A St. Patrick's Day Story: Did I Disappoint You?
On the feast day of Ireland's patron saint, U2's Bono and The Edge look back and take stock while charting a way forward — and so do I.
Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig daoibh go léir!
I spent the first several of hours of this Feast Day of Naomh Padraig — my first as an actual Irish citizen — watching Bono and the Edge show Dave Letterman around Dublin in the new documentary film, A Sort of Homecoming, and listening to the latest release from U2: Songs of Surrender, both of which dropped at midnight to coincide with the day we remember the life and legacy of Ireland’s patron saint.
When the digital clock struck 12 in the corner of my laptop, with a giant mug of strong Barry’s tea in hand, I clicked the triangular play button on Disney+ and the A Sort of Homecoming documentary from Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, etc.) began to weave its engaging, vaguely wistful-around-the-edges (if you’re paying close attention) tale.
I should offer a caveat here before I say more: I am not an uninterested party. I am not unbiased. I haven’t been unbiased about U2 perhaps ever and I certainly have not been unbiased about its lead vocalist, whom I love and have known for more than 20 years, for at least the last 19. I met Bono when I was covering him as a newspaper journalist, but I stopped writing about him as a straight news reporter — I’ve written plenty in the intervening years, but as a columnist and in my own voice, with opinions galore — long ago. Additionally, for the last several years, I occasionally have written for the band’s website, U2.com.
That said, first and foremost, then, now and forever, I am a fan. For 40 years, U2 has been my band. That will never change. And when I write about U2’s music, members, and the community Bono, Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr., and Adam Clayton have created and maintained since 1976, the dominant voice inside my head and heart is that of 12-year-old me, the one who dreamed of being a writer and had U2 posters plastering the walls of her bedroom.
What follows herein has been written mostly by her, with the benefit and experience that 52-year-old me brings to the table, but with no insider information. I know only as much as any other fan simply experiencing Songs of Surrender and the new documentary, Bono and the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with Dave Letterman for the first time.
The film starts with a blank screen and the sound of a clock ticking.
“Growing up in Ireland,” Bono says off camera, “it felt as if the future was always somewhere else.”
Music comes up — píobaí uilleann or uilleann pipes — from the intro to U2’s song “Tomorrow,” a keening deep dive from the band’s second album, 1981’s October, the first album of theirs I heard. “Tomorrow” is a song I’ve long loved but that they haven’t played live for 40 years (since May 5, 1983 in Boston.)
Bring it back, lads. Bring it back.
The song is a musical prayer crafted by four young men barely out of their teens, man-boys on the verge of a kind of success and stardom they probably couldn’t fathom in their wildest imaginings; four young men who were living through The Troubles of a deeply divided 1970s Ireland and in their individual worlds. Two of the young bandmates had suffered unthinkable losses — Bono lost his mother, Iris, to a brain aneurysm when he was 14 years old, and Larry lost his younger sister, Mary, when he was 12, and a few years later, his mother, Maureen, died in a car accident when the drummer was barely 17.
While sections of the instrumental overture play in the film, we never hear the lyrics to “Tomorrow,” which include the following heartbreakers:
I want you to be back tomorrow.
Will you be back tomorrow?
Can I sleep tonight?
I want you to be back tomorrow
I want you to be back tomorrow.
Will you be back tomorrow?
Open up, open up, to the Lamb Of God
To the love of He
Who made the blind to see.
He's coming back
He's coming back
O believe Him.
“Do you like retrospectives of yourself, do you like looking over your shoulder at this point in your life,” Letterman asks the Edge.
“No,” Edge deadpans.
“We wanted to sort of strip away the artifice that inevitably emerges after you’ve been around this long,” Bono says about changing the lyrics of some of the songs recorded for Songs of Surrender. The documentary, which focuses on the remaking of the 40 tracks on the new album, came about, Bono explains simply, “while Larry was injured and Adam was off making an art film.”
In the days leading up to the album and film release, and in the weeks after it was announced that Larry would not be playing the Las Vegas dates, we’ve heard and seen a lot of Bono and the Edge, a bit of Adam, and almost nothing from Larry. Not unprecedented, surely, as each member famously has his unique, almost archetypal personality. And yet, some fans have sensed a disturbance in The Force.
