My U2 Decade (Part One)

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I recently posted about making the musical playlist for my wake. (I mentioned then, and I repeat now: I am not dying. The playlist thing was just an exercise that I thought might be illuminating and useful. I carried it out in the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut’s old quip, “Should it happen that someday, God forbid, I die, . . . “)

In the course of that exercise, a different theme took shape, and it seemed to call for comment.

Here it is: The soundtrack of my life is U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby. I hear it inside my head every single day. That must mean something, no? Something that, with effort, can be analyzed and pieced together. It would have to draw heavily on memory. The music inside my head began playing 31 years ago.

It happened like this.

In the fall of 1991, I had recently moved into a studio apartment on a hillside above Heidelberg, Germany. It was my first home on my own. I was discovering how quickly night fell in those months and how long the nights would be. The city lights below started twinkling up at me at four in the afternoon. And the nights lasted forever. If it was foggy the next morning, which it often was, the darkness would not lift until 10 o’clock or so. No matter how sunny one’s natural disposition, the dominant mood was brooding.

I was 25. Like all boys of that age, I had a favorite band, and I thought my favorite band said something about me. So I would play them on my stereo in that apartment above Heidelberg.

My favorite band did say something about me. Up to that point, my temperament had had a religious and puritanical side. I don’t mean that I was either one of those things (although man, did I try). But I did have this keenly moralistic outlook on life, and it had something to do with God, or possibly duty.

I also thought I was cool. I thought having run away from rural Missouri, going to war, and then ending up in Heidelberg had turned me from a bumpkin into a cosmopolitan. The ideas we get. You never really stop being who you are.

Possibly because I was so cool, I also sensed that there was something abroad in the world that needed rebelling against–maybe the unreflective acceptance of the status quo. Like I said, I was 25, and at that age boys don’t really know anything. Vague feelings were all I had to go on.

My favorite band was U2, and they did for me what favorite bands are supposed to do–they helped sharpen my formless, adolescent feelings about the world into more definitive ideas and attitudes.

I didn’t know it at the time, but U2’s first three albums had already mirrored the main narrative of my young life. Boy, released in 1980, showcased a self-interrogating male adolescence in loud, spare punk rock. But its lyrics were earnest, and that’s not very punk rock, is it? Boy posed questions about what it meant to be a morally serious teen. That’s all. It didn’t answer those questions, which is a very good thing because, like I said, boys don’t know anything at that age.

October, released in 1981, narrows down the broader questions of Boy into a single, more focused question. Can the self-serving rebellion of rock-n-roll accommodate a person’s call to serve a higher power? Answering such a call demands quietude, humility, and penitence, none of which is very rock-n-roll. (I would learn years later that U2’s members had nearly broken up over their struggle to answer this question, and October was the expression of this struggle.) October was a good album, but it left me feeling that the band’s central question might need answering, not just recycled into heartfelt new songs.

When U2 gave a definitive answer to the question, in War, their third studio album, it was a knockout blow. They had chosen rock-n-roll and moral seriousness. The answer to their question about faith and art was that there was no way to resolve the dilemma; therefore, there was no need to do so. To be human is to be pulled in different directions. Once you know that, it’s full steam ahead. Just listen to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and tell me that’s band that has not made up its mind.

(War, by the way, was not just an artistic triumph in its own right. It also rid me forever of the need I had felt up until then occasionally to listen to Christian rock. Christian rock sucked supremely. I suppose it still does; I haven’t listened to it in years. Lacking the space here for a full disquisition, suffice it to say that Christian rock is bad in every way that music can be bad, and then it goes on to invent new categories of wrongness and malignity. This is what dishonesty does to art. Subordinating any art form to the strictures of a message–whether political, religious, ideological, what have you–is a form of censorship, and it contradicts the imperative that art must be free.)

Now I deliberately pass over the sonic, ethereal beauties of The Unforgettable Fire, released in 1985, and the expansive, epoch-making victory of Joshua Tree, 1987. They tell their own stories about U2’s growth and evolution, but they did not change my perception of the band’s voice as a sincere and fundamentally hopeful one.

I didn’t know then that life keeps changing even after you feel like you’ve reached firm ground–that things keep happening and happening that turn you into a different person, all the time. Wait, didn’t I say just a few paragraphs ago that I was basically stuck being a bumpkin, that people never really change? I don’t want to bring Aristotle’s theory of change into this, so I’m going to table that problem for now.

