I always knew that if you wanted to become great at your craft, you had to know the masters, or were lucky enough to be a prodigy. I will say it straight out that I’m no prodigy, therefore, I had to learn my craft of being an art director from the ground up. That’s right, watching Saturday morning cereal commercials, in the mid-70s no less, impeded by cartoons such as Looney Tunes or Hong Kong Phooey. Luckily, my parents, my mom and stepfather, were academics, which lead me to travel and live in Europe as a young kid. Those experiences have stayed with me and helped me build a knowledge base of design. Added to the fact, my father’s an architect and has a voracious, creative appetite. It’s no wonder I turned out the way I did.
I had a pretty good idea, when I filled out my application to the University of Iowa, that I was going to complete my declared major of graphic design. When I got to college, I immersed myself into expanding my knowledge of who the greats were in design, painting and photography. I would emulate them. Well, actually copy them until I found my own style, which I kept pushing as my studies moved along. I found my path being no different than that of my father’s architectural desires or my mother’s love for being a wordsmith. In fact, writing is no different than designing. In order to self-express one’s self, one must read to find out how others before you created their sense of love lost, joyful disposition or contemplation of one’s woes. Bono’s a masterful lyricist who doesn’t carry a degree from an academic institution, but instead has used life’s experiences and the understanding others works in order to master his craft. I find it heartwarming that he comes from country brimming with literary talent– W.B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce.
The influence of prose on the lead singer can be seen in U2’s early recordings. The Ocean, on the Boy LP, has a direct reference to Oscar Wilde’s book, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The fear Bono emulates in the song is he doesn’t want to succumb to the narcissism that comes with being a rock star. The album Boy is about the trials and tribulations of teenage angst. Such a heavy, literary reference such as this seems out of proportion to a rock song, but then again, he’s bringing Oscar Wilde’s 19th century idea into pop culture. I’m not sure how many U2 fans would take this lyric and dig further into it. Do you think most casual U2 fans would go to the library and check out the book as I did? I’m not sure. As for myself, I felt I had to read the work in order to get the whole picture, excuse the pun and I did it later in life. I’m sure my stepfather would be thrilled that I read the work, but upset that it took an Irish band, and not an Irish lit scholar such as himself, to get me to read the great work.
Why am I blabbering about this creative inspiration? Well, I will cut to the chase. Since we’re about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby, I wanted to touch on some of the songs over the next couple weeks. The first is that very underrated song, Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite tune on the record. I still get it confused with the Rolling Stones song, Wild Horses. I think I’m musically dyslexic that way. However, like The Ocean on the Boy LP, Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses has a literary reference. Unlike the blatant Dorian Gray reference in The Ocean, Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses tucks a Hermann Hesse book reference under the covers of the song. The line, under the trees the river laughing at you and me, is in reference to Hesse’s book Siddartha where the river in the novel symbolizes a teacher. It’s that teacher that Bono is searching for in this citation. In my mind, the teacher could be a religious reference or that of his mother speaking to him from beyond. No matter how you read it, the brilliance here is Bono’s innate ability to reference the old and turn it anew again. Pushing that age-old story about a river into a new dress, which could be “vacant as a parking lot” or “left just out of reach” either way, it makes him a grand lyricist and one who truly is a pundit of life.
I am sitting at my desk with our dog curled up on his bed, lying next to me, as I write this brief blog today. I’m safe. No one is knocking on my door bothering me. I have no child in my house crying because of lack of food. All of my family are in pretty good health. Lastly, my wife and I have ample clean drinking water. The only thing keeping me up at night is my career or lack of it. For Bono, it’s different. He hears those cries of need in his head and has to extinguish them. As a young man, he decided to take on the world and make change. He’s non-stop in his beliefs of getting the world on a better track, even if it is at the cost of a few sleepless nights.
