Editor’s Note: First off, please let me offer heartfelt apologies for taking more than a year to share this little gem of a conversation with you. In June 2015, on a Midwestern musical odyssey road trip from St. Louis to Chicago to see live performances by Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, The Flaming Lips, Dawes, and U2 (among others), I had the great pleasure of catching up with two of my favorite people on the planet—Lin Brehmer and Terri Hemmert, legendary DJs from Chicago’s WXRT (i.e. the best radio station in the country, if not the world.) I lured them to Heaven on Seven with the promise of all the cajun food they could eat and a conversation about stuff we like, namely music and all things spiritual. Specifically, I wanted to hear what they had to say about spiritual or religious or transcendent or whateveryouwanttocallit experiences they’d had at live concerts for a journalistic project I was working on at the time.
What follows is the transcript of our conversation, edited gently for flow:
GOD GIRL: I don’t know two people who have been to more live music events than the two of you. And you’re both spiritually bent, though some are more ‘bent’ than others…
LIN: I’m very spiritually bent.
TERRI: Psychedelic, too.
GOD GIRL: Have you had a spiritual experience at a concert or live performance you can talk about and if so, what was it like?
LIN: I can go first.
Woodstock ’94. I’m there in a professional capacity, part of the professional national radio broadcast team. And I spent most of all these concerts in a truck looking at videos of these people performing. But occasionally, in the evening I’d get out to see artists perform. The headliner the last night was Peter Gabriel.
So I manage to get out to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers before Peter Gabriel, and that was fun, they were fine. And then Peter Gabriel came out…and he does all these songs that have this real emotional, powerful effect on me and, as he often did, he ended the show with one song that always lays me to waste. But first he passed out candles—somehow he managed to pass out candles to thousands of people, so there are thousands and thousands of people in this field in upstate New York at 11 at night and it’s just a forest of lit candles. And you hear the strange percussion that just creeps up your spine of the beginning of ‘Biko.’
And I go, oh my God, he’s going to do ‘Biko’ now and I’m not going to be able to handle it. Because that song just destroys me. It was business as usual in whatever room it is in the lyrics and goes into ‘Biko.’
By the end you have 40,000 or 50,000 people all with lit candles lifted in the air chorusing, ‘Biko, Biko, Biko…’
(Lin’s voice cracks with emotion and I get all verklempt here myself )
And I generally tear up when I hear ‘Biko’ on a stereo, but that, I said, well this is a moment that some day I’ll tell Cathleen Falsani about.
(Terri starts laughing)
GOD GIRL: I was in seminary at the time, so you planned that well.
LIN: In ’94?
GOD GIRL: Yep….Lord, you almost got me goin’ there. That song!
TERRI: That song is just amazing. That’s a great story.
LIN: (to Terri) Come on! You can do better than that!
GOD GIRL: It doesn’t have to be a story about something that happened to you. The idea is, is it possible to have this spiritual or religious experience, whether it’s the audience or the performers themselves, and not even realize that it’s happening?
TERRI: Does it have to be live or could it be recorded?
GOD GIRL: I guess it could be recorded. Why not?
TERRI: Because I’ve had many spiritual experiences listening to recorded music. But one that comes to mind just off the top of my head is this: my sister was killed in a car accident more than 30 years ago. A 19-year-old kid. Somebody took my baby—I was 16 years older than her. Just a wonderful kid. Off a college. Somebody fell asleep [at the wheel]…so that’s why I started going to St. Clement’s. I thought, no amount of therapy or anything is going to help me through this. I need to pray. So if I go here for six months, I’ll be fine.
That was more than 30 years ago and I’m still there.
So I was really close with a couple of high school kids there—Lin knows these folks—Erin and Aileen—and out of the mouths of babes: they came to me once and said, ‘We think you should join the choir. We’re going to do the Mozart Requiem and we think this might be therapeutic for you.’ I thought, how did they think of that? I mean, they’re 16 years old. And I said, ‘I don’t have time. My schedule’s really busy…’ And they said, ‘Make time.’ Then they started really badgering me. So finally I talked to the choir director and he said, ‘You can miss rehearsals. It’ll be fine. I understand.’ So I said, OK I’m going to commit to this, I’m gonna do it.
