(An excerpt from Chapter 12 in Bono: From the Sheer Face of Love)
Bono believes that some songs are premonitions, summing up the feelings inside that something is about to happen. Perhaps albums are premonitions, too.
The title of the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind comes from the spoken line in the beginning of “Walk On.” The song becomes adopted into an anthem by a hurting nation. “Love, in the highest sense of the word, is the only thing you can always take with you, in your heart,” Bono says about the song. “At some point you’re going to have to lose everything else anyway.” There is also God’s telephone number on the black-and-white cover done like a piece of graffiti. “J33-3” referring to the passage from Jeremiah. “Call to me and I will answer you.” And an unshakable faith in
“When I Look at the World.” There is Bono’s fortieth birthday and the new millennium. All of these things are thrown into U2’s new album and it’s hard to make sense of it at first.
That is the thing about songwriting; sometimes you’re the last one to know what you’re on about.
One September morning during a break in the tour, Bono and his two- year-old son, Eli, are lost on the back streets of Venice. They walk into the American hotel to ask for direction, and Bono sees the news footage of the plane flying into the Twin Towers in New York. Everything changes that day.
U2 starts the Elevation tour almost a month later in the US. Bono and the band witness a country that is completely traumatized just like they are.
“These are our friends,” Bono says. “This is a country I love. They were wailing in shock and grief and loss. And the same process of keening that I had used for myself, singing the songs, they were starting to use, and we became very close with our audience.”
Once again, the songs take on a whole new significance. U2 witnesses audiences going on an emotional roller coaster with the band, perhaps none greater than when they play in Madison Square Garden in New York. One thing U2 has always cared deeply about is the belief that people aren’t statistics. So the idea comes to roll the names of all the people who died or were missing on a screen behind them while U2 plays “Walk On,” but there is a lot of hostility in the band’s management and circle.
“You can’t do that in New York,” they say. “That’s too much.”
“No—we must do that,” Bono argues. “That’s how you honor people because no relative wants to believe they lost a statistic.”
The emotions are high throughout the concert. When U2 plays “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the lights come on and ten thousand people watch them with tears streaming down their faces. Bono tells them they look beautiful and creates a line for the future song “City of Blinding Lights.”
“I always believe the music is a transcendent thing, a healing thing,” Bono says. “I just didn’t think that I would have to depend on it as much as I did this year. . . . I think if we hadn’t been on tour, if we’d been at home, this would have been a very hard year for me. I’m grateful to this band and grateful to our audience, but more so to the God that’s in the music— whatever piece of God you find.”
If a song is any good, you never really do know where it could end up.
Bono walks through the crowd singing “Beautiful Day” and wearing a big smirk to cover the terror inside his soul. This is maybe the biggest moment of U2’s career, twenty years down the road; their Ed Sullivan moment live before millions watching. He steps through the audience flocking him on the field at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The earphones and microphone he wears are radio-controlled. With a cameraman filming in front of him, Bono feels people slapping him on the back and reaching for him, and he knows the tiny wires of his earplugs are vulnerable.
All one person has to do is pull the wire, and I’m off-air.
Then he’ll hear nothing and be off the air while a billion people watch.
Thankfully Bono makes it to the stage and sings the first of three songs U2 is performing at Super Bowl XXXVI in February 2002. The past year has been extraordinary for Bono and the band as he tells the press before the big event.
“You’re never the author of your success anyway, but fate really took hold of our album and really changed those songs. And I suppose post–September 11, to have our album mean so much to people who were not U2 fans has made this year very special to us. And to be here at the Super Bowl—and to know this is the very heart of America—I think it feels right for us to be here.”
After “Beautiful Day,” U2 perform “MLK” while the names of all those lost in 9/11 fill the massive banner in the center of the arena behind them. The solemn tune then turns to a familiar opening riff from Edge’s guitar. This is the song they play when they need God to walk through the room.
Once again, they’re asking the audience to step outside of themselves and imagine the possibilities.
Do you want to go on this journey together, to the place of soul, the place of imagination, that other place?
As Bono moves across the platform with his head down, he quotes a psalm.
“‘O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise.’ O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise.””
Bono yells, “America” and raises an arm to the sky, then begins to sprint around the stage while the world runs with him. “‘I want to run, I want to hide . . .’”
This music . . .
A transcendent thing.
This music . . .
A kind of sacrament. Something sacred.
As he so often does, Bono changes a lyric in the song.
“‘I’ll show you a place where there’s no sorrow or pain, where the streets have no name.’”
Then he quotes the Beatles song by singing, “Love, love, love.”
Life and death. Love and hate. Light and darkness. Twenty years running, the theme behind this band remains the same.
“Whenever you see this kind of darkness, there’s extraordinary opportunity for the light to burn brighter,” Bono says. “Not to sound too corny, but there’s a real opportunity here for a whole new way of seeing the world.”
Great faith and well described.
A story goes that Bruce Springsteen was pulling out of a parking lot when a fan caught his eye. The fan yelled, “Bruce, we need you!”
Bruce went on to write Devil’s and Dust, which had a few powerful songs regarding 9-11, but also some of his most powerful words about reflection and reconciliation. A very powerful album. A powerful album if you haven’t heard it.
I’ve heard it but listening to it again, John. Thanks! I’ve never taken a deep dive on Springsteen, but one day maybe I’ll be in a novel that prompts me to explore his work in depth. Hope all is well!
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