Saying No to Nostalgia

January 23, 2017 § 2 Comments

the_joshua_treeA couple of weeks ago, Pitchfork Media ran a story about U2’s plans to tour The Joshua Tree this year, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their biggest album.  In it, Kyle McGovern argued that U2 had finally succumbed to being a legacy act.  Of course, this being Pitchfork (or the Drunken Hipsters, as my friend Jean-Sébastien calls the site), McGovern couldn’t resist writing in the voice of a petulant 20-year old who spends too much time alone.  Thus, even while noting that touring The Joshua Tree is a ‘win’ for the band, McGovern couldn’t help engaging in the old back-handed praise.

Anyway. The Joshua Tree is my favourite U2 album, not surprisingly.  It was my true entrepôt to the band.  I was 14 when the album came out, and while I remember heading ‘New Year’s Day’ from the 1983 album War on the radio, this was the first time I bought a U2 album and listened to it start-to-finish.  The Joshua Tree tour visited Vancouver in November 1987, and I saw them at BC Place.  Well, sort of.  You don’t see a lot from the nose-bleeds of BC Place Stadium.  The album remains my favourite, though I don’t really see it as the zenith of U2’s creativity as a band.  I see it as the culmination of an epoch of the band’s history.  And I very much was into their 1990s output.  Since then, with the exception of the blip, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, I’ve found everything they’ve done since the turn of the millennium to suck.

I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to go see the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, especially because they’re headlining Bonnaroo this summer.  The festival takes place nearby.  When I was 16, my parents got all excited to go see The Rolling Stones at BC Place.  And they got all nostalgic about a band that had sucked for most of the past decade.  I thought this sad (though I did get them to snag me a Living Colour t-shirt, one of my favourite bands that opened the show).  I even mocked them.  They took it in stride.  I guess they figured my time would come.  And it has.  Many of my favourite bands of youth have reformed and toured, some of have even released new music of varying quality.  Some clearly reformed for the money (hi, there, Stone Roses), some reformed because they missed making music together.  And, well, nostalgia.

In 2004, the Pixies reformed and went on a massive reunion tour, wherein it seemed that they actually got along.  I saw them in Montréal at the CEPSUM Arena at the Université de Montréal.  It was a brilliant show. I didn’t buy a t-shirt, but I did buy the instant-pressed CD of the show.  I still listen to it.  It was entirely a trip in nostalgia.  The Pixies didn’t have any new music to play us.  And I hadn’t seen them since 1992, when they opened for, of all bands, U2 at the Montreal Forum.  They didn’t disappoint.  Their more recent attempts at being a real band, releasing new music, well, that’s a bit different.  The Pixies have moved on from being a nostalgia act.

Now nostalgia is not in and of itself a bad thing.  The brilliant late scholar, Svetlana Boym, argues that nostalgia shouldn’t be just dismissed as a simple glance backwards with rose-tinted glasses.  Nor should it be overlooked or patronised by scholars and journalists.  Boym studied nostalgia for communism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and discovered it to be neither facile nor kitschy.  Instead, she argued it’s a ‘sentiment of loss and displacement.’  It is an orientation outwards; a reminder of loss and displacement, and is refracted through an ambivalence towards the present-day, and it is also a romance constructed by our own memories.

In the case of ageing rock bands, then, my parents went to see the Stones in 1989 and I saw the Pixies in 1994 because they were selling something we wanted to buy.  Even though the Stones were older and the Pixies were older, they were still symbols of our youth.  And we were there to worship at the altar of youth, our displacement into middle age for my parents, and my 30s for me.  So, of course, framed in this manner, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see our respective ambivalence towards the present-day and our ageing bodies and the complications of daily life.

So back to U2 and The Joshua Tree.  Should I go?  Should I attempt recreate how I felt when I was 14 years old?  No. Of course I shouldn’t go!  Why?  Because it’s been 30 years.  The Edge and Larry Mullen, Jr., are 55.  Adam Clayton and Bono are 56.  In other words, they’re a decade older than the Rolling Stones were when my parents saw them in 1989.  I don’t need to see this. I don’t need to hear and see their ageing.  I can see my own, thanks.  I don’t need to listen to Bono attempt to hit the notes he sang in 1987, when he was 26.  As he’s aged, Bono Vox’s voice has become thinner and higher.  This is what happens, of course.  But he can’t sing like he did 30 years ago.  And this will just depress me, because he can’t sing like he did 30 years ago.  And the band, while they have played together for over 40 years, well, they don’t and can’t play like they did 30 years ago either.

In other words, I don’t need a trip down Nostalgia Ave., to rediscover my lost youth, the idealism of youth, or anything else like that.  U2 were once my favourite band.  But that was a long time ago.  We’re all getting older.  I’ll try to live in my own life and time this summer, thanks.


Memory and the Music of U2

September 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

[We now return to regular programming here, after a busy summer spent finishing a book manuscript]

So U2 have a new album out, they kind of snuck up on us and dropped “Songs of Innocence” into our inboxes without us paying much attention. Responses to the new album have ranged from ecstatic to boredom, but I’ve been particularly interested in how the album got distributed: Apple paid U2 some king’s ransom to give it to us for free. Pitchfork says that we were subjected to the album without consent, a lame attempt to appropriate the words of the ant-rape movement to an album.

