The Blues, as Ellison put it, might be summed up as “personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
By definition, no one is good at navigating catastrophe. But as teenagers, we’re extra-bad at navigating catastrophe—assuming whatever we’re up in arms about can, even by extraordinarily loose standards, qualify as catastrophe. As a teenager, in deliberate preparation for all the catastrophe I was worried was coming my way, I listened to U2. I listened to a lot of U2. The thing that distinguished them from any respectable band to claim (then and now) undoubtedly had something to do with earnesty, and that's probably what's separated them from the scenes they've inhabited throughout their long history of making music.
I discovered U2 way too late, once everyone else was already done and over with them. It didn’t help that my discovery of U2 converged with my most intensely churchy years—not really religious, just churchy. While spending years’ worth of weekends and summers repairing dilapidated houses and delivering Meals on Wheels with youth groups, I obsessed over each of U2’s eras—from Boy to their much-hated film Rattle and Hum, which was made the year I was born but which I did not discover myself until I was sixteen or so. I watched Bono, The Edge, Larry, and Adam sliding down Memphis’s bluffs on flattened cardboard boxes and touring Graceland looking teary-eyed and star struck, and I loved it.
The worlds between the singles first released before Boy and the final cut of the album are spectacular. Something crystallized in the studio—and from then to now, there’s a more singular arc, it’s always a stretch, but you can follow the path pretty clear. And the arc mattered: it took them up above the insular music scene of the late 70s in Ireland—which rightly or wrongly would’ve been called provincial Britain by some. Certainly, the Dublin of then wasn’t the Dublin of the 2001 recording of U2 Go Home, recorded live at Slane Castle some twenty years since they opened for Thin Lizzy, riding the waves created by the debut of Boy. And at the height of this wave, there's a particular recording of "Out of Control" that's still in heavy rotation for me.
I loved the outlandish Zoo TV and Achtung Baby tours, when U2 attempted to counteract those words that hounded them in each and every review: earnest and overly serious. But even their attempts at irony still managed to be too earnest, too serious: with multi-colored Trabants hanging from the ceiling, Bono and his various alter egos preached about Sarajevo, access to contraception, dumping radioactive materials with Greenpeace. Their activism was loud, showy, and I ate it up, thinking it somehow sanctioned my own smaller attempts to do good and make change in my quiet, churchy ways.
Listening to Boy was, for me, always a kind of homecoming. U2 recorded Boy when they were all under twenty-one years old, and when I listen to that album now, I can see myself as a teenager, falling in love with a band for the first time. I listened to U2 everywhere, all the time. On a church trip to Mississippi, stripping highway paint from the side of an old woman’s house, I’d have headphones jammed deep into my ears, listening to U2 and believing there was a way to be a person of faith, an artist, an activist—to do all of these things well—and still be sort of cool (right?).
Now look here: no one in the history of music, not since wandering troubadours had to sing for their nightly meal, was as hardworking as B.B. King, and he said those Irish boys can play. He meant it enough to sing with ‘em. He told Bono it was a deep song for such a young fella, and there’s damn sure no higher honor in the land. But maybe it was Joey Ramone called ‘em by the right name in the end (called ‘em gospel singers, I heard to tell). Say it's the truth or not, but don’t forget for a minute the other important part: B.B. King said they could play.
Chiming with glockenspiel and The Edge’s signature pulsating guitar, “I Will Follow” was written in tribute to Bono’s mother who’d died not long before, when Bono was fourteen. Bono claims to have sung the song from his mother’s perspective: If you walk away, walk away / I walk away, walk away, I will follow / If you walk away, walk away / I walk away, walk away, I will follow / I will follow. This song was kind of confusing to me: wasn’t she the one who’d left? Was she following him, or was he following her? How, I wondered, can someone follow someone after their own death? Was she a ghost? Whatever. What I hear expressed in this song is an ardent, hopeful faith, in spite of loss and pain.
My wife has never loved a band—as in, never loved a single band. She likes music, but she lives for paint—for colors I will never be able to see. She points out that I’m perfectly polite in galleries, but that my questions betray a gruesome lack of the real shit required to know and love a painting. Every time she brings me, there’s no way I belong—that’s the sort of ground you can tread when you’re married. But in formative media, we’re from different worlds, and I am the utter, sloppy opposite of her vivid world of brushstroke and dynamic art: I am a born sap—there’s no two ways about it—and I love U2.
