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"You write a song because something hurts." — Adam

Like A Song: Book Of Your Heart

A highly specific take on "Book Of Your Heart."

Like A Song 2019 1200px

Well, U2 have wrapped up another tour just as we in the northern hemisphere are heading into the darkest days of the year. Being a cheery sort of person, I thought this might be a good time to write some thoughts about a “dark” U2 song.

I had planned to say a word or two about “Book Of Your Heart” during our Dark U2 Halloween podcast, but when I finally sat down to scribble a few notes, it slipped my mind. I could have kicked myself, as it’s a song that absolutely floored me the first time I heard it, on another December night two years ago.


A commandment, but for whom?

Right at the start, you put this into words
How you think we should proceed, yeah

I’m listening.

You wanted me alone
With the pictures that you’ve seen

Oh. A punch right to a fangirl’s throat.

Of where you haven’t been
But where you wanna go

And a kick while she’s down.

I don’t claim to understand U2’s reasoning for making “Book Of Your Heart” available only on the “deluxe” version of Songs Of Experience, but I suppose they felt it didn’t fit the narrative of the album, which is at various times joyous, defiant, loving and comforting. SOE opens with someone reporting back to us after seeing a glimpse of the eternal and ends with a warm hymn for “someone like me”—which is a thing you actually have to say when you sing along. And what a gift that is.

Book Of Your Heart” is harsh. It’s just harsh. And that’s fine. U2 have been harsh before, and I hope they will be again. Some of their finest, most incisive songs are harsh.

In late 2017, Bono told Rolling Stone that the song “Ordinary Love” was aboutnonromanticized” love: “The love that people make, the deals that people make to stay together. What Yeats calls ‘cold passion.' I love the idea that great relationships have a lower temperature.”

This is our wedding day
This is the promise that we’ll stay
Through the long descriptive passages
Where we don’t know what to say

These lines from “Book Of Your Heart” imply a relationship between people who intend to carry on together no matter what happens, well after the hearts-and-flowers stuff is over. Yet this song doesn’t strike me as being about a literal marriage. It could be about a deep friendship, or a long creative partnership. It could even be—along the lines of “The Little Things That Give You Away”—an argument with the self.

But I described those first few lines—the ones about the pictures seen and the places never been—as a blow to the throat because I hear them as being rather pointedly directed at the fans. At someone like me.

We know U2 love their fans. Bono has said he’s never forgotten the feeling of being a fan, and I think it’s for this reason that even after 43 years, U2 remain one of the warmest and most generous bands in the biz. They’re still willing to greet as many people as they can outside hotels and concert venues, and still eager to connect with fans, both new and old, in any way they can. (True story: I once engaged Adam Clayton in a peekaboo game around the head and shoulders of a massive venue security guard. Should you ever get a helpless smile and a big shrug from Adam while he’s on stage, you will know you’re alive.)

And yet, I find that fans—not just U2 fans, but fans of any band, or TV series or comics universe—can sometimes lose sight of a famous person’s humanity. We may project our own needs and desires onto that person, or assign them virtues that no one can possibly live up to. We justify their bad behavior, if there is any. We try to remake that person in our own image.

I don’t excuse myself in any way. I have always been a fan of something. I was born in fandom. But when you find yourself growing older in fandom, you eventually have to take a dispassionate look at what it is you’re actually doing.

Ask the leaf and ask the bird
Not to sing or speak a word
We are not fictitious characters
We don’t belong to this world

I think it must be surreal, sometimes, to be in Bono’s shoes. (I guess it’s a plus if you can walk in heels.) It must be surreal sometimes to be transported from place to place inside a smoked-glass SUV, as if you’re a precious stone that might crack in daylight, only to step out into a hurly-burly of faces and waving arms. You’ve been around long enough to know who’s in that crowd. Someone will tell you that your music saved them. Someone will demand a song that you haven’t played or even thought about in 15 years. Someone is only there to get your signature so he can put it on eBay. Someone will cry. You will hear someone say “Hi, Bono” in a small, querulous voice, and you won’t be able to figure out who said it. You shake whichever hands you can get to, and they will feel all kinds of ways. Hot, cold, damp, firm, shaky.

The book of your heart
One tiny mark, an entry

I’m not sure U2 are aware of how much real estate they really take up in the hearts of their fans. “One tiny mark” seems a little modest. It would be hard to tell them how every new song, every show, every encounter, every whisper of encouragement or shout of inspiration in your headphones, takes up residence and nudges other concerns out into the hinterlands of your circulatory system. If you’re enough of a fan to read this website, then you know what I mean.

I’m impressed by the people who are brave enough to ask Bono to sign their bodies so they can have his handwriting made into a tattoo. Usually they give him the inside of a wrist, or somewhere along an arm. But I once saw a woman lift up her shirt so Bono could sign her back, or maybe her side. She kept chatting away with him while he wrote, like this was something that happened to her every Wednesday. I can’t imagine ever feeling that comfortable in myself, but I do understand the desire to be marked by what you love, and to carry that mark through life.

