Rainbows Over Dublin, U2′s Gay Pride in Arizona, & the Arc of Bono’s Activism

May 26, 2015

When Ireland became the first country to legalize same-gender marriage by popular mandate, double rainbows appeared over Dublin, and an Irish rock band transformed their Arizona concert into a gay-rights celebration. Almost 30 years ago, Bono endured threats from angry Arizonans for his support of the US national holiday for the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But on Saturday, Bono invoked King as peacemaker as U2 celebrated the victory of love, turning the song “Pride (In The Name of Love)” into an anthem for gay pride.

U2 had begun expressing their strong support for #VoteYes on their website and social media outlets in the days leading up to the vote, even though they were on tour in North America. This victory for Ireland was a particularly poignant moment for Bono to be his most audacious activist from the arena stage on an issue local to Ireland–and not on the talking-points handout from the ONE campaign–as important as those issues remain. Bono’s speech on Saturday in Arizona during “Pride” profoundly united his faith, poltics, and belief in love in profound and eloquent ways.

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Bono shared, “This is a moment to thank the people who bring us peace. It’s a moment for us to thank the people who brought peace to our country. We have peace in Ireland today! And in fact on this very day we have true equality in Ireland. Because millions turned up to vote yesterday to say, ‘love is the highest law in the land! Love! The biggest turnout in the history of the state, to say, ‘love is the highest law in the land!’ Because if God loves us, whoever we love, wherever we come from… then why can’t the state?’”

This victory for same-gender love being likened by Bono to God’s love provides us a powerful moment to reflect on the evolution of U2’s faith and activism. Back in the 1980s, after albums like War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree, Bono and U2 epitomized the progressive activism of anti-war and anti-apartheid positions, particularly criticizing the Reagan administration’s interventionist intrusions in Central America with a track like “Bullet The Blue Sky.” Because the band’s activism expressed their faith in Jesus Christ, the lord, savior, and peaceful liberator, they took hits in the secular cynical rock press for being messianic crusaders. Come down from the cross, the critics chastised Bono, we could use the wood for kindling.

In the 1990s, Bono dealt with his Jesus-complex by dressing up in drag or like the devil. The trio of albums that chopped down the Joshua Tree mythos were Situationism on speed, the pop culture capitalist rock star Spectacle turned inside-out and turned up to eleven. This Bono was still liberal in a sense, but with a buzzed irony we couldn’t quite grasp. A lot of people didn’t get it. Of course the band maintained its activism during the Zoo years, speaking out against the resuregence of hate groups and about the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

By the 2000s, crusading Bono was back in full swing, and his bandmates went along, always faithfully yet sometimes begrudgingly, as he worked on issues related to ending global poverty with a new passion. Bono also injected his faith into the conversation more than ever before, turning his public speaking gigs into real opportunities to preach the gospel of good news for the poor, such as at the White House prayer breakfast or the NAACP awards. The singer’s ability to move a crowd with goose-bumps and the gravity that generates actions is not limited to his songs, as his speeches are just as stunning.

This new on-fire Bono brought unprecedented attention to the causes he championed and unfettered backlash from the political left. His own personal wealth that puts him at the tippy-top of the 1% and his band’s corporate and tax practices have resulted in a drumbeat of negativity towards the superstar and his bandmates. His strategies for ending poverty, no matter how effective or ineffective, have been judged for their association with neoliberalism. But that didn’t stop Bono from working nonstop on what he believed would benefit the most people.

In his many visits to the United States, Bono became committed to tapping the missional spirit among evangelical Christians with hopes they would be active in the movement to end poverty. These friendships have been well-documented and the partnerships with religious conservatives in the fight against poverty wildly successful. This has led to many powerful alliances with contemporary Christian musicians and ministers and many conservative US politicians. His friendships and collaborations with the likes of Billy Graham, Bill Frist, George Bush, and Rick Santorum were fodder for his critics on the left. Even as recently as 2013, he gave an interview with the arch-conservative organization Focus on the Family.

During the Vertigo tour, the War on Terror was on everyone’s minds. Bono repurposed the Nietzsche quote about not becoming a monster in order to defeat a monster and turned it into a prayer. He talked about Islam, Judaism, and Christianity being Abrahamic kin and wore his “COEXIST” blindfold as he dramatized torture during “Bullet The Blue Sky.” The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was recorded and made a regular part of the show. But Bono stopped shy of any Code Pink-type tactics or even overt statements against the war in Iraq. He dedicated “Running To Stand Still” to the troops.

Is Bono progressive, conservative, moderate, or what? Does his faith make him some kind of evangelical free agent? So this much is clear: a person doesn’t necessarily become a religious conservative by hanging out with religious conservatives? Some things consistent about Bono are his passion and work-ethic, which are always in full-effect, at full-volume, for what he believes are the greatest goods, whether his fans or critics agree with all his political maneuvers or not.

Surely, education and cultural change on same-gender love have been so effective worldwide that more and more people, liberal and conservative, now support marriage equality. What Bono made clear in Arizona last Saturday, though, is that God is love and when love is the law, love can change laws.

