Author Archive | calhouns

“‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’” Studies U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism

A new academic essay on U2 titled “‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism,” by Lisa Plummer Crafton, Professor of English, University of West Georgia, appears this month in the new anthology Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018), edited by James Rovira, chair and associate professor in the English department at Mississippi College.

Rovira’s website for the book is a sort of launching point for “scholarship with a soundtrack,” with links to chapter summaries and an iTunes playlist for each of the eleven studies in the anthology.

He summarizes Crafton’s essay this way:

“‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism,” triangulates Blake’s, Cohen’s, and U2’s songwriting to illustrate how each artist represents, responds to, and addresses different life stages as they engage themes such as ‘social and cultural protest, the conflation of erotic/spiritual love, and the representation of the rupture of that symbiosis, especially in the poetic treatment of Judas, Yahweh, and Jesus.’ Life stage writing, therefore, is demonstrated in Crafton’s chapter to be a vehicle for sociopolitical critique. Critique is simultaneously and alternatively inwardly and outwardly directed: politics are the outward manifestation of inwardly present ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ and the external force forging those manacles from the start. Blake’s answer to this quandary, a Romantic response repeated by Leornard Cohen and then by U2 through both Blake and Cohen, is to address the mind first through imaginative vision.

The songs Rovira and Crafton suggest listening to are:

  • Leonard Cohen, “I’m Your Man,” “Nevermind,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Story of Isaac,” “Suzanne,” “Who by Fire”
  • Van Morrison, “Let the Slave“
  • U2, “Beautiful Ghost,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Grace,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “MOFO,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Until the End of the World,” “Wake Up, Dead Man,” “With or Without You”

Crafton’s essay is the only chapter in the anthology about U2, but fans and scholars of popular music and Romanticism will surely find the entire book stimulating reading.

Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, appears in Lexington Books’ On The Record series, edited by Scott D. Calhoun, Cedarville University, and Christopher Endrinal, Florida Gulf Coast University. It is available starting February 15, 2018, from the publisher and Amazon.

Andy Rowen & Steve Stockman @ The U2 Conference 2018

We are honored to have Andy Rowen and Steve Stockman appear at the U2 Conference 2018 for a special In Conversation session titled “If You Twist and Turn Away: The Power of Songs to Change a Life.”

The Rowen family has a long history of friendship with the Paul “Bono” Hewson family, as many U2 fans know. Bono wrote “Bad” for The Unforgettable Fire (1984) in tribute to Andy and later explained in U2 By U2 (2006):

‘Bad’ is just a huge promise of a song. A friend of mine, about as close as you can get, squandered his intelligence and his gifts to heroin. Dublin in the late Seventies and early Eighties was a capital for smack. The Shah of Iran had been deposed, and people smuggled their money out of that country in white gold and pearls, by which I mean heroin. It was cheaper than weed, it was cheaper than smoking spliff, and a lot of sweet teenage kids, who just liked to smoke a little bit of ganja, were offered this cheap high, something beyond their imagination … I tried to describe that with the song, ‘Bad,’ what it was to feel that rush, to feel that elation, and then go on to the nod, awful sleep that comes with that drug …

Andy was on Bono’s mind again for a second song later in life as he wrote “Raised By Wolves” for Songs Of Innocence (2014). In the album’s liner notes, Bono said:

Ireland in the ‘70s was a tough place. On any other Friday at 5.30 pm in 1974 I would have been on Talbot Street in a record shop. On May 17th I rode my bike to school that day and dodged one of the bloodiest moments in a history that divided an island. 3 car bombs coordinated to detonate at the same time destroyed Dublin’s city centre. My old friend Andy Rowen (Guck Pants Delaney we used to call him) was locked in his father’s van as his dad ran to help save the victims scattered like refuse across the streets. The scene never left him, he turned to one of the world’s great pain killers to deal with it, we wrote about him in our song, ‘Bad.’ Andy says, ‘Heroin is a great pain killer until it kills you.’ He survived. A hero to me.

Rev. Steve Stockman, also good friends with the Rowen family, has long been involved in peace and reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland. He is minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, a co-founder of the 4 Corners Festival and a regular contributor to BBC radio. He is a blogger, poet, and peace activist, and wrote Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2.

