Like a Song: A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel
April 17, 2008
[Ed. note: This is the eighteenth in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
A song can change your life in many ways: the excitement it brings; the sense of possibility; the joy and the ecstasy.
Yet that other life-changing, or at the very least life-enhancing, element of music is escapism. Instead of trying to help you face the world as a means of coping when it gets grim, a song can remove you from it.
I never truly experienced this process of real escapism, of having a song take me to a place that, to paraphrase Edge, can almost border on being real as opposed to purely emotional or spiritual, until I heard "A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel." But even on that first listen, the song only sketched out a vague landscape, barely hovering at the forefront of my consciousness. I loved the uncharacteristically raw rock 'n' roll of the melody, but the lyrics felt distant. Bono seemed to be singing about things that I could barely relate to. And it didn't help that I'd never been a big fan of Elvis, and so the "Heartbreak Hotel" as a lyrical landmark didn't really resonate with me.
But one of the things I love the most about U2's music is the way that the songs in their canon can change in their order of relevance as your life evolves. A recent experience threw the blurred landscape depicted in "A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel" into greater focus.
I was trying to come to terms with my first real taste of one of life's cruelest, yet most universally felt experiences: obsessive, but unrequited love. I had fallen head-over-heels for a boy living in the apartment next door to me at my university halls. What I felt for him went beyond a mere crush, a brief desire that I knew would ultimately burn out as the fickle nature of adolescence dictates. I knew the world I was moving in was not quite adulthood, but bordering on it, with the relationships I was forming having a more lasting and profound nature than any childhood ones. I was also aware that many people meet not only their lifelong friends at university, but their future partners. And I was convinced that this guy was the One.
How could he not be? In my whole life, out of all the boys I'd ever felt anything for, I could never remember feeling love this overpowering, or desire this intense. I'd never before known what it was to meet someone and instantly feel that I couldn't live without them. And when I discovered he didn't feel the same way, the sense of heartbreak was crippling.
I tried to exorcise the pain as much as possible through writing songs and poems, but I felt empty, devoid of any creative drive. The block restricting my writer's impulse had turned into a boulder, and I was constantly hampered by the awareness that what I was feeling was not the centre of the universe, unworthy of the serious study I was trying to ascribe to it. Despite my feelings to the contrary, this was not the most important thing that had ever happened to anyone ever, and that, in the grand scheme of things, why should anyone care about what I was experiencing? No-one had any reason to give a damn, and as a result the part of me that might have turned my agony into something constructive stopped giving a damn, too. I was alone, mired in the isolation that obsession can bring.
That was, until one miserable evening when I plugged into my iPod and played a song "A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel."From the first distant strains of the Hammond organ, I am instantly transported from my shabby bedroom in Kings Cross to a place that seems as solid and physical as the wall in front of me. For the first time, I am fully experiencing what Edge described as "cinematic music," or, as one U2 fan put it, having U2's music become "the soundtrack to the movie where you are the star." The increasing wail of the organ is already feeling like the howls of defeat I long to let loose, the bluesy screeching followed by Edge's blunt, abrasive chords already articulating the way I feel far better than any purely literate response ever could. Perhaps it's because words are impotent when it comes to conveying the futility of love and loss; language can never truly bridge the gap between emotions and the act of trying to express them. That is why it's almost a relief that the song, despite running for over five minutes, is light on the words; and the ones that are there say far more than 10 pages of lovesick drivel written by me ever could.
From where I stand I can see through you From where you're sitting, pretty one I know it got to you
As always, it seems as though Bono is speaking directly into my ear, explaining me to myself, knowing me better than I could ever know myself. Nothing has ever gotten to me like this has before. I now appreciate fully the significance of the Heartbreak Hotel; it's an establishment in my imagination somewhere, but which I now appear to be standing in front of. It's pretty run down, somewhere on the wrong side of the tracks, the seedy side of town, in a place that could be America, but might not be. Who knows?
Hotels seem to have a strange kind of emotive symbolism within rock music, indicative of chaos and displacement, of a life in a state of flux. I know there is a room here with my name branded onto the door. I instinctively know where it is as I go through the entrance and toward the stairs. For in this hotel, everyone has a room, a place where the broken-hearted can live in a form of self-imposed exile, a million different people all existing on their own eighth circle of hell; each room containing its own Dante's Inferno. And it is here in my room that I know, like all the other people within these walls, I will be forced to meditate on the exact moment when my heart ripped in half. They all feel the same way as me: unable to think of anything else. No life beyond this numbness.
