The Ground Beneath My Feet
Over the years U2 and I discussed collaborating on various projects. Bono mentioned an idea he had for a stage musical, but my imagination failed to spark. There was another long Dublin night (a bottle of Jameson's was involved) during which the film director Neil Jordan, Bono and I conspired to make a film of my novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories. To my great regret this never came to anything either.
Then, in 1999, I published my novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in which the Orpheus myth winds through a story set in the world of rock music. Orpheus is the defining myth for singers and writers--for the Greeks, he was the greatest singer as well as the greatest poet--and it was my Orphic tale that finally made possible the collaboration we'd been kicking around.
It happened, like many good things, without being planned. I sent Bono and U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, pre-publication copies of the novel in typescript, hoping they would tell me if the thing worked or not. Bono said afterward that he had been very worried on my behalf, believing that I had taken on an impossible task, and that he began reading the book in the spirit of a "policeman"--that is, to save me from my mistakes. Fortunately, the novel passed the test. Deep inside it is the lyric of what Bono called the novel's "title track," a sad elegy written by the novel's main male character about the woman he loved, who has been swallowed up in an earthquake: a contemporary Orpheus' lament for his lost Eurydice.
Bono called me. "I've written this melody for your words, and I think it might be one of the best things I've done." I was astonished. One of the novel's principal images is that of the permeable frontier between the world of the imagination and the one we inhabit, and here was an imaginary song crossing that frontier. I went to McGuinness's place near Dublin to hear it. Bono took me away from everyone else and played the demo CD to me in his car. Only when he was sure that I liked it--and I liked it right away--did we go back indoors and play it for the assembled company.
There wasn't much after that that one would properly call "collaboration." There was a long afternoon when Daniel Lanois, who was producing the song, brought his guitar and sat down with me to work out the lyrical structure. And there was the Day of the Lost Words, when I was called urgently by a woman from Principle Management, which looks after U2. "They're in the studio and they can't find the lyrics. Could you fax them over?" Otherwise, silence, until the song was ready.
I wasn't expecting it to happen, but I'm proud of it. It's called "The Ground Beneath Her Feet." For U2, too, it was a departure. They haven't often used anyone's lyrics but their own, and they don't usually start with the lyrics; typically, the words come at the very end. But somehow it all worked out. I suggested facetiously that they might consider renaming the band U2+1, or, even better, Me2, but I think they'd heard all those gags before.
There was a long al fresco lunch in Killiney at which the film director Wim Wenders startlingly announced that artists must no longer use irony. Plain speaking, he argued, was necessary now: Communication should be direct, and anything that might create confusion should be eschewed. Irony, in the rock world, has acquired a special meaning. The multimedia self-consciousness of U2's Achtung Baby-Zooropa phase, which simultaneously embraced and debunked the mythology and gobbledygook of rock stardom, capitalism and power, and of which Bono's white-faced, gold-lamé-suited, red-velvet-horned MacPhisto incarnation was the emblem, is what Wenders was criticizing. Characteristically, U2 responded by taking this approach even further, pushing it further than it would bear, in the less-well-received POP-Mart tour. After that, it seems, they took Wenders's advice. The new album, and the Elevation tour, is the spare, impressive result.
There was a lot riding on this album, this tour. If things hadn't gone well it might have been the end of U2. They certainly discussed that possibility, and the album was much delayed as they agonized over it. Extracurricular activities, mainly Bono's, also slowed them down, but since these included getting David Trimble and John Hume to shake hands on a public stage and reducing Jesse Helms--Jesse Helms!--to tears, winning his support for the campaign against Third World debt, it's hard to argue that these were self-indulgent irrelevances. At any event, All That You Can't Leave Behind turned out to be a strong album, a renewal of creative force and, as Bono put it, there's a lot of good will flowing toward the band right now.
I've seen them three times this year: in the "secret" pre-tour gig in London's little Astoria Theatre and then twice in America, in San Diego and Anaheim. They've come down out of the giant stadiums to play arena-sized venues that seem tiny after the gigantism of their recent past. The act has been stripped bare; essentially, it's just the four of them out there, playing their instruments and singing their songs. For a person of my age, who remembers when rock music was always like this, the show feels simultaneously nostalgic and innovative. In the age of choreographed, instrumentless little-boy and little-girl bands (yes, I know the Supremes didn't play guitars, but they were the Supremes!) it's exhilarating to watch a great, grown-up quartet do the fine, simple things so well. Direct communication, as Wim Wenders said. It works.
And they're playing my song.