Andy and Steve will present a conversation between friends on the role music has played – and can continue to play – in helping all of us in very personal and very communal conflicts “let it go,
and so to find a way.”

December To Play @ The U2 Conference 2018

We’re very excited to announce the band December will play The John Hewitt Friday night June 15 at 9:30 pm to close out the U2 Conference 2018. Performing selections from their new album of originals, Sisters and Brothers (out March 2018) and from 33, their 2017 celebration of U2, December is also working up some specials just for the U2 Conference guests.

The concert is free and open to the public, so arrive early, settle in and enjoy the night. December is putting their heads and hearts into making this happen, and to tell them thanks as well as help the band cover travel costs and some equipment hires, please visit their GoFundMe page for the event and make a contribution. Thanks!

While you are at the historic John Hewitt, take a moment to see the Pipes of Peace, a work of art using pipes that belonged to three key players in the Northern Ireland peace process: Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, ex-PUP leader David Ervine and former UVF leader Gusty Spence.

The John Hewitt is at 51 Donegall St., Belfast, UK.

Follow December on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

33 – CD           Sister and Brothers – CD pre-order

Greg Clarke Reviews U2’s Songs of Experience

Songs of Experience coverU2 Album Review: Songs of Experience

Love, Rock and the Problem with the New U2
Greg Clarke

On first listen, I thought it was Duran Duran. Then Hillsong. And just a smidge of Taylor Swift. The slick production, the musical phrasing, the mawkishness, and the high emotion. I was repelled before I was attracted.

But I’ve sat with the new U2 album since it was released, just to see if I’d keep coming back to it. And I have. I played it during a particularly intense work strategy session when I needed to see above the clouds. I wallowed in the opening track in a despairing moment in the car. I found myself shouting a few of the choruses for no apparent reason. It’s seeping in.

And that’s what U2 is for me—musical worldview therapy. Bono looks at the world, looks at himself, looks up into the heavens, and then sings at you. He’s like an aggressive counsellor, challenging you to stop pretending, and to remember your first loves. No one does that like U2, at least for this Christian middle-aged white bloke.

Ironically, the turning point was when I read the liner notes in the CD. Yes, I bought the CD. I heard it first on Spotify, but being of a certain age I didn’t feel like I ‘possessed’ it until l had the CD in my hands and was reading the lyrics (vinyl is now too hipster to feel real, I regret to say).

In the liner notes Bono does something unusual—he ‘explains’ his songs. Usually, the music speaks for itself, but this is a memoir-style work. It’s personal, introspective and self-referential to the point of using samples of U2’s previous lyrics and music. But the liner notes reminded me of what is going on with a U2 album. It’s always a prayer; it’s always a hymn; and it’s always a lament. It is religion for the non-kneelers, God from street view, Jesus as a boxing coach.

If anyone is still wondering whether you can find the Christian message in a U2 song, stop trying. You obviously don’t get it. For nearly 40 years they have been unravelling the gospel in public, twisting and turning themselves around it, begging Jesus to be who he claims to be in Scripture. From the early youth-group style anthems and psalms (think ‘Gloria’ and ’40’) through to this album, the sea in which they swim is the Christian faith. They just do so in a way that gives everyone a chance to ride the waves, drown a bit, then resurface and try to keep afloat. I love it.

To the songs:

‘Love is All We Have Left’ is the Hillsong moment. This beautiful melody opens the album, but it feels like a natural closer. U2 deliberately placed it first as Bono pointed out in his liner notes: “You start at the end”. Love remains. Love will be there at the end. Choose love.

‘The Blackout’ is the Duran Duran moment. It’s pop apocalypse, a jaunty list of extinction events suggesting that “When the lights go out, throw yourself about/ In the darkness where we learn to see”.

‘American Soul’ revisits a popular theme of Bono’s, that the idea of America has been lost. It’s about ‘Refu-Jesus’, which may or may not be a nod to the song with that name by hip-hop group, ARTificial Christian. It must be amazing in an American stadium, as Bono urges the throng to ‘be’ rock and roll. They’re going to have to work out how.

‘Get Out of Your Own Way’ is the Taylor Swift moment (sorry, but there’s something in the chorus that brings it to mind: “I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight”). It’s a catchy track trying to ‘pop’ a bit of activism into the listener as she dances.

