U2 @ 46
No.132: November 4, 2022
I remember when I was eleven years old I didn’t have a Walkman. Do you even know what that is? It was a small, portable cassette player that you could hitch to your pants and carry music around with you. Instead we had a big, clumsy tape recorder that I could plug headphones into—mine had those fuzzy orange earmuffs—but I had to carry it around with two hands.
Somehow I had got hold of a new tape. I remember going into a room, sliding it into the slot and pressing play. This was back when you had to press play, not “tap” play. I cranked up the volume and an organ softly began. And then, fading in, I heard one of the most glorious sounds. I tried in my mind’s eye to see it, to envision it. It was an electric guitar, I knew, but it was like no electric guitar I had ever heard. I couldn’t conceive of how the artist was playing it. I much, much later learned that the magic was accomplished with a kind of digital “delay” device. The music built and built, finally smashing into full force with the drums and the bass and all the hairs on my neck and arms stood straight. It was one of the most thrilling sounds I’d ever heard.
It was the opening track of U2’s Joshua Tree album, a rock anthem called “Where The Streets Have No Name.” You may rightly surmise that from that moment I was a fan of the band U2. And it has pretty much been a lifelong love.
Now I will take a moment to allow certain friends of mine with terrible music taste to compose themselves and stop laughing at me—you know who you are. Are you done? Good.
It is a remarkable thing to love a band for your whole life because usually bands do not survive that long. In U2’s case, they became a band the year I was born and they are still recording and performing. In 1976 14-year-old Larry Mullen, Jr. posted a note on his high school’s bulletin board in Dublin, Ireland: “Drummer seeks musicians to form a band.” Paul Hewson (Bono), Dave Evans (The Edge), and Adam Clayton showed up. And the rest is, as they say, history. Which is a miracle, because they were terrible. Adam didn’t even know how to play the bass; he just knew how to look cool with it.
175 million sold records later, 8 #1 albums on the Billboard charts, 22 Grammy Awards, the second-highest grossing live musical act in history ($2.13 Billion, just a tad behind The Rolling Stones)—no one saw any of that coming. And it is still, 46 years later, just Bono, Edge, Adam, and Larry. I haven’t looked it up but I can say with total confidence that they are the longest-running band with the original lineup intact.
Sadly, U2 has in recent years become something of a punchline. First there was the saga over the release of Songs of Innocence, which they gave away for free on every Apple device on the planet. In the midst of all that controversy (it seems some people didn’t want the gift!) it was lost on most people that the album was actually very good. The follow-up, Songs of Experience, was in my opinion not great, and there is a sense that the band is finally running out of gas.
And, of course, Bono has been an activist for most of his life and he just won’t stop being an activist. People are weary of listening to him; they think he’s a blowhard with a massively inflated ego. But I don’t think so. Bono has always played the rock star frontman fully aware of the absurdity of it. But he’s compelled to do something with the gift of notoriety. It can be irritating, to be sure, but I don’t think anyone can accuse him of not having his heart in the right place.
This month Bono is releasing his 600-page memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story. And Mike Cosper over at Christianity Today had the opportunity to interview him about the book. And, because Cosper is a skilled writer, he did not publish it as an “interview.” He weaved it into a truly beautiful story that is well-worth reading and provides a clear window into a question that has always surrounded U2: what in the world is their relationship to Christianity?
Bono is definitely not a guy who fits into any sectarian boxes—not surprising for an Irish kid from Dublin with a Protestant mother and Roman Catholic father. And boy, oh, boy, have I strongly disagreed with the man over some of his chosen social causes (gay marriage, the abortion referendum in Ireland). But I have read and seen enough interviews to know that he is and seeks to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He’s simply emphatic and unashamed about it:
Well, now. What I am supposed to do with that, other than rejoice at this Christian brother so openly sharing the truth about Jesus to an obvious skeptic? Sometimes Christians get way too caught up in a kind of skepticism of people’s professions of faith, and I don’t really know why. I am not sure I see the point.
In that Cosper essay Bono hilariously relates the story of Franklin Graham picking him up from the airport. He recites the whole conversation, which consisted of Franklin asking him repeatedly if he was really a Christian. When he kept getting the same answer he finally asks, “Then why are your songs not about Jesus?” Bono replied: “They are.” Bono’s view of music meshes well with something T-Bone Burnett once said: “If Jesus is the light of the world then there are two kinds of songs you can write. You can write about the light, or you can write what you can see by the light.” And that has been what U2 has been about for 46 years.
I am grateful for these four Irishmen and I look forward to reading Bono’s memoirs. From his successful partnership with George W. Bush to save Africa from AIDS to his advocacy for free markets to alleviate poverty in the Third World, he has been a consequential figure far beyond just a famous singing voice.
And I’m grateful for the music. Innovation and excellence. I have seen them perform live four times and it is hard to describe the attention to detail they put into their shows. They play every time like it might be their last. And there comes a time in every live show they have ever played since 1987 when the organ fades in, the Edge conjures his magic, Larry and Adam break in with thunderous rhythm, and Bono’s voice soars over the top. And all these decades later it gives me the very same goosebumps. Every single time. Oh, I might as well put it here so you can feel what I mean:
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