David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 324: U2 (40)

February 6, 2024

Legend has it that when U2 needed to hurriedly record one more song for their album War they resurrected a discarded riff, with Bono grabbing a Bible and landing on Psalm 40 for the lyrical inspiration:

"I waited patiently for the Lord/

He inclined and heard my cry/

He brought me out of the pit/

Out of the miry clay."

The result was a hauntingly beautiful closing to an album full of rebellion and anger, not only via the lyrics, but also the forceful music accompaniment, especially Larry Mullen, Jr.s, drumming. As most U2 fans know, "40" served as the prerequisite concert closer for most of the next decades, allowing the feverish audience to keep singing the refrain, "how long/to sing this song" long after the band had departed the stage. In fact, if not for its version of "40," U2's live Under A Blood Red Sky, might qualify as one of the most disappointing purchases I have ever made.

To this day, I wonder why U2, meaning Bono, I suppose, hadn't made that "how long/to sing this psalm." In fact, there are times when I listen to the song (and it is probably my most listened to U2 song) that I swear he is singing that. The choice of words there is ultimately quibble territory and probably saves a large chunk of non-Christians from sneering at it.

In the legend of this recording, the inference is always made that Bono rather accidentally landed on Psalms 40 when he opened the Bible. If truly "we wrote the song in ten minutes," as Bono has said, while Minor Detail waited to use the studio (and, honestly, in retrospect, can that sentence turn out any more perfectly?), it seems that his choice of Psalms was fortuitous.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if God (or fate) led him to a different Psalms.

How about Psalms 36, his fingers slipping just a few pages earlier into what I assume was a well-worn Bible? Then, that opening stanza, which we can hear sung within the same melody, is:

"I have a message from God in my heart/

Concerning the sinfulness of the wicked/

There is no God before their eyes/

They flatter themselves to detect or hate their sin."1

If this opening verse transitions into the "I will sing, sing a new song" and then "how long to sing this song," it seems a much different message about sinners (others) than about my own redemption. I am not so sure "36" in this instance isn't sung by that refusing-to-leave concert crowd with a snarl rather than with a prayer.

On the other hand, if Bono, like many of us might have done, just picked a spot early in Psalms, had chosen Psalms 6, we might have had an even better set-up for the chorus and refrain:

"Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger/

Or discipline me in your wrath/

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint/

Heal me Lord for my bones are in agony."

After all, in the next line of Psalms 6, we get "my soul is in deep anguish/how long, Lord, how long?" Really, if Bono puts his finger on Psalms 6, then the Lord has an even stronger case for copyright infringement. However, in this scenario, even if God is given co-writing credits, the "how long . . . to sing this song" comes across as a bit too pleading, too mired in our self-pity and not enough of the clay of our origin.

For one last test, I randomly (I kind of like playing Bono, who since he once was joked to be God, means I am kind of playing God) choose Psalms 45. What happens to the song if this is where Bono's flitting finger fittingly lands:

"My heart is stirred by a noble theme/

As I recite my verses for the King/

My tongue is the pen/

Of a skillful writer."

Yowzah, or maybe Yahweh, that would have been used to mock Bono by all the haters of U2 as they exploded into their musical destiny of the late 1980s and 1990s! I have a feeling the final refrain would have reverted to the "I will sing, sing a new song," a statement of declaration and not of question.

As with so much art, the circumstances around "40," whether guided by fate, God, or the demands of a capitalistic society demanding the studio space they paid for, are part of what makes it so special. I, like almost everyone, had bought War because of the venom of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," but paid attention to U2 post-War because of the ethereal qualities that would define the greatest U2 work, seen in "Bad," "One," and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." And we stumbled upon them first with "40."

1Having no Bible, well-worn or not, at my disposal, I use biblestudytools.com, New International Version, for my psalms. According to their website, they use THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®.  NIV®.  Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica. I would cite who Biblica uses, but this reconstruction could take awhile.

U2. "40." War. Island, 1983. Link to Under A Blood Red Sky  version here.

Day 323: Nirvana "All Apologies"

Day 325: Dan Fogelberg & Tim Weisberg "The Power Of Gold"

See complete list here.