“The Saints are Coming” and the Power of Selective Listening

MySpiltMilk.Com by Alex Rawls (2016-09-22)

Monday night will be the 10th anniversary of the Green Day and U2 performance to reopen the Superdome, and it was powered by cherry-picking lyrics from songs.

Blame Dylan and The Beatles.

The impressionistic approach they took to songwriting gave everyone since permission to approach the meaning of songs like a buffet, attaching meaning to the lines you like and skipping entirely those you don’t. That selective interpretation allowed musicians to use countless pre-existing songs as ways to talk about Hurricane Katrina and life in New Orleans after it, even if most of the words in any given song were moot on the subject. At Jazz Fest 2006, rock band World Leader Pretend performed Talking Heads’ “Home (Naive Melody),” and while it’s a reach to pin down the lyrics at all, “Home is where I want to be / but I guess I’m already there” captured perfectly the sense of dislocation and uncertainty people experienced living in New Orleans that year.

The two most talked-about sets from Jazz Fest that year traded heavily on songs half-applicable to the situation. Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions set was awash with images of disaster and evocation of class, struggle, resilience and hope, so no song and every song addressed post-Katrina New Orleans. John Boutte became an important voice after the storm in a set that included “Louisiana 1927,” which aptly tapped into the undercurrents of paranoia and nostalgia that have always been part of the New Orleans character. In the same set, he performed Annie Lennox’s “Why,” which he recorded for the New Orleans Social Club’s album Sing Me Back Home—itself an album of semi-appropriate covers—and while the singer in the song is talking over a complicated, failing love with his/her partner, the desperate, confused, pained yearning with which Boutte sang, “Tell me why” made each repetition of the phrase sound like another question asked by a New Orleanian of its government.

Hanging meaning on phrases that were never meant to carry weight while conveniently overlooking the lines that pointed toward a more genuine understanding of the song may seem like a cheat, but at least people were hearing their innermost doubts and fears expressed with stylish precision—even if only in couplets. Many of the songs written specifically for the post-Katrina experience tried to use a sledgehammer as a can opener and obliterated any recognizable insight in the process. They tried to match a category 3 hurricane with category 3 rage, which predictably produced clumsy or overwrought results. Some sentiments were better suited to French Quarter T-shirts, while others were simply too much. One Detroit songwriter rewrote to Steve Goodman’s “The City of New Orleans” to include the lines, “Bourbon Street is one big grave / Thousands of lives could not be saved / Due to our nation’s leader who has no brain.”

When Green Day and U2 performed at the reopening of the Superdome on September 25, 2006—a decade and a day from this Monday night’s Saints/Falcons game in the dome—the bands let songs that already existed do the talking. Although their set is best remembered for introducing “The Saints are Coming,” it actually began with “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” 

In 2006 in the hours before the performance, Billie Joe Armstrong told Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, “It was Edge’s idea to perform the song,” he said. “It wasn’t supposed to have the intentions that people adopted to it, but a line like ‘Here comes the rain again’—it starts to have this eerie feeling about it.”

The verse
Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends

is sufficiently vague and dotted with rain, pain and memory that it can hold a lot of sadness. The title sentiment alone is one that New Orleanians recognize, tired of summer heat dragging on well past its sell-by date. 

U2’s The Edge told Rolling Stone that the performance as a whole was “about rebirth and the future and things coming back to normal,” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was sung from the perspective of someone ready for some rebirth. It gave the set an emotionally wounded starting point from which things could only get better. 

“There is a house in New Orleans / they call the Superdome,” Armstrong sings over the opening notes of “The Saints are Coming,” as Edge lets atmospheric notes ring. At that point, most people in the dome had never heard The Skids’ original recording of the song, so it was easy to fear that “The House of the Rising Sun” might actually be happening. Over the years at Jazz Fest and in concerts, we’ve all heard well-intentioned hack covers of standards associated with New Orleans, presented with the good intentions of a cat that wants to show you the dead mouse in its mouth that it killed defending your house. Armstrong articulates “New Orleans” in a way that sits awkwardly, which only made the moment less promising.

When he finishes the opening verse, Bono strolls onstage singing, “I cried to my daddy on the telephone / how long now?” The phrase could speak to a thousand contexts, life after a hurricane in a time of high anxiety being one. The Edge suggested the song, and Bono sings it like he’s discovering what it has to offer. The lines aren’t conversational, so there’s no implied conversation for him to play a role in. With no obvious emotional stance to adopt, Bono delivers the verse with a casual swagger as Edge’s siren-like guitar clearly signals that we’ve been listening to the opening chords of “The Saints are Coming” for the last few moments. A couple of lonely horns mimic Bono’s vocal line before he pauses with his hand in the air.

Then the exhilarating rush comes that people had been waiting for since the levees broke. The last year of songs for New Orleans framed the city and its residents as telethon-worthy unfortunates, or as culturally significant in the way that an ancient well with broken pottery is significant. Pounding drums by Larry Mullen Jr. and Tre Cool blow away every impulse to treat New Orleans like it needs a commercial with Sarah McLaughlin playing in the background, and Edge channels that energy by tapping out an S.O.S. so alive with electricity and distortion that it could be easily mistaken for an F.U. Onstage, Armstrong and Bono bounce because the energy demands it. When Armstrong takes over the lead vocal, the melancholy and defeat of “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is gone, replaced by punk attitude, ready and able to confront for confrontation’s sake. All the horns are now in call and response mode, grounding that challenging spirit specifically in New Orleans—a city better at playing hardball than its reputation suggests. When they get to the chorus, it seems inevitable. 

In the bridge, Bono shouts out some of the players onstage—“Rebirth, New Birth, Trombone Shorty”—but in that sequence, their names also sound like an incantation to conjure up fresh life and spirit. Bono then adds new lyrics that capture the sense of disbelief, desperation, anger and betrayal that everybody in New Orleans recognized from a year earlier:

Living like birds in the magnolia trees
Child on the rooftop, mother on her knees
Her sign reads “Please. I am an American!” 

It’s Bono in full Bono-ness, successfully plowing through a half-dozen contradictions in a blink of an eye. When you spend a hundred or so nights a year trying to connect to a stadium full of people, identifying with a poor mother trapped and terrified for her family on the roof of her house and speaking for her is child’s play. 

After the song spirals upward to its end, Bono and Armstrong continue singing “The Saints are coming” over The Edge’s forcefully strummed guitar. Bono again freelances a few lines that, like the “House of the Rising Sun” intro, threaten to lose the thread.

See Gentilly and Lakeview
Crescent City right in front of you.
Birds sing in broken trees
coming home to New Orleans.
Lower Ninth will rise again
above the waters of Lake Ponchartrain.
See the bird with the leaf in her mouth.
After the flood all the colors came out.

No city has more songs that namecheck its neighborhoods, streets and landmarks, so when Bono veers in that direction, a hint of a cringe starts to form, and it’s fed by the off-rhyme of “again” and “Pontchartrain.” As he sing-speaks the good news from the biblical flood in the final couplet, he adopts the melodic contours and phrasing that promise “Beautiful Day,” and the crowd clearly knows it. The band pauses, then crashes in for the “Beautiful Day” chorus, which is all U2 gets to and all it needs. It’s the coda, and a moment of simple, familiar, home cooking pleasure to wrap up the set. “Fats Domino—you’re beautiful!” Bono shouts. “Allen Toussaint—you’re beautiful! Art Neville—you’re beautiful!”

Then, with a few delicate guitar lines, The Edge makes the song go away so neatly and swiftly that it’s almost like you dreamed the whole thing. 

For more on “The Saints are Coming” and the reopening of the Superdome, see my behind-the-scenes story at Nola.com.

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