mercoledì 31 marzo 2010


di Scott Calhoun, da, USA

Twelve albums, 137 songs, 650 pages, all in the name of love. Andrea Morandi's new study of U2's lyrics was published in Italy in late 2009 and I just found out about it last month. U2: The Name of Love, Testi Commentati is part of Arcana's "lyrics and commentary" series on popular music.

It caught my eye for several reasons: it is a song-by-song look at all of the studio albums which, to my knowledge, is just the second book of this kind (Niall Stokes' Into the Heart is the other); it is by a Milan-based journalist and writer, and there aren't many books about U2 coming from Italy; it seemed to take a special interest in the way Biblical texts have influenced Bono as a songwriter; the cover has a striking piece of art on it that looks like a heart is "abloom"; and, well, when I heard the Vatican's newspaper reviewed the book – knowing that Bono and Pope John Paul II hit it off well – that piqued my interest even more.

Curiously, after L'Osservatore Romano ran "Re Davide? Una pop star" (Is King David a Pop Star?), several English language blogs reacted. Some only mentioned that now we have a book to show U2's lyrics are influenced by the Bible (duh!). One blogger decried it as a "crusading" book which she took to champion Bono as a defender of the faith, while others suggested the pope himself (!) had endorsed Morandi's book.

Regrettably, I can't read Italian well enough to follow more than a paragraph or two. Fortunately Morandi does just fine with English and agreed to answer some questions to satisfy my curiosity. And guess what? From his explanations, it sounds like far from being a Sunday School exercise of connect-the-dots; the author delved into more than just the Biblical influences on Bono's lyrics. He's attempted to tell a story of Bono's growth as a lyricist with a screenwriter's touch. For example (and with apologies to the author), a rough translation of the beginning of the chapter "I Will Follow" goes like this:

Outside. Daytime. Dublin. September 10, 1974, at the Blackhorse Avenue military cemetery. A long column of people follow the coffin of Alexander Rankin, who died three days earlier of a heart attack while celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary. In the crowd, at the front of the line near the tombstone, there is the eldest child of the deceased, Iris Rankin, accompanied and supported by the family. As the funeral service nears its end, Iris' legs suddenly give way and she collapses, violently hitting her head against the ground. She is overcome with emotion. She collapses from the pain of mourning. She faints. "It's alright, it's nothing, she has just fainted. Do not worry, let her breathe," someone says. It seems like a minor fall, but her brain is bleeding.

Around Iris – flooding the grass of the cemetery – is a flock of people: someone helps her get up, someone runs to the first telephone booth, someone puts his hands in her hair. She is immediately taken away by ambulance and at the hospital the situation becomes desperate. She remains in a coma for four days. In front of the glass of the operating room, there is her husband, Robert Hewson, and two sons: Norman, the eldest, 22, and Paul, 14. Iris Rankin died on September 14, 1974. She was only forty years old. For the younger son, life seems to have ended even before it began:

I was on the outside, when you said
You needed me
I was looking at myself
I was blind, I could not see.

In The Name of Love is not yet available in English but if you're like me, you might enjoy reading the author talk about a book we'll have to wait to read.

