Above Us Only Sky: On Camus, U2, Lennon, Rock, and Rilke

Above Us Only Sky: On Camus, U2, Lennon, Rock, and Rilke

Tim Keane

Tim Keane on rock’n’roll awakenings and the lyrical existentialism of U2 (St Patrick’s Day Special, 2005)

And I felt ready to live it all again too; for the first time , in that night alive with stars and signs, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself - so like a brother, really - I felt that I was happy again.
-Albert Camus The Stranger

My father is a rich man
He wears a rich man’s cloak
Gave me the keys to his Kingdom (coming)
Gave me a cup of gold
He said “I have many mansions”
And there are many rooms to see
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key

-U2 ” The First Time

The Catholic liturgy, like the soaring monotony of Gregorian chants, is an anesthetic to the young body that absorbs its somnolent and effusive and florid reassurances about the Holy Ghost, The Blessed Sacraments, The Glory, The Lord, The Kingdom and Life Everlasting. Awareness of one’s physical existence is dissolved by the Church’s hypnotic music.

The Catholic Virgin may be the Holy Spirit’s muse, of course, but puberty gifted me with an irreligious impulse back toward my body. So from that moment in 1980 when I read its opening sentences, Albert Camus’ The Stranger was, to my thirteen year old eyes (and ears) a physical experience, like a rock anthem, of the a priori irrationality and meaninglessness of human existence. Born for no reason, bound to die for no reason, the rest was entirely up to me. There was no God, no heaven, no hell. Not only could I make it all up: from here on, I had to make it up.

So blown back was I by its irreligious threnodies and liberating hedonistic rhapsodies that I was oblivious about the novel’s allegory of French colonialism in Algeria and the subtle textual challenges of amorality, irony and absurdity. The novel’s white-knuckle anger and earth-bound, lyrical uplifts are sounds, truly, which I associated then (and still do) with the acid-bath solo of a Gibson SG Special: The Who’s 1969 blistering, angry performance of an existential rock “opera” at the peace-loving Utopia of Woodstock. For further viewing, check out the digitally restored performance by The Who at Woodstock, New York in 1969, in Jeff Stein’s The Kids Are Alright. The Who’s violent performance leaves the nearly speechless festival MC intoning, as the band exits the stage, “Ladies and gentleman… The Who”

Camus’ disbeliever, Meursault, facing the guillotine, gets in the face of a priest who has visited him in his cell to implore him to atone with God:

something inside of me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me. I grabbed him by the collar of his cassock. I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger, cries of joy. He seemed so certain about everything, didn’t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He wasn’t even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man (The Stranger 121).

At the tender age of thirteen I was challenged by Camus to look ahead to the cold finality of my inevitable death, that “dark wind that had been rising toward [me] from somewhere in the future, across years that were still to come” and give up Catholicism’s tender simplicities and middle-class snobbery and accept, as Meursault realizes (like some bastard offspring of Proust) that “everybody was privileged” (121) simply by existing, and that rather than depressing me interminably, unredeemed mortality could induce the same physical bliss which music works on my brain.

If I had that moral courage, like Meursault, to reject illusions about an after-life and face the music I too would wake up in a kind of ecstasy “with stars in [my] face. Sounds of the countryside drifting in. Smells of night, earth, and salt air…cooling my temples” (The Stranger 122).

It helped my teenage sensibility that Camus’ biography, which I borrowed from my neighborhood library in the Bronx, resembled that of a rock star’s.

I was transported reading about Camus’ work with the French Resistance and his international “smash hit” L’etranger earning him street cred and media fame while his follow-up “releases,” like L’homme revolte and Le Mythe de Sisphye, all of them humanistic texts that propose hope and existence for their own sakes, earned increasingly dismissive reviews from the hippest literati and post-modern intelligentsia of his age, including Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett.

And like an existential novel itself, the narrative ended with the photogenic media star-and-novelist-as-global-celebrity killed in a fatal car crash en route to Paris at the age of forty-six.

Music is existence made more.

The existential writers who followed in Albert Camus’ wake were all musicians of the word. That never-recovering Catholic Jean Genet. The jazz master of Spanish prose, Julio Cortazar. The visionary existential poet and Ghanaian novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah. And the American Beat Generation. And the existential impulses that underwrite the blues, R’n’B, rock, and rap. Which is all fitting. Because Camus’ writing is lyrical in that ancient Greek sense: melody, language turned to choral song.

Reading and re-reading Camus’ Lyrical Essays today, I hear an almost old fashioned engagement with being alive and a human being writing out of what Nietzsche calls that “bliss born of pain spoken from the heart of nature,” (Birth of Tragedy 27), and, like music, such writing is a stepping outside of the convention of time, toward what Camus calls an ethic of existing in an absurd universe only for “something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, music, dance, reason, the mind.” For music is a romance with finality, and by extension, an immersion in experiences which give meaning in and of themselves by a

[l]osing oneself in that bottomless certainty [of one’s death and] feeling sufficiently remote from one’s own life to increase it and take a broad view of it - this involves the principle of a liberation… The divine [italics mine] availability of the condemned man before whom the prison doors open in a certain early dawn, that unbelievable disinterestedness with regard to everything except for the pure flame of life…[all] that which a human heart can experience and live (The Myth of Sisyphus 59-60).

This musical-existential impulse is behind Kerouac, in Mexico City Blues, as much as in On the Road, in the happy despair of the jazz club where the narrator interrogates himself with:

what’s this thing we’re doing in this sad brown world?…here we are dealing with the pit and the prune-juice of poor beat life itself in the god awful streets of man, so he said it and sang it, “Close-your-” and blew it way up to the ceiling and through the stars and on and out - “ey-y-y-y-y-es”-and staggered off the platform to brood. He sat in the corner with a bunch of boys and paid no attention to them. He looked down and wept. He was the greatest (On the Road 200).

