Pod people: Bono as a young believer

To tell you the truth, I have always thought that it is very easy for first-person journalism — especially arts and entertainment criticism — to slip into vague, self-centered mush.

Thus, when offered the chance to write a weekly rock music column for The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette (while working as on the copy desk) back in the late 1970s, I made a vow that I would only write pieces focusing on news and trends in the local music scene (which was a lively one in those days). I didn’t write a single review in four years.

As you would expect, I was also interested in writing music columns that contained religion hooks. My long-term goal, after all, was to become one of the nation’s relatively few religion-beat professionals.

So, what would you think if you were standing in the Record Service store in the campustown area next to the University of Illinois in the winter of 1982 and you heard the following lyrics blasting out of the speakers located all around that famous and funky co-op?

I try to sing this song
I, I try to stand up, but I can’t find my feet
I, I try to speak up, but only in you I’m complete
Gloria, in te domine
Gloria, exultate

My friends behind the front desk (I was a fanatically loyal customer) knew enough about my interests in rock and religion to think that I might have heard something about this mysterious Irish band that was about to hit town for a concert in the old, wonderful auditorium on the UI quad.

What did I think of these lyrics? And why bring it up now?

This leads me to my Scripps Howard column for this week and this week’s Crossroads podcast.

The chorus for the song “Gloria” was, of course, in Latin. I set out to report a news column about it and the rumors surrounding this young, but rising, band.

A Newman Center priest told me that the first phrase, perhaps a Mass fragment or drawn from chant, meant, “Glory in you, Lord.” The next meant, “Exalt Him.” Then again, it was hard to hear the second Latin phrase.

The priest apologized and said he wasn’t used to parsing rock lyrics.

Yes, the band 30 years ago was U2 and its mysterious second album was called “October.” Both were surrounded by clouds of rumors, which I explored in a News-Gazette column on Feb. 19, 1982. What I needed to do was meet the band before its Feb. 23 concert in Champaign-Urbana.

Luckily, the 20-year-old Bono was willing to discuss “Gloria” and “October.” … That column ran on March 5 and it apparently was the first mainstream news piece in which Bono and company discussed their faith. I immediately pitched the story to Rolling Stone, where editors decided that U2 wasn’t all that important or that it was bizarre for a guy like Bono to talk about God — or both.

All of that changed — quickly.

Thirty years down the road, what is striking about that interview is the fact that the issues that drove Bono then still dominate his life today.

Bono and The Edge were willing to talk about their Christian faith, but they stressed over and over that U2 was not a “Christian band” and never would be. Bono said he thought it was horrible to think that a struggling believer such as himself could be associated with a product bearing a “Christian” label.

Listening to my cassette recording of the main Bono interview from my 1982 encounters with the band for the first time in about 15-plus years, I was also surprised to hear that — during the prep work for “October” — Bono said he had been listening to Gregorian chant and “Greek Orthodox music” to broaden his tastes.

Wow, I missed that Orthodoxy reference 30 years ago, back in my “moderate” Southern Baptist deacon days.

It was also interesting to note that the singer — at age 20 — was already intensely interested in issues of world hunger. During another conversation, either before or after the band’s Bible study after the concert, he also talked about poverty in Africa.

I did not know, at the time, that this interview represented a new door into the band’s life and work. This early tour, of course, came shortly after the band’s decision to stay together — despite pressure for Christian friends who claimed that it was impossible to mix mainstream rock and Christian faith.

For years, I thought that my interview might have been the first in the North American mainstream press to include material in which Bono and The Edge openly discussed their faith. However, it now appears that it might have been the first mainstream news interview on the topic — period.

The massive reference book called “U2: A Diary” contains this entry:

University of Illinois Auditorium

After tonight’s show, U2 are interviewed by Terry Mattingly for CCM, a Christian music magazine. Although the band have gone out of their way to avoid talking about their faith up to this point, they speak candidly now. “It’s time to talk about it,” Edge says. One of the revelations in the article, which appears in the magazine’s August issue, is Edge, Larry and Bono use Bible study and prayer to help them “wind down” after concerts. Bono says U2 doesn’t want to be stereotyped as a “religious band,” but is confident that most fans understand the messages in many U2 songs.”

When I first saw this item a few years ago, I was really ticked.

You see the problem, of course. I did not interview the band for CCM. I interviewed Bono and The Edge for the local daily newspaper. I was able to get a short clip from my second piece into the arts pages at Esquire, of all places, and I tried to get Rolling Stone to take the story. CCM was the only outlet that was interested in a relatively full version of the piece.

Does anyone know how one goes about getting a correction in A BOOK?

