Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Revisiting the Baby

If I was a 13-year-old kid right now, I’d think U2’s Bono was a complete asshole.

He perpetually presents himself with messianic pomp. He wears studded-leather coats that have sleeves too long for his arms. He’s always wearing racing glasses, yet he’s never running anywhere. He wears boots with five-inch-thick soles to give him a height boost. And, most of all, his band presents themselves like they’re the saviors of rock and roll, yet haven’t released a transformative (or even quasi-relevant) album in 20 years.

But, I’m not a 13-year-old kid. I’m 33 years old, which made me 13 when U2 released their early nineties masterpiece, Actung, Baby. On November 1st, the album became the latest in the never-ending cycle of Generation X theme music to be re-mastered and re-released on those of us who once cherished it in cassette form. (It was also celebrated with the premiere of Davis Guggenheim’s superb documentary From the Sky Down, which aired on Showtime Saturday night.)

With its revival, we can fondly remember how jarring of a stylistic shift the album was for a band largely known for break-up songs (“With or Without You”), protest songs (“Pride” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”), and songs that served as thinly veiled references to the beauty and contradictions of Catholicism (everything else). We can recall when the Edge officially committed to hiding his hair loss with a rotation of funny hats and bandannas, and we can celebrate an album ruled by the domineering drum beat of Larry Mullen Jr. and the perpetual bass groove of Adam Clayton. And, finally, we can appreciate the birth of The Fly—which was the last time Bono could be universally recognized as one magnificently cool son of a bitch.

I imagine kids these days feel the same way about U2 as I used to feel about Aerosmith. I didn’t care who they were, yet they were continuously pushed in front of my face by MTV like I should’ve. Steven Tyler would saunter through his videos like an anorexic transvestite, wielding that microphone draped in scarves like an unhinged stripper pole; Joe Perry would eventually find the video frame for a shirtless guitar solo, then pathetically pout and air-hump as he channeled his less-than-authentic Jimmy Page impression. I couldn’t stand them and, as a result of this, I never looked into their back catalog until I was much older. I didn’t know about Toys in the Attic; I never heard “Sweet Emotion” until I saw Dazed and Confused a few years later. Nevertheless, I was turned off by the image they presented through theatrical make-out ballads and shitty songs like “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” As far as I was concerned, Aerosmith was a complete waste of my time.

Those who are now pre-pubescent or overtly pubescent have to feel the same way about Dublin’s once Clash-inspired quartet. Over the past decade, U2 has released a series of imbalanced albums which have featured glimmers of greatness (“In A Little While” and “Breathe”), misguided departures (“Vertigo” and “Get On Your Boots”), and moments of yawning, pretentious stupidity (“Wild Honey” and most of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). The band’s most publicized and played song has been “Beautiful Day”—a tune which very well may have been written by Bono as he leaned into an Irish urinal during a millennial celebration. It’s a terrible, poppy, nursery rhyme of a number, and a new generation has been brought up by Rolling Stone magazine covers and U2 encores to believe this song to be one of the foundational building blocks in the band’s skyscraper of success. If this is the case, I completely understand why these listeners don’t understand the reverence shown to U2. But, if they were raised amid the rotation of Actung, Baby and the hilariously decadent Zoo TV tour, they’d understand.

As a 13-year-old, my tepid interest in U2 consisted of me borrowing my sister’s cassette copies of The Joshua Tree and Under a Blood Red Sky. At the time, I was merely curious about the band because,

a. as an Irish Catholic, you were required to like U2; and
b. all the girls in my elementary school seemed to like them.

