"I distrust anything that's obvious, like someone saying, 'Let's be original.'"
Like a Song: Unknown Caller
May 18, 2011
[Ed. note: This is the 56th 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 have a confession to make: Despite all my experience with U2's music -- I've been a fan for over 20 years and wrote a music theory dissertation on their studio catalogue -- it often takes me quite a while to fully "get" a song. Sometimes, it'll take me years and listening to a song hundreds of times before I comprehend its true meaning. "Unknown Caller" falls into this category. While it didn't take years, it did take several months and an amazing concert experience to help me realize just what a remarkable song it is and how one of its messages can help me through some challenging times.
When No Line On The Horizon was released in March 2009, several tracks grabbed my attention immediately. "Get On Your Boots" (or "Vertigo Pt. 2," as I call it sometimes) and "Magnificent" instantly became new favorites, followed shortly thereafter by "Breathe" and "No Line On The Horizon." "Unknown Caller," however, took a bit longer. I didn't think it was a bad song, initially; I just didn't understand it.
Fast-forward to Sept. 20, 2009, Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass. It's my first time seeing the band live since November 2005 and only the second time ever, and I. Am. STOKED. Much to my surprise (and eventual delight), one of the highlights of the show was "Unknown Caller." Staring up the cylindrical screen as the red lyrics scrolled across the bottom, I finally began to understand the song.
Hear me, cease to speak that I may speak
On the 360 Rose Bowl Blu-ray, Bono introduces the song by saying, "It was a beautiful sunrise on that morning, in the holy city of Fez, in Morocco. Two birds flew into our little riad, and we wrote this song. It's called 'Unknown Caller.' For a chorus of voices. A chorus of voices! Help me!" He said something very similar to this in Foxboro. At that moment, 70,000 fans collectively formed the fifth member of U2. We weren't just watching a performance: We were an integral part of it. As I was belting out those lyrics at the top of my lungs, I heard what the song was trying to say.
I was lost between the midnight and the dawning
Fast-forward again, to early 2011. It's been a strange, tough semester. There's discord, controversy and upheaval at work. In my three years here, I never felt like I really belonged, and that sentiment was confirmed in an abrupt, matter-of-fact -- albeit not surprising -- manner. The job market that looked quite promising in the fall has since dried up. The city where my wife and I live isn't exactly where we want to settle down. And on top of all that, the winter was extra long, extra gray, and doesn't seem to ever want to flip the switch to spring.
Shout for joy if you get the chance
What I've begun to recognize, however, is that despite all the garbage swirling around me the past few months, I have plenty in my life for which to be grateful. One of the most beneficial lessons I've learned from my wife is to be grateful out loud. I have a roof over my head, food on my table, a dog whose first priority is snuggling, parents who love me, and a wife who adores me. And although I work in a place that's not necessarily the best fit for me, I get to go to a job that I love and analyze some of the greatest music ever written.
Escape yourself and gravity ...
"Unknown Caller" has helped me realize two things: 1) As long as the major pieces of my life are in place, like family, home and job, the details will work themselves out; and 2) I can't be a passive observer in my life and wait for things to get better. It is my life, and therefore I have to take an active role in making it better. I've got to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, and when none is there, I must go looking for it.
Password, you, enter here, right now
The password to a happy and successful life is not some secret code or an elaborate handshake. The chorus of voices isn't ordering me to enter the password; rather, it's telling me that I am the password. To learn it, I must simply look in the mirror. I need not know anything or anyone else but myself -- my strengths and weaknesses, my likes and dislikes -- to unlock the door of opportunity. I was disappointed to learn that the last couple of legs of the tour didn't include "Unknown Caller." It's a great song on the album, but it was meant to be played live, and I hope it returns to the set when I see them again in July. I now know who's on the line, and I'd like to answer the call.
(c) @U2/Endrinal, 2011.