As for me, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of “Songs of Innocence.” I think it’ll ultimately be disposable for me, though it’s certainly better than their output last decade, but not as good as the surprising “No Line on the Horizon” which, obviously was not up to the standard of their heyday in the 80s and 90s. And I’m not sure about Bono’s Vox as he ages, it’s starting to sound too high pitched and thin for my tastes, whereas it used to be so warm and rich.

u2_unforgettable_fire_castle_Moydrum_CastleAnyway. iTunes is now offering U2’s back catalogue on the cheap.  I lost most of my U2 cd’s in a basement flood a few years ago, so I took a look.  But looking at the album covers, I was struck by the flood of memories that came to me.  For a long time, U2 were one of my favourite bands, and “The Joshua Tree” has long been in the Top 3 of my Top 5.  But, just how deeply U2’s music is embedded in my memories was surprising.  For example, looking at the cover of “The Unforgettable Fire,” I am immediately transported back in time, to two places.  First, I’m 11 or 12, in suburban Vancouver, listening to “Pride (In the Name Of Love)” for the first time, on C-FOX, 99.3 in Vancouver.  Secondly, I’m on a train to Montreal, from Ottawa, in the fall of 1991, listening to “A Sort of Homecoming” as I head back to my hometown for the first time in a long time.

Zooropa_albumThe cover of “Zooropa” takes me back to the summer of 1993, riding around Vancouver in the MikeMobile, the ubiquitous automobile of my best friend, Mike.  That summer, “Zooropa” alternated with the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Twins” in the cd player, which was a discman plugged into the tape deck of the 1982 Mercury Lynx.  US and the Pumpkins were occasionally swapped out for everything from Soundgarden and Fugazi to the Doughboys and Mazzy Star, but those two albums were the core.

U2_Boy_America“Boy” takes me back to being a teenager, too, my younger sister, Valerie, was also a big U2 fan back in the day, and she really liked this album, so we’re listening to it on her pink cassette player (why we’re not next door, in my room, listening on my much more powerful stereo, I don’t kn0w).  She went on to become obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys’ horrid, evil, and wrong cover of “Where the Streets Have No Name” (and the PSB were generally so brilliant!), to the point where she once played the song 56 times in a row on her pink cassette player, playing, rewinding, and playing the cassette single over and over.

Obviously the soundtrack of our lives (or The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, a brilliant Swedish rock band last decade) is deeply embedded in our memories, much the same way that scents can transport us back in place and time.  But I was more than a little surprised how deep U2 is in my mind, how just seeing an album cover can take me back in time across decades, and in place, across thousands upon thousands of kilometres.

Bono Vox, Corporate Stooge

June 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

In today’s Guardian, Terry Eagleton gets his hatchet out on Ireland’s most famous son, Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, the ubiquitous frontman of Irish megastars/corporate behemoth, U2.  Eagleton is ostensibly reviewing a book, Harry Browne’s, Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power), which sounds like a good read.  Eagleton’s review, though, is a surprisingly daft read by a very intelligent man, one of my intellectual heroes.

He takes Bono to task for being a stooge of the neo-cons.  For Bono sucking up to every neo-con politician from Paul Wolfowitz to Tony Blair and every dirty, smelly corporate board in the world in the line of his charity work.  Eagleton even takes a particularly stupid quote from Ali Hewson, Bono’s wife, about her fashion line, to make his case.  Now, just to be clear, I think Bono is a wanker.  I love U2, they were once my favourite band, and The Joshua Tree is in my top 3 albums of all-time.  But Bono is a tosser.  He can’t help it, though, he’s like Jessica Rabbit, he was just made that way.  Eagleton, for his part, essentialises the Irish in a rather stupid manner as an internationalist, messianic people, and says, basically, Bono and his predecessor as Irish celebrity charity worker, Bob Geldof, were destined to be such.  Whatever.

I’m more interested in Eagleton’s critique of Bono as a corporate/neo-con stooge.  It’s a valid argument. Bono has coozied up to some dangerous and scary men and women in his crusades to raise consciousness and money for African poverty and health crises.  But, I see something else at work.  A couple of years ago, there was news of a charity organisation seeking to use Coca-Cola’s distribution network in the developing world to get medicine out there.  I thought it a brilliant idea, but, perhaps predictably, there was blowback.  Critics complained that this would then give Coca-Cola Ltd. positive publicity and that it did nothing to stunt Coca-Cola’s distribution, blah blah blah.  Sure, that’s all true, but perhaps it would be a good thing if needed medicines were distributed through Coke’s network, especially since Coca-Cola Ltd. was more than willing to help out?  Maybe the end result justified the means?

And so, reading Eagleton on Bono today, I thought of Cola Life (the charity working with Coke).  And I thought, it’s certainly true that Bono has worked with some skeezy folk.  But, if the end result is worth it, what’s the problem? If working with the likes of Tony Blair (hey, remember when everyone loved Tony Blair?!?) and Paul Wolfowitz and Jeffery Sachs actually can lead to positive developments for Africa and other parts of the developing world, is it not worth giving it a try?  Or is it better to sit on our moral high grounds in the developed world and frown and shake our heads at the likes of Cola Life and Bono for actually trying to work at the system from within for positive change?

I’ve always been struck by a Leonard Cohen lyric, the first line of “First We Take Manhattan”: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within.”  Cohen there summed it up, working within the system for change and revolution is boring, it’s not glamorous, it’s not glorious.  But my experience has taught me that it works, and more positive change can be affected through pushing from within the system than from without it.  It doesn’t mean it’s always all that ethically clean, either, sometimes you have to get dirty to do a wider good, and I think that’s what Cola Life and Bono are doing on a much bigger, grander, and more impressive scale.  And I think the Terry Eagleton’s of the world are living in the past, with their moralistic tut-tutting, all the whilst sitting on their hands and doing little to actually do something to bring about positive change.

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