I haven’t heard this song in years, but it’s been playing in my mind for days, the question, “What does it mean?” gnawing at me. I used to think it was so clear, but now I find myself seeing another interpretation to the lyrics, and it has me wondering.
Exit by U2
You know he got the cure
You know he went astray
He used to stay awake
To drive the dreams he had away
He wanted to believe
In the hands of love
His head it felt heavy
As he cut across the land
A dog started crying
Like a broken hearted man
At the howling wind
At the howling wind
He went deeper into black
Deeper into white
Could see the stars shining
Like nails in the night
He felt the healing
Healing hands of love
Like the stars shiny shiny
Hand in the pocket
Finger on the steel
The pistol weighed heavy
His heart he could feel
Was beating, beating
Beating, beating oh my love
Oh my love, oh my love
Oh my love
Saw the hands that build
Can also pull down
As a teenager, I was told this song was about suicide. There was more than one heavy discussion about whether it was safe to listen to it. I know that sounds crazy, but debating whether TV and video games were responsible for increasing violence amongst kids was common. Music has a huge impact on people, particularly teenagers, and this song was controversial.
Probably, in part, because it was open to interpretation.
I have never felt inspired to read about what the writer (I presume it was Bono) meant the song to be about but lately I’ve been wondering if it was about religious fundamentalists.
You see, people I knew interpreted the song as being about someone who’d lost their salvation, who’d lost hope, and killed themselves.
But you could look at it differently. About someone who had an opportunity “out” - they wanted to believe, but they were trapped. Because of family or the feelings of expectations or circumstances… for some reason, they weren’t able to break away from picking up a gun. Not to take their own life, but to kill someone else.
This might not seem terribly important, and maybe it isn’t, but I’ve been editing lately. And reading through the book the final time before it goes to ARC format has been a bit of a shock. There’s a lot of stuff I cut out. I was encouraged to do it – told the story could stand on it’s own without repetitions. And that is true enough on the face of it.
But I always give my stuff to fresh readers, and one came back to me with something they didn’t understand. I knew the answer, and knew it had been written into the original. But in the tweaking, it had been pared down to being non-existent in the current version.
This is the risk a writer faces. It’s all very clear in your own head what’s going on, because you know the story, but the reader doesn’t have the luxury of reading it through your eyes. They take it at face value and can bring their own presumptions to the story. For example, think of books made into movies, particularly where it’s been debated that the actor doesn’t look the part. Some people don’t like Hermione Norris as Carol Jordan, others don’t like Robson Green as Tony Hill and there was endless debate about John Hannah as Rebus. If you pick up a book that has their photos on the front cover, you can presume that appearance to the character, and you might be wrong.
I used to argue with my dad all the time about music. We were only allowed to listen to country in the house, but that changed when I started discovering rock music. Oh, not that it was acceptable to listen to that “crap” but I certainly did it anyway. I remember one of the big criticisms about rock – the songs weren’t about anything.
In many respects, the songs were about more. Some might say rock music was to country what literature is to pulp fiction (very hard for a genre writer to figure out how to word this without offending someone). Don’t get me wrong – I like country music. But a lot of rock songs have layers of meaning to them. Well, or they’re best understood high or intoxicated because they really aren’t about anything.
But U2 is certainly not a band I’d accuse of being about nothing. I find myself wondering now why I never considered alternate meanings to Exit years ago. I liked U2’s music from before The Joshua Tree and there is no doubt songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday brought a political edge to their music back then. It was clear they had opinions about what was passing for routine in the religious conflict in Northern Ireland at the time, so why didn’t it occur to me that Exit could have been as much about that as anything else?
I mean, maybe not. Maybe I’m overreaching, but I think some of the most powerful music/literature/movies in our lives are ones that stand the test of time. Ones that resonate with us and have us thinking about them years later. They have those layers of meaning – perhaps in some cases because they pose questions and don’t try to offer all the answers.
I recently had a bit of a disagreement with an author about a book they wrote. They felt they’d failed to address the impact of suicide on the living. I completely disagreed and started citing examples from their book – a book I read more than a year ago, but the names, the scenes, were all still there.
That’s power in a book, because there are some I read last month that I can scarcely remember the protagonist’s name from.
There seems to be a lot of pressure on writers sometimes, to wrap everything up in a nice, neat bow, but I think the books that often stay with us are the ones that leave a few questions lingering in the mind. A Question of Blood pissed me off to no end. Did the…uh, guilty, get off or did he get what was coming to him? Who knows? The reality is, at the end of one week of investigation, even with proof enough to proceed with charges, who would know? Court cases drag on for months. So, I was annoyed to know and yet know it was possible this person would get off for what they’d done, yet I wasn’t complaining because it was completely realistic.
I’d been debating whether or not to put an epilogue in Suspicious Circumstances. I’d actually written one. Kevin read it and came back to me and said, “Where were you going with that?” I said some people might be upset if I didn’t make X and Y clear (sorry, no spoilers folks). He argued he didn’t think it was necessary. Now, this would all make more sense if you’d read the book, but I think he makes a compelling case.
In thinking about books and songs and the deeper meanings within, I keep thinking about those magic pictures, where when you look at them a certain way you see another picture inside the picture. The moment when everything clicks into place and you can see it clearly. You don’t need someone to explain to you what’s in the picture anymore because you’ve found the trick yourself.
In many ways, we humans are strange creatures, because we try to assign meaning and structure to everything. Who hasn’t watched the clouds go by, labeling them a bunny or a duck or a platypus… something real, tangible, that we can define?
Sometimes, I think we’re very uncomfortable with what’s elusive precisely because we can’t put it in a nice, neat box and label it.
Not that I actually think my book is that way, at all. But it’s interesting to think about. I do love to mindfuck people in writing, occasionally (as anyone who’s read The Butcher knows) but that’s not my driving focus with SC.
But enough about that. I wonder if I’m the only one who has things that pop back into their head (ahem) 19 years later and starts wondering what they mean? What books have lingered with you, and why?