‘Summer of Love’ reflects in a strangely mild manner on the horrors of Syria (the ‘West Coast’). ‘In the rubble of Aleppo/Flowers blooming in the shadows/For a summer of love’ is a softer croon than ‘See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colours came out’ from ‘Beautiful Day’. Both are calls for hope in recovery, but ‘Summer of Love’ seems less compelling.

There’s plenty to enjoy in the baker’s dozen of tracks on the CD (there are extras all over the web and in the various formats). I’m still coming back to songs I’ve ignored or disliked on first listen. Did I mention I’m a fan?

But I do feel the album isn’t angry enough. American Soul has some grunt, but it’s not Sunday Bloody Sunday or Bullet the Blue Sky. The themes of protest are there, but love really is winning in U2’s hearts. And the love seems to be somewhat resolved, settled, requited. And that’s hard to rock.

Much of the earlier album, Songs of Innocence, was in fact about experience: of Irish terrorism, of the untimely death of Bono’s mother, of miraculous conversion. This follow-up album feels more like a Songs of Second Innocence, such is its sense of resolve and satisfaction.

It is telling that the most brutal, challenging section of lyrics on this album are sung by a guest. Kendrick Lamar sings guest vocals at the close of one song and the beginning of another. These make a startling riff on Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel and are worth quoting:

Blessed are the arrogant, for theirs is the kingdom of their own company.

Blessed are the superstars, for the magnificence in their light we understand better our own insignificance.

Blessed are the filthy rich, for you can only truly own what you give away like your pain.

Blessed are the bullies, for one day they will have to stand up to themselves.

Blessed are the liars, for the truth can be awkward…

Blessed are the bullies

For one day they will have to stand up to themselves

Blessed are the liars

For the truth can be awkward

Perhaps this new ‘sermon’ is an extension of Bono’s lyric on ‘City of Blinding Lights’, with its wonderful final line, “Blessings not just to the ones who kneel, luckily”. This general grace is a hallmark of U2’s theological expressions.

I find myself pondering Lamar’s incredible twist on the biblical teaching more than any other lyric on the album. Have U2 reached a point where they need to outsource the innovation and insight? Have they relaxed into grace? It wouldn’t surprise me, since the Christian view of life does tend to generate both contentment and the urgent quest for justice and mercy, each at the same time.

Approaching their 60s, have these rockers found themselves leaning into contentment? After all, they are songs of experience. In the liner notes, Bono quotes poet Brendan Kenelly telling him, “If you really want to get to where the writing lives, write as if you are dead”. It’s great advice; but death for Christians means trusting in God, confident in resurrection, longings fulfilled, spiritual peace. That’s not very rock and roll.

But I’m a fan, so my stance is always to go with U2. With this album, I feel they have chosen love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the rest of the Spirit’s fruit. It’s a protest without sounding much like one. It’s simple reminiscence and reminders (even repeats of their own music and lyrics!). It’s a bit like being in youth group with your older brothers.

This is an album about love, Jesus and changing the world. It’s about America, injustice, hope and hanging on to yourself. It’s not much new for U2; in fact, it’s deliberately nostalgic. I hope it’s not the end of the story for them, but I feel it might well round off one era and introduce the next. I’m happy to swim out past that headland with my brothers.

Greg Clarke originally posted his review here and has kindly shared it with the U2 Conference.

Angela Pancella Reviews U2’s Songs of Experience

U2 Album Review: Songs of Experience
Angela Pancella

Songs of Experience coverThe Bono who’s imagining himself already dead is cheerfully unconcerned with whether or not you think his rhymes are dumb.

And you know what? I do think a lot of the rhymes on SOE are dumb, but I’m going to side with Bono here against my own aesthetic. My aesthetic is entirely beside the point.

Bono once said that the best way to appreciate Michael Jackson was to pretend he was singing in a language you couldn’t understand. That’s not quite the way to best appreciate SOE, but it’s a hint. I think Bono is singing in a language he doesn’t fully understand. We’ve been here before…all the time, in fact. U2’s willingness to let their reach extend waaay past their grasp seems to give them access to places (or maybe A Place) where language collapses, yet, bless him, Bono can’t shut up about it.

