TRIP THROUGH YOUR WORDS

Hav­ing once mem­o­rably sung the line “Ev­ery artist is a can­ni­bal, ev­ery poet is a thief”, BONO has never been es­pe­cially shy when it comes to ac­knowl­edg­ing his artis­tic in­flu­ences. Nor­man Mailer, Tru­man Capote, Flan­nery O’Con­nor, Sam Shep­ard and Ray­mond Ca

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In 2014, twenty-seven years af­ter its seis­mic re­lease, U2’s fifth stu­dio al­bum The Joshua

Tree was deemed “cul­tur­ally, his­tor­i­cally, or

aes­thet­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant” by the US Li­brary of Congress. The Dublin band’s best­selling, gamechang­ing, (maybe) mag­num opus was se­lected for preser­va­tion in the Na­tional Record­ing Reg­istry. A fit­ting home for a work of mu­si­cal art that was de­scribed by Bono at the time as “our most lit­er­ate record so far”.

The singer was talk­ing about the mu­sic as much as the lyrics, but both the melodies and the words were very much in­spired by all things Amer­i­can. Fol­low­ing on from the so­phis­ti­cated, stylis­tic Euro­pean at­mo­spher­ics of 1984’s The

Un­for­get­table Fire, U2 had got­ten all down and dirty, don­ning cow­boy hats and deeply im­mers­ing them­selves in Amer­i­can roots mu­sic, folk, gospel and blues.

Look­ing for in­sights into the vast coun­try that had al­ready some­what em­braced them (and was set to se­ri­ously make them ‘Rock’s Hottest Ticket’, as their de­but Time cover story put it), and with the con­scious am­bi­tion of cre­at­ing the au­ral equiv­a­lent of the Great Amer­i­can Novel, Bono had gone west in his read­ing: later name-check­ing the likes of Flan­nery O’Con­nor, Tru­man Capote, Sam Shep­ard, Ray­mond Carver, Saul Bel­low and Nor­man Mailer in in­ter­views.

“We had all fallen un­der the spell of Amer­ica, not the TV re­al­ity but the dream, the ver­sion of Amer­ica that Martin Luther King spoke about,” Edge ex­plained in the band’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,

U2 by U2. “Bono had been read­ing Flan­nery O’Con­nor and Tru­man Capote. The lan­guage of the Amer­i­can writ­ers par­tic­u­larly struck him, the kind of im­agery and cin­e­matic qual­ity of the Amer­i­can land­scape be­came a step­ping-off point.”

In the same book, Bono wrote, “I started to see two Amer­i­cas. The mythic Amer­ica and the real Amer­ica. It was an age of greed, Wall Street, but­ton down, win, win, win, no time for losers. New York was bank­rupt. There was a harsh re­al­ity to Amer­ica as well as the dream. So I started work­ing on some­thing which in my own mind was go­ing to be called The Two Amer­i­cas.”

Ap­par­ently it was Bruce Spring­steen who per­son­ally rec­om­mended the work of south­ern au­thor Flan­nery O’Con­nor to his fel­low rock star. Like the Dublin singer, O’Con­nor was deeply re­li­gious, al­though her own brand of faith es­chewed that of fun­da­men­tal­ism and fa­nati­cism. Bono has cited her 1952 de­but novel, Wise Blood

– de­scribed by its pub­lish­ers on its orig­i­nal cover as ‘A Search­ing Novel of Sin and Re­demp­tion’ – as a se­ri­ous in­flu­ence on The Joshua Tree.

In her in­tro­duc­tion to the tenth an­niver­sary edi­tion of Wise Blood, O’Con­nor her­self stated that the book is about “free­dom, free will, life and death, and the in­evitabil­ity of be­lief.” Themes of re­demp­tion, racism, sex­ism and iso­la­tion also run through the novel. As they did through­out the al­bum.

O’Con­nor’s de­light in apho­risms would also un­doubt­edly have ap­pealed to Bono. In­deed, some of her say­ings sound un­can­nily like quotes from his own mouth: “The truth does not change ac­cord­ing to our abil­ity to stom­ach it.” She also

wrote: “Where there is no be­lief in the soul there is very lit­tle drama. Ei­ther one is se­ri­ous about sal­va­tion or one is not. And it is well to re­al­ize the max­i­mum amount of se­ri­ous­ness ad­mits the max­i­mum amount of com­edy. Only if we are se­cure in our be­liefs can we see the com­i­cal side of the uni­verse.”

Bono later told U2 fan mag­a­zine Pro­pa­ganda,

“I’ve never felt such sym­pa­thy with a writer in Amer­ica be­fore.”

O’Con­nor’s work, along with the short sto­ries of Sam Shep­ard and Ray­mond Carver, helped the song­writer in his quest to un­der­stand “the or­di­nary stock first, and then the out­siders, the drift­wood – those on the fringes of the promised land, cut off from the Amer­i­can dream.”

