Headphone Devotionals: Praying the U2 Catalog

March 30, 2013

Back in 2003, Beth Maynard and Raewynne Whitely released a book of sermons about U2, subtitled as a text on “preaching the U2 catalog.” Around that time I did not consider myself a Christian, but Maynard’s “U2 Sermons” blog that followed the book was deeply influential in jogging my memory about Jesus and how Bono’s prophetic Christian message on top of Edge’s guitar was the primary pull that turned me into a U2 fanboy, early in the 1980s when listening to Boy, October, and War.

Being reminded of this sacred synchronicity of how spirituality and rock music dynamically distill themselves in U2 helped me find God again in the lyrics to the 2004 smash album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Listening to that album and its followup No Line On The Horizon led to my “Moment of Surrender” at a U2 concert in North Carolina in October 2009, where I fell to my knees and wept during the closing song and in my heart recommitted my life to Jesus. Granted, this submission to my higher power had actually been going down throughout that year, but this particular concert-closing contained an element of altar call for me.

Back in the 1980s, U2 lyrics were the stuff of Sunday-night youth group discussions at my Presbyterian church in suburban Detroit. A U2 concert at the Joe Louis Arena on the Unforgettable Fire tour was a church outing for Christian teens at my church and I imagine many others like ours all over the US at that time.

Just as Maynard and many of her minister colleagues managed to make a book out of how we could preach the U2 catalog, I am currently focused on how we can pray the U2 catalog, treating the songs as prayers and psalms, incorporating U2’s lyrics and music into our daily devotional life.

Bono1983

With the headphones in private, or blasting loud from the best speakers in the house, listening to U2 has always been an almost ritualistic spiritual encounter for me. Taking the cue from what Bono has disclosed in interviews about songs and psalms, we can develop a notion of devotional listening, taking it from a casual sonic comfort and transforming it into a more refined example of what some people call a “spiritual discipline.” But before delving deeper into some of the U2 songs that we could treat as contemporary psalms (as I hope to do in other articles), we can look at Bono’s relationship with the music that inspired him as a youth, as well as at his relationship with the psalms of the Bible and how these both inspire the music he’s made.

In a 2005 interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, a middle-aged Bono divulges how in his youth his own spiritual practice began in a similar way with the popular songs of Dylan and Lennon, of folk, rock, and punk. Bono recalls:

“Even then I prayed more outside of the church than inside. It gets back to the songs I was listening to; to me, they were prayers. ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ That wasn’t a rhetorical question to me. It was addressed to God. It’s a question I wanted to know the answer to, and I’m wondering, who do I ask that to?”

Like so many of us, Bono had intimate spiritual encounters with the headphones on.

He told Wenner, “I was in my room listening on headphones on a tape recorder. It’s very intimate. It’s like talking to somebody on the phone, like talking to John Lennon on the phone. I’m not exaggerating to say that. This music changed the shape of the room. It changed the shape of the world outside the room; the way you looked out the window and what you were looking at.”

Bono actually experienced an apostle Paul kind-of-moment listening to the secular prophet Lennon. “I remember John singing ‘Oh My Love.’ It’s like a little hymn. It’s certainly a prayer of some kind – even if he was an atheist. ‘Oh, my love/For the first time in my life/My eyes can see/I see the wind/Oh, I see the trees/Everything is clear in our world.’ For me it was like he was talking about the veil lifting off, the scales falling from the eyes. Seeing out the window with a new clarity that love brings you. I remember that feeling.”

This idea, then, of “songs as prayers” has captivated Bono since the beginning. So by the time the band gets to writing its own albums, Bono’s spirit and mind are captivated about how to tap that root and how to kneel to touch the sky. In the book U2 By U2, he reveals the creative process that brought us the song “Gloria”:

“But I believed – and still do – that the way to unlock yourself, creatively and spiritually and pretty much every other way, is to be truthful. It’s the hardest thing to do, to be truthful with yourself. And if you’ve nothing to say, that’s the first line of the song, ‘I’ve got nothing to say.’ So I started to write about that. The song ‘Gloria’ is about that struggle. I turned it into a psalm. I try to stand up but I can’t find my feet. I try to speak up but only in you am I complete. Gloria in te domine. Wild thing for a twenty-two year old. Gregorian chant mixed with this psalm. It was a stained-glass kind of song.”

“Gloria” appeared on the band’s second album October, when spontaneously and prayerfully unlocking the truth within carried an added importance due to the unfortunate loss of Bono’s lyrics notebook before the recording process. On the follow-up disc called War, as the band wrapped up its recording session, with their time in the studio all used up and another band waiting in the wings, the album felt one song short.

