Twelve albums, 137 songs, 650 pages, all in the name of love. Andrea Morandi’s new study of U2’s lyrics was published in Italy in late 2009 and I just found out about it last month. U2: The Name of Love, Testi Commentati is part of Arcana’s “lyrics and commentary” series on popular music.
It caught my eye for several reasons: it is a song-by-song look at all of the studio albums which, to my knowledge, is just the second book of this kind (Niall Stokes’ Into the Heart is the other); it is by a Milan-based journalist and writer and there aren’t many books about U2 coming from Italy; it seemed to take a special interest in the way Biblical texts have influenced Bono as a songwriter; the cover has a striking piece of art on it that looks like a heart is “abloom”; and, well, when I heard the Vatican’s newspaper reviewed the book – knowing that Bono and Pope John Paul II hit it off well – that piqued my interest even more.
Curiously, after L’ Osservatore Romano ran “Re Davide? Una pop star” (Is King David a Pop Star?), several English language blogs reacted. Some only mentioned that now we have a book to show U2’s lyrics are influenced by the Bible (duh!). One blogger decried it as a “crusading” book which she took to champion Bono as a defender of the faith, while others suggested the Pope himself had endorsed Morandi’s book (!).
Regrettably I can’t read Italian well-enough to follow more than a paragraph. Fortunately Morandi does just fine with English and agreed to answer some questions to satisfy my curiosity. And guess what? From his explanations, it sounds like far from being a Sunday School exercise of connect-the-dots, the author has attempted to tell a story of Bono’s growth as a lyricist with a touch of the operatic, not to mention delve into more than just the Biblical influences on Bono’s lyrics.
In The Name of Love is not yet available in English (we’re working on that) but if you’re like me, you might enjoy reading the author talk about a book we’ll have to wait to read.
What inspired you to write U2: The Name of Love?
I wanted to dig into Bono’s history, his literary and autobiographic sources, like it had never been done before in order to understand from where and how each song, from “I Will Follow” to “Cedars of Lebanon” was born. While analyzing the 137 songs, song by song, from U2’s twelve albums, I created a kind of screenplay for the background of the book, opening in a cemetery in Dublin in 1974 and closing in a hotel room in Beirut in 2008. This way the reader can go through the entire life of Bono, from his being a child to becoming a father, from being unknown to becoming a myth.
Describe the approach your book takes.
In part my book is a methodical look contemplating the Bible and Bono’s lyrics. But not all of U2 songs are inspired by the Bible or about God, of course. So in the book, there are many others things, from historical questions to issues of literary influences. I have a song by song format but every song is written in a different way, some songs you find analysis, some songs are treated like short stories, some songs have dialogue like a screenplay. Reading all the 137 songs you can read also the journey of Bono, starting in September 1974 at the Blackwood Cemetery.
What resources did you use to help you write your book?
I started with the lyrics and went backwards. The Bible has been a key source because in the book I compared Bono’s words with those of Habakkuk, Isaiah and David, but there is much more. There is an influence of Karl Popper in “Zoo Station”; of Jean Baudrillard in “Even Better Than the Real Thing”; of Raymond Carver in “Acrobat”; and of Paul Celan, Patrick Kavanagh and Soren Kierkegaard in “The First Time.” There are also influence from essays on foreign politics, books on the history of blues, Sam Shepard and Flannery O’Connor, John Boyle O’Reilly and Norman Mailer, John Clare and Thomas Mann, and Günter Grass and Virginia Woolf. I discovered all these thing starting from reading old interviews with Bono, old quotes, suggestions and well-known things (John Boyle O’Reilly is the man in “Van Diemen’s Land”).
I’ve read many books about U2, of course, but the one that I followed like a polar star was U2 by U2. There are many revelations in that book and I try to investigate them more. I read Niall Stokes’ Into the Heart but I tried to dig deeper; Niall doesn’t go very deep into influences from the Bible or literature.
How long did it take you to research and write your book?
It took me two years for the research and one year to write it. I wanted to focus on words, because even though this book is divided into 137 chapters, it can be read like a novel where the reader can follow a kind of plot, which is the spiritual and human evolution of Bono.
What did you learn about Bono from studying his lyrics?