Think of the existentialism of James Baldwin too - “Sonny’s Blues,” and its jazz-loving heroin-addict Harlem virtuoso who through a live jam session finally earns a bitter reconciliation with his brother, if not generations of American blacks before him (and for any reader who has spent enough time in intellectual ghettos):

Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood at last, that he could help us to be free if we could listen… And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky (“Sonny’s Blues” 696).

Which ties Sonny’s Greenwich Village blues to music as a celebration of our existence under an open sky.

Or to use John Lennon’s phrase, “above us only sky.”

Or African skies, to be more musically precise, as proved by Nathaniel Mackey’s miraculous text The Bedouin Hornbook, a journal of a jazz musician performing live in the run-down venues and shopping malls of postwar America.

In Mackey’s journey John Coltrane fills in as a Jesus figure, for Mackey’s text is also a God-seeking philosophical diary written to “The Angel of Dust,” as its feeling-thinker re-integrates American music’s existential impulses with Asian instruments and African jubilations, that word “jubilation” itself rooted in the ram’s horn, and music becomes an activity for “The Slave’s Day Off.” Music is described as the song of the jackal, (as Marcel Griaule tells Mackey), that four-legged singing animal, the jackal, the son of God, who wanted speech and so he “stole the fibres of which language was embodied,” and if you listen to the jackal’s singing you hear him as the diviner of God’s design, and if you “play around with prophetic music…you moisten your mouth with the jackal’s kiss” (Bedouin Hornbook 66).

And Mackey reminds us that a certain African theology informs us that the drumbeats “accent absence” through the “unsounded beat,” and thus make our hearts beat faster by both letting us hear the abyss of silence that waits for us (in death) and answering that absence with a drumbeat (in existence), so that drumming intensifies our own heart rate as we hear it, literally giving the heart more life.

The drum skin, in African Gogon teaching, is God’s ear. Mackey concludes that the drum (and music itself) is emblematic of the musician’s existential-divinity: the drum the musician plays for that God with no ears (that Deus absconditus) revives the absent God through the rhythmic music it makes. As Mackey points out, the human musician invents his God-audience by embodying “Him” because “to drum is to slap hands with God,” a God who all the while is the human music-maker himself. (Bedouin Hornbook 165-166)

Mackey writes of music as the body’s power and the gospel style’s “wordless moan,” and the singer’s falsetto as “the inchoate arcana intuitively buried within the reaches - the wordless reaches of the black singer’s voice,” the solos of “circular breathing,” from the snake charmer’s trick,” on a South Indian oboe, so music is an existential legacy we still live, a legacy from a continent stripped of its original languages and its land literally “alienated” by its conquerors (54, 67).

As a sourcebook of music, African histories are then no different from Ireland’s bardic tradition, those Druid musicians, many of who believed that poets, not priests granted immortality, these “pagans” who were fought by St. Patrick and were scorned by the English colonists as living anti-theses of the supposedly civilizing effects of the musician Orpheus and his “wholesome precepts” (Modern Ireland 28).

As Yeats reminds us, the English colonizing of Ireland’s bardic heritage turned out to be “good for the world, bad for the nation,” for in the resistances and irrepressible energies of Irish music one hears “the persistence of Celtic passion: a man loves or hates until he falls into the grave.” (Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth 53)

Oblivious to the power of Irish music for most of my life, and about one year after I read The Stranger in the summer of 1980, I caught wind of U2’s first album, Boy. At first, I resisted this band who seemed to market themselves as Irish evangels.

But when I bought Boy in 1982, I found rock-n-roll validating what I’d valued in Camus’ prose: lyrical anger, a religion of alive-ness, a defiance somehow welcoming, guitars mimicking church bells, evocations of Godless streets, poetry of stars and shadows and nights like those flourishes late in The Stranger, and a focused, marching Irish blues underscored by a lumbering bass, and clean production arrangements intensified by Bono’s un-cool emotionalism and Larry Mullen Jr’s military drumbeats.

“Walls of white protest,” Bono sings in “Shadows and Tall Trees,” “A gravestone in name/Who is it now?/It’s always the same.”

Serving as a soundtrack for my existential fear of a Reagan-Russian nuclear winter, “A Day Without Me,” lamented “the world I left behind… Wipe their eyes and then let go.”

And here was a band with the balls to veto The Who’s commandment to “die before I get old” through Boy ‘s single “Out of Control” which turns rock from apathy to a will-to-live: “Monday morning, eighteen years old/woke the world with bawling//… I fought fate/There’s blood at the garden gate/The man said childhood/It’s in his childhood.” All those power chords, propulsive bass, thunderous percussion, and a singer singing his way into body’s finality: “My body grows and grows/It frightens me…” Bono sings in “Twilight,” echoing the sentiments of “Out of Control,” “One day I’ll die/ The choice will not be mine/ Will it be too late?”

The album’s first FM hit, “I Will Follow” conflated mad love for a lost God, a lost mother and a lover into a chorus which still sounds to me like nothing less than moving forward the mortal body’s happy fate.

…we live a poetic existentialism. In our reverie which imagines while remembering, our past takes on substance again. Over and above the picturesque, the bonds between the world and the human soul are strong. Then there lives within us not a memory of history but a memory of the cosmos.
-Gaston Bachelard The Poetics of Reverie

I’m looking for the sound that’s gonna drown out the world… still looking for the face I had before the world was made
-U2 “Mofo” (1997)

Music is a tool for our body’s existence. Commuters, pedestrians, runners, travelers with wires dangling from out of their ears, Ipods, MP3 players, Discmans, and hands gripping digital display counters and control dials, then the beeps and the alarms, and, sometimes, leaking from under the earpieces, the preludes of Debussy, the pile-driving metal of Papercut Homicide, the funk of Black-Eyed Peas, the machismo of R-Kelly.

Stripped of their ordinariness and conventionality, we can see these devices for what they are: portable machines attached to human bodies, serving a physiological function, as do dialysis machines or infusion pumps. Music as a life support machine. Or even Pete Townshend’s rock-opera-metaphor: music as “miracle cure” to treat the existential symptoms of livingness: boredom, anxiety, torpor, loneliness, vacuity, depression.

