The 33 1/3 Odyssey: Return of the Stealth Bible

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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.

Next week: two stellar books on two ace albums (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, and Loveless by My Bloody Valentine)

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16 Comments

  1. Anthony Lombardi
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Wow- interesting. I can’t say that this is one of my favorite records, but I think it would be one of the more fascinating reads in this collection considering how they seemed to be really searching for what to do next around that time. They were poised to be huge, no matter what they released, and they went with bombast to spare on this record.

    An insight into the deicsion making to move in this direction, or at least a fan’s perspective rather than a thinly veiled spiritual memoir would have been welcome. I’ll be passing based on this review.

  2. U2's Fifth Member
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    First let me say that I was unaware of the Stealth Bible phenomenon, and that this is unquestionably the term of the day. Yet I’m not sure how exactly this book qualifies. The author is as clear in his intentions as could be expected or desired (something you can easily discover by doing a simple Google search, or reading the book descriptions/reviews on Amazon/B&N/etc.), and anyone who has even passing familarity with this series should know that approaches (and results) may vary.

    Besides that, an overtly Christian interpretation of the work of an overtly Christian band…? I just don’t see evidence of either stealth or stretch. Or, certainly, fraud, religiously motivated or otherwise. I think there is in fact a distinct lack of dogma; the author states clearly that the album admits other interpretations besides his own.

    I thought the description of Stealth Bibles was quite humorous. I also thought it made it pretty difficult to take seriously the remainder of the review. Surely everyone — someone — realizes by now that including a confession of (thinly-veiled) hostility to Christianity/organized religion, in a review of a book which deals with those subjects, might tend to obscure the substance of other complaints (such as the one about the quality of the writing, which I find poetic and beautifully crafted)? Perhaps not; there’s a whole library of rock criticism arguing to the contrary.

    One other thing: I’m pretty sure Richard John Neuhaus would get a kick out of being called “a dude.”

  3. Ellen
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    First of all, I am a Christian as well as a big fan of U2 (and many other artists that KEXP plays.) Any album or book or painting or … you choose could be turned into a “religious tract” through sheer power of metaphor. This is an issue that really bothers Christians who choose a live and let live philosophy. I would not shy away from this book, but I am surprised it is in the music section and not the philosophy section, and I would like to think that U2 themselves would be taken aback by this less than forthright “in” to a possible new readership, although there is no way to know.

    As a book itself, although I am interested in both subjects covered within, I found it to be heavy handed. The author disappointed me on both levels. Others might disagree.

  4. P. Cascio
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Actually, what made this book one of the strongest in the series is the fact that the author didn’t follow the same formula of most of the other books. The writing is sharp, the insights (even those I don’t happen to agree with) original. Shame that Spike let his personal feelings about Christianity get in the way of his objectivity.

  5. Roger
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I thought the review was a fair one, P.Cascio, and may I politely suggest that you’re objectivity as well is clouded by personal feelings? You are defending Christianity, when it is +not+ attacked in the book – one (very funny) Prayer Meeting anecdote is included, and it does seem to fit.

    This is a book titled “U2’s Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall” (although the full title doesn’t appear on the cover or spine.” I also felt that a more appropriate title, after reading the book, would have been “Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall” with perhaps a U2 sub-title? This seems to be the main comment of the original review. As someone who enjoyed this book, I still must agree that it is a reasonable comment to make.

    The author does make clear that this will be a book with God as an element. Just how large, however, is very much left to potential readers to guess. And it is a fair observation that the volume at times reads more like a theology paper rather than a volume based on the U2 album many readers are interested in. While avoiding the formulaic is excellent, there is very very little actual U2 content in this book beyond the links that the author makes himself. At times they are engrossing; at times they seem to be links of convenience, simply to keep his oratory afloat.

    I believe the reviewer has made a point in previous editions of this series that he/she (“Spike”) appreciates departure from the formulaic as well.

    Roger

  6. Eddy M
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Yo P.,

    How do you know the author’s personal feelings about Christianity? Did he/she tell ya?

    I checked this one out at a bookstore and was pretty surprised at the poor “Actual U2 quotes and context” ratio vs. Author Assuming He Knows What Bono Meant By That”.

    Not saying it’s a bad book or a bad writing, but it’s true that it’s left ambiguous just how little actual U2 in it there’ll be. Plus despite the author saying it’s not a book about U2 or the making of Achtung Baby… this is part of the 33 1/3 SERIES, which ADVERTISES itself as a series of books “about important and/or seminal music albums” . So as a reader I want variation but I also want something sort of close to what the 33 1/3 advertising says. And to me on this one the editor fucked up. Once this becomes a series for anyone to use any album to write about anything, its gonna lose customerbase.

    Can’t wait for the Black Sabbath book! And the Neutral Milk book is AWESOME.

    Peace,
    Eddy

  7. Posted March 4, 2008 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU, Spike! You must be commended.

    Ellen, please be wary about buying this one. This is easily my least favorite 33 1/3 — not only is it terrible music criticism, it is also atrocious writing in general, and filled with a lot of bad theology. It is mired in that narcissistic “Jesus is my buddy, and aren’t I a poetic vessel for Him?” kind of religious journaling.

    If David Barker wanted a Christian to write about rock music, he should have paid a little extra for Rick Moody to extrapolate more on his love for Sufjan Stevens, maybe, or if he wanted someone to tackle a Christian artist, anyone writing fairly about Johnny Cash would have been great. (Who knows? Maybe there’s evangelical Christians out there who can do a good job on U2, even — Bill Flannigan, dude of faith, and editor/feature writer of Musician magazine for years, and creator of VH-1’s Storytellers, would have been great). But to put a talentless incoherent evangelical on U2 really puts a dark mark on this series. I hope no one starts off with it, or they won’t buy any others.

    What I find interesting, Spike, is you’re choosing the Neutral Milk Hotel 33 1/3 for a review next … and I think Kim Cooper did a great job writing about that album’s weird, mystical, creative spiritual energies. I know Christian kids who love it, and I don’t think Cooper is a believer, but she nailed it without an assload of Protestant hubris and ideological hyperbole. Can’t wait to see what YOU think though …

  8. P. Cascio
    Posted March 5, 2008 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Chris Estey —
    Did you actually read the book? Probably not, otherwise it would be clear that the author is not an evangelical “full of an assload of Protestant hubris” but a pretty thoughtful Catholic and, in my opinion, a damn good writer. It is clear that you, just like spike, have let your theological views could your judgement.

    And I can’t resist: a book by Rick Moody extrapolating on his love for Sufjan Stevens? My but that does sound fascinating!

  9. Stephen Catanzarite
    Posted March 5, 2008 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    My sincere appreciation to all those who have gone to the apparent struggle to actually read my book and comment upon it. I hope I may be permitted the opportunity to rise about my talentlessness, incoherency and (most of all) my evangelicalism to respond.

    A particular thanks is owed to Spike for getting the ball rolling, and most especially for schooling me in the ‘Stealth Bible Initiative,’ of which I hope to learn more.

    Of course, had Mr. Spike taken the time to truly understand my little book, he would have observed that, far from being an evangelical (a term which I certainly do not demur) I am a Roman Catholic. Had he then gone the extra step of consulting with some of his mother’s Born-Again associates, he would have discovered we mackerel snappers don’t know diddly-doo about the Bible! The posters to this blog seem to have a similar mindset to those twice born, since the common theme running through these posts is “how dare someone of traditional religious outlook write a book about a rock and roll album! How dare he quote Richard John Neuhaus instead of Robert Xgau!”

    My first response to Chris Estey’s post was, I must confess, less than magnanimous. But after conferring with my “buddy” (Jesus), the world outside my door is once again sunshine and rainbows, and I hope to one day buy that man a drink. In the meatime, I am simply left to wonder how someone of his obvious intelligence could make it all the way through my book and still confuse me for a Protestant. In fact, I wonder how he could make it past the first few paragraphs and not recognize me for the incorrigble Papist that I am!

    Far from seeing myself as a “poetical vessel” for anyone or anything (and in spite of my ‘assload of hubris’), I recognize my shortcomings as a writer. Long ago I made the decision to take on only such professional work as I found to be meaningful and challenging AND which offered a reasonable opportunity to provide a decent standard of living for myself and my family. I have not, therefore, enjoyed the benefit of 20 years of fanzine publishing to hone my writing skills. I’ll have to live with it.

    Mr. Estey errs against charity in his criticism of David Barker. Dr. Barker is a scholar and a gentleman whose most marked characteristic as an editor is his courage. Blame me, not David. And contra one of my few supporters in this forum, a book by Rick Moody on Sufjan Stevens probably would be fascinating, and the existence of my book in no way precludes such a volume being published by 33 1/3 or elsewhere.

    To Ellen I can only say that maintaining a ‘live and let live” philosophy should not inhibit one from communicating his or her opinions and beliefs. Indeed, I believe one cannot maintain such a philosophy by being bashful in sharing ideas. And I am sorry I disappointed you. You aren’t the first and won’t be the last.

    For Eddy, I thank you for your offering of peace, which is so much needed in this “fucked up” world (to borrow your phrase). And I, too, look forward to the Black Sabbath book.

    In closing, let me say that my book is certainly not my favorite in the series. That honor (dubious though it may be to the readers and posters of KEXP blog) would probably go to Dan LeRoy’s riveting tale of the creation of “Paul’s Boutique.” Of course that is only an opinion, and we all do well to bear in mind the popular analogy concerning opinions (“Opinions are like…”).

    I am sure we can all agree that there are a lot of, ahem, opinions in this world.

  10. Pete
    Posted March 5, 2008 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I think everyone is missing the point. The review in question said that the religious content of the book might be considered disproportionate to the U2/Achtung Baby content, and readers who are expecting a music book from a music series should just be prepared for that.

    It also said “try before you buy”, as a solution – which we all know is easy enough on Amazon’s Look Inside This Book Feature.

    Mr. Catanzarite, thank you for taking time to contribute. And I think you’d be suprised what KEXP listeners/readers like. My favorite read in the series (so far) is the Celine Dion book – but I agree, the Beastie book is a great one.

    An aside: Your charitable reply after conferring with your “buddy” didn’t prevent you from taking a swipe at zine writers. Your Buddy let that one pass? I’ve known many zine writers who also support families and have “regular” jobs too. Let’s not generalize that zine writers are a bunch of cranky wanna-be writers who don’t venture outside a room full of Fugazi posters and all they read is Joe Carducci. This is the sort of generalizing you are speaking out against in the rest of your letter.

    There are a lot of “ahem, opinions” in this world, to quote your closing swipe.
    After reading your book (I did read it, and I did enjoy it although our views differ), I wouldn’t expect you to close with such a petty touch.

    -Pete

  11. Not a religious fanatic
    Posted March 5, 2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I find the blogger’s review of Mr. Catanzarite’s book to be a little heavy-handed and too simplistic. While the author does look at Achtung Baby from a more spiritual perspective, it is by no means an attempt to convert any non-believers in our midst. He is merely sharing a unique perspective on what is admittedy a very spiritual work by one the millenium’s premier rock acts. Comparing the author’s work with the deception recounted from the blogger’s childhood is preposterous. To call him a fraud is over-the-top and completely unecessary. In my mind, this bit of vitriol disqualifies the reviewer as a credible source on anything other than a simple book on rock and roll. Nice try.

  12. Stephen Catanzarite
    Posted March 5, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks Pete. But there are a lot of “opinions” in the world…I am surely one.