And they were absolutely right. It was the most therapeutic thing, getting up and going to rehearsals for this thing, and understanding the requiem mass and how it reflects the whole spectrum of grief, and how healing that music is. So I did it and it was amazing. We did several performances and every time we’d get off stage I’d go off and find a place and cry. Amazing.
Well, not too many years later then, because she was getting ready to go off to college, Erin was in a near-fatal car accident a block from my house. I’d just seen them. I’d been out on the block at the choir parties. She was DOA and they resuscitated her. She was literally six weeks away from being in college where she was going to study to be an opera singer.
And, of course, she had to change her plans because [the accident] ruined her vocal cords and all kinds of stuff. She was in a coma for a week. And she walk up and had a head injury nightmare for years. Now she’s in her forties…
LIN: I can’t believe she’s in her forties now!
TERRI: It was just really horrible…but she finally worked it all out, and she’s wonderful. We’re still really good friends. She’s a musical therapist. …The moment I remember vividly was she was in a coma. I learned a lot about how to read the monitors and REM and different levels of [consciousness.] You think of someone in a coma as if they’re sleeping but they’re not. It’s pretty chaotic. They have a lot of anxiety and it’s really not pretty to watch. One day I came in with a Walkman—it was that long ago—with a cassette and I had our recording of Mozart’s Requiem and I came in and put the headphones on the pillow next to her head and turned on the Kyrie. And all of a sudden I saw her leaning her head toward the headphones, and I started reading the monitors and she had calmed down. She had a moment of peace that she hadn’t had in like five days. And it took my breath away.I thought it would be a nice thing to do but I had no idea she would have such a physical and psychological reaction.
I’ve encountered that piece of music over the years. One time I was having a hard time. I was in Door county—I was just thinking about this because I was just there a week ago. I was on the bay side and I couldn’t sleep at all. I was having a really hard time. So I finally got up, got in the car, drove across the peninsula and watched the sun come up with the Mozart Requiem playing on cassette—the same cassette of our performance—and I thought, you know what? I can do this. I can get through this.
It was a moment of feeling a strength I hadn’t felt in quite a while.
So for me, sometimes listening to recorded music when you’re alone, even more than when you’re in a big crowd, can either mess you up or take you out of whatever gloom you’re in. Sometimes I find it even more intimate because they’re aren’t any people around. But your story (she’s talking to Lin here) is amazing.
LIN: I think we’ve both had moments at work because we have a very insulated experience. We’re in a sound-proof booth and we can be in there hours without people interfering with us, less so for me because I do have a producer—the pesky Mary Dixon—
TERRI: I love her. She’s the best.
GOD GIRL: Love that Mary. Give her a hug for me, please.
LIN: And depending upon what’s going on in your life, music can really whipsaw you. There are a few songs where it’s kind of beyond understanding, where you don’t know why this song does what it does to you. But you et caught up in it. And you can be alone in the studio with no one else around, and it doesn’t have to be a sad song—like Garland Jeffrey’s ‘R.O.C.K.’ rock anthem that came out in 1980 that nobody listened to and nobody cared about, and I think we’re the only station left that probably still plays it, but I consider it one of my theme songs.
The chorus is, ‘R-O-C-K rock saved me from a fate worse than death.’ It’s a music-for-salvation kind of song. And when I’ve had rough patches in my life or am caught in a moment of reflection about what I’ve done with my life and what I’m doing with my life, and there I am in the studio doing a radio show for literally dozens of people in the Chicago area, and I think, I haven’t played this song in a while. It starts out with this in-your-face piano fill, and it builds. And that first guitar chord hits and I’m like, Oh shit, here it comes. And I melt.
KELLEY: I think it’s amazing when you don’t even know, when it’s not the lyrics. Sometimes it’s just the music, just a chord progression or all of a sudden you find yourself weeping at just the sounds.
LIN: I have explained to people that whatever else happens at my funeral—and I hope there’s a lot of whisky and a lot of beer—but at some point the John Fahey song ‘Sunflower River Blues’ must be played because of all the acoustic, instrument music I’ve heard, that song—it’s almost got an Indian Hindu drone—that song completely takes over my mind.
Because in my mind, it’s very much like the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. That has a progression that sounds like a man trudging to the end of his life. Aaaaa aa aa aaaaa … What happens at the end is that the song resolves itself musically baaaa bump bump baaa bump… so there you are, you have this struggle, but at the end of the song it slides you back up again. It’s kind of the same thing with that John Fahey song.