Music literally, neurologically, is an opium of the people, “reconnecting” the overworked mind to the underused body in a time when most other technology brings us “closer” to other bodies by disembodied voice messages or blips on 19-inch monitors or words sent to our Outlook’s Inbox.

Music as metaphor for healing colors the deathbed settings on U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, as in “Miracle Drug,” with its political subtext about the DATA organization’s attempts to sidestep international patent laws and pharmaceutical intransigence to get rare combination drugs to the sub-Saharan African AIDS pandemic: 6,500 dead today, 6,500 dead tomorrow. See The Data: Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa at www.data.org/flash.php?CMP=KNL-DATA, the organization Bono co-founded.

Add to this the song’s other existential subtext, the miracle drug Lioresal, a muscle relaxant sometimes given to patients who suffer neurological damage and illnesses such as MS., administered once in Dublin, Ireland, around 1976, to an eleven year old paraplegic poet named Christopher Nolan whose nervous system had suffered such irreparable damage during his birth, that it left him “[g]azing out through the crystal window of his eyes, a spectator before the world…unable to respond, to comment, to reply. Image upon image ricocheted round his skull and burned into his consciousness. Without means of expression, the pressure to communicate was intolerable.” (Dam Burst of Dreams, 2).

The Lioresal injections allowed Nolan to lift his head enough that soon he was typing with the help of a “unicorn” fitted to his forehead, his inner words giving way to typed words, passages and to finally a book, The Dam-Burst of Dreams - award-winning poems, prose pieces, and theater pieces of the mind-as-body, muscular, musical, writing echoing Gerard Manley Hopkins alliterative psalms.

Other texts in Dam-Burst climb toward Nolan’s own reconstituted and downright jazzy versions of God: “Mammoth, notable, immediate vexed questions/bear answering,/Census point to new heady awareness in cloistered/irrelevancy,/Could you imagine nothing of God in the/wonderful future - you could?”

All of this puts “Miracle Drug,” and Nolan’s work, in the spirit of Gaston Bachelard’s “existentialism of the poetic” and its reveries and its “living in a life which dominates life, in a duration which does not endure” (Poetics of Reverie 120) because music reminds us that ecstasy and reverie, or “that doubling of the self” are the body’s gift to existence.

Scientist and musician Robert Jourdain underscores this doubling, or physical intensification of existence by music, as he tells of a Parkinson’s patient, who told Oliver Sacks that music allowed her to

partake of other people, as I partake of the music. Whether it is others, in their own natural movement, or the movement of music itself, the feeling of movement, of living movement, is communicated to me. And not just movement, but existence itself. (Music the Brain Ecstasy 301)

Her Parkinson’s disease responded to no treatment other than the “the sound of music from a wireless or a gramophone” which led to a “complete disappearance” of her symptoms until, “freed of her automatisms,” she “smilingly ‘conducted the music’ or rose and danced to it” (301). Jourdain details how the debilitated woman’s “miraculous” responses to the music were elicited not by the music in itself as sound but (as it is for all of us) by her nervous system’s anticipation of those sounds.

Music is what Jourdain calls our brain’s “kinesthetic anticipation” of it, in which “we use our musculatures to represent music. Modeling the most important features of musical patterns by means of physical movement large and small” (303).

Our brains - our bodies - literally become the music we hear. Mozart’s symphonies and McCartney’s melodies were neurological experiences within their respective physical bodies, composed as “music” through their nervous systems, recorded and performed by their bodies, they are then passed in to us, as the “[m]usic arrives in our nervous systems and causes our brains to generate a flood of anticipations by which we make sense of melody and harmony and rhythm and form,” and in how, in response to the “kinesthetic anticipations,” (303) the brain defensively releases endorphins, which, when not needed to combat pain, produce euphoria, precisely as opiates work on the addict’s brain.

So I hear U2’s “Bad,” the hypnotic synthesizer loop which provides a fluid counterpoint to incremental sharp guitar ringing and bass and drum crescendos as surrealistic lyrics mimic the bliss inside an expressionistic painter’s mind or the high points of a heroin addict’s fix (or both) to find, musically, what sound like a virtual experience of God or, more likely, a redefined physical existence on the other end of a rock song.

Wide Awake in America - on more levels than one.

If music is so naturally productive for the human body, what about the urge, also raised by U2’s music, to “Wake Up, Dead Man.” A dirge from Pop, evoking a “fucked up world” and the nightmare of pop/rock musical culture and its canon of “died-before-they-got-old,”: Elvis, Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Moon, Lennon, not to mention the suicides of musician’s of U2’s generation, including Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, Stuart Adamson of Big Country, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Michael Hutchence of INXS, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.

Wake up dead man - and think of the cynical invocation and “uses” of death within the pop music industry: the punk or grunge disgust with the body, promoted lately by Courtney Love but long ago predicted by Bob Dylan: “To her, death is quite romantic/She wears an iron vest/Her profession’s her religion/Her sin is her lifelessness.” And the poète maudit ennui of the black clad Romantics and the Goths. And the night-of-the-living-dead histrionics of heavy metal and thrash. And the nihilistic rage felt on behalf of imprisoned American black men (sent to jail at rates 27 to 57 times higher than white men) Incarcerated America.” Human Rights Watch Background Report, April 2003. and economic and criminal justice systems so flagrantly racist that all this might start to explain rap artist KRS-ONE’s ugly public statements about the 2001 terrorist attacks:

911 effected (sic) them down the block; the rich, the powerful those that are oppressing us as a culture. Sony, RCA or BMG, Universal, the radio stations, Clear Channel, Viacom with BET and MTV, those are our oppressors those are the people that we’re trying to overcome in Hiphop everyday, this is a daily thing. We cheered when 911 happened in New York and say that proudly here. Because when we were down at the trade center we were getting hit over the head by cops, told that we can’t come in this building, hustled down to the train station because of the way we dressed and talked, and so on, we were racially profiled. So, when the planes hit the building we were like; mmmm justice.

