December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment
“It’s one of the most banal couplets I’ve ever heard,” Bono says sheepishly about the words he wrote for one of U2’s best-known songs. ” ‘I want to run, I want to hide….’ That’s not very interesting, but you know what? People don’t hear the couplets when we play the song.
“They hear something else in the music. They hear a band talking about a special place, a better place, and asking if the audience wants to go there with them.”
Bono, who writes most of U2’s lyrics, is keenly aware that the music’s power often comes less from his pen than from the sweeping sonic foundation built by the band.
“Feelings are stronger than ideas or words in a song,” he says, pacing the floor of his Central Park West apartment, offering a contrarian view of pop songwriting.
“You can have 1,000 ideas, but unless you capture an emotion, it’s an essay.”
The comments are surprising from a man who devotes so much of his time to ideas — from the spiritually tinged themes that underlie many U2 songs to his high-profile crusade to get wealthy nations to forgive Third World debt.
“Songwriting comes from a different place,” he says. “Music is the language of the spirit. I think ideas and words are our excuse as songwriters to allow our heart or our spirit to run free. That’s when magic happens.”
It happens so often for U2 that the group has come closer to matching the quality and mass appeal of The Beatles over the past 25 years than any other band.
This is pop music at its most ambitious — personal and independent enough to satisfy discerning listeners, yet open and accessible enough to pack stadiums. Although the group has experimented with electronica and other contemporary sounds, the essence of U2 is classic rock ‘n’ roll.
You won’t find lots of humor or party toss-offs in U2. The Irish quartet’s flurry of Top 40 hits, including “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “One,” mostly are soaring anthems built around the same message of brotherhood that characterized The Beatles’ later years. Yet U2 arrives at songs in a much different way.
John Lennon or Paul McCartney usually came up with songs and then taught them to George Harrison and Ringo Starr. But U2 collaborates to a degree that is rare — a process that depends on the singular chemistry of the four musicians.
Bono and guitarist the Edge bring ideas into the studio — a title, the trace of a melody or a catchy riff — then bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen join in the construction of the songs. The grueling give-and-take sometimes stretches for weeks as the musicians toss ideas back and forth, equal partners in the search for an emotion that seems fresh and deeply rooted.
When the marathon sessions are going well, Mullen says, the rehearsal studio feels like a playground. When they’re going badly, it feels like a boxing ring.
“We’re tough guys,” Clayton says. “We know we’ll get there eventually. A lot of it is perspiration. You just have to put in the hours and do your time.” The Edge is fond of repeating the band’s private joke that it’s “songwriting by accident.”
“It’s more like Miles Davis than The Beatles in a way,” Bono says.
Only after the band finds that powerful emotion, be it blissful or melancholy, does Bono begin applying lyrics. Sometimes he’ll draw phrases or lines from the notebook he carries with him. Occasionally, he’ll work from a finished lyric.
His improvisation in the studio often starts with him just muttering sounds that seem to fit the flow of the music being created — “Bono-eze,” his bandmates call it.
“When Bono starts going through his Bono-eze, it can change what we’re playing and take the song in a different direction,” Mullen says. “If he’s doing something very intense, it might not even be what he’s saying, but the way he’s behaving, the way he’s throwing the microphone around. The energy and intensity helps shape the song.”
Gradually, Bono begins changing sounds into words and lines, trying to articulate the feelings the music stirs in him.
Unlike many great songwriters, he doesn’t spend much time editing his words. He even declares that “craft and taste can be the enemy of songwriting” because they encourage you to follow certain rules, rather than simply following your emotions.
“At various times, we’ve tried to stick to conventional songwriting,” Mullen says from Dublin. “But after a few months we see it’s not working. We need to dismantle the ideas and start again.”
Adds the Edge: “My worst nightmare is sounding ‘professional.’ I think we work best when we keep moving into the unknown.”
U2’s unorthodox songwriting style was born out of necessity.
