U2’s Songs of Transcendence

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.

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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
Not dumb
Just wishing to be blinded
By you
Brand new
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
But you
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.

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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
Gloria…exultate
Gloria…Gloria
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.

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Images of Rome, September 2014

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Chatting with a Writer Friend

tgf:

Thanks, Trish Ryan, for this awesome post about Disquiet Time (www.disquiettime.com) which hits bookstores near you on OCT. 21!

ORDER YOURS TODAY! http://bit.ly/1p8LH9W

Originally posted on Trish Ryan:

130109035441-cathleen-falsani-author-pic-left-teaseFriends, today I get to introduce you to Cathleen Falsani. Grab a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine, depending on what time it is and what kind of day you’re having) and settle in for a chat.

I met Cathleen a few years back at the Festival of Faith and Writing, about four days before He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not came out. I was just starting to realize the HUGE number of ways I did not understand American Christian Culture (despite being an enthusiastically practicing Christian for about six years at that point) and was a bit overwhelmed.  Telling us about herUnknown own memoir, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, Cathleen described her spiritual journey and how despite her conservative upbringing, she is a bit “Left-leaning for the Lord.”

At the end of her talk, I rushed the podium and hugged her.

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Thank you, Roy.

Roy-Larson.jpg-259x359Last week during the annual Religion Newswriters Association convention in Atlanta, my mentor as a religion journalist, the GREAT Roy Larson — he the former longtime religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, publisher of the Chicago Reporter, professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism where he spearheaded a vanguard program to train journalists to cover religion (in all its varied manifestations) in the secular media — was honored with a lifetime achievement award.

I had a professional conflict (on an assignment — and those are few-and-far-between for many of us journalists these days) and couldn’t make it to Atlanta to pay homage to the man who set me on the professional path I’ve been trodding for nearly 20 years. So I sent my regards (on top of deadline, as usual) to Roy via several friends who were at the convention. I’m not sure if my words got to him, and even if they did, I thought I’d share them here.

Why? Because we all need to stop and say thank you to the folks who got us where we are. The wind beneath ‘dem wings. The shoulders on which we stand. The ones who fought the battles so we didn’t have to, and the voices that said “you can do this” when so many others said the opposite.

So, once again, thank you, Roy.

“What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”

― Paulo Coelho

Dear Roy,

How do I properly thank the person who opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing — and marveling at — the world?

How do I convey with words the deep bow of gratitude I wish I were present tonight to give you in person, for showing me “The God Factor” in everything — how to look and listen for it, what to do with it when I found it?

How do I express what an honor it was to be your student, to follow in your impossible-to-fill footsteps at the Chicago Sun-Times, to take that sense of wonder and curiosity (which, on this God Beat of ours, is far more important, in my experience, than skepticism or cynicism) and put it to work?

Roy, I would not have had the career I have had were it not for you. I would not have had the unbelievable adventures, conversations, and surprises discovering the Holy in the places most people don’t expect to find it, were it not for you showing me the way.

In my world, you are the finger pointing at the moon (to borrow a metaphor from our Buddhist friends.) You have been both friend and rabbi. How blessed am I to call you both?

I respect you more than I could ever say, I honor you for the life’s work — an intricate, glorious tapestry — woven by telling the stories of how we humans choose to interact with the divine.

Thank you for inspiring me.
Thank you for making the delight of discovery look inescapably appealing.
Thank you for showing me what I already knew, but didn’t yet recognize.

Thank you, Roy.

I love you,
Cathleen

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Happy Birthday: We Are Good.

Today’s my birthday and I asked friends to send me YouTube links to their favorite songs so I could make a playlist. We’re up to about 75 now (and I will share it later) but my sweet friend Jennifer just sent a link that reminded me of a favorite I’d rather forgotten about over the years.

Alanis’ words are my prayer for all of us today on the anniversary of my birth, and at the start of a new year (for my Jewish friends and family.)

We’re good, folks. All of us. Even if we gain 75 pounds. Even when we are overwhelmed. Even if we get and stay sick. When we’re not ourselves. When we’re fuming. When we are clingy. When we are no longer queen.

We are good. We are loved. And we don’t have to do anything. That’s the thing about GRACE …

Thank you for all the birthday love. It really means so much to me, more than I could say. These last few years have been trying and this birthday is much the same. But you are good. I am good. We are loved. And there is GRACE. Thanks be to God.

that I would be good even if I did nothing
that I would be good even if I got the thumbs down
that I would be good if I got and stayed sick
that I would be good even if I gained ten pounds

that I would be fine even if I went bankrupt
that I would be good if I lost my hair and my youth
that I would be great if I was no longer queen
that I would be grand if I was not all knowing

that I would be loved even when I numb myself
that I would be good even when I am overwhelmed
that I would be loved even when I was fuming
that I would be good even if I was clingy

that I would be good even if I lost sanity
that I would be good
whether with or without you

UPDATE: You can find the GodGrrl 2014 Birthday Play List, compiled by my friends, HERE.

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Reb Zalman Has Gone Home

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Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Founder of the Jewish Renewal and Spiritual Eldering Movements. Rabbi of my rabbis. At the Aspen Peace Conference in November 2008. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

News just reached me that Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement and my rabbi’s rabbi) died this morning in Colorado.

He was a magnificent human being, one whose light and wisdom and grace shaped the lives of two of the most important people in mine: Rabbi Allen Secher and Rebbetzin Ina Albert.

Several years ago, I spent a few magical days with Reb Zalman in Aspen and celebrated Shabbas with him at a Peace Conference — a ritual he invited all to participate in, as was his way, including an imam who was also in attendance at the conference. It was one of the more consciously transcendent experiences of my life, for which I ever will be grateful to the Rebbe.

May God comfort those who knew him best, and may his light and love emanate forever.

We transmit our wisdom to future generations.  This process not only seeds the future, but crowns an elder’s life with worth and nobility.
~
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Learn more about Reb Zalman and his legacy HERE.

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Reb Zalman and Imam Mohammed at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.

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Reb Zalman giving Shabbas challah to Imam Mohammed Bashar Arafat at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.

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Shabbas wine and candles at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.

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