Thursday, January 7, 2010

U2 “A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel”

All Time Top Five Songs About Motel Rooms . . .


Yesterday’s post was about a U2 song that I thought was about a hotel, but wasn’t. I was ready to move on to what is arguably the most famous Hotel/Motel song, “Heartbreak Hotel” (you could make the case for “Hotel California” being as well known), but I was a bit stuck, feeling like I had nothing new to say about Elvis Presley. I went to the internet for some research and inspiration.

Was it just yesterday that I was mocking the completist-ness of the internet? That need to catalog everything that a band or a person or a chinchilla has ever done or said or thought?

I take it all back, because while looking up the Elvis song, I was reminded about this U2 B-side, from the same album at “Hawkmoon 269”!

“Rattle And Hum” was U2’s overt exploration of American music, and the American sounds of U2’s music. It also had no shortage of tributes to other artists and personalities.

There is the B.B. King performance on “When Love Comes To Town.” And the live take of the Martin Luther King tribute, “Pride.”

There are a couple of swipes at ugly Americans, as Bono “steals back” the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter” from Charles Manson, and castigates controversial John Lennon biographer Albert Goldman in “God Part II.”

Jimi Hendrix himself is on the record, in a snippet of his version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and U2 uses the Hendrix-style version of “All Along The Watchtower” instead of the simpler Dylan-style version.

But Bob Dylan gets his due with a co-write on “Love Rescue Me” and even makes an appearance on yesterday’s post, playing organ on “Hawkmoon 269” (Thanks again, Internet completists!).

And “Angel Of Harlem” is the band’s tribute to Billie Holiday.

I guess it should come as no surprise that, since U2 famously record many, many more songs per session than will fit on a record, that the B-sides might be tributes, too.

“A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel” was the B-side to the “Angel Of Harlem,” and rediscovering this track invites me to think about U2’s fascination with Elvis Presley.

The lyrics seem to evoke Elvis, or an Elvis-like character (yes, I mean Bono) who, like Judy Garland (whose also mentioned in the song), is willing to let the world suck the life out of him for the joy of attention, which actually only leads to the sadness of The Heartbreak Hotel.

And this wasn’t the first Elvis song U2 had created.

There was “Elvis Presley And America” on “The Unforgettable Fire” record, a few years earlier, which was recorded in one take, as Bono improvised lyrics about Elvis during his Fat Period.

And, under The Passengers moniker, U2 and Brian Eno wrote the cheeky “Elvis Ate America” whose lyrics push even further to parody.

While the band also loves Johnny Cash, you’d have to think that a large part of deciding to record the studio tracks for “Rattle And Hum” at Sun Studios in Memphis, had to do with their love of Elvis.

So where does Elvis fit in to the U2 picture? If you’re one of the biggest bands of all time, you’d have to take a moment and draw some parallels between yourself and perhaps the most famous of all famous folks.

And while you might be tempted to connect what makes both of you successful or beloved or memorable, that’s not what U2 seems to do.

Instead--if these 3 songs are here to make the case--Elvis comes as a cautionary tale, to remind U2 that success and excess are a path to self-parody and isolation.

My wife said something about Bono many years ago, that I’ll paraphrase here. She was making a counter-point to someone who had talked about what a big ego Bono has.

She pointed out that his ego was enormous, compared to the average person, but so was his amount of humility and empathy, and the hugeness of that side of Bono, provided ballast for the ego, making it alright.

So when you listen to these songs, wonder if Bono isn't imagining himself as Elvis, glad that it's just a character in a song, and not what he's become.

Hear "A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel" and most of the rest of the songs in this post, here.

From time to time on Every Day I Write The Blog, I do a week’s worth of my five favorite songs on theme. For the All Time Top Five rules, see this previous post.

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