Wake up dead man, indeed. There’s the death-threats implied by the stage and media personae projected by gangsta rappers which sometimes parallel their actual lives - Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur - Shakur gunned down in Las Vegas over ten years ago and now very much re-presented as a contradictory and Christ-like cultural artifact in Lauren Lazin’s film Resurrection.

Maybe death is merely a pop music fetish.

But a fetish is a response to a taboo.

Think of the American taboos against aging, dying and death that drive our economy, and the capitalist-Puritan ethos which assures us that those who work hard and succeed materially are the ones (the believers and the heroes, perhaps) who are likeliest to be saved, “the elect,” who gain everlasting life. Hands to work, heart to God, as the old Shaker truism goes. And as the theologian J. Leslie Dunstan interprets capitalism and Calvin, “Labour is asceticism, an asceticism which is absolutely necessary. Profit is a sign of the blessing of God on the faithful exercise of one’s calling” (Protestantism 134). The exposé of capitalism’s underwriting by Calvinism is as old as Max Weber’s landmark 1903 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A new book, American Mania: When More is Not Enough, by Dr. Peter C. Whybrow of The University of California extends this project by exploring the dangerous psychopathology of post-1990s American consumerism.

Stay alive not so you can exist but so you can get and spend: hence the formulae of reality TV, that whoever has the most toys wins and by winning, doesn’t “die.” The loser who fails at the rigged capitalist enterprise “goes home” (read goes to “hell”) while the winner stays “alive” (i.e., remains live, as a celebrity, on television).

To be unemployed, to be without a “career,” to be “fired” or to be broke, are symbolically, American ideas of death.

Actual death, in contemporary American narrative and discourse, doesn’t happen: it is pure taboo: death has no actuality.

By existential standards winning isn’t anything.

By American standards any kind of winning is everything.

Winning is a mark of immortality. Money, shopping, owning are the most valued kinds of winning. Just watch those televised relay races at the local strip malls at sunup the day after “Thanksgiving.”

Americans’ physical existences and certainly the physical existences of people outside American borders are a marketer-and-minister’s afterthought, at best.

The only force The Good Reverend/CEO needs you to accept is His faith, made yours, that as long as you keep working and buying (consumption completes and validates work) you have earned your salvation in God’s eyes (your self will never die).

Which might explain that while Former President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair made it to Davos, Switzerland on February 24, 2005 to sit alongside Bono and African leaders Prime Minister Thabo Mbeki and President Olusegun Obesanjo to speak to the world about what the West needs to do to stop human beings dying of AIDS (at numbers that rival the Bubonic Plague), President Bush was mysteriously absent, perhaps fearful of being called to the carpet for his failure to deliver fully on promised aid to Africa, though the Associated Press that same day was informing anyone who was listening that the U.S. President’s uncle “made more than $450,000 last month by selling stock in a defense contractor whose profits are growing because of the Iraq war” (“Bush’s Uncle Profits from Iraq Stock Sale” by Matt Kelley, Associated Press, February 24 2005).

Freedom is a primary word in the diction of existentialists like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. But the word “freedom” as it’s used by President Bush and by extension the American intelligentsia and media who parrot him, is not a reference to those existential rights or political freedoms laid out in the U.S. Constitution: rather his “freedom” (as in a “free Iraq”) is a code for faith in the free market, a form of American slavery warned against by that existential prophet Henry David Thoreau in “Life Without Principles.”

Or to put the matter more simply, as the Sex Pistols did, nearly thirty years ago, “Your future scheme’s a shopping dream.”

And Public Enemy warned “don’t believe the hype.”

But the ongoing pop/musical embrace of the establishment’s free market “hype” is by now so ubiquitous that you can watch the rap star, on reruns of MTV’s “Cribs,” showing you the massive bowling alley he’s built into his mansion’s sprawling sub-basement. And read the signifiers of conformity: Dave Navarro sporting a Jesus T-shirt during an appearance on Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown” and Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins who’s given up on rock music and is now writing poetry and thanking his God on the volume’s frontispiece.

This consummated marriage of pop music culture to the puritan establishment is exposed and sometimes satirized in Paul Beatty’s novel Tuff. Fariq, that novel’s “disenfranchised” handicapped anti-hero, gives a fuck-all rant that espouses the very practices The President is citing in his push to end the Social Security benefit: “A prudent motherfucker like me has an IRA account, some short term T-bills, a grip invested in long-term corporate bonds and high-risk foreign stock. Shit, the twenty-first century nigger gots to have a diversified portfolio” (9).

He who dedicates himself to this history dedicates himself to nothing and, in his turn, is nothing. But he who dedicates himself to the duration of his life, to the house he builds, to the dignity of mankind, dedicates himself to the earth and reaps from it the harvest that sows its seed and sustains the world again and again. Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests.
-Albert Camus, The Rebel

…punks find that they must reintegrate themselves into the real world and in doing so end up purchasing many of the same commodities they once scoffed… Clearly no one held a gun to the head of Iggy Pop (who advertised for Nike) or forced Black Flag to sell their classic song “Rise Above” to a manufacturer of video games… Advertisers, being fairly astute, tried to create a connection between the (presumed) counter-cultural activities of their audiences’ youth in order to identify consumption with rebellion. And, as with Nike’s use of “Revolution” a decade earlier, some fussed and cried sellout… As Simon Frith notes, rock music has always ‘articulated the reconciliation of rebelliousness and capital.’
-Brian Cogan “What Do I Get? Punk Rock, Authenticity and Future of Capital” at Counterblast

…the only thing worse than a rock star is a rock star with a conscience - a celebrity with a cause - a placard-waving, knee-jerking, fellow-traveling activist with a Lexus and a swimming pool shaped like his head… Music…still keeps me from falling asleep in the comfort of my freedom. Rock music to me is rebel music. But rebelling against what? In the Fifties it was sexual mores and double standards. In the Sixties it was the Vietnam War and racial and social inequality. What are we rebelling against now? If I am honest, I’m rebelling against my own indifference. I am rebelling against the idea that the world is the way the world is and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it… But fighting my indifference is my own problem. What’s your problem?
-Bono, Harvard Magazine (transcript of Bono’s Commencement Address at Harvard University, 26 June 2001

Can the corporate busy-ness of rock/media celebrity sustain the existential promises of fiction, art, poetry and music? Especially when, to paraphrase Paul Beatty, there are portfolios and there are portfolios.