For there will never be anyone like him. No-one will ever have his humility, his generosity, his intelligence, his beauty. He was grace in human form, the closest thing I've ever seen to perfection in a person. I want him so much. But he's gone.
See the stars in your eyes You want the truth but you need the lies Like Judy Garland, like Valentino You gave your life for rock and roll
If this is a movie, then it seems I have a role to play. Perhaps I'll be an inverted martyr like many a modern rock star, destroying myself not for some great noble cause but out of self-delusion, from thinking that all I need to numb the pain is to hear him say that he loves me the way I love him, even though I know it's not true. He probably isn't worthy of the pedestal I've put him on, but I'm star-struck, bowled over by a desire that's slowly killing me. Perhaps I'll be another Jesus or St. Sebastian: a master of my own self-destruction, minus the inner anesthetic of faith that they had.
Stand We're on the landslide of love You got everything you want, And what you need you give away
If only emotions could be turned on and off like a light switch, that it was possible to experience the joy of being in love, of feeling your heart swell to the point where it feels too large for your chest, but without the landslide, the corrosive, destructive element. But it can't be that way. You don't choose to feel something, it chooses you.
And I know that life isn't terrible. I know I'm surrounded by people who love me and care about me. Surely that matters more than fleeting romance or lust? Surely that's what I need? But I know this isn't fleeting - and I'd give away everything I know I really need to be happy for the sake of being with him. I'll stay in this hotel room forever if I have to, away from friends and family, in order to meditate on the times when I still had hope, before I knew that he didn't feel the same way. I'll stay here in order to escape from the truth: that what I want can never be.
For a primitive love and a ride on the mystery train A primitive love A room at the heart, heartbreak hotel
Perhaps these are primitive feelings, no more built on rock than any of the other desires I've had. I feel like I'm now being reprimanded by Bono, the omniscient narrator of this movie, for making mountains out of molehills.
But then comes the reminder, over and over again, of where I am:
A room at the heartbreak, heartbreak hotel A room at the heartbreak, heartbreak hotel
U2 are perhaps the only band I've ever come across who have made me experience what I can only describe as painful joy, filling my soul with ecstasy-laden music whilst simultaneously reminding me of the crushing loneliness of my situation. I'm here because I can't escape from this burning desire. Yet the pain is partly neutralised by seeing it being played out on a big screen and having it voiced by someone who understands.
You say it's love, it's not the money You let them suck your life out like honey Turning tricks, you're on the street Selling your kisses so bittersweet
My role appears to have changed. I now seem to be something akin to a prostitute. For there have been other men since, of course there have. I just want anything that'll fill the hole inside me left by rejection, even though I know that I barely feel anything for anyone other than him right now.
A quasi-gospel voice kicks in, powered by heavenly joy but singing of the twin paradoxes of guilt and desire, not dissimilar to the restlessness on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For:"
I love it, yeah Buy me again I want to know pretty baby I want to know The price is too hard to pay
And yet again, the reminder of where I am -- indefinitely checked in to a room at the Heartbreak Hotel. But then the music speeds up, building to a crescendo, in a way that has a comforting finality about it.
For somehow, Edge's guitar, along with Larry's drums, seems even more significant within the emotional architecture of U2's music than Bono's voice. The first chords after the drums kick in make me want to groan with envy, longing, joy and awe, a whole range of emotions that I can't even begin to fathom. And the cascade of trumpets and "Hallelujahs" reiterates to me that even though I may be standing outside of the hotel now, my home lies within these walls of sound, reminding me wherever I go of who I am, what I want to be, all that I will ever be. And that's my final role in this film -- someone who has U2's music as their identity and their guide.
I think that out of the whole of U2's canon, few songs so well manage to create a sonic landscape as "A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel," having the music itself evoke a place that reflects one's inner state of mind rather than the lyrics. And as long as I have the band's meditations on my experiences as well as my own, I know I'll survive -- I know I'll never remain trapped at the Heartbreak Hotel forever.
© @U2/Fry, 2008.