My spirit feels unsettled. I hope and pray that everything, and every one, is OK.
“In the isolation of the pandemic, it was almost like the question became what is left when everything is stripped away?” Edge continued, answering Letterman’s question.
What happens when everything is stripped away?
That’s a question many of us have been asking for the last several years in myriad ways, whether because of COVID, with its accompanying chaos and clarity; relationally because of too much distance or too much proximity or not enough of either, because so much of what we took for granted as progress has been thrown into reverse, because the Earth is on fire, because wars and rumors of wars, pestilence and cataclysms mostly of the human-made variety that have stripped us of any sense of security, however fictional and misplaced it might have been.
The A Sort of Homecoming film is beautifully done and I encourage you to see it. Letterman is one of our cultural icons for all the best reasons, an everyperson, curious about the world, humble, cranky, but with a heart that is more easily opened and broken than we might have imagined in years past, before he grew the beard that makes him look more like the Hebrew prophet his disposition has embodied for decades.
I figured I would enjoy the film, and I did. Add heaping doses of the unfailingly lovely, poetic, and so very Irish Glen Hansard and epic footage of bathers at the 40 Foot in Sandymount, and it’s a St. Patrick’s Day confection for the ages. There’s also a serious depth to the context of how and why U2 became U2 provided in part by Fintan O’Toole (the Irish journalist whose We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland is one of the best books I read last year and one of the finest works about modern Irish society to date) and the fabulously astute drag performer and activist Panti Bliss.
What I did not expect to enjoy, however, was Songs of Surrender. I am, admittedly, something of a U2 fundamentalist. My introduction to their world was October and, more specifically, “Gloria,” a song that took my psyche, spirit, and world view as a 12- year-old and shook it like a snowglobe. It felt like my soul did a backflip the first time I heard that song. It still does each time I hear it, especially when I hear it live.
Late in my college years, I was slow to embrace Achtung Baby. Eventually, I got there and saw it for the genius spiritual, narrative, and musical mastercraft that it is. I’m curious about where the band go when they go adventuring each time they do, into new sonic landscapes, with new collaborators, when they spent so much time and energy excavating their formative years or crafting prophetic calls for the rest of us to wake up, stand up, and resist. The band is a decade older than I am and has, in many ways over the years, left breadcrumbs that have helped me find my way through a dark wood or two when I’ve reached it several years after they’ve made their way to the other side. I have faith that I will someday before we all leave this side of the Veil or the Earth shakes us off like a bunch of fleas, hear their Songs of Ascent.
But revisiting the songs that I felt, as a fan, were pretty close to perfection or at least perfect precisely because of their imperfection, was not an endeavor that filled my heart with thrills of expectation. Combined with the announcement of Larry’s absence from the upcoming Vegas shows, I will admit I found myself less than enthused.
Something felt off. If I’m honest, it still does. But after I took the time to listen to SOS, my heart relaxing enough from the clenched fist posture I wasn’t entirely aware it had assumed in recent weeks, to hear the 40 stripped down and/or reimagined songs with an open mind, I learned something new. Not necessarily about the songs or the band, but about myself.
Recently, I re-watched the David Simon post-Katrina series Tremé for the third of fourth time in these plague years. The show, Simon’s best IMHO, is a celebration of the Spirit, the spirit of New Orleans, its music, culture, and tenacity. I love everything about it, particularly the character DJ Davis McAlary played by Steve Zahn. Part-time dj, part-time musician, full-time dreamer, die-hard musicologist, social justice warrior, and cultural connector-enthusiast, DJ Davis serves an ersatz spiritual function akin to a traveling pastor amongst the denizens of his Tremé. Davis’ monologues on air at WWOZ are a mix of top-level musical/cultural trivia and accidental profundity.
Davis’ last on-air monologue, in the episode finale, captures the experience I had late last night and early this morning listening to Songs of Surrender, to which I had, in fact, surrendered, if not unconditionally.