Bless him, because at least he’s not trying to hoard the experience. What he’s found, he wants to give away. Luckily Bono’s in a band, because what language struggles to say comes out in a melody just fine. And so a sentiment like “Love is all we have left,” which would sound stupid if spoken, rings out and resonates in the core of my being when I hear it sung.

This is a great album because it has that mysterious quality U2 had in their songs before they could play instruments. Now they can play their instruments, and Bono has developed unmatched command of his vocal phrasing. The miraculous thing is that they’re not relying on these honed skills. They get out of their own way.

A few words about Leonard Cohen and David Bowie before I go–two heroes of Bono’s who did in fact release songs that serve as their farewell letters. As much as SOE is ringing changes on musical/lyrical ideas from throughout U2’s catalog (most directly from Songs of Innocence, but homages to older songs are sprinkled in too), it’s also reaching out beyond self-reference, and invocations of Cohen and Bowie are especially loving and playful.

“I saw you on the stairs,” Bono sings on “The Little Things That Give You Away,” “You didn’t notice I was there.” It’s a sly tip of the hat to Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” of which Bowie had once said, “I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for.”

And then there’s “Love Is All We Have Left” (which, with its strings and crooning, may be putting Bono in dialogue with Bowie’s “Nature Boy”–remember the message the title character imparts). When Bono sings “Hey, this is no time not to be alive,” it’s quite the snappy comeback to Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Only Bono could get away with chastising Cohen for exiting the planet!


U2 fans are the hearts and minds of a great U2 Conference. We can’t do it without you and we wouldn’t want to try.  You can be on the programme in a variety of ways:

  • giving a presentation
  • speaking on a panel you’ve organised with friends
  • leading an open-call round-table discussion on a topic of your choice
  • presenting a poster display
  • sharing your own creative expression of your U2 fandom

There are many ways to contribute and we are open to your suggestions. Leave us a reply below if you want to talk through your ideas, but we need a proposal submission from you to make it official. Submitting your proposal is easy. Check out our full Call for Presentations for more information about the POPVision conference theme, but we also invite general U2-related topics, particularly related to U2’s latest album Songs of Experience. The deadline for proposals is December 31, 2017.

Here are some suggestions (and that’s all they are: suggestions!) to get your thoughts started:

  • If you became a U2 fan during the POP era, how did it define you? How does it separate you from U2 fans born of other eras?
  • Did you attend the PopMart Tour? How does it stand up next to the other tours?’
  • How should Pop be regarded in the U2 catalog? As one of their best albums? A mistake or failed experiment? Was it a necessary step for U2?
  • What connections do you see between Pop and Songs of Innocence and Experience? How are both U2 eras related and what progression do you see from Pop to Songs of Experience?
  • In what ways is Pop underrated or critically successful compared to other records of the time?
  • Seen as the great “unfinished’”album, what has been the real impact of Pop in U2’s catalog and career?
  • Have the single mixes or The Best of 1990–2000 remixes changed your view of Pop?
  • Is the Pop album itself paradoxically the least important part of U2’s POP era?
  • Do you prefer the irony, parody and hyperbole of the POP era to U2’s more straight-ahead approach to messaging in the Songs of Innocence and Experience era? Which U2 is more effective?
  • Do you want more music from U2 like what’s on the Songs of Innocence  and Experience albums, or do you miss the experimentation, weirdness and genre-bending of the band in the 90s?
  • U2 have not released an anniversary remastered version of Pop. Should they do so and if so what should a deluxe edition include?
  • Do you feel so strongly in favor or against the Pop album that you would be willing to participate in a panel discussion with other fans?
  • Are you a musician and do you perform Pop songs as part of a band? Has it changed your appreciation of U2’s achievements on the album? Would you be willing to talk about playing the songs?
  • How much of the “pop” aesthetic of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and related artists did U2 absorb and employ? How did U2’s use of this imagery relate to the initial emergence of the Pop Art movement?
  • Did U2’s Pop Art homages stand in contrast to the album’s content? Did Pop Art’s spiritual overtones and pathos find commonality with U2’s long running themes?
Individual presenters should submit all in one Word document: a paper title; a 300-word abstract; presenter information including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities. Individual paper presentations should be about 15 minutes long.

