[For those newer to the blog, this is an ’88 mph’ post: posts in which this humble blog becomes a time-machine to appreciate something from the past of one of our writers.]
/ one love / one life / when it’s one need in the night / one love / we get to share it / it leaves you, baby, if you don’t care for it /
/ did i ask too much? / more than a lot? / you gave me nothing / now it’s all i’ve got /
This month, it’s been 19 years since the release of U2’s Achtung Baby. I should probably write an 88mph post about the whole album, and I could actually pretty easily write a post for each song. Today, one song has got me thinking to the point of needing an outlet.
“One,” the third track on the album, is one of the most amazing songs ever written. I’m not going to qualify that statement at all, because whether you actually like the song or not, its impact is well-documented, and can’t be disputed. Whether you are referring to the huge sales; the acceptance by, and impact on, other artists; the song’s almost constant appearance on critic, musician and listener created lists of the greatest songs ever; the fact that it saved one of the most successful bands in history from breaking up; or the various causes and issues that the song has become an anthem for… to quote our VP, the song is “a big fucking deal.”
As the story goes, the band was recording, or attempting to record, Achtung Baby in Berlin, during the period of reunification. Things weren’t going so well, and the band was quite literally on the verge of calling it quits, believing that the life of the band had run its course. That’s when The Edge started improvising a riff, Bono started improvising some lyrics over it, and a long process began creating a song which has literally touched the lives of millions.
As The Edge has said:
“At the instant we were recording it, I got a very strong sense of its power. We were all playing together in the big recording room, a huge, eerie ballroom full of ghosts of the war, and everything fell into place. It was a reassuring moment, when everyone finally went, ‘oh great, this album has started.’ It’s the reason you’re in a band – when the spirit descends upon you and you create something truly affecting.”
The music of U2 in the 80’s was hopeful, and angry, and naive (in the most beautiful way possible). With open eyes, they looked at the pain of the world and tried to offer a rallying cry for a better way to live. As they grew up, and the 80’s became the 90’s, the band and the world changed. The Edge had just gotten divorced, Adam Clayton had experienced some personal problems, the world wasn’t the bright new place the band believed it had the potential to be. As Bono would later sing nearly a decade after Achtung Baby, the band was trying to find its identity in a world where / hope and history don’t rhyme /.
This song became the anthem for where the band was, what this album would be, and what the band had to say throughout the 90’s. Gone was the heart on his sleeve, earnest Bono of the 80’s; replaced by characters to hide his true self and offer incarnated prophetic utterings. The Mirrorball Man (an over the top televangelist/used car salesman douchebag, also, evil or the devil); Mr. MacPhisto (an aging actor or rock star, also, evil or the devil); and most often, The Fly (the typical rock star, too cool and arrogant for emotions), with his trademark wraparound shades, always hiding behind the glasses, this character obviously functions as a cartoon of what Bono fears about himself, perhaps all three characters do.
Everything was different now. The Edge describes Achtung Baby as the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.
“One” was truly at the heart of that sentiment. Moving into darkness and depression, but without ever fully letting go of hope. To use Bono’s metaphor from later in the decade, it was a time of / looking for the baby Jesus under the trash /
As is the case with most of Bono’s lyrics, “One” finds that perfect balance of being explicit enough to be affecting, while being vague enough to allow nearly endless interpretations. Like all great art, it can mean something poignant to a person or people in very specific circumstances, while meaning something equally powerful to someone in a very different place and time. One remarkably brilliant interpretation of the song is listening to it as the conversation between a gay man dying of AIDS and the fundamentalist father who’d rejected him. Lines like, / have you come here for forgiveness? / have you come to raise the dead? / have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head? / — and — / you say love is a temple / love, the higher law / you ask me to enter, well, then you make me crawl / and I can’t be holding on to what you’ve got, when all you’ve got is hurt / — just to name a few, take on a pretty powerful nuance when you listen to the song through that filter.
Whatever interpretation you might embrace during any particular listen, the song’s interaction with estrangement and forgiveness is powerful.
Born from the band’s anger, frustration and near demise, in a context of a Berlin which had been a divided city for decades, about to come together again, forced to learn to live as one city, comes a song about conflict, and pain, and the beauty and agony of living together. As the band has pointed out, the song is about going through some bad shit, and having a pretty difficult discussion when all involved realize things will never be the same again. It’s about disillusionment, and rage, and grace.
The fact that Bono can get to the heart of the difficulty of loving one another and still remaining differentiated, still being ourselves, disagreeing and holding onto ourselves without casting out the other, is amazing. Yet, the fact that he can do so with the way his voice aches over a single phrase, /we’re one, but we’re not the same / — is unbelievable. Bono said:
“It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together.’ It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, We are one, but we’re not the same. It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice”.
To lift a quote directly from wikipedia:
The Edge described it on one level as a “bitter, twisted, vitriolic conversation between two people who’ve been through some nasty, heavy stuff”. On another level, he suggested that the line “we get to carry each other” introduces “grace” to the song and that the wording “get to” (instead of “got to”) is essential, as it suggests that it is a privilege to help one another, not an obligation.
That’s brilliant. It’s such a beautiful and challenging philosophy. The sort that could change the world if more people took it to heart. Sadly, most don’t, myself included. Still, I’ll keep listening, hoping that this is one of those artistic works that might actually make me a better person in my experience of it. Perhaps the music can work its way into those deep recesses of my brain that science hasn’t yet mapped and help me live like / love is a temple / and remember when I’m dealing with some asshole I’d rather tell to fuck off, that we have no choice but to learn to live together.
/ we get to carry each other /
That’s some pretty profound shit. My God, I love this album.