"Maybe that is the step forward on this record, to be able to have the freedom to have humour sitting alongside songs that are deadly earnest, and the two actually balance out each other."
-- Edge, on All That You Can't Leave Behind
Brendan Kennelly: U2 Connections
In 1991, I was in a library, hidden back in the racks of magazines, reading Musician Magazine. I was reading about Achtung Baby, a CD I had recently acquired (okay, stole) from my brother. This article said that one of the songs was not simply the boy-meets-girl, boy-treats-girl-bad, boy-feels-bad song that it seemed. It was Judas talking to Jesus, a betrayal song, yes, but pulling out for its metaphor the biggest betrayal known to Western culture. The article in Musician pointed to an epic poem, Brendan Kennelly's The Book of Judas, as an inspiration for the song, particularly one line put in Judas' mouth: "If you want to serve the age, betray it." Edge's comments on this were later quoted by Bill Flanagan (the editor of Musician Magazine at the time) in U2 at the End of the World:
"He's fascinated with the whole moral concept of 'Where would we be without Judas?' I do think there is some truth that in highlighting what is rather than what we would ideally like to be, you're on the one hand betraying a sort of unwritten rule, but you're also serving."
Brendan Kennelly, a literature professor at Trinity College, has written many, many books of poetry, including one called Cromwell, which, like The Book of Judas, takes a reviled historic figure and tries to see things from his perspective. In an interview on CNNfyi.com, Kennelly explains his motivation for presenting the "other side of the story," whether in poems or in university lectures:
"I like to try to get my students to see these people, whether they be historic or contemporary figures, not as symbols but as individuals. And by doing so, they may blaze a path into themselves. Even the ones traditionally so hated by the Irish, such as Cromwell and Judas. You should always get into what scares you, because there are sides to yourself that are as bad or worse than that which you judge in a man like Judas."
The more-than-400-page Book of Judas was the best selling book in Ireland in 1991. (It now appears to be out of print; I have found it difficult to track it down in the US.) The poet let a Judas voice speak through him and came out of the experience with a twelve-part poem broken up into many hundreds of parts which can stand alone. He hears his Judas as a Dubliner who namedrops modern pubs as often as he namedrops Mary Magdalene or Barrabas. He is a known evil writing letters to the atom bomb and drinking wine with Hitler, but the very fact that his evil is so well known makes it less frightful. His tone is so conversational, the barriers drop; one cannot imagine dining at a restaurant with Charlie Manson, but it seems a little easier to do so with Judas. Then he uncovers the evil at the core of things. The pop psychology anthem "Be your true, authentic self" -- he says he gave that advice to Hitler, and see where it got us:
What about the mantra "You can change the world"? Yes, you can, and Judas did; see where it got him.
The same question arises from reading Judas' words as from watching Macphisto in action: Can we trust him? Is anything he says in this book true? Which of these voices is his -- the mocking, the confessional, the self-pitying, the confused? Why even ask? Is it so hard to trust the word of a man we've never met, whose own words we've never heard, a man we only know through the judgments of others? There are times when it seems he, as betrayer, is the only one free enough to express how things really are, the trait Edge pointed out was admirable:
This is the only poem in the book where U2 gets a nod, but plenty of cross-references exist between the poet and the group. John Waters in Race of Angels: Ireland and the Genesis of U2 writes:
"There are striking resonances between aspects of U2 and the work of the poet Brendan Kenelly, who has consistently attempted to draw out and exorcise the difficult demons of the Irish personality...He did it with...The Book of Judas...which was published coincidentally with the release of Achtung Baby. An Irish newspaper, The Sunday Press, had the bright idea of getting Bono and Kennelly to review one another's work. Bono picked up immediately on the themes in Kennelly's book with which he had himself become preoccupied. 'Religion as antagonist, that ould crutch of Irish writing, is not enough for someone as smart as Brendan Kennelly,' he wrote. 'As a rebel his five smooth stones are kept for much less obvious Goliaths that Catholic guilt or political gridlock. He knows that with less than ten years to go, the twentieth century has left Judas/Kennelly with no one to blame...but himself that is...If not exactly stained glass windows, he has found in Christianity a parade of colours, a vat of symbolism, ceremonies and rituals that takes on new meaning when juxtaposed with the cruel mundaneness of the real world...There is light here, bright white light, but if you do find Jesus, you know Judas is just 'round the corner and he knows...it's got to be-e-e perfect!'
"The infatuation was reciprocated entirely. 'What I like most about U2 is the style with which they have survived their own popularity,' wrote Kennelly. 'This record goes futher than merely rejecting cynicism. It praises in a joyous yet sometimes quite ironic way the fragile but enduring power of love in a world whose values seem to denigrate that power.'"
Perhaps because U2 and their associates enjoy having kind words said about them by a poet, Kennelly was tapped for another review by Propaganda when POP came out. He wrote:
"Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen have years of experience behind them now. Pop is a resonant distillation of all that experience...The beautiful clarity of Bono's voice as he sings his explorations of love, sex, and spiritlife in our mad world of violence, greed, and exploitation is a singing beacon of hope in contemporary darkness."
On a lighter note, U2 might owe Kennelly quite a debt. According to Eamon Dunphy's Unforgettable Fire (admittedly not the most reliable source of information, but I've yet to read the story elsewhere), he played a role in an incident which altered Paul McGuinness' stay at Trinity College:
"A piece Paul had run in the college magazine...was deemed to be libellous by the junior dean, the then young and subsequently distinguished Irish poet, Brendan Kennelly. The libel was contained in an innocuous article about the politics of Trinity's choral society. Kennelly imposed a fine of 50 pounds on McGuinness, who as editor bore overall responsibility."
Dunphy says this minor scandal was a contributing factor to McGuinness later having to leave Trinity, which helped push him on the path toward film production and, later, band management. Such are the strange ties that bind this poet and this particular rock'n'roll band.