Aug 102011


I may have mentioned this once before, but my mom first hit the nail on the head regarding Bono and U2 a few years ago, when the band played the halftime show at the Super Bowl. She called me the day after.

“Jimmy,” as she still calls me, “what do you know about this band U2? Do you like them?”

“They’re OK,” I said. “I like a few of their songs. They’ve been around since I was in high school.”

“Mmm,” she said, noting correctly that she didn’t recall me ever talking about them when I was living at home. “That little singer,” she continued, in this most unexpected telephone chat, “really makes that band. There’s not much to their music, but he works overtime!”

My first thought was, “Jeez, as if enough girls haven’t dug Bono, now my mom’s under his spell too!” As she continued extolling the virtues of “that little singer,” however, the years of hating Bono in his mullet, then ponytail and salt-of-the-earth hat and vests without shirts and those godawful late-’80s efforts to weave his way into the fabric of every strain of American roots music under the sun started to wash away.

After I got off the phone with Bono’s Newest Admirer, I remembered how much I liked the good bits of the band’s first two albums, before the grandstanding of War and the rhythm section’s clear musical limitations began to drive me away; before those serious videos involving ponytails, bare shoulders, and salt-of-the-earth hats put me way over the edge. I pulled out my copy of Achtung Baby, the band’s first attempt at winning back my muted admiration, which I came around to liking during the year my wife and I lived in Hungary. That album gave off a cooler, more UK ’60s vibe that put the band’s sepia-toned Americana wannabe vibe in the rearview mirror—but not out of sight. I still spent more time than any adult should spend cutting up on Bono and his mates. I still found myself watching bits of Rattle and Hum, whenever I came across the movie while flipping channels, just to sharpen my blade. Just thinking of that period of U2 again almost makes me want to take back what I’m about to say.

Bono, I apologize for giving you so much shit for so many years.

One day while driving last month, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” came on the radio, and it moved me. It really did. It moved me the way it probably moved millions of people around the world when it rocketed you guys to Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame status. I may have been 24 years late, but the song and—face it—your performance gave me goosebumps. For once I was able to put aside sepia-toned images of you and The Edge in those severe hats—or much worse: you shuckin’ and jivin’ with some African American robed choir in an effort to highlight the song’s spiritual content. For the first time ever I realized that’s a truly spiritual song, and like my mom noted in your Super Bowl performance, you worked your ass off to sell it!

I’m not a big Jesus guy, Bono. God, as I conceive of the concept, sure. I do believe there’s some cosmic, spiritual thread weaving through this often meaningless and seemingly dammed world. However, my family’s “big holiday” brand of Catholicism wasn’t that strong an influence on me during my 12 years spent at a hippified Friends school. To make matters worse, our parish’s reaction to my mom and her divorce, which coincided with my final years of punching the clock on Catholic ceremonies (eg, First Holy Communion), completely turned me off to the religion. No offense to you, Bono, or anyone reading this open letter who’s a practicing Catholic, but I can’t get past some of the stuff priests told her during her great time of need.

The Catholic thing was yet another turnoff regarding you guys, and the whole Bible thing continues to mystify me. Truth be told I never spent much time on my Bible studies and Biblical references go way over my head. However, you really work yourself into a lather during this verse in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”:

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I’m still running

I don’t believe in or spend any time thinking about Kingdom Come, but boy do you sell that verse and the cosmic imagery! My mom was right. The whole band seems to get fired up whenever you shift into that higher gear, even Larry and Adam, aka The Luckiest Musicians on Earth, Even Luckier Than Ringo. I’m a big proponent of what we refer to around here in the Halls of Rock as Winner Rock. The term puts some Townspeople off, but there’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to the desire to communicate. Sometimes it leads us down regrettable paths, such as the bare-chested vest Look, but the thrill of victory is a feeling worth chasing. You, my man, are a a fierce proponent of Winner Rock’s virtues. May your search never end!


  25 Responses to “An Open Letter to Bono”

  1. alexmagic

    I will continue to put forth – fully admitting that there is neither data nor research to back it up, and that I haven’t even gone back to listen to any songs to even mildly put it to the test – that Adam Clayton is the secret MVP of U2 until someone here steps up and does the work to prove me right or wrong.