U2’s estimated cash worth, according to a 2001 report by Forbes, is somewhere near $700 million, and by now must have crossed well over the billion dollar mark. The band has cultivated crossover deals and run a publicity machine that has for decades stayed steps ahead of the print and new media outlets who cover them. Add Web-based distribution ventures and multi-media product-placement, alliances with Hollywood and European film industries (from the Rattle and Hum bio-pic to The Batman and Tomb Raider franchises to production ventures with auteurs Wim Wenders and Martin Scorcese), NFL tie-ins (from the 2002 Super Bowl performance to music promos during game breaks), distribution deals with and commercials for Apple Computers (who super-charged their iPod and iTunes music distribution businesses with alliances with U2 and Universal Records), real-estate investments throughout Dublin (a city which has boomed in almost direct parallel to the band’s ascension), and you end up with U2 sold and bought and downloaded and performed live in nearly every “industrialized” nation on the planet.

Yet if the rebel rock band as multinational corporation creates its own built-in contradictions, it’s also worth acknowledging that the critical interpretations of pop musicians as signifying “brands,” or worse, as Rorschach tests for the collective conscious, (as in Ira Robbins silly description of U2 as “a cosmic sociology project”) Alternative/progressive music critic and publisher of Trouser Press, Ira Robbins has written a detailed biographical essay on U2’s career, which gives needed attention to some of the band’s lesser known songs and important recordings, though the essay’s pseudo-semiotics and hyperbole undercut much of the writing: www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=u2. pass so quickly as to be, in retrospect, more parody than profound, as surely will the 1,000-plus often bizarre customer reviews currently posted on amazon.com about U2’s latest release.

Pop ” zeitgeists ” and the “semiotics” of pop culture date faster than skim milk. Does anyone waste time parsing the American fundamentalist’s violent response to John Lennon’s ironic quip that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ? Or Norman Mailer’s explication of Mick Jagger as “the white nigger”? Or Frank Zappa v. Tipper Gore? And when was the last time someone consulted Camille Paglia’s Sex, Art, and American Culture to get a closer “reading” of Madonna?

It is history, not critics or even the band’s PR machine, that has given context to U2’s musical existentialism. Boy hit the U.S. shops four months after John Lennon was gunned down in Manhattan, and two months before Bob Marley died of cancer in Kingston, and by 1981, the 1960s and 1970s energies of rock were artistically, culturally, and politically winding down. If guitar-centered artists were making exceptional and even political records (The Clash’s Sandinista and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, to name just two), the confrontational, existential rage of the punk era had dissipated.

Yet the early 1980s were the height of Thatcher’s extreme-right regime in the U.K. including violent industrial union strikes in the North of England and internationally-monitored IRA hunger strikes in Belfast’s H-blocks. Ronald Reagan’s vast nuclear build-up was underway, as was the promotion by U.S. politicians of Christian fundamentalism, which coincided with record unemployment and deep economic recession.

Into all this, U2’s spy-plane moniker and allusive, French Symbolist-inspired lyrics placed them as rock artists who could go beyond the dichotomies and sectarianism of both Northern Ireland and of the Cold War.

In fact, U2’s best love songs transcend the genre’s formula and respond to the questions and conflicts of the Northern Irish “Troubles,” a political songwriting tendency hinted at by Bono’s frequent references to the struggle growing up with a Protestant mother and a Catholic father. Bono interviewed on World AIDS Day, December 10, 2002 on Larry King Live, CNN. During the interview, he speaks openly about his private conception of faith and his ongoing rejection of organized religion. So whose “Two Hearts Beat as One” in that rhythmic lamentation from the War album?

U2’s Romantic anthems and dirges about betrayal, pleas for Irish homecoming and allusions to a unified Ireland implied in early songs like “New Year’s Day,” (“torn in two/we can be one”) and “40” (“I will sing a new song”) become much more explicit criticisms of IRA fascist tendencies and British dominance over The North in songs from the late 1990s like “Please” (“your holy war”) and “Staring at the Sun” (“military’s still in town/armor plated suits and ties/Daddy just won’t say good-bye).

“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” is an homage to thirteen non-violent Catholic protestors killed by the British Army in Derry on January 30, 1972, an event that helped radicalize Irish Catholic opposition to the British occupation and Protestant dominance over the region.

With the IRA’s “decommissioning” stalled, that song’s question - “How long must we sing this song?” remains unanswered: yet that “we” is a single, collective Irish pronoun referring to those in the conflict without political or economic power, namely Catholics loyal to the Irish Republic.

Once content to wave a neutral white flag from the stage, Bono has taken to holding up the Irish tricolor flags thrown to him by fans during concerts - the flag for which most Irish Protestants in the North have little use and the flag for which generations of Republican leaders were imprisoned by the British for parading. But these distinctly Irish existential, political blues aren’t the only theme of U2’s best music: suicide, exile, erotic love, and even perestroika were behind 1983’s War, and then with the help of Brian Eno and his ambient theories of composition, the band referenced the American atrocities of the Hiroshima bombing and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination as contexts for their 1984 LP Unforgettable Fire. In 1988, the band scored a radio hit with a song about the demise of blues legend Billie Holiday “Angel of Harlem” and they went on to cover songs by Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed.

Postwar existential art and ideas have inspired most of U2’s strongest music from the 1990s.

Dedicated to Delmore Schwartz (whose book In Dreams Begin Responsibilities supplies the song’s chorus) “Acrobat” (1991) is a tumult of anger and hope working against the uselessness of religion (“I’d break bread and wine if there was a church I could receive in”).