On Songs of Innocence, the message of U2 comes full circle. With “Raised Like Wolves,” problems of violence and religious intolerance trouble the lyricist channeling his younger self. Back on albums like War with its white flag of hope and surrender, Bono was one of the first Christians I heard call himself “spiritual but not religious” because of the damage that religious dogma can do. In the new shows, “Bullet The Blue Sky” has been completely revised yet again, as the younger Bono lectures the older Bono and vice-versa. A barricade exists within the self between the agitator and the negotiator. Then, before the song ends, Bono adopts the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” pose and is rapping about the racial strife in Ferguson. All these are good reminders to Bono and to us, as we look at the long arc of his career in activism and art.

In 2000, the late Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader to whom U2 dedicates two songs, said, “I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.” What is true in Ireland today is true in 37 states of the United States. The pending Supreme Court decision on cases brought by gay couples in states without marriage equality may come as soon as next month, when Gay Pride parades are celebrated throughout the US and while U2 are still on tour here.

–Andrew William Smith 

Check out the video of Pride from Saturday, May 23: https://youtu.be/TuYr7dfyCn0

Photos: (in story) from U2′s Instagram leading up to the Ireland vote on gay marriage.

On the front page of Interference: Bono photo by Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Rainbow picture: @karltims on Twitter

 

 

 

When The Psalms Came Down

May 16, 2015

Until Thursday, May 14, 2015 in western Canada, it’s been a decade since U2 did a predominately indoor tour, alternating as they have been between football stadiums and basketball arenas since the Joshua Tree days. While some folks speculated whether the vast shimmering audacity of the stadium-seasoned Claw could ever be rivaled, U2’s designer Willie Williams had been working behind the scenes. The Elevation tour’s “heart” has been cut in half by a cross-like stage that crosses the entire mainfloor of the venues that seem tiny compared to the grandeur of the 360-tour jaunt in 2009-2011.

Fans in the General Admission standing-only section have been split into the “North” and “South” sections that represent parts of Dublin. The setlist has been severed at the middle by an intermission that brackets innocence and experience, but there is nothing inanely “innocent” about the teenage fury of a set prefaced by vintage tracks by the Clash and the Ramones and snippeted with the likes of Johnny Rotten’s “God Save The Queen” sneaking into “Vertigo.”

Brought from the invasive iTunes download of 2014 to an even more in-your-face tour theatric, this is a radically reflective midlife crisis that goes beyond the hopeful chimes of Boy onto the barricades of a religious battleground. From youthful disillusion and despair, Bono and the boys answer like the romantic William Blake from whom they stole the album and tour titles. U2 respond to the unspeakable by speaking the only language they can conjure: a punk rock prophetic and apocalyptic ecstasy, the spiritual vision quest that must pass through nihilism and terrorism to seek redemption and release.

On Friday, the death of blues icon B.B. King brought “When Love Comes To Town” into the set. Leaving very little trace of No Line On The Horizon in the show leaves room for Rattle and Hum and the vibes that recently went busking with Jimmy Fallon into the New York subways. Creatively squeezing more than three decades of creative output into less than three hours means some flexible switching and slippage in the setlist from night-to-night; this will be especially welcome to the hardcore fans as the tour later lands for extended residencies in cities like Chicago and New York.

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U2 have always claimed to be more punk than hippy, more blues than gospel, and it’s from a devotional fascination with the Psalms that Bono derives so much lyrical power. Surely spirit moved in mysterious ways as the band plotted the dramatic arc of the first half setlist, finishing strong with an emotionally potent trio of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” > “Raised By Wolves” > “Until The End Of The World.”

A heartbreaking and slow acoustic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” stops for the audio-video assault that recalls the 1974 Dublin bombings that prompted the words for “Raised By Wolves.” This is one spoiler fans might be grateful to be able to emotionally prepare for—but the reality that requires the realism of this song is an aspect of violent human folly that we’re all still wrestling with.

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The biblical language of last suppers and epic betrayals sitting atop crunchy guitars and effects that makes “Until The End Of The World” a live U2 staple after all these years takes on an even deeper effect after what precedes it here. The times we live in today are no less apocalyptic than those that inspired the fiery poems of Blake or the flammable bombast of punk. The world is always ending for someone somewhere. It’s only the first half of this show closing, but suddenly it’s raining paper, like the chaotic debris after the Dublin bombs, yet it gets called confetti on Twitter. Pages ripped from Alice in Wonderland, Dante, and Eugene Peterson’s Psalms. Fans can take these shards of fantastic wisdom with them. From the fallout of terror and ultimate human error, God’s blessings are still falling from the sky.

U2 are much more comfortable than they were in the late 1970s, but that doesn’t stop them from making us all uncomfortable with our mere mortality and political complicity and complacent spirituality. Bono had to take us back to his adolescent bedroom on Cedarwood Road to show us the cauldron where his poetic pyromania first sparked. And then, he had the mad idea to transform that bedroom into a traveling punk-rock tent revival that he could take on the road to rouse middle-aged rock fans from their workaday slumber. From what the world witnessed in Vancouver (and thanks to the instant gratification of Twitter, fan forums, and YouTube, we really witnessed this, albeit remotely), this is a mad idea worth nurturing and a revival worth partaking in when it comes to your town. With psalms raining down, with love it is coming to town.

—words by Andrew William Smith @teacheronradio

Photos of pages, collected from the first Vancouver show, by Beth Nabi (@bethandbono on Twitter)