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October 4, 2007

Book Notes - Stephen Catanzarite ("U2's Achtung Baby")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

The 33 1/3 series of books on seminal albums is delightfully eclectic in form. Joe Pernice wrote a novel for his Smiths' Meat Is Murder entry. LD Beghtol created a field guide to appendix for 69 Love Songs by Magnetic Fields. Kim Cooper wrote the history of the Elephant6 music collective in In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Though many of the authors offer technical recaps of album recording and more formal histories of the works, this variety in approaches keeps me anticipating every release in the series.

Not many rock music books quote St. Thomas Aquinas, Bishop John Neumann, and Buddha, but Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall is far from ordinary. Author Stephen Catanzarite examines U2's 1991 album song-by-song with a distinctly spiritual perspective.

In his own words, here is Stephen Catanzarite's Book Notes essay for his book, Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall:

The standard line on U2’s Achtung Baby is that it is the album on which the band found its sense of humor and embraced the ironies of life in the post-modern era. That bit of revisionism owes much to U2’s “Zoo-TV” concert tour in support of the album, which saw Bono dressing up to play rock star, donning white makeup, red horns, and gold lame to impersonate the devil, and prank phone-calling the White House of George H.W. Bush. The album itself, in fact, is no laughing matter. Compared to Achtung Baby U2’s earlier efforts (such as War and The Unforgettable Fire) sound like Redd Foxx party records. So when I signed on to do a “33 1/3” volume on the album I knew I would either have to plan ahead for ways to lighten my musical mood or beg my physician to order a steady drip of Zoloft. I opted for the former.

When I am actually at the keyboard writing I prefer instrumental music – usually classical or jazz. In heavy rotation during the actual physical writing of my book, Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall, was the brilliant young pianist Lang Lang’s outstanding renditions of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Paganini Rhapsody; Stan Kenton’s brilliant take on the score of West Side Story; and Ennio Morricone’s scores to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. However, the real creative work on the book was done in my head while: a) taking some very long walks; b) driving; c) riding a treadmill. This sometimes meant repeated listening to Achtung Baby, but very often I would create mixes of songs (either through playlists on my MP3 player or burning CDs) that would help balance out the darkness of the album I consider to be U2’s magnum opus. There are more than a few playlists and CDs I associate with my work on the book, but here are the top ten tracks that kept me from running off to a Trappist monastery during the writing of Achtung Baby.

“Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells

The moment that nimble bass line and two-chord guitar funk kick in I know that God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.

“Jump Jump” by Bunny Wailer

This tune has haunted me since I first saw the video on the USA cable network’s late, lamented Night Flight show (1981-1988 and so much cooler than MTV). My friend and colleague Dan LeRoy graciously located a copy for me recently, and I’ve been dubbed out ever since.

“Intensified Festival ‘68” (sometimes credited as “Music Like Dirt”) by Desmond Dekker

Even though it sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a well, this bit of roots ska always puts my mind on a beach.

“The Story of Someone’s Shoe” by the Style Council

Though its subject matter (the seediness, loneliness and spiritual poverty of a one-night stand) would fit well on Achtung Baby, the lovely a cappella jazz arrangement (featuring the legendary Swingle Singers) adds a dose of treacle to the brimstone.

“Tonight We Fly” by the Divine Comedy

From the concept album Promenade (about two lovers who spend a day at the seaside), a sprightly and surprisingly upbeat take on mortality.

“I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash

Bob Marley’s Wailers backed Nash on this reggae version of The Power of Positive Thinking. Don’t worry, be happy!

“Marvelous” by the Lightning Seeds

Judging by his music, head Seed Ian Broudie must be the happiest pop star of all time. How did he manage to remain so after working with Ian McCullough (Echo and the Bunnymen)?

“Heavenly Pop Hit” by the Chills

A slice of great New Zealand pop by that country’s leading purveyor, the Chilled-out Martin Phillips.

“Scatterlings” by Juluka

This song makes me proud that we are all, in some way, Africans. (Hey, if Bill Clinton can be the first black president, I can claim my African heritage).

“Tenderness” by General Public

This is the “extended mix” by John “Jellybean” Benitez. This song instantly connects me to the irrational exuberance of being a teenager in the 1980s – it wasn’t all The Day After and Iran-Contra, you know!

Since handing the finished manuscript over to the good folks at Continuum in the spring of this year, I confess I haven’t listened to Achtung Baby at all. Instead, when I need a U2 fix, I’ve been reaching for All That You Can’t Leave Behind and/or War. With the release of the book and some live readings and other promotional appearances now imminent, I expect it may be time to crack open the Achtung jewel case once more – and to burn a few more mood-elevating CDs. Bobby McFerrin, anyone?

Stephen Catanzarite and U2's Achtung Baby links:

the author's blog (also the blog for the book)
the book's page at the publisher
an excerpt from the book

U2 sermons review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)