A couple Sundays ago was John Lennon’s birthday and I have always wondered what would have happened if John had lived to see Bono’s good deeds. John, in some ways, was a mentor to Bono. The “Give Peace A Chance” movement was one that Bono has clung to. Even though the real humanitarian in the Beatles was George, it was John who had the most profound impact, I think, on our Irish rocker. The difference between them is John was more of a pacifist in some ways where as Bono has been more in your face. I think it ‘s the difference of where they are from to be quite honest – Bono being Irish and John being English. There heritage is neither here nor there in this discussion what is up for discussion is how the nay sayers completely do not understand how Bono has made a dent in the world as they, those nay sayers, have done nothing but sit on their hands.
If Bono wasn’t in a rock band, would he be down at Wall Street? Hell yes! He would not only be marching with them but designing the flag and carrying it. I believe he would find a common theme about the disgrace of corporate greed and get everyone to rally. One would argue he is the part of the issue as he, and the band, have move all of their finances off the Emerald Isle, but I said he’s taking up Wall Street as a citizen. The question would be if he could be the loudest to garner the attention. I believe so and in his current status of rock star, he is doing just that with the One campaign.
As I look at the picture shot of him in the Paris office of the One campaign yesterday, I see that same man I saw singing his heart out on the Joshua Tree in 1987, only much tamer and mature. The pensive look in his face, as he looks out the window, tells me that he still has much more work to do, but is satisfied with what he has done so far. He’s taken the plight of the humankind; much like Atlas has carrying the world, without abandon. He’s tireless in making change and for that, there’s hope we will have a better world.
I found this photo on-line the other night and have been enamored with it ever since. I think it’s the look, that one split second, between these two great people, which makes the image. If we didn’t know who these two individuals were we would think it was older brother congratulating his youngest sibling, the rock star. We know that not to be the case. It’s an image of the previous leader of the free world and a rocker, who leads his flock of fans into believing they can change the world, greeting one another. Each has their own wishes, wants and desires to change the world. Not at whatever cost, but by empowering others.
I know for a fact the picture was taken before Bono and Edge hit the stage at the Hollywood Bowl last Saturday night. I’m sure it’s a “Go break a leg” statement from the Prez. However, from Bono’s reaction, it feels as though something else is being requested of the singer. Bono’s reply stare could be read as, “I know what you want me to play, Bill, but we’ve already made up our mind,” or, “Bill, no, you cannot sit in and play the sax.” Either way, it’s this imitate moment that I find so appealing, which is made even more emotional by Bill pulling Bono closer into him. It’s the love and respect for each other that allows us to know these two to be old friends.
I remember back in 1992, when U2 was on tour in America on the ZOO T.V. tour and they did an interview on Rockline. Somehow, Bono had Bill’s phone number and asked the host to dial up Democratic candidate. I was shocked when they got on the “Gollee” candidate from Arkansas. I had listen to the show countless times and never witness such a thing happen. In fact, it was the only time I listened to the show where it ran over its allotted time. There was a spark between the band and Bill much like the spark captured nineteen years later in this image. Who knew at that time, in 1992, that Bill would not only be president but would also build an amazing post-presidential organization and Bono would take on AIDS relief in Africa under the ONE Campaign. It’s amazing how the two of them have grasped onto the world’s issues and made historic change. I think Bono’s good deeds have hampered the creativity within the band, but that is my own opinion. However, Bono’s betterment for the world philosophy is one I can buy into, even if he is a little soapboxish at times. What I admire about him, and Bill, is that they know what they are talking about and people listen. You can see it in their eyes.
Music is my lifeblood. It’s a plain and simple fact. From Bowie to The Cure to Nirvana to U2 and well beyond, I listen to a very eclectic group of genres. However, I’m no longer a consumer of music like I was in my post-college years. I still “listen” to newer bands, but have not been very impressed with recent releases. The last time we had a major shift change in music was in 1991.
