Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Homecoming: A Sort of Homecoming

U2: A Sort of Homecoming

“A Sort of Homecoming” is a strange song in the U2 canon. It was not a hit, it is rarely played live (more on that, later), but it has long been one of my favorites—and in researching this piece, I found that there are many U2 fans who really love the song. As most of us know, U2 burst upon the scene with their remarkable debut, Boy, in 1980. I remember hearing it and playing it on WPRB, and being struck by the uniqueness of their sound, their earnestness, and their confidence, despite the fact that they were so young. The next album, October, was a minor stumble—not terrible, but somehow not fully realized. Their third album, War, was, start to finish, a great album, filled with anthems and love songs, delivered with passion, bravado, and musical talent. I saw them on that tour, at the Pier in New York, and was blown away. The album was a huge hit, and the album spawned hit singles—it was U2’s breakthrough into mass popularity.

When the band prepared to record its follow up, though, they wanted to move in a different direction, with less bombast and sloganeering. They wanted to work with Brian Eno, who initially was unimpressed by the band, and was planning to fob them off on his engineer, Daniel Lanois. Ultimately, though, Eno was convinced, and he agreed to work with U2 (along with Lanois), and try to create a more mature sound for the band. Not surprisingly, considering the production team, the collaboration resulted in The Unforgettable Fire, which was a more atmospheric and subtle album, but without losing the power of War. The two records are probably my favorite U2 albums (most critics probably go with The Joshua Tree or Achtung, Baby!, and I like them, too, but not as much).

“A Sort of Homecoming” is named after a line by poet Paul Celan, who Bono had been reading, in a speech he delivered on October 20, 1960, about five months after Bono was born, when Celan was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize. In that speech, Ceran discussed Büchner’s work, art, and poetry, and in his view, the circularity of poetry. He went on to say (in German, but I found a translation):

Is it on such paths that poems take us when we think of them? And are these paths only detours, detours from you to you? But they are, among how many others, the paths on which language becomes voice. They are encounters, paths from a voice to a listening You, natural paths, outlines for existence, perhaps, for projecting ourselves into the search for ourselves. . . . A kind of homecoming. 

I’ll bet you never thought that we’d be discussing German literature when you started reading this music blog post, did you? But critics note that this song, and the whole Unforgettable Fire album, show a more Celan-like spiritual doubt as compared to the more certain religious themes of their prior work.

Although I've never read Celan (but have read a little Büchner), what grabbed me about the song was the sense of yearning, both lyrically and musically, that is palpable from its quiet, polyrhythmic opening, to its more intense end. Note that the song is not called just “Homecoming,” it is “A Sort of Homecoming,” so it is fitting that lyrically it works on so many levels—as a personal homecoming to Bono’s native Ireland, as the “homecoming” of his late mother, as a return from war (possible the violence that was engulfing Ireland at the time), and as a spiritual renewal. And maybe more. Ultimately, though, the song ends with the comforting thought:

Oh don't sorrow, no don't weep 
For tonight, at last 
I am coming home 
I am coming home 

U2 played the song pretty regularly from 1984-1987, as they toured in support of The Unforgettable Fire and its follow-up, The Joshua Tree. There’s an excellent, if more triumphant and less atmospheric, live version from 1984, released on 1985’s EP Wide Awake In America (which is an odd title, because the song was actually recorded at a soundcheck before a show in London, with the crowd noises dubbed in later). But they basically ditched it from their setlist until a performance in 2001 at Slane Castle, in Ireland, which was described on one site as “somewhat shambolic, with Bono struggling to remember the lyrics.”

It made another appearance that year under very unusual circumstances, in Oakland on November 16, 2001. A devoted U2 fan and guitarist, Scott Perretta, had seen U2 pull people out of the audience on occasion to play guitar, and decided to see if he could make that happen for him. He went to the show on November 15 with a sign that said Me + Guitar = People? Knockin? Watchtower? Anything! and planted himself by the stage. U2 security asked if could actually play, because the band got pissed off when poseurs were selected and couldn’t. Assured by Peretta’s friends that he was legit, the security director said that if Bono was interested, he’d give Peretta a signal. But it didn’t happen.

Until the next night, when Peretta could see Bono and the Edge checking out his sign, and they invited him onstage. Peretta started playing the opening to “Homecoming,” which surprised them (since it wasn't on the sign, and wasn't as noted above, a regular part of their set), but they went with it, despite the fact that Bono couldn’t remember the lyrics.  He started ad-libbing about the song, crediting Van Morrison for its inspiration, before turning it into a prayer for the United States, which only two months before had suffered the 9/11 attacks. The crowd went wild. Here’s the audio of the performance. Here’s Peretta’s detailed recollection of the night, and here and here are short audience videos showing him onstage.

As Peretta wrote about that night: “I can die happy now.”

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