“Let’s do a psalm,” blurted Bono, who opened the good book to Psalm 40. Simply called “40,” the closer to that record became the traditional closer to U2 concerts for many years, with countless in the crowd repeating the chorus, long after the band left the stage: “How long to sing this song?” When most people think of U2 and the Psalms, it’s this text that comes to mind.

40-single

Years later on the Elevation Tour that followed the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Bono took a knee and prefaced his performance of “Where The Streets Have No Name” with a brief recitation from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 116: “What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation—A toast to God! I’ll pray in the name of God; I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, And I’ll do it together with his people.” The revival that the band’s career experienced in the early 2000s certainly felt worthy of a “toast to God.”

In 1999, when Canongate published a pocket-paperback edition of the Psalms in the UK, Bono’s words provided the introductory remarks. There, Bono makes the important point that Psalms are as much blues as they are gospel, explaining, “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 and the nature of his special relationship with God.” This tension between gospel and blues that Bono locates in an ancient text actually forms the central attraction found in much great rock music.

In his immediate appreciation of the Psalms, Bono compares the honesty of these sacred texts to likes of Lennon and Dylan as well as to Al Green and Stevie Wonder. Echoing a sentiment he will share later in the interview with Jann Wenner, Bono writes, “Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do – they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD.”

It’s this profound experiential sense of God that so many of us fans draw from U2’s music. Clearly this happens at the rare communal concert experiences every few years with a few thousand fellow devotees. But it also happens every day. Away from church, often alone, frequently with the headphones on, these songs reach and touch us deep down inside. And even old songs feel like new songs. And how long will we sing these songs? A lifetime, for many fans, won’t be long enough. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

These ideas will be addressed further in a presentation at the U2 Conference in Cleveland and in a study of specific U2 songs as prayers.

 

The Vibrating Emotions of Dinner and a Suit, live in Nashville

March 14, 2013

Nashville continues to remake its music reputation for the better. Nashville’s talent pool remains enormous, and we witnessed this again as local four-piece rock/pop outfit Dinner and a Suit recently performed at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville.

The simple-looking band launched immediately into a high flying, high energy performance that literally shook the floor beneath our feet. The upbeat set made us want to move, dance, and sway with the crowd. Powerful emotions pack the songs: the longing, the hope, the confusion. Put plainly, they’re just really good.

Vocalist Jonathan Capeci, guitarist Joey Beretta, bassist Anthony Genca, and drummer Drew Scheuer settled into a groove with the floodgates open and the sound pouring into the room, covering everything and everyone. Too often, intensity and energy mean sacrificing quality in the songs, but for Dinner and a Suit no such loss transpires. Each song in their set revealed a truly respectable amount of dexterity in their performance.

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The performance was just so great overall, but every show does have its moments of sublime beauty. The fourth song in their set, “Where We Started,” deals heavily with hope and forgiveness, combining the beauty of a Coldplay-esque piano ballad with jazzy drum flairs, interjected by moments of heavy beats and rumbling guitars. The combination doesn’t feel forced in any sense, and the emotion in Jonathan Capeci’s voice shines through.

So much of Dinner and a Suit’s music brings messages of hope in the face of change. Their songs are both tempered and embellished by the emotion that inspires creation, and the emotion  drives the band in their live performance. The evidence is never clearer than in their performance of a song titled “It’s Not Over.”

The song began with the high-ringing sounds of Joey’s guitar as Jonathan came in on the piano. Soon enough, the crash of the drums and thump of the bass made tables and chairs vibrate across the floor as Jonathan bounced up and down, his hands crashing on the keys of his piano while he wailed into the microphone. It’s really not often that you see any artist rock out as much as Jonathan does on a piano, and again, the skill with which they all come together on the song is just incredible. Flawless isn’t a safe word to use for anyone, but these guys certainly come close.

Just as soon as they start, they are finished, and again, the humility that can so take you by surprise steps in again, as Jonathan finishes the set by approaching the mic, delivering a quick, “God bless you, have a good night,” and stepping out of the spotlight. For a group with so much talent and reasons to be cocky, the openness with which they approach their audience is welcome. Besides, there isn’t enough space in the room for a big ego with a sound as big as theirs. – Jordan Frye, Contributing Writer

Dinner and a Suit are currently on tour, so if they come through your neck of the woods, drop in and give them a listen, or check them out online at Facebook.com/dinnerandasuit.

Registration Open for April U2 Conference

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]