The sad ballad of Bruce and Bono
PRESENT TENSE: YOU MUST HAVE heard Bono’s words at this week’s pre-inauguration concert. “What a thrill for four Irish boys from the northside of Dublin to honour you sir, Barack Obama, to be the next president of the United States.” writes SHANE HEGARTY.
And what a thrill it must have been. Even if only one of U2 actually lives on the northside now. Or that Bono must have lived as much of his life on the southside. Or that two of the band were born in England, before moving to the north Co Dublin town of Malahide. Roddy Doyle, you’ll have noticed, never sets his novels in Malahide.
Why be so picky? Because even in a moment when he was trying to express the personal pride he and the band were feeling, Bono sounded a false note. In throwing in the reference to the northside, he was grabbing some of the “impossible journey” narrative for himself and the band.
In many ways, U2’s journey from school band to global megastardom has been improbable, but it’s not because they came from Dublin’s northside. It’s not as if most of Bono’s friends are either dead or in jail. Last time I looked, they were making soundtracks and bowls. When not being a citizen of Dublin, Bono is a citizen of the world.
During the band’s performance of In The Name of Love, he described Martin Luther King’s dream as “Not just an American dream – also an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream, an Israeli dream . . .” And then, following a long pause reminiscent of a man who’d just realised he’d left the gas on, he added, “. . . and also a Palestinian dream.” This was his big shout out to the Palestinians. You know, it’s easy – and not original – to have a pop at Bono’s bombast, but sometimes it’s necessary to point it out and impossible to resist.
He serves it up on a platter, writing newspaper columns and giving TV interviews. And for all his undoubted sincerity and effort on the issue of world poverty, you can’t help but marvel at this latest expression of Bono’s Sesame Street view of the world. Hey Middle East, we just have to have a dream to get along.
Just ignore the sound of those loud explosions and concentrate on Bono’s voice.
U2 debuted a new single this week. Get On Your Bootsis actually pretty good, a reminder that the band still writes decent tunes, which is no mean feat given how many legendary acts continue to rely on ancient material. (The Rolling Stones have written almost nothing memorable during the entire time that U2 have been around). But not for the first time in U2’s career, Get On Your Bootssounds like the work of a band trying to find their voice in other people’s sounds. And, also not for the first time, it’s lyrically vacuous. That shouldn’t be a big deal – it’s only rock’n’roll after all – but it reminds us that it’s been some time since Bono and U2 have been musically relevant.
Also on the stage at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday was Bruce Springsteen. Like U2, he released new music this week. In early listens, the album Working On A Dreamis very strong in parts, if unlikely to be remembered as one of his more substantial albums. It lacks the grief and resilience that fuelled his post-9/11 album The Rising; the honesty of Devils and Dust; and the anger that infused his Bush-era America album Magic. Working On A Dreamis a romantic album, a contented album, an album that sounds as if it marks the end of a cycle in his songwriting.
It is, though, part of the continuing evolution of his music. He has been singing about the same characters and themes through his entire career, making his an epic, decades-long exercise in storytelling that shows no sign of coming to an end. Springsteen has also been arguably the most effective and popular protest songwriter of recent years. It means that he remains essential in a way that few artists do. In a way that U2, and Bono, are not.
Compared to Bono, Springsteen has always been on another plane as a lyricist, but 40 years into his career he’s writing songs that are not just catchy, but actually say something intelligent about the world, his country, his people. Like Bono, he’s made enough money to remove himself from the multitudes who pack his stadium shows, and yet he still seems genuinely one of them.
Most importantly, he’s politically brave in a way that Bono will not be. He takes sides. He’s not afraid to make enemies. Unlike Bono, pal of all presidents, he will not sup with the devil, partly because he knows what it’s like when his political enemies misread and misappropriate his music. And unlike Bono, who has a fascination with America that displays itself as a cloying neediness, Springsteen understands that country intimately. It means that Springsteen is authentic and authoritative in a way that Bono can never hope to be, no matter how much he mentions that he’s from the northside.