I’ve never been much of a U2 fan, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the group’s song “Beautiful Day”. Upbeat and uplifting in a generic, innocuous way, the track could hardly have been more perfectly engineered for distracting the public with pleasant reflections during some of the darkest days in the history of the United States. Was this the intention?
Curiously for a single offering such a positive message, the album from which it was lifted, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, was released at the end of October 2000, with E! News announcing the album as a “Halloween offering” for the band’s fans1. In retrospect, there is a creepiness to the music video for “Beautiful Day”, which features the band cavorting and performing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The video, in addition to showing Bono running about and behaving like a child or a madman, contains a scene in which the group’s luggage is scanned by airport security – did anybody suspect U2 of being terrorists? – and later has them playing a gig on some Persian rugs laid out on a runway. Less than one year later, the unfortunate associations of aircraft, airport security, and the Middle East in conjunction with the stuck traffic and other details referenced in the lyrics would conjure anything but the idea of a “beautiful day” – for most audiences, anyway. The events of September 11th were, of course, highly profitable for many – perhaps even “beautiful”.
Was All That You Can’t Leave Behind designed as a cryptographic soundtrack to 9/11? To ask such a question, of course, sounds foolish, as would any suggestion that Bono or any other members of U2 had anything to do with the terrorism experienced in New York City and Washington, D.C., that day. There are, however, several compelling precedents for an intelligent discussion of popular culture artifacts as possible evidence of cryptically indicated foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, the Coup’s Party Music cover depicting the remotely controlled demolition of the World Trade Center being one of the most familiar of these. Are there any circumstances, apart from those listed above, that might lead a person to suspect more than a quasi-synchronicity at work between the perpetrators of 9/11 and All That You Can’t Leave Behind?
The cover of the album itself, also photographed in a terminal of Charles de Gaulle Airport, invites interpretation with its superimposition of the code “J33-3”, a reference to Jeremiah 33:3, which Bono has described as “God’s phone number”2. The biblical passage, which itself refers to mystery, reads, in the New American Standard Bible translation, “Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” In the King James version, it says, “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not”, while the English Standard version renders it more interestingly as, “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known” (italics added). The Darby Bible and the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh of 1917 also favor the use of the word “hidden” in this passage. Is Bono, who as a young fellow in Ireland belonged to a prayer group called Shalom3, suggesting that something or other has been “hidden” or encrypted in the album’s contents?
The context of the quotation from Jeremiah may be instructive in view of the music’s hypothetically posited relevance to the events of September 11th, which infamously prompted Benjamin Netanyahu to observe that the destruction of the World Trade Center was “very good” for Israel4 and to concede years later, “We are benefiting from one thing, and that is the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and the American struggle in Iraq.”5 Here is what Jeremiah goes on to say after 33:3.
For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says about the houses in this city and the royal palaces of Judah that have been torn down to be used against the siege ramps and the sword in the fight with the Babylonians: “They will be filled with the dead bodies of the people I will slay in my anger and wrath. I will hide my face from this city because of all its wickedness.
“Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.”
After the promised revelation of the “hidden things”, the “God of Israel” talks about demolished buildings and war against the enemies of the Jews in connection with the restoration of Israel. A few verses down, Jeremiah even mentions “burnt offerings” and “sacrifices” with reference to Israel’s ascent. For those with an interest in the occult significances of 9/11, the number 333 is also associated in Aleister Crowley’s Thelema system with a destructive force called Choronzon, a “demon of dispersion”, illusion, and hallucination which Aleister Crowley claims to have summoned. This, however, is probably straying too far afield for the purposes of the present essay, possible indications of Crowleyite mysticism at play on 9/11 and Bono’s reputed sartorial dabbling in the Jewish occult notwithstanding (“When he’s going cycling, he likes to dress up as a Hassidic Jew,” the Edge revealed of his bandmate after Bono injured himself in a bicycle accident in 20146).