What inspired you to write U2: The Name of Love?
I wanted to dig into Bono's history, his literary and autobiographic sources, like it had never been done before in order to understand from where and how each song, from "I Will Follow" to "Cedars of Lebanon," was born. While analyzing the 137 songs, song-by-song, from U2's 12 albums, I created a kind of screenplay for the background of the book, opening in a cemetery in Dublin in 1974 and closing in a hotel room in Beirut in 2008. This way the reader can go through the entire life of Bono, from his being a child to becoming a father, from being unknown to becoming a myth.
Describe the approach your book takes.
In part my book is a methodical look contemplating the Bible and Bono's lyrics. But not all of U2's songs are inspired by the Bible or about God, of course. So in the book, there are many others things, from historical questions to issues of literary influences. I have a song-by-song format, but every song is written in a different way. Some songs you find analysis, some songs are treated like short stories, some songs have dialogue like a screenplay. Reading all the 137 songs you can read also the journey of Bono, starting in September 1974 at the Blackhorse Cemetery.
What resources did you use to help you write your book?
I started with the lyrics and went backwards. The Bible has been a key source because in the book I compared Bono's words with those of Habakkuk, Isaiah and David, but there is much more. There is an influence of Karl Popper in "Zoo Station"; of Jean Baudrillard in "Even Better Than the Real Thing"; of Raymond Carver in "Acrobat"; and of Paul Celan, Patrick Kavanagh and Soren Kierkegaard in "The First Time." There are also influence from essays on foreign politics, books on the history of blues, Sam Shepard and Flannery O'Connor, John Boyle O'Reilly and Norman Mailer, John Clare and Thomas Mann, and Günter Grass and Virginia Woolf. I discovered all these thing starting from reading old interviews with Bono, old quotes, suggestions and well-known things (John Boyle O'Reilly is the man in "Van Diemen's Land").
I've read many books about U2, of course, but the one that I followed like a polar star was U2 by U2. There are many revelations in that book and I try to investigate them more. I read Stokes' Into the Heart but I tried to dig deeper; he doesn't go very deep into influences from the Bible or literature.
How long did it take you to research and write your book?
It took me two years for the research and one year to write it. I wanted to focus on words, because even though this book is divided into 137 chapters, it can be read like a novel where the reader can follow a kind of plot, which is the spiritual and human evolution of Bono.
What did you learn about Bono from studying his lyrics?
I learned that Bono is a much more complex writer than has been said or written by critics and that only Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen have been able to sum up the Bible in three minutes like Bono can. From The Unforgettable Fire on, his research on words is high-level and it gets to its climax on Achtung Baby and Zooropa, in which he blends high and trash culture together, the television with the Holy Bible, war with love, Norman Schwarzkopf with Delmore Schwartz, Leni Riefenstahl with Frank Sinatra.
As a matter of fact, I found out that the lyrics for Pop, U2's most criticized album, are among the best Bono has ever written. Why? Because that is the moment in which Bono sees very clearly in his life and analyzes his mother's death in "Mofo" and the status of a rock star in "Gone." He's very well-focused, like never before or after on that record.
Any discoveries that surprised you?
Well, there were many. For example, I realized "Mofo" is more an essay on psychoanalysis than a pop song because in that song Bono went through his grief for the loss of his mother for the first time in 23 years. But the most surprising discovery is the huge mass of literary quotations, from Celan to Carver, that fill U2's songs. What's more, I found out that in "One Tree Hill" Bono quotes his favorite Flannery O'Connor short story, "The Enduring Chill," and that "The Fly" was shaped by C.S. Lewis' way of writing [The Screwtape Letters]. Also in "Grace," Bono quotes from What's So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey.
What did you notice about the way Bono used Scripture in his songs?
He's very fascinated with the stories, about the men and women in the Bible. He discovered that the Bible is not only a great religious book, but a great book in general, and he learned a lot from the experiences of people in the Bible.
Is there a U2 album that seems to be influenced more than the others by Scripture?
Well, yes, October is full of Bible quotes and so is War, but so is even No Line on the Horizon, from "Unknown Caller," where there is the voice of God, like a chant, from Jeremiah 33:3, "Call unto me and I will answer thee," to "Magnificent," with Mary's Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke.
Given that you consulted the Bible so much for insight into Bono's lyrics, did you also consult religious teachers for their views on the lyrics?
No, I deliberately wanted to follow the same path Bono went on during his youth: He found out the Bible is a great book in itself, not only a religious book. He found wonderful and astonishing stories in there. He was so impressed that he identified himself with David, who inspired him in writing songs such as "40" and "Wake Up Dead Man." Bono speaks with God as he would speak to a friend, in a simple and sometimes funny way. That is his strength.
What has been the reaction to your book so far?
In Italy, I've been on the national television news and on radio shows. Daily papers such as La Repubblica, Avvenire and L'Osservatore Romano, which is Vatican's official paper, have reviewed the book, and those reviews have received some international attention. I think some who are not U2 fans have enjoyed reading the book because it is written like a coming-of-age novel.
Do you think you could say what the general response to U2 is in Italy?
In Italy, there is a strong passion for the epic force of the music of U2, for their anthems, for their capability of gathering people. But as their lyrics are in English, many people can't fully understand what Bono says and many don't know the context for the songs. In this sense, the ultimate aim of The Name of Love is to show how complex U2's lyrics are and help with understanding them.
Any plans to have In The Name of Love available in English?
Soon my book will be translated into Polish, and I'm looking for other translations, maybe in French or in Spanish, but I would love to reach English readers and most of all an American audience. I think my book could be really interesting for readers in the United States, because it shows how America has been essential to the evolution of the band. It has been so important for Bono that he said, "We didn't realize we were Irish until we came to America."
Are there more books you'd like to write about U2?
I'd like to write the one I partially started here: Bono's novel, the story of his incredible life in the form of a novel; a biopic conceived like an opera divided into three acts. The first act would be about the difficult growth of the boy Paul Hewson; the second act would be about his achievement as an artist and his success, and a third, more introspective act, about Bono as a human being. I think that beyond what people think of Bono, his story is really powerful. I'd like to give it an epic strength with a kind of "Once upon a time in Dublin" feeling, inspired by Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, but also by the many beautiful operas of Giuseppe Verdi.

sabato 27 marzo 2010


di Deane Galbraith, da, Nuova Zelanda

A recently released Italian book provides a song-by-song commentary on the lyrics to U2 songs from all twelve studio albums. What I want to have a quick look at, here, is the interesting media reception which U2: The Name Of Love (Rome: Arcana, 2009) provoked – a reception that illustrates the role of the reader and listener in observing and construing biblical allusions.