Oh well, there is so much more I could say about those two days back in 1982. For starters, I need to find my photo slides from the concert and get them into digital format somehow.

Enjoy the podcast. Meanwhile, here is the final chunk of the new Scripps Howard column for U2 fans to ponder:

… (Bono) expressed disappointment that so many people — artists in particular — attempt to avoid the ultimate questions that haunt life. The doubts, fears, joys and grace of religious faith are a part of life that “we like to sweep under the carpet,” he concluded.

“Deep down, everyone is aware. You know, when somebody dies, when somebody in their family dies. … Things that happen around us, they shock people into a realization of what is going down,” he told me.

“I mean, when you look at the starvation, when you think that a third of the population of this earth is starving, is crying out in hunger, I don’t think that you can sort of smile and say, ‘Well, I know. We’re the jolly human race, you know. We’re all very nice, REALLY. I mean, we’re not, are we?”

Amen to that.

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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.

  • Seth

    I’ve always thought that October was one of their most interesting albums, esp. since it was so thematically Christian.

    And the circumstance of the recording of it with Bono’s lyric notebook being stolen before going into the studio to record it… so he had to make up a lot of stuff fast.

    The notebook has since resurfaced. I wonder what’s in it?

  • Jerry

    I’m happy you picked this theme to comment on.

    They are not alone. On my iTunes database are religious songs by Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and others. From the rock genre, there’s Runrig who sings Gaelic Psalms as well as similar songs in English.

    And there are many who don’t seem to focus on religion but do occasionally bring in religious themes to their music from the Byrds “Turn, Turn, Turn” to Steeleye Span’s “Gaudete” and “Lyke Wage Dirge”.

    This whole area is not a “blind men and the elephant” situation but instead the blind men are ignoring the elephant in the room.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I think it’s wonderful when celebrities of any kind speak of ultimate issues in the public arena.

    I think it’s wonderful when the media doesn’t mock them for it or turn them into a caraciture.

  • Spencerian

    Bono is one of those rock stars with an obvious respect to matters of faith, and it is pleasant to know this has not changed.

    A great example involved Bono’s audience with Pope John Paul II in 2000, as Bono recalled it in this USA Today article at the pope’s death. In appreciation for the singer’s support of aid to Africa, Bono received a rosary (designed by Michaelangelo!) from the pope, who was eyeing Bono’s trademark Fly sunglasses. Bono offered them in exchange to the pontiff, who put them on with a wry grin.

    The article noted that Bono has kept that keepsake with him during his performances. Didn’t hurt the pope’s “rock star” image from many of the young faithful at the time.

    You’ll find that photo here.

  • Steve

    I still believe that there is a great book out there to be written about many of the Rock stars of yesteryear who have had profound life-chaning encounters with Christ how that impacted their art. I would love to read interviews with U2, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Chris Hillman (the Byrds), Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield & Poco), Al Green, Arlo Guthrie, Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), John Michael Talbot, Dion, Barry McGuire, Alice Cooper, Noel Paul Stookey, Steve Winwood, etc. as to how they relate their faith to their art. I recently read where Paul McCartney prays before every concert (article did not go further in depth as to what that meant).

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    To add to Steve’s list, wouldn’t it be great if music journalists engaged all kinds of artists on faith matters or “the ultimate questions that haunt life?” I remember an issue of the old True Tunes News that had a cover story with Sheryl Crow and the interviewer dug into that with her as well as how she sang in church a little when she was younger. But you’d have to have a knowledgeable journalist who “got religion,” and if there were a bunch more of those around, then I guess there wouldn’t be a website here for me to comment on ;-)

    Other than that, I am deep in the sin of envy over your interview opportunity; I saw them the next year in Chicago, but I was just a concertgoer.

  • http://www.u2diary.com/ Matt McGee

    Terry, first, thanks for using the huge cover image of my book and for including an Amazon link. I appreciate that.

    Re: your question: Does anyone know how one goes about getting a correction in A BOOK?

    The exact way you did it: by emailing the author with additional details. :-) You may have forgotten contacting me after the first edition of the book came out a couple years ago. I can tell you that the 2nd edition, which was just published a couple months ago, includes this in the Updates/Corrections section:

    ——–
    1982

    February 23

    Terry Mattingly interviewed Edge after tonight’s show in Champaign; he interviewed Bono via telephone a day earlier. Also, both interviews were done as part of Mattingly’s work at the local newspaper, and only later was the story picked up by CCM magazine.
    ——–

    So there you go. Unfortunately, the 2nd edition isn’t available here in the US and I’m not sure when it will be. I do believe Amazon UK has it, however.

    Thanks again.


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