“Until the End of the World”(1991) borrows the conceit of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, to show up the existential heroics of Judas (“We broke the bread/we drank the wine/everybody having a good time/except you, you were talking about the end of the world”) while far as one can be from sentimentality “One” renounces every illusion of immortality, from romantic love to religious faith, in favor of life for living’s sake (“One life you got to do what you should”): the song’s existential credo was highlighted during live performances by the display of writer David Wojnarowicz’s aphorism “smell the flowers while you can.”

Zooropa (1993), the band’s follow-up to Achtung Baby is dedicated to Charles Bukowski and lives out the energies of Bukowski’s hedonistic mania, that album closing with “The Wanderer” in which Johnny Cash sings as a Christian crusader out to kill his better self and whoever else crosses his path, “with a Bible and a gun.” And European genocide is the subject of “Miss Sarajevo.” (1995)

The videos for Pop (1997) feature swansong cameos from William Burroughs in “Last Night on Earth” and Allen Ginsberg in “Miami.” The songs on Pop celebrate the end of faith and religion (“Gone” and “Mofo”), and C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters show up as a hopeless talisman in the animated “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me” video (1995), a song which ridicules Messiah-narratives of American pop (“they want you to play Jesus/and go down on one knee/but they’ll want their money back if you’re alive at thirty-three/and your turning tricks with your crucifix, you’re a star”).

And U2’s live shows bring the existential ethic into sports arena spectacle. Their 1992 American tour ridiculed then-President Bush, projecting his image on a jumbo screen and over-dubbing his voice with that of the late Freddie Mercury (who had died of AIDS less than a year before): “We will - we will - rock you.

Their performances throughout the 1990s featured the artwork of Jenny Holzer and Jeff Koons to highlight America’s moral hypocrisy about AIDS while those same shows raised money for Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Rock the Vote. Performances included Bono, dressed as “Macphisto,” staging phone calls to the United Nations during live hooks up with victims under siege in Bosnia, and the band has advocated on behalf of Viet Namese poet Nguyen Chi Thien, Burmese author and activist Aung San Suu Kyi and novelist Salman Rushdie, who was invited on stage while he was living under the Iranian government’s fatwa of death for his writing of The Satanic Verses.

Despite these existential, engagé sensibilities, U2’s conventional approach to recording and touring allow the band-as-corporation to recruit from an ever-widening consumer base in conservative America, a demographic that is often politically indifferent or even politically opposed to the band’s views.

In the 1980s, when Bono denounced underground U.S. support for the IRA, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and Reagan’s illegal wars in Central America, his onstage rhetoric backfired on the band’s media image, and almost cost the band its captive consumer base in America.

In decades since, he has retreated from public political statements in order to trade on his rock celebrity to leverage financial and moral support from neo-conservative power (Bush, the Pope, Jessie Helms) for his push for AIDS medicine for Africa and third world debt-relief initiative, and more recently, his positing of poverty as global security issue being neglected by the U.S. and Europe in equal measure. Bono’s op-ed piece “Ending the Poverty That Breeds Violence” in The New York Times on February 22, 2005, argues, among other things, that the self-regarding tensions between the U.S. and Europe are useful cultural poses by those nations to indirectly blame one another for the current “crumbling” of African countries while those same powers do little about the ongoing devastation of that continent.

Bono has opted for a clever manipulation of his fabricated rebel-in-sunglasses-and-leather persona, dispensing with political idealism (or the “essence” of his politics) in favor of deliberative action, a kind existential gamesmanship which lead one British newspaper to wonder,

Is it possible to appear in public with the likes of Helms and Bush and preserve that precious commodity - street-cred? If it’s not, says Bono, it’s a price worth paying. “Edge was pleading with me not to hang out with the conservatives. He said, ‘You’re not going to have a picture with George Bush?’ I said I’d have lunch with Satan if there was so much at stake. I have friends who won’t speak to me because of Helms. But it’s very important not to play politics with this. Millions of lives are being lost for the stupidest of reasons: money. And not even very much money. So let’s not play, Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Let’s rely on the moral force of our arguments.” (Guardian Unlimited)

Blame it all on the kids and the IRA
While the bastards commit genocide

-John Lennon, “The Luck of the Irish”

The Beatles are more Irish than U2!
-Bono, The Irish Times, December 23, 2004

I’ve often remarked, to friends who have been more engaged by and aware of trends in music since the 1960s, that John Lennon, that contrarian, that ironist, and that irritant, is the true godfather of punk.

Lennon and the Beatles invented the “Summer of Love” by embracing the gospel of St. Paul (“All You Need is Love”) while dismantling God (The White Album).

As The Beatles parted ways, Lennon became the first and maybe last rock star to deconstruct his own celebrity, associating himself so much with The New Left in New York City in the early 1970s that he earned the attention of Nixon and the FBI. In addition to trying to deport Lennon, the FBI also kept a file on Jimi Hendrix. The mysterious circumstances of Hendrix’s death in England in 1970 figure prominently in David Henderson’s biography ‘Scuse me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix (Omnibus Press, 2003).

Lennon’s “protest” songs, like “Working Class Hero,” God,” “Attica State” and even “Imagine” evoke existential rebellion, much like the way his rage marries his idealism in his 1972 solo performance of “Come Together,” which combined his “scream therapy” and his anti-war passion.

And so U2, in what Marshall McLuhan might call a “collective posture of mind,” have tried to mimic The Beatles and Lennon’s existential experimentation with rock stardom, often trying to re-incarnate The Beatles in their own image: Rattle and Hum features a post-punk “sequel” to “God,” and in the opening of that under-rated Phil Joanou film, Bono declares that the band is “stealing” “Helter Skelter” “back” from Charles Manson on behalf of The Beatles.

And in one of the most startling cross-references I’ve ever seen in a rock show, U2’s pre-9/11 performances in 2001 added to “Bullet the Blue Sky” a short film clip about the need for gun control in the U.S., while Bono infused the song with a rap as he reenacted Mark David Chapman’s 1980 murder of Lennon: “John, war is over, we don’t need your help/America’s waging war on itself… Pull the trigger on the rock-n-roll nigger/He’s bigger than Jesus on a bumper sticker.” The message, unnoticed by the musical press, was clear: an American gun killed John Lennon.

