Spiritual Journeys through the Music of U2

Below is the sermon I wrote and delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent on Oct. 24, 2010. It was a blast. More details to follow.

U2 has always been the background music of my childhood and adolescence. Every time I hear their song “Pride (In the Name of Love),” I’m reminded of summer days when I’d go to work with my dad, the forbidden ice cream he would buy me from the convenient store nearby, the smell of his work van as we bounced along the bumpy suburban Cleveland streets. At the height of U2’s popularity, when their most widely beloved album The Joshua Tree was out, I was a young teen just discovering myself and the words of “Where the Streets Have No Name” appealed my youthful longing to begin an adventure of my life—“to tear down the walls that [held ] me inside”.

Each of their releases remind me of a period of my life. I distinctly remember listening to their 1991 album Achtung Baby as I drove to work and school throughout my sophomore year of high school. I listened to their 1993 release Zooropa on the way to a family reunion in Wisconsin the summer between graduating high school and attending college; the song “Dirty Day” repeated over and over in my headphones so that to this day the song conjures an image of the beaches of Kenosha. Pop was released in 1997 when I graduated from college, and though I’ve only recently bought the CD, the songs “Staring at the Sun” and “Discotheque” remind me of the excitement of graduation, the fear that I would never find a job, the confusion over what I was going to do with my life.

It wasn’t until late 2000 with their release All That You Can’t Leave Behind that their music started to become more deeply significant to me. I was by then a young, married career woman, full of idealism and hopes of an exciting new future. I immediately fell in love song “Beautiful Day” for its upbeat sound and hopeful lyrics that hinted slightly at some of the troubles of the world while expressing a kind of delighted praise.

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors come out….

In an email to my late husband, I excitedly wrote of the experience of listening to this song for the first time on the CD: “It makes me want to lay on the floor and feel the Earth move. Sometimes I can see myself dancing in the sunlight of the future, feeling free and easy. Things really aren’t that bad, after all. I can go anywhere in the world, feel anything I want to. I want to live a grand adventure every moment of my life… I want to feel the wind in my face from every point on the planet.”

As inspired as I felt at that moment (and you can tell from this email excerpt that I was then in a good place in my life), things abruptly changed for me just a few months later when my husband died. And then All That You Can’t Leave Behind contained the songs that became, by mere circumstances of timing, the dirge for my grieving. Whenever I listen to that release, I can’t help but remember the insanity that was my life in 2001—the loss of my husband, the cascading events of emotional strife with his family and myself, the growing disconnect with my friends who didn’t seem to really understand what I was going through. And then, only five months later, September 11th.

The song “Walk On” became my anthem. Though it is really about the imprisoned Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, I felt the words of this song spoke directly to the turmoil going on in my life.

And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it’s a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
And for a second you turn back
Oh no, be strong …

I envisioned the Darkness as the line between life and death that separated me from my husband. I was caught within the darkness, held prisoner by my sadness, and daylight—the possibility of renewal—was a long way off. I wanted to turn back—leave myself stuck in that place of memories—but this song was telling me to be strong.

Walk on, walk on …
What you got they can’t steal it
No they can’t even feel it

Those words reminded me that the love I felt for my husband was something a lot of people have never had a chance to experience in their lives. It told me to forgive my friends and family for not understanding what I was going through, to forgive all the people who had said thoughtless, insensitive things to me about grief and my husband’s death. Most importantly, it told me to let go of my anger. To walk bravely on.

Though a chosen atheist since the sixth grade, I began to re-explore spirituality. My husband’s death had rattled what I thought were pretty firm foundations as far as faith—or my lack thereof–went. But like an atheist in a foxhole, as the saying goes, I no longer felt secure in believing in nothing. It was at about this time that a whole new dimension of my favorite band’s music opened up to my thirsty soul. I’d always known that at least three members of the band professed themselves as Christians; however, it never occurred to me how many of their songs actually made reference to the Bible, Christian mythology, and faith itself. These messages were never overt but you had to have to theistic background to understand the references. In exploring faith for the first time since my childhood, I finally had the tools and background with which to really listen.

