"I love hymns and gospel music, but the idea of turning your music into a tool for evangelism is missing the point. Music is the language of the spirit anyway."
Like a Song: City of Blinding Lights
June 12, 2013
[Ed. note: This is the 77th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
"It's an area of Bono's lyric writing that I really like, cinematic, conjuring up a place and time, New York, a city that really brings you to somewhere, a state of mind."
That's Edge talking about "City Of Blinding Lights" in U2 By U2. I couldn't agree with him more. While a lot of U2's songs can take you to another place visually because of Bono's thoughtful songwriting ability, this particular song has had a special meaning for me from the very first listen. Perhaps it's because Bono knew the one way to get to my heart quickly: sing about New York City.
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, the album that COBL is from, was released when I was a sophomore in college in the fall of 2004. Like every new album I get of a favorite artist, I listen to it in full about four or five times and then pick random tracks to listen to and focus on them more. I attended college in NYC because I knew it would be the perfect place to pursue my dream of being a journalist. This was also the perfect time to get to know the album better, as I had 90 minutes to travel to class every morning from my home in New Jersey.
When I got to the point of picking random tracks to listen to, I always found myself starting with "COBL." I just felt bonded to it, I think because it was so illuminating in terms of the lyrics that Bono had written. "Neon heart, day glow eyes" and "Flash bulbs, purple irises" were words that could get me so emotional. Even hearing Bono sing "In the city of blinding lights" made my head spin because he described the NYC skyline in one simple lyric. This was the album that made me really fall in love with U2, as I was in the early stages of my fandom. And "COBL" was sealing the deal for me that I would love this band forever.
My sophomore year I took my first creative writing class, where we were required to do writing workshops. I used to get so nervous before a class when my piece would be critiqued. I would sit outside the classroom before class began with "COBL" blasting in my earbuds to relax me. The opening swells, then Larry's increased drumming, would match my rapid heartbeats before class. "I knew much more then than I do now," Bono sang as I thought about how I had it all figured it out in high school and now here I was in college wondering if I could make it in the real world. The song was my own personal anxiety medication.
Fast-forward a few months later to May 17, 2005, when U2 were on their Vertigo tour in NJ and I got to see them live for the very first time. "COBL" was the opening song and I remember going out of my mind. "Beautiful Day" is my favorite U2 song ever and of course I was excited to hear that. But "COBL" was the one song my body craved hearing. Oh, did it deliver. However, it didn't compare to the next time I heard it live.
I went to another Vertigo tour show five months later on Oct. 7, 2005. But this was no ordinary show. This was a show at the big arena. It was at Madison Square Garden in NYC. I was a junior and interning at a major fashion magazine. I sort of felt like I was a big deal now and that I was on my way to "living the dream." My seat was in nosebleed heaven but when the lights got cut and "COBL" began, I didn't scream like I did in NJ. I promptly burst into tears. This is what the song was about, moments like this. "Oh, you look so beautiful tonight," all of these strangers around me chanted along with Bono. We didn't know each other, but we were all united in this gorgeous city on this night that bled so much emotion. I remember leaving the show feeling like I was on fire. I felt like I could conquer this city and the world. "A city lit by fireflies / They're advertising in the skies / For people like us," people like me who wanted to paint the town their own personal color.
Luckily at every U2 show I've been to since then, "COBL" has been in the setlist. It was simply magical during the recent 360 tour: being in a stadium with the summer night skies blanketing all of us as U2 played. The lyric "I'm getting ready to leave the ground," pulsed throughout the New Meadowlands Stadium in July 2011 during the band's NY/NJ show.
My friend Joy and I were clinging to the barricade in the GA pit and I would look at U2 in front of me and then up at the famous Claw stage beaming light at the stars above the stadium. It looked so brilliant. With the prospect of a new U2 album on the way this year, I hope the band doesn't abandon this song during their potential tour. I think it sounds glorious live and it would be tragic if it got cut.
Be it Jay-Z's "Empire State Of Mind" or "New York, New York" by Ol' Blue Eyes, people have their own personal NYC songs that they gravitate toward. "COBL" is mine and always will be. Every amazing moment I have in that beautiful city, this is the song I put on. Walking the streets of Greenwich Village after an epic night with friends or sitting on the subway after attending an event, hearing "Blessings are not just for the ones who kneel, luckily," is enough to make me realize that I am so blessed to know a town as loving as NYC that takes you in its open arms and holds you tight.
On the subject of love, I don't really consider myself the "marrying type." But should I find a man who could finally make an honest woman out of me, he would have to agree to two conditions. One, we must get married in NYC. Two, I'm walking down the aisle to this song. I think that sounds fair, don't you?
A lot of times I hear the phrase that goes something like "If you can see it, it will come true." The more you envision something (or to borrow from another U2 song, to dream out loud), it will eventually happen. With "COBL," I feel that the more times I listen to it, the more my New York dreams will come true. I'll have the job, the home, the guy and the life I've always wanted. Like Bono says about the song in U2 By U2, "It's about recapturing a sense of wonder, being in a city and reminding yourself that you don't have to lose your soul to gain the world." I don't have to kill myself trying. All I have to do is dream and believe. Because if there is absolutely one thing I truly believe in, it's the lyrical gospel of U2. The faith that I have in them and NYC is something I will never abandon.
© @U2/Marino, 2013.