When the band members came together in high school, they weren’t good enough at their instruments to play convincing versions of the hits of the day. To hide their inexperience, they came up with their own songs.
“From fairly early on, it became clear to us that we had no idea about songwriting technique,” the Edge says. “Our way into songwriting was to dream it up. … Instinct was everything for us, and it really still is.”
While he sometimes wishes the band’s songwriting process gave him more time to write the lyrics, Bono still thinks the system comes up with the best songs.
“When I look at our first 10 years, I just hear unfinished work, lyrics we never finished because we ran out of studio time,” he says of his contributions. “I hear ‘Bad,’ and see what’s not there. I just see a list of failures.”
Still, he wouldn’t change way U2 works. For all his personal frustrations and the band’s uncertain moments, they all know they’ve found a way to connect with audiences.
Although Bono and his family live most of the year in Dublin, he enjoys the energy of New York.
He still takes delight in pointing out some of the landmarks as he sits in the passenger seat of a van headed to a meeting on easing world hunger. As the driver navigates through traffic, Bono shoves the new U2 album into the CD player and pounds his fist on the dashboard as the music blasts through the speakers. There’s a driving, rock ‘n’ roll vitality to the music, which is due out this fall; a freshness that you hardly expect from bands in their third decade.
But U2 has been able to remain both current and relevant. They get airplay on college and alt-rock radio stations and find their “Beautiful Day” at John Kerry campaign rallies.
As the vocal starts, he sings along. But it’s so noisy in the car you can’t really make out the words. Bono’s expression, however, tells you he’s very proud of this album. He suddenly stops singing and begins chuckling as he turns down the volume. “Did you hear that last verse? … You never write a verse like that. That was definitely improvised. But there are other lines in the song I wrote ahead of time.”
When the songs are finished, Bono looks at the disc.
“Lou Reed is a friend, and I once asked if he had advice for a young poet, and, in his usual cryptic way, he summed it up, ‘Break rhyme occasionally.'”
Bono laughs as the van pulls to a stop.
“You know, songwriting really is a mysterious process … because we’re asking people to expose themselves. It’s like open heart surgery in some way. You’re looking for real, raw emotions, and you don’t find that by sticking to the rules.”
December 8, 2010 § Leave a comment
December 8, 2010 § Leave a comment
David Byrne went from playing CBGB to Carnegie Hall. He asks: Does the venue make the music? From outdoor drumming to Wagnerian operas to arena rock, he explores how context has pushed musical innovation.
When the CD format first began to take shape, legendary producer/composer/ambient pioneer Brian Eno jumped at the opportunity to create a piece of music specifically for the medium.
“Thursday Afternoon” is a single continuous 61-minute piece which remains unchanging in mood despite its epic length. Throughout its hour-long running time, there is a quiet single chord which is held through the entire piece. Single piano notes, bell-like tones, subtle chord washes and a light drone all settle themselves around the main central chord creating a lush beautiful landscape in sound. There is nothing compilicated or difficult about this piece. It is built with the most basic musical elements and is kept at its most simplistic form throughout. This is what makes “Thursday Afternoon” such an intruiguing work – its beauty of simplicity without becoming boring.
December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment
1. Problems are bad
You spent your school years solving arbitrary problems imposed by boring authority figures. You learned that problems — comment se dit? — suck.
But people without real problems go mad and invent things like base jumping and wedding planning.
Real problems are wonderful, each carrying the seeds of its own solution. Job burnout? It’s steering you toward your perfect career. An awful relationship? It’s teaching you what love means. Confusing tax forms? They’re suggesting you hire an accountant, so you can focus on more interesting tasks, such as flossing. Finding the solution to each problem is what gives life its gusto.
2. It’s important to stay happy.
Solving a knotty problem can help us be happy, but we don’t have to be happy to feel good.
If that sounds crazy, try this: Focus on something that makes you miserable. Then think, “I must stay happy!” Stressful, isn’t it? Now say, “It’s okay to be as sad as I need to be.” This kind of permission to feel as we feel — not continuous happiness — is the foundation of well-being.