“Hey, do you know how sometimes you hear a song that you’ve heard a million times before and maybe you’re even tired of hearing it, but this time, maybe because of something you’ve been through or maybe because of something you now understand, you hear that song again — maybe it’s a new version, maybe not — but you realize that there’s a fresh world in there to be heard? Yeah, me too.”
— DJ Davis’ final soliloquy in the Tremé series finale, 2013
The first song on Songs of Surrender is “One,” a song that was, to my mind, pitch perfect in every way, I wasn’t interested in hearing a new take, hot or otherwise. Instead, I listened to the rest of the album first, before coming back to Track One, where I ended up hearing something I’d never heard before. Something fresh and heartbreaking.
I don’t know what’s going on, if anything, between the four members of the band. Perhaps all is hunky dory and fans are catastrophizing. Or maybe the band are navigating a rough patch. The enduring community Bono, Adam, Larry, and Edge have created, stewarded, and sustained for nearly half a century is perhaps just as remarkable as their body of music and influence on countless fans who have been inspired by the band’s words and example to try to make the world a more equitable, safe, and healthy place — particularly for the most vulnerable among us. When the band community is under stress, fans can feel it, or at least imagine that they do.
But we’re looking in and we don’t know. What we do know is the music and what it tells us, which, because music is art, is something different for everyone.
Here’s what I know: I am blessed to have a handful of close friendships that are turning 35 years old this year, precious Anam Cara relationships without which I cannot imagine my life as it is. Our journeys together have not always been easy or seamless. There have been slights and hurt feelings, misunderstandings and fights, fractures and even estrangements.
A dozen years or so ago, I believed one of those friendships was forever lost. Irredeemable. There was too much pain all around to salvage anything good. We walked away for a few years. But, eventually, lines of communication reopened, apologies were offered, amends attempted, and trust, slowly, started to grow in the fertile ground of a love that had never gone away, even if we left the fields fallow for more than a few seasons.
That friendship blossomed during COVID, when we unexpectedly found ourselves in close proximity and began walking new paths together. Literally. We got to carry each other. Again. And while we’re now in different times zones and clinging to opposite coasts, what was lost no longer is.
“Everything we needed, all the people we needed,” Bono tells Letterman toward the end of the film, “they have always been right there.”
Later, while listening to SOS after the credits rolled, I heard Bono sing a lyric I’ve heard him sing thousands of times, in the wee hours of this St. Patrick’s Day. It was if I were hearing it for the first time.
Is it getting better? Or do you feel the same? Will it make you easier on you now You've got someone to blame? You say One love One life But it’s one need in the night One love We get to share it Leaves you, baby If you don’t care for it Did I disappoint you? Or leave a bad taste in your mouth You act like you never had love and you want me to go without. Well it's too late Tonight To drag out the past into the light We’re one But we’re not the same We get to carry each other Carry each other... I can’t be holding on To what you’ve got When all you got is hurt One love One blood One life You gotta do what you should One life With each other Sisters and Brothers
I heard pain. And I heard love. (I also thought I heard Brian Eno and Danny Lanois on backing vocals but I was, apparently, wrong about that, although you can find them elsewhere on SOS doing just that.)
I heard a different kind of introspection than in earlier articulations, one that’s seen a lot, survived a lot, and learned a few more things over the last 30 years.
I heard nuance and regret, humility and tenderness.
I heard compassion, for everyone involved and for himself.
And I heard the sort of true vulnerability that is a profound strength.
Did I disappoint you?
I know I did. And I’m sorry.
There are several songs on SOS that have new lyrics, changed to make more sense to the artists singing them today, or to complete a thought left unfinished or a sentiment unsaid 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Some of the revisions work better than others.
One that brought tears to my eyes is “If God Will Send His Angels” from the 1997 album Pop — one that, like Achtung Baby before it, twentysomething me was slow to warm to, but eventually came to love.
This time around, with just a piano and the singer’s unadulterated 62-year-old voice, the song soars.
