Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


There it was, U2’s late ‘80s album, in the dollar bin at the CD store last night, so I picked it up.

When it first came out, I was disdainful. These big rock stars, and they’re acting as if they’d just recently found out about Billie Holiday, and the Beatles, and Hendrix, and the blues, and Dylan -- as, according to what I’ve read, they had. My disdain was my snobbery was my frustration was my jealousy. Now, U2’s rootlessness impresses me -- they came up with a style on their own. And the homagerie of “Rattle & Hum” seems sincerely enthusiastic. Even at the time it came out I dug the album’s rockin’ lustful Bo Diddley tribute, “Desire.”

The album’s first line, Bono, live in concert, says coolly, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re going to steal it back,” and into “Helter Skelter” they launch. My mid-’20s jealous snobbish frustrated disdainful self was appalled by the pretentiousness. Now I find it kind of sweet. Reminds me of another sincerely liberal activist bombastic singer’s pretentiousness -- Streisand, whom I once saw on a TV concert, seriously saying, “I was doing some” (pause) “research” (pause) “for an album, and I came across this,” before launching into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”!! It’s frontman Bono’s blase bluffness that makes it seem pretentious, but the song rocks, and they mean it, and I like it, pretentiousness and all.

Always dug the B. B. King duet, “When Love Comes to Town.” B. B. sounds magnificent, and the rhythm section sounds wonderful, and Bono holds his own, and the song fits B. B., all of which are admirable accomplishments. Out of nowhere, they learned the alchemy of writing for people really well -- on Roy Orbison’s late come-back celebrity album, “Mystery Girl,” their contribution, “She’s a Mystery to Me,” works better than any of the other celebrity songwriters’ tribute/homage originals.

I’d forgotten the lyrics Bono had added to their loud rockin’ great live cover of Dylan’s 3-chord classic “All Along the Watchtower,” which boasts one of Dylan’s most hauntingly cryptic lyrics. Pretty bold to add words to such a great song, but it comes as an intense chant in the middle of an instrumental break:

All I’ve got is this red guitar
Three chords and the truth
All I’ve got is this red guitar
The rest is up to you

Hearing it today, it gave me chills. Great lines. Pontius Pilate was the original radical skeptic (or maybe just evasive cynic) when he asked, “And what is truth?” and washed his hands. Bono (who’s Christian) makes me think, the truth is music.

Bono sings magnificently all over the album, wilder than on their earlier stuff; Clayton & Mullen on bass & drums rock the band hard & dark & solid; & The Edge on guitar does his terrific, original thing. The live version of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” has a really stirring crowd singalong (one of my favorite U2 songs, I’ve covered it for years in a quiet country-folk arrangement). Before a repeat chorus Bono pretentiously but authoritatively and convincingly and movingly announces, “For the Reverend Martin Luther King.” The aura of offhand rock-star glamor in Bono’s tone of voice is what makes it seem pretentious to me, but he is a glamorous rock star, and he means what he says. Again, it gave me chills.

I grew up Christian, and culturally & emotionally I remain one, though I don’t go to church, have no faith in the afterlife, think the idea of the 2nd Coming is absurd (“Jesus is Coming -- Hide the Bong!”), think the idea of Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy makes no sense, and am really appalled by a lot of what’s in the Bible, not to mention a lot of what has been done & continues to be done in Jesus’ name. (Yahweh and Allah’s devotees have a lot to answer for too, as do Siva’s, the Buddha’s, and Marx’s.) Still, when B. B. King sang today on his U2 cameo, “I was there when they crucified my Lord / I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword / I threw the dice when they pierced his side,” I cried bitter tears of self-recognition. The God that I can worship Who is/was Jesus is the God Who said, When you feed someone who’s hungry, you’re feeding Me, and when you clothe someone who’s naked, you’re clothing Me, and when you shelter someone who’s homeless, you’re sheltering Me, and when you comfort someone who’s afflicted, you’re comforting Me -- and this means that Jesus (like Walt Whitman) is all of us, and each of us is God, and you see, every day, they are crucifying my Lord, and the suffering is engulfing, and so much of the time I’m playing at dice.


Hearing Bono’s shout-out to the great African American prophet called to mind my all-time favorite musical shout-out to the Reverend Doctor. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, on his great, great album “Volunteer Slavery,” which came out in the year after King’s assassination, does a blistering cover of the Bacharach-David Vietnam-military-wife classic “I Say A Little Prayer.” Kirk’s version starts with Coltrane-esque out-of-tempo oceanicisms from the bass & drums (& synthesizer, I’m pretty sure), and out of this primordial awe Kirk shouts, “They shot him down! They shot him down to the ground! But we’re gonna say a little prayer! We’re gonna say a little prayer!”, and off they go like a racehorse in a fast intense rockin’ instrumental version of the tune. Hearing it has often made me cry and cry. And then the fervor of Kirk & his band’s prayer thrills me.


Last night after listening to Alan Hovhaness’s “And God Created Great Whales,” I wrote, “It’s really quite moving.” But moving to what? In what manner?

The whale songs are uncanny and awesome. The instrumental passages have a sense of wonder & expectation. Gorgeous piece.

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