    As for Bono, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to like the guy, but I’ve recently come around to accepting, and possibly even apppreciating, the way that he’s readily taken the mantle of World’s #1 Rock Star for the past 25+ years (I’d say he took the baton from Diamond Dave), and embraces and relishes all the annoying, outsized asshole tendencies that come with the gig. I think Springsteen is the only other guy even playing the same game as Bono, and I give them both (grudging, maybe) credit for being exceptionally good at what they do musically and also going out there and hitting the road as viable touring draws, giving the people what they want.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Bono talks himself into thinking he’s The Last Surviving Rockstar, and maybe looks in the mirror and says things to himself like “C’mon, Bono, if you stop, the rock stops forever!” to psyche himself up before going out to buy giant sunglasses by the gross and drawing up huge, ridiculously expensive setpieces for tours and finding new ways to hold his arms just so to look slightly more crucified while posing during one of Edge’s ringing guitar setpieces.

    Somebody needs to be the guy doing this, and it just happens that the guy most qualified is the one in office at the moment. So yeah, I’ve talked myself into it: good for you, Bono!

  2. tonyola

    Though I’m not a huge fan of U2, I’ve generally enjoyed them. I have to give the guys credit for taking risks. After achieving total global domination with The Joshua Tree, they could have coasted along in the same style while bathing in the adulation of millions. Instead, they defied expectations and risked their popularity with Achtung Baby and Zooropa.

  3. Interesting. A couple things:

    I’m not really a big fan of U2’s music. I like some of it well enough but I don’t own any U2 or know any deep cuts by them. But I have always admired them for their willingness to completely overhaul their sound. A lot of bands struggle to come up with a unique sound; U2 has come up with at least three (exemplified by I Will Follow, Pride In The Name Of Love, and Lemon). Sure their have been some repeats, and there have definitely been some misfires, but they could have easily continued to churn out Joshua Tree sounding stuff and the public would have snapped it up. They’re musically curious and restless and I think that’s cool.

    I get what you’re saying about the Jesus thing. I’m a Cafeteria Catholic. If you recall, this is a supposedly derogatory term that the Right made up to describe people who pick and choose the parts of Catholicism that they want to abide by. (I personally think all Catholics are Cafeteria Catholics to some degree but at least I’m up front about it, but I digress). Being divorced but not annulled, and then remarried is the latest in the series of disagreements that me and the pope have had. I think my somewhat adversarial relationship with the Catholic Church, combined with the increasingly strident voice of the religious right, has made me particularly suspicious of lyrics with religious references in them (Old timey stuff gets a pass because in my mind 1) it’s a historical document of sorts, and 2) I love the tension of someone like George Jones living his life as he did and singing “Oh Jesus, please take the Devil out of me.”). That said, I don’t find U2’s lyrics all that bothersome. From what I can tell (and feel free to show me that I’m wrong), the lyrics may come from a Catholic perspective but they really present morally positive messages. Whether or not they work as lyrics is another story.

    I can’t think of many rock-era songs with religious themes that don’t bug me but there are a few:
    Jesus by the Velvet Underground
    Jesus Christ by Big Star
    Presence of the Lord by Blind Faith
    Many Rivers To Cross by Jimmy Cliff
    Several by Tom Waits – Come On Up To the House, Jesus is Going to Be Here, Down In The Hole, etc

  4. Looks like while I was going on and on, you summed it up in a few succinct sentences. Nicely done.

  5. ladymisskirroyale

    Bono and U2 came along in my life during that impressionable adolescent girl period and he became a major crush and ultimately one of my significant templates for good-looking/sexy. So I admit that I give him considerable more slack that most others and that at least part of my tendency to cut the guy some slack (Those glasses! That bombastic voice! Those fashion choices!) is purely hormonal.

    That said, I admire that the guy, who was raised in Ireland by a Catholic father and Anglican mother and attended a school that appears to not have been dogmatic in it’s religion, can write songs and sing about God/spirituality that don’t seem to proselytize and instead admit to questions of faith and love. I’m also not a “God person” but his mentionings of doubt seem to strengthen his songs.

    And although he makes a helluva lot of dosh and can be tiresome in his causes, he appears to use his power and influence for “good” – he could have been more like Trump and thank goodness he’s not.

  6. Alexmagic says: “finding new ways to hold his arms just so to look slightly more crucified ”

    I say: Genius!

    Also, Adam is my favorite U2 guy as well and I think it’s because he doesn’t seem to take himself as serious as the others (although I though Bono and the Edge seemed pretty down to earth on Spectacle considering they’re some of the biggest stars in the world).

