I have such a love/exasperated (can’t say ‘hate’- I ‘d never hate them) relationship with U2. They have made some of my favourite music. Seriously. So many of their songs figure prominently in the continually developing soundtrack that is my life. But man, some of the stuff that comes out of Bono’s mouth these days…
The other day Pete Yorn- a fabulous singer-songwriter who I follow on the Facebook (seriously, check him out. Great stuff)- was asking people to name their fave U2 song. It got me thinking. There are a whole lot of great ones to choose from. As I say, they are a formative/foundational band in the development of my youthful love of music.
This one is near the top:
‘Don’t believe the Devil, I don’t believe his book’
Sure, the song is (at least partly) about the unauthorized biography/biographer of John Lennon, but the imagery of the devil and ‘his’ book is just tootoo apt, in my humble opinion. The creators/recorders/redactors of the mythology, theodicy, rules and rituals of diverse and often-disparate biblical literature assigned a whole load of culpability to one figure- and those minions who chose to follow him in rebellion.
‘But the truth is not the same without the lies he made up.’
We use the devil to illustrate the opposite of what is ‘right’ and proper. Without him- and the many ‘wrongs’ he manages to consistently and continually tempt us to execute- we have a great deal of difficulty determining proper course.
It isn’t enough that we have long lists of things we are supposed to be doing- whether those things are mandated by religious command or communal laws and consensus- we are, apparently, so easily influenced that we require constant and ever-changing (these things are culturally relative, after all) examples of ways not to behave.
These bad things are fluid to a ridiculous degree. Unlike the larger prohibitions that are written into our legal systems- the big stuff like murder, theft, property damage (although even these things can be ‘condoned’ in specific- generally politicized- circumstances)- elements of our morality are subject to change according to the times and the ideology that holds the most power at any given time.
These actions are most often associated with that Devil Dude. If a particular group of people decides that, say, a type of music is the result of the persuasive intervention of an external entity messing with the ‘proper’ order of things, and if that group has money and power and the means to communicate this message of ‘evil’ to a community of followers… the Devil receives all credit for culpability of origin. The behaviour comes to be associated with him- and as something that is directly in opposition to his ‘good’ counterpart.
And if that type of music can also be associated with a marginalized group of people, then those people are also lumped in with the horned one and his disruption of all things good and ‘godly’. As mores and tastes change and evolve, the music might eventually come to be regarded as ‘mainstream’- and acceptable to those who hold true to ‘strong values’- yet the stigma of association with the Big Baddy remains.
Labeling something as ‘evil’ or ‘against god’ gives its negative association an unreasonably long shelf life. Those things that his detractors claim belong to the Devil are incredibly tenacious in their resonance across time and generations.
U2’s God Part 2 is an appreciative echo of John Lennon’s God. In it, John deconstructed a whole passel of beliefs and constructs that he saw no need to hold onto as he remade himself as ‘John’- no longer the Dreamweaver, or the Walrus, or 1/4 of the Beatles. Just John. With Yoko. Believing in the two of them- but not in the idols (religious and secular) he listed after declaring that ‘god is a concept by which we measure our pain’.
‘I don’t believe in magic
I don’t believe in I Ching
I don’t believe in Bible
I don’t believe in Tarot
I don’t believe in Hitler
I don’t believe in Jesus
I don’t believe in Kennedy
I don’t believe in Buddha
I don’t believe in Mantra
I don’t believe in Gita
I don’t believe in Yoga
I don’t believe in Kings
I don’t believe in Elvis
I don’t believe in Zimmerman
I don’t believe in Beatles‘
The song marked his new beginning as he let go of the trappings of the past to move in a new direction- one that would eventually lead to Imagine– and its beautiful vision of a world without religion, heaven or hell. A world focused on this life- that we spend here together on this big ol’ rock in that we call ‘Earth’ for the duration of our lifetimes. The song remains timeless in its simple beauty- both for its music and its message.
That guy knew.
(Short aside here- again with the links and connections that I keep harping on… As I write I have Forrest Gump on in the background- 20th anniversary of that movie. How did THAT happen? Where has the time gone?- and it’s just at the scene where Forrest is on Dick Cavett’s show with John- ‘inspiring’ him to write Imagine. Weird).
And then there’s this:
‘I believe we’re not alone
I believe in Beatles
I believe my little soul has grown
And I’m still so afraid…
What made my life so wonderful?
What made me feel so bad?
I used to wake up the ocean
I used to walk on clouds
If I put faith in medication
If I can smile a crooked smile
If I can talk on television
If I can walk an empty mile
Then I won’t feel afraid
No, I won’t feel afraid
I won’t be Be afraid
Bowie recorded that song for his 2002 album, Heathens. Since much of it was written and produced after the attacks of September 11, 2001, most of the album illustrates the pervasive anxiety felt across the country and around the world in the immediacy of the aftermath of the terror.
He has said that the album in its entirety is one of deep questioning- hence its title and the subject matter of many of its songs. He stated in interviews that it was reflective of our collective trauma but that he wasn’t seeking to resolve the trauma.
Great songwriters do that- as they play the Devil’s Music. They reflect and comment upon our experiences and sometimes even posit new directions that might make a difference to our overarching existence as human beings.
Gods and devils are both concepts which we use to measure our pain. As metaphorical markers they have value. Our earliest attempts to understand our world use story and metaphor. We learn- and teach- using universal concepts that resonate with us because of their apparent immutability and simplicity.
‘Good’ is better than ‘Evil’.
Pretty easy, right?
Too bad the simplicity is always complicated by greed and politics and power plays. This inevitability is part and parcel of our human nature.
So. If John Lennon, David Bowie and U2- and all those who came before and after them- are playing the Devil’s Music there’s even more reason to appreciate the Horned One, if you ask me. He obviously wields some mighty influence leading to incredible songs that are also expressions of our human nature.
Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. Unfortunately just what fits into which designation isn’t always all that easy to discern.
Musicians contribute their voices to the battle for the maintenance of the goodness and rightness of our humanity, often speaking out against governmental and other power-based inequities and wrong-doing.
I’ve said it before. I’ll likely say it again.
Music. And Science. Both associated with the Devil. Both often running counter to the accepted traditions/norms that fight change in favour of clinging to obsolete ways of viewing our world.
I think there are patterns forming hereabouts…