TERRI: Well, you’ve got to carry that weight a long time. I wrote that to Mavis [Staples] once when she was going through a hard time. I said, ‘Well, you know what the Beatles said, boy you’ve gotta carry that weight a long time.’”
You know there’s another piece that has that same kind of progression, Mahler’s Fifth, the fourth movement. I do a lecture series on the symphony and what I do is I throw a box of Kleenex in the audience and I say, take one and pass it down. Because by the end of this, if you don’t weep I don’t want to see you here next week because you’re not my friend.
GOD GIRL: Because you’re dead inside.
TERRI: I’m serious. … It’s not a four-movement symphony, it’s five movements, so it’s not the last movement. I said, usually you can feel the progression, you can count the bars—one, two three four; two, two three four—and you instinctively, physically move with the measures. But with this, it’s more like water swirling. It’s almost Eastern. There’s not that Western, Beethoven kind of thing. I said to him, ‘He wrote this for his wife, who was pretty weird. She was kind of like the Yoko Ono of her time, and not in a good way.’ But I said, ‘He loved her passionately. How many of you have been in a dysfunctional relationship?’ And everybody raised their hands. I said, ‘In the wrong hands this movement can sound like a Hallmark greeting card, isn’t everything beautiful. But when it’s played well, like by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does, there’s a subtle sense of angst and just a little bit of dissonance that just takes your breath away. Because in every beautiful thing there’s that push and pull, a complexity, that everything isn’t just that simple. It’s a beautiful piece of music because it takes you first into this dark place and then takes you out into this gorgeous, shimmering piece of music. I can hardly breathe when I hear it.
LIN: And she’s noted publicly how much Mahler looked like a young Lin Brehmer.
GOD GIRL: Is that true?
TERRI: Yep. I actually did that on a blog. I put their pictures side-by-side and he does! But you don’t live with a psychotic woman, Lin.
I don’t know if these experiences are strictly spiritual or religious or if they’re just overwhelming emotionally or if there’s really much of a difference between religious and overwhelming emotionally, but when my two brothers and I get together at least once a year—they’re all very bad musicians; I play guitar, my brother David plays banjo, and my brother John plays mandolin—and my son Wilson is a very good guitar player. Really the only time we play our instruments to any great extent is at our family reunion and because we’re such bad musicians the only kind of music we can play is old-timey folk songs. And one of the things my father loved beyond all measure when he was still alive was to have all three of his sons and his grandson singing Woody Guthrie songs and singing songs from the songbook of O Brother Where Art Thou? We’d sing ‘one fine morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away,’ and with my son, who is actually musical, we’d get a two- or three-part harmony going and it was really, for a bunch of amateur brothers getting together, it was really beautiful. And my father would say, ‘Boys, no matter what else happens, when I die, I want you to promise me that you’re gonna get together and sing this song for me.’ So when my father died, we had a little service for him … in the retirement home’s little auditorium with a stage. My dad was a very affable guy, everybody in the community knew him. So it was a packed house in this little auditorium of these old people and some of the family that we had that flew in, and my two brother sand my son on stage singing, ‘I’ll fly away, O Lordy, I’ll fly away…”
And that song now, when I come across it in the soundtrack while watching the movie or hear it someplace else because it’s a fairly easily reproduced song and you hear folks singers play it all the time, it takes me to a very special place.
GOD GIRL: I think the Irish call that a ‘thin place.’
LIN: I love that.
TERRI: What is it?
GOD GIRL: A thin place. It’s where the veil between this and the more, or this world and the next is so thin it’s gossamer—you can almost put your hand right through it.
LIN: Oh yes. That song brings me to a thin place in a small hour….OK. No more crying.
TERRI: Music will do that to you!
LIN: We have based our entire careers on a belief that music can make people cry and it can make people laugh and it can make people say “I’m gonna get through this day because I heard ‘You saved me from a fate worse than death, R.O.C.K. rock!”
TERRI: Radio is a thing where we can’t see our audience so we can’t see how they’re responding. And once in a while, someone will come up to me, like this one guy who said, ‘We were listening to you in the hearse on the way to bury my father and you played “Hey Jude” and that was just perfect.” I had no idea.
