Friday, February 13, 2009

Let Me In The Sound

In what's sure to be an electric refrain thundering through U2 concert venues this summer, Bono implores us (or someone) to let him in the sound and meet him in the sound. As usual, we're left asking, "What the hell do you mean?"

Rising from the vocal cords of any other performer, we'd be content to believe that the musician seeks to be transported inside and be enveloped by a set of musical notes and drum beats and guitar riffs. It would seem that he'd be asking to drown in the music figuratively, to seek baptism in a jumble of clatter. But this is Bono, and obviously, he is not. And we are U2 fans, so literal-minded, we are not.

From the early days of "I Will Follow" to the latter days of "Window in the Skies," Bono has turned our attention and our souls to something wholly other, yet something wholly familiar. As Bruce Springsteen said when he inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, "In their music you hear the spirituality as home and as quest." It's the same spirit that caused C.S. Lewis to ponder that when we finally stand face-to-face with our Creator, we'll think that He is no stranger; that it's been Him all along.

With that set of creeds in tow, we slide and glide into the world of "Get on Your Boots." And what do we find? Besides the music, the lyrics are seemingly flippant at first: all this talk about "sexy boots" and "laughter" and "candy floss, ice cream." You wouldn't be penalized for thinking this is another fun song to help get you through another long commute.

But right along with the beautiful kisses under a brilliant moon, we find "Satan" and "bomb scare" and "rockets" dropping into a "fun fair" and "dark dreams" and "kids ... screamin'" and "ghosts" and "blowing up" and "wars between nations" And, finally, tucked between the waves of "let me in the sound" we hear an urgent plea: "God, I'm going down/I don't want to drown now."

We were wrong for thinking Bono wanted to be immersed in the "sound." This is one baptism he shuns; he doesn't want to drown. He cries out to God to throw him a life vest and save him from his ordeal.

So that brings us back to our original question/quest: What is this "sound"? The lines are confusing if we think of a "sound" as something you hear with your ears. But before figuring out a possible meaning, let's look at some of the hints we can glean from other "drowning" imagery in their earlier work.

The first obvious song is "Drowning Man," on U2's third studio album, War. It's a lyric about an unnamed someone crossing the sky for "your love." Bono sings about someone who promises to be there and save us from the "winds and tides/this change of times."

It's a few years before Bono resurrects that drowning theme. This time he does it with a song he wrote for B.B. King, "When Love Come to Town." It begins: "I was a sailor/I was lost at sea/I was under the waves before love rescued me." Off that same album, we're left with a promise, "You say you'll give me . . . a harbor in the tempest," from "All I Want is You."

That image of drowning resurfaces in "Lemon," off Zooropa: "I feel like I'm slowly, slowly, slowly slippin' under. I feel like I'm holding on to nothing." Later in the same song: "And I feel like I'm drifting, drifting, drifting from the shore."

This recurrent image of drowning and rescue from the waves is once again at play in "Get On Your Boots." The "going down" and "drown" references are clear enough. But where does the "sound" come from. If Bono is drowning and needs rescue and wants to be let into the sound, what sound is he singing about? We can guess that maybe "sound" doesn't mean noise—the opposite of silence—in this instance. "Sound" has many meanings, but one seems to fit a little better and works within the drowning imagery. A sound is "a long broad inlet of the ocean generally parallel to the coastline." A synonym for "sound" is "harbor."

So, when Bono begs to be let into the sound, he wants to be let in from the horrors of the storms out at sea. He wants to come into the harbor, the harbor that we learned from "All I Want is You," promises to protect us from the dark ocean's tempests and save us from drowning (just look at the cover of the album: oceans are at once pacific and treacherous -- you can splish-splash AND you can drown). The world isn't fun fairs or rockets; it's rockets falling into fun fairs; the sound that protects us from all the clamors of the world and its explosions, bombs, and screams. The sound, this harbor, protects us from the violent blasts of the rockets, the nightmares, the ghosts, the wars, Satan. By God, let him in the sound! I mean, who wouldn't drown wading around in those knee-high sexy boots, anyway?

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