Panel proposals should specify either three or four presenters and should be designed to finish in about 60 minutes. Panel proposals should submit all in one Word document: a title for the panel; the name of the panel chair; a 200-word abstract describing the panel’s purpose and theme; a 200-word abstract for each presentation on the panel; presenter information for each panel member, including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities for each presenter. 

Poster display presentations should submit all in one Word document: a title for the poster; a 150-word statement explaining the thesis for the presentation and the method(s) of demonstration on the poster; the anticipated size of the poster; presenter information including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities. An image may be placed in the Word document to help demonstrate elements of the poster.

Performances or other creative presentations should submit all in one Word document: a title for the presentation; a 150-word statement explaining the thesis for the presentation and the method(s) of demonstration; the anticipated duration for the performance, size of space needs, technical support needs, etc., presenter(s) information including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities.

We welcome proposals not fitting into the above categories. Please ask for submission advice. 

Delegates who also wish to chair a session not their own should also submit a separate Word document including full name, institutional affiliation/independent scholar/student status; contact information; and, one-page listing credentials and recent publications, presentations or other notable activities.

The deadline for all proposal materials is December 31, 2017. Submit all proposals to Every effort will be made to notify all who submit a proposal of its status by January 15, 2018. Registration for the conference will open February 1, 2018 and all presenters are expected to pay the registration fee.


Catherine Owens: U2Con 2018 Keynote Speaker


Credit: Johnny Savage


“Vision Into Visibility: How PopMart’s LED Technology Changed the Story”

Catherine Owens is an Irish artist living and working in New York City. Her work is largely installation based, originating from ideas that evolve through drawings, painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, sound and virtual reality.

Owens has exhibited works at Feldman Gallery, New York, Morris Healy Gallery, New York, Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan, the Kerlin Gallery and the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin Ireland.

As well as her own solo art practice Owens is known for her collaborative work with U2. As creative director of screen imagery for animation, film and video, she created visual content for five U2 world tours from 1992 – 2010, from ZooTV to U2360°.

She directed and was a producer on the first digital 3D film (U23D) made for Imax theatrical release in 2008. Shot in South America, its creation spearheaded a series of major technological breakthroughs in 3D filmmaking. The New York Times hailed it as “The first IMAX movie that deserves to be called a work of art.”

Using the technical and production knowledge gained while collaborating on large scale global projects over the last 20 years, Owens has incorporated this information into her current work, creating a series of LED based light works that seamlessly bring technology and mark making together.

In November 2017 she will exhibit a series of new LED light based Triptych painting and a 360° soundscape at Kustera Projects in Red Hook Brooklyn.

Other collaborative projects include directing visual content and animation for the San Francisco based group Kronos Quartet and for the Chinese Pipa player Wu Man, whose Carnegie Hall debut featured an intricate 20-minute animation composed of watercolor paintings.

Owens has attended four Lincoln Center Director’s Labs in New York as a guest artist and was a keynote speaker at SIGGRAPH in 2008, where she spoke about working in 3D under the title; Giving Technology Emotion: From the Artist’s Mind to U23D.

In April 2010 she traveled to India to make a 3D documentary about Kumbh Mela, the largest spiritual gathering in the world that takes place once every 12 years.

And in 2012 she shot her third 3D film project, a documentary on the Irish Dancer Colin Dunne – It was broadcast on the BSkyB 3D and the Sky Arts network in November 2012. The Theatrical version was launched at the Jameson Dublin Film Festival in February 2013.

In 2014 she launched “Field Prints” a set of prints representing impressions of the vistas found close to her studio in the Blackwater Valley, Co. Waterford, Ireland.

Owens has spoken widely about the interaction of Art and Technology, recently delivering speeches at the ‘VR On The Lot’ conference at Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles, ‘The Art Of VR” Sotheby’s, New York and INSPIREFEST, Dublin Ireland.

Stuart Bailie: U2Con 2018 Keynote Speaker


Credit: Carrie Davenport


“Holy Wars And Northern Stars: U2 and Conflict In Ireland”

Stuart Bailie is a music writer and broadcaster based in Belfast. He has been a music industry professional for 30 years, writing for NME, Mojo, Uncut, Q,  The Times, The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, Classic Rock, Music Week, Belfast Telegraph and Hot Press.