  13. Friedrich
    Posted March 6, 2008 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    How many of you have actually read Catanzarite’s book? Raise your hands.
    Ah, just as I suspected. You, over there, you offered your opinion based on Spike’s funny/caustic review, didn’t you? And you, trying to hide in the back of the room, you skimmed the blurb in Amazon.com. The errors in your comments expose you.
    Writing as one who actually read the book cover to cover (and it didn’t take long, it is a quick and enjoyable read), I can attest that it is beautifully written and thought-provoking, gazing unashamedly at humanity’s core questions about God and man and sin. Catanzarite obviously thinks about many things (politics, sex, plumbing, soap, who knows what?) from a catholic theological perspective. Why not the seminal album of a favorite rock band? One can see the gears in his mind start to whirl as he listens to the Biblical phraseology in U2’s lyrics and the subtler messages in the music.
    No, on second thought, a book about who was screwing who when this or that album was recorded would have been much better.

  14. Posted March 6, 2008 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Hey y’all!

    Friedrich:

    I agree that is does seem we’ve reached a point where posts are reacting to other posts. I’m all for discussion… but there seems to be some confusion as to what the initial review said, and what the various posters have said.

    You can attest that it is beautifully written and thought-provoking, gazing unashamedly at humanity’s core questions about God and man and sin? Cool. We’ll both attest, and agree to disagree. To further quote you, “Catanzarite obviously thinks about many things (politics, sex, plumbing, soap, who knows what?) from a catholic theological perspective.” I’m with you on that one all the way – his book interested me enough to lead me to his own blog (http://stephencatanzarite.blogspot.com). For those who enjoyed the book and want to read more of his writing, you’ll find plenty to choose from there.

    P.Cascio:

    My “personal feelings” about Christianity are likely a lot closer to yours than you are guessing. The point I was making had more to do with Truth In Packaging than anything else. Something that got lost in translation, it seems.

    Stephen:

    “Mr. Spike”? Aww. I feel like I’m in the NY Times! Still remember the punk rock retrospect where they kept referring to “Mr. Rotten”. Thanks for taking the time to contribute here. When you say I didn’t “truly understand (your) little book”, I agree; I didn’t. I tried to connect all your dots, but I couldn’t seem to. Where we might disagree is here: does that makes me a less than perceptive reader, or you a less than clear author? (And no, I’m not saying you should dumb it down.) Maybe that one’s on both of us a bit.

    One final comment, Stephen… if “Stealth Bibles” is new to you, i gotta tell you that “Mackerel Snappers” is new to me. I have *no* idea what it means, but dang – it’d make an awesome band name.

    I’m going to suggest we close the comments, as every point that could be made has been made and we’re beyond the repackaging stage now (myself included!)

    Thanks to everybody for participating – see you next post!

    Spike

  15. Posted March 6, 2008 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Stephen,

    Catholic, Protestant, tomato, tamato, let’s call the whole thing … Christianity!

    Thanks for a reasonably gracious reply to my somewhat baiting raspberries, sir. From your blog I have to say we don’t agree on much, but I would take up that drink sometime to dscuss exactly what bothered me about your 33 1/3. And I agree that Mr. Barker is an incredible guy — look at the passion his publishing inspires!

    BTW, for the record, I have indeed read your book. I am an old school Catholic boy (redeemed through pain …) who thinks your writing is very evangelical Protestant in terms of aesthetics. Does that make sense? That would probably have to be explained more during that drink, but it certainly shows that my original response was a bit first draft and scatter shot. I still gotta say, rock write isn’t your forte — but you probably knew that when you wrote the book.

    Very best wishes,

    Chris

  16. Posted March 6, 2008 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    As enjoyable as this conversation has been for many of us to read, if not participate in, I’m going to respect the author’s wishes and close comments on this thread. If you still have something you’re dying to say, you can always email blog@kexp.org.

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