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"U2 is not a punk band, but there's this kind of violence present in our music." — Bono

Like A Song: Walk On

"Walk On" keeps walking

Like A Song 2019 1200px

I think I was 19, in my second year of college, when the leaked tracks for All That You Can’t Leave Behind started being available to download. I remember sitting in the campus computer lab, downloading each track as they showed up and listening to them repeatedly. I loved everything I was hearing, but as I sat in the computer lab the song “Walk On” kept bringing me close to tears. As much as I loved what U2 created in the 1990s, “Walk On”’s expression of bravery and staying true to your path had me almost hyperventilating every time I heard it. I told that to my campus house’s cook and she kinda looked at me like I was crazy.

As the song continued to grow through edits, remixes, single versions, live performances and so on, I found myself falling deeper and deeper in love with it. This was about the time I started coming out of the closet on a wide basis, as I described in a previous Like A Song. The concept of “walking on” because the people putting you down didn’t know what they were talking about, resonated deeply with me.

Walk on, walk on
What you’ve got, they can’t steal it
No, they can’t even feel it

Walk on, walk on
What you’ve got, they can’t deny it
Can’t sell it or buy it

And that last line that is just like being wrapped up in a warm blanket of safety and assuredness:

Stay safe tonight

It all did wonders for me.

9/11 came and the song took on an entirely new life. I remember waking up late that morning because I didn’t have any AM classes. The house I lived in with 55 other guys was almost completely empty. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I finally found a friend and asked him what was up. He said, “Didn’t you hear? Two planes crashed into the World Trade Towers and they fell down. And a plane crashed into the Pentagon.” It was surreal. As people started coming back to the house, we all were glued to our televisions, watching how it all played out.

Back then, MTV was something that was still worth watching for music. “Walk On” had been a fairly modest hit. It got good airplay, especially coming off of “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation.” Within a week or so of the 9/11 attacks, the song took on a totally new life. A new version of the video celebrating the first responders to the attacks and mourning the deceased went on heavy rotation on MTV, playing once or twice an hour. It may sound selfish, but it was rewarding to me personally that this song that had become a salve for me when I was having a personal battle became a nationwide relief when the whole country suffered a trauma.

The house I lived in was a fairly Christian household, although not officially since it was owned by a public university. U2’s Christianity always helped my housemates take me a bit more seriously as an atheist, and it opened up some friendships that I may not have had otherwise. I watched U2 perform “Walk On” at the Grammys in the rec room with a bunch of other guys who had never expressed much interest in the band. I could see my housemates’ faces change as they watched the band play. A few of them told me afterward that they had a better idea of why I loved U2 so much. U2 finishing with a series of “hallelujahs” at the end of the performance may have helped.

The song historically had been tied to Burmese peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Daughter of a former leader of Burma, she spoke out tirelessly against the evils of the military regime that had taken over her nation. She was a professor in England at the time and chose to risk her freedom by returning to Burma to speak out,

You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage

rather than staying in unofficial exile overseas. But she chose to return to Burma. Placed under house arrest by the Burmese officials, she resisted, she persisted and eventually the military leaders loosened their grip on the country.

U2 venerated Aung San Suu Kyi. The All That You Can’t Leave Behind liner notes for “Walk On” are specifically dedicated to her. The band mentioned her many times during live performances and even included an…interesting…face mask of her in the U2 360 Tour tour book. Charity volunteers lined up around the stage wearing the masks in tribute to her stance on the freedom of Burma. 

But Aung San Suu Kyi failed Burma. The Rohingya people of Burma are a minority group of religious Muslims that became victims of systemic persecution by the Burmese government after Aung San Suu Kyi found acceptance in Burma. While they had been a historically persecuted population in Burma, a new wave of crackdowns against them started in 2015. They were driven out of their homes, out of their towns, out of their country. They were murdered, punished and expelled. Aung San Suu Kyi did not speak against these atrocities at all; rather, she defended the Burmese government’s behavior. Aang’s about-face on human rights was so abrupt and stark that it left many, including those in the U2 community, flabbergasted and demoralized. U2 themselves wrote a letter speaking out against the stance she had taken, expressing their regret at the drastic turn she had made. 

Her betrayal has left a stain on “Walk On” for the past few years. The song has felt like a bit of a no man’s land, a space that’s dangerous to tread given how many years it was tied to this person who initially had so much promise but then delivered so much cruelty. I’m arguing that it’s time to reclaim the song from Aung San Suu Kyi. She doesn’t deserve it anymore. She lost it when she betrayed her fellow Burmese people.

The past few weeks in May and June of 2020 have been very difficult for me mentally and emotionally, even in an already difficult time. On top of a global pandemic and an utterly failed U.S. president, America feels like it might finally be at the breaking point of dealing with how Black people are treated in the society. Watching the wellspring of energy against the mistreatment of Black people in America, watching the organized and massive and ongoing protests nationwide, and watching the police responses, both supportive and violent, has brought me back to All That You Can’t Leave Behind in a big way, in a way I that haven’t been in love with the album since 9/11. It has become a wonderful, beautiful relief for me again. I’ve been listening to it all the way through daily. Songs like “Beautiful Day,” “Walk On,” “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Kite,” “Peace On Earth,” “When I Look At The World” and “Grace” have been hitting me harder than they have in almost 20 years. They have been this wonderful breath of fresh air after being cooped up in my house for the past four months.

“Walk On” is the special one though. I’ve been on the streets protesting in Portland. I know, maybe a stupid decision with the COVID-19 situation, but the times call for what the times call for. Walking for miles and miles with thousands of other people, all protesting against the systemic racism in the United States and how the authorities manipulate it, has been frustrating but promising. And as I’ve been out there, as the streets are filled with thousands of people who are so tired of what they see in this country, “Walk On” has been running through my head. This song belongs to the fans now.

Walk on
Stay safe tonight

 

 

© AtU2/Ryan, 2020