Call me old, but is was a vintage year. I believe it was the last great year of musical releases. R.E.M., The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and U2 all put out records that changed music and all of those works have stood the test of time. There haven’t been too many runs since then that have made such an impact. Yes, I may be naïve to the fact that other great albums have come out, indie or otherwise, and changed the world, but these were commercial releases. Releases that took risks, bore their soul and stood out of the crowd. Of the three, Out of Time by R.E.M. is the weakest. I would call it a filler album in R.E.M.’s catalog as they began to wander through their Warner Brothers contract. Not so with The Red Hot Chili Peppers whose work on Blood, Sex, Sugar, Magic stands tall amongst others in their catalog. It’s their brilliant masterpiece, which was aided by producer Rick Rubin. Another producer, Butch Vig, worked with a little known Seattle band, Nirvana, who would make as much of an impact on the musical world as the Sex Pistols did 14 years earlier, with their album Nevermind. Added to the mix was the debut release of Pearl Jam’s Ten, which aided in exploding the flannel wearing Seattle grunge scene into the musical landscape of America at the time. And then came Achtung Baby, U2’s long awaited release.
For this U2 fan, Achtung Baby was one of the most anticipated albums. We had no Internet back in 1991. One had to stay in touch with “someone in the know” in order to get release information. My insider worked for Rose Records here in Chicago. I can still remember the day I bashfully set foot into her store looking for answers to my questions about U2. I had not heard news of them for a while and feared that they may have split up. I would have been heart broken if that had happened. I walked into Rose Records on Sherman Avenue, in Evanston, on a late spring day in 1991. I asked the store clerk about U2. She asked me if I was a fan. I said yes and she proceeded to review her cluttered surroundings for a release list. Her search ended with success. She gave me the date and then introduced herself as Phyllis. She became my “someone in the know” as she settled the unease in my stomach. I was now filled with anticipation. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much of a metamorphosis would take place in Hansa Studio where the Irish quartet initially recorded the album.
On the day of the U2 release and with a mouth full of Novocain, I bought the newly minted U2 disc and headed home with wariness and excitement. I put the CD into my player with trepidation. I turned off all the lights in my apartment and let the gray, overcast sky outside my window blanket my room. What seeped out of my stereo moments later was something so different and transformative that I asked myself if this was still U2. I would come to learn that Bono and Edge were knee deep into the Manchester dance sound. Those influences can be heard on Even Better Than the Real Thing and Mysterious Ways. By the end of the first run through of the disc, including a couple song repeats, I wanted to hear it again. U2, like Nirvana and all of the other releases that year, were transforming music. The likes of which have not been seen since.
I was cruising the web tonight, visiting the usual sites that I do at 9 p.m., when I found out about Bono’s singing for Desmond Tutu on his 80th birthday. I decided to dig deeper into Tutu’s background by visiting an expansive dossier on Wikipedia. It’s no wonder that Bono gravitated towards him.
What most impresses me is how Mr. Tutu speaks of the good book (some of you call it the Bible). He says that it’s a collection of books filled with words of inspiration. I wonder what he thinks of those who use it as weapon against humanity, like the ones who hold it up in the air and speak of God’s disliking of homosexuality or that women shouldn’t be ordained. I feel Mr. Tutu sees a bigger world outside of the scripture and not stuck in some Biblical mindset of some 2,000 years ago. He’s focused on the realities of the world and how to heal them without beating us over the head with the rule book from the good word. Whether you are religious or not, Tutu’s philosophy of caring for others is paramount as he seeks to end AIDS in Africa, a project close to Bono’s heart.
Sadly, we do not hear of Mr. Tutu’s good deeds on this side of the pond and that is why I have interest in diving into his memoir. When he was a young boy, he aspired to be a doctor, but went on to study theology. He was always at near the front of friction in South Africa like abolishing Apartheid. What we do not hear of his triumphs outside of this major political shift. Did you know he was the first black man to be appointed Anglican Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1972? I didn’t. At what is more fascinating is how South Africa was further behind us in Civil Rights for its own people.
Mr. Tutu is a controversial figure, however he’s a leader from behind the pulpit and one who is aware of the ever changing world around him. Bono singing at his birthday gives us an opportunity to explore this Tutu’s great achievements and the changes in South Africa over the past four decades. An 80th birthday is worth celebrating, along with life’s achievements. It’s sad that the other change candidate in the world, the Dalia Lama, wasn’t allowed travel permission to South Africa. In closing, I feel we should all carry a little bit of this man with us as we travel amongst ourselves as change agents to the world.