Like “I Will Follow,” most of the lyrics on Boy aren’t ready for the voice—big, at times operatic—Bono is trying to give them. Amazingly, Bono wrote a review of Boy in the comments section of Rolling Stone’s website in 2008. After listening to Boy for the first time “in over twenty years,” Bono made jabs at his own girlish voice, his pretentiousness, the album’s “nonlyrics,” and his own “face like a baked bean and in search of a nonregional identity...” Bono also wrote some surprisingly insightful observations about Boy that helped me clarify my own confused, lingering attachment to U2.
For those years when I loved U2 whole-heartedly and unselfconsciously, it didn’t really occur to me that U2 might be deeply, fundamentally uncool. Even now, when I find someone willing to hear my case for U2, I have to remind myself that U2 might be a lot of things but they are definitely not cool. “[O]f course,” Bono wrote, “the pursuit of coolness is rarely the same thing as the pursuit of art…” No matter what Bono or U2 did to try and counteract their sincerity, their earnestness—their pursuit of art over coolness might have been the most sincere thing about them, something they couldn’t renounce without becoming a completely different band.
There’s a lot of murk and shimmer surrounding U2—by design, maybe, but surely it couldn’t have ever been any other way. What’s sure is that there is a constant play between sincerity and teasing, and there’s those who say that when it comes from Bono, it’s the same thing. But Bono has outed me and the hundred (thousand?) others cut from the same cloth, time and again. He’s never shy to leave us high and dry as his followers, those of us not quick enough to realize we shouldn’t take him seriously—or at the very least, that we should never, ever call U2 cool out loud. All of us sincere, weepy saps, desperately trying with a well-timed sarcastic quip, or oafish, appropriately juvenile stunt here and there—we all live in constant fear that the moment comes when we have to reveal all the bleeding-heart thoughts we live with constantly, or else betray them forever.
Let me put it this way: among those who would strongly identify as religious, my thoughts and words have never once carried water. People in my high school girlfriend’s church admonished me—“Every tongue got to confess”—when I was too quiet.
In high school, I didn’t tell many people that I was a preacher’s kid. I don’t know what, exactly, compelled me to keep this information private. I was five-foot-eight and weighed barely ninety pounds soaking wet the year I fell in love with U2, and, at fifteen-years-old, I had almost no conception of irony. I look at myself through memory as a case study in over-earnestness, carrying still-wet four-foot paintings through my high school’s crowded hallways, brooding from behind my curtains of hair, watching videos of frightened rhesus monkeys in AP Psych, spreading paint over thickly-layered canvases during all my classes. I lugged around a camouflage bag bought at an army surplus store, all grimy and covered with U2 and Harold and Maude buttons, amulets to protect me from the forces that would peer back, from a few years’ distance, and see in me an earnest grappling, a sincerity, that is as painful to remember as it was to try and get rid of.
And among those who love words and say there’s no God, I wouldn’t by any means reckon I’ve fared better, but they’ve at least proved slower to chastise me believing. So it was always in the folds of those crows I hid—people who didn’t ever think twice about God or faith of any kind, or even how the big story worked in real life. When an interviewer might bring up “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and Bono says, “We can be in the middle of the worst gig in our lives, but when we go into that song, everything changes. The audience is on its feet, singing along with every word. It's like God suddenly walks through the room. It's the point where craft ends and spirit begins. How else do you explain it?” you still flinch, because the man is in the process of trying to out how much you feel this shit.
As I retreated deeper into myself, my mother dug her heels in and wouldn’t let me disappear entirely. She tried to reach me through my obsessions (though she could never figure out the Jeff Buckley thing. “He doesn’t know how to just let a note end,” she said once). She drove for two days so I could see a Basquiat exhibit in Houston, and later that year she took me to Atlanta where we saw U2 in concert. It was jarring, to see the band members that had lived for me, only within my own private mind and heart, come out onto the stage. During that show, I felt an intense love for this band, and also felt it start to slip away. Not because they weren’t cool, which I’d kind of started to figure out, but because my love for them had been nurtured in isolation. Surrounded by thousands of dancing, screaming fans, I felt I had to cede some part of my personal attachment to the crowd.
