Tuesday, February 14, 2012

hearing "The First Time" for the first time (unrelased early audio) and throwing away the (hermeneutical) key

I will end this post with some new (to me) old  audio, with fascinating insight into the pre-album version of  U2's "The First Time," not surprisingly a controversial song for squeakersbecause in the studio version, the prodigal son throws away the key and seems to feel love for the first time as a result.  He doesn't seem to come home (follow some debate here and  here):

My father is a rich man
wears a rich man's cloak
Gave me the keys to his kingdom coming
Gave me a cup of gold

He said, "i have many mansions,
There are many rooms to see"
But I left by the back door
and  I threw away the key
For the first time, I feel love.

Which is..... honest, as some stories end like that.  Some well-ended stories don't end well.
And U2 expert  Beth Maynard  cautions against "the naive thought that any artist who
writes about sin must be in favor of it."

But I always felt that embedded in that apparently heartbreaking ending, especially due to the emotion of the instrumental outro, that there was another (simultaneous?) way to read the lyric:

 "I threw away the key..and that led to me feeling love for the first time: I came home"

 ..as opposed to (or in addition to?),

 "I threw away the key, and for the first time I felt love, as I was finally away from my father/God."

Of course, in the 2000s Bono did indeed offer several versions of a revised/revisioned ending:

  • I threw away the key..but grace will lead me back to Thee."

I loved that one on level, but strangely felt it was a betrayal of the original narrative.
As I blogged a few years ago:

But what I find more often unlistenable is the revision of the song (U2's "The First Time") that Bono occasionally sang in concert years later. He actually dared to/yielded to the temptation to...brace yourself... tie and tidy up the loose ends; and gave the poor prodigal guy the keys back.

The guy repents, and comes back to the Father.

It's all good.
And it rhymes.

It might even play on Christian radio.

Forgive him, Jesus!(:

The actual lyric varied according to night and venue, but it usually went something like:

"I left by the back door, and I threw away the key...

But grace will lead me back to Thee."

Whazzup with all that?

The definitive U2 blogger Beth Maynard tells the story better than I can:

Drawing on the parable of the Prodigal Son, it depicts "my Father" as a "rich man" with "a rich man's cloak" who offers "keys to his kingdom" and a home among "many mansions" with "many rooms" -- but just as we're marveling at this tender generosity, the narrator abruptly declares, "But I left by the back door, and I threw away the key."

People who enjoy attacking the band on religious grounds (and who take any artistic creation as baldfaced autobiography) have had a field day condemning this sentence. I've never really understood the objection: the son does after all leave in the parable, U2's musical setting at that moment is ineffably sad, and a faith-filled lovefest resolution would have been way out of place on Zooropa. Besides, the liturgical form for sacramental confession with which I'm most familiar puts words in your mouth that directly echo these lyrics: "Father, you clothed me with the shining garment of Christ's righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste." Some of us tell God regularly that we left by the back door and telling him is considered a prescription for spiritual health.

However, all these years later in a live context, this poignant ending just isn't playing out the same way. Bono is experimenting with the verse to see what can be delivered authentically in the more religiously-assured context of the Vertigo tour.

Elsewhere (9:22 in this audio), Beth defends songs like the original version of "First Time" with a delightful debunking of the fallacious and pharisaical conclusion that "just because someone writes about sin, they're in favor of it." . Amen and  touché..

(For more discussion of this seminal song, and video examples of it in both incarnations, see "Preaching Ecclesiastes and Throwing Away the Key".
For a full-blown (and overblown, as I wrote it) essay on the theological significance of how U2 ends/doesn't end their lyrics, visit this page.)

But maybe the more upbeat ending had been intended all along.

Here below and on the video of the audio,  is a very early version that Bono sand for a reporter..
He comments before the final verse that "It kind of gets gospel""

My father is a rich man
He wears a rich man's robe
But I left by the back door
I took another road

He has many mansions
He got  many rooms for me
He's got those shiny shiny things I love
But I threw away the key

When you're done in the gutter
Sometimes, I guess, you can only look up
So for the first time
I feel love

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