And then there was this other guy. I had just played ‘Don’t Give Up’ by Peter Gabriel—
LIN: OH GOD!
TERRI: “—and he said I just want to tell you that I woke up this morning and I was very depressed. I was going in to be tested for HIV. I got up and got ready and I was running early so I just sat there on the couch, zoning out with the radio on. I’ve heard that song a hundred times but I’ve never heard it like I heard it today.’ He said, ‘I had this transformational moment while I was sitting there on the couch listening. And I’m calling to say thank you for playing that, and no matter what happens, I’m not going to give up. I do have friends. I do have a reason to live, no matter how long it is.’
Who knows how long we’re going to live? You don’t have to have AIDS to know that. It could be a minute.
I said, ‘Would you please call me back and let me know how this turns out for you?’ And a few days later he called me back and said, ‘I’m OK. But I’m living like there’s no tomorrow. That song renewed me and gave me a sense of purpose.’ He was just a lovely guy.
I know two people who came out of their comas while listening to the radio and later told me, yours was the first voice I heard coming out, and my friend would put [you on the radio] because they knew I’d like it and recognize your voice.’ The voice is like the human musical instrument and it does have a lot of power.
GOD GIRL: You were on the air, Terri, on 9/11 right?
TERRI: Yes. You were too, Lin.
LIN: I was on the air when it happened.
GOD GIRL: I was driving into my office at the Sun-Times during the hand-off from you to her and you two were the voices I was listening to as I drove down Lake Street into the city, looking at the building ahead of me going, ‘Please God, no.’ We didn’t have any idea how many more planes were in the air or what might happen next. It was terrifying. I don’t can’t remember what you two said, but I do know that just hearing you was comforting.
LIN: Well, that was the day we stopped playing music and we just talked to the listeners.
TERRI: This showed me how weak newspapers can be in their coverage. Somebody wrote an article about how radio stations responded to 9/11 and they said they turned into ‘XRT and ‘they were playing the same old blues song.’ Do you know what I was playing? It was right before we cut off the music. I was playing Pop Staples’ ‘Hope in a Hopeless World,’ goddamit. That was a damn good song to play at that moment, and this guy’s saying I blew it off. He didn’t call me to ask what the song was or if there was a significance to why I was playing it. And, my God, I couldn’t have picked a better song.
So it’s been more than a year since Kelley and Terri and Lin and I had lunch and talked about the power of music and the spirit. After lunch, Kelley and I headed to the United Center to see U2 perform. They played “Gloria” live for the first time in many years. It was the first time I’d watched them up close and in person perform the song that, as a 12-year-old, jump-started my soul and set me on a trajectory that I’m still following today, 30-odd years later. The first time I heard “Gloria” on my friend Rob’s living room HiFi in the early 1980s, it felt like my soul did a back-flip. When I heard it again, live for the first time, at the United Center, my soul did a full floor routine with flips and round-offs and splits in the air, while tears streamed down my face and goosebumps covered me from head to toe.
Frederick Buechner famously said:
Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near.
Behold, the spiritual power of music.
Amen and Hallelujah.
My conversation with Terri and Lin originally was meant to be research for a series about spiritual experiences at live music events. Sadly that series was killed before it took off. But my brilliant soul brother Tripp Hudgins has picked up that ball and runs with it at Sonic Theology. From time to time we conspire together on such things, too.
We’d LOVE to hear about your own spiritual/religious/woo-woo experiences at live concerts or in your encounters with music elsewhere, so please tell us things in the comments or send us your stories via email to email@example.com and we’ll share them here in future posts.
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Compassion can be tricky business. It’s a lot like empathy—the human ability to imagine what it might be like to experience what someone else experiences and feel what she or he feels—that’s hardwired into most of our hearts and minds.
But compassion transcends empathy. It’s more than that, and it asks us to be and do more, too. Compassion has a conscience and heartbeat, legs that will march, arms that embrace, and hands that beckon, rise in solidarity, and defend when necessary.
As the Innocence + Experience tour heads into its final stretch, compassion (and its inextricable partner, action) have emerged as a theme that unified fans from North America and Europe.
From the racially motivated tragedies and traumas in Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere in the United States and the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the epic strides made this year toward true equality for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters via the Irish referendum and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and how very close we are to seeing the first AIDS-free generation become a reality, each night’s concert stoked compassion and sent it home into the streets.
