This morning, I received a tweet from a Twitter acquaintance who overheard a conversation on a train in Dublin about my interview with Irish news talk DJ, Tom Dunne, concerning my book about U2. Since the interview was a month ago, I’m amazed that there still is a buzz floating around about the event. To me, Tom’s interview seems like it took place a lifetime ago. Since then, I have packed up my life and moved houses, refinished an antique table, helped my wife choose new lighting for our new space and lastly, getting caught up on life that was left in limbo months ago.
On the morning of my interview with Tom, I had to rise at 4:30 a.m. in order to make the 5:30 a.m. time slot. I was being interviewed over the phone from our house, therefore I could be in my pajamas but I had to be awake. More importantly, I wanted to listen to Tom’s show just to get his vibe, because when it came to my turn to be interviewed, I wanted to tie into the previous conversation. I opened jokingly tying into some Irish boy bands performance in front of some new water feature. I said that Lake Michigan is Chicago’s water feature. It broke the ice for us as we moved into a conversation about how I became a fan of U2. The toughest part of being interviewed live is that you don’t know what questions will be coming at you. I did spend a few days before prepping by reading the book’s press release and then reviewing the highlights, which I knew I had to cover. The most important thing was to be patient and not jump the gun with Tom. Pause and make the interview feel like a natural conversation. This is so not like me, as I can be, not only impatient, but also long-winded. I knew I couldn’t get off track from the questions. I needed to make myself come across, not only coherent, but as a seller of my story.
Tom made me feel comfortable and his professionalism was grand. Everyone I had talked to before the interview told me he was straight up and gracious with his guests. I returned the favor when he asked me about the Paradise Club in Chicago, which doesn’t exist. I didn’t correct him, but marched on with an answer that would satisfy his audience. As I said, I had to think quickly on my feet as it was 5:30 in the morning in Chicago and I was dragging due to packing up our house and readying my wife and I for a life changing moment. And that is where I made my biggest blunder, not selling the book’s web site. You hear it all the time in interviews “Go to my web site where you can get more information at www.blahblahblah.com.” Those conversations bore me because they take fifteen seconds out of the conversation to send me somewhere. More importantly, I would lose focus for the rest of the interview, as I would probably be looking for a pen trying to write down the URL where I could get more information. I didn’t want this to happen to Tom’s listeners. I wanted to make myself believable and inviting.
After listening to the interview, and revisiting the tweet from this morning, I feel as though I did just that, left an indelible mark on someone on a Dublin train in the past few days. Discussing one’s life with a stranger on the radio is tough, but making it inviting is even tougher as you have to peel off your skin and reveal what’s inside. Think of it as an invitation to one’s inner soul. I did just that with humility, but it was a hard road to get to in life. I guess the stars were aligned just so for this to happen. I am sure someone’s looking out for me, wanting me to succeed. Maybe it’s my Mom, who is once again pushing me out to be free as she is about to leave us in the not too distant future. I am not sure, but in any case, none of what has happened with the book has gone to my head, even when a stranger tells you the conversation is about the interview is ongoing.
Click here to take a listen to the interview.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary release of Achtung Baby, here is an excerpt from my memoir about the day I bought the album.
With a mouth full of Novocaine, I walked into Rose Records on Achtung Baby’s release day, close to mid-afternoon. One side of Jamie’s store was plastered in photos of U2 while the other was covered with a displaced Garth Brooks promo poster from an earlier fall release. The wall of U2 graphics was mind blowing. Square images, of highly stylized photographs, covered the space in a mosaic pattern, mimicking the new U2 album cover. The subject of each square, measuring roughly 15 inches by 15 inches, was like a small vignette. One had all four U2 members dressed in drag while another had a profile shot of Bono in black and white with a half-nude woman, standing behind him. I was overwhelmed in the transformation, as the creative team behind brand U2 had left behind their 80s ideals of decorating album covers, except for the October album, with a stark black and white image.
I cannot believe it’s been twenty years since I sauntered into Rose Records to purchase Achtung Baby from my pal, Phyllis Jones. It seems as though a lifetime has passed by since that fateful day in 1991, but in others it hasn’t. I can still remember the weather. The overcast sky hung low. There was dampness in the air. All the trees had given up their leaves in preparation for winter. As for me, life was good albeit I was still working retail and I had issues with my career. Luckily, nothing disastrous in my life had happened. It would be a year and a half before my stepfather would pass away and Mom was quite a ways away from being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So, I can say I was in a good spot. More importantly, hope was in the air as a new U2 release was tucked under my arm as I left the record store.
By 1991, I had been a U2 fan for close to a decade, but I was leery about where the band was going. I think we all were. We didn’t know if the band of the 80s would put up the white flag of surrender and call it a day, much like their discussion, which is circumventing in the press as we speak. I was afraid of what would happen if there was no U2, but I had faith in the powers that be as the music world was changing as well. In just a few short weeks of U2’s most ambitious release to date, Hair Metal would be long gone and replaced by crafty lyrics of personal demonism in Nirvana’s Nevermind album, which already blanketed the radio waves. U2 was waiting in the wings with their new metamorphosis. It was given a name, Achtung Baby .
The play of that harsh German word, Achtung, that we grandchildren of WWII knew well against the solemnest of things, a baby, was hard to wrap your head around. It was grabbing. It was provoking. We all wanted to tear into it. However, we did it with skepticism. U2’s first release from the album, The Fly, scared the shit out of older fans. They ran away, like a disappointed children not getting what they wanted, saying that this was the death of their beloved Sunday Bloody Sunday band. In spite of this, I got in the ring and took that Rose Records’ bag home, which sheathed my newly minted disc.
