Music & Cities: U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ Resonates from New York to México

U2's 'Achtung Baby' released in 1991
U2's 'Achtung Baby' released in 1991
In this new column for Atwood Magazine, I explore the impact of one artist and album across the range of my experience in one city or across several cities. The aspiration is that you will resonate with my experiences and how they might intersect with your own life in deepening our understanding and reflection on a particular artist and album in our contemporary world.
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The artistic innovation of U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ transcends time and place – hitting home for a college student in Syracuse, New York at the time of its release, and across special moments in life.
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Stream: ‘Achtung Baby’ – U2

U2’s Achtung Baby was born out of the legendary Hansa Studios in Berlin, of the same ilk as where both David Bowie and Depeche Mode recorded landmark albums in their careers, and respectively reimagined or ignited their musical visions afire, as witnessed in Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes, and DM’s Construction Time Again. This particular studio had the uncanny ability to radically impact how musicians envisioned their musical blueprint in the world. With U2’s residency U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere in Las Vegas, this album is once again always on my mind.

Achtung Baby - U2
Achtung Baby – U2

The first time I heard U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby was in Syracuse, New York on album release day November 18, well into a deep autumn and within days that were uncharacteristically warm for upstate New York at that time of the year as the brazen winter had not yet set its wrath upon us. I was with my soulmate Sabina, and after our purchase of the long-awaited coveted album at the Schine Student Center, we unsheathed the CD from its wrapper, and laid our souls bare to the contents within.

Years earlier and very recently enamored with each other, we had witnessed the marvel of U2 live when they played the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University on Friday October 9, 1987 on The Joshua Tree tour. It was a remarkable experience to see them on this tour within their watershed notoriety as that different magnum opus of an album had drenched our beautiful spring and summer in our upstate New York college.

U2 © Anton Corbijn
U2 © Anton Corbijn

With Achtung, Sabina and I became immediately unmoored from the dreary sounds of U2 in America of the lackluster Rattle and Hum in witnessing their remarkable rebirth in kaleidoscope that they had created at Hansa Studios.

U2’s Achtung Baby was their deep-dive into the griminess of human existence whilst possessing the uncanny ability to find the precious searing pop highlights of how it is possible to be human again while illustrating that within their post-punk framework. We were inescapably entranced, and Achtung Baby became a constant companion at the college bars on M street and in our more intense after hours listening sessions on Comstock Avenue with close friends as we seared the imprint of that album until dawn broke before our eyes.

The remarkable dynamic about U2’s Achtung Baby is that it was entirely unlike any other U2 album, as it held a tenacious dirtiness and wildness that was so likable and tenaciously heartfelt. While their The Unforgettable Fire had graced the desolate heavens, Achtung Baby was U2 in the streets and roaming within the gutters of existence. Perhaps that was the only way in which they could reignite their own musical vision. Sabina, myself, and our close friends scoured the souls of our existence as Achtung Baby soared in our living rooms and within the scope of this album our own love and the meaning of our friendships only became more intensive and we remain “Until the End of the World” with each other till this very day.

Eras come to a close, and people must move on to new places and different challenges. The sadness of life and time, as souls and friends are cast apart — in many ways Achtung Baby is about that sense of loss as echoed in “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World”:

“Six o’clock in the morning
You’re the last to hear the warning
You’ve been tryin’ to throw your arms around the world
You’ve been falling off the sidewalk
Your lips move but you can’t talk
Tryin’ to throw your arms around the world”

There were so many evenings where we were living this reality with our arms stretched out to the world as we watched the sun rise emerging from the depths of our nights. We felt like we were beyond time itself as the intensity of our love and friendship enabled us to transcend any hesitation as to how we could be in the world in those immortal years in which we were all together. Yet, those years and time in Syracuse were eclipsed and after very difficult goodbyes, I began living in Toronto and for many months of initial solitude Achtung Baby was my sole companion as I drifted from pub to restaurant, and Achtung was most intimately there in my room. It was an immensely tortured time as for literally eight years my entire being and life had been inextricably lived and linked with my love of life and the deepest of friendships during those very deep and formative years in Syracuse.

As my life began to slowly unfold in Toronto, I slowly forged contacts as the dream of Sofia appeared in my midst. Sofia was a Quebecois girl of Spanish immigrant parents and I was immediately enamored. We met at a distance in a graduate classroom at the opposite side from each other and after weeks of being in her stunning presence we finally began talking. Like all best behaved first dates we initially met for coffee, but unlike most first dates that quickly spiraled into bottles of red wine as we poured our hearts and souls to each other in a day and night that seemed like no end in the most marvelous manner that was possible on earth. We became defiantly unified in the course of 24 hours in fitting together like hand in glove, and woke up in each other’s arms onto a beholden day on planet earth. She was lighting my way.

