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"Most important, his is a voice shot through with self-doubt." — Bruce Springsteen, on Bono, at U2's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction

Bono's 'Driving To Midnight Mass' Poem: The Inside Story


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It's one of the most unique recordings of Bono's career: An old recital of a Christmas poem in which a young Bono paints a picture of Dublin on Christmas Eve while a couple of U2 songs add atmosphere in the background.

It's also one of the most loved recordings: U2 fans have been sharing and spreading the recording online for years, tape hiss and all. It's been uploaded to YouTube, blogged, and transcribed on lyrics pages. (You can hear it below.)

The poem touches on some very Bono-esque topics: Dublin, the birth of Jesus, darkness and light, God, death and more. Bono recites it as if they were his own words, but we know from the audio that's circulated online for years that they're not. The poem is the work of an Irishman named John F. Deane. And that's about all we've known about this beloved three minutes of audio.

Until now.

The Story Behind Bono's Recital of "Driving To Midnight Mass"

"I had some other material for Bono to consider reading, but I thought I could do better with more time to research and prepare."

So says Bill Cochran, today a successful audio producer and voiceover artist whom you've probably heard on radio or TV. At the time, he was working for Chicago's WXRT-FM and came up with an idea to produce a radio special featuring holiday messages from the artists that WXRT played. WXRT Program Director Norm Winer gave the green light to Cochran's idea, and a program called The Holiday Extravaganza was born. It premiered on WXRT in 1983 and continued annually for many years.

A year later, Winer -- who counted former Principle Management Director Ellen Darst as a friend -- arranged a recording session with Bono. But it fell on Cochran's shoulders, as the producer, to come up with something for Bono to say. Cochran headed to U2's hotel to record Bono before the band's gig later that night at the Aragon Ballroom. It was Dec. 11, 1984.

"When the call to show up at his hotel came through, I found myself feeling the material I had tucked away in my bag wasn't equal to the occasion," Cochran remembers.

So, as he was driving to the Hyatt Regency hotel, Cochran made a sudden decision to stop in at Barbara's Bookstore, a local Chicago chain.

"Casting about from rack to rack, my eyes fell on The Penguin Book of Irish Verse, and I flipped through its pages thinking that surely Jonathan Swift or William Butler Yeats or even James Joyce must have something to say about the season. Then toward the end of the book my eyes rested upon a poem that made my heart skip a beat."

He had found Deane's poem, "Driving To Midnight Mass: Dublin, Christmas Eve." (Yes, that's the official title.)

Cochran went up to meet Bono in one of the band's hotel rooms with his portable cassette recorder, a microphone and the newly purchased book. They sat alone in the room, and Cochran shared the poem that he wanted Bono to recite on tape. "I'm glad to say he loved it," Cochran recalls. The taping went well, even though the phone rang once during Bono's recital. (Bono sprang up and put the phone under a pillow.)

Cochran took Bono's audio and, later in the WXRT studios, edited in a couple of sound effects along with clips of two War-era b-sides, "New Year's Day (U.S. remix)" and "Endless Deep." Along with different readings from other artists, the three-minute piece aired that holiday season on WXRT; Cochran isn't certain all these years later if it was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. After Bono's poem aired the first time, Cochran went back and fixed a couple of edits that he was unhappy with, and the improved version aired on WXRT later in the 1980s.

Cochran connected with Deane in 2009 and learned that the poet already had a copy of Bono's recital on his website, but it had gone missing during a redesign. So Cochran sent him another copy, which you can hear now on Deane's website. (Note: Audio plays automatically when the page loads.)

That December, Cochran sent out an email to friends recounting the story of producing "Driving To Midnight Mass" with Bono 25 years earlier. He stopped short of using the word "miracle," instead calling the sequence of events that night a "moment of wonder."

"I can't explain how I came to find that perfect poem for that unique moment in just the nick of time," Cochran wrote. "I can only look on with awe at how sometimes things come together in ways we can't explain."

(Special thanks to Connie P. for her help in leading me to Bill Cochran after I posted a "call for help" on U2diary.com. A very abbreviated version of this story will be included in the upcoming second edition of U2-A Diary.)

(c) McGee/@U2, 2011.