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The Place You Never Left: Images of Home in U2's Songs

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A few days after the U.S. election of 2016, I found myself driving alone on the interstate, on my way to visit my mother in her new elderly-person digs. I was listening to All That You Can’t Leave Behind — an album that, in typical U2 fashion, only seems to become more resonant, even prescient, as it ages. I was struck, as I always am, by these lines in the song “Walk On”:


Home, hard to know what it is if you’ve never had one
Home, I can’t say where it is, but I know I’m going home
That’s where the hurt is


In the isolation of my car, under low November skies, my thoughts turned to the woman whom I had hoped would become president. I had just seen a picture of her walking on a wooded trail near her neighborhood in suburban New York. Did America still feel like home to her? I know that to me, it suddenly felt like a moonscape — alien, airless and cold. And yes, full of hurt.


The poet Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Maybe home is a country that has to receive us, if we’ve had to leave one behind. Maybe it’s a mansion, or a hovel, or a place that exists only in the heart.


Where You’ve Never Left: The Scent of Cedar


As a lyric and as an idea, “home” turns up on almost every U2 album, from Boy to Songs of Experience. Even on the early single “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” the children — the audience — cry to be taken home.


By now, most U2 fans can recite Bono’s childhood address: 10 Cedarwood Road. We know about his little box room upstairs, with the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. And we know how un-homelike the house became after the death of his mother, Iris.


But I didn’t know about any of that when I bought Boy, with my Record World employee’s discount, just a few years after it came out. I leapt into the album with few preconceived ideas, and the feeling it gave me at age nineteen — this is totally relatable and I can’t even breathe! — is still with me.


Boy unfolds on scary night-time streets, and also in small childhood bedrooms. The narrator makes his way through a world that tilts and shifts under his feet. He’s lost out there, soaking wet, where devious cat-girls and shady old men lurk under the trees. Not even the drab sameness of Mrs. Brown’s washing can keep the fear at bay.


Boy has what I consider “out-of-the-house” songs: “Twilight,” “An Cat Dubh,” “Shadows and Tall Trees;” and “in-the-house songs”: “Into The Heart,” “Stories for Boys.” “I’m going out there and you can’t stop me,” says the narrator, all bravado. But also, “I’m scared; please let me back in.”


And then there is “the scent of cedar.” I’ve fallen in love with a Joshua Tree b-side, “Deep In The Heart.” Musically, it could be a leftover from The Unforgettable Fire, with Edge playing eerie harmonics. There are no big ideas about America on this song. The narrator just longs to be home: “The door is closed behind me now, the window is sealed to shut out the light.” Are we in the house, or locked out of it? I’m not sure. Then these lines are spoken, quietly: “the scent of cedar / I can still see her / you can’t return to the place you never left.”


Bono comes back to this idea—that you can’t return to where you’ve never left—years later on “Cedarwood Road.” I don’t think he uses the word “cedar” lightly. It’s a primal word for him. Home is a place you can’t leave, nor can you get back in, and the person you most want to see there is long gone.


Cedar appears again in a slightly different way on “Cedars of Lebanon,” a small novel of a song about a war correspondent in the Middle East. “I’m here ‘cause I don’t want to go home,” he says, but then pleads for his call to be returned. He mentions a photograph he took from the fridge, of his wife tidying the children’s things. I can’t recall a more domestic image than that one in any U2 song. This guy does want to go home. He just can’t. He’s in exile. He might be a war correspondent, or he might just be a road-weary musician. Which brings us to…


The Apology Songs: I’ll Be Home, Love


The boy from Boy is grown up now and has perhaps given up altogether on the innocence he was trying so hard to keep. The sinister night-world has become a place where he fits right in. Maybe the prey has now become the hunter, chasing after the dying star, and crawling home, hungover, in the morning light.


It’s probably true that if you’ve spent the night trying to throw your arms around the world, then sleeping in the street like a stray dog, the person waiting for you at home might not be overjoyed to see you. Home might not feel like a welcoming place, and at this point you can’t really blame your dad.


In songs like “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” “In A Little While,” “Sweetest Thing,” and the unfairly dismissed “A Man and A Woman,” home takes on a human form. Home is the girl with the Spanish eyes, an updated version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl,” waiting with calm resignation for the blue-eyed boy to return.


I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a good idea for one human being to look for home in another human being. The wives of powerful men are frequently put into this position, and they’re damned if they kick against it, and damned if they don’t. Ultimately, I don’t really believe this dynamic is happening in any of these songs. Bono is more complex than that. When he sings about the “brown-eyed across the street / on Rue Saint Divine,” he’s not looking up or down at Ali, he’s looking across at her.


According to Google, Rue Saint Divine is not a street that exists — at least not in Paris, and not in Provence. I think it’s just a beautifully whimsical combination of words, a street of the spirit. Hopefully it’s a street where two people can pursue their own interests and pleasures, then come back to meet in the middle.


Waiting To Get Home a Long Time: Lights in the Distance


Apart from the physical journey through life — from the place where you were born all the way to your elderly-person-digs — there might be a parallel metaphysical journey taking place. A sort of homecoming, a search for your soul’s home.


In “Lights Of Home,” from Songs of Experience, there’s been a catastrophic event, and we get dragged along on a hallucinatory road trip where the narrator’s life flashes before his eyes: “saw a statue of a gold guitar / bright lights right in front of me.”


“One more push and I’ll be born again” is a hopeful thought, if you believe in a life beyond this one, but “one more road you can’t travel with a friend” imparts a sense of aloneness and fear. Our narrator (if I go ahead and call him “Bono” I’ll just cry into my keyboard) doesn’t know his name or where he’s going. And no one’s answering. But isn’t that the nature of existence anyway? Not even the most prayerful among us get answers. If they say otherwise, they might not be telling the truth.


I want very much to hear that last line, “in your eyes of love, I see the lights of home” with a sense of relief. It’s alright; Ali’s there! Or maybe it’s Edge, or even Larry. (It could happen.) But I don’t think we should take a lyric like this one at face value. When Bono sings “I’ve been waiting to get home a long time,” the home he’s longing for is a home on high — if I can borrow from Van Morrison again, as Bono himself sometimes does — in another time, in another place.

 

(c) DeGenaro/@U2, 2019