March 4, 2013
We recently purchased our registration for the second-ever U2 Conference, to be held in Cleveland, Ohio this coming April 26-28.
While there have been U2 fan gatherings of all shapes and sizes, this confab, which debuted in 2009 and coincided with a U2 show, is one-of-a-kind event in North America. Organized by the visionary Scott Calhoun, the website @U2, and a cast of many others, this U2 Conference further establishes “U2 Studies” as a legitimate interdisciplinary field of academic study, uniting those who work in the academy in areas such as theology and musicology, literature and popular culture.
The complete schedule includes numerous panels on either the “fan” or “academic” track, a keynote by noted rock writer Ann Powers, collaboration with the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame that occupies a beautiful piece of real estate on Ohio’s north coast, a U2-themed worship experience on Sunday after the conference closes, and two performances by two different U2 tribute bands ONE and UF (or Unforgettable Fire).
Follow the drop-down links from the main conference website (http://u2conference.com) for more details. Early-bird prices remain in effect through March 11.
[pictured on homepage: UF band]
February 23, 2013
This morning, prepping for a class I’m teaching called Writing about Film and Music, I stumbled across a YouTube clip of the legendary Brian Eno, producer of U2’s 1987 The Joshua Tree, talking about his role in the making of that iconic album:
I got the sense that U2 was capable of making a real marriage between the two things I was talking about, between something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool—and uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool, and coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself, with a certain defensiveness, actually, not exposing something, because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed…
Later, Eno says that U2 was never a critical darling, because they were perceived as wearing their “hearts on their sleeve.” Recall the way Bono has used arena stages as a bully pulpit for his various causes: El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and gun violence. I confess I’ve always loved this about Bono, though I know it makes lots of people squeamish.
Later in the same clip, The Edge reveals that during the writing of The Joshua Tree, the band was inspired by the work of the New Journalists, especially Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song.
In other writing, I’ve suggested that perhaps narrative nonfiction is the most important art form at the moment, as it helps us to engage in and express our spiritual selves. I see an opportunity here to push a little more on this notion that spiritual nonfiction is our most culturally relevant form of writing.
After teaching class, I ran across another reference to coolness and detachment in a recent American Scholar column, in which William Deresiewicz defines the “upper middlebrow” as an aesthetic that is neither middlebrow nor highbrow where feelings are “hidden by a veil of cool.”
According to Deresiewicz, the upper middlebrow is “edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive”—and is produced by a variety of un-reproachable figures and institutions, including Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, the HBO series Girls, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The New Yorker, and This American Life.
Like Deresiewicz, I see those asking for a closer inspection of these arguably “cool” artists and works, those who sense that their perceived value is based on how fully they affirm our world view and the nearly limitless spectrum of values that secular humanism embraces, are not just seen as uncool, but as oppressors.
I’ll admit it: I spent years chasing after cool before I finally settled down into an un-ironic pursuit of truth. Quite unexpectedly, this search has manifested itself in becoming a nonfiction writer.
Nonfiction seeks to remove that veil, or in some cases, multiple veils, of distance and detachment. And the New Journalism, whose first-person reportorial techniques have been thoroughly absorbed into the other sub-genres of personal essay and memoir, is credited with being the form that cut through the bureaucratic double-speak of government officials, the public veneer of celebrities, and the biases all reporters harbor.
The personal essay appeals to me right now because it’s where we can attempt to stop lying to ourselves—no more posturing, no more hiding behind a house style—though we may stumble in the attempt.
To be clear: I’m not calling for a boycott of novels or short stories. I still believe that fiction has the power to transform hearts and minds like no other medium. The genius of fiction is in grappling with characters who seem so unlike us, but who are actually holding up a mirror.
So here I am, an Irish Catholic boy, a Notre Dame grad no less, holding up U2 as the antidote to our detachment. But we must find inspiration where we can, and I am inspired by the determination to remain awake at the expense of being cool. I laugh at Colbert and Stewart, and even Girls.
But I’m tired of upper-middlebrow detachment. Like Deresiewicz, I yearn for works of art and culture that will challenge rather than affirm our views about the world, and what we believe to be our essential nature. I want to hear it from the mouths of the lost and the confused. I don’t mind that it sometimes feels like the blind leading the blind. Cool just doesn’t it do it for me anymore. –David Griffith
David Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. He teaches at Sweet Briar College. A different, longer version of this piece previously appeared on IMAGE’s blog Good Letters, hosted by Patheos. You can find it here:
February 10, 2013
Bleeding-heart sincerity is uncomfortable for many people. Makes a weaker person turn away, ashamed for the feeler. Second-hand embarrassment and all that. As if honesty is something to be ashamed of. Be it in a moment of unabashed joy, unimaginable pain or just looking deep into someone’s eyes to deliver an apology or hard-to-swallow truth. It’s easier to turn away and pass judgement instead of attempting to understand. Or respect the torrent of emotion and tribulations involved.
