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"I like boring things like loyalty, and I like to have a good time too." — Bono

Sam Shepard's 'Hawk Moon': Inspiration for U2's 'Hawkmoon'?



Depending on the source, “Hawkmoon 269” was inspired by a motel room, a small town in North Dakota, the number of times the song was mixed, or a book by Sam Shepard. The truth is probably somewhere in between and all of the above. 

Hawk Moon by Sam Shepard, originally published by Black Sparrow Press in 1973, is 82 pages of wild ideas and grotesque tragedies. None of the words explicitly call to mind any of the lyrics in U2’s “Hawkmoon 269,” but the barren western landscape that is the setting for many of the scenes in the book certainly calls to mind the stark black-and-white desert imagery of U2’s The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum era. Imagine the four somber-faced lads in those famous Anton Corbijn portraits as hell-raising travelers several days into a desert hallucination and you’ve got the idea. Shepard’s words seem more aligned with a something from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack than anything on Rattle And Hum.

The 58 poems, stories and monologues of Hawk Moon read like a trip through someone’s mind hanging on the edge of their humanity. Animal imagery and violence are reoccurring themes. The protagonists are solitary characters reacting to and against their environments. Where “Hawkmoon 269” is longing for, Hawk Moon is clashing with. Bono may “need your love,” but Shepard is “lonely for that bear” after he has burned its pelt in a fire. Many of the poems are sequences of words that challenge you to find the rhythm in order to follow the thought. Some of the poems are fleeting bursts, their meaning catching you just before you turn the page. Are these the thoughts “unchained, like a runaway train?"

Because I was reading Hawk Moon with “Hawkmoon 269” in mind, my eyes picked out words and phrases that linked the book and U2. None seemed to indicate a direct connection to or influence on Bono’s lyrics, but here is what I found:

“Hawk Moon Month” - The first entry into the book is a free-form poem written like a long sentence calling out significant events that occur during the month of November, which, according to Shepard, is Hawk Moon month. (“my birthday month,” “month of cold set in,” “month of washing long black hair,” etc.)

“Sweat Saint” - During a monologue in which the narrator desperately seeks to escape what seems to be an arranged marriage, the author references Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” with the passage, “There’s too much at stake. There’s too much confusion here. And I’m the only one. How can that be. There must be some way out.” U2’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” appears in the film and on the soundtrack to Rattle And Hum. Because Shepard makes several references to early ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll in Hawk Moon, this may be a coincidence of shared influences, or perhaps it provided a roadmap for Bono to follow through to that Bob Dylan, pre-punk era of rock ‘n’ roll. 

“Dream Band” - Shepard’s seemingly random list of names, events and things (“Pattie and the Chelsea. David making rhubarb wine. His new camera.”) starts and ends with the word “Rattle.”  

“The Curse of the Raven’s Black Feather” - Shepard has us ride along with a man seemingly cursed by a feather that was plucked from the corpse of a crow he hit with his car. Within the story is a paragraph proclaiming the absolute coolness of Keith Richard and it includes a quote from the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed track “You Got the Silver:” “You got the silver, you got the gold. You got the diamonds from the mine.” Did this influence the imagery of U2’s “Silver and Gold?”  

“Rip It Up” - In a full page of feverish, punctuation-less, breathless poetry, Shepard attempts to convey why and how the medium of rock 'n’ roll moves him. The rant begins with the words “Drum bass” and ends with “ROCK AND ROLL ROCK AND ROLL ROCK AND ROLL ROCK AND ROLL ROCK AND ROLL.” There is an interesting run of words, “… the audience never sees the constant differences between the inside and the out the performer and the performance the experience and what they experience…” I want to quote the whole poem here as it is probably my favorite one in Hawk Moon. With “drum,” “bass,” “experience” and “rock and roll” in the text, “American Soul” immediately came to mind. It is not at all related to Rattle And Hum, but maybe a seed was planted 30 years ago and sprouted into a song for Songs Of Experience

“Left Handed Kachina” - In a trippy tale about a souvenir purchased by tourists in Arizona is the line “Rain pours from the ceiling soaking, driving hard like needles into his face.” It is a punishing and brutal rain, not unlike the rain that “pours through a gaping wound, pelting women and children” in “Bullet The Blue Sky” on The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum soundtrack.

I read Hawk Moon in a few hours, but I spent days thinking about, referencing and re-reading it. The book is an adventure worth taking and one that I probably wouldn’t have embarked on without the possible connection to U2 and “Hawkmoon 269.” I suspect that I will check out more of Sam Shepard’s works as a result. Shepard “showed me a place high out on the desert plain” and while it was not one that I wanted to visit in person, it is one that I would like to explore in the comfort and safety of the other side of the page. 

(C) @U2/Cropp, 2018