"Music expresses the inexpressible. All our songs are about that, about inarticulation."
U2 Lists: 4 Ways Mom Is Muse In Bono's Lyrics
May 09, 2012
[Ed. note: This is the 38th in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
I believe everyone's life has a purpose, and that you may never fully realize that purpose in your lifetime. After thinking about the impact of mothers and the ripple effect of their influence in the lives of their children, it's easy to see how that purpose can touch the lives of generations. Had Iris Hewson not led the life she led, we might not have U2, their music, or the millions of lives changed because of her impact on her youngest son. In honor of Mother's Day, let's take a look at how the role of mother has been Bono's muse in his songwriting.
Mothers make sacrifices for their children. From the beginning of the journey, "always pain before a child is born" in "Yahweh," to the tragic end in a loss of a child ("Mothers Of The Disappeared") and all points in between, Bono’s lyrical honesty describes what mothers go through for their children quite fittingly. In "Wave Of Sorrow," he sings, "blessed is the sex worker's body sold tonight / she works with what she's got to save her children's life."
2. Unconditional Love
The song "Miracle Drug" spotlights the lengths a mother will go to for her child. Bono said in Blender magazine in 2004, "We all went to the same school and just as we were leaving, a fellow called Christopher Nolan arrived. He had been deprived of oxygen for two hours when he was born, so he was paraplegic. But his mother believed he could understand what was going on and used to teach him at home. Eventually they discovered a drug that allowed him to move one muscle in his neck. So they attached this unicorn device to his forehead and he learned to type. And out of him came all these poems that he'd been storing up in his head. Then he put out a collection called 'Dam-Burst of Dreams,' which won a load of awards and he went off to university and became a genius. All because of a mother's love and a medical breakthrough."
In "I Will Follow," that length is reversed where it's the child who will do anything because of the unconditional love, even if it means doing something unthinkable. Hot Press' Niall Stokes writes, "In the past, Bono has talked about the song being a sketch about the unconditional love a mother has for a child, but it is clearly more than that. There is a palpable yearning in the lyrics that has much more to do with what a child feels when his mother walks -- or is taken -- away from him and the suicidal urge to follow. 'A boy tries hard to be a man / His mother takes him by the hand.'"
While no child wishes to be deserted, there does come a point in life where that separation must come. For Bono, it happened at a very early age and, as we all know, it has shaped his purpose from that moment on.
Both "Tomorrow" and "Mofo" tackle the topic of desertion head-on in different ways. Bono said in Rolling Stone that "Tomorrow" "is a detailed account of my mother's funeral. But I had no idea when I was writing it." The 20-year-old Bono was trying to make sense of that day; by the end of the song he is calling out to God for answers.
Jump ahead about 15 years, and a more mature Bono is calling out to his mother in "Mofo." Bono said in U2 By U2, "It was extraordinary playing 'Mofo' live. The song would come to a shuddering halt and there I was, just speaking to my mother in front of 50,000 of my closest friends. Some nights it would really surprise me what an emotional place I would get to."
4. Terms Of Endearment
Most mothers are used to being called by many names, and Bono doesn't disappoint in the way he identifies them. The easiest one sung seems to be "mama" as it rolls nicely off the tongue such as "cool down mama, cool off" in "Crumbs From Your Table." He has also gone with the slang of "mammy" in "Miami," which is classified as an alternative to the word mama. "Dancing Shoes" uses mama a bit more personally: "I had a mama / she told me 'bout you /she said true love don't lie."
Nowhere has Bono been more playful with the term "mama" than in "Big Girls Are Best." The repetitive use of "sexy mama" is more of a flirty nickname given to the woman who has the "baby at her breast" by her suitor.
"Mother" has also made its way into several songs as a passing mention. "Another Day" mentions "daylight, mother stands in the hall." In "I'm Not Your Baby," he writes, "I'm not your mother / you're not my man / and I'm not your baby." In "Love You Like Mad," he describes "M-O-M under a tree."
The motherhood theme has been tightly woven into the fabric of Bono's songwriting since the beginning of his career and I am sure will continue to pop up in the future. Bill Flanagan wrote in U2: At The End Of The World that a fortuneteller once told Iris Hewson she would bear a son, whose name would start with "P," and who would achieve fame in whatever life he chose. Her life's purpose continues to touch all of our lives. If she didn't influence her son, who knows where we all would be.
© @U2/Lawrence, 2012.