The piles of clothes, fast-food wrappers and lidless boxes left little room for me in the back seat of Sheldon’s two-door car. I did not know driving-age Sheldon, but he was a friend of Cory. I didn’t know Cory that well either, but he was my first connection at the new school and neighborhood to which I had moved in the summer and somehow that landed me in this slightly smelly situation. Sheldon asked for “Red Rocks” and Cory fingered through the jammed-full case of cassettes, pulling out a well-worn plastic shell of orange hue, and popping the tape into the car stereo.
“Do you like U2?” Sheldon asked me, his first direct address since the “Hey” of our introduction.
“Of course,” I replied, probably unconvincingly. I had heard of U2, but I didn’t know anything about them. I was about to learn.
The Joshua Tree came out the next year. In the time between, my album collection had added a few cassette tapes (purchased, not just my own bootleg recordings of the radio) and my exclusively contemporary Christian library (Amy Grant, David Meece, Michael W. Smith, Lisa Whelchel, Petra and the like) had been breached by Michael Jackson’s Bad.
I was fully taken with Joshua Tree, though I can’t claim that I understood all its subtleties. I got both the cassette and vinyl versions for maximum quality at home and use in my new Walkman when away. I remember my delight when it won the Grammies for best album and best group performance. I remember feeling justified in siding with long-time fans who resented all the new adherents. I remember the bands’ new penchant for dark clothing influencing my own already monochromatic trend.
It was the release of concert album and concert movie, Rattle and Hum, in 1988 that pushed me from fan to huge fan. I was suddenly into whatever U2 information and lore that one can acquire seven years before the world’s first web page. I got a fedora and a harmonica.
Part of my justification — to myself, my Christian youth leaders, and to my parents — for my fascination with this Irish band was that they were (with the exception of evil bass player, Adam) Christians. They were not worldly and corrupting like the pop-music videos banned in our household.
I could rattle off the evidence. The lyrics for their song “40” were adapted directly from Psalm 40. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is about heaven. “One man betrayed with a kiss” (Pride), “And if the mountains should crumble or disappear into the sea…” (The Unforgettable Fire, Psalm 46:2), “We eat and drink while tomorrow they die” (Sunday Bloody Sunday, 1 Cor 15:32), “I have spoken with the tongue of angels” (I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, 1 Cor 13:1), and on and on with examples of scriptural Easter eggs.
My parents were skeptical, but allowed the indulgence. Truth be told, I didn’t ever really buy in to my own argument. As a fundamentalist Christian, I always considered Bono’s brand of liberal, social-justice Christianity to be a false or lesser faith. My simplistic view on spiritual matters saw the bands’ nuance as the the kind of lukewarm faith that Revelation says will be spit out. U2 weren’t proclaiming their spiritual answers, as commanded. It was not mine to judge, but I kind of judged.
Despite that philosophical difference, I loved everything about their music –sticking with them through experimental phases of Zooropa, Pop and beyond. I went to their concerts whenever opportunity arose, more often creating the opportunities in cities like Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, San Jose, Las Vegas across decades and tours. Collecting obscure, rare and unreleased tracks and bootlegs (in a pre-file-sharing age) brought me joy as a deeper-than-average fan. Sometimes it was the message of the songs that spoke to me, sometimes just the rhythmic riffs and lilting vocals.
In the wake of my deconversion from Christianity to atheism, I find myself aligning more closely with the social worldview of lead singer Bono than I did when we shared a faith label. AIDS prevention, third-world debt relief, truth equality of the Abrahamic religions (“Jesus, Jew, Mohammed… it’s
true“), same-sex marriage and gay rights, and other “left” causes… things that turned me off in a former life.
“When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s— and everybody else’s. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that’s the question. And no one can talk you into it or out of it.”
When posed with C.S. Lewis’ “liar, lunatic or lord” trilemma, I tend to go with “(d) legend”, but that is a subject for another time. Orthodox or not, still haven’t found what he’s looking for or not, you know Bono believes it.
Like an immigrant living in a new land, I can be delighted to hear the tongue of my youth, no matter the sentiment expressed. With so much of my life invested in studying the Bible, I remain part of the inner circle who understand the pervasive scriptural in-jokes of U2’s lyrics — getting all the references, but not offended by any creative twists or heretic reworkings. It is connective tissue.
With the turmoil of the past few years of my life, the music of U2 remained part of the small unchanging core. A fixed point. Certainly, some songs have slipped from prayer to nostalgia. Others that were once merely poems are now profound reflections or surgical daggers. There are phrases in U2’s discography that grip me and tear me, and to identify examples would betray too much.
Assuming that U2’s next album will not once again be thrust unsuspectingly on my iPhone, I will continue to seek them out and hand them my money. Even if their repertoire sours in the future, U2 will always remain my answer to the “what is your favorite band?” security question.
In “All Along the Watchtower”, Bono lists his assets as “three chords and the truth”. He and I have never quite agreed on that last part, but in the first we find common ground where we can search for the middle.
This entry is in response to a reader request. If there is any topic you’d like to see me cover in the future, please let me know.