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Soul Music

SELECTIONS FROM THE BOOK OF PSALMS; Authorized King James Version; Grove Press: 134 pp., $2.95

November 28, 1999|BONO | Bono is the lead singer of the musical group U2. His essay will appear as the introduction to "The Pocket Canon" series edition of "The Book of Psalms," which will be published next month by Grove Press

Explaining belief has always been difficult. How do you explain a love and logic at the heart of the universe when the world is so out of whack? How about the poetic versus the actual truth found in the scriptures? Has free will got us crucified? And what about the dodgy characters who inhabit the tome, known as the Bible, who claim to hear the voice of God?

You have to be interested, but is God?

Explaining faith is impossible. . . . Vision over visibility. . . . Instinct over intellect. . . . A songwriter plays a chord with the faith that he will hear the next one in his head.

One of the writers of the psalms was a musician, a harpplayer whose talents were required at "the palace" as the only medicine that would still the demons of the moody and insecure King Saul of Israel; a thought that still inspires, if not quite explaining Marilyn singing for Kennedy, or the Spice Girls in the court of Prince Charles. . . .

At age 12, I was a fan of David; he felt familiar . . . like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious and he was a star. A dramatic character, because before David could fulfill the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting; this is where David was said to have composed his first psalm--a blues. That's what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God--"My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?" (Psalm 22).

I hear echoes of this holy row when un-holy bluesman Robert Johnson howls "There's a hellhound on my trail" or Van Morrison sings "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child." Texas Alexander mimics the psalms in "Justice Blues": "I cried Lord my father, Lord eh Kingdom come, Send me back my woman, then thy will be done." Humorous, sometimes blasphemous, the blues was backslidin' music; but by its very opposition, flattered the subject of its perfect cousin Gospel.

Abandonment, displacement, is the stuff of my favorite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it's in his despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger. "How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?" (Psalm 89) or "Answer me when I call" (Psalm 5).

Psalms and hymns were my first taste of inspirational music. I liked the words but I wasn't sure about the tunes--with the exception of Psalm 23, "The Lord is my Shepherd." I remember them as droned and chanted rather than sung. Still, in an odd way, they prepared me for the honesty of John Lennon, the baroque language of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the open throats of Al Green and Stevie Wonder--when I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for . . . my "soul," I guess.

Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music. As a result the Book of Psalms always felt open to me and led me to the poetry of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the book of John. . . . My religion could not be fiction, but it had to transcend facts. It could be mystical, but not mythical and definitely not ritual. . . .

My mother was Protestant, my father Catholic; anywhere other than Ireland that would be unremarkable. The "Prods" at that time had the better tunes and the Catholics had the better stage gear. My mate Gavin Friday used to say: "Roman Catholicism is the Glamrock of religion" with its candles and psychedelic colours . . . Cardinal blues, scarlets and purples, smoke bombs of incense and the ring of the little bell. The Prods were better at the bigger bells; they could afford them. In Ireland wealth and Protestantism went together; to have either was to have collaborated with the enemy, i.e. Britain. This did not fly in our house.

After going to Mass at the top of the hill, in Finglas on the north side of Dublin, my father waited outside the little Church of Ireland chapel at the bottom of the hill, where my mother had brought her two sons. . . .

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