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.