It is enough for us to know, as we float back into my small Heidelberg apartment in November 1991, what U2 meant to me at that time. Despite the band’s musical experimentations in the intervening years, their message was still firmly rooted in War–in 1983. At least for me it was.

Then my favorite band disturbed my peace.

I had brought home a CD of Achtung Baby from the PX. I lay on the floor right next to my small stereo. And I listened to the album straight through, track by track. What I heard confused me. The band suddenly had, and exhibited, libido. And doubt. Not teenage doubt about whether you can play rock-n-roll and still go to church, but deeper doubt about whether the floor might fall out from underneath life itself. They were asking whether anything made sense.

The theme of darkness also entered. It pervaded not just the mood and symbols of the album, but it made literal appearances in several of the songs. Before, U2’s songs had countenanced grief, outrages on conscience, and the moral severities of religion, but these trials happened, so to speak, in the clear light of day, and one always got the sense that the protagonist would win. Now Bono sang, “Love is blindness; I don’t want to see; Won’t you wrap the night around me.” He doesn’t want to see? As night pressed in on me, it pressed in on my favorite band, too. And for the first time, they seemed uncertain about whether dawn would break. I wasn’t ready for that.

But the kicker was irony. Up until Achtung Baby, it had been perfectly clear to me that U2 always said what they meant. Now, Bono was singing that he was “ready for the laughing gas;” boasting that his sex appeal was “even better than the real thing.” He dramatized the Last Supper in terms approaching parody. He sang that he was “ready to let go of the steering wheel.” Did he mean any of this? The U2 I knew steered straight and defiantly ahead. What was this chagrined recklessness all about?

These unsettling questions came packaged in a new musical vocabulary as well. That was probably what kept me listening, the thing that kept me open to the band’s new psychological landscape of uncertainty. Achtung Baby is U2’s most industrial-rock album. It is an orchestrated cacophony of metallic clinks, vehicular roars, factory hums, and driving, percussive machine blows singed with feedback. The Edge took a new measure of musical control over the album’s songs, and it seemed he was trying to hit out at the very things Bono was compromising with–fame, grandiosity, moral laxity. Bono was proclaiming a season of dark folly that was alarmingly close to nihilism, and the Edge was leading an insurgency against it. Or so it seemed to me.

I’m probably reading too much into Achtung Baby. I’m only 56. What do boys know at this age? But here goes anyway.

In retrospect, we know that Bono and the band were playacting attitudes that were actually supposed to be the targets of their interrogations. And I literally mean “play-acting.” When U2 toured in support of the album, Bono appeared first as The Fly, a wised-up reincarnation of black-leather Elvis. This was Bono bringing indictments of hypocrisy and cupidity against himself for wanting to be a rock star. Later in the show, he would appear as MacPhisto. MacPhisto was literally the devil in gold lame, but figuratively an homage to C.S. Lewis’s proposition that Satan is a sly charmer who never attacks us frontally.

I won’t bore you with a song-by-song analysis of what Achtung Baby means. It would only be so much blather. Listen to the tracks instead.

Eventually I did figure out why Achtung Baby became the soundtrack of my life. It was because Western history itself was making a revolutionary turn toward unchallenged freedom in 1991, and U2, acting on some mad, artistic insight, had recorded their masterpiece precisely at the hinge of that colossal turn, in Berlin. I would wake up the day after Christmas 1991, hung over in my little apartment above Heidelberg, and the USSR, the only viable enemy that liberal democracy had, would have ceased to exist. All its people had changed sides. They were with us now. Just a little more than two years before, the people of Berlin had torn down their wall and declared themselves to be one people. Now everyone was doing it.

The biggest part of me wanted to believe that History was at an End. That’s what my favorite books said, books by philosophers and other theoreticians. Once civilized people seized freedom, the books said, they would never go back to authoritarianism. The future was now inevitable and bright. But U2 was there to witness the turn, and they recorded a dark and anguished album that said you could never be sure about life and that things keep happening and happening that change you and you never know how you will turn out. I would not know until years later that, at that most unlikely moment, I was also ready to let go of the steering wheel, just like my band.

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