Windmill Lane destruction: apt ending for a misunderstood story
We have to treat U2 as businessmen and entertainers, writes John Waters, when really they are prophets of an Ireland that's never managed to be born
On the "plan your tour" page on the website of Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee, it says: "If music was a religion, then Memphis would be Jerusalem and Sun Studio its most holy shrine". Visitors are promised free parking and explications of the origin of the "Sun sound", created by Sam Phillips "to capture the pure ram energy of Beale Street" (the nearby legendary two-mile boulevard frequented for a century by buskers of the blues). The website elucidates: "He didn't know not to use so much echo - a 3-piece band sounds like an all-night party! He didn't know not to crank the amp up so high it distorted! He didn't know not to blend the musical styles - or that it wasn't supposed to be such passion and fun! Rock 'n' roll was created - with all these wonderful mistakes."
The tour costs $12 and lasts an hour to 90 minutes. The website also confides that children between the ages of five and 11 are complimentary, though under-fives are not admitted due to the "personal" nature of the performance. There are tours of the studio every day from 10am until 6pm and a free shuttle to Graceland, 15 minutes away.
Sun Studio, Memphis, is where rock 'n' roll began, 60 years ago, with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Windmill Lane, Dublin, you might say, is where it ended, 30 odd years later, with U2's 1987 album The Joshua Tree, a record that took us on a tour of the emotional undertows of the most pervasive music style the world has heard so far. For any band, it would have been an astounding achievement; for a bunch of Dublin chancers it could only be described as a miracle. The Joshua Tree, some of which was recorded at the old Windmill, was the eulogy of ragamuffins to a music that had saved their lives. In that record, these four northside Dubliners, without permits or qualifications, delved into the history of rock 'n' roll, plucked out and buffed up the hooks and feelings they'd been changed by and put it all in a record that might well be the best of all time.
Of course, other great artists recorded at Windmill also, but these are parts of different stories. The central narrative of Windmill Lane tells of Dublin's strange interjection in a story that seemed to be none of its business, but actually was. It's the story of a nation trying to jump-start its own imagination after 55 years of stagnation following on 800 years of suffocation - and accidentally becoming the final destination of a music that contained whole chunks of its psyche, migrated and mutated in a Colosseum of exile and dispossession. In a year's time, we will celebrate the centenary of our founding revolution, and might as a consequence overlook another significant anniversary: in 2016, it will be 40 years since that notorious note went up on the notice board of Mount Temple Comprehensive.
It is kind of apposite that Windmill Lane was summarily demolished in Holy Week - a good time to raze cultural icons - to make way for a new residential, retail and office development. It says something salutary about how we see - or don't see - certain aspects of our cultural heritage. Our public figures like to talk up their commitment to "the aerts", but if it meant anything, Windmill Lane would long since have been safeguarded by a conservation order. Instead, it was permitted to be "acquired" for €20m by the deliciously titled Hibernia Real Estate Investment Trust.
Hibernia are "very conscious of the history", and so have preserved 20 metres of the graffitoed perimeter wall, and also intend to retain the building's façade. "We will do a tasteful job," a spokesman said. The graffiti wall will either be recreated in the atrium of the new Windmill Lane building; offered to U2 or Dublin City Council for reconstruction elsewhere; or given to a charity to be auctioned.
You could get steamed up about this, but what's the point? Cultural vandalism is part of what we are. I prefer to see it as an entirely apposite ending to a story which began out of a similar act of wanton desecration.
The area where U2 grew up was an urban wasteland built in the mid-20th Century as a stab at creating American-style high-density housing estates, flagships of the new, industrialised, urbanized, blue-collar prosperity which was to rescue Ireland from its frugal, bucolic nightmare. In other words, U2 were born out of the dereliction and displacement characteristic of Irish delusions concerning modernity and progress.
Until the 1950s, Finglas, less than a mile from where Bono grew up, was a tiny country village. Within a decade, its hinterland would be a concrete sprawl, populated by culchies and migrants from the inner city, living in a hotchpotch of Corpo lets, "purchased houses", and, as the centrepiece, the obscenity of Ballymun Flats, named after the seven signatories of the Proclamation. Some of the residents had henhouses and potato patches; others looked bemusedly over their walls at the wonder of their neighbours' backyards.
The chief cultural characteristic of this showcase was alienation. Born of befuddlement and self-ignorance, it was almost entirely bereft of living culture. The U2/Virgin Prunes collective, trading as Lypton Village, sought to create a Big Bang of cultural activity within their own community, drawing on whatever scraps and signals they picked up on the breeze from Memphis.