It’s worth not­ing that while The Joshua Tree is con­sid­ered U2’s big ‘Amer­i­can al­bum’, only three of the songs deal specif­i­cally with the coun­try (it also fea­tures tracks about Dublin’s heroin epi­demic, the Bri­tish min­ers’ strike and the crimes of the Ar­gen­tinian mil­i­tary junta). But the in­flu­ence of Amer­i­can writ­ers is still writ large through­out the lyrics.

Jour­nal­ism was also a big in­spi­ra­tion. Al­though there were 30 songs in con­tention for in­clu­sion on The Joshua Tree, Bono wanted a song “with that sense of vi­o­lence in it, es­pe­cially be­fore ‘Moth­ers of the Dis­ap­peared’.”

Two award-win­ning books about fa­mous Amer­i­can mur­ders, Tru­man Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Nor­man Mailer’s The

Ex­e­cu­tioner’s Song (1980), in­spired the al­bum’s blood-chill­ing penul­ti­mate track, ‘Exit’ – which Bono de­scribed as “a story in the mind of a killer.”

Capote and Mailer might have given him the mur­der­ous lyri­cal in­tent, but the sparse and eco­nom­i­cal short sto­ries of Carver were also pre­sum­ably an in­spi­ra­tion. Bono later de­scribed the lyrics as “just a short story re­ally, ex­cept I left out a few of the verses be­cause I liked it as a sketch. It’s just about a guy who gets an idea into his head. He picks it up off a preacher on the ra­dio or some­thing and goes out…”

The lyrics of the fourth verse go: “Hands in the pocket/ Finger on the steel/ The pis­tol weighed heavy/ His heart he could feel/ Was beat­ing, beat­ing/ beat­ing, beat­ing, oh my love/Oh my love, oh my love/ My love…”

“I don’t even know what the act is in that song,” Bono later told Hot

Press. “Some see it as a mur­der, oth­ers suicide – and I don’t mind. But the rhythm of the words is nearly as im­por­tant in con­vey­ing the state of mind.”

Sadly, ‘Exit’ was re­ported to have in­spired a real life mur­der two

years af­ter The Joshua Tree was re­leased. In 1991, a para­noid schiz­o­phrenic named Robert Bardo claimed in a Los An­ge­les court that ‘Exit’ had in­spired him to shoot dead a 21-year-old ac­tress named Re­becca Scha­ef­fer (whose ca­reer high­light at that point was a brief ap­pear­ance in Woody Allen’s Ra­dio Days). Af­ter he killed her, he at­tempted suicide by run­ning onto a busy free­way, but was caught and ar­rested.

Bardo’s claim about the ef­fect of ‘Exit’ on his state-of-mind was never prop­erly pur­sued in court, as he pleaded insanity and was swiftly given a life sen­tence. One di­rect re­sult of Re­becca Scha­ef­fer’s mur­der, how­ever, was the sub­se­quent clas­si­fi­ca­tion of stalk­ing as a felony in Cal­i­for­nia.

At the time Bono said that he didn’t feel re­spon­si­ble that his song was used in a mur­der de­fence, stat­ing, “I still feel that you have to go down those streets in your mu­sic. If that’s where the sub­ject is tak­ing you, you have to fol­low. At least in the imag­i­na­tion. I’m not sure I want to get down there to live. I’ll take a walk oc­ca­sion­ally, and have a drink with the devil, but I’m not mov­ing in with him.”

Of course, U2 have a long record of tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from lit­er­ary sources. In the early ’90s, the cy­ber­punk feel of the Zoo TV partly took its cue from Wil­liam Gib­son’s cult sci-fi novel Neu­ro­mancer, with the au­thor even con­tribut­ing to a cou­ple of the band’s projects around the pe­riod. It was also around the time that Bono first be­came friendly with Sal­man Rushdie, the Bri­tish au­thor who in­fa­mously had a fatwa placed him for his novel The Sa­tanic Verses.

Al­though they wouldn’t be­come friends for an­other few years, Rushdie’s im­pact on Bono does ac­tu­ally date back to the ’80s, when the front­man read the au­thor’s book The Jaguar Smile. The book ad­dressed US for­eign pol­icy in Nicaragua, a theme that also sur­faced on The Joshua Tree. Rushdie fa­mously joined U2 on­stage dur­ing the 1993 Zooropa tour while still in hid­ing, and was a fre­quent vis­i­tor to the singer’s Dublin home. In­deed the au­thor once re­marked that Bono an­noyed both his se­cu­rity de­tail and the Gar­daí by tak­ing him for a pint!

In 1991, mean­while, U2 had a chap­ter-long cameo in Bret Eas­ton Ellis’ con­tro­ver­sial novel Amer­i­can Psy­cho (they are also men­tioned in Ellis’ books Less Than Zero and Glam­orama), in which Bono ap­peared as the devil to se­rial killer Pa­trick Bateman. A year later, on the Zoo TV tour in sup­port of Ach­tung Baby, he was don­ning horns as MacPhisto (in which guise he greeted Rushdie on-stage).

But those are just de­tails…

A sort of tome-com­ing: some of U2’s lit­er­ary in­spi­ra­tions and (in­set) Bono with pal Sal­man Rushdie

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