In his introduction to the book, journalist-author Andrea Morandi explains that his commentary will attempt to identify the literary and historical influences of each song, as well as place them within a biography of the band’s development over the last 30 years or so:

“This book attempts to tell the story of U2 sequentially by putting together the pieces of a mosaic: 137 songs, one after another, combined to produce the final design. The structure is like that of a film script that begins in 1974, in a cemetery in Dublin and ends in 2009 in Beirut. In between there are twelve chapters on twelve records, involving America and the Bible, Karl Popper and Johnny Cash, New York and Berlin, Barack Obama and Margaret Thatcher, El Salvador and the British miners, the supermodel and the IRA. A hundred and thirty tales, in which we follow the evolution of Paul Hewson, a boy who begins by writing lyrics in the first person as in a journal and who, album after album, becomes increasingly aware of his literary power, learning lessons from Bob Dylan and John Lennon, joining together fragments from anywhere: popular and high culture, ancient and modern, the Psalms of David and Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor and advertising slogans, the book of Habakkuk and Wim Wenders, but also the world and its changes, the fall of the Wall to September 11.”

The introduction stresses the great diversity of influences on U2’s lyrics, and this variety of literary and historical factors is documented more fully throughout the 664-page book. As you see, there is no special emphasis on biblical influences, but rather, these are integrated into the book along with relevant literary and historical influences.
So how did the media receive it? First: the Vatican daily newspaper. An article published in the 4-5 January 2010 edition of L’Osservatore Romano included a number of comments on Andrea Morandi’s book. The article, by journalist Gaetano Vallini focuses, somewhat unsurprisingly, on the biblical allusions in U2 songs. The article notes, quite correctly, that U2’s 1981 album, October stands out as especially significant for its biblical and Christian allusions, but that such allusions can be detected throughout U2’s subsequent albums. While the Vatican’s newspaper is understandably slanted towards this particular aspect of Morandi’s book, and this aspect of U2’s music, it does not misrepresent the content of the book.

But now consider an article which was published by UK newspaper The Guardian, on its music blog (6 January 2010). Laura Barnett’s article reported both on Morandi’s book and its review in the Vatican’s newspaper. The Guardian’s article is headlined as follows:
U2: Rock’n'roll’s answer to the Book of Common Prayer?
Is Bono really a true crusader for Christianity? Two Italian journalists have examined his lyrics and discovered Biblical allusions in almost every song
The remaining content of the Guardian article is typical of the UK media’s inability to understand religion, a failure that frequently boils over into outright animosity, as it does here. Barnett’s article continues by incorrectly reporting that the Vatican’s newspaper article constitutes “the official endorsement of the Vatican” on U2. (It’s not – it’s some Vatican journalist’s piece.) Her article then describes the Vatican article as “mak[ing] the case that Bono is a true crusader for Christianity”, and reports that his lyrics are “a veritable treasure trove of Biblical references and allusions.” She follows this up by claiming that, in his book, “Andrea Morandi laboriously extracts Biblical allusions from almost every U2 lyric.” This is patently untrue, and suggests both a misreading of the Vatican article (which only claims such a comprehensive degree of biblical allusions on the album October) and a complete failure to read Morandi’s own book. As the quotation from U2: The Name Of Love shows above, Morandi’s book contains a great diversity of literary and historical sources for Bono’s lyrics, of which biblical allusions form a regular but not all-pervasive presence.

What is particularly amusing about Barnett’s hatchet-job is that, in the one case where Barnett concludes there is no biblical allusion, she gets that wrong as well. Barnett objects when L’Osservatore Romano finds a biblical allusion in the song “Magnificent” to Mary’s magnificat in Luke 1. She comments that this ”feels like an extrapolation too far.” What is interesting here, for me, is that the words to “Magnificent” can be interpreted as secular by someone without any great biblical literacy. Whereas, the case can be just the opposite if you have the words of the magnificat in your “intertextual encyclopedia” - as Bono confesses he himself did, when he wrote the song. Not that I’d proffer the songwriter’s own comments as in any way decisive on the issue.

What is also fascinating about this largely religiously illiterate Guardian reviewer is that she clearly feels that she has been “taken in” by U2. At the conclusion to her article, she wonders if listeners should steer clear of U2 for fear of “religious conversion by stealth” (my emphasis). She doesn’t quite understand the biblical allusions in U2’s music, but now she knows that they’re there. And if she can’t determine where they are exactly, they could be bloody anywhere! Despite a career in musical journalism, which should have afforded her with some degree of acquaintance with bands like U2, it seems that U2’s regularly biblical allusions and Christian themes have largely passed over her head. And on this point, she might have got something right. U2’s lyrics have always been able to speak in different ways to different audiences, depending on the community to which they belong and that community’s particular goals, interests, and knowledge.