If compassion isn’t tied to action, it’s little more than an interesting notion. But when it causes us to move beyond ourselves and our comfort zones, when it inspires us literally to reach out—to the margins, to our neighbors, to those seeking refuge, justice, comfort, or grace—it becomes the special sauce (and a tangible sign that the Spirit is in the room and not down to street having a pint.)
Standing in London’s O2 and Glasgow’s Hydro SSE last week, waves of regret and joy washed over the audience as the lads took them by the hand and asked that we recall the “stolen voices,” those whose lives ended too soon or too violently, taken by preventable illnesses, war, ignorance, greed, or the most pernicious of all killers: indifference.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” Bono told the audience in London, recalling the words of the late Nelson Mandela.
Bono changed the lyrics of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” to include alongside Dr. King and Jesus Christ, precious Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey and broke our collective hearts.
Images of bombed out buildings that could have been from Syria last week or Sarajevo two decades past, flashed across The Cage while the band sang “October.”
A few verses from “Zooropa” introduced an extraordinary rendition of “Where the Streets Have No Name” that had the entire Hydro crowd on its feet, dancing, arms (and consciences) raised.
We’re gonna dream of the world
We want to live in
We’re gonna dream out loud
“What do you want?” Bono asked the Scottish audience the second night at the Hydro, an extraordinary show where compassion flowed like lager, filling the cup of mercy to overflowing. “What do you want? A Europe with it’s heart open or a Europe with its borders closed to mercy? I know what I want. A place called home. A placed called home, somewhere, anywhere. Here! HERE! Open. Open people. OPEN!”
As the band heads to Paris and then on to Belfast (for its first concerts in nearly 20 years), before their homecoming in Dublin at the end of the month, the calls to compassion and action feel as if they’re continuing to reverberate long after the U2 crew has left the building.
As Bono said one evening in Scotland, there’s something in the air, isn’t there?
Yes. Yes there is.
Intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes…
“COMFORT ME! COMFORT ME!! COMFORT ME!!!”
Bono is standing at the edge of the stage that runs the length of The Forum arena in Inglewood, Calif., howling that word—comfort—at the top if his lungs before a crowd of 17,000.
The 55-year-old rock star is shouting—at God, to God—a prayer that has become an all-too familiar litany of the brokenhearted for the U2 family in recent months. Fewer than 24 hours earlier, in the wee hours of May 27, the band’s longtime tour manager and a fixture in the U2 community, Dennis Sheehan, died of an apparent heart attack in his Los Angeles hotel room.
Not just any band could take their fans by the hands and say, essentially, please walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. We’re one, but we’re not the same; we get to carry each other …
But since its inception in 1976, the band formed by four teenage boys from Dublin’s hardscrabble north side has opened a vein, sharing their most vulnerable moments and struggles with anyone who would listen.
And sorrow has visited the U2 family far too often this season.
Sunday evening I did something I haven’t done in close to 30 years: I went to an actual record store and bought a brand-new U2 album on vinyl, took it home, pulled out the turntable, put on my headphones, sat on the floor, and stayed up way too late reading the liner notes and listening to the songs over and over again.
Lord, how I’ve missed this particular ritual.
When I was a teenager, late Sunday nights were when I indulged my secret pleasure by listening in bed (clandestinely so as not to incur the wrath of my parents for being awake well past my bedtime) to the “King Biscuit Flower Hour” on WPLR, the classic rock station in New Haven that was one of two (the other being a horrendous pop-40 station) that came in clearly on the FM stereo in my upstairs bedroom.
I listened, religiously, every Sunday night for years, hoping to hear a song by one of the British New Wave bands of which I was fond, or, if I was particularly lucky, by my favorite band on the planet: U2.
Sometimes weeks would go by without hearing a U2 song on those late Sunday nights, my ear pressed to the transistor radio secreted next to the pillow on my twin bed. But then, like a bolt of lightning — I’d hear Bono’s voice or Edge’s guitar begin to keen. It was a wee bit magical, although in retrospect today I might call it sacred.
All the waiting and listening was worth it. Always.
There was an intimacy then to the conversation that transpired between U2’s music and my young heart. It was never about the sound alone — I didn’t care if it had a good beat or if I could dance to it — what touched me, leaving indelible fingerprints on my soul, were the stories, confessions, and prayers wrapped inside the sound.
