Thursday 22 May 2014

U2: The Unforgettable Fire

(#302; 13th October 1984, 2 weeks)   
Track Listing:  A Sort Of Homecoming/Pride/Wire/The Unforgettable Fire/Promenade/4th Of July/Bad/Indian Summer Sky/Elvis Presley And America/MLK

“Closely connected with the peasant’s recognition, as a survivor, of scarcity is his recognition of man’s relative ignorance.  He may admire knowledge and the fruits of knowledge but he never supposes that the advance of knowledge reduces the extent of the unknown…Nothing in his experience encourages him to believe in final causes, precisely because his experience is so wide.  The unknown can only be eliminated within the limits of a laboratory experiment.  Those limits seem to him to be naïve."    

                                                                                                    John Berger, introduction to Pig Earth

I didn’t expect to get here so quickly.  I thought I would have to wait until entry #359, but no.  We (Marcello and I) listened intently to this album, one I bought when it came out (on tape) and my unconscious/subconscious mind has swiftly done the rest.  The morning after, just before waking, I had a nightmare.  The contents of it aren’t important, save that there was the comparative ease of the indoors and the violence of the outdoors; a terrible contrast that would jolt anyone awake. 

That is what this album is mostly about; it is about that cozy confine of peace and creativity that exists in the same world as violence and brutality.

Let’s ignore for now, shall we, the previous album in this tale (easily done, I think) and go back to the last song on Now 3, “Red Guitar.” This is as close as U2 have ever gotten to going there – to the yarragh, to soul; to almost literally justifying their existence through this album, which I would say is their best (yes, I know, Achtung Baby, but I remain firm on this).  

Why?  Because The Unforgettable Fire is so many things.  A band on the run from itself; two producers from different countries with different skills (but similar aesthetics) getting together to make a big album for the first time together; an album that is about love without having any overt “love” songs on it.      

But first; I didn’t expect to get here so quickly. Daniel Lanois, however, has brought me back first to late 1981 and this album, the first "rock" one he produced himself:  

Martha and the Muffins This Is The Ice Age

In all likelihood Brian Eno heard this – he had already worked with Lanois (he went to Hamilton, Ontario to work with him in ’79) and then maybe – maybe? – it was heard by U2.  Made on a tiny budget at Grant Avenue Studios, it wasn’t a huge success but couldn’t help but be influential anyway; note how the title song has so much space, going for a minute ambiently (very 80s word) until the song suddenly snaps into focus, then soars, and becomes even more spacious, until the beat, like a heart, continues onwards….

….this album was unlike the Go-Go’s/Joan Jett/Pretenders rock I was used to listening to.  It reminded me of where I lived, how I felt seeing the full moon rise across the street, above the bare dirt field, nothing more.  “This is the age…of innocent…paaaa-ssion” Martha sings at the end, as the song dips back and forth rhythmically, propelling itself like the bike mentioned in the first line, pumping away into infinity.

So yes, hearing this brought that album from November 1981 to mind, and here we are in late 1984, with a more famous band and Daniel Lanois, recording this time in Slane Castle in Co. Meath, Ireland, Lanois doing the nuts and bolts of production while Eno guides and inspires a band who are all too ready to do whatever is necessary to avoid making Son of War or War II.  Bono convinced Eno, Eno brought Lanois with him, and there in Slane Castle they lived and worked, recording first in the ballroom and then in the library, in their old building working on new ideas….

But I did not expect to get to this, this moment, so soon.  The first signs of it were in the late summer of 1987, the illness unmistakable by October, and his operation was early that December, in Hamilton.  That was where I saw him last, in bed, a day before his operation.  Time and memory get murky and muddy here; but I know that even if he didn’t remember who anyone was in the hospital, he knew me….

….Hamilton, that raw town, proudly working class, not fancy like Toronto.  The sort of place where throwing yourself into music and experimentation was a way out  because there’s a freedom that happens when you live in a place where what you do is more important than who you are.  Apollo:  Soundtracks and Themes was done at Grant Street Studios, just as This Is The Ice Age was, and if you knew the roughness and smelliness (the steelworks) and high winds and end-of-the-lake snowiness of Hamilton, you’d say that was nearly a miracle. (Canada itself is an example in general as to how you can have snowy & cold places like Winnipeg and Montreal and create great music, not forgetting Halifax, Guelph, etc.)  My father, once the operation was over, and didn’t  regain consciousness, was sent back to Oakville.  But I couldn’t go see him, in his state; so it is in Hamilton that I last saw him, that effectively I said goodbye, without knowing I was doing so…

