U2 are arguably one of the biggest rock’n’roll bands in the world. Generally speaking, they behave like one of the biggest rock’n’roll bands in the world without tripping over themselves or their work as humanitarian fact totems. It’s all about the music, and with Bono’s thoroughbred falsetto and the Edge’s signature guitar, U2 have carved out a kind of sonic trademark that can be traced back to their debut album Boy released in 1980. The following year they released October, with a title track that stands out from U2’s stable of songs for being so unremarkably simple and restrained. It’s just the Edge on piano, and Bono. And although it’s not a particularly short song for the format, at two four line verses and no chorus or build or quirky middle-eight to set things off, it feels brief. Like it’s over before it began. Or there’s nothing to it. Bono called October an interlude, a cold, slow, pared back, weighed down, moody evocation of winter. An Irish winter. The indifferent inevitability of it. Its through to your bones and soul.
And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care?
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on
Bono’s description of October as an interlude on an album full of songs suggests it hasn’t fully ripened or been written into its full term. That it lacks some pivotal ingredient of song-ness and is no more than a bridge between movements, a phrase. Which asks the question: what is a song? When is a song a song and not an interlude or a jingle? In most of the arts there’s a consensus of definition based on tradition, form and length. So a painting must use or at the very least be about paint to be a painting. A film must be a film. A dance must be a dance. And a novel must be a prose narrative of considerable length with a plot driven by actions, characters, thoughts and speech. Etcetera. But wherever there’s a consensus of definition, there’ll always be those who question how those definitions are made and who they serve. Like Samuel Beckett’s Imagination Dead Imagine which is no more than a pamphlet with next to no plot or characters to speak of but is considered by many to be his greatest novel, a work of such concentrated intensity that all but the pragmatic essentials of narrative have been excised from the text. Or the short story attributed to Ernest Hemingway that reads:
For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.
Or M. Flanigan’s Codeine Dream.
I feel nothing
By itself, I feel nothing but pain is an anguished but hollow sentence waiting to be framed by what caused the pain in the first place and how the person suffering the pain plans to deal with it. Or not. However, like Hemingway’s shoes, Codeine Dream is a fully realised world as darkly grim and furnished as any conceived by Mishima or Kafka. The line-break gives it compression. What caused the pain or how the pain might be alleviated or endured is overshadowed by the expanse created by the return carriage. The same can be said of October, with its spectral landscape and manifest cold and the vanity of what do I care. In some ways, its distilled brevity holds more abstract significance than many of U2’s more definitive songs for not proclaiming itself with such exuberant sincerity. It is the winter of things, the spring, the bleak evanescence of change. And its line break appears at the end. Its compression is in the reprise.
And on… Bono sings after the final line.
And on. As if addressing something out of reach. The unknowable, perhaps; forever. Yearning, pleading, praying. Holding on to the note for fear it might drift away. So melancholy. Lost. So beautifully forlorn.
Like footsteps disappearing in the snow.
- October Recorded 1981 Label Island Lyrics and music Bono and The Edge
- Flanagan Codeine Dreams published in The Quarterly 24 1992 Vintage Books New York