He has written U2 cover stories for NME, The Sunday Times Culture and Alternative Ulster and has covered the band for many more publications. He wrote the sleeve notes to the U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle DVD and was Associate Producer of a BBC Radio 2 documentary on U2 in 2001.

In his feature on U2 for NME in 1992, while discussing with Bono the contradictions implicit in rock ‘n’ roll, he mentioned to Bono that William Blake’s poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” tries to reconcile similar contradictions. He then heard Bono reply, “I know. I’ve just written a song for our next record called ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ after reading Blake,” making Bailie quite possibly the first person outside of U2 to know – in 1992 – that U2 was planning to release music inspired by Blake’s poems Songs of Innocence and Experience. (Thanks to Dirk Rüpke at for bringing this to our attention.)

Bailie lived in London for 11 years and was Assistant Editor of NME from 1993-1996. He also wrote sleeve notes for Clannad, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle and The Waterboys. He wrote the authorized story of Thin Lizzy, The Ballad Of The Thin Man, in 1997. He was the writer and narrator of Still In Love With You: The Gary Moore Story (BBC TV, 2011). He was the author, originator and narrator of So Hard To Beat, a two-part documentary on the story of music from Northern Ireland. (BBC TV, 2007), and a scriptwriter for BBC Radio 2 documentaries on U2, Glen Campbell, Thin Lizzy and Elvis Costello.

Bailie wrote the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s essay on popular music, A Troubles Archive Essay and is currently writing a book about music and conflict in Northern Ireland, to be released in 2018. He blogs at



“Let’s Talk, Please” @ U2CON 2018 BELFAST

Would you like to spend a few days with real people, in real time, in a real place having really spirited discussions, debates and discoveries about U2? Are you tired of being lured into arguments online, shut out of conversations and blasted with quick quips? Does all the posturing make you wonder if it’s possible anymore to disagree and remain friends? Or even find friends?

Would you like to share, learn, challenge someone and be challenged yourself about U2’s music, work and influence, all to come away feeling not only your fandom was nourished but your heart and mind flourished?

Me too. I want to go there with you and you and you …

Let’s meet in Belfast, 13-15 June 2018. Belfast’s learned how to meet up and talk it through, like they did in 1998 to achieve the Good Friday Agreement. Belfast’s a city for conversation. Pop might be U2’s most divisive album among fans, so we should have plenty to talk about. And then there’s all the rest about U2, ourselves and our worlds we could talk about too.

“A chance to connect with long-time and just-met friends from around the world, a space in which conversation with complete strangers was always easy due to our common vocabulary, a great exercise for intellectual curiosity and the celebration of amazing music.” — Angela Pancella, U2CON 2013

At the U2 Conference 2018, you’ll find fans of U2. You’ll also be with fans of music, art, activism, social engagement and change. You’ll be with people who want to grow and know how to stay smack in the middle of a contradiction and turn it into something positive. U2 fans have no problem holding their own with scholars, teachers, journalists, critics and clerics. We try to bring everyone together because we know it’s about everyone, together, talking and listening and building the future we want.

“The uniqueness of the conference was in this blend of fan, academic, and activist audiences. None overshadowed the others but each brought their particular interests and specific energies to the conference. I had a blast just meeting other U2 fans from all over the world and from all walks of life.” — Daniel Kline, U2Con 2009

Join us.

Read more about our POPVision conference theme.

Read more about what past attendees have said.

Submit a proposal for what you’d like to talk about by December 31, 2017.

Or, just registershow up and lend your voice to the conversations. Everyone is welcome.

Please stop fighting, please
Let’s talk, please – “Please (live from Rotterdam), Bono

Taking U2’s Familiar Story A Little Further, With Room for More

Book Review: Neufeld, Timothy D. U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 238 pages.