But how does it feel to be Bono, leaving a literal mark on so many people? I can’t imagine that he hasn’t given it some deep thought. There are slight biblical echoes in the act of marking someone (Cain, the “Beast”), but even on a simple human level, it must be strange to be asked for something like that, and to agree to it, and to then be aware of the all the people you’ve marked, just walking around like that in the world.

It’s written on skin
To even be in
The book of your heart

One day in June of 2018, I found myself in a fan lineup at Nassau Coliseum, on Long Island. I’d made a special effort to get to that show, because I’d grown up only a few miles away and I’d never seen U2 play there. This was sacred ground. This was making up for lost time. My GA number was 43. Things were going well.

I was a latecomer to fan lineups, but it had dawned on me a few years earlier that everything that we care about as U2 fans has a certain shelf life, and that maybe it was time for me to stop being so crowd-averse and to just show up.

So far I hadn’t had much Bono-mojo. The one time I was in a good spot to talk to him, back in 2015, he was saving his voice. He stopped right in front of me to announce this fact in a stage whisper, while looking searchingly into the eyes of everyone in the vicinity. Not bad; even this minor encounter produced a definite and long-lasting dopamine boost.

This latest attempt seemed more hopeful. Laughter broke out as we watched U2’s helicopter touch down in a nearby field. (Traffic between New York City and Long Island is so consistently terrible that they had to be flown over it.) We could see the band—four small but recognizable shapes—emerge from the helicopter, then get shepherded into four waiting cars.

Larry was carried past us like a phantom, directly into the arena. Edge was driven right in as well, but he had his window rolled down so he could wave at us with both hands while we screamed. Adam and Bono, it seemed, would greet the fans.

I was at the end of the line, close to the arena entrance. The guy standing next to me said that if Bono made it all the way down to us, we would have to try and catch his attention, otherwise he might just get back into the car and go inside. I said it was a deal. I figured I could wave my arms and make some kind of pitiful sounds.

Well, the guy certainly held up his end of the bargain, because when Bono did stop in front of us he leaned right across me, waving a trinket that he wanted to give away, saying “Bono” again and again in sets of three, like he was trying to conjure Beetlejuice. Sure enough, Bono noticed and got pulled into a long, rambling life-story for his trouble.

I just stood there with my throat closing up. I had nothing to sign. I wasn’t going to ask to be written on. I had long-ago discarded the idea of preparing an “if I ever talk to Bono” speech. I know he’s heard it all before. I just wanted to say “hi” in a querulous voice, and it seemed I couldn’t even manage that. All the while, Bono was close enough for me to touch. He was just standing there, almost like a normal person, on the other side of the barrier. Smiling, mild-eyed and disarmingly small. Really worryingly small. I reached out to touch his right sleeve.

And I couldn’t do it.

All of my training—from “keep your hands to yourself” in nursery school, to my own philosophy that “Me Too” also applies to men and you must respect everyone’s agency and autonomy—rushed into my head, albeit not in so many words.

I stared at my hand, hovering a couple of inches above Bono’s sleeve. I can’t imagine how ridiculous I looked. I know he wouldn’t have minded my touching him, and I probably would have gotten a smile out of him. Maybe he would like to have been pulled away from the guy next to me, who was still talking and now (seriously?) asking Bono to hug his wife.

She’s been waiting since ‘87,” the guy said.

I muttered quietly that I’d been waiting since ‘83. Bono’s bodyguard heard me. You know the one—the bald fella with the beard who looks like Uber-Edge from an alternate universe? That guy. He laughed heartily and did nothing to aid my cause.

The wife got her hug. To her credit, once Bono left, she began to cry and cry. (Girl, same.) And I got a laugh from Uber-Edge. Thanks, Uber-Edge, I’ll be here all week.

I’m not suggesting that my freezing up while my brain prattled on about Bono’s agency makes me a good person. It just makes me, exhaustingly, me. But maybe we do enter into a kind of contract when we become a fan. Not a paper contract, but a contract of the heart. Maybe part of that contract involves being cognizant of boundaries. In an ideal world, our favorite famous person would not have to be driven from place to place behind blackened windows, or be escorted by squads of Brian Murphys and Uber-Edges. But we are not in an ideal world.

Fandom is difficult sometimes. It can actually suck. It’s a relationship, but one where the balance of power is all wrong and where communication is severely limited. A lot of it depends on good luck and on the gods of Ticketmaster. All of those intense, imaginary conversations over Guinness tend to dissolve into nothing when you realize that everyone around you has been having them too. And yet, this is a relationship that sustains my mind and my heart in a better and more reliable way than almost any other. I don’t see myself walking away from it.

Babe, I don’t belong to you
Love is what we choose to do
Babe, you don’t belong to me
It’s not that easy.


© AtU2/DeGenaro, 2019