  7. ladymisskirroyale

    My favorite questioning religious musician is Jim White. His songs can be very powerful. But here is a somewhat sillier one:

  8. tonyola

    King’s X was Christian-oriented though they rarely wore their religion on their sleeves. They put out a few interesting albums in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

  9. cliff sovinsanity

    Very good piece Mr Mod. U2 came into my life in 1983 around the release of War. Immediately I could tell something big was afoot. Unlike his new wave contemporaries there was a certain sincerity and honesty in Bono’s voice that was not unlike Springsteen. As you mention this is a lot to do with his Catholic upbringing, but I believe growing up in Ireland had an enormous effect on Bono’s integrity.
    Imagine the circumstances and environment of growing up in a land where society was divided by peace and terrorism. While Dublin was not Belfast, he must have been torn between the politics of patriotism and the perceived persecution of the Irish people(north and south). He must have wanted an escape. An escape he found in music.
    Winners like Springsteen, Bono, Patti Smith, Bob Marley, and John Lennon don’t come very spoiled or privileged backgrounds. It’s these hardships that make them winners.

  10. misterioso

    At the end of the day–heck, at the beginning and pretty much throughout the day–I love U2 and I forgive them their occasional trespasses. (Though not that last record. I don’t forgive that. It blows.) They might have been the first band that I got hooked on before they got big that then got really, really big. I go through stretches where I don’t listen to them much, but they still mean a lot to me and they’ve given me a lot. I still think Joshua Tree is a wonderful record and I am sure that someday the “beaten to death” effect will wear off.

  11. machinery

    I would argue that Bono picked up the mantle from Sting, who for a while there was the biggest dude in the biggest band in the land. But because he could play an instrument, Sting got a little more cred in my book.

    I always found the preaching part of Bono and the overly political stuff a turn off. But what do I know, I never grew up near war-torn Belfast or wherever those streets are that have no names or are just dead ends.

    I think they got better with age. I liked their electronic-y stuff. when it came on the radio, that is. And I dug that caught in a moment song (?)

    Nice piece Mr. Mod.

  12. BigSteve

    I still like U2, and I’m happy to have lived long enough to see the healing begin. Mod’s piece reminds me a little bit of Ezra Pound’s poem ‘A Pact.’

    I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman –
    I have detested you long enough.
    I come to you as a grown child
    Who has had a pig-headed father;
    I am old enough now to make friends.
    It was you that broke the new wood,
    Now is a time for carving.
    We have one sap and one root –
    Let there be commerce between us.

  13. I also liked this piece, Mod. I am actually kinda excited about the upcoming Achtung Baby reissues. I’m as surprised to learn this as anyone. Never a huge U2 fan, but i did love their “weird” period that kicked off with this album. Probably had a hand in moving my tastes away slowly away from classic rock radio stuff.

  14. the MTV 30 show last week had U2’s set from Live Aid and they owned the show (ok, tie with Queen, but Queen was already huge globally). For a band that was still just Ok on their instruments, they owned the stage, played to the camera, connected to their global audience and acted like the biggest band in the world, which they were not by any means. I remember not caring at all in 1985 and not really liking them very much at the time. I did really like Rattle and Hum , which I saw in the theatre, going in as a passive fan who wanted to see a movie about a band and leaving as a “U2 fan” (TM). Achtung Baby is my favorite by them and may be my favorite Cd of the 1990s. Zoorropa is 75% as good as Achtung. I did not like POP and though the POP tour was a huge letdown after the amazine ZOO TV tour (with Public Enemy and B.A.D. as openers) The shrooms might have helped too, but I think it was a pretty mind blowing show anyway. “All that you can’t leave behind” is my second favorite CD from U2. There is not a bad song on it and the 1st 7 are perfection. They also reclaimed themselves as the biggest band in the world. For some reason, even though the last few records have been uneven at best, I give them a pass for keeping the faith. I for some reason give them a pass for the Spiderman Broadway show (although I would not go to this show if it was free),

  15. Yeah, I watched that old Live Aid clip and, holy shit, you really can just see the exact moment when Bono turns into a huge rock star. Real Winner Rock.

  16. Most Citizens seem willing to forgive the band’s excesses and peripheral trappings and defend that the good music trumps the overwrought image.

    I’m on the complete opposite side. I am a giant fan of Bono; the Man and the Star. What he does with his time and energy in the name of fighting global hunger is deserving of whatever the Irish equivalent of the M.B.E. is. (someone pince nez’d us on that before). He’s gone as far as befriending fascist Rick Santorum (don’t google at work) towards that goal. He’s completely sincere and deserves praise for what appears to be real dedication to that cause. Go, Saint Bono, go!

