This is just the end of something for U2. And that’s what we’re playing these concerts – and we’re throwing a party for ourselves and you. It’s no big deal, it’s just – we have to go away and … and dream it all up again. ~ U2’s Bono, December 31, 1989 at the Point Depot in Dublin, Ireland
It has become a well worn mantra that U2 fans know well. The New Year’s 1989 show in Dublin was broadcast on RTÉ and BBC radio all around the world. It was near the end of the Lovetown Tour in support of the band’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum.
They would re-emerge almost two years later, in November of 1991 with this gem of an album. Achtung Baby was simultaneously more dazzling, yet darker than the world had ever heard them before. In marked contrast to the soaring, anthemic delay and reverb laden guitars of The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, this album shimmered with electronic and dance elements and keyboard sounds from The Edge and producer Brian Eno that were wildly different compared Edge’s piano work on their 1981, sophomore album, October. The 4 lads from Ireland also had an aesthetic makeover. A collage of industrial, religious and somewhat self-aggrandizing images adorned the cover art. Bono’s hair was shorter, slicker and darker. The blonde highlights of their brilliant Live Aid era were long gone. And when they hit the road to support the album with the ambitious Zoo TV tour, the future was so bright that Bono’s shades became a permanent staple of his public persona. Yes, I’m aware of his glaucoma. But the shades were also tightly wound-up and tied-in with Bono’s new leather-clad “Fly” and “MacPhisto” stage personas. Peacock strutting, prank phone calls to the white-house, and mockery of TV Evangelists also became part of the live experience in this era.
In contrast to the sonic sparkles and glitz-trash-glam image (I mean that in the most complimentary of ways), Bono’s lyrics took a darker, more introspective turn than usual. Heavy, socially relevant topics were nothing new for the band. “Mothers of the Disappeared” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” had both addressed corrupt governments and US Military presence in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In “Sunday Bloody Sunday” they spoke up loud and clear about the conflict in Northern Ireland that lead to a bloody massacre in 1972. If you have never seen the Rattle and Hum, live performance of the song that was recorded the evening of the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, watch it right now!
To put a few things into context, Achtung Baby was released 84 days after Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten and only 56 days after Nirvana’s “Grunge comes crashing into Suburbia” second album, Nevermind and 63 days after Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II . Without necessarily intending to do so, U2 set out to show the world that “alternative” was a large expansive (nearly useless) category that had roots in New Wave and Post-Punk and stadium-packing arena-ready rock did not belong solely to the Sunset Strip -its quickly fading Aqua Net endorsing hair bands- or the more muscular, tough boy classic rock that was replacing it. And the young Chris Martins and Dan Reynolds of the world must have been paying attention (but that’s a whole different tangent, best saved for a different day).
As I sit here today and allow myself to be pummeled once again by the non stop bass thump of this album – interrupted only by the mega-hit ballad “One” and the flipping of the records on this double LP press – I wait in anticipation once again to hear Bono sing from the perspective of Judas Iscariot on “Until the End of the World” and speak-sing absurdities from Irina Dunn on “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World.” I still crack a smile every time I get to that line “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
But it is the album closing trio of songs – each a bit darker than the last – that I still wait for with bated breath upon each new listen. And this is is the section of the album that reminds me most that U2 had to ‘go away to dream it all up again.’ I think of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” as a squeal of sorts to “Gloria” from the band’s most overtly religious album October. On the surface “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” is about a desperate romantic relationship with the over the top and cliché “baby, baby, baby” lyric. But Bono has never been shy about his Christian beliefs and has always given fans more than enough allusion to the Bible and Christian tradition to fuel the never ending “is it about a girl or about Jesus” conversations among a certain sect of U2 fans. Before, on “Gloria” those allusions were more like evangelistic mantras or church pew confessions, complete with bits of Latin phrases: “Only in you I’m complete.. Gloria in te domine; Gloria exultate; Oh Lord, if I had anything, anything at all, I’d give it to you.” But on Ultraviolet, the lyrics give just enough for U2 biographers and fan web-boards to claim that everything in the song serves as a metaphor for for divine presence lighting the way in the darkest of times. Some folks say the lyrics allude to one of the Bible’s darkest and most mysterious books, Job (“When his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness”). In any case, I love this song and firmly believe that more often than not, love – real love, the good stuff – often feels more like being lost in the dark, grasping for the other than it does feeling like one is completely found. Communication – whether familial, platonic or romantic – is elusive, slippery and difficult.
We would all ‘reach out, if we only knew where to hit.’ This leads to my favorite cut on this album and my favorite U2 song of all time, “Acrobat.” Bono himself calls it a song about hypocrisy. Hypocrisy of a rich rock star with deep religious roots, a wife, children and all of the inherent tension and potential pitfalls that predicament implies. The song has taken on a status of mythical proportions among die-hard U2 fans. It was rehearsed for the Zoo TV tour in 1991 and ’92, and has been one of the bands most requested songs for live performances. However, they never performed it in front of a live audience until 2018! 2018! While the complex time signature is often sited as the reason for its glaring absence in the U2 live catalog, I have always believed it is simply because it is one of the most personal of songs that Paul Hewson – the man behind the moniker, shades, and endless reinventions – has ever written…
And I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
‘Cause I need it now
To take a cup
To fill it up
To drink it slow
I can’t let you go
I must be an acrobat
To talk like this
And act like that
And you can dream
So dream out loud
And don’t let the bastards grind you down
Just do a web search for “Bono Christianity,” “U2 Spirituality,” or if you’re up for some real bat-shit craziness, try throwing “Bono Antichrist” in the Google search. The same people that lift you up on a pedestal and put your image on the cover of Christianity Today, will throw you to the wolves the next day. The tension between the highest ideals we aspire to and our basest instincts may leave one feeling stretched thin, like an acrobat. But it is the family that has no place for us at the table that will tear us apart. One doesn’t need to share in Bono’s Christian faith to heed the inherent warning: it is our “brothers,” our “sisters” who will inflict the deepest wounds, tear you apart, and… Grind. You. Down.
Who is my brother? Who is my sister? My mother, my father? Who am I? Complex questions beg the simplest yet most complex of answers, love – true love – is blindness. I am ready now to be pummeled by one last thumping, spiritual and sensual, cold and sweaty bass line: “Love is blindness I don’t want to see won’t you wrap the night Around me? Oh my love Blindness.” Its such a truism, I could fumble on endlessly trying to give some further elucidation.
I haven’t written in this space in nearly two years. A lot has happened in that time. Amanda and I married on March 20, 2019. This July, I will celebrate 2 years without a drop of alcohol. I have been reading. I have been writing, writing, writing (not in this space, but writing nonetheless). I have been tackling my own tohu wa-bohu (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ). Deeper into darkness. Deeper into light. I had to go away and dream it all up again. I’m back. Achtung Baby!