Posted in Beauty, Health, Writing

Dream It All Up Again

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!

Posted in Health

Just Beneath the Surface

That is just a small pile. These are the most immediate books on my ever-growing, “must-read” list. I think I have read almost every article by Ta-Nehisi Coates available online. I have watched YouTube videos of him speaking. But I have yet to crack open one of those books. The Autism book I have been working on for weeks. But I have not made nearly as much progress as I would like. Annie Dillard has been on my list for 20 years!!! On the Kindle sits a mystery novel by my friend Anita. She sent it to me in December. I promised I would read it. And I will! But I warned her it might be a while.

‘The person who doesn’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.’ This maxim, often misattributed to Mark Twain, has stuck with me since the first time I heard it, around the same time Annie Dillard went on my must-read list. Like a lot of disparaging remarks meant to encourage someone to do better, it can often have the reverse effect. I know the good intention of the dear friend who first lobbed this quote at me. He was trying to inspire me to read more often. But like my father often asking me as a boy if I wanted a shovel at the dinner table, it had the reverse effect. I read less; I ate more. Often at the same time. I’m multitalented like that.

I recently spent some time exploring some of the deep reasons that I don’t write as often as I would like to. This isn’t another exploration into the deep-seated fears and anxieties that hold me back from writing more, especially in public spaces. This is an admission of what lies just beneath the surface: While I don’t write as much as I would like, I still write more than I read; and so, I don’t believe that I deserve to be read.

This is why I hardly ever work on the memoir. It’s why I never submit my poetry to journals. I have been writing – for escape, safe harbor, and the sheer enjoyment of it – ever since I could string two sentences together.  I have really only been attempting to read – for the sake of learning, enrichment, and enjoyment – since about my mid-twenties. And it has always been a huge struggle.

I love reading, nearly as much as I love writing. It is just a lot harder for me. And that is not to say that the writing comes easy for me. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Anytime you have read one of these entries here (usually between 700-1,200 words) you should know that I have spent at least 3-4 hours on it. And I still end up with typos, grammatical errors and dangling participles.

In grade school, I was always sent off to the special education room for reading and writing assignments.  In ACT and other standardized tests in high school, I always scored lowest in reading comprehension and writing. Yet, throughout school, my grades were always highest in English and composition classes. In nearly every subject, my grades were highest when I could write papers.

With a fire under my ass, fear in my heart and a goal in mind I earned a BA in religion and an M.Div. I read the books. I wrote the papers. And I earned really high marks. I spent an inordinate amount of time on each and every assignment. And most were submitted at the very last possible second. In retrospect, I am still utterly surprised that I made it a year in college, let alone earned two degrees.

But then came Greek. My second time out getting halfway through Greek on the verge of failing, my seminary decided I needed to be tested for a reading disability. The result: “unspecified learning disorder that impedes the reading and writing process and seriously encumbers learning another language.” This was a basic test on the seminary’s dime. The psychologist who administered the test said that while I exhibited some “dyslexia-like patterns” in my reading and writing skills, it was in likelihood not dyslexia, but some sort of attention disorder. I opted out of paying for a more detailed test on my dime to tell me that I have ADHD or something “like” it.

In place of Greek, the seminary allowed me to take two upper-level theology classes. These classes required a lot of reading and writing. It was painstaking. But I did it. And I excelled at it.

I have never written about any of this ever before. Anywhere. It is one of the biggest kept secrets in my life.  I found it much easier to write about my sexuality, my divorce, my crumbling faith, my struggle with my weight, my social anxiety and my struggle with depression. I figured if I am going to write about my daughter’s disability openly, the very least I can do is be honest with myself and others about my own.

But it goes just a little deeper than that. I am a writer. It is what I was born to do. It is the only thing I know – I mean really know deep down – that I am good at. I also know I have a lot of room for improvement. The first steps on that journey to improvement are reading that stack of books above and not stopping there. No matter how difficult or time consuming, or how many times I have to re-read the same damn paragraph. And I have to start attempting to publish beyond the scope of my personal blog. But I will never do any of this if don’t first hit publish on this post and get really honest with myself about the difficult but rewarding journey that lies ahead.

Posted in Health

Lent 20

Halfway! I have taken up various writing challenges before. In 2011 I set out to write a series of posts on the release dates of the many, many (so MANY) fantastic albums that were released in 1991. I wrote a big introductory post talking about the Smashing Pumpkins Gish, Pearl Jam Ten, Nirvana Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik, A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory, Ice Cube Death Certificate, U2 Achtung Baby, Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion, the beginning of the end for mainstream big stadium rock and the birth of Lollapalooza.

I wrote one post on R.E.M.’s amazing album Out of Time. Then I threw in the towel.

I have set personal writing goals many times: journal everyday, write a new poem a week, a month. It sticks for a time. Then Something comes up, life gets busy or a week goes by and the muse doesn’t visit. Then I take an overly long break.

The break is never a respite. I need to write. I just do. There are things on the inside I have to get out. There are stories begging to be told. It is a gift. And a curse. It is a passion. And it is a discipline. On the discipline front, I have done a lot of self-evaluation and found myself lacking. That used to just create an even greater wedge between me and the words. There have been periods of months, whole seasons of life where the pen did not touch the page. There was not one key stroke for anything other than a Facebook post. But I’ll say it again, guilt – in all things big and small – produces a sick cycle of repeating the undesired behavior. So no more.

I have been, for some time, working on a memoir. The access point is my slow walking away from the church pulpit to the open mic at the corner bar. It is a reflection on community: the good and the bad to be found in the “sacred” and the secular. And from that vantage point I look back on some of the happiest and some of the most painful moments of childhood, adolescence, marriage, divorce and fatherhood.

I have one great introductory chapter, an outline of the rest and a book proposal that has been on my pc for over a year. But I don’t want to read a writer who doesn’t read or practice his craft, even if he or she has “the gift.” I figure others don’t either. So there are three books and a journal on my night stand, getting more use than they have in years. An there is this.

I started keeping a blog in September of 2005. It was on the one year anniversary of my mother’s passing. I was determined to start something meaningful. This past January, I copied all the poems, religious diatribes, cries for help and late night philosophical BS into Word documents and deleted every post before June 26, 2015. Heroes. That is where I finally found my voice as a writer, finally began telling the truth that had been filling up the pages of my journals for decades, shared quietly with close friends over coffee or recklessly in the mixed company of loved ones and strangers over beer.

Over the last year & half I have been racing to fill up my most recent journal like a madman. I have had some important sprints here on the old blog. But far and few in between. With this – this 40 day exercise – I am finally jogging at a steady pace. I am finally readying myself for the marathon that is coming. I can not really remember a time when I didn’t write. But once upon a time I was inconsistent, sometimes lazy and very, very afraid. Now I am committed to writing my words on the face of today. Come what may…