Thursday, September 15, 2005

All in the Outtakes - Music for Criminals

The call came at 2:47 a.m. I caught the phone before it woke my wife. The voice on the other end was flat, without inflection: "If you're interested, now's the time. Or else, forget it."

"No, no, I'm interested."

"Then be ready in five minutes." Click. Dial tone.

I rolled out of bed, pulled on my jeans, found some socks and a shirt, and crept out of the house after grabbing a jacket and stepping into my shoes. Three minutes later an old, blue, full-sized van stopped in front of my house. The side door opened. I got in, cringing from the stink of body odor, pot, and some other meaty, fetid reek. There were three guys in the van -- the driver, and two in the back. They all wore Bono-esque fly shades and sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up. I wondered for a moment how they could see with the sunglasses on. Then one of them produced a blindfold.

"If you're gonna do this," he said -- I noted his had not been the voice on the telephone, "You gotta put this on."

Wary, I complied.

I don't know how long we drove. There were no distinguishable road sounds to tell me in which direction we were going. We drove for approximately half an hour. Soon the van came to a stop. My hand was slapped as I reached to remove my blindfold.

"Not yet," a voice said.

I was led into some sort of structure. When the blindfold was finally removed I found myself in a dark, dank room illuminated by red and green and blue lava lamps sitting on empty industrial spools. There was a large aquarium across the cluttered room, glowing with yellow light. The fish within it appeared to be dead. The furniture in the room was mismatched -- likely picked up from roadsides where the original owners had set them out for garbage pick up. By the faint light I was able to make out old waterstained posters of U2, the corners curled, some of them torn. Many I had never seen before.

The three people who brought me to this room kept on their sunglasses and hoods. One of them handed me a warm can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Next to the aquarium was an old, battered CD player. One of the hooded figures went to it, inserted a disc and hit the PLAY button. A moment later the room was filled with a U2 song I had never heard befoer.

I have been a U2 fan since their first album, Boy, came out in 1980. At times, it had been a rough road -- their last three albums haven’t done much for me. Their album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind left me as flat as it’s awkwardly worded title. Sure, there were some good songs on the album, “Wild Honey,” “When I Look at the World,” and “Grace.” But overall, the band sounded like it was trying way too hard; the spontaneity and grit from their earlier albums seemed gone -- tidied by studio over production. Even the live DVDs U2 released left me flat -- live from Boston and Slane Castle. And U2 is a live band! Back in the days of Live Aid and the Conspiracy of Hope Tour, it was that live energy, the willingness to step out of the well-worn paths of their studio versions that has always won me over as a fan; mingling Bob Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm” with John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.” Seeing U2 live twice during the ZooTV Tour, I loved how Bono interlaced songs, going into a few bars of “All I Want is You” at the end of a rousing version of “Bad.” That’s what U2’s all about, for me.

The music playing in that dank room began with a techno-psychedelic instrumental I was told was called “Beautiful Ghost.” It had an Eno-esque dreaminess to it that was soon broken by Bono reading William Blake's "Introduction to Songs of Experience":
Hear the voice of the bard:
The present, past, and future sees.
His ears have heard the holy word,
And walked among the ancient trees
Calling the lapsed soul,
And weeping in the evening dew,
And might control the starry pole
And fallen, fallen, light renew.
Oh earth, oh earth return,
Arise from out the dewy grass.
The night is worn, and the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.
Turn away no more.
Why will thou turn away the starry floor?
The watch, be sure,
Is given thee ‘til the break of day.
‘Til the break of day,
‘Til the break of day,
‘Til the break of day,
‘Til the break of day.
The drugged atmosophere of “Beautiful Ghost” segues perfectly into a track called “Levitate.” The song was a refugee from the All That You Can’t Leave Behind album. Something in the background mix reminded me of the spacey parts of Jimi Hendrix’s “1983 ... (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” from his Electric Ladyland album. Only Bono could sing a lyric like “Spirit come on down / No, I’m not coming down” to a dance beat that harkens back to “Zoo Station” from the Achtung Baby album. This wasn’t U2 copying itself, but reinventing the best aspects of its recent recordings.

The next song playing on the clandestine CD player was good, real good. It was a bouncy acoustic number that reminded me of the Small Faces' "Itchycoo Park".

"I like this one," I said.

"It's called 'Flower Child,'" said one of my hooded hosts.

"Where did you get these songs?"

"Where do you think?" another said.


A nod.

