[Ed. note: This is the 55th in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
We all know the posters and Internet memes: Everything I know about life I learned from <fill in the blanks>. U2 are definitely a good candidate to put there. Their involvement with the world and political, social and environmental causes is one of the things I’ve always loved about them. In this U2 List, I’ll be naming a few interesting things I learned about through U2, or things I started seeing differently through U2, in no particular order.
1) Australia’s remarkable history
When I read that “Van Diemen’s Land” was dedicated to John Boyle O’Reilly, it inspired me to learn more about the history of Australia. My mom’s bookcase held The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, a comprehensive book on Australia’s history as a penal colony. I remember looking through the index and noticing that O’Reilly was mentioned. The book quoted a passage from The Moondyne, a novel written by O’Reilly and inspired by his experiences in Australia, where he was deported in 1867 for his role in the Irish Fenian movement. This particular passage described the miserable conditions on the Hougoumont, the convict ship he was on, and incidentally also the last ship to take convicts halfway across the world. Luckily for O’Reilly, he didn’t stay a prisoner long; he escaped in 1869 and eventually settled in Boston. The search for O’Reilly prompted me to read more of The Fatal Shore, which was interesting but very depressing at times. Of course, these days it’s also easy to find information online for anyone who’s interested.
2) A more extensive English vocabulary
Language has always fascinated me and when I was a teenager I used to look up every word in U2’s songs I didn’t already know (English is not my native language), which helped expand my knowledge of English. But there are always exceptions, when one assumes to know what a word means, only to find that assumption proved false later on. Somehow I thought the locust wind from “Bullet The Blue Sky” was something like a monsoon or trade wind that was part of the Latin American climate, and I never thought to check if this was correct. So imagine my surprise some time later when I was watching an Australian TV program where they were talking about a locust swarm… Oops! These days I work in the localization and translation industry, where it is an unwritten rule to never assume anything – when in doubt, always check! “Bullet The Blue Sky” will always serve me as a fun reminder of this rule.
3) Cross-references with other art forms
U2’s work paved the way for introductions to not only other music, but also literature and other art forms. Through them I got to know the work of Salman Rushdie, Keith Haring, Wim Wenders, Anton Corbijn and many others. I’m sure that without U2, I never would have seen Wings Of Desire and probably wouldn’t have read The Satanic Verses or gone to an exhibition of Anton Corbijn photos. I also most likely would’ve paid only a little attention to the music of Frank Sinatra or Johnny Cash. U2 is the spider in a web of interconnecting threads that lead to all kinds of arts, always leaving things to explore and new paths to take.
4) The good and bad of the USA
The members of U2 have always had a special relationship with the United States. On the one hand they’re drawn to it; on the other hand, U2 have been critical of certain elements of the U.S. As Bono commented in a 1987 interview: “I love America and I hate it. … I have two conflicting visions of America. One is a kind of dream landscape and the other is a kind of black comedy.”
They’ve never been afraid to show these two sides. From “Bullet The Blue Sky” to Bono’s pose as a prisoner during “Love And Peace Or Else” during the Vertigo tour, it’s been obvious both on and off stage.
But the other end of the spectrum saw U2 make an entire movie about their love for American music and heritage, even though it wasn’t well received. After the 9/11 attacks, U2 were among the artists to perform at the benefit show America: A Tribute To Heroes. Also, they celebrated the return of the New Orleans Saints to the renovated Superdome on Sept. 25, 2006. Bono has often mentioned on the support of several U.S. administrations for DATA, Jubilee 2000 and the ONE campaign.
This two-sided attitude has always fascinated me. As a non-U.S. citizen it’s easy to focus only on the faults of the world’s biggest superpower, and negative stuff is what most often makes the news. But of course, things are rarely as clear-cut as the media make them out to be, so it was nice to experience (albeit for a very short time) the States for myself when I was there for the first time a few years ago. After a great visit to the Joshua Tree with the @U2 crew and to see U2’s Las Vegas show, I hired a car and did a mini-tour of the sights around Las Vegas – the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Zion National Park, etc. Driving in the golden afternoon sun on a nearly empty highway with seemingly endless space all around me, I understood the wonder my Irish idols must have felt when they first set foot on American soil. If it weren’t for U2, I don’t think I would have gone to the U.S. for a holiday, but I’m very glad I did.
5) Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle for a free and democratic Myanmar
When I read the liner notes of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, I must admit I didn’t know who Aung San Suu Kyi was. However, upon learning that “Walk On” was dedicated to her, I read up on the history of this remarkable, strong woman. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live under house arrest for almost 15 years, so her courage is truly inspiring. When she was released in 2010, what otherwise might have been a news item I would have heard in passing, now felt like a reason for joy and hope. I hope Suu Kyi will be able to continue her fight and lead her country to true, lasting democracy and prosperity.
The first time I visited Ireland, I was already a U2 fan, but didn’t visit Dublin or any other U2-related sites. Even then, Ireland is a great place to go. The second time I did go to see sights that had U2 connections, and it made a world of difference. Dublin is a great city in itself, but there’s something magical about walking in the city center and feeling like you’ve stepped into U2 history land: strolling along the quays, recognizing the images from the October sleeve and the location of the video for “Gloria.” Having a look inside The Clarence, even if it’s no farther than the lobby; passing by the studios hoping to catch a glimpse of the boys; feeling the oppressive atmosphere of Kilmainham Gaol; and at the end of the day, drinking a pint of Guinness at a pub with U2 memorabilia on the wall."
(c) @U2/Meijer, 2014