U2 Lists: Top 5 U2 Literary Moments
June 21, 2009
[Ed. note: This is the 10th in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
I find it intriguing that, as a topic, literary influences appear to be such a little-explored one in the world of U2 fandom. After all, references to the thoughts and ideas of various wordsmiths abound within the entire canon of the band's imagery and lyrics, from Bono's on-stage recitations of Yeats' He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven to the band's early use of imagery from Golding's Lord of the Flies during their performances, and from making subtle allusions to C.S. Lewis in their music videos to acknowledging the influence of American writers like Flannery O'Connor and Saul Bellow on The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum.
The lack of acknowledgement may be because this particular vein within U2's music, whether in song, speech or action, has rarely been obvious, often being overlooked in favour of the more overt political and spiritual dimensions. One arguably has to dig deeper in order to understand them. But such a venture is both challenging and rewarding, exposing a side to U2 and their music that is not often instantly associated with them. Below are a few of my favourite moments, big and small, from U2's explorations into the literary world.
1. Into the Heart of a Child
U2's first significant experiment with alter egos was arguably during their early touring days, when Bono adopted personas such as the Boy and the Fool as a means of illustrating the turbulent, and often damaging, transition from childhood to adulthood. This had its roots in William Golding's classic work Lord of the Flies, which cynically depicts the failed attempts made by a group of WW2-era schoolboys stranded on a desert island to build a functioning society. The book deals with themes such as the end of innocence, the human capacity for savagery and "the infinite cynicism of adult life," a nondescript force of corruption and evil which, the story implies, children inevitably fall victim to when they grow up.
U2 also named one of their songs on the Boy album after a chapter in Golding's novel, with the song's lyrics exploring themes of alienation, isolation and uncertainty -- ideas that hover spectre-like within the book's pages. The cry of 'Do you feel in me/anything redeeming/any worthwhile feeling?/Is life like a tight-rope/hanging on my ceiling?' in "Shadows and Tall Trees" could be lifted directly from the character Ralph's musings on his sudden loss of innocence and attempt to articulate a sense of awkwardness he can't quite define.
The subtle dangers of adulthood resurface as an idea in many of Bono's later interviews, where he warns against "knowingness." The end of innocence can bring answers to questions we would rather not ask, as the brutal and bloody fate of many of the characters in the novel illustrates; a reality from which both the inhabitants of Golding's island and the voices on the Boy album seem at times to be trying to make a rapid retreat.
2. Go Lightly Underground
In 1989 the novelist Salman Rushdie was the subject of a controversy over the publication of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which allegedly contained material blasphemous to Islam. After the Iranian spiritual leader of the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for his execution, Rushdie was forced into hiding under police protection for many years. On one notable occasion, at Bono's behest he defied his exiled status to appear on-stage with U2 at Wembley Stadium during the Zooropa tour.
The gesture was both important and courageous, as it demonstrated the refusal of the artistic community to bow down to religious extremism and threats to freedom of expression, despite the censorship that had inevitably been imposed upon Rushdie. The author also regarded the decision of the two to exchange glasses -- with Bono wearing Rushdie's literary spectacles whilst the latter donned his wraparound shades -- as a sign of their joint stand against fanaticism and an acknowledgement of the shared aspirations of many writers and musicians.
Rushdie later repaid the show of loyalty by writing the lyrics to 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet' (a track which appeared on the Japanese and British versions of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind), drawn from the author's novel of the same name. He continues to be an outspoken supporter of the band.
3. Religious Nuts
One of my favourite U2 photos is that of a very young Bono sitting with Bruce Springsteen. The two are apparently discussing writers, with Springsteen (who as ever appears to be ageless) telling Bono about the work of the southern author Flannery O'Connor. Despite her relative obscurity in many areas, O'Connor's influence on U2 is arguably pivotal to understanding their early musical and spiritual development, particularly with Bono.
