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"We realised that there's only a certain amount of Joshua trees you can chop down." — Larry, on recording All That You Can't Leave Behind

Bono: The White Nigger

Across the Frontiers: Ireland in the 1990s
[@U2 Note: This is a Bono-penned piece that appeared in the book Across the Frontiers: Ireland in the 1990s, which was edited by Richard Kearney and published in 1989.]



How does the music of U2 relate to our being Irish? I come to this question as someone who does not know who he is. There are people out there who know who they are...I like to meet these people...But I am not one of them. When I was growing up I didn't know where I came from...I didn't know if I was middle class, working class, Catholic, Protestant...I knew I was from Ballymun, Dublin, but I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know I was Irish until I went to America. I never actually thought about it. One of the reasons I want to contribute to this discussion now is that I've become interested in these questions lately. But I come to it with no set point of view.

It is curious that U2 are seen as this "Irish" thing. So much emphasis is placed on it. And we ourselves emphasize it. But if you look at the surface level of music -- its obvious contents -- there's maybe nothing very Irish about it. It comes from a suburban blank generation culture which I grew up in, watching cartoons on TV, Thunderbirds, Hanna Barbera [sic] and designer violence. That was the real world, concrete, grey, kicking footballs and admiring English football stars. That's the culture I came from, and that's what our music reflects, on the surface at least. It is very "un-Irish" in the accepted sense.

However, I now realise that beneath the surface there are certain Irish characteristics to the music...even the choice of words. Our producer, Brian Eno, said that he thought that I was a better poet than a songwriter...what I think he meant by that was the sound, rhythm and colour of the words seem at times as important as the meaning. The love of language for its own sake and not just as a vehicle to comment on or describe events, seems to me to be very Irish -- you grow up reading Joyce for God's sake or Beckett, and they seem to abuse and therefore use the English language in new and interesting ways.

With U2, people often point to a song like "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" as an example of our Irishness, but for me it's not, and in retrospect it didn't succeed in making its point. We had this highfalutin' idea to contrast or make the connection between the blood of the crucifixion on Easter Sunday and the blood of the victims in Derry on Bloody Sunday. The idea of Jesus dying to save us from death is a painful irony to both Catholic and Protestant in the light of the Troubles. Anyway, now when I look at the words, all I see is a description of that day as a tragedy in the tradition of Peggy Seeger or American folk: "And the battle's yet begun / There's many lost but tell me who has won / The trenches dug within our hearts / Mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart."

To me the sound and colour of the language in a song like "A Sort of Homecoming" is more Irish: "The wind will crack in wintertime / A lightning bomblast waltz / No spoken words...just a scream... / See the sky the burning rain, she will die and live again / Tonight, we'll build a bridge across the sea and land." This is not American folk or blues. The words are much more influenced by poets like Heaney or Kavanagh...than say, Woody Guthrie.

I used to think U2 came out of a void, a black hole; we seemed completely rootless. Though we had many influences, our version of rock 'n' roll didn't sound like anyone else's in the present or in the past. In '85 I met Bob Dylan for the first time backstage at Slane Castle '85. He sat there talking about the McPeeke Family...this Irish group I'd never even heard of...and how he used to hang around backstage at Makem and Clancy concerts -- yeah I said, I remember they used to be on the Late Late Show!...and then I began to listen more carefully to the bold and bald sound of Irish folk singers....I recall listening to Paul Brady kick up more of a storm with an acoustic guitar than most people do with a rock band. I told Dylan and Van Morrison, who was there at the time, that I felt we didn't belong to any tradition, it was like we were lost in space, floating over many traditions but not belonging to any one of them. It then struck us that there was a journey to be undertaken. There was something to be discovered.

We started looking back into American music, gospel, blues, the likes of Robert Johnson...John Lee Hooker. Old songs of fear and faith. As I said when we first started the band, we felt like outsiders to rock music but these themes were very much inside U2, they were also very Irish so even though there isn't an obvious Irishness in a song like "Bullet the Blue Sky" (a U2 song about military interference in El Salvador), there is something Irish about the subject of oppression and also, I think, about the language I used to paint the picture: "In the howling wind comes a stinging rain / See them driving nails into the soul of the tree of pain / You plant a demon seed, you raise a flower of fire / See them burning crosses, see the flames higher and higher." I feel there is a strong link between American and Irish traditional music. So you see we found the "Irish Thing" through the American: gospel, blues, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan. These became passports home.