I learned that Bono is a much more complex writer than has been said or written by critics and that only Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen have been able to sum up the Bible in three minutes like Bono can. From The Unforgettable Fire on, his research on words is high-level and it gets to its climax on Achtung Baby and Zooropa, in which he blends high and trash culture together, the television with the Holy Bible, war with love, Norman Schwarzkopf with Delmore Schwartz, Leni Riefenstahl with Frank Sinatra.
As a matter of fact, I found out that the lyrics for Pop, U2’s most criticized album, are among the best Bono has ever written. Why? Because is that the moment in which Bono sees very clearly in his life and analyzes his mother’s death in “Mofo” and the status of a rock star in “Gone.” He’s very well-focused, like never before or after on that record.
Any discoveries that surprised you?
Well, there were many. For example, I realized “Mofo” is more an essay on psychoanalysis than a pop song because in that song Bono went through his grief for the loss of his mother for the first time in 23 years. But the most surprising discovery is the huge mass of literary quotations, from Celan to Carver, that fill U2’s songs. What’s more, I found out that in “One Tree Hill” Bono quotes his favorite Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Enduring Chill,” and that “The Fly” was shaped by C. S. Lewis’s way of writing [The Screwtape Letters]. Also in “Grace,” Bono quotes from What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey.
What has been the reaction to your book so far?
In Italy, I’ve been on the national television news and on radio shows. Daily papers such as La Repubblica, Avvenire and L’Osservatore Romano, which is Vatican’s official paper, have reviewed the book and those reviews have received some international attention. I think some who are not U2 fans have enjoyed reading the book because it is written like a coming of age novel.
Given that you consulted the Bible so much for insight into Bono’s lyrics, did you also consult religious teachers for their views on the lyrics?
No, I deliberately wanted to follow the same path Bono went on during his youth: he found out the Bible is a great book in itself, not only a religious book. He found wonderful and astonishing stories in there. He was so impressed that he identified himself with David, who inspired him in writing songs such as “40” and “Wake Up Dead Man.” Bono speaks with God as he would speak to a friend, in a simple and sometimes funny way. That is his strength.
Do you think you could say what the general response to U2 is in Italy?
In Italy, there is a strong passion for the epic force of the music of U2, for their anthems, for their capability of gathering people. But as their lyrics are in English, many people can’t fully understand what Bono says and many don’t know the context for the songs. In this sense, the ultimate aim of The Name of Love is to show how complex U2’s lyrics and help with understanding them.
Any plans to have In The Name of Love available in English?
Soon my book will be translated into Polish and I’m looking for other translations, maybe in French or in Spanish, but I would love to reach English readers and most of all an American audience. I think my book could be really interesting for readers in the United States, because it shows how America has been essential to the evolution of the band. It has been so important for Bono that he said, “We didn’t realize we were Irish until we came to America.”
In my book there are different aspects of America: the West and Bodie State Historic Park; the South between New Orleans and Memphis; New York City, to which Bono has dedicated more than one song, and also all the American writers. Then there are the Irish immigrants who were “the hands who built America” and whose hope is sung about “In God’s Country.” The dark side of America — with Charles Manson and The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer — influenced U2’s songs too. In the United States, U2 looked for their musical roots: in Memphis they visited Graceland and they had the chance to meet and play with B. B. King when they visited Sun Studios. They visited Sinatra’s Las Vegas, where they filmed the video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” an anthem to the land of freedom which is epitomized by America; and further they went thought the desert like Jesus where they found their Joshua tree, a turning point for their career. To sum up, we could say that U2 wouldn’t be what they are today if they hadn’t visited America. It is the land where they came of age.
Are there more books you’d like to write about U2?
I’d like to write the one I partially started here: Bono’s novel, the story of his incredible life in the form of a novel; a biopic conceived like an opera divided into three acts. The first act would be about the difficult growth of the boy Paul Hewson; the second act would be about his achievement as an artist and his success, and a third, more introspective act, about Bono as a human being. I think that beyond what people think of Bono, his story is really powerful. I’d like to give it an epic strength with a kind of “Once upon a time in Dublin” feeling, inspired by Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America, but also by the many beautiful operas of Giuseppe Verdi.
* Learn more about Andrea Morandi and his book at his blog.
* Purchase In The Name of Love (in Italian) here.
* Learn more about Arcana Press and their series of books on popular music at their MySpace page.