And thus when I listen to The Unforgettable Fire I am in several places at once, before and after my father’s death, but I am in 1984 as well, in Grade 13 (the ‘getting ready for college, this is hard’ year that was later discarded, but was the dread of all Grade 12 students at the time) and this is, as you can expect, almost too much for me to balance out and write.  U2 are an Irish band and this is indubitably an Irish album, but Canada, and specifically what had already been recorded in Hamilton, grounds the aesthetic of the thing.
As with all great albums, they grow and change with you over time.  Or perhaps only now can I appreciate everything U2 are doing here.  The first song starts, drums and guitar pulsing, as the door is opened up to winter…

…to a land that is snowy and thundery and windy; a figure moves across the field, past the ‘fields of mourning’ and the song gallops along, pausing here and there (“I’ll be there”, Bono sings in a near whisper) and the John Berger sense of country roughness (“faces ploughed like fields that once gave no resistance”) leads to a fleeing from violence itself, whether natural or man made (“a bomb-blast lightning waltz”); this culminates in one of the many moments where Bono just gives up on the English language altogether and the song immediately somehow becomes clearer.  “No spoken words- just a SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMMMMMMMMM  - AAAAUUGHHH-AAUUHHHAAAAWAAAY-AAAUUUUOOOOOWAAAYYYYOOOOOOOO-HHHHHHHHHHHAAAWAAAAAAAAOOOOOO”  And it ends with a line that makes me nearly cry, “she will die and live again – TONIGGGGGGGGHT.”  And then the tambourine comes in and the song resolves with that real homecoming, and the light in the distance now more real than before.  “Oh come away oh come away” Bono sings in the midst of this swirling storm of a song, as if you were with him, and the open and yet intimate space of Eno and Lanois you are, invited to listen to the rest of the album, as if to say, yes things are rough, there is mourning, but there is a place, at last, in the snow…

…and then the song unlike the others here, the single, the air guitar moment – “Pride.”  For some this song is a little too much, in comparison to the rest of the album (I can imagine Eno wasn’t too fussed with it, so it’s Lanois all the way here, forward and direct).   This was the song that brought many to the album, the mighty Trojan Horse of stomp, of bombast; and yet it is about love, the agape of humans giving of themselves with no expectation of reward.  The men are famous and ordinary, all motivated by the same thing – a great love.  Jesus is invoked, and so is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  – it is his death that is commemorated here, and once again there is mourning, but also pride, not self-regarding pride but knowledge that no matter what, you stood for the right thing:  for love, for people, for principles that live on long after death.  This is what gives life meaning, for U2; they have that immersion of experience and feeling that is there in all great Irish art, whether it’s Joyce, Beckett, O’Brien, My Bloody Valentine*…and with that slight sop to “commercial radio” out of the comes something different.

One of the joys of listening to albums at this time was the lack, ironically, of resources.  Unless the words were printed in Smash Hits or came with the album itself, you had to listen and listen again and try to figure out what the heck the singer was trying to say.  “Wire” is an excellent example of this. To this day, even with the internet, no one can really figure it all out.  This is due in part to Bono’s improvised lyrics (only three of the songs were written before recording) and in part due to the speed of the song itself.  (The Unforgettable Fire was in part inspired by Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream, but is more immediate and less calm than it.)  “Wire” starts with The Edge doing what sounds like an African highlife guitar, and then the rhythm section bombs in like a runaway train (Adam Clayton’s bass sounding, well, sludgy – in a good way, in contrast to Larry Mullen’s precision), and Bono is there nearly rapping, yelping at times, more like an instrument than a voice.  The song suddenly opens up with his laughing and singing “Is this the time to win or lose?”  And it peaks after a break, as if he needs air or water, and then sings, roughly, “Any time you’re on itKISS ME – WHOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAMM -OOOOOOOOH-WWHEEWEEWWWWW-WHEEWWOOOOHHH” in a way that makes mere printed lyrics, in comparison with listening to the song, kind of pointless. A voice (is it Christine Kerr, as in the previous song, in the background, or one of U2?) wordlessly chants in time to the fast beat, and “Here’s the rope – now swing on it.” Bono says, out of breath at last.  The SOUND of his voice counts more here than words; indeed with a lot of the album it’s the music and feeling that’s the point.  (Oh, how many girls were converted to U2 during this time because Bono was so clearly a passionate singer?  I knew one, in Oakville, Gina, who was a Scorpions fan but then was converted by War and convinced by this.)

After the frenetic “Wire” comes the title song, and the profound subject of the year – never mentioned directly, but in the air, as a thing remembered.  (How eerie is the cover photo of Moydrum Castle? How the people seem so small, the light too bright, as opposed to the photo of U2 regarding it, solid figures in a field looking at the past, inviting you to look at it.)  The mood of the song is portentous, a darker version of “New Gold Dream.”  Again this song is trying to capture a specific feeling as much as anything else, a powerful sense of place.  It’s about being in Tokyo for the first time and being overwhelmed. 