Where is the hope and Where is the faith and the love?... If God will send his angels And if God will send a sign Well if God wills send his angels Could they hurry here tonight Where do we go? Where do we go? ... Hey, if God will send his angels Then just get them here somehow But if God can't send his angels Could he come himself right now?
I miss live music, especially the gatherings that happen when U2 fans assemble. They are a special breed of fan. They take care of each other. They are loyal. They are rabid. And I am one of them.
I’m sure I’ll make my way to Las Vegas (even though I hate it) whenever the Sphere thing lifts off, and when it does, I will miss Larry’s irreplaceable presence in the room and I’ll feel more than a little heartbroken about it.
Whatever is next for the four lads from Dublin’s Northside is largely unknown to us and perhaps even to them. The best-laid plans and God’s laughter and all of that. I trust they will find their way back to each other and a place where they can dream it all up again. For themselves. For the rest of us.
In the meantime, I’ll keep humming the refrain from their reimagined “Invisible” on SOS:
There is no them There's only us There's only us There is no them There is no them There's only you and me Me and you
Well, that’s me off, now, to drop my application for an Irish passport at the FedEx office. It’s one more small step of many into whatever the future holds for me and our family, real and chosen.
So, let each of us live, as bravely and kindly as we can, holding as much space as we can and extending as much grace as we can summon for each other.
While you’re at it, please don’t forget, soul friends, that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me and a blessing for the day from the late, great Irish philosopher-poet, John O’Donohue:
BEANNACHT/BLESSING By John O'Donohue On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble, may the clay dance to balance you. And when your eyes freeze behind the grey window and the ghost of loss gets into you, may a flock of colours, indigo, red, green and azure blue, come to awaken in you a meadow of delight. When the canvas frays in the currach of thought and a stain of ocean blackens beneath you, may there come across the waters a path of yellow moonlight to bring you safely home. May the nourishment of the earth be yours, may the clarity of light be yours, may the fluency of the ocean be yours, may the protection of the ancestors be yours. And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you, an invisible cloak to mind your life.
Very good article, might want to reproof, as it's missing a couple of words... criticism? No, you've almost got it dialed in and might as well.
U2 is indeed more than just a band. They are a cultural gift, filled with music and poetic lyrics.
It's a pleasure to see so many admirers of u2 in 1-spot.
What a lovely piece. I first fell in love with U2 listening to all that you can’t leave behind as a teenager. I couldn’t afford the albums so whilst I saved up pocket money to buy the back catalogue I borrowed “into the heart” by Niall stokes from the library and imagined what the songs sounded like. Each new album was an absolute revelation.
They’ve always been there for us really, in my case an antidote to the idea that life is rubbish and you shouldn’t bother trying, and it’s easiest just to retreat into our silos. That line from invisible - “there’s only us” is to my mind their core mission statement. The accepting of your own and others hypocrisy and frailty and conviction to love, despite how challenging life can be, for me underscores one, bad, pride, streets, all of their greatest songs. There is a deep joy in their music and in taking joy in those relationships in your own life, however hard.
I honestly attribute U2 as an important motivation in my life - Bono writes very well and encapsulates my own unwieldy relationship with my faith and loved ones pretty much spot on. I’ve been lucky enough to be a BBC producer, a charity communicator and now a civil servant and have a great career, and I’ve recently become a father too, the greatest blessing of all, and that relishing of relationships and active taking of joy is something essential to all of it - and a good blast of “ultraviolet” gets me through the crap bits!
For me, after all that, you have to take the band at their word. Is SOS a new album? No. Is it art that they’ve revisited and added something different to, a more intimate version of their songs and message? For me, yes. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about U2 recently is this casting-off of chasing relevancy and doing what they want to do. I never liked them because they were popular but because of what they spoke to.
On the wider band, Larry needs to heal and we have seen him struggle in recent years and he can’t keep going forever. At some sad point in the future, the band will for some reason stop. At that point we have to ask ourselves - can we really mourn after decades of such a gift, or do we take what we can from them to gild what we can in our own lives; can we change both the world and the world in us?
Kath - it’s a beautiful piece and huge congratulations on your citizenship. With appreciation from across the pond.