Returning to “Beautiful Day”, the song informs listeners, “You’re out of luck,” and goes on to intone, “Sky falls, you feel like / It’s a beautiful day.” It goes on, “You’re lovin’ this town / Even if that doesn’t ring true / You’ve been all over / And it’s been all over you” – as, perhaps, material from the combusted skyscrapers would be “all over” the people in the streets of lower Manhattan? Niall Stokes, in his book Into the Heart, notes that Interscope Records executive Jimmy Iovine made a special visit to the Dublin studio where U2 was hard at work on “Beautiful Day” with “co-conspirators” (i.e., producers) Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. “It wasn’t finished at the time,” Stokes writes, adding that “the lyrics were only half-crafted when Iovine heard the track”7. He goes on to give this interesting account of one member of the production team’s experience of the song:
Daniel Lanois, sitting in the control room also had that [“Beautiful Day”] feeling [expressed by Bono]. “The track at that point was really pumping,” he remembers, “and the mix that we did had the power of shattered metal. You don’t know where it comes from – I think it was a lot of processing. And I had this image of Bono, singing about beauty in the midst of flying pieces of metal and mayhem.”8
What “flying pieces of metal and mayhem” have to do with a “beautiful day” is beyond me, but apparently it meant something to U2. Another song on the album is titled “New York”, referencing the target of the attacks explicitly, and name-drops Jews and, in the following line, “political fanatics” – although it’s unclear from the context whether or not the Jews are the fanatics in question. Other lines in “New York”, heard post-9/11, could easily be construed as alluding to the chaos of that day if somebody didn’t know better: “Voices on a cell phone / Voices from home / Voices of the hard sell / Voices down a stairwell / In New York […] You can’t walk around the block / Without a change of clothing / Hot as a hair dryer in your face / Hot as a handbag and a can of mace / New York.”
Other songs on the album, whether intentionally or otherwise, carry similar 9/11 resonances, with imagery evocative of air travel (“Man dreams one day to fly / A man takes a rocket ship into the skies”; “Explain all these controls”; “You’re packing a suitcase”; “you’ve got no destination”; “You make me feel like I can fly / So high, elevation”; “The only baggage you can bring / Is all that you can’t leave behind”; “Who’s to say where the wind will take you”), death and loss (“I wasn’t jumping / For me it was a fall / It’s a long way down to nothing at all”; “They left you with nothing”; “a star that’s dying in the night”; “You lose your balance, lose your wife / In the queue for the lifeboat”; “I’m not afraid to die”), and explosions (“scatter of light”; “fireworks”; “star lit up like a cigar”), and other catastrophes (“All that you wreck / All that you hate”; “I hit an iceberg in my life”). “When I Look at the World”, meanwhile, in lines that could very easily refer to the “Chosen People”, gripes, “I can’t see for the smoke / I think of you and your holy book / When the rest of us choke.” Another of All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s tracks is titled “Kite” and might be of particular interest to those familiar with accusations of esoteric significance to the children’s reading demonstration for President Bush on September 11th. “There’s a kite blowing out of control on a breeze,” the song warns, adding, “I wonder what’s gonna happen to you.”