It’s not that U2 is a Christian rock band; I like to think of U2 as a mainstream rock band who happens to also be Christian. Their music speaks of the emotional—and sometimes shakable—manic-depressive nature of faith. There are songs of praise and songs of sorrow; songs of love and songs of anger; songs of hope and songs of doubt. There are also songs about the current state of the world—a call to action, a call for peace, a call for social change. U2’s music bespeaks a tolerant, humanistic Christianity. The kind of Christianity I’d jump right into if I had heard it preached somewhere and honestly followed.

You don’t have to know anything about the band U2 to recognize the name of its front man, Bono, for he is known internationally for his work as a political and human rights activist. Yes, he has a real name—it’s Paul Hewson—but he’s adopted the stage name “Bono” from a nickname a friend gave to him as a teenager. The remaining, often lesser known, members of U2 are: The Edge (whose real name is David Evans) who plays guitar and keyboards, sings backup vocals, and co-writes with Bono many of U2’s songs; Adam Clayton, the bassist; and Larry Mullen Jr., the drummer.

As the story goes, the band that was to become U2 was formed when Larry Mullen posted a notice seeking musicians for a rock band at the secondary school all three attended in Dublin, Ireland. Of the four, only Larry and The Edge actually had musical training; Adam had a bass but didn’t really know how to play; Bono could play some guitar and had not originally set out to be the vocalist. But what this would-be band lacked in actual talent in their humble beginnings, they made up for in enthusiasm for music.

They very briefly called themselves the Larry Mullen Band, then Feedback, and then The Hype. They came up with the name U2 after the spy plane because they liked the open interpretation of the name. They wanted to use something fresh, something that stood apart from their contemporaries who used nouns turned proper preceded by “The.” They also wanted to avoid bad puns like The Beatles. However, Bono later admitted in the book U2 by U2 that he hates the name U2. “Soon after it caught on,” he states in the book, “I started realizing that it too was an awful pun. That hadn’t dawned on me either. [Y-O-U T-O-O]. Oh no!”

In their early years as a band, Bono, The Edge, and Larry were heavily involved in a fervently religious group called Shalom. Right at the point when U2 was about to take off, during the recording of their second album, Shalom pressured the three to quit the rock band to devote their lives to more spiritual pursuits. The Edge and Bono did briefly quit the band while Larry quit Shalom. Eventually both The Edge and Bono did return to the group, having reconciled with themselves that their spiritual beliefs did not conflict with their desire to be rock-n-roll musicians. Says The Edge in U2 by U2, “I felt very clearly that this band had something unique and special, and it was completely bogus to suggest that you couldn’t have a legitimate spiritual life and be in the rock-n-roll business. That was a very dangerous piece of nonsense.”

Out of this period of religious fervor came one of U2’s most overtly spiritual albums, and also one of my personal favorites, October. The songs from October are full of youthful energy and desperate longing—emotions with which I could identify even before I truly understood the words. When I began to pay attention to the words, I found a whole new connection to the spirit of my favorite band. In particular, I identified with the song “Tomorrow” as I realized it was Bono’s response and attempt to come to terms with his mother’s death when he was a young teenager. It is a dirge that captures little flashes of funeral imagery:

Outside, somebody’s outside
Somebody’s knocking at the door
There’s a black car parked at the side of the road
Don’t go to the door, don’t go to the door

These words remind me of the constant influx of people into my home in those dark days leading up to my husband’s funeral; perhaps Bono was trying to capture a similar image from his own memory. Between the images of loss is a chorus that begs, “Won’t you come back tomorrow?” Confronted with the profound, unexpected loss of my husband, my own repeated cries into the darkness of my empty house were something along the lines of, “Why did you leave me?” and “Come back. I promise I’ll be a better wife.” Similarly, Bono echoes a plea to his mother in the fervor of the song’s ending where he repeats several times, “I want you to be back tomorrow / Will you be back tomorrow / Won’t you come back tomorrow.”

In the last stanza of this song, Bono also professes his belief in God and the return of Jesus with the implied suggestion that because he believes, he will see his mother again. I identify strongly with the hope expressed in this section of the song. Because I’ve also hoped—and still hope—that someday I will be meet Mike again when I too die. It’s the one hope to which I still cling even though the logical part of my brain says it’s impossible. So I’m right there with Bono when he sings the last lines:

I’m going to be there, mother
I’m going to be there
And you’re going to be there…

There is a hurried, unedited earnestness to the songs on October. Each song flows from one to the other in a poetic stream of consciousness—a journey of through the soul of U2 in which you come out on the other side just a little bit changed. I love this about U2. Each album stands on its own as a separate work of art with a different mood and tone. The strength of U2 lyrics is in the words they use to paint a single feeling, thought, idea.

