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"If we stay in small clubs, we'll develop small minds, and then we'll start making small music." — Bono

Full Text: Bono's Introduction to Robert Hilburn's New Book

Corn Flakes with John Lennon is out now
@U2

Bono has written the introduction to Corn Flakes with John Lennon, a new book of memoirs from Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times. The book is out now (Amazon.com) and @U2 is pleased to have permission to reprint Bono's introduction in its entirety.

Introduction
By Bono


I'm not sure Robert Hilburn exists. I know he is not human. He might be a ministering angel or some kind of specter ... he is certainly an enigma. Bob doesn't drink or smoke, and his quiet conversation is the antithesis of the noisy, messy rock 'n' roll music he loves. He is the silent man on the other side of the "wall of sound." His is the clarity that the chaos of creativity is always attracted to.

His column in the Los Angeles Times put the fear of God into rebels of the lowest common denominator, but encouraged faith from wild iconoclasts. High priests of schlock 'n' roll withered rather than weathered the quietest storm that ever blew into town. Without ever being pious or elitist, he has the Levitical/Jesuitical energy of a keeper of the flame. So many of the artists he loved and detailed were consumed by the fire. It reinforced in Bob a reverence for the life force in rock—its truth-telling vitality rather than its corny mythologies, death-cult shtick, or tragic hipness.

This book documents his love of performers in country, rock, and pop and early hustles of Elvis and the Colonel; his love of words, with writings about Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, and Bob Dylan; and his love of the chemistry set that is band membership, from the Beatles to U2 to Nirvana. All documented by his gracious person and unforgiving prose.

As a writer, his words have an economical sense and frugality that put him across the street from other great commentators and critics of the rock era, like Greil Marcus with his prosaic and professorial tone and the late Lester Bangs's beat-up poetry. For three decades at the Times, Bob steadily deciphered the shouts and hollers, whispers and miasma of a music business that rose and fell over the period he sat at his desk.

Success loves simplicity. Simplicity in our business, or indeed any business (particularly writing), is having an ear for the top-line melody ... harmony is critical ... counterpoint, rhythm, etc., but having an ear for the top-line melody is knowing the real event that's taking place in a room, the real point that's being made—the "what's actually going down" as opposed to the melodrama of media. That means that if you didn't have time to fully immerse yourself in the convulsive, controversial world of Public Enemy or N.W.A in the late '80s, Bob Hilburn could be trusted with dispatches from the front line. If you wanted to know what domestic life was like for Mr. and Mrs. Cobain, Bob would not be distracted from good housekeeping.

Intellectually and intuitively rigorous, Bob will let himself go - but to a sound, not to a "scene." The sound has to be articulate, even if the words are not, which might explain his early support for our not-so-humble combo from the north side of Dublin. He was always looking for subject matter that was fresh and patiently observed what Van Morrison described as "inarticulate speech of the heart." U2 was shambolic and erratic, but he seemed to see the "what might be" in the "what was."

Bob's role as critic was to encourage suspension of disbelief not just in the audience, but in the artist as well. That is an environment in which music grows. He made us better.

Many critics do bands the favor of contextualizing their work, and Bob certainly did that. But there was always the sense from him that too much reverence for the past can shut the future up. Though twice the age of some of his discoveries, he was a diviner of new talent, watchful for a through-line with what had come before, but scouting for surprises, whether it was Chuck D or John Lydon, John Prine or Axl Rose. He made the present porous, he argued the case for what was about to happen. I think the biggest kick for Bob was sitting on Planet Rock and watching the new wave breaking. He figured every generation had a resonant frequency and that his job was to be a tuning fork. Not remotely interested in passing trends, it was the purity of each pitch he was listening for — i.e., would it last? That ear again. Was it worth the fuss? We were not, at that time, but his words made us readier.

U2 arrived on the cover of the calendar section of the LA Times in March 1981, and it changed our fate. We have never played a concert in Los Angeles that did not sell out since then. The first time we met, Bob bought me an ice cream and kept his smile to himself as I tried so hard to explain U2's flavor-of-the-month status as a taste that would endure. When we hit a peak at the Los Angeles Coliseum, he explained our appeal in one easy sentence: "At a Rolling Stones concert," he said, "you feel good about who you are despite where you've been. At a Bruce Springsteen or a U2 show, you feel good about the person next to you."

All three artists would love that sentence to be true.

His admonishments were just as deft. On one occasion, high on the possibilities of U2's success and owning up to an array of nonmusical ambitions, I was chastened by his swift reminder of the many Beatles or Cole Porter songs I knew, followed by the question, how many of our songs did I think would be remembered after our scene had died down?

Bob Hilburn is too modest to talk much about himself. Not suffering from that problem, I got as close as you can get to a glimpse of him by forcing him to answer some of my questions in exchange for answering his. I was hungry to know what he knew and thought about luminous beings like Bob Dylan and characters like John Lennon, who had survived inhuman talent with their humanity. He would open up about his favorites, but as soon as I asked about his own life, he would head back to his office. When I asked repeatedly about his family, he rarely offered up any contradiction to the thought that they too might not exist. He was probably teaching me Modesty. I might have missed it. 

What's remarkable about the book you hold in your hand is that for the first time he reveals himself as well as his subjects ... well, a little. Unlocking the puzzle of his own beginnings in music, he tells the story of his uncle Bill who was made an outsider by epilepsy and how tightly he held on to the recordings of Hank Williams. He reveals how he managed to hustle Elvis Presley into not calling him sir, and how Bruce Springsteen's honesty raised the standard for him and everyone. He sees the story of rock through the lens of his years and wonders a few times if he, and it, has peaked. He returns again and again to the same characters, hoping the answer will be no in both cases.

He is strangely, for a man who lives in the epicenter of it, almost immune to fame.

He can't help but laugh at a rendezvous of Michael Jackson and Prince.

With Bob Dylan, he treasures the moments that are unmasked, like Bob Dylan talking him through his conversion to Christianity or going for a coffee completely unrecognized at a truck stop in Chicago; and discovering John Lennon hiding chocolate from Yoko, who John constantly refers to as "Mother."

Maybe Bob Hilburn is a figment of our imagination, but the book exists. When John Lennon, in "I Am the Walrus," sings about "sitting on a corn flake waiting for the van to come," most folks picture a drug dealer or overlord. No one thinks of Robert Hilburn as the driver of the van. John didn't know Bob Hilburn when he wrote the song. After reading this book, you will think of no one else.

March 2009

Reprinted from Corn Flakes with John Lennon by Robert Hilburn (c) 2009 by Robert Hilburn. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc.