33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the third installment of one reader’s quest to read all 55 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!
Part 6 of 55: Achtung Baby (U2), by Stephen Catanzarite (#49 in the series)
Throughout my grade school years, my mother was a born-again Christian. She wasn’t much for subtlety, but there was no questioning her gusto. Since hiring a sitter was cost-prohibitive, I was often taken along to prayer meetings, where I sat in the back of the room with a library book while everyone else did their thing. A clear memory is the evening a coupla dozen folks convened to assemble what I’d later come to call “Stealth Bibles” — that is, they’d pick up pulp paperbacks at the local Goodwill, remove the covers, and glue those covers onto small bibles, of which the diocese seemed to have an endless supply. These would then be left sitting around our local homeless shelter — the idea, of course, being that visitors to the shelter would pick up a paperback with a Raymond Chandler-esque cover hoping for a spicy read and instead find themselves surprisingly (and joyously) engrossed in the plot twists of the Old Testament. That was the plan, anyway.
I hadn’t thought of this Stealth Bible Initiative for, oh, twenty years or so, but it all came back when I started reading the 33 1/3 volume on U2’s Achtung Baby. As it wasn’t in stock at my local joint, I mailordered this one. Had I sampled it first from a store shelf, it would have been back on the shelf in under a minute. If you’re a U2 fan looking for a good read about U2’s most vibrant (and undeniably brilliant) album in which the band reinvents themselves completely in a number of ways, this is not the book you want. If you’re hoping for the author’s own story of discovering the album, conveyed in a series of experiences that will ring universal among readers, you’re gonna come up empty on that count as well. If you’re looking for a bloated religious tract masquerading as a book about Achtung Baby, however, then rejoice. You’ve hit paydirt.
“This is not a book about U2,” reads the first line of the preface. Hmm. Coulda fooled me, considering the title of the book is Achtung Baby — and hey, there’s U2 on the cover! Hi, fellas!
“‘Zoo Station,'” the album opener, “recreates our fall from grace.” I didn’t know that. Cool. And “The Fly”? “‘The Fly’ is the sound of humanity free-falling from Babel’s penthouse suite.” No kidding. Wow.
I expected a book about one of my very favorite albums, but instead I get quote after quote from some dude named Richard John Neuhaus (author, according to the bibliography, of Death on a Friday Afternoon: Mediations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross.) It’s a shame, because Achtung Baby is such a rich album. Is it a spiritual album? Absolutely. Is that one of the aspects of the record that could be explored? Sure. Would a fascinating, engrossing approach be the one Stephen Catanzerite chose, typified by chapters that open with lines such as “Free love is neither” and “Love was easy in Eden…”? An approach that (barely) uses the album as a vehicle for his own, gratingly pompous Higher Message? You can make that call. Try before you buy, though.
I love good books. I don’t even mind bad books; someone gave it their best shot, and that’s cool. What I do mind is fraud.