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"People would not react if I went out and carried on like Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger or David Bowie. People do react if I go out and carry on like Bono. And I like that."

-- Bono

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Drowning Man: Bono's Lyrics Tell a Tale

@U2, May 17, 2000
By: Matt McGee

 

It's the curse of the Irish writer: water. You could fill libraries with books holding nothing more than references to water, both literal and figurative, from Irish writers. And why not? Water -- the ocean -- is the overriding element that defines the island. No matter where you go in Ireland, you are never more than a short drive to water. While outsiders like you and me know Ireland for it's green landscapes, the Irish know Ireland for the blue that surrounds it.

Bono has said over the years that many of his lyrics were written as much for the sound of the words as they were for the meaning. And in some cases, we can see the truth in that comment -- there's no reason for the word "expealidocious" to be used in "Holy Joe" other than the fact that it rhymes with "precocious." The Achtung Baby b-side "Where Did It All Go Wrong" is another piece of evidence to support Bono's claim.

But when it comes to water images, Bono usually doesn't mess around and throw out random words just because he likes the sound. Bono has been talking about water since his earliest stabs at lyric-writing, and continued to do so up until the mid-to-late '90s, when the water imagery slowed to a trickle. And even before this point, Bono's choice of water-words made a dramatic change in the early '90s on the Zooropa album. Is there a reason for this change of heart in Bono's lyrics? Bono would be the only one qualified to say yes or no for certain, but a look at his lyrics suggests there is.

You don't have to rescue me
You don't have to watch me drown

The above lines from "Be There," a hard-to-find studio track from 1982 that never made it onto an official release, are not Bono's first reference to water by far, but they may be the earliest reference to drowning. It may come as a surprise to some fans, but many of Bono's water-related lyrics deal with drowning. Not just anyone drowning -- Bono's drowning. Like this verse from "Treasure (Whatever Happened to Pete the Chop)":

If I could swim
I'd swim in circles and turns and I'd drown
I'd drown with you

At about the same time in his writing development, Bono wrote the song "Drowning Man," an easy example to add to the list even though drowning is never mentioned in the lyrics, only the title. Fast forward to The Unforgettable Fire, and in "Indian Summer Sky" we find Bono coming "up for air to swim against the tide." The Joshua Tree is filled with water images, but those deal mostly with rain and rivers. But skip ahead to 1988 and you find this lyric from "When Love Comes to Town":

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea
I was under the waves before love rescued me

The drowning and water references not only continued into the 1990s, but they also expanded on Achtung Baby -- the one album most fans believe has Bono's most personal lyrics to date. The word "drown" appears no fewer than three times on this album: "drowning my sorrows" in "Until the End of the World"; "drown in your blue sea" in "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses"; and lastly, "Love is drowning" from "Love Is Blindness." But even with the repeated references, the change is obvious: Bono isn't necessarily doing the drowning in these songs. But the biggest change in Bono's lyrical references to water and, more specifically, drowning came on the Zooropa album, in this lyric from "Lemon":

I feel like I'm drifting from the shore
I feel like I'm swimming out to her

Eureka! This is practically the first time Bono refers to water/swimming/the ocean in the first person in which he's NOT drowning! After more than a decade of drowning and being lost at sea, not only is Bono finally swimming -- but he's also swimming TO HER. There's a place he's swimming to, a person he's swimming toward.

You may catch yourself wondering what the big deal is about...right? The big deal is that this change of focus in Bono's lyric writing may be a direct reflection of a personal change, at least to the degree that Bono reveals himself in his words. This change of focus brings on a slew of questions: given that "Lemon" is about Bono's mom, who died when he was 14, and given that these are the first lyrics in which he uses the sea without making a drowning metaphor, is Bono finally at peace with the loss of his Mom?

And which of the previous references to drowning/the sea were also about his Mom instead of being about Ali? All those songs where we assumed he was talking to Ali -- was he addressing his Mom instead?

And then this: is there any meaning behind the fact that "Mofo" is clearly written to his Mum, yet the only reference to water and the sea is that Bono is "lookin' for a sound that's gonna drown out the world"? Has he finally gotten to a point where can say exactly what he wants/needs to say to his mom ("Mother, am I still your son?") without using those metaphors?

It should go without saying that I have no answer to these questions, you have no answers to these questions, and perhaps Bono doesn't even have the answers. But one thing is sure: when the new U2 album comes out, we might learn a lot by thinking about what Bono has to say about water and the ocean, swimming and drowning...if he says anything at all.

2000 @U2. All rights reserved.

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