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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Bono Re-finds His Inner Yeats

Ah, memories: I was a devotee of the Saturday night “New Wave” show on Portland’s KISN-AM in 1981, and I remember those songs like it was really yesterday instead of 21 years ago: Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark’s “Enola Gay”, “Wordy Rappinghood” by the Tom Tom Club, the B-52s, The Teardrop Explodes, Adam and the Ants, it was all so totally excellent. It was a time of possibility, of hammering away at the disco and soft rock menace, of people wearing the really strange clothes and attitudes that I was not allowed to have in my small farm town high school sophomore existence.

One song they played every week was “I Will Follow” by U2, which struck me as the coolest possible name of a band, like, ever. To me, it was all about that searing Edge riff, you know the one, and the incredible tightness of the rhythm section, but I remember thinking that that singer, whoever he was, was okay too. I made a really crap-quality tape off the radio and played it for my brothers, and they liked it too; but when one asked me, “Where are these guys from?” I gave him the no DOY look and said, “England, of course.”

As I write this, U2 is the world’s biggest band. Again. (This is at least the third time I can count that they’ve been there.) They make the most money, they draw the most fans, they win the most awards, they perform at the Super Bowl halftime show. They are beloved in a way that few musical acts have ever been — the Beatles, the Stones, Bruce Springsteen — and they’ve been bigger longer than anyone else; it’s been 22 years since their first album, Boy, was first released, and they are huger now than they ever were before.

And no one makes the same mistake I made when I was a kid. Everyone knows they’re Irish — actually, as Morrissey pointed out in a pissy interview a couple of years ago, both Dave Evans and Adam Clayton were born in England. They got together in Dublin as teenage school friends, won a contest and a record contract, huge underground success leading to Irish buzz leading to English buzz leading to War, which broke them huge everywhere. By spring of junior year, I had friends in Canby, Oregon, who were U2 freaks and knew everything about them. We played “Sunday Bloody Sunday” at parties and the whole football team pounded out that Larry Mullen Jr. drum tattoo on coffee tables in perfect unison back when U2 ruled MTV riding those white horses through the forest in the snow. Anyone who thought that U2 were English — or, worse, American — got pounded on by the biggest fanatics of us all. (Those fanatics’ mother actually burned all their rock record albums in a fit of religious insanity — the next day, they went right back to the store and bought War and Under a Blood Red Sky…but this time on cassette.)

We knew, just knew, that U2 was so political and fiery and impassioned because they were Irish. Hell, they probably went to sleep at night with gunfire in their ears, something we all were secretly jealous about. But instead of being bitter and twisted by all the violence and poverty and confusion of his world, Bono wanted peace — an end to war. Because that’s what all good Irish people really wanted, right?

What the hell did we know? We were kids, American kids, and even those of us who were half Irish-American (of the infamous Kane family, San Francisco, Mission District, four generations, thank you very much) didn’t really know what was going on. We subscribed to the generalized horror/fascination model that most people had, and still have, of Ireland and Irish culture: man, they have it bad over there, but man, they still know how to party and tell stories and write kick-ass songs. And U2, with their blazing sincerity and their rock-solid wavey grooves and Bono’s intensity, were what we thought all Irish young people were: brave soldiers for the good, forged in the fire of the bad.

Everyone believed this, even Bono himself. In an early interview, he claimed, “‘Irishness’ was even a box people tried to put us into, but that’s a box we’re quite proud to be in because our music is Irish.” Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can ask: “Huh?” Yeah, there were some early overt nods to Eire on Boy and October: a melody line here, an Irish title there. And back then Mr. Hewson was still able to pull some very Yeats-like images out of his hat. But how often did the songs actually reference real places? Hardly ever. And how was the music inherently Irish? Only, really, in our imagination.

By War, it was clear that U2 was trying to fry bigger fish. Yeah, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” broke them worldwide, and yeah, there are at least two different “Bloody Sunday” dates in Irish history, but nothing else in the song indicates that Bono is really talking about Protestants and Catholics and England at all. And the fact that a truce ended up being called for New Year’s Day was purely coincidental to the song “New Year’s Day.” Yet the cult of U2 that was springing up all over the world made us believe that we were right there in it with ’em, fighting the good fight in Dublin and Belfast.

