Column: off the record . . . vol. 11-480

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off the record, from @U2


Was that a “dream it all up again” moment at the Toronto International Film Festival last week? During a 45-minute Q&A with Bono, Edge and David Guggenheim, director of From The Sky Down, the documentary about the making of Achtung Baby that kicked off the festival, Bono opened up about the band’s somewhat precarious position on “the edge of irrelevance.”

“We can be successful,” he said. “We can play the big music in big places. But whether we can play the small music — meaning for the small speakers of the radio or clubs, where people are living right now — remains to be seen. I think we have to go to that place again if we’re to survive.”

This sparked a bit of discussion here in the virtual @U2 offices. Was Bono simply voicing his not-so-secret desire to rule the airwaves again, to appeal to all the kids out there with hopes of maintaining some sort of cultural relevance (whatever that means)? Or was it something more?

I almost kind of wish it were the former. I’m one of those who has made a habit of grousing about the band’s almost pathological attempts to capture a younger audience, who gets all apoplectic whenever Bono starts talking about “relevance.” So I would be thrilled if the singer had thrown me a bone like that, reinforcing the underlying themes of my many “here’s what I would do if I were U2” rants in the past several years.

Maybe it was something more, though. Maybe reaching out to audiences “where they live,” where relationships with the band’s music are often forged, is U2’s way of maintaining a degree of vitality. If audiences are engaged on that level, the musicians are also engaged. Simple as that.

From this perspective, it might just be that, when Bono talks about the band’s relevance, he actually means the band’s relevance to itself. Something to consider, I guess, the next time I get all worked up about the U2 collaborating with

Anyway, I have no doubt it was a “dream it all up again” moment. Bono and the others seem acutely aware that they have followed this particular path as far as it goes. What they come up with next is anybody’s guess, but that’s part of the fun of being a U2 fan.

U2 are: The biggest band in the world. Friends to many important causes worldwide, humanitarians of the highest order.

Self-help gurus?

The recent bout of press surrounding the debut of From The Sky Down has, among many other things, served to remind me of the wisdom of U2. In reflecting upon their struggles to complete Achtung Baby — indeed, to survive as a band — Bono and the boys have outlined a number of invaluable life lessons. Among these:

Know who you are. During those dark months in Hansa Studios, U2 fought to develop a new musical identity, having arrived at a dead end with the roots music explorations of Rattle And Hum. In the end, though, this wasn’t so much a musical struggle as a struggle for the soul of the band. If they were to endure, U2 needed a reminder of who they were, of what made them whole. Fortunately — for us as well as for them — they stumbled upon this with the song “One.”

“It wasn’t that we found a sonic identity,” Clayton says in the From The Sky Down trailer, “we found a spiritual identity. That was what we actually needed.”

Don’t be afraid to fail. During the TIFF Q&A last week, Bono recognized the dangers of becoming competent, of “surrendering to the very good.” This wasn’t a problem during the Achtung Baby sessions. “In those times, 20 years ago and indeed before that, we were crap and great,” Bono said. “There wasn’t much very good.”

In striving to make music they didn’t understand, U2 ran the risk of failing badly — and in fact very nearly did. They also had a chance to produce something great, though. With Achtung Baby they did just that.

So, the next time you’re feeling lost in the wilderness, unsure as to how to proceed at a particular juncture in your life, maybe do what I do: Ask yourself, WWU2D?

© Boas/U2, 2011

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