, I don’t read that many blogs that regularly – I have the “fabulous five” that are linked on my front page which I of course recommend heartily to anyone in search of wordly (not a misspelling) fulfilment.  I have a few more that I follow and enjoy from time to time.  However, stretching the list to fifteen – arbitrarily slapping a few extra names on there just to reach an artificial threshold would be unfair to the authors of those blogs, and would serve, I think, to diminish the worthiness of their efforts.  WordPress is a vast and welcoming sea, and the task should be not for me to point you hither and yon based on what could very well be a fleeting fancy of mine, but for you to plunge in without a lifejacket and discover the many sumptuous treasures for yourself.  So instead of hyperlinking fifteen blogs, I’m going to nominate every WordPress blogger who dedicates his or her words to improving our human condition, to expressing positivity and hope.  To everyone who wants their work to create a smile somewhere out there in the world – to everyone who wants the words they etch in the unforgiving cement of the Internet to be an enduring message of joy and celebration of all we are and all we can achieve.

This award is for every last one of you, and that’s the best part – you already know who you are.  You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you.