"Basically, I think we're all nutters, but somehow it works."
Column: off the record ..., vol. 16-714
March 13, 2016
Last month, I found an essay written by Jaki McCarrick in the Irish Times, “What’s the real story behind the success of the Irish short story?” I am always trying to place U2 in the context of Irish arts and letters, so I read on.
Early in the article, McCarrick offers two conventional reasons that might explain the reputation of Irish writers: a bardic tradition and the Catholic mass. I have heard both of those mentioned before with regard to literature and U2, so I was pleased to see her transition from those points to writer Claire Keegan’s view that Irish eloquence comes from the dichotomy between Irish secretiveness and the desire to talk. In a country where discretion has meant the difference between life or death, Keegan believes, the one who speaks out becomes the center of ridicule and is labeled a Fool (or maybe more of a rodeo clown, I wonder). Granted, that character is an archetype too, but when McCarrick factors in geography, history, emigration and economic conditions, she concludes the source material is more fertile for Irish writers than for American or European ones.
I am not entirely convinced of her theory, but it does apply to a certain group of Irish rockers in a way that McCarrick likely never considered. Bono’s many stage personae qualify as Fools according to Keegan’s theory because they allow the singer to comment on society in ways he wouldn’t otherwise be able to articulate. Bono takes his risks on the stage rather than on the page; U2’s first television appearance as The Hype was performing “The Fool” on RTE.
Similarly, in one of the most moving performances of his career, Bono sang “Can’t Help Falling in Love (Fools Rush In)” while dressed as MacPhisto. The character is not a Fool in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, it recalls something much more Shakespearean. In Bono’s head, The Fly (a conflation of three American rock stars), Mirror Ball Man (an American televangelist) and MacPhisto (an English devil) become characters in a larger, distinctly Irish drama that U2 is trying to tell about society and culture. In character, he holds up a mirror to those who are often hard to look at.
Lately, I can best describe my playlists as eclectic. I’ve been listening to the American jazz standards during the day and U2 Radio on Pandora at night. What never ceases to dismay me is that, despite the name of the station, I can go hours without hearing a U2 song. I might as well listen to Coldplay radio if I wanted to hear that much Chris Martin.
However, about a week ago, Blondie started pulsing through my phone’s speaker and, while swaying around the kitchen preparing dinner, I realized “Atomic” and “Magnificent” sound strangely alike. Blondie’s single was released in 1980 between “Call Me” and “The Tide Is High,” but sounds more like “Heart Of Glass” with respect to its instrumentation and melodies.
Unlike “Magnificent,” in which Bono exalts the majesty of God in something resembling a couple of five-line stanzas and three rhyming couplets, “Atomic” basically repeats the same three lines: “Make me tonight,” “Make it magnificent” and “Your hair is beautiful.” Despite being written nearly 30 years apart, both songs invoke deities – however contradictory. Yet, Blondie and Bono articulate the word “magnificent” with such similarity that, for weeks now, I have a mash-up of the two songs playing in my head. I have often thought of “Magnificent” as a rewrite of “Gloria” (1981), but now I wonder if it could be a remix of “Atomic.” Nearly improbable, of course, but a highly entertaining possibility.
After David Bowie’s death in January, I ordered David Buckley’s biography Strange Fascination and enjoyed slowly poring over obscure details about Bowie’s life and artistic reach. I was never a fan of Bowie the way I have been of U2, but now that I have gotten to know the man behind the persona, I regret not having spent more time on his music before he died.
Of course, his legacy has broad and lasting reach, as evidenced by the many tribute performances by Lady Gaga, Lorde, Sinead O’Connor, CeeLo Green and Ewan McGregor, to name a few. Although some are better than others, I think Bowie would have enjoyed the spectacle and range of all of them.
His creative generosity is well-documented, perhaps most notably at the end of his life when he released the art from Blackstar to be downloaded for free under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-Share-Alike license. Similarly, before he died, Bowie gave his blessing to an @InstaMiniSeries called “Unbound” based on Blackstar and featuring Patricia Clarkson and Tavi Gevinson. In a collection of 15-second video clips produced by Nikki Borges and Amanda De La Neuz, the music is reinterpreted, dramatized and compressed for the Instagram format. It debuted Feb. 25.
Last, although most parades and drunken celebrations take place the weekend before, the real St. Patrick’s Day 2016 has not yet gone down in the history books. Wherever and however you have chosen to celebrate, enjoy, be safe, and make sure you have enough U2 on your playlists.
Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.
© @U2/Hess, 2016