It was really cool to hear some of the songs that were included on the extra discs of these reissues. Somewhere, deep in my collection of dubbed cassettes, I have a crappy coverless tape full of U2 rarities from their first dozen or so years as a band. That tape would probably fall apart if I tried to play it now, but a lot of the songs that were on it, such as early singles "Another Day" and "A Celebration", and early B-side "Touch", are on one or the other of these reissues, so now I don't have to worry about it. There are also some songs here that I've heard about for years but never actually heard, foremost among them being "Trash, Trampoline, and the Party Girl", the original studio version--which is quite different from the live version that appeared as "Party Girl" on "Under A Blood Red Sky", but still really good. And there's even, at the end of the second disc of "Boy", a version of the really early song "Cartoon World". I expected a polished studio version, but no, it turned out to be the very same live bootleg that I have on that old crappy dub. Maybe that's the only recording of it that exists.
But the thing that's actually been the best part of getting these reissues has been hearing "October" again. When asked, I've always had a tough time deciding between "Unforgettable Fire" and "October" as to which is my favorite U2 album. It's too close to call, really--depends on the week. A few weeks ago, when I was writing about "Bad", I probably would have said "Unforgettable Fire", but I think "October" is probably the answer more often than not. It's not a perfect record--really, none of U2's albums are--but it's definitely the closest they got. The only song on it that I really don't like is "Tomorrow", about which the less said the better. In fact, I'm listening to the album now, and it just started, so I had to reach over and hit the skip button. There are a lot of great moments here that make up for "Tomorrow" many times over, but I think the element that draws me to this album the most is the overall mood it communicates.
As I mentioned in my previous U2-related entry, at the height of my junior-high U2 fandom, I read a biography of them called "Unforgettable Fire" by Eamon Dunphy. In that book, Dunphy details what was going on in the lives of U2's members around the time of "October". They'd started to have some real success, especially in Ireland and the UK, after their first album was released. This brought 3/4 of the band (everyone except longtime agnostic Adam Clayton) into conflict with the small, charismatic Christian church they belonged to. The more worldly success they achieved, the harder their minister was on them specifically, calling them out during his sermons in front of the entire congregation and other similarly upsetting things. They were still trying to balance their idea of faithful Christianity with their increasing success as musicians, but everything that was happening was wracking them with uncertainty.
This struggle would come to a head, according to Dunphy's book, after "October" but before "War", with Bono, Edge, and Larry Mullen Jr. finally deciding to leave their church rather than quit being in U2. However, when they were making "October", the uncertainty that was foremost in the minds of most of the band permeated the music and led U2 to make what I consider to be their most emotionally affecting album. Now, a lot of my friends find this weird, and all of you may too, but there's something I really connect with in a lot of bands who write about being Christian. For example, I found Underoath's album "Define The Great Line" to be really comforting when I was depressed. And I'm sure that's exactly what Underoath intended, although they were trying to comfort their listeners with the idea of Christianity, something I didn't and don't really have any interest in. The fact that they were able to write about depression, and the struggle to find meaning and purpose in life, is what mattered to me. Maybe the meaning they found isn't one I can relate to, but it never mattered to me because it was enough that they understood where I was coming from.
The same is true of my connection with U2's "October". In fact, it might be even more true here. These songs aren't as focused on finding something to live for or anything like that. What comes through in a lot of the songs on "October" is yearning and confusion, deeply intertwined and usually inseparable from each other. On opening track "Gloria", the yearning for some higher connection is what takes center stage, and Bono and co. produce what might as well be a hymn. It's a driving uptempo rock song just like anything else by U2, but it's the lyrics I'm really talking about. The chorus is mostly in Latin, with the word "gloria" here not being some girl's name, a la Van Morrison, but instead being the "gloria" that shows up in the Christmas song "Angels We Have Heard On High", as in "gloria in excelsis deo". That's right, "glory to god in the highest". The English words in the song make it clearer--"Oh, lord," Bono sings at one point, "If I had anything at all I'd give it to you." Well, personally, I don't know about that. But I do understand the sentiment behind part of it: "If I had anything at all." As in, but I don't. I've been there.
This feeling of bereft solitude, communicated as a cry to god (and no, I'm not gonna capitalize it--I'm not a believer) in "Gloria", comes through in a way that I can more directly relate to in the song "Fire". The entire song is a battle between two opposing forces--the burning sun in the sky, and the tortured soul within Bono, thankfully never expressed in that cliche manner but instead explained through the metaphorical use of a fire that the narrator builds. For a variety of reasons, probably having a lot to do with how old I was when I got this album, I've always seen this song as existing within the context of the book "Lord Of The Flies". There's some precedent for that--the final song on "Boy", "Shadows And Tall Trees", is named for Chapter 7 of "Lord Of The Flies". As a kid, I always saw myself as most like the character of Simon, who spends most of his time on the island having little to do with either of the two factions of boys that spring up, instead spending a lot of time by himself, trying to understand the island as a way to understand himself. This is why he alone of all the boys ever sees the Lord Of The Flies, though it's only as he meets his untimely end that he does so. In my mind, "Fire" is something Simon might have sung, in the midst of his attempts to understand himself and the world around him. "Calling, calling, the sun is burning black," Bono sings. "It's beating on my back with a fire." This is one side of the struggle. But later in the song, he sings, "But there's a fire inside. When I'm falling over, there's a fire in me. When I call out, I built a fire." Nothing in this song is entirely clear; it's impressionistic and metaphorical, and there's no real narrative, just an expression of a feeling. But it's a feeling I can understand. When I was the same age as the older boys in "Lord Of The Flies", I understood it, and I understand it now, although maybe in a different way. And maybe Andy Greenwald thinks I'm emotionally stunted because I'm still in that same place 20 years later, still trying to figure out who I am in the context of the larger world and what I can do to keep my spirit from being ground down by all of the cold, impersonal forces that exist within it, but personally, I'm ok with it. I feel like this is the kind of thing that people struggle with until they die, and the ones who don't admit to that are lying, to themselves as well as the world around them.