Neil R. Coulter

In the forty-plus years of U2, many people have written about the band (including the band members themselves). Through all of that prose a familiar biographical story has taken shape. No matter the storyteller, certain key moments are always highlighted: Larry’s notice pinned to the bulletin board at Mt. Temple Comprehensive School in 1976; three of the band members’ connection to, and eventual departure from, the Shalom community; changes in U2’s sound on The Unforgettable Fire; international superstardom by the time of The Joshua Tree; dreaming it all up again for Achtung Baby; political activism. There’s a comfort in hearing that story rehearsed every so often – especially as the band continues to inspire appreciative devotion from its fans with each new tour, album, or bit of news. For their fans, U2 is a kind of family and hearing all the old family stories makes for a good time.

Tim Neufeld’s U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World is the most recent book to take us through the story. If you have followed U2 for a while, you probably know the story pretty well by now. Neufeld’s book really isn’t for you.  It’s a solid introduction to the band but it offers only a little for the die-hards. After a helpful timeline, showing “Cultural Events” along the left side and “U2’s Career” on the right, Neufeld guides the reader through a quick tour of the band’s history. In telling the story, he draws on other well-known sources, especially U2 by U2 (2006) and Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas (2005), but also many other book chapters and interviews spanning U2’s career. Each chapter looks, in chronological order, at a phase of U2’s development.

I particularly enjoyed the first chapter, “Growing Up in Ireland,” in which Neufeld explains the historical background in Ireland that led to the decades-long Troubles, which so colored the lives of U2’s members. In just a few pages, he does a fine job of setting up the Dublin of U2’s youth, helping the reader understand the questions the band members struggled with as they became U2.

The final two chapters of the book look at broader themes that resonate throughout U2’s history. These two chapters read as individual essays, distinct from the narrative flow of the rest of the book. In chapter 7, “Faith and Art,” I appreciated how Neufeld showed faith to be not a static identity that a person either has or doesn’t have. Rather, faith is dynamic, a kind of companion that accompanies a person throughout his or her journey. This is evident in the overview of ways that U2’s faith has informed their activity. That those activities have changed over time demonstrates the difficulty in grasping what a living faith really is. Chapter 8, “Social Engagement,” also shows U2’s journey, in relation to political activism and dreams of a better world. The shock at the injustice in the world, evident in U2’s words and actions in the 1980s, has matured into a quieter, but still intense, way of realizing the ideals the band members have never left behind.

From the book’s title, I had assumed that more of the book would take the approach of these last chapters and examine the “world changing” ways of U2. Though the retelling of the band’s story is good, I was expecting a deeper level of analysis of the band and their interaction with the world through their skillful use of the authority their celebrity gives them. Neufeld suggests many avenues with great potential for future writing about U2, and I look forward to the ways other authors will dig still deeper. I wonder, for example, how a political scientist might investigate Bono’s leadership in global debt-reduction; or how a sociologist would analyze the context of the Zoo TV tour and its construction of community amidst contradictions and irony; or how an economist would reflect on the effect a U2 tour has on a city or nation? These are big topics that come up in any retelling of U2’s story, and I often wish that some of those points would be further teased out by specialist who might see things that we’re missing.

Neufeld’s writing style is accessible and free of jargon; the book doesn’t presume any previous knowledge of U2’s history. For me, however, the tone of the writing was at times too general — for example, saying that “As the calendar turned from one decade to another, the world was an anxious place” (70) is too quick and ambiguous a way to describe the global context which U2 attempted to engage. And, when Neufeld talks about an uncomfortable moment of the Zoo TV tour, when a satellite linkup brought war-traumatized Sarajevans to the concert’s video screens, it seems wrongly abrupt to write, “It was an intense and awkward incident, leaving Larry to believe that the band might be guilty of exploiting Sarajevans for the sake of entertainment. Many people outside the U2 franchise felt the same” (83), but then leave it there and move on to the next part of U2’s story. I was looking for more than simply the facts as they happened; I also wanted some commentary to help me process it all.

For newer U2 fans who want to learn more about the band’s story, it can be confusing to decide which book to read first. If you are interested in U2 and haven’t yet read U2 by U2, then that book should be at the top of your list. Relatively new fans would do well to read U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World next. I hope some of those fans will then respond to Neufeld’s implicit invitation to keep filling in the spaces, to help us enjoy and understand U2 from a wide variety of perspectives.

U2: Rock ‘n’ Roll to Change the World is available from Rowman & Littlefield and Amazon.

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