When a section of the audience started chanting, “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A,” a shrill voice cried out, “They’re not even from here!” As if anyone could forget this band was from somewhere. This was, perhaps, what resonated with me most deeply about U2: everywhere they went, they were connected with their place, almost representatives of it. They were able, it seemed, to claim their home and its history without brushing over the ugly parts. And while there are no verdant moors or crumbling castles in Memphis, I was, and am, similarly obsessed with the story of my place. I have never been able to loose myself from the place I came from, and, lately, I’ve come to understand that I don’t want to.
As Bono puts it, Boy was an album about virginity and not wanting to lose it.
The day I lost mine was a miserably anticlimactic day, that, looking back at my young self (who maybe wrongly appears to me, chubby cheeked and in the grainy light of Super 8 film) and all the expectations I’d laid out on the bedsheets before—well, Jesus, it’s just heartbreaking, even still. In the afternoon, I went to see a girl who wasn’t very kind, but was very beautiful to me then. It was a sunny winter day, and bitterly cold in the wind. My strongest memory was how in the shower after, I waited under the pattering of warm water for something to feel different about the course of my life. All I could feel was a slow, small disappointment that’s stayed slow and small in all the days since then. How marvelously coincidental it appears then, that this album fills me with a certain kind of excitement, an abiding shame, and a deeper sense of hope than I’m entitled to, on the sum of events between then and now.
In 2001, U2 played two outdoor concerts at Slane Castle in Ireland, in front of more than 150,000 people. When they performed their first-ever single, “Out of Control,” Bono introduced each of his bandmates. (In this video, as with every other performance of U2, I find myself wondering where the hell they found Adam Clayton. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him speak. I have a theory that Larry is feeding off Adam’s life force—how else would Larry keep from aging a day while Adam looks thirty years older than the rest of them? Mostly, The Edge seems like a preternaturally nice dude, who has worn the same outfit every day for ten or fifteen years.) Anyway, performing in front of the lighted castle, it is clear that U2 are giddy to be back home, in front of a huge crowd. They are reveling in the Irishness of it all. Bono pulls an Irish flag from the crowd, saying “maybe just once…?” as he wraps his country’s flag tight around his body.
Always, it's the tension with U2. Shame and guilt everywhere and no way out of the dopey hope. It’s a good bet, though, that whether we're teenagers or not, if we’re real close-in on that tension, it’ll cause us to speak. What comes out, though, and how good it might be, we’re not to say. But there’s no mistaking the feeling we’re after. Primo Levi said that it is not important to be strong, but to feel strong; if we accept this as resonant in any fashion, we are certainly trading in the selfsame bits and pieces that the young boys of U2 were furiously fidgeting with as they assembled the extraordinary and crystalline studio cuts of their songs in 1980. Out of control.
No doubt about it, the songs are all in their way challenges, and likely juvenile ones. But the challenges grow bigger throughout the years that U2 are out on tour through the world. And in Boy the seeds were always there, and are still evident. Is there another big artist you could hand a buck to who might promise more?
Even now, my wife asks skeptically, as we watch all the old songs re-sung at a live show from the Elevation-era, “Is that a heart-shaped track he’s running on?” and I want to tell her so much more.
Bono ends his own comment section review of Boy by saying, “...i'm proud of this little Polaroid of a life I cant fully recall. As well as the ability to make embarrassing mistakes, the demands of a great debut might be fresh ideas, fresh paint and sometimes for its canvas, a fresh face…I miss my boyhood.” [sic] When I think back on my own less-than-great debut, all those embarrassing mistakes, those ideas that might have been fresh, a murky image of myself starts to emerge from the darkness, but never completely develops. Maybe my own earnestness, my sincere faith, is too painful to witness. Perhaps this is what I feel when I listen to U2, even now: It’s like I’m missing something I can’t fully recall. And I do—I miss it.
—Aaron Fallon & Martha Park
Illustrations by Martha Park (AF) & S.H. Lohmann (MP)