"I am a singer and a songwriter but I am also a father, four times over. I am a friend to dogs. I am a sworn enemy of the saccharine; and a believer in grace over karma. I talk too much when I'm drunk and sometimes even when I'm not."
-- Bono, 2001 Harvard graduation speech
30 Years of October: Danielle RhĂ©aume On Returning Bono's Lost Lyrics
October 29, 2011
The October we know is not what U2 planned to make. Because Bono lost a briefcase of material in March 1981, when leaving Portland, Ore., U2 made "a completely different album from the one we were preparing for," says Bono. The contents of the now famously gone-missing briefcase have been back in his hands since 2004, thanks to what Bono called "an act of grace" by Danielle Rhéaume and Cindy Harris. They have both told their basic lost-and-found stories before, but now Rhéaume opens up a little more to talk about its contents and what Bono had to say when he saw the items again, twenty-four years later.
@U2: You are one of, perhaps, just two or three people who have ever seen what was in Bono's lost briefcase. How does that make you feel?
This might sound strange, but I feel proud of U2 in the same way an elder might feel about someone younger whom they cared about and watched grow up and realize their dreams. I know this technically doesn't make sense, since I am 16 years younger than Bono. That doesn't matter though -- there is a much younger version of him that I always have in mind when I watch or listen to U2. I think about the hopeful, driven young man that I met through his lost items. I think about the calling that he so clearly felt and answered. I am partial to people who answer their calling. I think that it is an incredibly brave and, unfortunately, an uncommon thing for most people to do. Then again, when people feel a strong calling, I think they feel as though they must pursue that calling, or else they will live with regret.
What was in the briefcase?
The most compelling thing that was in there was his blue notebook. That was where he wrote down his thoughts, ideas and lyrics for songs. His lyrics were more like ideas or a progression of ideas instead of fully finished songs. "Gloria" was just listed as a song title, but I didn't see any lyrics for it. Some were more substantial, though. The most highly developed song, from what I could tell, was "I Fall Down," which made it onto the October album, despite the loss of his notebook.
There were also some entries and ideas that seemed out of step with October. For example, there was a note that said "Sunday Bloody Sunday -- a single" on the same page as the word "War." Then there was "My Father is an Elephant." I even saw "Pop" noted in what I presume was a list of potential and existing song titles. I think that many of the themes that he works with now have been with him all along -- whether he remembers them from before or not.
There were also handwritten calendars, doodles, limericks, stage diagrams, monitor mix sketches, and proof sheets from photo shoots of the band. Bono's work visa was in there, listing his real name -- Paul David Hewson -- as well as letters from Ali. Bono's Dublin address, as well as the addresses for Ali Stewart, Paul McGuinness and Windmill Studios were on many of the items, and there were lists of phone numbers. I should add that the actual briefcase was long gone -- the people that had it before me used it and threw it away. I just had the contents of it.
As you looked through the contents, what impressions were you getting about Bono? What did the items say to you?
They told me this was a young man who already knew he had an extraordinary life ahead of him. I'm not suggesting he was psychic or anything like that -- I just think he knew he had an important job to do … and if he didn't do it, he would probably be miserable. His misery would come from betraying what he felt very strongly was his purpose. He needed to express ideas and connect with others through his art, which came from a place of principles, authenticity, raw emotion and experience. He wasn't interested in the sort of flimsy popularity that runs rampant in today's ego-driven celebrity culture. Ego doesn't mind compromising principles, ideals and authenticity for popularity. It will do whatever it takes to get a "hit" of attention. The thoughtful, conscientious young man that I saw in Bono's lost items wouldn't settle for something so transient and superficial. He wanted much, much more. In many ways, I think the entire band's unwillingness to settle for anything less is why they are still here today.
I also think that it is very important to keep in mind that many bands have reached the point that U2 was at in 1981 when the lyrics were lost. They were on their first tour for their first album. They played bars and other small venues. They could have just as easily died out after that tour and gone the way of so many other bands. In the long run, nobody really would have cared that much -- except for them. That sounds harsh, but I think that it is true. It was entirely up to U2 to set themselves apart and remain relevant for many years.
What do you remember about meeting with Bono and his reaction to seeing his briefcase contents again?
I recall Bono initially being a bit guarded with Cindy and me, but then he transformed quickly into being very open and demonstrative as soon as he realized that we weren't creeps and we weren't there to hit him up for money.
Handing Bono's items back to him, piece by piece, was an amazing experience. He let me decide what he would see first and had a great sense of humor about what I pointed out to him in his notebook. The funniest things by far were his many pages of practiced introductions. He laughed at them and explained how he still doesn't like introducing himself. He also was really excited about what I was handing him. He kept saying, "Wow!" He was like a kid on Christmas morning, unwrapping gifts and discovering exactly what he'd put on his list. I could tell that the whole experience was kind of surreal for him. It was surreal for me, too.
I know that you plan to write more about this someday, and Bono agreed to meet with you again and let you interview him for your own writing project, right?
Yes, he did. He actually called to talk with me two months after the return and during that conversation he agreed to do an interview with me. The interview was, and still is, intended to go toward a book that I started researching and writing in 2005. Interviewing him was a very special experience and I learned a lot. During the show that followed the interview, he thanked me from stage before singing "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." That was the last time that I saw him until June, when U2 was in Seattle for the 360 tour. He had backstage tickets sent my way, so I was able to go back before the show and see him again. The room he was in was full of the who's who of philanthropists, including Jeff Raikes and Jamie Drummond. They were all very kind and Bono made a point of telling the entire room our story. It felt really good to know that the return of his lost items still meant so much to him.
