Essays III


Bill Flanagan's Intro to U2: The Complete Songs

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In the mid-80s U2's friend, the musician T-Bone Burnett, asked if I had heard their latest songs. He said there was one called "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" which was like an Elvis Presley song. For T-Bone there could be no higher praise. He meant that U2 had written something so pure and honest and direct that people of all ages, from different backgrounds, would connect with it. (Get this: "I Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For" began as a reggae song. But the band kept experimenting, letting the music play itself until it turned into what it was supposed to be.)

T-Bone pointed out that U2 shared with the Beatles a talent for making songs out of big, direct ideas - "Help", "I Want To Hold Your Hand", "Get Back", "Don't Let Me Down" or "Rejoice", "I Will Follow", "Surrender", "All I Want Is You".

In the 1990's U2 re-invented their sound and image with "Achtung Baby". But in fact, the new songs were a continuation of the themes that always drove the band - faith, loyalty, and betrayal between husbands and wives, parents and children, God and man. (When you feel like you completely know one of U2's love songs, sing it again with the thought that it may be about God. When you get used to one of their religious or political lyrics, give it a new spin by singing it as if it's about a lover. Odds are it will work just as well.)

The use of new technology in the recording studio can in the wrong hands disguise a lack of substance, but it inspired U2 to dig deeper in their writing. The glitz and flash and funny title with which "Achtung Baby" was presented to the world was to some degree a disguise for the band's deepest, most personal songs ever. From that point forward, U2's most revealing, even confessional statements often came wrapped in the most distracting sonic packages. Pick up your instrument, lay out this music, and sing "The Wanderer" or "The First Time" without a net. Those songs are as direct and sturdy as a Hank Williams tune.

The death of Bono's mother when he was a teenager has inspired U2's songs from "I Will Follow" forward (Larry's mother died in the early days of the band, too - it is one of the bonds U2's music is built on, as it was for Lennon and McCartney) but he never laid it out as bare as in Pop's "Mofo". Strip away the aural camouflage and that song stands as naked and powerful as anything the group has ever written.

Like the Roling Stones and the Who, U2 do not inspire a lot of covers - their songs seem definitively fixed in their own records. In the 90s the singers who tackled U2's compositions were usually women. The jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson cut a haunting "Love Is Blindness". Cher made "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" into an "I Did It My Way" - style anthem of show-biz brass. Tina Turner belted out the James Bond theme "Goldeneye" and the great Annie Ross found the sad heart in "Conversation On A Barstool". Most rock songwriting still suffers from the disease of machoism; U2 should be proud that women can find their voices in U2 songs as easily as men can.

But of course, a well-written song is one in which anyone can find a voice. And while recordings and live shows allow us to participate as an audience, songbooks invite us to become singers and players ourselves. It is how songs lived for thousand of years - before there were recordings, before there were rock bands, before there were superstars.

Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry built these songs strong enough to pass along. Take them and use them. They're your songs, too.

Author: Joan Baez from her autobiography And A Voice to Sing With

I see a face I don't recognize on the screen. It must be coming from England because the swaying audience is dotted with union jacks. The singer is dressed in black, and has long, slightly messy brown hair. He is streaming with sweat, and some of his hair is stuck to his cheek, in road map designs, making me want to brush it back. The song is cosmic, heavenly, lilting, and persistent. The singer jumps in the air and stomps around in heavy boots. He doesn't fuck the microphone the way rock stars do when they realize that technology has made it possible for them to extend their egos out over a crowd of thousands. No, this young man is deadly serious about something, and is expressing himself with such tenderness it is enough to break my heart. He calls to the audience. They call back. He sings little bits of songs from the fifties and sixties, all in his utterly unique sound, and they sing back. He is directing a choir. They are the choir, and they are transported. Am I making all of this up? Possibly. The group's name appears next to the Live Aid symbol superimposed over his mystical dance. U2, Live From Wembley Stadium. This is the group my fifteen-year-old advisors have told me to watch. This is the group they say is political, even pacifist. The singer is working his way down toward the crowd, jumping onto a narrow wooden skirt a few feet below the stage. He is gesturing to the crowd, waving someone toward him. He takes the long drop into the orchestra pit, and continues his sign language invitation. Eventually, a young girl is lifted bodily and handed over the fence which separates him from the crowd. She is simply passed over like an offering. She lands on her feet and is in his arms, and he dances with her. She is probably stagestruck and in shock, and her head is sweetly bent down, and for the next few seconds he is cradling her as they dance.

I can't recall ever having seen anything like it in my life. It is an act, but it is not an act. It is a private moment, accepted by seventy thousand people. The dance is short, sensuous, and heartbreakingly tender. He breaks away from her and is helped up to the level just under the stage, and there finds another girl, dances with her the same way. All this while the percussion and hypnotic guitar continue relentlessly, lyrically, with the audience waving their arms back and forth, a part of the ritual. The singer moves back onto the stage, and, still pouring with sweat, continues with the song. His voice is nothing special. It is unsteady and it cracks. But it is compelling, as he is compelling. There is something about his seriousness which has captivated me.

Rock stars can look and be serious, but it is usually about themselves or their inflated vision of themselves. None of us who stand in front of a hundred thousand people hearing our voice (and band) amplified, tampered with, echoed, and smoothed into cosmic velveteen can escape certain grandiose delusions about ourselves. But this Irish lad is involved with something more than self-aggrandizement. Granted, his ego is well intact, and he is a superb showman, but there is something more going on. And I would like to know what it is. That I would like to be wrapped up in his arms like the little English girl there is no doubt. But if my instincts are correct, there is something which preempts flirtations with him. Something bigger than him or me or us combined, or our music combined. Something to do with politics, kids, freshness, and breakthrough. And love.

Out of the hours of Live Aid that I saw by the end of the day, the high point was witnessing the magic of U2. They moved me as nothing else moved me. They moved me in their newness, their youth, and their tenderness...

I finish up someone's warm beer... and shut my eyes. I see...the little map of hairs stuck to the youthful Christ-like face of the Irish singer from U2."