3. I’m irreparably damaged by my past
Painful events leave scars, true, but it turns out they’re largely erasable. Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroanatomist who had a stroke that obliterated her memory, described the event as losing “37 years of emotional baggage.” Taylor rebuilt her own brain, minus the drama.
Now it appears we can all effect a similar shift, without having to endure a brain hemorrhage. The very thing you’re doing at this moment — questioning habitual thoughts — is enough to begin off-loading old patterns.
For example, take an issue that’s been worrying you (“I’ve got to work harder!”) and think of three reasons that belief may be wrong. Your brain will begin to let it go. Taylor found this thought-loss euphoric. You will, too.
4. Working hard leads to success
Baby mammals, including humans, learn by playing, which is why “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”
Boys who’d spent years strategizing for fun gained instinctive skills to handle real-world situations. So play as you did in childhood, with all-out absorption.
Watch for ways your childhood playing skills can solve a problem (see #1). Play, not work, is the key to success. While we’re on the subject…
5. Success is the opposite of failure.
Fact: From quitting smoking to skiing, we succeed to the degree we try, fail, and learn. Studies show that people who worry about mistakes shut down, but those who are relaxed about doing badly soon learn to do well. Success is built on failure.
6. It matters what people think of me
“But if I fail,” you may protest, “people will think badly of me!” This dreaded fate causes despair, suicide, homicide.
I realized this when I read blatant lies about myself on the Internet. When I bewailed this to a friend, she said, “Wow, you have some painful fantasies about other people’s fantasies about you.”
Yup, my anguish came from my hypothesis that other people’s hypothetical hypotheses about me mattered. Ridiculous! Right now, imagine what you’d do if it absolutely didn’t matter what people thought of you. Got it? Good. Never go back.
7. We should think rationally about our decisions
Your rational capacities are far newer and more error-prone than your deeper, “animal” brain. Often complex problems are best solved by thinking like an animal.
Consider a choice you have to make — anything from which movie to see to which house to buy. Instead of weighing pros and cons intellectually, notice your physical response to each option. Pay attention to when your body tenses or relaxes. And speaking of bodies…
8. The pretty girls get all the good stuff
Oh, God. So not true. I unlearned this after years of coaching beautiful clients. Yes, these lovelies get preferential treatment in most life scenarios, but there’s a catch: While everyone’s looking at them, virtually no one sees them.
Almost every gorgeous client had a husband who’d married her breasts and jawline without ever noticing her soul.
9. If all my wishes came true right now, life would be perfect
Check it out: People who have what you want are all over rehab clinics, divorce courts, and jails. That’s because good fortune has side effects, just like medications advertised on TV.
Basically, any external thing we depend on to make us feel good has the power to make us feel bad.
Weirdly, when you’ve stopped depending on tangible rewards, they often materialize. To attract something you want, become as joyful as you think that thing would make you. The joy, not the thing, is the point.
10. Loss is terrible
Ten years ago I still feared loss enough to abandon myself in order to keep things stable. I’d smile when I was sad, pretend to like people who appalled me.
What I now know is that losses aren’t cataclysmic if they teach the heart and soul their natural cycle of breaking and healing.
A real tragedy? That’s the loss of the heart and soul themselves. If you’ve abandoned yourself in the effort to keep anyone or anything else, unlearn that pattern. Live your truth, losses be damned. Just like that, your heart and soul will return home.
December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment
When Consciousness pretends that there’s a separation between what It says It is (the “I”) and what It says It isn’t (the “not-I”), then the world mysteriously (re)appears. In truth, though, the so-called “story of your life” is only the cosmic song-of-Consciousness being gloriously played out through the instrument of your own body. The purpose of any song, though, is not to arrive at the final note. The purpose of a song can only be found in the joyous playing of it. And so it is with Consciousness. In short, Its purpose is to play out an entrancing story with Itself by using an illusory “you” as the so-called “Star” of this Cosmic drama.