This changed when I acquired my own copy of Actung, Baby. From the album’s first two jarring guitar chords and accompanying percussion combination on “Zoo Station” to the gentle, haunting delivery of “Love is Blindness”, it played as a sonic atmosphere suited for teenage discovery and experience. In 15 minutes, you could go from gleeful dancing (“Even Better Than The Real Thing”) to painful yearning (“One”) to strumming air guitar—while simultaneously cursing the sins of Judas (“Until The End Of The World”). While staring at all the abstract pictures on the album cover, I absorbed the echoes of Edge’s signature guitar chords while determining which song lyrics I’d ignore en route to the latest misguided mix tape I was cobbling together for some unsuspecting female. And, when any of the band’s Actung videos graced MTV, Bono came across like the slickest dude who’d ever strapped on a pair of sun-repellent goggles.

By now, everyone who knows or who’s cared to look into U2’s shtick knows Bono’s whole “Fly” persona was an orchestrated amalgamation of the styles employed by Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley. But, even knowing this now, I couldn’t care less; the character worked for the time it was fashioned. It was the early nineties, a pre-entrance period into Clinton-inspired excess and socially inspired brooding, so Bono’s darkly cool and ironically devilish persona connected with what we were looking for. Besides, when the songs danced out of car stereo speakers and against bedroom walls, his vocals gave him the credibility to plug the holes his disingenuous persona presented. He could have been dressed like a goddamn carnival barker while crooning “So Cruel” and it still would’ve influenced young men and women to hold each other between contemplative drags of their cigarettes.

For the power of Bono’s persona during U2’s Actung term, one look only to the Anton Corbjin-directed music video for “One”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftjEcrrf7r0 . I’ve discussed this video at length with some of Buffalo, NY's finest U2 experts, and we've agreed there are a few things (even as Bono stashes his Fly-period sunglasses to reveal his Eire blues) that are interpreted through the film:

1. Clove cigarettes are great for contemplative loners.
2. Heineken looks delicious once it’s gone.
3. Bono is the most earnest and ruggedly emotional guy Anton Corbjin has ever filmed.

If you deny these three preceding facts, then you’re lying to yourself and anyone you’ve ever talked with. Sure, the song’s deeper meaning or understanding can be lost through the video's symplistic, confessional-style focus on Bono. (The song's actually about the relationship between a gay man and his father. Or, is it about the band at a crossroads? Or, is it about you and your ex-girlfriend?) Still, the video itself is a masterpiece and serves as a forefather to bands and artists who wanted to simply stash the theatrics and get to the meat of the message. The Corbjin effort is a simple, poignant film to deliver a truth about human beings, a problem, and a statement about that problem. “We’re one, but we’re not the same. Well, we hurt each other, then we do it again.” If one wants to deliver such inconvenient truths amid whiskey tumblers, empty Heineken bottles, and a loaded ashtray, even better.

In the four minutes and thirty nine seconds of that video, you see why a sect of Generation X will never let go of Bono or U2. No matter how many times they announce a tour at K-Mart, let Edge sing, or perform on an airport runway, they’ll always be able to claim a portion of our puberty and upbringing. With Actung, Baby, they’ll always be able to say they recorded one song that elicited fantasies featuring a belly dancer (“Mysterious Ways”), one that helped combat oppression (“Acrobat”), or one nonsensical number that helped us relate to the bat-shit crazy girl we wanted to date (“Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World”). The album will forever be cherished, and will forever remain a transformational effort for those listeners who once viewed Bono as a leather-clad Celtic god masked in dark shades.

But, if you haven’t heard him navigate through all of Actung, Baby’s twelve tracks, I understand if you want to get on your boots, go crazy tonight, and stomp his magnificent face in.

Author's note: This blog post was typed inside Elmwood Avenue's Spot Coffee while listening to U2's Actung, Baby.

3 comments:

Matt said...

Great post. One of my favorite bar arguments is whether Actung is better than Joshua Tree. I still maintain that it is.

The Buffalo Zoo said...

Great post, I've been following them since War arrived at my college radio station. I go back and forth about the Joshua Tree and Achtung. Achtung was their full complete album, past few have had their moments, but AB is still essential listening, especially for those who came along for Atomic Bomb

FayeRD said...

Then there's "The Unforgettable Fire."