Though we had grown up on it, for some reason we also felt outsiders to the English rock 'n' roll scene. At the time it all seemed surface with nothing behind the surface. We were up there scruffy, soaked in sweat, unpoised -- not concealing but revealing ourselves, what was on our minds and in our hearts. I began to realise how alien this was to the white, stiff upper lip syndrome which I still find in U.K. music criticism...They seemed to find any kind of passion hard to take, they prefer a mask of cool...unless you're black. Which is interesting, because though this passion is to me an Irish characteristic, in American blacks it's called soul. I was called a "White Nigger" once by a black musician, and I took it as he meant it, as a compliment. The Irish, like the blacks, feel like outsiders. There's a feeling of being homeless, migrant, but I suppose that's what all art is -- a search for identity. The images of our songs are confused, classical, biblical, American, Irish, English, but not in a negative sense. The fight, the struggle for a synthesis is what's interesting about them. The idea of an incomplete, questioning, even abandoned identity is very attractive to me.

Our journey to America eventually turned us back to where we came from. It brought up musical questions and also political questions. During Bobby Sands' hunger strike we had money through onto the stage because we were Irish...you couldn't but be moved by the courage and conviction of the man...yet we struggled with the question, is this the right way? Is violence inevitable? Is it the only answer to participation in Northern Ireland? Again there was a parallel between the Irish and the blacks. In the '60s the black civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King had resisted a bloody upsurge. I've read Dr. King's Strength to Love and was inspired by his movement of aggressive but non-violent resistance. Here was a man who believed enough in his cause to give his life, but would never take a life...an "armed struggle" seems cowardly in comparison. I know it's not that simple, but we must get beyond confrontation, beyond a revolution where ideas matter more than people...surely we are coming out of that period where we believed that just one bang of the door and it would swing open...it's just not like that. I mean, I'm from the South and relatively uneducated about the situation, but if war in Northern Ireland is what it means to be Irish then we must redefine Irishness. There was a time when political thinkers could tolerate violence as a way forward, but this is a different time...the old ideologies of the right and the left -- as promising a final solution -- are redundant. This is the late '80s, we are only a decade away from the year 2000 -- the microchip will dwarf the machine in its impact on our lives; multinational corporations don't need people in their workforce anymore -- just people to sell to...we have a new problem, we need a new solution.

Even in music and art there's a changing of the guard; it's the end of the "cold wave" and hopefully of the hardness associated with a modernism, where chaos is not challenged, just reflected...like a mirror.

There's a warmth and humanity in Irish music that I don't see in the big city music of London or New York. What kind of music will people be listening to in the 1990s? Machine music? Sophisticated noise of a New York dance club? I don't think so. I feel the music that people will be holding under their arms like holy books or treasures will be much more traditional, be it Irish, American, soul, reggae, Cajun -- these musics may be reinterpreted by the new technology but as we are more dehumanised, urbanised, corralled into confusion, surely we will turn to simplicity, to "the pure drop" of Seamus Ennis, the voice of Van Morrison. The anger of U2 is not cold or cynical; I hope an ambition to "kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight" will have its place.

Maybe we Irish are misfits, travellers, never really at home, but always talking about it. I met a fisherman who told me we were like salmon: it's upriver all the time, against the odds, the river doesn't want us...yet we want a way home...but there is no home. Religious minds tell us exile is what having eaten the apple means, that "home" is a spiritual condition. We in Ireland already know this, not because we've been exiles, but because hardships, be they economic or political, have forced us to be less material...I don't swallow the Church's idea of "pie in the sky" when we die either! That's the worst of religion...accept the crap now, we'll have diamonds later. I much prefer the notion of "Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." Some heaven on earth right now would be nice -- they should preach that! I mean we get some glimpses of it in music, painting, the west of Ireland, Donegal, people, sex, conversation...a few pints, a glass of whiskey. Even if it's been a cause of bitterness and has on occasion been warped by organised religion, our Christianity, our sense of the spirit, is valuable, especially right now when a hard, empirical approach to things is beginning to give way to a more open metaphysical questioning. Belief in God does not necessarily imply a lack of belief in men.

I don't know, maybe romantic Ireland is dead and gone. If the America I love only exists in my imagination, maybe the Ireland I love is the same. Dublin, I mean, everybody gives out about Dublin and there's lots of things to give out about...unemployment, what the planners have done to the people of Tallaght and Ballymun, the architects who have defaced what was a beautiful city, these are the real vandals...but still we love the city...

I met a U2 fan in Switzerland recently who said to me, "Jaysus Bono, I can't wait to get home and throw some litter on the ground!" -- I think I know what he meant.



© Dufour Editions, Incorporated, 1989.