You have to reject one expression of the band before you can have another. And in between you have nothing. You have to risk it all.
~ Bono (of the band U2), in the documentary “From the Sky Down”.
At the beginning, U2 was pretty clear on the band they didn’t want to be. They would survey the music landscape and say to themselves, “No!” They weren’t dissing. They were recognizing. The spirit of others wasn’t the spirit of U2.
But of course they were young. Rejection of what wasn’t them was about as far as they could go. Who actually they were committed to being or die trying was a ways away. Not that they knew it. For most of us, that kind of understanding is born of despair preceded by heartbreak. Observe the countless of us who’ve lived long enough to learn that worldly achievement does not automatically equal a peaceful heart. Ask any recovering addict who’s been healing a while.
Fortunately for U2, overnight they became fabulously successful … then things went south. After years of playing to packed stadiums and generating a half-dozen studio albums, they realized that one of the bands they didn’t want to be was themselves.
Who they did want to be, meanwhile, (or better, who they really were) remained unknown. In the world’s consciousness they might have had an identity. But in their own they did not. For all intents, they didn’t exist. Artistically, they were nowhere.
Is there a worse place to be?
Actually, yes. It was possible they were cooked, done, finito. Maybe they didn’t have the collective juice to find a new level of expression that would ignite their souls. They wouldn’t be the first band to disintegrate. All they knew for sure was that who they had been was dead.
Given how many of us cling to our familiars despite the pain they cause us and others, it is no small achievement to embrace despair and act on it. Despair at its best is when we say this is not the life I want, and I will go to any lengths never to be here again. After that, step one is asking for help.
Which is what U2 did … in their way, creating the best conditions they could think of to honor the faith, loyalty and kindness that had marked their relationship with one another, a relationship that dated to before any of them were adults, really.
They needed space, literal and figurative, to wrestle, explore, reflect, discuss, argue, even consider breaking up––whatever it took to allow a future beyond their imagination to present itself … if that were possible.
They left Ireland, their home, purposely took up residence in what was a brand new and unfamiliar culture––Berlin at the time the wall between east and west was torn down––and spent endless days in one of the world’s premier recording studios with a couple of legendary producers.
There were moments when it was every man for himself, the betrayal of the very concept of a band. Yet it didn’t define them; it was part of a messy process. Finally, they made a small breakthrough on one song, curiously titled “One”. From there, hope and confidence born, not of knowledge but of grace, grew.
Out of the void emerged a much more light-hearted, playful, colorful, less dark and self-conscious U2. And with it, their 1991 album, “Achtung Baby,” assessed by many critics since as one of the greatest albums of all time.
I find it hard to imagine anyone’s rebirth without their willingness to risk it all: to put every ounce of love you can into something and be willing to find out that it’s not enough to fulfill a dream. Every healthy person I know has a pretty good bullshit detector.
And while, as Bono says, the transformation of U2 couldn’t have happened without risking it all, it certainly didn’t happen because of it. All risking it all does is open a door to possibility.
Grace walks through that door of her own accord.