But we started to suspect something when The Unforgettable Fire broke out in 1984. It was recorded at Slane Castle outside Dublin, but it didn’t sound Irish to us. This might have been because of its English (Brian Eno) and Quebecois (Daniel Lanois) producers, but it was more likely because the big centerpiece songs were about Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Pride (In the Name of Love)”) and the myths of the U.S. (“Elvis Presley and America”, “4th of July”). And this was tripled on their biggest breakthrough, The Joshua Tree, which seemed to be set in the desert land of the United States, in El Salvador (“Bullet the Blue Sky”), all over the world…but not really anywhere in Ireland at all. And forget about Rattle and Hum, which was recorded everywhere and features such not-really-all-that-Irish ditties as “Angel of Harlem”, “Van Diemen’s Land”, and “When Love Comes to Town” with B.B. King.

Yep, we thought, they’ve become Everyband for Everyone Everywhere. So we weren’t at all surprised, really, when U2 completely reinvented themselves as internationalists for Achtung Baby in 1991. From the German-sounding title (actually cribbed from the hippie Hitler in Mel Brooks’ movie The Producers) to the Eurobeats to the very look of their videos, Bono and The Edge and Larry and Adam had dropped any hint of being Irish whatsoever — they were world citizens now, baby, and deal with that shit, like, schnell. Their lyrics had become as simple as possible — seemingly for easy translation — and even their song titles were clues: “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”, “One”. And, while their themes were actually kind of interesting behind all that vagueness — “One” is still one of the ten greatest songs written in the rock era, a great accomplishment considering that it’s written in the voice of a son with AIDS talking to his disapproving father — U2 was now the world’s band, and loving it.

This, of course, was widely assumed to be Bono’s way of dealing with the pressure of expectations, which could also be interpreted as the pressure of being Irish. At this point, he was the world’s best-known Irishman, and had served as an advisor for the Irish government on youth issues. This had brought him dangerously close to being part of the system…but how is an artist supposed to remain free when the system is jamming its tongue down your throat? Better to just drift, be global, be bigger than any kind of puny little concerns like where you were born or what your last name is. Adam Clayton briefly married British supermodel Naomi Campbell; Dave “The Edge” Evans split up with his wife and took up with a bellydancer from the live version of “Mysterious Ways”. Little by little, they were all falling victim to all the clichés of Rock Star living…so why not just act the parts onstage?

So U2 went completely over the top with Zooropa, a concept album about the upcoming European Union, and everyone assumed that they were no longer interested in being Irish anymore at all — that it was an outmoded idea when “With satellite television / You can go anywhere / Miami, New Orleans / London, Belfast and Berlin”. The Zoo TV tour, with its wall of satellite images from all over the world, Bono’s Dark Lord of Rock persona called “Mephisto”, and its gimmicks like talking to Russian cosmonauts, had put the nail in the coffin that was U2’s Irishness.

Or did it? “Lemon”, one of Zooropa‘s most affecting tracks, seemed to actually recall earlier times in its plaintive melody and sad lyrics about Bono’s mother’s early death…and wasn’t she Irish? The album closer, “The Wanderer”, strongly implied that the further you go and the farther you run, the more you miss your home. Bono still seemed to be wandering on the semi-flop that was Pop, but he was returning once again to his more religious material, and questioning the whole subsumation of his personality in those ridiculous but necessary “Fly” and “Mephisto” characters: “You wanted to get somewhere so badly / You had to lose yourself along the way / You change your name, well that’s okay, it’s necessary / And what you leave behind you don’t miss anyway”.

And then, like a bolt from the blue, All That You Can’t Leave Behind roared back into the world’s consciousness in 2000 and put them back on top. How? It had a lot to do with beauty and melody and big huge rock choruses like that monster on “Beautiful Day” — but it had even more to do with dropping all the masks and letting go. It’s almost as if Bono has decided that the most heroic thing he could do is to become Bono again, singing songs about his daughters (“Kite”), sadness about losing friends to rock excess (Michael Hutchence in “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”), and accepting the help of others (“Wild Honey”). And, in a very significant way, he reconnects with being Irish — the nods to Irish-American accomplishment in “New York”, and the horror that was the 1998 Omagh massacre in “Peace on Earth”. Here, intoning the names of victims (“Sean and Julia / Gareth, Ann, and Breda”), Bono sounds human again for the first time since he became a Rock Star. He almost, maybe, sounds Irish again.

What was that poem by Yeats again? The one where he talks about having made his song into a coat and then having to deal with other people walking about wearing the exact same coat? You know the one, the one that ends:

Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

You don’t suppose someone was reading his Anthology of Irish Literature, do you?