What can you tell us from that interview that would help us get a better perspective on October and Bono's thoughts on the contents of the lost briefcase?
I recorded the interview and transcribed it, so I can share a bit of it with you. I haven't shared much of it, because I am saving most of it for my book.
When I asked him how he felt when he looked through his lost notebook of lyrics, he said:
"What came out in the notebook to me, when I looked it, was a lot of quite warm feelings -- and I'm uniquely able to read the hieroglyphics. You know, my version of backward writing is a kind of shorthand, and so most people reading wouldn't kind of get … And now, this is true today -- most people, if they found my notes, they wouldn't be able to make sense of what I'm writing. But, I would know. The only problem was that it was a long time ago! I couldn't really understand a lot of what I was reading. But the thing that did come across was that this really was the precursor to the War album. The pictures of the drawings that I did of the stage clothes were for the War tour -- along with a bit of stage design. There was only one song that I could vaguely make out, which was an early precursor to 'Sunday Bloody Sunday.'"
When I told him that I saw "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and the word "War" in his notebook, he said, "What happened was, as a result of losing this notebook, we diverted to October. That's what happened. So, had I not have lost that, we would have just gone straight into making War. That's what I was reminded from looking at it."
That, I thought, was very interesting … I also asked him if losing his lyrics and the briefcase was a huge loss for him. I wanted to know if he was devastated at the time. His response cracked me up! He said, "Well, yeah, I mean three-hundred dollars is a lot of cash!" (I think he meant that $300 was a lot of cash to him back in 1981, but he was being respectful to a poor college student!)
He also said, "I think there was a passport and I would say these hieroglyphics. They wouldn't mean much to someone else, but they were clues for me. That's all they were, but they were important clues. So important that, without them, we made a completely different album than the one we were preparing for."
Did seeing Bono's notes, the lyrics and the rest of the contents change the way you listen to October?
Yes, for a few different reasons. One reason is that I imagine them struggling in the studio without the lyrics and ideas that Bono had drafted. They literally had to surrender and put "vision over visibility." I also imagine him carrying that icky feeling that a person has when they lose something, whether by accident or by theft. He never could have imagined how those items would be returned to him someday.
When I listen to the song "October," I am moved by the autumnal imagery. October is when the earth and trees look bare and dead, but the soil is actually very much alive, because the decaying leaves, stems, fruits and vegetables are coming together to create a fertile environment for more growth. Human life is very much the same way, and that certainly is a common theme within Bono's lyrics. Consider the lyric from "Lemon": "Midnight is where the day begins." Darkness precedes light. Loss precedes the boon. What makes us wiser, kinder and better people? Hardship and "darkness," as it is often described. The dark night of the soul is fertile ground for growth and creative expression. October was fertile ground for War … and War made the struggle around October seem worth it. That struggle eventually strengthened the band and helped to make them who they are today.
I know you've read all the versions of the story about how Bono's briefcase was "lost" and then you and Cindy "found" it and returned it. Would you like to clear anything up in those stories?
Yes. The first one is that Cindy and I stole the briefcase. That is absurd! I was four years old in 1981. My dad was a cop and he certainly didn't allow me to hang out with bands backstage at a sports bar. Even though Cindy would have been the right age to steal it, she didn't. I know for a fact that she and her husband found it in the attic of their rental home. I have spoken with the man who put it there and it wasn't Cindy's husband.
The other thing that miffed me about how the press told the story was that they made it look like I was just some friend that Cindy decided to take with her while she returned Bono's lost items. I did the lion's share of the work to make the return happen. It wasn't easy. U2's management was suspicious of me, as was Bono, and there were times when I heard nothing from their management for weeks, if not months. It was a very frustrating process. Fortunately, it finally did happen and that is why I am here, speaking with you today.
Has the whole experience of looking through the items and then meeting Bono to return them affected how you think of Bono as both an artist and a person?
Yes, I appreciate him as a human being who has worked incredibly hard to be where he is as an artist today. I think that before I had his lost items I was just like many, if not most, people who have grown up in our culture: I knew that he was human, but my view of him was limited to what came to me through American media. That meant I saw him almost like a demi-God that was somehow endowed with creative gifts that are unattainable for most of us. I had no real appreciation or understanding of the amount of work he put in to his art. I think that growing up in our "final product culture" is part of why I was so naïve. Until I had Bono's lost items, I never once saw a successful artist behind the scenes, developing a creative idea, writing lyrics, making mistakes, struggling with choices, getting frustrated, or feeling insecure. All I'd ever seen was the final, polished product that seemed to magically appear at the artist's command.
As soon as Bono's items were in my hands, that illusion dissipated quickly. He became human to me through his scribbles and attempts at lyrics. I was able to take the stars out of my eyes and see the human being who had been there all along. This realization gave me hope that if I were willing to do the work, I could do what I love and have my own measure of success in life. As I mentioned in my essay for Exploring U2, when I later told Bono about my realization, he said, "C'mon, admit it: you took two looks at my shite and thought, 'If he can make it, so can I.'"
(c) @U2/Calhoun, 2011.