I’m going to tell you an amazing story today. It’s a story about art and collaboration, a story about youth and innocence, influence and homage. It spans decades and takes place around the world.
But most of all, it’s a story about love…
It is the middle of the 1970’s and we’re looking in on a tiny bedroom in Northern Dublin, Ireland. Its teenaged inhabitant calls this bedroom “the box.” The boy who lives in this room is called Paul Hewson but you will come to know him later as Bono, lead singer of the band U2. He is trapped in “the box” in body only, because his mind is set free when he is listening to music. And of all the music he listens to, nothing has quite the liberating effect, he will later tell interviewers, than the songs and lyrics of Bob Dylan. He calls Dylan an artist who paints the kind of images “you can’t see with your eyes.”
The Dylan influence will set Bono up for all sorts of folk music, eventually leading him to John Lennon and the idea that rock and roll can, in fact, change the world. The first song Bono learns for acoustic guitar is If I Had a Hammer which clearly sets the tone for the artist’s activism at an early age.
Paul is a terrible student in school and can’t concentrate on anything but music. Listening to Bob Dylan and The Who and the Kinks and the Beatles is his only ticket out of the grayness that surrounds him.
It’s 1987 and the band U2 has transformed from a Dublin-based post-punk curiosity to the biggest rock and roll band in the world. Bono is no longer a kid obsessing over 60’s rock and folk music, he is now an internationally-known rockstar himself. The band is touring here in support of their monster record The Joshua Tree while simultaneously recording tracks for a follow-up album. America is enamored with U2 and it is a two-way love affair.
Bono and Company traipse across the country in cowboy hats, seeking out America’s roots music wherever they can find it – they are in search of the blues, gospel. country & western and soul. They cut a track with B.B. King at Sun Studios in Memphis, the legendary recording studio that gave birth to the early work of Johnny Cash, Elvis and Roy Orbison. They head to Harlem to do a gospel version of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For with the New Voices of Freedom choir.
Bono is staying at guitarist The Edge’s house in Los Angeles that fall. This is the same house that the Menendez Brothers will murder their Beverly Hills parents in a couple of years later coincidentally, but for now it is base camp for one of the greatest singer-guitarist duos in rock history. Bono wakes up one morning in mid-November with a melody and some words running through his head – he is stuck on a song title: Prisoner of Love. It just so happens that he has a lunch date with one of his idols and biggest influences that day, Bob Dylan.
He sheepishly lays out the song idea and some of the lyrics he’s come up with for Bob on the off-chance that perhaps it was already a Dylan song that Bono subconsciously rewrote in his own head. Dylan says no, it wasn’t his song, and he agrees to work with Bono to write it and even lay down a vocal track. Dylan joins u2 back in Sun Studios in Memphis to record the song only it’s no longer called Prisoner of Love, it is now called Love Rescue Me. Some of the original lyrics don’t make it into the final version although they are still printed in the liner notes on the album’s inside jacket.
“Cowboy” Jack Clements, the original engineer who worked with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, is brought in to work on the recording, he breaks out old microphones and mixing equipment that hasn’t seen the light of day since the 1960’s. The band is in disbelief at their good fortune – they are recording at Sun Studios with Bob Dylan, B.B. King and the legendary Memphis Horns brass section using the original equipment and engineers that laid the very foundation of Rock and Roll.
The six-minute Love Rescue Me, becomes the eleventh track on the new album, now titled Rattle and Hum. that will be released in 1988. It is accompanied by a feature film that follows the band on their Joshua Tree tour and incorporates both their stage performances and their downtime, which was spent writing and recording around America. Rattle and Hum is a hit with fans, it sells 14 million copies and hits number one around the world.
But the critics hate it. The mix of live tracks, covers of classics (like All Along the Watch Tower and Helter Skelter) and originals like Desire and Love Rescue Me is seen as pretentious, unfocused and overly bombastic. The album suffers both from having to follow the beloved Joshua Tree and from being seen as a companion to the disappointing film, which is also universally panned.
