"A performance must be larger than life, but to be worthwhile you must have an element of humanity."
Like A Song: Vertigo
April 11, 2012
[Ed. note: This is the 66th 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.]
Spinning. Slipping. Colliding. These are the moments in life when all hell breaks loose, overwhelming us with the chaos and fear of loneliness, uncertainty, doubt and a host of other staggering emotions. This post-9/11 world only adds to feelings of isolation and insecurity. The culture that so quickly engulfs our souls (especially in Western nations) has left us distrustful of politics, unsure of the economy, cynical of science and skeptical of religion. There are moments in life, for many of us, when nothing seems permanent or stable anymore. These are the moments that challenge our assumptions about what is important.
U2's "Vertigo" is a song that I've come back to again and again since it showed up in 2004 on the How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb album. As a musical piece, the song was enthusiastically received by fans and critics, often recognized as a modern reinvention of the band's post-punk roots. The grinding guitar and driving rhythm work well to support the emotion of the song. In the official music video, the band members spiral up and down, trying to hold their ground on wildly undulating rings of an enormous bullseye, while being blasted by a gale-force wind in a featureless desert. On the recent 360 tour, images of U2 playing live spun increasingly faster around the gargantuan circular screen until they were a blur of speeding faces. As the lead track on Bomb, "Vertigo" sets a tone for the album and reminds us of the tenuousness of life through both music and lyric.
I can identify with Bono's acknowledgment, "I'm at a place called vertigo," and also with Edge's response, "Donde esta?" (loosely meaning, "Where are you?"). The song offers both confession and question. I especially like the Jacknife Lee mix in which Bono sings an alternate lyric in the fourth line:
Lights go down
Fear. We fear all kinds of things. I'm finally coming to terms with my greatest anxiety: the fear of uncertainty. This gets particularly complicated in a world that never seems to stop spinning, a world that was once predictable but is now so uncertain. My mind wanders.
Bono has said "Vertigo" is a commentary on the culture we live in. He talks about the song in U2 By U2.
"In the case of 'Vertigo,' I was thinking about this awful nightclub we've all been to. You're supposed to be having a great time and everything's extraordinary around you and the drinks are the price of buying a bar in a Third World country. You're there and you're doing it and you're having it and you sort of don't want to be there. And it felt like the way a lot of people were feeling at that moment, as you turn on the telly or you're just looking around and you see big, fat Capitalism at the top of its mountain, just about to topple. It's that woozy, sick feeling of realizing that here we are, drinking, eating, polluting, robbing ourselves to death. And in the middle of the club, there's this girl. She has crimson nails. I don't even know if she's beautiful, it doesn't matter but she has a cross around her neck, and the character in this stares at the cross just to steady himself."
In a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone, Bono suggested that, in the midst of all the turmoil and chaos of life, there are images -- in this case the image of a crucifix -- that can capture our attention so completely that they ground us. It is somehow in these moments, and through these images, that we find hope and meaning. We are finally able to make sense of the insensible. And it is in these moments that love breaks through, teaching us, molding us, grounding us.
I had one of those life-changing moments just two months ago. I was taking my family of four on a three-night vacation to a beach in California. We were driving along a well-traveled rural section of a state route when, without notice, an oncoming car made a left turn in front of us. Traveling at highway speed, we slammed into the side of the car. Our vehicle was pole-vaulted five feet in the air, spun around and landed facing traffic. The witness behind me said it looked like a Hollywood car crash timed for maximum impact. Amazingly and miraculously, we were able to walk away from the accident with only minor bruises and abrasions, though we are each facing months of treatment for whiplash. Sadly, one person in the other car died and another suffered critical injuries. The law enforcement officers later told me that the accident was not my fault and there was nothing I could have done to avoid it.
I didn't have one of those "see your life flash before your eyes" experiences because it all happened so fast, but I do have one image locked into my mind. I remember, in a fraction of a second, looking over at my wife in the passenger seat. I will never forget the explosion of the air bags, the screeching of brakes and seeing the world spinning around through the window behind her. If I were to go blind today, I would always see her face frozen in time. Perhaps my soul knew this was going to be one of those life-changing moments. Maybe that is why I was drawn to the most calming, peaceful image I could ever hope to see in the midst of that chaos.
There are collisions of the heart as well as collisions of metal and machine. For some, the vertigo comes through a lost relationship, a broken marriage, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a failed business, betrayal by a trusted friend, a serious illness or another catastrophe that is out of one's control. It is in these times that we feel life spinning and slipping away. It is in these times that a mind can wander from the things that are significant, solid, stable.
Many emerge from significant life crises stronger because they had an image of something sturdier and more stable than themselves. It might be God, family or a significant other. Something helped them focus and find hope in a hopeless situation. Something brought them to their knees either in trust, surrender or submission.
My family's trip to the coast was disrupted in a way that I could never have imagined. My world slipped into a frenzied chaos that I am still processing. But I have had a good traveling companion, a good teacher. "Your love is teaching me how to kneel." And so I kneel -- with gratitude and love for the things that matter. I'm a different person than I was two months ago. The crimson nails left some scars. I don't like that my family had to go through such a disorienting and traumatizing experience, or that there will be some negative consequences we have to deal with for months ahead. But I am grateful for where I've come. I am grateful for the person that I have become.
I've been to a place called vertigo, more than once, and I know I'll be there again. Donde esta?
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2012.