Bono also shares Lennon’s political habit of using the musical spotlight to call attention to the body count. Performing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” at Slane Castle (ten days before 9/11) Bono lauded the politicians who crafted the Good Friday accords and then recited the twenty-nine names of those killed in the 1998 “Real IRA” terrorist bombing in Omagh.

During their post-9/11 second tour of the States, they revived their 1997 song about religious war, “Please,” as it rang like a grim reminder for New Yorkers (“September/streets capsizing, spilling over and down the drain/shards of glass splinters like rain/but you can only feel your own pain”).

At their Super Bowl performance months later, U2 performed “Where the Streets Have No Name” as towers of red light scrolled the lists of the names of those individuals who died in Washington, Pennsylvania, and New York; as the song crested, the lights cascaded into a re-enactment of the Twin Tower’s collapse, a raw acknowledgement (at the annual celebration of the American music, television, and sports celebrity-immortality-industries) of the human -fact: death. I watched U2’s Super Bowl performance in the company of someone who escaped the South Tower minutes before her office and her officemates where struck by United Airlines Flight 175: that visceral musical/visual memorial during U2’s performance had no small emotional effect.

Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of my favorite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger. ‘How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?’ (Psalm 89), or ‘Answer me when I call’ (Psalm 5).”
-Bono from his Introduction to The Psalms

New York City is the existential capital of the United States. The city’s speed and its disinterested anonymity and its famous indifference to American piety makes it the ideal space for writers and artists and musicians and thinkers to discard self -importance and self -referential intellectualism and be carried into new work through the city’s existential energies - the constant motion, the shifting identities; in New York the winners at the capitalist game (the celebrities, the CEOs, the crooks) are bound by the same narrow streets as the proletariats and its losers: the walking workers, the pressing crowds, the musical and the homeless (often one and the same).

New York City is that social space which captures the existential values which music critic Paul Garon reads into the figure of the blues singer, “proud and arrogant, sure of himself or herself, relatively immune to the more absurd bourgeois conventions, a free agent, indifferent and even hostile to the Protestant ethic and the repressive ‘myths’ of ‘responsibility’ ” (Blues and The Poetic Spirit 26).

In 1912, under the spell of New York City’s existential fascinations, the Swiss avant-garde poet and novelist Frédéric Sauser changed his name to Blaise Cendrars, dropped into a Presbyterian church on Easter Sunday where “fashionable young girls” were singing Haydn’s Oratio: the minister interrupted the music to preach and so Cendrars left the church and proceeded to compose “Les Pâques à New-York,” in which the poet takes the Lord on a walking tour of New York’s Jewish and Chinese enclaves and introduces the Lord to the city’s “thieves” and “vagrants,” its “street singers,/The blind violinist, the one armed-organ grinder, /The straw-hat, paper-rose singer” (Complete Poems 7)

When Spanish poet Fernando Garcia Lorca came to New York City in the fall of 1929, he reconnected with jazz and blues gospel (American existential music, after all) which confirmed for him his ambition to return to writing poetry that would be analogous in its psychological effects to the duende of Andalusia, duende or deep song, “is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that ‘ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head’; [duende] brings him face-to-face with death.” (In Search of Duende, ix)

Duende is a poetry as musical fever of the body, described by Lorca as “a stammer, a wavering emission of the voice, a marvelous buccal undulation that smashes the resonant cells of our tempered scale, eludes the cold rigid staves of modern music, and makes the tightly closed flowers of the semi-tones blossom into a thousand petals.” (3)

Even that Mediterranean chauvinist Albert Camus loved New York City, recounting in “The Rains of New York,” how much the city intimidated him with its energies - “yes I am out of my depth” - though he found the city most ecstatic and most musical for its sky, “naked and immense, stretched to the four corners of the horizon…a jazz band of birds herald[ing] the appearance of the first star above the Empire State Building” (“The Rains of New York” 183).

About twenty years after Camus’ visit, John Lennon permanently re-settled in New York City, a move which music critic Anthony DeCurtis claims cured Lennon of his habits of self-pity and compelled him into political songs (for John Sinclair, for Irish republicanism, for those killed by the state police at Attica State Penitentiary), and in New York Lennon found life twinned with death, not morbidly but musically, and so like Camus, he was also captivated by the New York sky, “We are writing in the sky instead of on paper,” Lennon wrote to his fans in 1979 in The New York Times, “that’s our song… Lift you eyes again and look around you, and you will see that you are walking in the sky, which extends to the ground.”

David Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud in New York 1978-1979 shows an artist and writer celebrating the bohemian paradise New York City had become, while he was perhaps intuiting the AIDS epidemic that would destroy New York’s art scene in the 1980s. In a New York City hospital in 1987, exiled Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas recruited his doctor, Olivier Ameisen, a composer, to play synthesizer while the poet, on life support and battling AIDS, composed lyrics to his doctor’s compositions, the two of them collaborating on ‘Una flor en la memoria’ and ‘Himno.’

Today, U2 have adopted New York City and its sky as an existential trope in their new music, even using its streets as a part-time home base, evoking the city as the starting points for the uplift of “Beautiful Day” (2000) (“the traffic is stuck/and you’re not moving anywhere/you been all over/and it’s been all over you”), to the sometimes ham-fisted poetry of “New York” (2000), to Bono’s tributes to the late Ramone brothers and CBGBs, to “The Hands That Built America,” (2002) a song of Irish Diaspora used in the film Gangs of New York, that is also a eulogy to New York’s Irish-Americans killed on the morning Al Queda incinerated our skyscrapers: “Last saw your face in a watercolor sky/… It’s early fall, there’s a cloud on the New York skyline/Innocence dragged across a yellow line.” The world famous CBGB nightclub is located on The Bowery in lower Manhattan. Although U2 never played CBGB, the club’s name itself is synonymous with the flourishing and eclectic New York City music scene in the late 1970s. Recently, CBGBs has fallen victim to the cutthroat real estate market in Manhattan and might have to close soon. This link can connect the reader to the ongoing online memoir by Hilly Kristal, the club’s owner, which describes this venue’s illustrious history.

