Fellow journalists, may I ask you a question? How would you feel if something that you wrote 25 years ago suddenly came swimming out of the digital mysts of the World Wide Web without warning? That is what happened to me this week, and it was a bizarre experience. I remember the article, of course.
It was an interview with a hot but still largely unknown young rock band from Ireland called U2. I was a college-town rock writer at the time and had written a column for the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette based on the lyrics of the October album -- a young priest at the Newman House on the University of Illinois campus helped me confirm that the Latin fragments in "Gloria" were from the Mass -- and then did a telephone interview with Bono just before they hit town.
Here is the key: Bono and The Edge knew very little about what was already called Contemporary Christian Music and they were turned off by what they had heard. I was writing for a mainstream newspaper, so they took the interview. I also made Bono a tape to introduce him to the music of Bruce Cockburn (the Humans album, plus some other tracks) and T-Bone Burnett (Truth Decay) and he was knocked out by both guys. He still is, I would wager.
So I spent most of that February afternoon with the band, listening to sound check, catching the show (click here for the set list and note the wild encore) and then staying afterwards to talk and sit in on a bit of the band's post-show rituals -- equal parts Bible study and chats with fans in the now-empty hall on campus.
This was, I learned, one of the first -- if not the first -- times on this side of the Atlantic in which Bono, Edge and Larry had talked openly about their faith. Thus, after writing a second piece for the local newspaper, I tried to turn the interviews into a freelance piece for a national publication.
If you were a young journalist in 1982, where would you have taken the article? Right. I tried Rolling Stone. However, the editors there refused to believe me when I described the article. They thought I was making this up. So then I turned to Esquire, which was in a new-journalism but serious journalism stage. Esquire ended up running one paragraph in a roundup.
I didn't know what else to do and I had few options. So I turned to a relatively new magazine on the scene, CCM, which agreed to run the article as written. And that is what came out on the Internet this week. This is how the old article starts:
The members of the rock ’n' roll band U2 know they have many people confused. Two members of the band use strange stage names -- Bono and The Edge. No one seems to know how old -- or young -- they really are. No one knows what to call U2's music.
And now, a few members of the rock press have started to raise another question. As the band worked its way across America this spring during its third US tour, a few people began to show signs of actually hearing what the band was saying on its second album, October. After listening to the lyrics of songs like "Gloria," "With a Shout," "Tomorrow," and "Rejoice," a few interviewers started hitting the members of the band with a loaded question: What are you, a bunch of Christians or something?
"It's time to talk about it," U2 guitarist The Edge said quietly after a recent concert on a campus in the Midwest. As it turns out, almost everything The Edge says is quiet. He does not act like a rock ’n' roll guitar star. "We realize the band ... is at a crossing point. For a long time we haven't talked with interviewers about the fact we're Christians, because it's so easy for people to misunderstand. It's easy for people who are not Christians, especially writers who do not understand, to take what we say and misinterpret it."
The four members of U2 will not speak for each other about religion and Christianity. Various members of the band are at different stages of individual journeys of faith. They are all scared of being stereotyped.
The Edge and [drummer Larry] Mullen, both 19, were reading the New Testament and downing glasses of orange juice in the dim auditorium dressing room. Bono, 20, and [bassist Adam] Clayton, 21, were upstairs talking with fans and would be down to join in the discussion later. The Edge said they try to make Bible study and prayer a regular part of their "winding down" process after shows.
The scene seemed strange. An hour before, these same young rockers were pounding out a torrid 90-minute set of hard rock songs off the band's first album, Boy, and the more recent October, released last year. October is full of obvious songs about faith and the struggle to live a Christian life in 20th-century battle zones such as the band's home -- Dublin, Ireland. The Edge finally realized somebody was going to have to speak out.
"I really believe Christ is like a sword that divides the world," he said, "and it's time we get into line and let people know where we stand. You know, to much of the world, even the mention of the name of Jesus Christ is like someone scratching their nails across a chalkboard."
This article is so old that I am almost sure that I wrote it on a typewriter, rather than stealing some time at work to write on the newspaper's mainframe computer.
There is so much more that we know now about that era in the band's life. Thus, people who know their U2 history can read between the lines in many places. Near the end, note that Bono is already talking about starvation and world hunger. We talked about Africa in the interviews.
But here is why I share this on this blog, other than to be able to offer my two cents about something that I wrote early in my career that is now circulating online.
Bono and The Edge wanted to make it very clear that they were not Christian musicians. They had no interest in using "Christian" as some kind of marketing term for their work.
Only months earlier, the band had made a decision to remain in the mainstream and not to flee into some shadow Christian culture. Bono told me that he was convinced that there was no such thing as "Christian music." He said he was simply a man struggling to be a Christian and that it would be absurd and wrong for him to presume that he could attach a lofty word such as "Christian" to his music. I think he would say the same thing today -- word for word.
Thus, you can imagine how appalled I was when the CCM article came out and it ended like this:
U2: A CCM Selected Discography
Boy, ILPS-9646, ’80; October, ILPS-9680, ’81.
Boy does not contain significant ccm material except for "I Will Follow," which took on new spiritual meaning for the group after its release.
This implied that October did contain significant "ccm material" and that the band was part of that niche music scene.
At the time of the Unforgettable Fire tour, I was able to stress to Bono that I didn't write that final reference. The last label that anyone could attach to this band's music -- then or now -- is CCM. Anyone who wants to know more about this subject should read Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas.
Obviously, and I mean this as no insult to the CCM editors who ran my piece so long ago, I still wish that this story had originally come out in one form or another in Rolling Stone. That would have made the subject legitimate from day one. This was a very, very rough draft of an important story about an important band. I am glad that the article was published.
However, as you can tell by reading the text of my article, the last thing I wanted to do was pin a label on U2.
Top photo, from the depths of MySpace land. Second photo, U.S. Senate photo office.