Sofia and I were destined for the world, yet for whatever reasons it seemed like the world was dead set against us. In essence, it all revolved around U2’s song from Achtung — “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” as it is:

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t know
Sometimes I feel like checkin’ out
I want to get it wrong
Can’t always be strong
And love it won’t be long
Oh sugar, don’t you cry
Oh child, wipe the tears from your eyes
You know I need you to be strong
And the day is as dark as the night is long
Feel like trash, you make me feel clean
I’m in the black, can’t see or be seen
Baby, baby, baby, light my way
Alright now
Baby, baby, baby, light my way
You bury your treasure
Where it can’t be found
But your love is like a secret
That’s been passed around
There is a silence that comes to a house
Where no one can sleep
I guess it’s the price of love
I know it’s not cheap”

I knew that she loved me, and I loved her more than can ever be imagined, yet the world denied it to us, and within the scope of six months we lost a love that could have been forever.

While living in Montreal she worked as a makeup artist in the entertainment industry and had also on one occasion drank red wine with Bono during an event one night. She described her encounter as levitating but also quite ordinary. What I perhaps did not fully realize at that particular time was that she was my extraordinary love.

During that exact time I was living in Knox College at University of Toronto and during the common meals I became friends with two guys from Spain, a guy from Iraq, and two brothers from Trinidad & Tobago. Every Friday night we got together in my room with one bottle of Licor 43 and another of Johnnie Walker, wherein the music of U2 became our bonding element from the sounds of Achtung Baby to Pop. It seemed like we had formed a new form of brotherhood in the year that we spent together, yet as circumstances force separation, friendships become susceptible to dissipation and we remain etched in those traces.

One lives through shattered loves and friendships and time moves beyond the self. A couple years later I found myself in the Mexican coastal town of Colima at the edge of the world, where I found a rather squalid yet convenient apartment next to a taquería. I was there for a year on a doctoral fellowship, and once again felt entirely uprooted with the absence of my closest friends. It was like learning to live again and during this challenging time Achtung Baby was my stalwart companion as I descended alone into the depths of every night.

As the weeks passed by I struck up a friendship with Jorge at the university, and he was also a huge U2 fan. He would come over to my apartment a couple nights a week where we would imbibe beer and tequila, and blast and bond over Achtung and some of U2’s earlier albums. At the same time, I had become very friendly with the girl that worked at the taquería, and she would as well come by the apartment after work and share in red wine as Achtung resounded in the background.

It was almost as if Achtung Baby was being always recreated in my midst with different people which also invoked a draining of the self. I seemed to be playing out in my mind the lyrics of Achtung’s “So Cruel”:

“We crossed the line
Who pushed who over?
It doesn’t matter to you
It matters to me
We’re cut adrift
We’re still floating
I’m only hanging on
To watch you go down
My love
I disappeared in you
You disappeared from me
I gave you everything you ever wanted
It wasn’t what you wanted
The men who love you, you hate the most
They pass through you like a ghost
They look for you, but your spirit is in the air
Baby, you’re nowhere
Oh love, you say in love there are no rules
Oh love, sweetheart, you’re so cruel”

Yet, Liliana, the girl from the taquería did indeed begin to lift my spirits and enable me to live with a brighter sense of joie de vivre. In most ways she really became the light of my life during those days in Colima as she was there when I left the apartment and welcoming me after a long day of work, but she as well became another chance at love that never came to fruition.

One of the catalyst songs on Achtung that encapsulates many an experience in love, my life, and the lives of others is “Mysterious Ways” as Bono sings on the unmistakable initial refrain:

“Johnny, take a walk with your sister the moon
Let her pale light in to fill up your room
You’ve been living underground,
eating from a can

You’ve been running away
from what you don’t understand, love”

Achtung is an LP that every so poignantly reminds me of these simultaneously incredible yet heartbreaking moments in life, and it is also one that remains tattooed on the imprints of my being that were so profoundly experienced during the utterly transformative time of the college life as we spin beyond the years.

U2’s Achtung Baby is a remarkable album born out of the shattered realms of experience amidst the daunting challenges of artistic innovation.

It is an LP that resides deeply within our own forms of existential angst, broken dreams of love and friendship, and it is also a tenacious album that inspires one to live more profoundly and with a greater expanse of vision. An album that has carried me through decades of my life and across cities in the world, as it has accompanied all of us throughout the intense experiences of life.

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Achtung Baby

an album by U2

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