I threw my coat on my director’s chair and shoved the disc into my CD player. I turned off all the lights and sunk into my futon. The stereo was arm’s length away from me, just in case I heard a tune and wanted to go back or hit fast forward to get to the end of the song. I can say in all honesty that I wasn’t converted the first time around, but I was close. I actually knew what to expect because I had heard their cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day, from the Red Hot +Blue album. Therefore, I wasn’t completely overwhelmed. Well, slightly.
The Rose Records’ store in downtown Evanston, where I bought this classic disc, is long gone, but the memory of walking into that store that day still remains with me. Achtung Baby was a turning point for U2, but as I’ve pondered what is being released in the deluxe set these past few months, I’m a little underwhelmed. I was hoping for more content from those stolen studio tapes from Hansa. Maybe there wasn’t enough there.
Or as my pal close to Midnight Oil told me a few months back, “some of the stuff should have stayed on the cutting room floor and should never see the light of day.” I agree to some extent. However, Achtung Baby and it’s accompanying tour, ZOO TV, revolutionized music and live performance. It’s sad that we fans couldn’t get one more nugget out of the band. If it were up to me, I would have added two more discs, which would include the whole concert from their live radio simulcast of their Royal Dublin Stadium show in 1993, but it’s not. I may have to wait another 30 years for the 50th anniversary box set, hoping there will be new material. I expect to still have my hearing at age 73.
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.
In this celebratory year of U2’s 20th anniversary release of Achtung Baby, I wanted to focus a couple blogs on songs that sit under the waterline on the record. The first of which is the song So Cruel. As most U2 fans know, this song is about Edge’s divorce. It’s probably the most gut-wrenching lyric ever written in any U2 song. The funny thing is that Bono, who has the most long-standing relationship with his own wife, probably wrote it. However, he gets it right when it comes to love falling apart.
Pretty much anyone can identify with this song. We have all been in relationships that have fallen apart or have come to a close, whether we wanted the finality or the other person wanted to call it quits. So Cruel gets it right. It speaks to the human frailty of relationships. Once one gets into a lovers bond, you give of yourself. You sort of melt into the other person whether you want to or not. It’s that self-extraction, when the relationship ends, that makes it very difficult and painful to move on.
What I like about So Cruel is its simplicity. The song rests in the middle of an album filled with texture, loops and newfangled sounds. The opening piano lulls you in to Larry’s drum tapping. Bono begins, almost in a spoken word style, about the recognition by the protagonist that something has gone wrong in a relationship. It is an amazing set-up as we move into the second stanza where Bono begins to lull us into the story. Much like the Siren’s song, we want hear more. Sirens usually sing songs of beauty yet this is not beautiful song, however Bono makes it that way with his new found falsetto. When he mentions wearing “love like a see through dress,” we can identify with the pain because love is suppose to be thick and in this situation, it’s painted thin.
As the song closes out in the third stanza, the orchestra crescendos there’s no turning back. The relationship that was splitting at the seams at the beginning of the song has now come to an end. Bono speaks that “in love there are no rules.” He verbalizes the harshness of love and not the beauty of it. Bono brings us to the finality of this relationship by ending the song with “Sweetheart, your so cruel.” The shattered glass of a relationship can never be put back together. It’s time to move on. So ironic, on this unrelenting emotional roller coaster of an album, that the next song on the record is “The Fly,” which has it interpretations in some corners as a “Bar Fly.”
The industrial dance influence that came with Achtung Baby was really no surprise to me. I saw it coming when U2 released the track Night and Day on the Cole Porter tribute Red Hot + Blue. Many stars previous to U2 had covered the song, a certified classic. In fact, it’s the anchor tune in the Great American Song book. However, U2 takes Night and Day to another level by bringing in an industrial backing track, a drum machine, Edge’s guitar and a conga. What true blue U2 fans were seeing in the fall of 1991 was the makings of what is to come in U2’s next studio project Achtung Baby.
The Night and Day recording is really is a one-off and it’s the bridge song from The Joshua Tree / Rattle and Hum era to the new beginning of U2. What those four minutes or so of recorded was taking a risk and running with it. Bono begins to give the song its darkness by almost speaking the opening phrase. As the chorus rolls along in its brilliance, he keeps the darkness as he wails for the late night lover who lives in the narrative. What Bono is really working towards is the falsetto, which will become his bread and butter vocal for upcoming tracks on Achtung Baby.
The video, on the other hand, displays the band as actors, at the very beginning, as they hold their instruments while letting their lead singer take over. Each band member seems to be pondering not only the lyrics but also the existence of the band. We see the signs now that this was the turning point of this great group. What we were unaware of was what was really around the corner as U2 progressed into digging deeper into a darker side of themselves as Achtung Baby was coming to life in the studio which was a push for them to move into uncharted waters of alternative rock, industrial and dance music.
In hindsight, Night and Day is a gem of a track and it’s ageless. The band, without pressure of a full-length record to produce, sits in and works out a new sound without hesitation. U2 followed their edict of going home to dream it all up again as they said they would. For the next seven years, U2 completely changed their sound. There were bumps along the way but in my mind, this recording session was the seed of their expansion and escape from the overexposure they had in the late 80s from their success with The Joshua Tree.