We’re all just trying to be better people, sincerely. Or be better at being people.
I first laid eyes on Mumford & Sons in October 2009 when I was one of the few and first American reporters tasked with covering them during the annual CMJ Music Marathon. Their indie buzz was positive (and not divisive) then, and my friend Fred (who accompanied me to the show) corroborated their cachet with a resounding thumbs-up. It had been an important band for he and a former girlfriend, and he was certain I too would walk away a believer.
The Mumfords shared a packed bill that night at the Blue Flowers showcase at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with hypey also-rans The Temper Trap and Golden Silvers. They opened with eponymous album title cut “Sigh No More” and 10 seconds in, I was in tears. I looked at Fred and said, “this is devastating.” I would go on to opine of the show in my review: “…from first blush and foot stomp to the last joyful harmony, an undeniable, unimaginable victory.” Also tellingly, I said this: “Fans of Damien Rice, the Avett Brothers and BRMC’s ‘Howl’ will freak if they haven’t done so already. My larger hope, of course, is that everyone else will, too. That’s right: Mumford and Sons is your new band to believe in, kids.” “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” would own millions of brains (including many of my dearest friends) just months later.
In February of the following year, in the dead of winter, I was confirmed to design and manage my very first photo shoot with the band at a Victorian-themed bar in Union Square. A brilliant photographer friend of mine agreed to take it on, and the bar confirmed they’d allow us use of the back portion of the place for 20 minutes so the guys could have some peace. No rest for the weary gentlemen of the road, unfortunately, and myriad reasons prevented them from making their initially scheduled flight, and thusly the whole production was cancelled on the day of the shoot. The lighting, the mirrors, the antique furniture, it had all lined up perfectly. All it needed were four English blokes who were just starting to know what royalty checks look like. That night, however, the show would go on at the venerable Bowery Ballroom — their first headlining stop in Manhattan — where they played a barnstormer of an album-release party. Gone forever were the days when you could happen upon ruddy-faced Hemingway-esque lead singer Marcus Mumford outside the front door of the venue next to the band’s gear truck, laughing broadly, enjoying a smoke and beer, and high-fiving anyone who dared approach with well-wishes.
To wit, as I reported then: “I’ve watched plenty of bands achieve ‘full flight’ before. That’s what following U2 around the country for years and admiring Fanfarlo during CMJ will earn you. But the fiery, banjo-wielding Mumford & Sons showed the capacity crowd truly something special last night, and the crowd – a foot-stomping, hands-in-the-air, doin’ a jig, hugging your neighbor mass of winter coat-wearing strangers – sang back every word. ‘Awake My Soul’ became less an album track, and more a pathos as the night wore on.”
Much has been derisively said about the Mumfords’ “alt-folk” tent-revival schtick. As if was actually a falsehood. A come-on. A bit of pretend. As if they were trying to insert themselves into a scene they categorically and factually had no part of, like Vanilla Ice in Miami, purporting to be some kind of banger. Just because they were well-educated and London-based and not rural-dwelling sheep herders, clearly this wasn’t an honest band. But see, the discerning music lover is smart enough to sniff the shit from the soap. Watching the other audience members have profound reactions while taking in Marcus and the boys was no lark — this was a band doing something important, much-needed and significant. Sounding and answering their own clarion call with the fury of an army armed with little more than banjos, dobros, elbow grease and a lot of passion and sincerity.
Sure, audience members can be given to spontaneous celebratory noodling and hoedowns at a Mumford show, just as industrial fans have the Pavlovian desire to slam against each other. This isn’t an emotional display to be critical and suspect of; I reserve much judgement for a human being who can side-eye another human being wrapped up in the unbelievable joy that washes over you when a turn of phrase fixes your heart, leading your outstretched arms to signify “FINALLY,” because someone had the big beautiful gall to say it. Whatever IT is for you.
Last night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, I was blessed to witness FINALLY on a grand, arena-sized scale as thousands sang along to “Babel” (“Cause I’ll know my weakness, know my voice/And I believe in grace and choice”), “Thistle and Weeds” (“Plant your hope with good seeds/Don’t cover yourself with thistle and weeds”) and “Awake My Soul” (“In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die/And where you invest your love, you invest your life”) among other joyfully rowdy tunes such as ” I Will Wait,” “Lover of the Light,” ubiquitous wunderkind hit “Little Lion Man” and “Roll Away Your Stone.”
We’re all just trying to be better people, sincerely. Or be better at being people.