Notwithstanding the highlighted lyrics, it must be noted that Bono and his bandmates have provided perfectly plausible explanations for the genesis of each of the songs on All That You Can’t Leave Behind – each of which is detailed in Into the Heart. Bono has claimed the death of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence as the inspiration for “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”9, while “Elevation” purports to convey “a combination of primordial lasciviousness, ecstatic spirituality and soulful need”10 and “Walk On”, according to Bono, was inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese academic and leader of the National League for Democracy11. As for the album’s travel motif, Stokes makes the observation that Bono is “a man who has spent a substantial part of the last 25 years living in hotels.”12 On the origin of “In a Little While”, Stokes offers the following:
Around the turn of the year, Bono had been thinking Millennium thoughts, watching old clips of the Apollo moon landing on TV and experiencing again the sense of awe that he’d felt when he saw those pictures for the first time as a kid, the ecstatic realisation of how tiny and insignificant we are as individuals – and as a race – in the grand scheme of things. It was a mood that fed into “Beautiful Day” with its vision of Bedouin fires, the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon and other earthly phenomena, as seen from above, the narrator cocooned in the bosom of a space ship orbiting the globe.13
In addition to the “Bedouin fires” and “oil fields” – clearly references to the Middle East – the line in “Beautiful Day” that goes, “See China right in front of you” is, perhaps, and to force a point, interesting in view of this assertion by geopolitical commentator and former U.S. Treasury official Paul Craig Roberts: “The Western peoples are so dimwitted that they have not yet understood that the ‘war on terror’ is, in fact, a war to create terror that can be exported to Muslim areas of Russia and China in order to destabilize the two countries that serve as a check on Washington’s unilateral, hegemonic power.”14 But, again, such a reading would constitute something of a stretch.
The song “Peace on Earth”, meanwhile, is acknowledged to have been inspired by a terrorist event – but one that took place in Ireland, not New York. Stokes explains:
[…] a bomb went off at 2:30 in the afternoon, on 15 August 1998, in the town of Omagh in County Tyrone. There had been an advance warning. But it was inaccurate, and instead of clearing the area around the car containing the bomb, it drove the crowds of people milling around the town on a busy Saturday afternoon towards the danger zone. When the bomb exploded, the resulting carnage was the worst in the bloody history of the Northern troubles with twenty-nine killed and dozens more scarred, maimed and wounded.15
Finally, “New York”, according to Stokes, consists of “the cool pulsing groove acting as a backdrop as the narrator confesses quietly to the terms of the mid-life crisis afflicting him” until “halfway through it explodes in a grungy mess that’s impressively appropriate to the theme of the song.”16
In spite of the flimsiness of the case to be made for All That You Can’t Leave Behind as a cryptographic foreshadowing of the World Trade Center attacks and the coming of the War on Terror, there is an undeniable and consciously cultivated connection between U2 and these events. As The Daily Dot’s Nico Lang recounts:
Their 2000 record, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, not only sold a staggering 12 million copies, but it gave the band a renewed relevance in the wake of 9/11, when songs like “Walk On” came to symbolize an America figuring out how to pick up the pieces. Songs like the anthemic “One” had always found a universal relevance, but this was a reminder of exactly why U2 was so popular: It united the types of people who would normally never agree on liking anything.17
Whatever the group’s intentions in crafting each of the particular songs, fans have made connections between the group, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and contemporary events in history. One uploader to YouTube has even dubbed “Stuck in a Moment” a “9/11 Song” despite the fact that it was released almost a year before that date.
More intriguing than fans’ perceptions of the band’s intentions, however, are Bono’s unexpected involvements with the neoconservative Blair and Bush administrations. “Among liberals there was, it is true, some grumbling when, from 2001, Bono’s friendly persuasion started to provide ‘caring’ cover for a Republican White House rather than a Democratic one,” writes Harry Browne, author of the scathing study The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). “But such grumbling is a mere artefact of the partisan divide in the US, where the distinction between the two parties hides the fact that they have few substantial differences.”18 He continues:
It was reported that he would hop on a plane immediately after a gig and dash to Washington for meetings first thing in the morning. The Bush White House increasingly liked the cut of his jib. […]
The White House was pleased that Bono was on board with the sort of “conditionalities” on aid that First World governments and institutions had been demanding from developing countries for decades.