By the time I reached my room at the top of the unreasonably long, winding basalt staircase that led to the pensione‘s third floor late one night last month in Rome, I was out of steam and both my iPhone and iPad were out of juice. I plugged both devices and left them to charge while I took a quick shower to cool off after a day of hoofing it around the Eternal City in 90-degree weather.
By the time I’d finished my ablutions, put on my pajamas, and climbed into my narrow twin bed (one of the many charms of Roman hotel rooms), the pad and the phone were successfully resuscitated, the soft blue glow of their illuminated screens punctuated by texts and alerts that had queuing during the dormant hours after the batteries ran out.
Sitting cross-legged on top of the duvet, I scrolled through messages and Facebook alerts that announced a surprise: earlier that day in California, U2 had released its long anticipated new album, Songs of Innocence, and delivered it for free to a half-billion iTunes users worldwide.
It took a few moments for that news to compute in my mind. There was an entire album of new U2 music and it was just waiting for me to download it from the (great) Cloud (of witnesses) to listen.
Thanks be to God for a strong WiFi signal.
Thirty seconds later …
I was chasing down the days of fear
Chasing down a dream before it disappeared
I was aching to be somewhere near
Your voice was all I heard
I was shaking from a storm in me
Haunted by the spectres that we had to see
Yeah, I wanted to be the melody
Above the noise, above the hurt
I was young
Just wishing to be blinded
And we were pilgrims on our way
I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost, now has been returned
The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard
Cue the waterworks.
U2 had been working on this album for ages. Five years — the longest the lads have ever worked on one LP before gifting it to the masses. (By the way, I have no interest in wading into the shitstorm that ensued about how the new album was delivered, but I will say one thing: whinging about breaches of privacy over the free copy of Songs of Innocence in your iTunes library is a bit like calling the cops on Christmas morning to have Santa Claus charged with breaking-and-entering.)
To my ears (and heart) it was well worth the wait. So much so that I stayed up listening into the wee hours of the morning that first night in Rome before drifting into sleep with Songs of Innocence on repeat. When I awakened a few hours later to attend a papal audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square, “Iris (Hold Me Close),” a song Bono wrote about his mother, Iris Rankin Hewson, who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm when the singer was 14, was playing.
Once we are born, we begin to forget
The very reason we came
I’m sure I’ve met
Long before the night the stars went out
We’re meeting up again
Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go
Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know
Hold me close, the darkness just lets us see
Who we are
I’ve got your life inside of me
Next month will be two years since I lost my beloved father, Muzzy. Bono’s “Iris” viscerally expresses the untenable paradox between grief’s gaping maw and the expansive embrace of hope that I’ve yet to find adequate words for and probably never will.
Bono says Songs of Innocence is the most intimate album the band’s put out in its 38-year history. That’s certainly how it felt and continues to feel to me. That’s why I bought the album on vinyl even though I already had a free copy on all of my iDevices.
I wanted to touch it, to hold it in my hands, feel the weight of the heavy white vinyl albums, and smell that new-album-smell that in a split second transcends the time-space continuum and transports me back to my teenage self, completely enraptured by the music.
Escape. Refuge. Prophet. Solace. Friend.
Midnight, on the floor of my home office as Sunday became Monday, reading the Songs of Innocence copious (and fascinating) liner notes. This passage from Bono’s essay “Flashbacks 4 Songs of Innocence” slayed me:
We can spend our whole lives searching for cohesion, and in not finding it, turn the world into the shape of our disappointment. Or not. There is no end to grief…that’s how I know there is no end to love.”
Sometimes we have to take inventory of where we’ve been to realize where we are, and where we’re heading. Songs of Innocence does just that. We the listeners accompany Bono, Edge, Adam, and Larry as they trace the path of their youth in 1970s Dublin with its sectarian violence, unbearable losses, the blossom of young love, and unexpected spiritual awakenings that transpired largely outside any traditional house of worship.
My impression is that U2 wasn’t trying to do something new with this album. Rather they sought to create something true — authentic and honest, real and raw. The band seems like it wants to draw its fans close, perhaps closer than it has since its hungry early days, before Live Aid and Zoo TV, before the multi-continental stadium tours and the incessant demands of superstardom created space between us and them.