It is not until years later that the music separates itself from the movie and begins to get its due.
It is August 13th, 1998 – ten years after the release of Love Rescue Me on U2’s Rattle and Hum.
All is quiet on Lower Market Street in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh. A stolen maroon Vauxhall Cavalier is driven up the street and parked in front of a clothing shop. Two men get out of the car and melt into the crowd. The car is packed with 500 pounds of a fertilizer-based explosive. There are three bomb threat calls placed to various law enforcement personnel but they end up evacuating the area in front of the Omagh courthouse rather than clearing the area where the car bomb is parked. At ten minutes after three in the afternoon it explodes, killing 21 people immediately and injuring more than 220 people (eight more will die of their wounds in the hospital).
It is the worst single terrorist atrocity in the history of the conflict. Protestants are killed in the blast as are Catholics. A woman pregnant with twins is killed as are six children and two tourists from Spain. The carnage is inexplicable. Sinn Fein and the IRA themselves are appalled, they condemn the fringe group – the RIRA – and many believe that the atrocity brings the two sides of the conflict closer to a peaceful resolution, the exact opposite of the attack’s intention.
The world is shocked and the town of Omagh will never be the same.
But out of this tragedy, one man has a vision and an idea to take the horrific event and turn it into something with the power to heal and bring people together. In October 1998, two months after the bombing, music student Daryl Simpson forms the Omagh Community Youth Choir. He assembles the choir with both Protestant and Catholic children, some of whom were personally affected by the bombing that summer. They become a beacon of hope and unity and a symbol for the war-torn region that cooperation is possible between the two sides.
It is ten years after the Omagh Community Youth Choir is formed in the wake of the bombing and twenty years after U2 releases Love Rescue Me.
Music producer Mark Johnson is working on an incredible project called Playing For Change that will spawn both a documentary and an album. Johnson is inspired by the street musicians here in the US and the world musicians around the globe, each so authentic and unique when performing for the love of music on their own. His idea is to travel around the world sampling their playing and singing in order to incorporate them all together into a greater whole.
He will record singers and guitarists on the streets of New Orleans and Santa Monica. He will record the Twin Eagles Drum Group, a Zuni, New Mexico-based Native American organization with roots that stretch back 60,000 years. He will record string instrumentalists in Russia and vocalists in Africa and the Netherlands. Singers and players from all regions of the world are recorded alone in their local environments but brought together through the genius of Mark Johnson and his project.
The resulting album, Playing For Change, is a masterpiece of collaboration. The opening track, a world music version of Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, features 35 different musicians, none of whom had ever met each other, playing in perfect harmony and syncopation. On the album there is a cover version of the classic protest anthem Biko, there is also a version of Bob Marley’s War/No More Trouble that features musicians from around the world and includes vocals by Bono himself.
But the most beautiful track on the entire Playing For Change album is the Omagh Community Youth Choir’s version of U2’s Love Rescue Me. It tranforms from roots-rock, Dylanesque dirge to angelic hymnal in the voices of the kids from Omagh. Daryl Simpson accompanies his choir on piano as they elevate Bono and Bob Dylan’s Love Rescue Me to something much bigger – something somehow greater – than what the rockers had originally intended two decades ago. I don’t know how Playing For Change’s Mark Johnson came across the choir or chose their version of this song for inclusion, but it becomes the standout track upon the very first listen.
And so a song inspired by the teenaged Bono listening to Bob Dylan in his bedroom in Northern Dublin became a recording between the men at the legendary Sun Studios in the American Rock and Roll heartland. And this song, in turn, became part of the healing process for a community that has learned to carry on after suffering through the unimaginable together.
And now I’d like to share it with you, in the ethereal iteration performed by the Omagh Community Youth Choir that would eventually appear on Playing For Change.
Merry Christmas, happy holidays and may love rescue you this New Year.
More on the Omagh Bomb Memorial
More on Sun Studios
More on the Playing For Change project