    I love the band’s fashion approach and elaborate stage productions. Totally support how they defend the “Greatest Band Alive” sash. There was a 60 Minutes interview where Bono very amusingly took that stance. He wants the band recognized as the GREATest and called on all competitors to try and wrest it away. Very much like an athlete. I like that.

    I hate their music. Can’t stand Bono’s bad opera-like singing approach. I find the lyrics trite, obvious, and childish. Fortune cookie depth to them.

    Hate The Edge’s boring repetivie guitar style. No solos!! Yawn. Turn off the computer already.

    Adam does nothing at all on the bass, ever. He’s the bass equivalent of a drum machine.

    I love the band’s image, passionately hate what they sound like.

    I wish Bono would just run (or stand?) for Prime Minister of Ireland already. I would support that.

  17. Brilliant, chickenfrank! There’s no doubt you wrote these words.

  18. mockcarr

    Bravo. I can see Bono, a la DiMaggio, forcing people to introduce him as “The Leader Of The Greatest Rock Band Alive”

  19. alexmagic

    But would you support Bono for the office of President of Rock?

    I do wonder if there’s anybody out there right now who might be trying to talk himself/herself into trying to challenge Bono and U2 for that crown.

    Again, this has little to do with the music itself (U2, for all their many musical faults, are still miles better), but I could maybe see Chris Martin from Coldplay watching game tape of Bono on 60 Minutes, then putting on his band’s dumb Sgt. Pepper knockoff uniforms so he can stare at himself in the mirror and try to psych himself up for a war on Bono by reciting the Patton speech. But he doesn’t have nearly the collection of tinted shades nor Rock Savior poses to truly gun for Bono.

  20. How about that tall guy with the really bad haircut in that critically acclaimed Canadian band with 17 members playing folk instruments yet somehow sounding like a 4-piece version of The Cure crossed with U2? Arcade Fire – that’s their name. I look to that guy – Win something or other? – to run in 2016.

  21. This really deserves it’s own post. And you should come up with the whole ticket, too.

  22. alexmagic

    I don’t think Win Butler’s put in nearly the work yet to take on Bono. Butler seems to be using the Jack White playbook of going low-key and ingratiating himself with the comedy scene, but he doesn’t have nearly enough swagger to lead Arcade Fire into a fight with the full U2 arsenal. If anything, I’d say he’s gunning for Thom Yorke and Radiohead for the title of “Band That Gets The Most Ink Devoted To A New Release” crown.

    On the President of Music front, I think Dave Grohl would have the best chance to run against Bono as a populist candidate. He’s out there shaking hands and kissing babies on the road, and could have a strong anti-Bono platform of promising not to immediately declare himself President For Life upon winning.

    I don’t have the time now, but there are two points that have come up in this thread that I think deserve exploration: Did Sting ever make a play for Greatest Band Alive/Rock Messiah, and charting Bono’s rise to power, as I agree with jungleland and Oats above that Live Aid was a key phase in Bono’s Rock Jesus Timeline, maybe the second most important moment in his messianic rise.

  23. Yea Bono is a huge rock star and puts a huge target on his back. Somebody’s got to do it.

    I think that Edge is a quite serious sound scientist. And Clayton and Mullen don’t let Bono get too far onto his rock star trip on a lot of the studio music. And U2 had tremendous presence before LiveAid. Their War show at the Tower Theater was in the top 3 shows I’ve ever seen. They make me feel it in the back of my neck when they get it right (“A Sort of Homecoming”, “Stay (Faraway, So Close)”, “Walk On”) so I forgive a lot of transgressions.

  24. ladymisskirroyale

    “They make me feel it in the back of my neck when they get it right” is a perfect description. I had that once when I saw them perform 40 as part of the Joshua Tree tour. Although it was a stadium show, it felt like the entire audience was tuned in and together. It was very powerful, and people were silent when they filed out of the stadium.

  25. I think Sting was a one term President of R&R. The Police got a lot of credit for getting world music influences on the radio around Zenyatta Mondata. The album, tour, and videos were huge. Sting was also getting decent props for his couple of acting gigs around that time too. Every Breath You Take owned one summer. I was OK with his administration.

    I see Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day as the leftist candidate who siphons off votes from the more credible mainstream candidate. He’s the Ralph Nader in the race. Off course he runs on the Green ticket.

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