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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://u2sermons.blogspot.com/ Beth

    Ah, I’ve always thought it a delicious irony that the “secular” U2 audience – since that noun attributed here to Larry Mullen has long been circulating, usually as “Bongolese” — have found it necessary to include among their U2 vocabulary their own distinctive word for glossolalia. (Almost no one ever makes the connection!) Prizes to those who can point to let’s say three examples on commercially released U2 records (unofficial live recordings would be so easy as to be a joke).

    Your overall “full circle” point is extremely well taken, by the way.

  • Greg Griffith

    There are few things larger than Bono’s ego, but one is his voice. Another was the band’s period of blinding genius from 1984-1987, when they released “Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree.” Even the EP of outtakes from “Fire” – “Wide Awake in America” – is brilliant. Love Comes Tumbling is sublime, and is one of the best rock songs most people have never heard.

  • http://www.wildfaith.com Darrell Grizzle

    I recently saw a CD in a Christian bookstore of U2 songs covered by Christian artists (“In the Name of Love”). When I asked the clerk if the store carried CD’s by U2 themselves, I was greeted with a shocked expression and told “No, we only carry CHRISTIAN CD’s here.” Apparently the exact same song is “secular” if sung by U2 but “Christian” if performed by Toby Mac.

  • http://camassia.notfrisco2.com Camassia

    Beth wrote: Prizes to those who can point to let’s say three examples on commercially released U2 records (unofficial live recordings would be so easy as to be a joke).

    OK, I’ll bite:

    “Another Time, Another Place,” on Boy

    “The Electric Co,” ditto

    “Elvis Presley and America”, The Unforgettable Fire

    What prizes do ya got?

  • http://u2sermons.blogspot.com/ Beth

    …and that would be three! (I’d forgotten about “Electric Co.” What I had in mind was the two phrases in the middle of “Wild Honey,” a moment fetchingly rendered in the official lyric sheet as “oh.”)

    Prizes? I was kind of kidding, but now that you ask — heck, yeah, we got prizes. Camassia, I’ll email you with a possibility or two. ;-)

  • Chip

    Yeah, I love that moment in “Wild Honey,” Beth. The second phrase sounds kind of like “Love me with your soul,” but it ain’t that. “Wild Honey” seems to fit more as a love song to God than one to Ali, IMHO, although you can argue either way.

    I’ll add “If God Will Send His Angels” (album version) to the list.

    On Elevation 2001 Boston, the most obvious example to me is at the beginning of “Until the End of the World.” If that ain’t glossolalia, it’s some serious “scat singing,” to quote Pop’s liner notes.

    Greg, I personally don’t think Bono’s ego is that big, precisely because he knows his weakness and works to keep it in check. A lot of what people take to be Bono’s ego is just him mocking himself or what people think about him. (Case in point: think of the criticism he received for his comment to a reporter at the premiere of Troy that he was a “greek god.” He wasn’t being serious, folks.)

  • popsadie

    true..anyone who knows about u2′s charismatic beginnings has to wonder about “bongolese” lol

  • http://www.3dff.com fresno dave

    great conversation, all

    3 more glosslalia candidates:

    1)Slane DVD, “Streets”, intro, right between the incredible opening “death wail” (another ancient religious expression”) and the “glory run” (another pentecostalism) around the heart, he utters something twice. check it out. classic tongues to me

    2)same DVD..”with or without you” (i always loved adam clayton’s clasic quote about this song: re: how it didn’t make sense on radio, buy “maybe in church”)..right after he says “good night”, he gets lost in rapture, starts winding his arms, gets that mystical look on his face..then what does he say next? To me, it starts in tongues and moves into English..

    3)”beautiful Day” remix found on the u2 7 CD.. i think about five minutes in..its great

    we have a ton of articles on u2 and faith on our church website’s interactive praying/posting wall. check it out and feel free to post over there:



  • http://u2sermons.blogspot.com/ Beth

    I figure if you guys can all chime in 10 days after the original post, I can get away with lagging another week…

    Fresno Dave: I’m in your debt for the “glory run” connection to that “lap around the heart” moment. I would never have made that association of my own accord — but I recognize the reference when someone better informed than I says it.

    I disallowed live performances, but I’ll add one now — the whole ending section of “One Tree Hill,” from “St. Stephen’s At The Point,” December 26, 1989 at the Point Depot, Dublin. Probably the best performance of that song ever, and it closes with about 20 seconds of glossolalia (mixed with some English I think) in very impassioned, public, declaratory mode. (One half-expects Edge to offer the interpretation.)

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  • kristen

    I was interested while reading the post by someone who found it odd that a band could have songs that when sung by christian artists are sold in christian stores, but the same song sung by U2, apparently not considered christian artists, is not carried in christian stores. While I do not know all the songs of u2 well enough to make a judgement on the message in each song, I can understand the reasoning in the above situation. Christian artists, to be considered for that title, have to commit to following Jesus Christ and including a biblical message in each song, without deviating from a theme that is totally biblical. While I would be interested to hear from the artists themselves on the reasoning for some of their lyrics, as a Christian, I have to say that the lyrics in the song “If God will send His Angels” has some interesting discrepancies, with the Jesus Christ I have a relationship with. My God has never taken “his phone off the hook” and I know that he does pick up. God has sent and does send His angels, and He certainly has sent a sign. The Bible, the most accurate historical document of it’s nature and age, never proven to have any innaccuracy despite its age, number of authors and span of time is a huge sign and miracle. The work of those totally devoted to him is another sign, and is where the love comes from that U2 seems to be desparate for in the aforementioned song: “So where is the hope, and where is the faith, and the love”. And they are right in that the type of love God calls us to is all to rare. I could go on, but for the sake of time should close. The point would be that while U2 may have songs that have great Christian messages (and therefore utilized by Christian artists), it seems that some of their songs may portray a God that is uncaring or unavailable, which is not the God that the Bible testifies to. This may be one possibility as to why U2 albums are not sold in Christian stores.