How Bono Saved Me, Again
At its best, rock and roll can heal us. Or at least give us the strength to go on.
That's what happened when I listened to U2's great new album, Songs of Innocence. I emphasize that I did indeed listen to the record -- I played it over and over talking in its rhythms and nuance, absorbing the story arc that singer and poet Bono was unfolding. Like many of U2s old albums, it gave me hope when I had been feeling hopeless.
Songs of Innocence is a great record. Melodic and powerful, yet also soft at times and contemplative, it tells the story of the Irish band growing up in Dublin. It is also a work informed by Christianity and animated by Christian references. This still comes as a surprise to some people, despite the fact that U2 were four evangelical Christians in Dublin when they met in the late 1970s and formed their band.
And like so many other kids in the 1980s, U2 was at one point my strongest connection to Christianity. Oh, I had left the Catholic Church, was deeply into Friedrich Nietzsche, punk rock, and lived to make fun of the Jesuits who tried to teach me. But I came to life when U2's music came on. In the early days of the albums Boy, October, and War, there was energy, romance, aggression, but also a strict moralism and an unwavering call for mercy.
I have a vivid memory of sitting in a bar in 1984 with other would-be writers and artists and contemplating "Surrender," a song of U2's breakthrough record War. The song depicted people in desperate situations, some of whom have given up. One woman "found herself up on the 48th floor / Gotta find out what she's living for."
Then the coda:
The city's a fire,
With a passionate flame
That knows be by name.
The city's desire
To take me for more and more.
It's in the streets getting under my feet,
It's in the air, it's everywhere I look for you,
It's in the things I do and say.
If I want to live, I've got to die too myself someday.
Bono was singing about looking for "you," i.e. God, and death as a pathway to rebirth. At the time my peers and I were living in the aftermath of what the rock critic Lester Bangs called "the great Sixties party [that] had an awful lot of ankles firmly in its maw and was pulling straight down." Kids were drinking and on drugs, sex was everywhere, and the media was selling us materialism as a solution. And here was U2 telling us that there was more -- that our sex, and fears, and longings were tied to something greater. Like now, in 1984 our secular culture was evading the Christianity of U2's music. After all, say the critics, U2 came out of punk, and punk was about aggression, resistance, spitting, and sarcasm.
Except it wasn't. There was always a spiritual hunger that was as much a part of punk as the sneering and safety pins. Bands like the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Fugazi, and U2 were not just saying that the West was an economic and social mess. They were saying that we are spiritually sick. It's not that our parents were on the dole or working soul-killing jobs, it's that they had lost their sense of wonder and purpose. Racism was not a social blight, but a humanitarian crisis and a grave sin. And while the conservative churches blandly taught sigma without charisma, the hippie religion of progressivism always seemed to curdle into coercion.
This is why punk was so powerful. It gave us charismatic religion without the structure. For some of us, it was life saving. If you were into some bad stuff in the 1980s, and a lot of us were, U2 could confront you like a tough, poetic, and compassionate priest. I remember spending a lost summer at the beach (in a house that would eventually be raided by police) and when I looked up out of the haze, I saw U2 performing "Bad," one of the greatest anti-drug songs of all time, at Live Aid. The song was about a drug addict who eventually commits suicide. It's a desperate, retroactive cry for the person to not throw himself away.
Thanks in no small part to U2, I avoided that fate. I gave up the mind enhancers and one night stands and became a Catholic. I also never lost my love for rock and roll, and now, thirty years later, with Songs of Innocence U2 has given us one of the best records of their career. They have kept true to the punk ethos of writing honestly about what's in your heart and what you see as the truth. The album is smart and dynamic, diverse, and mesmerizing.
Like U2, I'm not afraid of making the grand statement -- it's probably just genetic to the Irish -- and I think that Songs of Innocence is needed today. I mean that both in terms of the world and for me personally. America, which was always a source of musical inspiration for U2 as well as a kind of great spiritual hope, seems lost. The great progressive dream has resulted in more economic inequality, and political correctness imposes the kind of burden on free speech and thought that punk came along to destroy.
When I first fell in love with U2s music in the 1980s, I had my heart set on being a writer. I was from an Irish family that idolized Joyce and Yeats, which is probably why Bono fit so well into our pantheon of greats. For a time the dream of being a writer came true, but the reality of the digital revolution has made it a profession that can no longer be sustained. There is intoxicating freedom, but it simply doesn't pay any longer. I have to take Bono's advice. I have to surrender.
And yet, inside me is still that punk rock spark of hope -- the idea that you can in fact do it yourself, keep your soul, flourish spiritually, and survive. It's a feeling U2 addresses in "Cedarwood Road," one of the best tracks on Songs of Innocence. It's a recollection of how the band formed. At the climax, Bono loses himself in a reminiscence of both the desperation and power of those days:
If the door is open it isn't theft
You can't return to where you've never left
Blossoms falling from the tree
They cover you and cover me
Symbols crashing bibles smashing
Paint the world you need to see
Sometimes fear's the only place that we can call our home