“The city of Tokyo is an amazing sprawl – something out of William Gibson or Philip Dick – seeming to go on forever.  The bus from the airport wound over bridges, down through tunnels, up fly-overs that wrapped around the upper floors of apartment and office buildings.  I passed canals, industrial parks, factories, indoor ski slopes, rooftop driving ranges.  As I got closer to my destination, it was getting dark, with giant, screaming video screens advertising beverages and cellphones and recording artists, garish signs in English and Japanese, lines of cars, crowds of people – row after row after row of them, surging through intersections in orderly fashion.  This was not America or anyplace remotely like it.  Things on the other side of the world were very, very different."
                                                                   Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential, “Mission To Tokyo”

A few years before this  Bruce Cockburn** (on his 1980 album Humans) recorded a song called “Tokyo” which was about seeing an accident scene while on a similar bus going over a fly-over, finding out that a car had gone over the rail and into the water.  He is shaken up, the bustle of the city reduced to this loss, and his missing the city even though it is so random and yes, different.  U2 are looking at that moment magnified horribly and nearly 40 years on, doing their best to bridge those gaps, make the past meaningful to the present.  “The Unforgettable Fire” is based on an exhibition of artwork done by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that art is what pushes the feeling here.  U2 are doing their best to convey…that yarrgh…and the Trevor Horn orchestral strikes, blows, in the break…are followed by a near-quote from that Cold War anthem, “Stand By Me”:  “and if the mountains should crumble, and fall into the sea…no not here, no not I.”  Bono’s voice is grasping, Billy MacKenziesque, going once again before the break into wordlessness, as if every song he’s ever heard is being reduced to the one song: the lines about the city lights, the red wine puncturing the skin, the longing to be taken away home, the piano lending some solidity to what otherwise seems like a swirling mass of unease.  It is night and the too-muchness of the place, the event, is getting to him; just as the constant nuclear threat that has been hanging over everyone for years has gone about as far as it can for everyone sensible to it.  The song sinks down, wavers, and settles; the storm of the album is over.  

“Promenade” is the first grasping of a survivor, a bit dazed, coming up from the bunker, up the spiral staircase, to something higher and better.  Through psychological and emotional pain, the world still stands, and is waiting.  Importantly, the survivor here is not alone.  “Words that build or destroy” he says, those words building or destroying buildings, such as Moydrum Castle.  But here is the sky, with fireworks, back streets, sidewalks, and the Other “stares into space” – that space is open, untroubled.  The world continues with its football and radio, but a new start is possible…

“4th of July” is an instrumental, evoking that night, after the fireworks perhaps, the vague smell of something burnt in the air, of flags in the air, not so much a celebration but its aftermath, as seen by someone who isn’t American…quiet and contemplative…

It is hard to contemplate this song – improvised, building itself as it goes – without leaping forwards a few months to that moment, when U2 performed it for the world.  But I will try.  The song is solid, not tentative like the previous two; the Other is now suffering.  (This song is specifically about addiction, but is general enough to encompass any kind of pain.)   Again, this is a kind of reduction of music to its essence – Bono sings AS music, music the liberator and healer, and that freeing aspect of music is evoked here very hard.  “I’m WIDE AWAAAAAAAAAAAAKE” he sings, as if he has had enough of the nuclear nightmare, of nightmares period.  The song builds to that line…”I would…let it go.” And the band, who have been building up the same simple, elemental rhythms (The Edge staying calm while the rhythm section gets more worked up, and keyboards come in and that widescreen effect kicks in) breaks into a run, the beats broken like a chain coming apart… the rhymes  (desperation, dislocation, condemnation) build up to “isolation…DESOLATION – to LET IT GO, and so to FAAAADEE AWAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYY.” The song is a chant, and so it repeats, Bono virtually wills the liberation to happen, just as Eno and Lanois have liberated the band to begin with.  The song is a huge extended hug to the listener, to the audience, and ultimately to the world.

This song proved to be a peak moment of Live Aid, in part because it (and Bono in particular) did what New Pop did in essence, only this time literally – taking the song to the people and letting the music and the moment stand for what music about at its best.  Connection; a sense of wholeness and oneness; a merging of souls, if you like – punctum.  The music is on that higher ground – achieved with a sense of purpose, adventure, humility – and reaches out, in that agape sense of love for everyone.  It was a stunning moment and made much of what happened around it, however good, beside the point.  That U2 made a mistake (the song went on way too long as Bono did his empathetic thing, so they ran out of time and couldn’t do “Pride”) adds to the New Popness of the moment.  But that is July, 1985…  

And that is important – the moment.  The Unforgettable Fire could only have been released in late 1984, it could only make sense then, in the immediate surroundings of autumn and the Brighton Bombings by the IRA***.  “Two Tribes” had been nearly replaced by the headdeskingly awful “The War Song” by Culture Club (in chart position, if not popularity); things were changing quickly in 1984, from start to finish, led by Liverpool the whole way – Frankie Goes To Hollywood, sure, but also Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain, released too late to have much impact on U2 at this point, but “The Killing Moon” surely must have been absorbed and felt.  U2 may not have been New Pop but “Pride” led many to think this album was like the previous one - I can imagine more than a few U2 fans were taken aback.  (Island, their label, wasn’t too hot on having Brian Eno come in and mess around with the formula, so to speak.)  Bowie, with Tonight, proved that he had lost his understanding of what music was capable of, what it could mean; U2 race and tumble and fall and get up, struggle with language, improvise, and make the album that Bowie was quite clearly unable to make.