I don’t know about you, but lately, I’m tired of hiding. And since Hurricane Sandy wrecked my life up something fierce in late October 2012 (I remain displaced from my downtown Manhattan apartment as I write this), I’ve had no choice but to be alternately sincerely troubled and sincerely hopeful, with sometimes disastrous results the last four months. While looking out at the thousands with arms outstretched in their own private Idahos of FINALLY last night, I closed my eyes, sat still as a rock, and just listened to the newly impassioned soulful voices around me. Everyone has their own Sandy.
Excavation is exhausting, but one of the most necessary tasks we have inherited in this mortal coil. How else can you get to the heart of any matter or complication if your knee-jerk reaction is to turn away from the mud that comes with an uncomfortable truth? This is the question that Mumford & Sons seek to answer, sincerely. –Carrie Alison
Carrie Alison is a former editor, music journalist and publicist. She lives in New York City.
December 26, 2012
Bono has a thing for Christmas, having called it the “Carnival in the cold.” Bono adds music and many meanings to this holy hybrid of the sacred and the secular, the cozy and the commercial.
For a moment on Monday, we thought the U2 news-blast of the 2012 Christmas season was going to be the length of Adam’s hair. Or the release by U2.com of a new live version of “Angel of Harlem.”
But then Bono changed all that by showing up for his annual busking gig on the streets of Dublin, in an upscale shopping area called Grafton Street.
Joined this year by Glen Hansard and Lisa Hannigan and others, Bono busked for donations to the Simon Community (http://www.dubsimon.ie) and indulged us with a set that included: 1. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home); 2. I Believe in Father Christmas; 3. Silent Night; 4. Desire/Not Fade Away. A YouTube version of the full show is here: http://youtu.be/9kZNGSP88lg
To see a bazillionaire big-shot rock star of Bono’s backstory becoming a busker, if even for a mere few minutes surrounded by adoring fans and clicking cameras, brings to the front of our consciousness the common Christmas theme of social reversals and sacred inversions that form the core of the religious narrative for this festive holy day.
Back in 2005, with the release of the book In Conversation With Michka Assayas, Bono reveals his own amazing interpretation of the religious nature of Christmas myth with a personal and theological story of his own Christmas re-conversion:
“I remember coming back from a very long tour. I hadn’t been at home. Got home for Christmas, very excited of being in Dublin. […] On Christmas Eve, I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.[…] It’s kind of a tradition on Christmas Eve to go, but I’d never been.
I went to this place, sat. I was given this really bad seat, behind one of the huge pillars. I couldn’t see anything. I was sitting there, having come back from Tokyo, or somewhere like that. I went for the singing, because I love choral singing. […]
But I was falling asleep, being up for a few days, traveling, because it was a bit boring, the service, and I just started nodding off. […] Then I started to try and keep myself awake studying what was on the page. It dawned on me for the first time, really. It had dawned on me before, but it really sank in: the Christmas story.
The idea that God, if there is a force of Logic and Love in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in shit and straw…a child… I just thought: ‘Wow!’ Just the poetry … Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable. There it was. I was sitting there, and it’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came streaming down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this. […]
Love needs to find form, intimacy needs to be whispered. To me, it makes sense. It’s actually logical. It’s pure logic. Essence has to manifest itself. It’s inevitable. Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.”
Rock music’s interesting relationship with Christmas gets revived with all the holiday releases each year. And in Bono’s case this year, it comes to us in the form of a rugged hand-made video clip, in the form of a busking rich man, in the form of reflecting with Bono on the deeper essence of the season. May this Christmas time be one of love, logic, and re-conversion for U2 fans and everyone, everywhere.
—Andrew William Smith, Editor
December 19, 2012
Once upon a time, we went clubbing. Before raves, before house music, we went clubbing and danced to new wave “club mixes,” released as 12-inch singles. We would spend more 1980s cash on these vinyl delicacies than we would ever shell out today for an iTunes download.
In the mid-1980s, I shook my rear without fear to my favorite band’s songs re-framed as dance hits. My favorite, the original Steve Lillywhite remix of “Two Hearts Beat As One” is still available on the bonus disc of the War re-issue.
Electronic dance music has come a long way since the 1980s, but thanks to the renowned curator of sound known as Tiesto, the U2 dance mix can get my middle-aged-behind to boogie. Thanks to the interwebs, I can get my dance on in the morning, in comfort of my crib all alone.
Released in honor of World AIDS Day 2012 and the Dance (RED) campaign, this Tiesto-spiced version of “Pride” includes a soulful crisp new vocal track and the lyrical correction about the time of day in Memphis that Martin King took the bullet. The song about social justice and self-sacrificial nonviolent love feels as relevant in this new version as it did in 1984. In the name of love indeed! -Andrew William Smith, Editor
Check out the track here: