U2 debates: How long must we sing this song?

bonofamily2000Since the headline and photo give away basic subject, it would be hard to turn this into a "guess who this is" trivia game. So the following quotes are from Bono, the often inspiring and often infuriating (and he would agree with both terms) lead singer of U2. But we can still have some fun with this. So the game is to name the time frame of the following quotations.

On the improvisational nature of songwriting:

"I was so restrained in trying to express myself that I had to resort to another language, to a way somebody else had expressed it a long time ago in a Gregorian chant. Hence, the Latin. And that's the way it ended up. It ended up in Latin because I couldn't find the kind of English words to say what I needed to say. I still have trouble talking about it."

There's more. What about the foundation of the band's lyrics?

"I've spent most of my life avoiding labels. I don't intend to adopt one now. . . . I like to think people feel it. They just don't want to allow themselves to feel it. I mean, everybody feels it. Everybody.

"I can't accept a belief that I just came out of gas, you know? That we as a race just exploded into existence. I can't believe that, and I don't think others can, really. Maybe they can accept it on a sort of 'thin' level, but not really deep down. Deep down, everybody is aware. . . .

"Things around can shock us into a realization of what is going down. When we look at the starvation, when you think that a third of the population of this earth is starving and crying out in hunger. I don't think you can sort of smile and say, 'I know. Well, we're the jolly human race. We're all very nice, really.'

"I mean, we're not. People have got to see what is going on."

Now let's do the same thing with another set of quotations. Can you identify the time frame for these?

"Feelings are stronger than ideas or words in a song. . . . You can have 1,000 ideas, but unless you capture an emotion, it's an essay. I'm always writing speeches or articles for causes I believe in. That's probably what I would have done if I wasn't in music, but that's not songwriting. . . . Songwriting comes from a different place. Music is the language of the spirit. I think ideas and words are our excuse as songwriters to allow our heart or our spirit to run free. That's when magic happens."

And here are two more clips from the same context.

"I was always interested in the character of David in the Bible because he was such a screw-up. It's a great amusement to me that the people God chose to use in the Scriptures were all liars, cheaters, adulterers, murderers. . . . In the Psalms, David questions God, 'Where are you when I need you?' Blues has this sort of honesty that gospel music doesn't have. Gospel music is the stuff of faith. It tells you about where you are going. The blues tells you where you are. God is much more interested in the blues because you get that honesty."

"You know, songwriting really is a mysterious process . . . because we're asking people to expose themselves. It's like open heart surgery in some way. You're looking for real, raw emotions, and you don't find that by sticking to the rules."

OK, ready for some answers? The second set of quotations are from a remarkable Los Angeles Times feature story by the veteran rock writer Robert Hilburn. The article is available for those registered with the newspaper's Calendar section or by clicking here, which takes you to a U2 fan site.

I call this interview remarkable for two reasons.

First, it offers some wonderful insights into the WAY the members of U2 write and arrange their music, even if it is fairly vague about why they write their music and the origins of some of its content. For example, it's a bit vague to note that there are "spiritually tinged themes" that are woven through much of the U2 canon. Anyone who has read a few U2 interviews knows that "Where the Streets Have No Name" is not just a song about, as Hilburn puts it, a "vision of a world free of religious and racial divide." I also thing that there was more to the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and, thus, the song "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and a salute to a doctrine of nonviolence. I think its pretty easy to parse Bono's "one man betrayed with a kiss" reference.

That said, the article might have a few religious ghosts dancing between the lines, but there are enough clear and accurate references for most readers to know what is going on.

The second thing that amazed me is the degree to which Bono and company's remarks in the Hilburn article echo what they were saying earlier in their career.

Which brings us to the first set of quotations. I cannot give you a URL for that article, because the World Wide Web did not exist in the spring of 1982, when a van full of young musicians from Ireland rolled on the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. These quotes are from a "Backbeat" column I did in the local News-Gazette way back then.

Without boring you with the whole interview, just let me say that they worked on songs (according to my soundcheck notes) the same way back then that they do now. There are quotes -- 22 years apart -- on the "garage band" style of their rehearsals and the basic big, broad rock themes of their instrumental work. There are the same kinds of references to wanting to cover subjects larger than, as Bono told me way back then, the turf covered by a band such as REO Speedwagon. Note the hunger quotation in the 1982 interview, when the singer only a few years away from being a teenager.

And one final fascinating tidbit from Hilburn. Love him or hate him, Bono has been shaped by his Christian conversion in the context of a Charismatic -- with a big C -- house church. References to spiritual gifts (speaking with the "tongue of angels") are scattered through the years. He freely admits that he has some of the strengths and many of the weaknesses of this rather freewheeling branch of modern Christianity.

Thus, Hilburn offers this strange description of the origins of some U2 lyrics.

Bono's improvisation in the studio often starts with him just muttering sounds that seem to fit the flow of the music being created -- "Bono-eze," his bandmates call it.

"When Bono starts going through his Bono-eze, it can change what we're playing and take the song in a different direction," Mullen says. "If he's doing something very intense, it might not even be what he's saying, but the way he's behaving, the way he's throwing the microphone around. The energy and intensity helps shape the song."

Long, long ago, U2 had to record the October album in a matter of days after Bono lost (or someone stole) his omnipresent notebook in which he writes down his song lyrics and other music-related thoughts. So the singer stood at the microphone, prayed and then sang whatever came into his heart and mind -- even if the words came out in Latin.

It appears that this may have evolved into "Bono-ese." Either that, or Hilburn is not used to interviewing Charismatic Christians. It sounds to me like U2 is, to a remarkable degree, the same band, wrestling with its angels and demons.

Whatever. Hilburn's article is must reading for anyone interested in U2, pop music, songwriting or "all of the above."

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