And U2’s live performances in Manhattan in the fall of 2004 on flatbed trucks to promote the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb were attempts to link themselves with those power-to-the-people American street happenings and downtown rallies of Lennon’s era. Their nightcap concert on the Brooklyn waterfront, with the band no longer dressed up in American disguises of earlier years (preachers, ranch-hands, Warhol nightclub denizens, plastic action figures) evoked prosaic leather-and-fatigue ordinary working-class Joes, fellas, a latter-day waterfront of Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, with self-critique-as-self-congratulations in another homage to New York, “City of Blinding Lights,” where “They’re advertising in the skies/for people like us.”

And in the blogs and discussion swirling around the new disk and the critical and media junket, we hear that Boy’s raw existential tone might have been partly Bono’s response to the death of his mother when the writer was fourteen years old, and Bono, performing at the Grammy’s in February 2005, made clear that Atomic Bomb ‘s most musically ambitious track “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” was a response to the death of his father, with whom he had a strained relationship: Bob Hewson, an Irish opera tenor and postal worker lost a battle to cancer during the band’s 2001 Elevation tour.

So I listen to “Sometimes,” with its country-style plucking and crooning, giving way to piano-like chord progressions, as it captures a single passing-lifetime the way an opera aria might in the plea, “don’t leave me here alone” and I wonder has Bono read Rainer Maria Rilke’s fiction “How Old Timofei Died Singing,” from Stories of God, in which Rilke inverts the prodigal son parable, so the resentful, abandoned father barely has time, when his son does return, with love and regret, to teach his son the songs he has inside before he dies:

soon after singing the most beautiful [songs] he died. He had often complained bitterly in his last days that he still carried a vast quantity of songs within him and had not time to impart them to his son…all those melodies to which no man, were he Cossack or peasant, could listen without weeping. Besides, his voice is supposed to have had such a soft and sorrowful tone as has never been heard from any other singer. (Stories of God 53)

The tale signals that high-modern existentialism that Rilke would use more operatically in his famous “If I Cried Out, who would hear me up there among the angelic orders?” from Duino Elegies, encouraging language to become music, in affirmations of life and death as singular, for “to admit one without the other is, as is here learned and celebrated, a limitation that in the end excludes all infinity. Death is the side of life that is turned away from us: we must try to achieve the fullest consciousness of our existence which is at home in the two unseparated realms, inexhaustibly nourished by both [death and life]” (Duino Elegies 10)

Music achieves this fullest consciousness of life and death as the single home of our existence.

And it was Rilke’s Elegies that influenced Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, in which Bruno Ganz, his thick face weary of its immortality, wanders about Berlin and falls in love with a redheaded acrobat. But the trade-off for this angel involves surrendering his aspect of perfection - his angelic immortality - and so he must die in order to become human, to feel, for feeling after all is the body’s way of knowing death even though the human mind simply can’t conceptualize its body’s inherent connection to death as its biological fate.

Wenders’ angels in Berlin are as hauntingly captivated by human existence as Nat Mackey assures us the Sudanese suling flute is as well, for that instrument is the sound of the soul resisting incarnation (Bedouin Hornbook 96). The eye and hand cling to place because undifferentiated space is just too terrifying: but the ear is seduced by Sun Ra’s music, and so “The Place is Space,” or, as Rilke writes in “To Music,” “music is space that’s outgrown us/heart-space.”

Or as Bono has more simply put it, “the goal is soul.”

If consciousness often makes cowards of us all, music re-minds our bodies of death through the ecstasies its sounds work on us.

Noise, sound, and music everywhere: sounds one hears even in hospital delivery rooms, and in delivery rooms of that other kind and sounds that those who are sitting at deathbed vigils even right now know: thinking as I am of a cancer ward on a New York City riverfront, on an otherwise sunny cold January afternoon over a year ago, a friend “going away” too soon, thinking maybe some Frank Sinatra and The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lenny Kravitz should be piped in for him, to go with the murmurs of the nurses up the hall, those background harmonies to the heartbeat and the labored breathing and the cold-and-clear-as-a-bell beeping of the painkiller’s drip. Then my mind drifts back to an Irish pub in Seattle in the fall of 2002 where the bartenders in anticipation of a local Irish band’s arrival, played U2’s music for four straight hours as my friend and I met drinkers and music lovers who had traveled to Seattle from as far as Yorkshire, England and as nearby as Vancouver, all of us taking turns parsing some of the song’s lyrics and musical ironies and the mystery-magic of song: “It’s a long way down to nothing at all,” Bono sings in “Stuck in a Moment” (2000).

We hardly know the half of it.

All melodies are as strange as the sound of someone passing. Or coming into birth, screaming their own songs.

To what or to where we will pass is anyone’s guess. The explanations of religion are inadequate to the task of enriching existence so music fills us with the mystery we need to sing, and to be. Up. And down. Like those far-off soothing chants that must be angels at the end of U2’s ballad, “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” inspired by the images of Rilke and Wenders, much like Mackey’s musicians in Bedouin Hornbook, singing a tune “part burial song but a boat-hauling shanty as well,” which arises “from the very streets upon which we walked with no other wish than that they could somehow be our own, could somehow, that is, be as ‘outside’ as the music itself” (77), or an attempt to go to that “Upper Room ” which gospel singers sing of, though for Wenders’ angels downward to Earth works better for getting a truer life, urban angels, who have decided its time to leave perfection behind in order to be human and to feel, as close by as the local “7-11,” the final refrain summons music’s existential promise, an ecstasy of life dying into Life -

It’s quiet and there’s no one around
Just a band and clatter, as an angel runs aground
Just a bang and a clatter as an angel hits the ground.


Works Cited

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