But back to the album itself…”Indian Summer Sky”  emerges as fast as “Wire” but with a sense of gathered purpose and focus; the sky itself, there above the forest, deep holes, the ocean, wide, blue and beautiful.  “The wind go through to my heart; the wind blows through my soul” is a giving up of the self to the world, letting the world in, just as in “Bad” the narrator seeks to give life to another.  The song ends definitely, that blue sky absolute, and yes, I think Eno is singing here, making this a gospel song of sorts, though nature is the thing being worshipped here, the elements of air, fire, water, earth...
“Elvis Presley and America” is a clearly improvised song, the music a slowed down and altered version of “A Sort of Homecoming”; Bono’s voice is low, the music is loose, and anyone looking for a definite statement here on Elvis or America will be disappointed. “Drop me down but don’t break me” is something, a gesture to Elvis, to this emerging rock star looking at another and how he has been written about, remembered; no one told Elvis how to do things, no one told America how to do things either, and Bono struggles with the enigma of both.  It is left in pieces, indistinct, understandable only if you mess around and make mistakes and feel more than think.  The rain comes down, but Elvis and America remain, linked and close/distant…

“MLK” ends the album with a prayer; there is hardly any U2 here, just an ambient hum and Bono’s voice.  Elvis can only be pointed to abstractly, but here the language is plain.  “Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized.” The storm and confusion and relief of the album come to this short and quiet moment, where the living (the narrator) and the dead (MLK) are joined up not so much in remembered terror but are joined in the present and hence the future, where “if the thundercloud passes rain, let it rain, rain down on me.”  How simple; the words do not build anything but are invoking the possibility of something, not a grand project but something common and universal as that rain, a rain here that is calming, cleansing, away from the English idea of rain being a dour, dreaded thing and to its being part of a cycle, necessary, needed…a happy ending, of sorts, for an album that is about death, sure, but resolves into one about life, about one man’s life inspiring countless others, about life after death, if you like.   It is one thing to have pride in the name of love, but it is another to do the work of love, to make something happen. 

It is this faith that U2 have that is the real fervor of The Unforgettable Fire, and if they brought in technopeasant Brian Eno and his oblique strategies cards to widen their experience and avoid final causes, limits, then clearly it worked; but not without Lanois encouraging them to take their time, to somehow merge with the music (the album sounds professional, sure, but as fuzzy and indistinct as the band’s photo where their faces are blurred).  U2 are holding on to the unknown here, trying to bring it to light but are humble enough to know that saying something exact or precise about it will get them nowhere.  And yet in doing this they take a huge step forward, and being such a big band already they naturally redraw the limits as to what can be done…

….and did I listen to this after my father’s death?  Hard to remember now, but I may have, as a purge of emotion, a longing to be linked to something, if only music. (Chances are I would’ve been listening to the next U2 album instead.)  Did I listen to This Is The Ice Age?  Probably not, as its coolness would have made me cry (“One Day In Paris” is unbelievably lovely and sad).  And the joy at the end of that album would be something I wasn’t ready for yet.  But I would have understood – and do now – U2’s reaching toward the past’s figures as a way of getting to the future; which is to say the past somehow is the present and hence the future.  That I have reached, via  Slane Castle and back to Hamilton, my father’s death and that hapless, grappling in the dark I had afterwards  makes perfect sense in this light.****

And that is why this album radiates (if I can use that word) so much meaning for me, though it is an album that most clearly evokes homecoming after a long journey, not just through a rough winter day but through a spiritual journey too.  Big concepts, abstract concepts maybe, and I know some will bridle at the idea of popular music getting away from normal love songs and normal tempos and comprehensible lyrics.  Those will return soon enough; but for now this is U2 as gospel, jazz, avant garde, the New Thing; U2 with the window open and the eye off the clock. 

*Who in 1984 were a Cramps-like band, only to have their heads turned around by Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, one of the many key albums from this year. 

**Eventually U2 would directly quote Cockburn in a song, but I’m not sure they knew who he was at this point; perhaps Lanois told them about him?

***My nightmare may well have been a merging of U2’s recording in a library and the Brighton Bombing, one a site of creativity, the other of destruction.

****Eventually U2 will make an album that is in part about his own father’s life and death and his coming to terms with it.