Of course. What was it with record companies? They made so little available to the listening public -- for instance, almost every "Greatest Hits" or live album by Bob Dylan that was officially released was trumped, bettered, and bested by the bootleg scene. The record companies put out The Bootleg Series, but the underground scene put out the massive ten-album bootleg set of rare live Dylan performances called Ten of Swords. And it was just so far superior in content to anything the labels were willing to release. The record companies' logic is untenable. They say they don't release much of this unreleased material because it's not up to their usual high sound quality. Yet fans go to great lengths to get hold of it. Record companies say bootlegs cause them to lose millions of dollars in revenue. But if this material is "unreleased", that means the record companies' haven't released it to draw revenue from it. Songs locked in vaults aren't making anyone money.

The songs that follow "Flower Child" are raw, upbeat. You can tell U2 is performing purely for themselves. One song, "Are You Gonna Wait Forever?" has an incredibly catchy hook, and great driving beat that's reminiscent of its wonderful B-side song from the Achtung Baby years, "Lady With the Spinning Head."

Another song, "Mercy," mounts with intensity with every new lyric Bono sings, beginning with:
I was drinking some wine
And it turned into blood.
What's the use of religion
If you're any good?
It had the same solid backbeat as "Beatiful Day," but didn't have the same stuck-in-the-mud feel to its chorus. The lyrics are Bono at his best:
You're gravity
Searching for the ground.
You're silence
Searching for a sound.
The song "Xanax and Wine" was a harder-edged version of the bonus track "Fast Cars." The difference in tempo and the Edge's tougher guitar on "Xanax" outdid "Fast Cars" on every count.

No one in the room reacted to the songs. I sensed they'd heard these many, many times.

A song that quickly became one of my favorite U2 songs was called "Smile," with its chorus, "I don't want to see your smile." An unusual love song.

Yeah, these songs were not the over-glossed, over produced material found on official releases. Who made the decision to leave these songs off the CD How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb?

"Are these B-sides?" I asked.

"Might be at some point," one of the hooded responded. "Right now their just songs."

"Throwaways," another said.

"Incredible," I muttered to myself.

Then came a song called "Love You Like Mad," which put me sort of in mind of "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me." As with the other tracks I heard in that listening-den, "Love You Like Made" had a rawer sensibility. It was a garage band song. If that song ever ended up as part of a film's soundtrack, it would doubtless be on a low budget, independent movie. It was not that the wasn't mainstream, but the performance was not U2 at their coiffed, well-mannered best. They sounded like a band thrashing out a song.

The last thing played for me was an alternate version of the song "Yahweh," from the latest album; my favorite track on the album. And the alternate version certainly did it justice. I had heard Bono say at the San Diego kick-off of their recent tour, "It's not a hit." Man, it sure could be -- if they only released it as a single.

When the song ended, I asked, "Can I have a copy of this?"


"What happens now?"

"You've heard the songs. Now you tell people about them."


Before I knew what was happening, one of the hooded swept up behind me and cinched the blindfold around my head. I was manhandled to the van, which was driven faster and more reckless than on our journey to that darkened listening room. No one spoke as we drove. With no seat belt on me, I braced myself with a hand on the van's ceiling and the other on the cracked vinyl seat.

Soon the van slowed. Without stopping, the door was thrown open and I was shoved out into the night air. I landed hard on pavement feeling my shoulder come out of joint, and a great, lightning strike of pain flashing through my back and hips. My arms and hands were scraped, my left elbow snapped. I lost consciousness.

When I awoke, my entire body ached like a rotting tooth. My throat was dry. I coughed and an avalanche of pain shifted within me. As my vision came into focus, I saw that I lay in a hospital bed.

"I think he's awake," said a voice somewhere out of my field of vision.

A nurse approached. I flinched, blinked several times. She wore Bono-esque fly shades. A short, balding doctor came round the other side of the bed. He, too, wore fly shades.

"What's going on?" I meant to ask, but all that came out of my parched throat was "Wha--?"

"Can you hear me?" the doctor said loudly, leaning toward me. "Nod if you can hear me."

I tried to nod, but the pain through my head and neck was paralyzing.

The nurse stepped away, and my wife came to my bedside. She wore fly shades, as well.

"Wha--?" I croaked.

"It's OK," she said.


She looked at the doctor. "What's he trying to say?"

"I don't know." Something in my mind cleared, surfaced, shifted, emerged: I recognized the doctor's voice.

"He appears to be delirious."

The voice from that early morning telephone call.

"Is he awake," came my father's voice. A moment later my parents came to my bedside. They both wore fly shades.

I wanted to shout, "The doctor! Don't trust him!" But nothing came out of me except an inarticulate rasping sound.

The doctor went around to my family, speaking in a low voice. "I think we should begin making arrangements to place him in the psychiatric ward."

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