Tag Archives: The Unforgettable Fire

With a Song in My Heart: Z is for…

“Zooropa” – U2, 1993.

Here we are on Day 26 with our final installment, and as expected it’s a tad bittersweet.  While I’ve relished the challenge of delving into my past as scored with specific pieces of music and testing my capacity for both memoir and music journalism, and could likely go on with several more, Z is as good a place as any to stop, before the formula grows stale and the stories tedious.  The question arises, naturally, of what to do next, after these ~25,000 words in 30 days have been relegated to the archive of projects past.  I might borrow a line from the subject of today’s entry and go away and dream it all up again.  We’ll see.  That’s a decision for May 1st.  Before I go on, though, I want to send a special shout out to Joanne Blaikie of Writeaway, who’s been a challenge partner and has provided a great deal of support and encouragement along the way.  The subject of Joanne’s A to Z challenge has been an encyclopedic journey through her fantasy trilogy Prophecy of Innocence and it’s been a delight to see the fruits of her wonderful imagination revealed one post at a time.

It is of writing, in fact, that the final post in my series speaks.  I’ve always written to a lot of U2, generally from The Unforgettable Fire onwards (their first three albums are a little too raw and distracting when you’re trying to sink into a moment).  The Edge’s trippy, dreamy guitar work in the Eno period has ever been a proper Pied Piper leading me into that headspace wellspring from whence the words come.  “Zooropa,” the title track from their 1993 album, is a headspace all its own.  About ten years ago, when I was hardcore first drafting what would become – after being extracted from the bloated behemoth of another work, reimagined, rethought, revised, abandoned for eight years while I sorted out my life, rescued from oblivion, chopped in three and re-revised again – my first novel (which, described that way, sounds like the procedure Vogons have to follow to rescue their grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal), I used “Zooropa” to wake myself up in the mornings I had set aside to work on it.  It is a great alarm song – rather than waking you with a start, the introduction crescendoes slowly from almost nothing, adding in a gentle piano arpeggio before the guitar asserts itself and Bono starts singing.  There’s a line in it too that is a terrific mantra for writers:  “I have no compass, and I have no map.  And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back.”  Even those of us who work from intricate outlines have to admit that the excitement in the writing process is losing ourselves in the story and finding out where it goes, the unexpected corners that are the reward for the blood-and-sweat agony of advancing the narrative ever further.  And once you start, you don’t want to stop, even if you’re not entirely sure where you’re going.  Uncertainty, as Bono suggests in “Zooropa,” can be a guiding light.

Zooropa the album was recorded during a break between legs of U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1992-93, a record-breaking, MTV-inspired extravaganza whose excesses came to characterize the band that U2 would become after leaving behind the occasionally insufferable earnestness of their 80’s work.  While traveling the world promoting Achtung Baby, U2 learned how to take the piss out of themselves and embrace the contradictions of rock stardom.  Energized by this new vibe, the band chose to funnel the outpouring of creativity into a new album rather than lounging about their mansions for four months waiting to go out on the road again.  The result was somewhat uneven, with achingly beautiful numbers like “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” sitting uneasily next to throwaways like “Babyface” and the miscasting of Johnny Cash on lead vocals for “The Wanderer,” without the unifying theme so obvious on the previous LP.  We’ve probably each had an occasion where something sparks our idea generator and we rush to empty our braingasms through the nearest writing implement, only to look back on the result the next day and question the apparent temporary loss of sanity.  The blog challenge doesn’t give you that opportunity for reflection, you have to publish and move on to the next one, keep feeding the beast.  When I saw U2 perform live on their last tour, I don’t think they did a single song from Zooropa.  What was good enough to win the Best Alternative Album Grammy for 1993 apparently doesn’t rate a mention almost twenty years later.  I may look back on this series from the perch of a few years’ distance and wish I could rewrite every single one from scratch.  It isn’t ego, it’s the nature of the business, and we are always our own harshest critics.  One wonders sometimes why we choose such a masochistic vocation.  But it’s because we were born this way.  We have to do this.  “Choice” never enters into it.

The last line in “Zooropa” is “dream out loud.”  Back then it was the perfect message with which to kick off a daily explosion of new words.  What is writing, anyway, but dreaming out loud?  Transforming wild thoughts and secret longings through the greatest medium available to facilitate the connection of one person to a community of our common humanity.  Ever since the first English teacher handed me a pencil and a sheet of lined paper and asked me to tell her in a proper paragraph about what I did over the weekend, I’ve been afflicted with the compulsion to assemble words into opinions, parables, images, plots and plain old goofery, and share them with others.  It’s been almost thirty-five years of this now and I can’t kick the habit.  Success, or lack thereof, isn’t part of the equation.  Even if no one was reading this I’d probably still be doing it.  I suspect many of my readers who are themselves writers feel the same.  Recognition is icing.  The true reward is a story well told.  And for those times when we find ourselves mired in the muck, the right music can help us find the way out, better than a compass and a map.

So here’s to dreaming out loud, with songs in our hearts, yesterday, today and all the tomorrows to come.  Thanks for reading.

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.