"In my pidgin English, Bono means good egg. He is my big brother and I love him."
-- photographer Anton Corbijn
Column: off the record ... vol. 17-767
December 21, 2017
I believe in Father Christmas. Greg Lake's song resonates in a different way this year for me given all that's happened in 2017. Fans might recall that U2 covered the song nine years ago for (RED)'s online magazine, (RED)Wire. U2 hasn't released the song formally, but their cover almost feels like it belongs on Songs Of Experience. It has a similar theme of despair and hope, and isn't that what we all need right now — a bit of hope?
I was thankful for a few fans who shared Periscope streams of the U2 Live In London BBC special that aired earlier in the week. (For those who couldn't watch, U2.com announced that plans are in the works for it to be broadcast in the U.S., Germany, Italy, Brazil, Japan and Belgium.) Bono introduced "One" as a song that was written as walls were coming down, but now over two decades later, they appear to be going back up. There was a bit of melancholy in the way Bono said it, and his comment, combined with the trip down memory lane that was 2017 and The Joshua Tree, made me pause to think about how world events seem to be in a backslide.
U2 continues to cultivate an activist audience, so it's been difficult to feel the decades' worth of socio-political progress slipping away because it's being overturned by a geopolitical zeitgeist contrary to another Christmastime sentiment of "peace on earth, good will to all." Like many, I've been trying to process how we got to this point. Songs Of Experience is forcing that internal conversation for me because there are very few answers to the questions of "How did we get here?," "What is my purpose?" and "Why is this happening?" Those are the questions I asked at age 14 as I tried to figure out why I'm on this planet, and I'm asking them now at age 44 after doing what I believe to be the right and just thing (Golden Rule variety), only to be on the receiving end of pain, disappointment and despair.
My son experienced a situation a few weeks ago that left him feeling particularly hopeless, so I turned to song. No, I didn't use U2; instead, I used "Tubthumping" by Chumbawumba. Inspired choice, for sure. In the silliest voice I could, I sang "I get knocked down, but I get up again, you are never gonna keep me down." I told my son that the song also refers to a lot of alcohol, which won't necessarily improve matters, but the sentiment is that even though life is going to give you a good ol' shove, the human spirit is resilient and your courage to get up again is what inspires others to do the same.
Songs Of Experience has really done a number on me because the tracks are more than just letters or photographs as Bono has described them. There is some serious soul-searching going on around those existential questions that we all ask as teenagers. To me, the album could have been titled Songs Of Purpose. For some reason, Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life feels like a backbone to Songs Of Experience. The book starts with "What on earth am I here for?" followed by the five purposes:
1) You Were Planned For God's Pleasure
I am struck by how much the Songs Of Experience lyrics have a sense of yearning for discovery of purpose. Putting Bono's "health scares" aside for a moment, the erosion of the human rights progress the band members have championed is enough to cause them to reassess where things stand and ask, "What's going on?" It's no irony that they covered Marvin Gaye's song of the same title for a recent Spotify session. Some would argue that the purpose of an artist is to ask those questions to inspire change. U2 has always pushed that envelope and been successful in brokering tough conversations, sometimes with great success. I can't begin to imagine the immense frustration the band feels about seeing some of that success pulled out from under their feet — Bono especially. The pressure to not only express it among themselves, but also to an audience they have engaged with and cultivated for decades, is a heavy weight to carry.
I can see why there'd be some anger toward the sky about being put in such a position. I think back to another book Bono has said is important to him, Run With The Horses: The Quest For Life At Its Best by Eugene Peterson. Bono calls it a "powerful manual" that has kept him sane. In it, Peterson uses the Old Testament book of Jeremiah to show that the focus needs to always remain on God's purpose and plan for your life. Jeremiah's life certainly wasn't easy, and he had anger toward God about why he was treated with contempt by so many when he was trying to do the Lord's work. At one point, God sternly scolded Jeremiah to take back harsh words. I can see how Bono would relate to Jeremiah, especially with the events over the past couple of years: all that hard work done with a servant's heart at risk of being stripped away by a movement many really thought was impossible.