After 9/11, it perhaps became a little harder to sell development assistance in Washington. However, [Condoleezza] Rice and secretary of state Colin Powell were keen to ensure that US foreign policy was seen to have a non-military dimension, and Bono and others were frequently heard to conjoin the “war on terror” with a “war on poverty”: as the New York Times put it, paraphrasing Bono’s argument, “fragile states could not be allowed to become failed states, as Afghanistan had been.”19
Bono does not seem to have had much of a problem with Bush’s interventionist foreign policy, and the singer was disgustingly reported to have “clicked” with Paul Wolfowitz when the pair met20. At the very outset of the War on Terror, he gave his implicit blessing to the American invasion of Afghanistan. “Bono would not always be so sensitive about the dangers of associating ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ with nationalism, even violent nationalism,” Browne recalls. “On stage in Madison Square Garden in October 2001, as the US dropped bombs on Afghan cities, during that song he ‘embraced the Stars and Stripes’ and otherwise ‘reverently’ handled the US flag,” he continues. “He didn’t tear it apart.”21 A few months later, at E-Trade Finanacial’s Super Bowl Halftime Show of 2002, U2 performed “Where the Streets Have No Name” as, ironically, the names of the 9/11 dead were projected behind the band. At the close of the show, Bono opened his jacket to reveal the American flag in its lining, appearing to give the crowd a demonstration of his solidarity with America’s warlike response to the terror attacks.
“Such is Bono’s special status among the elite globalist sets of Bilderbergers and Trilateralists that he has, inevitably, come to the attention of American conspiracy theorists, who incoherently (even by their own standards) paint him as a knowing ‘frontman for genocide’ through his connection to an obscure but deadly eugenics agenda that appears to be run by Bill Gates,” Browne observes. “As usual,” however, “such ravings distract from serious consideration of Bono’s place in the world and the service he provides to the powerful by dressing their work, individually and collectively, in humanitarian garb – a relationship that is right out in the open and can be viewed clearly without resort to conspiracy.”22
Inevitably, not every questioner will be satisfied by Browne’s dismissive sarcasm – particularly when Bono conveniently pops up at the recent ISIS Nice truck attack (!).
Rainer Chlodwig von K.
- Grossberg, Josh. “New U2 Album to Rock Halloween”. E! News (August 21, 2000): http://www.eonline.com/news/40334/new-u2-album-to-rock-halloween
- Rossell, Raul. “U2 All That You Can’t Leave Behind Airport Photo Location and Bible Reference”. FeelNumb (August 29, 2010): http://www.feelnumb.com/2010/08/29/u2-all-that-you-cant-leave-behind-airport-photo-location/
- Browne, Harry. The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). New York, NY: Verso, 2013, p. 14.
- Abunimah, Ali. “‘It’s Very Good’: Recalling Benjamin Netanyahu’s Words on the Day of the 9/11 Attacks”. The Electronic Intifada (September 11, 2012): https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/its-very-good-recalling-benjamin-netanyahus-words-day-911-attacks
- “Report: Netanyahu Says 9/11 Terror Attacks Good for Israel” Haaretz (April 16, 2008): http://www.haaretz.com/news/report-netanyahu-says-9-11-terror-attacks-good-for-israel-1.244044
- “U2’s Bono Goes Hasidic”. Jewish News (December 8, 2014): http://jewishnews.com/2014/12/08/u2s-bono-goes-hasidic/
- Stokes, Niall. Into the Heart: U2. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, p. 146.
- Ibid., p. 147.
- Ibid., p. 148.
- Ibid., p. 150.
- Ibid., p. 151.
- Ibid., p. 152.
- Ibid., p. 154.
- Roberts, Paul Craig. “The NeoCon Game”. American Free Press 15, no. 51/52 (December 21-28, 2015), p. 12.
- Stokes, Niall. Into the Heart: U2. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, p. 156.
- Ibid., p. 160.
- Lang, Nico. “How U2 Became the New Nickelback”. The Daily Dot (September 16, 2014): http://www.dailydot.com/via/how-u2-became-the-new-nickelback/
- Browne, Harry. The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). New York, NY: Verso, 2013, p. 72.
- Ibid., p. 73.
- Grieve, Tim. “Wolfowitz Reaches Out to Bono”. Salon (March 18, 2005): http://www.salon.com/2005/03/18/wolf_5/
- Browne, Harry. The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). New York, NY: Verso, 2013, p. 24.
- Ibid., p. 111.