Column: off the record…, vol. 11-489

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off the record, from @U2

In a perverse sort of way, I was pleased when I read that the other members of U2 had been telling Bono to cool it with the "irrelevance" talk. (See here and here.) I've been complaining about that particular topic of conversation -- really quite loudly at times -- since it first appeared in Bono's arsenal of "things to repeat over and again in interviews," so I felt some small amount of validation in knowing U2 themselves were sick of hearing it.

Yet, ironically, I suppose, this came at a time when I myself was beginning to question U2's relevance -- not in the marketplace or among the general populace, but rather to my own life.

Let me try to explain. Though I first saw U2 on the Unforgettable Fire tour I really started to embrace the band with Achtung Baby and especially Zooropa. Not because I preferred the music; at the time I was still more of a Joshua Tree fan. No, I jumped on board in the early '90s because I saw in the U2 narrative the story of how I'd like my life to unfold.

In his book U2 At The End Of The World, Bill Flanagan views the Zoo TV era through the lens of James Joyce's Nighttown, "a nocturnal urban world that promised knowledge in exchange for innocence." He could just as easily have couched it in terms of the "rite of passage" as understood by anthropologists -- with separation from society; a period of liminality, in which everything is turned upside down; and finally, reincorporation as a new and essentially different person. Or he could have described it as an archetypal hero's journey.

The point is, U2 willingly walked away from everything they knew, from the musical and cultural milieu in which they had been nurtured and raised, and wandered off into the wilderness, only to return several years later with a newfound understanding of the contradictions that lay at the heart of the world of human relations. They had indeed exchanged innocence for knowledge, and they were better men for it.

I wanted this for myself; I wanted to embark on my own hero's journey, leaving the small village where I had been raised, battling various (metaphorical) monsters and demons and returning home more or less a fully realized person showing both the scars and the accumulated wisdom of my years of struggle. Whether I ultimately achieved any of it is a matter of debate. In a way, though, I didn't have to. U2 had already done it for me, and along the way had produced some wildly compelling music that reflected, both lyrically and musically, the journey they'd been on.

Fast-forward a couple of years and the narrative begins to change. With All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 stopped poking their collective head down the rabbit hole and launched a long period of retrenchment. The next decade was seemingly defined by attempts to recapture market share, to reclaim the title of "Biggest Band in the World." None of this meant anything to me; none of it applied to my life, either as it was or as I wished it. In the end, as much as I hated to admit it, even -- especially -- to myself, U2 were losing me.

So I was more than a little relieved this week when I finally sat down to watch From The Sky Down. Here were the members of U2 -- today, in 2011 -- reflecting on the Achtung Baby era. Not on the triumphs, on all the accolades and awards, but rather on the insecurities, the crumbling relationships, the apprehensions about what it all meant that ultimately gave rise to those amazing songs and performances. What happens when you can't live up to your potential, or to others' expectations of you? How do you stay true -- to an ideal, to your tribe -- when you no longer really believe in yourself? Where do you go to recapture that spark, that sense of mischief, that drove you when you were young?

I found myself encouraged as the film went on. It seemed that, in talking about what happened 20 years ago, U2 were reminded of why they had formed the band to begin with, and perhaps why they were still in the band. At the end of the day, they might say now, it's about the noise, the tribe and, above all, the journey. I look forward to seeing where it takes them next.

On an entirely different note: Last weekend I went to see The Love We Make, the Albert Mayles documentary following Paul McCartney in the days leading up to the post-9/11 Concert For New York City. I thoroughly enjoyed the film; if nothing else, it showed that McCartney really is the nicest, most ingenuous guy around. Unfortunately though, whenever I think of the one-time Beatle and Wing I'm reminded of this video -- depending on your perspective, either the nadir or the pinnacle of Western civilization. Enjoy!

© @U2, 2011.

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