I’m trying to do something different with this post. It has a soundtrack, but the soundtrack is intertwined throughout. I’m trying to weave some thoughts together that might not make a ton of sense, and … you know, I’m going to see where this takes me.
My best friend, his wife and I saw U2 at Qwest Field in Seattle this past June. I can’t say that one concert or another is my favorite — I’ve stopped trying to list my “favorite” anything — but U2’s was certainly the most grand I’ve ever experienced. The first, second and third words that come to mind when I think of that night are all “Wow.” About a third of the way through the set, U2 performed a song that I wasn’t too familiar with at the time: “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”
The above video is an acoustic performance, but even when performed with a full band, it’s a haunting tune and an unusually sad entry in the U2 discography. When Bono reaches the chorus …
“If I could stay – then the night would give you up
Stay – then the day would keep its trust
Stay with the demons you drowned
Stay with the spirit I found
Stay, and the night would be enough”
… he really draws out that “stay,” adding so many layers of desperation and longing to the song. Every time I listen, all of those “stays” break my heart all over again; it’s absolutely devastating to listen to. It’s like hearing the song for the first time, every time. It’s an experience I’ve had with only a handful of songs in my life. It’s gorgeous and sad and powerful and devastating, all at once.
And it ends with Bono coming down from soaring chorus. He nearly whispers the song’s final few lyrics:
“Three o’clock in the morning
It’s quiet and there’s no one around
Just the bang and the clatter
As an angel runs to ground
Just the bang and the clatter
As an angel hits the ground”
For all the pain and longing packed into the final chorus, the song’s final and most poignant punch comes in those final few lyrics. It devastates me to listen to the song, and yet it’s been either on my iPod or stuck in my head all the time lately. I find myself humming the tune or singing the lyrics at the oddest times — in my car, on the way to the coffee shop, while reading a book. It’s been inescapable.
But I’m not writing about how sad a song makes me. There’s something else that makes me look at the song in a whole new light.
I’ve made a playlist of all the songs U2 performed when I saw them on that perfect June night. Bono had, early in the set, described Seattle — and that perfect day — thusly: “The city looked like it had come out of a washing machine and hung out on a clothesline. It looked brand-spanking new.” And he was absolutely right. With the downtown Seattle skyline right in front of us, it was as beautiful of a sight as I can imagine.
So immediately after the haunting “Stay,” U2 played a video starring astronaut Mark Kelly — only U2 would link up to the International Space Station between songs. Kelly finished his bit by helping the band launch into my all-time favorite song, “Beautiful Day.”
I’ve watched this video dozens of times since the concert. I haven’t just listened to the song; I’ve watched this exact video to the point where I can recite from memory Mark Kelly’s lines, the only-in-concert flourishes added to the song and the “Space Oddity” references mixed in throughout the video. “Imagine a man looking down on us from 200 miles up …”
As soon as Edge launches into the song’s first few notes, my energy level goes up. My troubles vanish. I get pumped. I get happy. I pump my fist and tap my toes. I get downright giddy. I feel like I can do anything — be it run all the way to New Orleans or throw a car into the Columbia River. I get the same chills watching it tonight that I did when I saw it live. It’s like hearing the song for the first time, every time.
And he gets to the climax — with a little help from Kelly:
“See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light, and
See the bird with the leaf in her mouth
After the flood, all the colors came out”
It’s easy to imagine looking down on earth and seeing these scenes play out, and the mental image that shines through is a powerful one of possibility and wonder. But the climax to that climax never fails to bring a smile to my face, especially when coupled with the soaring, powerful, downright giddy lyric that follows: “It was a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.” No matter what’s weighing me down — health issues, a sick Grandma or the thought of losing the family dog — I can’t not smile and feel like everything’s going to be alright. At least for those few moments.
Again, taking this one step further — what makes the song even more powerful here is that it came right after “Stay.” Think about that: U2 followed one of its saddest songs with its happiest.
It might be a coincidence, but I doubt it. I’ve read enough about U2 (two books and countless magazine articles, anyway) to know how much energy and thought they put into their live set. I’m still trying to process what they were thinking in making that set list selection.
I would like to believe that they wanted to emphasize the good and bad, and how it’s all mixed up with each other in this crazy life of ours. Throughout the night, Bono would talk to the crowd about different injustices happening around the world. All of this was mixed in among some of U2’s more inspiring, powerful songs. No matter the defeat and longing in Bono’s voice in “Stay,” he’s aware that a “Beautiful Day” is never far away.
That’s a good lesson to live by. You can’t ignore the bad — it’s always there, and it’s always going to be — but the second you let that cynicism take over and dominate your demeanor and thought process, you lose sight of those good memories and better times ahead. You get caught in whatever obstacles you’re faced with and stop seeing the bigger picture. It’s okay and even necessary to recognize the difficulties and pains in life. It’s more than okay to feel whatever sadness is in you, as fully and deeply as you can. It’s all part of the same spectrum. And in the worst times, it’s all too easy to do. I’ve been guilty of that lately.
Even the first few verse to “Beautiful Day” is a bit muddied, to put it charitably:
“You’re out of luck
And the reason that you had to care,
The traffic is stuck
And you’re not moving anywhere.”
So, yes, there are difficulties along the road. But it really are those speed bumps that make you appreciate the good times. You have to go through some difficulties to become truly happy. Bono even acknowledges as much in that subtle but powerful lyric later in the song: “After the flood, all the colors came out.” The good follows the bad. Both ends of the spectrum, summed up right there.
In the end, there’s too much good to see and too many great experiences to embrace. I’ll let Bono have the last word:
“It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away
It’s a beautiful day”