The photograph on the LP more than hints at this notion. Pictured is a shirtless Larry Mullen Jr., ever the most private and reserved member of the band, embracing his 18-year-old son, Elvis, whose face we cannot fully see but only glimpse in the downy beard of a boy becoming a man.
The image is at once reminiscent of U2’s early albums Boy and War, where an adolescent boy (Peter Rowen, the younger brother of Bono’s lifelong best friend, Guggi) appeared on the LP covers, and a real-time portrait of where and who the band mates are today.
They started this journey together as teenagers (on my sixth birthday, Sept. 25, 1976, by the way.) Now all four men are in their 50s. All are fathers. They’ve grown up but not old. Not yet.
Sonically, Songs of Innocence sounds like no other U2 album. The inimitable roar of Edge’s guitar is largely absent, replaced by more acoustic, intimate guitar styles and keyboards. The influence of some of the artists U2 pays tribute to lyrically on the album — The Ramones, The Clash — can be heard, as well as whiffs of world music, trance dance, and the sacred echoes of African music and other audible exotica.
Among U2’s 13 studio albums, Songs of Innocence is unique.
If I’m completely honest about it, Songs of Innocence had me at Joey Ramone.
The first track on the album “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is Bono’s telling of his musical epiphany which arrived the first time he heard Ramone sing.
“I sang like a girl … that felt uncomfortable until the Ramones happened to me as they must happen to everyone,” Bono writes in the liner notes. “Joey Ramone sang like a girl, he loved all the great sirens … you could hear Motown, Dusty Springfield, Ronnie Spector. You could hear an echo of your pain in his voice…that’s why you believed him, surfing to the future on a sea of noise.”
In the last verses of the song itself, Bono sings:
I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
I get so many things I don’t deserve
All the stolen voices will someday be returned
The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard
I found this particularly moving because in my life story, Bono is my Joey Ramone. It’s a story I’ve told in a book or two and that I tell often when I’m asked to speak publicly about grace, but it bears repeating.
One afternoon in the autumn of 1982, when I was in seventh grade, I went to my friend Rob’s house after school. He had older siblings who introduced him to music that the rest of us would have to wait until college to hear. We both loved music and he was eager to share a new band with me.
“They’re Irish, but they’re Christians,” he said, as he took the vinyl LP from its sleeve and put in on the turntable of his parents HiFi. (The “but” still cracks me up, btw.)
The album was October, U2’s second. The song — the first cut on the record — was “Gloria.”
I can remember it vividly. Drums faded in, a bass guitar thumped, and a man’s rogue tenor voice the likes of which I’d never heard before started howling, “Gloria, glo-reeeee-aaah TWO, THREE, FOUR!” as a guitar began to wail.
I try to sing this song
I…I try to stand up
But I can’t find my feet
I try, I try to speak up
But only in you I’m complete
Gloria…in te domine
Oh Lord, loosen my lips
I try to sing this song
I…I try to get in
But I can’t find the door
The door is open
You’re standing there
You let me in
My soul did a backflip.
The words were familiar—a psalm, a chant from the liturgy, an image of Christ standing at the door (of our hearts) and knocking. I recognized them all from church. But somehow they’d never had that kind of effect on me.
As the next tracks played, one after the other filled with biblical imagery and declarations of spiritual yearning, I was transfixed by the extraordinary mix of faith with rock ‘n’ roll—a forbidden fruit at my house, where we were supposed to be “in the world but not of it.”
Who were these guys? How were they doing this? And could I do it, too?
Hearing U2’s album October for the first time set my life on a trajectory that continues to this day: finding God in the places some people say God isn’t supposed to be; looking for the truly sacred in the supposedly profane; discovering the kind of unmatched inspiration and spiritual elation elsewhere in culture that I had found that day in Rob’s living room.
It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.
And it still is.
“The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it,” he told me in his raspy brogue, sipping black coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. “But the idea that the same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in shit and straw and poverty is genius. And it brings me to my knees, literally. To me, as a poet, I’m just in awe of that. It makes some sort of poetic sense. It’s the thing that makes me a believer, although it didn’t dawn on me for many years.”
– Bono on Christmas and the Incarnation from The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People (p. 10) by Cathleen Falsani. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Kindle Edition.
I’ve got chills
And Adam looks like he’s freezing his arse off. But B’s in great voice.
To see them on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, singing that song … whoah.
Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head