The impressionistic feel of the lyrics to "Fire" is communicated, to some extent, through its music as well. It doesn't so much move through verses and choruses as swell and die back, as in the actions of breaking waves on a shoreline. An even more impressionistic song, musically, is "I Threw A Brick Through A Window", which also features lyrics similar in tone to those of "Fire". The music is based around a heavy, tribal drumbeat that is accented by echoing booms apparently created by members of U2's road crew throwing pieces of sheet metal around the studio. Over this, the Edge plays a hypnotically repetitive guitar riff that, again, swells and drops off, but never really changes all that much. There are some hints at verse/chorus structure, but they aren't really solid, and are more driven by changes in Bono's lyrics than in the music. This might make the whole thing sound like it'd get annoying, but it actually works really well; it's the sort of repetitive song that grows on you as you listen. By the time it reaches the end, it almost makes you want to start it over. Sometimes I do.
The lyrics don't have too much to do with the song's title. The closest they come to referencing anyone doing anything to a window is when Bono sings "I walk into a window to see myself." The window here is obviously metaphorical, and this line is a pretty succinct expression of the lyrical theme for the entire song--looking inward to try and figure out who you actually are. The next lines are, "And my reflection, when I thought about it; my direction--going nowhere." Not grammatically correct when written out as a sentence, but in the looser lyric format, they work well to communicate the frustration that drives the search for understanding, and for self. The song climaxes with a section where the guitar and bass drop out completely, and Larry Mullen Jr.'s tribal pounding swells in volume. Over clattering sheet metal sounds, Bono sings, "No one is blinder than he who will not see." I don't know if there was any religious meaning intended in this line, but I've always taken it at face value. The struggle here is to make oneself open one's own eyes. This, of course, can be incredibly hard, because it involves letting go of preconceptions that are often far more comforting than the actual truths of the world.
The title track is one of the shortest and least substantial songs here, but it deserves mention for its sheer beauty, if nothing else. Whenever I hear it, I think back to the first time I heard it. My family was coming home from a trip into Charlottesville, which was the city I lived outside of between the ages of 13 and 17. We lived way out in the country, so I usually took my Walkman with me so I'd have something to do on the 30 to 45 minute trips from our house into town, and back. That day, I'd purchased a cassette of "October", and was listening to it on the way home. It had gotten dark, and I was in the backseat of the car, looking out the window at the countryside near our house. The elegaic piano chords that make up the music of this song started as we passed a patch of forest, which had recently lost its leaves in preparation for winter. "October", Bono sang in my headphones, "and the trees are stripped bare of all they wear." It was the perfect song to hear at that moment. As I said, there's not all that much to it, but a fortunate first listen has cemented its place in my mind, probably for the rest of my life.
The album ends with two songs that have always meant a lot to me. The first of these two, "Scarlet", is another short, beautiful song, and this one features the entire band playing on it. Again, its driven by a repeating tribal drumbeat from Larry Mullen, this time paired with an intricate melodic bassline laid down by Adam Clayton over occasional echoing shards of guitar, which alternate with a high, clear piano melody. Over all of this, Bono sings one word, over and over: "Rejoice". Unlike "Gloria", which began the album, this song doesn't sound like a hymn, despite its wording. The mood it communicates belies the one-word lyric, and feels more like a requiem than anything celebratory.
It flows into "Is That All", one of the most intense songs of U2's career. The Edge strums his guitar frantically on the intro, scraping his pick across the strings as Larry Mullen lays down equally frantic rolls on his snare in the background. When this intro finally turns into a verse, Bono sings, "To sing this song makes me angry. But I'm not angry with you." On the second verse, he replaces "angry" with "happy". Then on the chorus, he sings, "Is that all? Is that all you want from me?" From the first time I heard it, I knew he was talking to god, and that this song was the flipside of his feelings on the album's opener, "Gloria". But since I was 13 years old the first time I heard it, I couldn't help but think of my parents. And maybe there's nothing more I need to say about that, but sometimes I talk to people about the troubles I had interacting with my parents, as a kid and even to this day, and they seem to have no clue what that's like. I guess there are people out there whose parents are really good people who did a great job in raising them. I don't know if I should say that my parents didn't, in fact; they did the best they could with what they had to work with. But things were tough then, they're tough now, and a lot of times I feel like the things that were a problem for me then and are still problems for me now are problems because of things my parents said or didn't say, did or didn't do, when I was a little tiny child and not old enough to take them with the several grains of salt they deserved. It's harder than ever, at this age, to be angry with them. But sometimes I am still angry. I guess that's why I relate to this song, especially when Bono asks, "Is that all you want from me?", which is a question I want to pose less to my parents and more to some vague concept of life itself.
There's a fire in me.
(When I'm falling over...)
U2 - Fire
U2 - Is That All?