One of U2’s most noted and consistently relevant songs is “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” This song references the 1972 event known as Bloody Sunday in which six civil rights protesters were shot by British soldiers in Derry, Northern Ireland. Because one of the major sources of contention between the continually battling factions in Northern Ireland was based on the two religions of Catholicism and Protestantism, the song contrasts Bloody Sunday to the events of Easter Sunday—a religious holiday shared by both religions.

And today the millions cry,
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die.
The real battle has just begun.
To claim the victory Jesus won.

In the early 1980s when this song was first performed live, Bono marched around stage, waving a white flag and inviting the audience to shout with him, “No more!” Because he didn’t want to be confused as a sympathizer for either side of the conflict, he prefaced each performance with the disclaimer that “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was not a rebel song; it was an angry protest against the bloodshed inflicted by and on both sides.

In the years following the song’s initial release, acts of terrorism perpetrated by the IRA gave the song additional teeth. On November 8, 1987—while U2 was on tour in Denver, Colorado—eleven people were killed when an IRA-planted bomb exploded near a war memorial in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. That night yielded one of the most emotional performances ever of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in which Bono broke into a full-out angry rant condemning the bombing and the sympathizers to the IRA’s cause. The performance is captured on U2’s Rattle & Hum documentary and is quite powerful.

After that performance, U2 didn’t play “Sunday Bloody Sunday” live for many years. However, it returned to set list of some concerts during the 1990’s. It again became a consistent song on the set list for the 2001 Elevation tour, the most memorable rendition filmed on September 1st—just days before September 11th—at Slane Castle in Dublin, Ireland. At this show, Bono closed out the song by reciting the names of the 29 victims of the 1998 car-bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland.

Despite its very specific references to the Irish political scene, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” has, over the years, become U2’s song of protest against war, injustice, and discrimination where ever it may be in the world. During every show of the 2005 Vertigo tour, Bono donned a handmade headband bearing the popular Coexist symbol and broke mid-song into an impassioned plea for peace between the three Abrahamic faiths and ended the break with a beautiful hymn-like song. On the current concert tour, scenes from the 2009 Iranian election protests—with green Persian writing over top of them–are projected on the screen above the stage as the band plays the song.

A lot of people are put-off by U2—particularly Bono—because they take an “in your face” approach to expressing their views. Some people seem to think celebrities should keep their mouths shut, leave the thinking to the “real” people. Bono would probably agree with you. In the song “Stand Up Comedy,” he mocks his own influence and encourages us to think for ourselves:

Stand up to rock stars, Napoleon is in high heels
Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas.

I have no problem with a band with the popularity and influence that U2 has acquired using their means to effect change in the world. To speak out against injustice. To give voice to those who don’t have the power and influence to do so for themselves. I admire U2 for being so upfront, so vocal. It’s exactly the same way I go about inspiring change in the world.

Because of this, U2 speaks to me emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Their music has lifted me from the depths of sorrow and inspired me in times of great joy. They’ve made me more aware of the world by talking openly about those horrific events that have taken place in parts of the world the American news somehow fails to cover. I’m more socially conscious because of U2. I’m also here, alive, saved. Inspired, awake, and filled with the challenge to find grace in each new day. In that spirit, I close with a statement by Bono from U2 by U2:

For all that “I was lost, I’m found,” it is probably more accurate to say, “I was really lost, I’m a little less so at the moment.” And then a little less and a little less again. That to me is the spiritual life. The slow reworking and rebooting of a computer at regular intervals, reading the small print of the service manual. It has slowly rebuilt me in a better image. It has taken me years, though, and it is not over yet.

4 thoughts on “Spiritual Journeys through the Music of U2

  1. Pingback: The Soundtrack of My Grief « Mars Girl on Two Wheels

  2. Pingback: Dreaming Out Loud | Mars Girl on Two Wheels

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