Finglas is named after a river - An Fionn Glas, meaning "clear stream" - called for a local holy well that had been a minor site of pilgrimage in the 19th Century. In 'Buried Memories', an essay published in the Raven Arts collection, Invisible Dublin, June Considine remembered growing up in that area and seeing the fields of cattle ringed with hawthorn being rapidly supplanted by shopping centres and high-density housing. "The rivers," she wrote, "have been buried under glass-domed shopping centres. They run silently now, neatly channelled under rows of suburban houses. A streamlined dual-carriageway, hot with the pulse of traffic, cuts a swathe through the memories of my childhood." Once, she recalled, the buried river rebelled against the indignity of its interment, and burst up through the floorboards of somebody's living room. "The excitement on the street was intense as its short-lived resurrection seeped through the new furnishings and fittings."
U2 represented a similar resurrection. Their attempts to escape the dehumanising blandness of their early environment fashioned the font of their energy and creativity, spawning a music that is really a folk music in a modern idiom rather than the amplified soundtrack for a modern world we tend to hear.
After watching the U2 road movie Rattle and Hum, in 1988, I objected to what I called U2's blatant attempt to "pantheonise" themselves, i.e. elbow their way into the picture between Elvis and Dylan. I missed what was happening - that they belonged there: the full stop at the end of the sentence that began in Memphis the year I was born.
U2 had drawn from their background a capacity to feel the feeble pulse of a modern alienated humanity and went looking for sounds to give it a beat and a melody to nurse it - and themselves - back to health. Their first album, Boy, was like a record made on the Moon by a bunch of space-travelling troubadours who had heard music only from a great distance, in the quiet of the night. It was, and is, amazing - as though an attempt to jump-start a culture with just the hope of a spark to go on.
We never really got U2's folkiness, their rootedness in the actually existing reality of modern Ireland. We tend to think of them rather as a random accident, a freak of post-modern cultural short-circuiting. U2 are "the biggest rock band in the world" and they're Irish - what a coincidence! We acknowledge their scale and influence, but in that grudging, mealy-mouthed way we have of faint-praising people to their faces.
In 1994, I wrote a book called Race of Angels: Ireland and the Genesis of U2 in an attempt to explain that the reasons U2 had become the biggest band in the world was precisely because they had emerged from a particular moment in Irish cultural history: what you might call the cusp of post-colonial exhaustion and defeatism.
One of the symptoms of our bizarre attitudes to U2 is that is has long been impossible to attempt any kind of reasonable critical engagement with their music from here. In Ireland, one is either "for" U2 or "agin" them. If you are for them, you must prate endlessly about their popularity and penetration in the greater world, and attack the "begrudgers" who seek to tear them down. If you are "agin" them, you dismiss everything they have ever done or said, and into the bargain daub them as "tax-avoiders" even though they have merely replicated in their own business model what amounts to the logic of Ireland Inc. in its relationship with the trans-national industrial sector. In this cacophony of the deaf, it becomes impossible to say that this song here is unearthly but this other one is pretty pointless, that this album is transcendental, whereas this one is just treading water.
U2 have created a business model unrivalled by any indigenous operation, with the possible exception of Ryanair, but that is the least of their achievements, which really we cannot look at. By independently striking out on their own, they became a kind of accusation to their home country: a representation of what we might all have been capable of if we, like them, had managed to return to first principles in our heads. We treat U2 as businessmen, celebrities and entertainers, when really they are prophets of an Ireland that has never managed to be born.
And this is something we just cannot forgive.
If you want to capture the banality of Irish attitudes to U2, you need but consider the way journalists habitually refer to the band as "Irish rockers U2". The word "rocker" is perhaps the most reductive of all designations conventionally applied to one labouring in the trade of catgut strummer or songster. In a word, U2 become successful practitioners of a dubious but lucrative musical idiom, purveyors of a gratifying but meaningless noise, polished entertainers, celebrities, sometime ambassadors of modern Ireland but also strange lads who have in a way become un-Irish by virtue of being a global phenomenon. And yet, that "rocker" label also insinuates, they amount to little worth thinking about, a tinnitus-inducing trifle, a raucous nothing, a bunch of leather-clad tax-tourists with no homes to go to.
This may be unfair to U2 but it is far, far more damaging to Ireland, because it impedes the kind of relationship between a work and a community that gives art its point and its purpose. Almost nobody takes U2 seriously for what they are: voices of the deep unconscious of Ireland on the vertical plane. Our greatest and most famous modern export has for all useful intents and purposes become lost to Irish culture. In most of the ways it might have served to make a difference, it's as if none of it had ever happened.
And so it's entirely appropriate that, instead of being preserved for posterity to come and weep before, the studio where U2 placed the full point on one of the great musical blurts in human history has been razed to the ground. Yahoo.