Tag Archives: Ulysses

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.

Baby, what’s your line?

I’m obsessed with opening lines.  I can spend hours in a bookstore scanning first pages and evaluating the effectiveness of their greetings.  What is true in the dating world applies equally to literature – the first line sets the tone for the entire story to come.  It can either grab you by the metaphorical balls or wheeze pathetically as if to say, “well, I’m not much to look at, but please if you could be spared a minute or two, if it’s not too much trouble, if you don’t have anything better to do.”  Crafting your own is a daunting challenge mainly because of what you are trying to avoid; you never want your hello to your reader to be the narrative equivalent of “Baby, what’s your sign.”  The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, which commemorate the worst published writing, are named after the man who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the immortal phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the ranks of mediocrity are plentiful enough without daring to offer one’s own work up for consideration.  The trouble is there are already so many amazing examples out there, that began intimidating all writers to follow decades before you were even born.  Behold just a smattering of the most familiar and most celebrated:

  • “Call me Ishmael.”  (Moby Dick)
  • “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”  (Ulysses)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  (1984)
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (Pride and Prejudice)

There is my personal favorite, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (do I really have to cite it?) and a new addition to my ranks of greats:  “Imagine you have to break somebody’s arm” (Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller).  So what makes a truly great opening line?  I’ve read thousands and I’m still trying to figure it out.

There appears to be no singular rationale, other than that the perfect example is able to convey copious amounts of thought-provoking story information while making you hunger for more.  Who is Ishmael?  What is Buck Mulligan up to?  Why are the clocks striking thirteen?  Why is Colonel Buendia being executed, and what would compel him to recall seeing ice for the first time in the moment of his death?  What has always struck me about openers is how off-handed they seem to be, as if they were composed quickly, in a matter of course of getting on with the meat of the story, even though for all I know hundreds of hours of thought and revision have accompanied each individual letter and punctuation mark, their shapes calculated precisely for maximum impact.  There are limitations:  the line cannot be so “out there” that it stops a reader’s momentum dead so they sit and ponder its meaning endlessly.  It has to be a kick in the pants to force you onward.

The Great Gatsby‘s intro does just this:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  What does this tell us?  That we are about to be led through this tale by a man who is looking back on reckless youth and continuing to this very moment to wrestle with the meaning of those years.  What is the advice his father gave him and why has it haunted him since?  We need to know more, hence, we need to read more.  Contrast this, say, with the first line of Elmer Gantry:  “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”  Without factoring in the character’s name, this is really only two words.  Yet they still crack open the door to a mystery that demands exploring.  The book is called Elmer Gantry; why are we being introduced to the protagonist in such a disagreeable fashion?  Why is he drunk – is this a regular occurrence?  What could be so wrong with his life to compel him to become inebriated?  Is he a tragic or comic character?  Only one way to know.  Turn the page.

You can drive yourself a bit batty with that first line.  In writing my novel I have gone through dozens of iterations of my opener, scaling up, scaling down, going broad and universal and then small and personal, and struggling to find that ideal balance of brevity versus length, captivation versus compulsion.  It’s an invitation that has to ask without sounding desperate, and has to reassure the reader that a trip inside this little world of words is going to be worth however much time we have asked for their attention.  No wonder it’s as difficult as working up the courage to approach that sexy woman in the bar.  I remember hearing some pick-up advice once and I wonder if it can be applied here as well.  The gist was that if you are at that bar and you see a woman you are attracted to, you are obligated to approach her within 30 seconds of seeing her, otherwise not at all; the idea being that the longer you wait, the more you invest in the outcome, making a possible rejection more damaging to your ego.  The lesson to be drawn, then, is to just start writing in medias res, as if you are already on to the next woman, and that first will either come along or she won’t.  Being casual about it might ultimately lead to failure, but overthinking it makes failure certain.  The thing to remember is that it is only a start, and where you go afterwards is what really matters.