Thursday, November 18, 2010

“Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2

It starts off quietly. It almost sounds confused…an incongruent medley, tough to discern at first what it might be. There is a sort of humming and a low-level pitchy gyration. The first time you hear the song, and maybe even still, you might turn your volume up to make sure that something intentional is actually playing.

You boost the speaker to get a better sense. And you debate for a second as to what the sound is. It’s almost eerie, but harmonious and moving at the same time. Then it hits you. It’s church organs. They’re synthesized for sure, but that’s the sound. Few things can be both eerie and touching. A properly played organ can deliver either depending on the circumstances.

I’ve listened to the song hundreds of times, and the initiation of Edge’s guitar gives me as many chills as the organ. The riffs sound simple, unarranged and impromptu like an extended jam at a live concert. But a few seconds into it, you realize its complexity. It is super-quick and quietly intense, and as the pace and the volume feed picks up, the chills intensify.
If you play it back to when the drums started at 1:09, you realize that the bass actually began in accord with the percussion - making the seamlessness even more awesome. That’s the moment, at 1:09, when all instrumental elements are in gear… except for Bono’s words. Those don’t kick in until the 1:47 mark. And they too are outstanding.

Bono is an amazing song writer. Simply amazing. Whether you like his politics or not, admire his use of celebrity to promote or not, I think he is as conflicted, caring and ultimately as lost as the rest of us. And whether you believe in my God or your own, the spirituality of his lyrics are untouchable.

So much of what he writes is about belief in something greater. Something bigger than yourself or your perspective thereof or other's perspective of you. They are about finding deeper meaning, and meaning what you believe, and searching, and continuing to search. Like my favorite line ever: "What no man can own, no man can take," from Yahweh, which to me speaks to everything that isn’t materialistic and therefore most important in life. Other lyrics are quietly uplifting, possibly urging you to pause for perspective, like the line "The end is not as far as the start" from Original of the Species.

Many of Bono's songs appear to talk about everyday happenings on the surface. But you need to listen closely and add some perspective to get where he is coming from. Like in “Beautiful Day” where he sings “See the bird with the leaf in her mouth. After the flood, all the colors came out.” Taken separately, the words might appear to simply be references to common occurrences in the beauty of nature - a soaring bird and the clearing of a flood.

If you went to Sunday school, you know without question that Bono is singing about the dove, the olive branch, Noah's Ark and God's rainbow. Your belief in the Bible or not, does not matter. What matters is that it’s there and it tells a story. A story that some see one way and others see their way.

The inspiration for “Where the Streets Have No Name” is said to have stemmed from a harsh reality in Ireland. In certain Irish cities, there are apparently areas that are so socially fragmented that you can tell a person’s background, their social status and even their precise occupation, based on their street name and house number. Not that other parts of the world don’t lead to the same social profiling. E.g. A Central Park West address is probably owned by a different person than one in upper Harlem, but either puts your residence in Manhattan. Apparently in Ireland this dynamic is very divisive. And Ireland is where the chord was struck for Bono.

In that world, and many others, a street with a name says to others who you are. And you are judged and maybe even snubbed because of it. Maybe you’re snubbed for being poor and unmotivated or maybe you’re snubbed for being rich and greedy. Either way, with the introduction of prejudice based on a street name, a potential human connection is lost.

How shallow of us all? And we’ve all done it. We think we know someone by their “place” in the world. By a physical proximity to something that is either of more or less value than the average. It’s a numbers game, and it sucks. “Streets” is about imagining a place where that does not exist. Where you get to know and enjoy people for who they are - where substance counts, not an address.

Some of it , like the first line, is about escaping the tough times - “I want to run, I want to hide.” Other parts are about lost love and pain. “Our love turns to rust…trampled in dust.” But the entire package, like many U2 songs, has a very positive and uplifting message when it's all put together.

“I want to reach out, and touch the flame…”
“I want to feel sunlight on my face. I see the dust clouds disappear…”
“And when I go there, I go there with you.”

The line “And when I go there, I go there with you,” suggests to me that there are better places than where streets badge you. And if someone is going to a better place, chances are that they would like to be with others when they do. Who wants to keep something better all to themselves?
The biggest question of interpretation for me is: What is the meaning behind the word “you” in that line. “When I go there, I go there with you.” Is the "you" meant to be singular? Is it a wife, a child or another loved one? Is it the plural form of you, implying that many can join? Or is it much, much bigger.

Like any song, you can pick apart the lyrics however you see fit. Many, if not most musicians, will tell you that they want to relate to others via their words. To do that, lyrics have to be open to interpretation and allow someone to put pictures or emotions behind what someone else is saying. And oftentimes, even for an individual, that meaning can change over time.

One of the most powerful lines for me…now …is “I want to feel, sunlight on my face.” What a simple and intensely important feeling. I guarantee most of us take it for granted most of the time. We might be so busy with our jobs or other distractions that we don’t even think about the simplicity of the sun and all that it affords us. To some people though, at certain times, its beauty and power can change an entire day, maybe a whole week or possibly even modify your entire condition.

During Steph’s mom’s last few days, we would bring her onto the deck at her house in a wheelchair to get some fresh air. It was just shy of spring in March and still cold, so we would wear jackets when we joined her. The trips were brief, so not much was said. When it was, a few of those conversations started off with something like “remember when…”

But I don’t think Barbara was thinking solely about the past. And for her, the deck-top trips were not just about fresh air. When there was no conversation taking place and even during, Barbara would lift her face to the sky with her eyes closed and fight the trees to get peeks of sunlight on her face. A simple warmth. Warm moments that we again likely take for granted, were the times that she looked most at peace. I think she was thinking about a better place. A place where the streets are nameless and where there is always sunlight on your face.

For me, “Streets” is about heaven - a place where none of the superfluous shit matters. Where "dust, poison rain" and social statuses don’t exist. Where the love you have for the people that you know on Earth and those no longer with us, is all that matters. Where the “you” in “I go there with you” is about anyone that you’d want to be with; a single loved one, your entirety of family and friends, and even your God. Won’t he join you on that trip as the “dust clouds disappear?”

And the song finishes in the same way it began. With an extended outro of Edge on guitar being backed up by an organ. This time with a soft and peaceful feel to it. Continuing to take you wherever you want to go. Listen to "Streets" again or for the first time. And tell me you don’t get chills.

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