I wasn’t a fan of the U2 Special Edition iPod. I felt as though it was another marketing ploy on both sides of the marriage between the band and Apple. U2 was in need of getting in touch with its younger, growing fan base, who barely knew what vinyl was let alone a cassette tape. However, hooking up with the hip device maker Apple and releasing a signature iPod was a no brainer. Apple, on the other hand, was looking to increase brand presence. When the already pop culture icon, the iPod, and an established rock band, U2, joined forces, both sides would be winners.
Steve Jobs wasn’t some kid who easily made his way to building Apple. Like all great inventors, his business started in a garage. As for U2, they started in a kitchen and could hardly play their instruments. Both Steve and U2 knew that they wanted to change the world by chasing a dream. Steve’s was to make a computer for the lay person. That computer, the Apple, changed lives. It became the computer which would become the staple for my field – graphic design. Steve was not afraid of marketing this machine either. Apple will be forever known as creating one of the most iconic Super Bowl ads ever, playing on the idea of George Orwell’s “1984.” Mr. Jobs took risks and changed the world. U2 was not that far behind.
U2 came upon the scene just about the time Apple was taking over the personal computer sector of the business in the early 80s. They too had to prove themselves to the grander world of music. It would take four albums, but the work created at the beginning has stood the test of time. Boy, War, October and The Joshua Tree are so independent of one another in terms of sound, yet they are intertwined in their evolution. Much like Apple’s growth, U2 had to change within themselves to become more successful. As for Steve Jobs, he had to leave his company and then come back with new ideas. U2 did the same thing as they left the 80s behind and welcomed the new decade with their albumAchtung Baby. The Irish quartet moved away from their safety net, yet embraced the change in music at that time. Steve Jobs followed later. He created what people wanted and that was a computer which could easily be used to cruise the ever burgeoning interest in the Internet.
In closing, it’s sad that people of such great talent leave us too soon. I’m sure fans of Apple are asking what’s next for the company. I would say to them not to hold their breath and worry about what is yet to come. Relish in how our lives have changed in the past thirty years thank to Mr. Jobs. Relish that this man will stand tall amongst other inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Think of Steve Jobs as one who made our lives more pleasurable and for that I say thank you as I write from my MacPro. Every time I fire it up and hear that famous tone of welcome, I will remember the man that reinvented the world.
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on…
At the beginning of every October, I play this track. I don’t know why, but I just do. The song is a haunting song, consisting of 26 words and two themes.
The first theme has to do with death. Obviously, it’s Bono’s reflection of a tree losing its leaves, which I think is a metaphor about losing his mother. The mother I feel he is speaking of is Mother Nature, stripping us bear of our emotional being as we take on winter. As I listen to the track, I envision a heavy, grey sky above me, almost suffocating. A lone tree, away from the forest on the horizon, stands naked before me. The image is not in color but in high contrast black and white. The starkness reminds me of those days trekking across the University of Iowa campus as fall slipped into winter. Harsh wind, howling through the through the streets flanked by buildings made of brick and limestone, wisps dry leaves from unsecured spot to another.
The second theme spoken here is one of kingdoms and very little has been said about this other that it may be a reference to the Russian revolution. It’s interesting how these two themes meet in this song, especially when the band was still in their religious phase as the album October was being worked on. Kingdoms could also loosely refer to the Kingdom of God or Jerusalem or Babylon or Rome for that matter. Yet, it is has been said that Bono was reflecting on the Bolshevik October uprising and how that intertwines with the emotions of losing a mother is the biggest mystery here.
I will say this, October, for this U2 fan, has been the biggest month of my life. I saw the Irish quartet in concert for the first time on October 20th, 1987. I was just a sophomore in college at the University of Iowa when Bono et al came to Iowa City to play on the Joshua Tree tour. Our campus wasn’t on the initial tour schedule. We got the show by default thanks to the University of Northern Iowa not allowing the band to set-up their outdoor stage. It was a stroke of luck that they came and played Carver Hawkeye Arena on that foggy night where trees were stripped bare of all they wore much like in the song. A year later, I relived my Joshua Tree tour experience when the band released Rattle & Hum on compact disc. It would be another three Octobers before their next release, Achtung Baby, and I waited them out – patiently and impatiently.