Monday, October 31, 2011

When the Walls Come Tumblin' Down

In Martin Scorsese's documentary George Harrison:  Living in the Material World, Paul McCartney reflects on the Beatles in the mid-'60s:  "I think we kind of lost sort of our spiritual direction--not that we ever had one, but we lost it." 

Cut to Davis Guggenheim's (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) latest documentary, currently airing on Showtime, that chronicles how U2 re-thought and revived themselves after the critical onslaught post 1988's Rattle and Hum.  They did this in a process that was fraught with conflict in Berlin, where the Wall had come down, and where they ended up, as Bono says in the film, building their own walls in Hansa Studios.  "It wasn't that we found a sonic identity," says bassist Adam Clayton.  "We found a spiritual identity.  That was what we actually needed."  Bono adds at another point, "There's a kind of faith that's necessary to move from one note to the other."  Achtung Baby broke them down and brought them back together.  Bono:  "Achtung Baby is the reason we're still here now."  The record was released in 1991, and this year marks its 20th anniversary.

Guggenheim filmed the band  back at Hansa in 2011 where they had gone to rehearse and reconsider Achtung Baby in preparation to perform it at the Glastonbury Festival.  The 2011 Hansa sessions are intercut with archival footage, much of it from Phil Joanou's film of the making of Rattle and Hum (making Guggenheim's work a doc  about a doc, in part).  It's fascinating to watch Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who were the brilliant producers of Achtung, then and now.  It's shocking  to view the young earnestness of Bono and The Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr., and Adam Clayton in contrast to them today--there's still a striving, but an ease and quiet confidence among them.  One of the film's interviewees refers to how the band have always been "very loyal" and "very, very kind" to one another, and how, if one were down, the others would come to his emotional rescue, so to speak.  Recall the lyrics from the album's song "One":  "One life...We get to carry each other...One."  Says Clayton:  "We carried each other to the point where we could stand on our own feet."  Amen.

One of the most touching moments for me was seeing Bono dancing with his wife Ali during the Rattle and Hum days, who reportedly remarked  that Bono had become so "serious." "The boy I fell in love with [at age 15] was so full of mischief, so full of madness, and you were a much more experimental character--what's happened to you?" Bono remembers her saying.

Says Bono in the doc:  You have to reject one expression of the band first before you get to the next expression, and in between, you're nothing.  You have to risk it all."  (And that takes Negative Capability.)

Part of getting to the next expression sonically was to find the spiritual by reviving the playfulness via poking fun at their own earnestness and turning it on its head with irony:  accused of being full of themselves, U2--or at least Bono--took on the persona of the iconographic rock star:  the glasses, the hair, the clothes:

But the true irony is that the pose produced something pure--"Even Better than the Real Thing," if you will.  Every time I listen to The Edge's electronic blast that's the opening riff of Achtung Baby's first song, "Zoo Station," it's like a defibrillator to the soul. "In the cool of the night/In the warmth of the breeze/I'll be crawling around/On my hands and knees....Ready to let go/Of the steering wheel."  

The record was reissued this month to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its release.  It's been a joy for me to pull the CD from the shelf, to listen to it again, and to be able to thumb through the booklet and read the lyrics--some of the finest poetry of our generation.  That's another reason to catch the doc on Showtime--Guggenheim captures how Bono often just skat sings "Bongolese" (Lanois' term) to melodies until the lyrics emerge, "trying to get to the vocabulary of the melody in sound."  Ah, the Irish....

If you didn't see Guggenheim's (pictured below) terrific documentary It Might Get Loud, featuring The Edge, Jimmy Page, and Jack White, click here for my post on it.

Just remember:  Everthing You Know is Wrong:

And here's a link to the full stream of the 2011 Achtung Baby tribute album:

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