A few years ago a friend asked me what I thought was the best album ever made. For the record, there are not many questions that will engage me more quickly in a conversation, not only because it makes me feel like I’m a music expert (which is the next-best thing to being a rock-star) but also because everybody else will have a different answer. My initial response was the White Album by the Beatles. Looking back, I think I was close but I missed it by about 20 years and 150 miles of the Irish Sea.
In fact, U2’s 1988 record, Rattle and Hum, which was recorded at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, begins with Bono’s cover of John Lennon’s Helter Skelter– which you can find in said Beatles album. Bono declares at the beginning: This is a song that Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back. Any Beatles fan can appreciate his loyalty to the boys from Liverpool. Any listener can appreciate his passion to redeem a masterpiece that was so, so lost.
The movement of Rattle and Hum is from chaos, unfulfilled desire, longing, desperation, fear and addiction to trust, freedom, fulfillment, anticipation, simplicity, peace and love. We travel from war to peace. We are led from oppression to freedom. A few lyrics from the first half of this album:
Hold me now, O hold me now; till this sound is gone.
She’s the candle burning in my room with the needle, needle and the spoon; over the counter with our shotgun; pretty soon everybody’s got one; and the fever when I’m beside her; desire.
I need your love like faith needs doubt
Have you ever been there- desperate, thirsty and doubting God to the point that nothing seems too extreme? In the times of chaos, all of a sudden heroin, pain killers, porn and one-night-stands make a little more sense. We would never admit that on Sunday morning but it is all too true. Life has a strange way of exposing us for who we really are. I can talk a game about the provision of God sitting in the breeze with a cup of coffee but when the bills are due I doubt he will come through like he has so many times in the past. Turns out I need his love even like my faith needs the doubt that drives me back to him.
As the album goes on, we are taken even deeper into the dissonance that accompanies a man alternately searching for and running from God. A cover of Bob Dylan’s epic All Along the Watchtower, a song for Martin Luther King Jr. and another for jazz singer Billie Holiday, the Angel of Harlem, whose story is a painful yet undeniable tale of salvation in the blues, bring us to the turning point in the album. After walking along the winding, chaotic path of life, equality, love and redemption, we finally realize that we cannot do this on our own. Enter Love Rescue Me.
This would be an easy song to skip on our ipods. It is slow, methodical, and over six minutes long. Consider this single line, though:
I have cursed thy rod and staff; they no longer comfort me; Love rescue me.
Here are more words that we would absolutely never “fess-up” to. The Lord is our Shepherd. His rod and his staff, they comfort us. How can we curse his rod and staff, refusing to find comfort in them? Would this not drive God far from us? Will the Almighty Creator of all things, seen and unseen, not only put up with his puny creation’s complaints but answer them with a love that will never leave? Enter the great B.B. King and a love that has come to town.
I was there when they crucified my lord; I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword. I threw the dice as they pierced his side; but I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.
You see, we have not only accused God of wrongdoing, we have also murdered him. Jesus, who is that Good Shepherd we curse, has become that curse for us. He does not overlook our guilt in his death. There is justice in the economy of God. What he does is so much stronger. He has taken our curse on himself. Love has once and for all conquered the great divide between man and God to a point that, as Bonhoeffer was keen to point out, we cannot even think in terms of God without addressing the God-Man, Jesus.
And once love comes to town, we would expect that everything would change, and in many ways, everything has changed with the work of Jesus. We can all attest, though, that our lives “A.D.” are still marked with doubt, pain, war and suffering- is it any wonder the powerful war ballad, Bullet the Blue Sky, comes after love has already come to town? Though everything has changed, we still live in a war-ravaged town
And life is like rock and roll in at least this sense- the rattle and hum. It is the dissonance and distortion of the guitar that tells us there is something off. In the mist of joy there is pain. In the midst of peace there is war. In the mist of stillness there is chaos. Even with the sun shining and the windows down something is a bit off. Life has exposed the doubt that lives so near our faith.
This is the real question in the life of faith, How do we live in this world, broken as we are, chaotic as it is?
That is why you have to love a well-composed album. The final track is the most joyful, calm and hopeful song on the album. These are the words of a man who is dying daily and being born again. These are our words as we travel as strangers in a strange land:
All the promises we break; from the cradle to the grave; when all I want is you;
All I want is you.
The only way we can live life in the rattle and hum, the Helter Skelter, is to want only the GodMan Jesus. In him love has come to town.