Monday, July 7, 2008

Dirty Day: Part One

For over two months I have been haunted by a U2 song from 1993 - "Dirty Day" - which was buried in the middle of Zooropa released 15 years ago - part of the boomerang of Achtung Baby and the chaos of 1991 and it is often overlooked. Back when it meant something, Rolling Stone magazine noted that this album sounds like the "exuberant paranoia of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (with) a postmodern twist."

Boston music critic, Jim Sullivan, wrote, that "Dirty Day," a gently disorienting tune dedicated to barfly-beat poet Charles Bukowski, warns early on, "You can hold onto something so tight/ You've already lost it" - and then launches into a dead-father-to-son discourse about art" but that is only the half of it. You see, "Dirty Day" builds on shadow wisdom - the truth of the dark side - that U2 first explored in "Exit" - and it is the truth of the shadow, I suspect, that gives "Dirty Day"its power.

Three inter-connecting truths come to mind here and deserve consideration. First, U2 is a consciously Christian collective of artists exploring the joys and sorrows of life in these strange, post-modern times. Until "Exit" they dwelt primarily in the realm of the light - think "Pride (in the Name of Love" or even "40" - yes, they knew sorrow and suffering but they shared nothing as bleak as "Exit" until they journeyed into America. And as they have noted, America held both darkness and light for Irish boys: there was both the ecstasy of Springsteen and Elvis, Motown and Beale Street as well as the reality of a tragic and racist foreign policy.
I suspect it is no accident that both "Bullet the Blue Sky" - a cry of anguish born of US policy against El Salvador - and "Exit" find their way onto the same recording: The Joshua Tree. Throw in the bluesy Buddy Holly sound of "Desire" in the follow-up work on Rattle and Hum - along with"Angel of Harlem," the gospel-blues of "When Love Comes to Town" and the infectious recasting of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with the gospel choir - and the promise and curse of America becomes clear.

"Exit" - which Bono describes as his dark descent into what a religious man will do at his worst - is terrifying: is it about murder or suicide? Does it matter? "I had read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. This was my attempt at writing a story in the mind of a killer. It is all very well to address America and the violence that is an aggressive foreign policy but to really understand that you have to get under the skin of your own darkness, the violence we all contain within us... it is the least attractive thing in anyone and I wanted to own up to that." (U2 by U2, p. 184) In 1987 "Exit" starts a public journey into confession and embracing/integrating the dark side of human experience with the ecstasy of the spirit.

Second, the tunes from Achtung Baby and Zooropa - and dare I say Pop, too - push the band's conscious awareness of the tensions between our public and shadow selves even farther. The great Spanish poet, Juan Ramon Jimenez, spoke of the shadow like this:

I am not I. (Yo no soy yo!)
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see,
Whom at times I manage to visit
And whom at other times I forget;
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk where I am not,
The one who will remain standing when I die.
I am not I.

And "Dirty Day" nails this in a way that bears a unique insight for Americans these days as we try to discern ways to end this never-ending, horrible war in Iraq, what to do about a faltering economy and where we must go next in healthy race relations in the United States: "You're looking for explanations I don't even understand - if you need someone to blame throw a rock in the air you'll hit someone guilty." Bono said that he took a bunch of Charles Bukowski sayings and threw them together to describe "a character who has walked out on his family and years later meets the son he has abandoned." (U2 by U2, p. 249)

To be sure, this is father and son talk - with questions of poetry and art thrown into the mix - but it is also owning the shadow singing that is confessional, honest and demanding in ways that traditional Christian music never is! Get it right, there's no blood thicker than ink! Hear what I say, nothing's simple as you think. Wake up - some things you can't get around; I'm in you more so when they put me in the ground.

Does anyone else hear the sounds of the Hebrew Bible here - the very 10 Commandments, in fact? You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments.

So third, they share this paradox - this tension and ambiguity - with beauty. Bukowski, whatever you may think of him (and many Beat aficionados love him) was anything but beautiful, yes? His horrible acne, his brutalization by his father and his alcoholic haze all made him a keen interpreter of life from the outside - an important perspective with prophetic implications - for he has said about himself:

When they beat you long enough and hard enough you have the tendency to say what you really mean; in other words, they take all the pretenses out of you. If you can get out of it, whatever is still there is usually something genuine. Anyone who gets severe punishment during childhood can get out of it quite strong, quite good, or can end up being a rapist, a killer, end up in a madhouse or lost in all kinds of different directions. So you see, my father was a great literary teacher: He taught me the meaning of pain--pain without reason (High Times 98).

But as important as his harsh and ugly judgments were (are), Bukowski could never communicate the way U2 does because he was afraid of beauty. He ran from beauty. He was terrified of beauty's judgment. In 1994 he wrote, "What Can We Do?"
what can we do?
at their best, there is gentleness in Humanity.

some understanding and, at times, acts of
but all in all it is a mass, a glob that doesn't have too much.
it is like a large animal deep in sleep and
almost nothing can awaken it.
when activated it's best at brutality,
selfishness, unjust judgments, murder.

what can we do with it, this Humanity?


avoid the thing as much as possible.
treat it as you would anything poisonous, vicious
and mindless.
but be careful.
it has enacted laws to protect
itself from you.
it can kill you without cause.
and to escape it you must be subtle.
few escape.

it's up to you to figure a plan.

I have met nobody who has escaped.
I have met some of the great and

famous but they have not escaped
for they are only great and famous within

I have not escaped
but I have not failed in trying again and

before my death I hope to obtain my

My hunch is that what U2 has discovered - born of the Paschal Mystery - is that when we bring our own deep, ugly, haunting and honest pain and suffering into the light, God meets us there. The agony does not go away - sometimes it is shared and sometimes it is released - but it never goes away. And yet some how by bringing the darkness into the light, there is a chance that beauty can be exposed within it. This is what is at the heart of confession: create in my a clean heart, O God, and a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51) Solzhenitsyn made this observation in his lecture after winning the Nobel Prize in 1971:

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world." What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?… There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. …(And) those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force - they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them…. In that case Dostoevsky's remark, "Beauty will save the world", was not a careless phrase but a prophecy? After all HE was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination.

The voice of the father in "Dirty Day" tries to make excuses for all the stupid shit he has done - it is always some else's fault, yes? - and this wounds us. In this the sins of the fathers and mothers are passed on to the third and fourth generations. But then the strange closing chant of the song comes up - another Bukowski line - and tells us, "yeah... so what? Get on with it, ok?" Yes, life is tough - damn right ugly and mean, too - and still in each day there is beauty: Days, days, days run away like wild horses over the hill!

1 comment:

Beth said...

Thanks for pointing this post out to me, James. I'll link it in a bit.

Interesting interplay you have here. It strikes me that in addition to Bukowski, from the same ballpark there are also the William Burroughs connections (the Thanksgiving prayer from the ZooTV special, the Last Night on Earth video). Hinting at the same kind of U2 attraction to the dark -- while just being constitutionally unable not to experience the dark as the place where the glimmers of new light come through.

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