Like the singer, O'Connor was deeply religious, but her faith eschewed that of fundamentalism and fanaticism. Her novel Wise Blood, which Bono has cited as a favourite, depicts a world of depravity where her characters' natures are explored through violent, polarising situations with good being pitted against evil. In the latter novel, those portrayed are particularly grotesque, with the main character Hazel Motes being driven mad by the religious fanatics surrounding him in his small home town in evangelical Tennessee. Here religious extremism is ridiculed through caricature, with religious institutions shown as being corrupt and dogmatic. This clearly struck a chord with Bono, who in an interview with Propaganda during the late '80s likened Motes' attempts at founding 'The Church Without Christ' to the various weird sects and religious cults that forever appeared to characterise the religious landscape of Ireland.
Similarly, O'Connor seemed to share Bono's love of aphorisms. Some of her sayings could easily have been lifted from the singer's mouth, such as "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it," and "Where there is no belief in the soul there is very little drama. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realise the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe."
4. The Very Thoughts They Would Conceal
U2's relationship with Bob Dylan has always had a slightly surreal and fragmented feel. In a well-documented moment in Neil McCormick's 2004 book Killing Bono: I Was Bono's Doppelganger, he describes how when Bono was granted the honour of singing a verse of "Blowin' in the Wind" with the folk legend at a Slane Castle show in 1984, the U2 front man knew none of the words. In an attempt at compensating, he merely sang the first thing that came into his head. Although the lyrics were socially conscious and not un-Dylanesque in their reference to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, they left the elder musician slightly scandalised at having one of his best-known songs mutilated in public.
However, the relationship clearly wasn't too soured, as Dylan later co-wrote the lyrics to "Love Rescue Me" on Rattle and Hum. The collaboration was bizarrely prophetic, as Bono claimed to have come up with the song in a dream in which Dylan was supposed to have written and presented it to him. The song was not Dylan's, but after an initial aborted lyric-writing session he and Bono produced "Love Rescue Me." Although Dylan's status as a genuine literary figure is admittedly the product of some debate, the fruit of his session with Bono is deeply poetic beyond doubt, evoking the despair, remorse and spiritual torment of a man who, in Bono's words, "people keep turning to as a saviour, but could do with a shot of salvation himself."
In a brilliant touch, Dylan also later refers to an encounter with Bono in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One. His assessments of the U2 singer's character are simple, but wonderfully astute at the same time. He describes spending time with him as like "eating dinner on a train - feels like you're moving, going somewhere," and claiming that Bono is a "closet philosopher" with "the soul of an ancient poet." Yet perhaps most perceptively, he states that the main similarity between himself and the man from U2 is that "When Bono and me aren't exactly sure about somebody, we just make it up. We can strengthen any argument by expanding on something either real or not real." Arguably extravagant praise from one who so rarely gives it.
5. A Phone Call From Hell
The biblical phrase "Mock the devil and he will flee from you" rings true in many contexts, but it perhaps serves as a useful tagline to two closely linked characters: MacPhisto and Screwtape, the devil in C.S. Lewis' work The Screwtape Letters, who serves as a mentor to a younger devil in the act of corrupting humans. The aim of both Zoo TV and Zooropa in many ways appears to have been to poke fun at and expose modern culture for its trivialisation of the serious and its deification of the ridiculous, which in his 2001 book Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 Steve Stockman claims is akin to C.S. Lewis' exposure of Satan's techniques for corrupting humans in The Screwtape Letters.
MacPhisto plays the part of seducing the audience into confusion, making them think that Bono has morphed into the very figure of rock 'n' roll excess and decadence that U2 had appeared so decidedly against in the '80s. But as with Lewis' Screwtape, all is not as it seems; MacPhisto's true role is to draw attention to his own absurdity, the influence of which is made clear in the video for "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me." When the cartoon Bono is knocked over by a car, the book that flies out of his hand is The Screwtape Letters. In U2's world, the influence of the literary giant seems to serve as an indicator of order in the midst of chaos.
© @U2/Fry, 2009.
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