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I'm going to kick his butt. As it happens it's a very nice butt, as prime ministers go. -- Bono, on Canada's Paul Martin, 2005


Like a Song: Heartland

@U2

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[Ed. note: This is the 106th 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.]

I’ve always saved things. Too many things, to be exact. Not to hoarder levels or anything to be concerned about, but I tend to keep far more than I need, not because of any insecurity or fear, but because of sentimentality. I save everything from boarding passes to clothing that no longer fits just because I associate it with a warm memory and treasure the greeting cards I receive sometimes more than the gifts that accompany them.

I get this quality (or character flaw) from my father. He had a tough time throwing anything away that he ever remotely cared about. With the exception of a few cleaning sprees that cleared out clutter, the music, letters from family in Greece and mementos from his time as a sailor stayed with him until his death three years ago.

My mother, alternately, is just the opposite. She has no trouble letting go of things, because to her, that’s all they are — things. When my dad passed away, she cleaned out his half of the closet in the first 48 hours. Afraid she would regret not having the items later, I asked her multiple times if she was sure she didn’t want to keep more of them. “I’m not going to wear any of it,” she responded. Not able to argue with logic, I reluctantly drove her to the donation site and deposited bags of his clothes.

On my four-plus hour drive back to Seattle that week, “Heartland” was one of the songs I played repeatedly to cope with my grief. The intensity of Bono’s voice matched my feelings at the time and singing/crying along with him was therapeutic. In the months that followed, each time I would visit my mom, I’d notice that she’d got rid of more things they’d both acquired in their 50-plus years of marriage. When I asked her about this, she said she didn’t see the point in keeping things around that she doesn’t use or need. That she would feel awful if my sister and I had to go through mountains of stuff when she passes someday.

A selfless, beautiful act.

Continuing the discussion, I told her how much I appreciated that, but begged her not to let go of things that still bring her joy. She promised she wouldn’t on the condition that for every birthday and Mother’s Day going forward I would only buy her “experiences” instead of material items. I agreed to the deal and since then we’ve been to U2 and Billy Joel concerts in Seattle; visited my aunt in Kansas; feasted at The Pioneer Woman’s restaurant in Oklahoma; touched an iceberg in Newfoundland, Canada; and hunted ghosts in San Francisco. Spending that time with her has produced some of the best memories of my life.

This year, just a few weeks ago, our destination for her 78th birthday was Memphis, Tennessee. Though both of us had been to other parts of the state previously, neither of us had been to Memphis and we both had motives for wanting to go. She and my dad loved listening to classic Sun Studio artists such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, and I have been a fan of U2’s Rattle And Hum since it came out 30 years ago. The Rattle And Hum film shows U2 taking a tour of Graceland and recording in Sun Studio, where a few tracks from the album were completed. On our first full day in town, we visited both landmarks.

Freeway like a river cuts through this land
Into the side of love

Though it’s undeniably touristy, Graceland is still a very peaceful property, lush with green grass, trees and horses that roam out back. It’s easy to see why Elvis spent so much time here and his family went to great lengths to preserve it as it was when he was alive. Walking through it is really like being in a time capsule, complete with the sights and sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s. As we advanced through the rooms my mom pointed out where there were pieces of furniture or accents similar to items she and my dad once had.

The color schemes are what got me the most. Born in 1975, I have vivid memories of the dull brown, green and mustard hues of that era, because our modest house wasn’t updated until well into the ‘80s. Everything was darker back then: the carpeting, the photographs, the mood.

Through the ghost-ranch hills
Death Valley waters
In the towers of steel
Belief goes on and on

Though many of the items are whimsical, I couldn’t help but feel somber as the tour concluded. After exploring several indoor spaces, we were led outside to the Meditation Garden, which is where Elvis and several of his family members are buried. It’s a beautiful space with stained glass, flowers and fountains that surround the tombstones.

The group we were with was very respectful as we approached the graves, and of course all I could think about was Larry Mullen Jr. once standing exactly where I stood, arms folded, head hung in sadness as he reflected on his deceased musical hero. In my mind, “Heartland” was playing on repeat.

I snapped a few photos, then Mom and I walked around the side of the yard to sit down for a moment. There, she told me how much the death of Elvis in 1977 affected my dad. “He really got upset. That was one of the first musicians he truly loved after becoming an American, and he and Elvis were only a few weeks apart in age, so it hit him especially hard.”

I was not yet 2 years old when Elvis passed, so of course I don’t remember the mourning, but I did feel a twinge of guilt for being able to experience Graceland, though my dad never did. It would have meant so much more to him than it did to me.

In this heartland
In this heartland soil

From Graceland, we went straight to Sun Studio where our incredibly kind tour guide found me a pair of drumsticks so I could take a proper photo at Larry’s drum set. After the picture was taken, I sat on his stool, conjuring the ghosts of the space, and imagined all the souls who sang before them. Glancing from a portrait of Bono (in that era) over to one of Elvis with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, I was overcome by the magnitude of the American influence. For me, The Beatles are where my love of music began, but of course John Lennon is quoted as saying it was Elvis who inspired him. I finally understood why.

The next day, Mom and I set out for the National Civil Rights Museum, which stands on the property where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As we turned onto the street of the old Lorraine Motel, “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” came on the iPhone shuffle. How fitting, I thought, as I smiled to myself.

I became dizzy both when we lingered just inside the balcony where King was shot and again when we went across the street and stood where his killer was when he fired the fatal bullets. Overcome with sadness, we silently walked back to the rental car for the trip home. As we exited the parking lot, I realized it was too quiet, so I put my iPhone back through the car stereo. The song that started playing without being prompted? “Heartland.”

U2 have given me goosebumps many times in the past with their greatness, but this was something special. The band had seen something in our country that I hadn’t, something they so eloquently conveyed in “Heartland.” As the song played, I felt an enormous sense of renewed love for my country and everything it represents. It was this country that produced a man as strong as King who was able to reach millions through acts of peace instead of violence. It was this country that allowed my parents, from opposite sides of the ocean — an immigrant and a native-born citizen — to fall in love and build a life together.

It is this country, despite its current and former flaws, where everything is still possible.

In this heartland
Heaven knows this is a heartland
Heartland, heaven knows this is a heartland

(c) @U2/Kokkoris, 2018.