The soul-searching aspect of Songs Of Experience harkens back to Bono's quest for honesty with God, which he talked about a couple of years ago in films by Fuller Studio. In a short film with Peterson, Bono said, "The only way we can approach God is if we're honest through metaphor, through symbol, so art becomes essential, not decorative." He goes a step further in his conversation with David O. Taylor by stating that the one thing the Psalms have required of him is honesty.
Bono said in that conversation that artists don't have to please God in any way other than to be brutally honest. I believe that Songs Of Experience is just that — brutally honest about the state of affairs of his heart. Yes, it's about those he loves and the fans and such, but it goes deeper. There is frustration and anger in the tracks. To me, the last three tracks on the album are an honest conversation expressing those sentiments and the Jeremiah-style response of being fixed on the light. "The Blackout" is the culmination of the anger, and the response is to stay in the light, despite all of the dark attacking it. In "Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way" and "13," the hope returns in full splendor. The revelation in "13" is similar to how Bono's been introducing "Get Out Of Your Own Way": "You preach what you need to hear." It's about resiliency and not letting that darkness, disappointment and despair knock you down — the light is there to lift you up. At the end of it all, when you're called to give an accounting of your life, were you living the purpose-driven life? Did you honor God? These are heavy questions for Christians. Songs Of Experience attempts to find answers for them, but also honestly asks the questions an innocent 14-year-old would.
In that way, "I Believe In Father Christmas" is an apt accompaniment to Songs Of Experience. "I wish you a hopeful Christmas, I wish you a brave new year / All anguish, pain and sadness, Leave your heart, let your road be clear."
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about the topic of refugees in Songs Of Experience and how they are at the heart of the album. It was interesting to see Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei meet with Adam Clayton in São Paolo back in October. He was in town for a film festival and had lunch with Adam. Weiwei's art focuses on the refugees fleeing their homelands, and serves as a protest against the response to the humanitarian crisis. His 300-piece art installation in New York City, "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," began in October and will go through February 2018. His art also includes filmmaking. He partnered with Amazon Studios for Human Flow, a documentary about the immensity of the refugee crisis and its impact on 23 countries. According to the film's website, the documentary "is a witness to its subjects and their desperate search for safety, shelter and justice: from teeming refugee camps to perilous ocean crossings to barbed-wire borders; from dislocation and disillusionment to courage, endurance and adaptation; from the haunting lure of lives left behind to the unknown potential of the future. Human Flow comes at a crucial time when tolerance, compassion and trust are needed more than ever. This visceral work of cinema is a testament to the unassailable human spirit and poses one of the questions that will define this century: Will our global society emerge from fear, isolation and self-interest and choose a path of openness, freedom and respect for humanity?"
German television station Deutsche Welle (DW) followed Weiwei and produced a documentary about him called Drifting.
I'm going to out on a limb here: I would not be surprised to see some of Weiwei's work used in the upcoming Experience + Innocence tour next year.
I've seen numerous people tweet that their Songs Of Experience CDs from Ticketmaster ticket bundles arrived damaged from Live Nation. Add me and my husband's to the list. I reached out to Live Nation to see what could be done, and they are sending us new discs. I was told that anyone can contact them regarding their damaged CDs and they will send out replacements.
To do so, ping them on Twitter (@LiveNation) to say that you're seeking replacements. Their social media customer service folks will ask for your ticket order number, shipping address and last four digits of the credit card used for the ticket order to check against the original order. If social media isn't your thing, you can also call 1-800-653-8000 and speak to a customer service agent by phone. The new discs are supposed to arrive within seven to 10 days after processing.
And finally … it was a year ago on Christmas that U2 announced the very special shows for The Joshua Tree and Songs Of Experience. Thank you to everyone who made 2017 so exciting in the U2 community; 2018 is shaping up to be another roller coaster, so buckle in and get ready for a year of experience … and the 30th anniversary of Rattle And Hum.
'Til next time …
Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.