3. Miss Sarajevo
“We were interested in the idea of getting warmed up to make a U2 album by taking on a more experimental project that would throw us into new areas that might inform our own work. I did that with the [Captive] soundtrack album before The Joshua Tree and Bono and I had done [the score for the London stage production of A] Clockwork Orange before Achtung Baby. So we talked to Brian Eno about doing a film soundtrack.” The Edge from U2 By U2
“There has always been a bit of tension between U2 and Brian Eno, because Brian regards himself as a creative force. I think he finds it frustrating that within the parameters we’ve set, he is not a writer, he is one of the producers…We have a collaborative music-making process that’s been established from the beginning and I couldn’t possibly permit a situation where Brian Eno was making more than a member of U2. Brian is a genius but so is the band…It was against this background that U2 decided to have a go at making a record with Brian as a full partner. It wouldn’t be a U2 record, it would be a side project.” Manager Paul McGuiness from the same book
Island Records, the band’s longtime label, was insistent on that last point. There was no way they were releasing this one-time effort as a U2 album. So, they called themselves Passengers instead. Eno came up with the name.
The original plan was to write and record music for The Pillow Book, a Peter Greenaway film that stars Ewan MacGregor amongst a mostly Asian cast. For some undetermined reason, though, they lost that gig. (However, U2 would contribute a Zooropa album cut, Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car, to the soundtrack.)
Undeterred, they went a slightly different route. Eno came up with the concept of making music for “imaginary films”. He even went through the trouble of inventing a number of fake titles and plotlines, which you can read in the liner notes of the Original Soundtracks 1 album. However, some of the selections they worked on ended up being used in real movies. One such number ended up becoming a very special track in more ways than one.
Bill Carter is a globetrotting American journalist who ended up in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s following a tragic car accident that claimed the life of his girlfriend. In mourning and caught in the middle of a brutal civil war he managed to get a job reporting for a local TV station in Sarajevo. He even helped out with the humanitarian effort when he could. (Check out his book, Fools Rush In, for more on this period of his life and career.)
In early July 1993, the young journalist met with Bono in Verona, Italy. The band was touring in support of their about-to-be-released Zooropa album and were scheduled to perform two shows at the Stadio Bentegodi. He convinced the singer to do an on-camera TV interview.
“During the course of the interview with Bill Carter, he described everyday conditions. He described how, in makeshift bomb shelters, people were listening to U2, playing rock and roll and dance music at deafening levels to drown out the sound of the shells landing. Young people were watching MTV, seeing bands and presenters who looked just like them, and wondering why no one was talking about what was happening to them, how ordinary young people were being murdered on their way to school in a city just a short drive across the border from the clubs and concert halls of Italy and Germany,” Bono remarked in U2 By U2.
Carter wanted the conflict to receive more press coverage than it was getting at the time, so he suggested the band visit Sarajevo and play a gig there. Bono impulsively agreed to the idea which divided his bandmates and concerned their manager. (They would eventually make a stop during the second leg of the Popmart tour. They played a memorable show at Kosovo Stadium on September 23rd, 1997. Bono had to let the audience take over vocal duties because he “woke up without a voice” earlier that same morning, as The Edge put it in U2 By U2.)
After seriously debating the idea and trying to work around their tour schedule to fit in time for Sarajevo, the band came up with a different approach altogether. Why not hire Carter to put together a film crew and simply shoot some footage for Zoo TV so that their audiences could see firsthand what was happening? Furthermore, how about setting up satellite transmissions so Yugoslavian citizens could tell European and Asian audiences what they were living through in their own words live?
While shooting raw material for Zoo TV, Carter and his crew discovered this underground beauty pagant. Sometime after the tour concluded he edited the footage they shot into a short documentary film. But it needed a title. After screening it, Bono felt strongly about it being called Miss Sarajevo, according to Wikipedia. (The film would later win a number of awards. It’s now available on DVD. The Passengers song of the same name is reportedly featured in the film as the theme. The video for the song includes footage from Carter’s documentary.)
Meanwhile, Bono kept getting these phone calls from the great Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, as he explained to Neil McCormick:
“He had been asking for a song. In fact, asking is an understatement. He had been crank-calling the house. He told me that if I didn’t write him a song, God would be very cross. And when I protested that we were in the middle of our own album, he would say, ‘I am going to speak to God to speak to you. It’s Easter. When I next call you, you will have a song.’ One of the great emotional arm-wrestlers of the age.”
Bono never did write that song for him. Instead, he gave him a showcase on this track the band was working on, a tribute to the young women of Sarajevo who protested the war in their country by staging that underground beauty pagant, an act of non-violent defiance. He wrote a verse in English and had it translated in Italian by Anna Mazzarotto so the great tenor could sing it in his native tongue.
“That was a trip, to write a libretto for a voice like Pavarotti’s. To get into the right frame for that I was impersonating my father [Bob, who was a huge opera fan] singing in the bath impersonating Pavarotti,” Bono remembered in U2 By U2.
The result was a rarity in modern music, the seemingly incompatible worlds of opera and rock blending together seamlessly.
In the end, three studio versions of the song were issued. The Best Of 1990-2000 features the butchered Radio Edit which has a cleaner opening but is only four and a half minutes long, fading out before much of the concluding instrumentation. There’s the Single Edit which clocks in at 5:19 and was included on the CD single. And then, there’s the complete album version which is almost six minutes long.
Nevertheless, the song received extensive airplay worldwide after its release in the fall of 1995. It was a Top 10 hit in the UK, The Netherlands and Australia. But its biggest chart success was in Latvia where it hit number one.
The song was debuted live on September 12th that year at the second annual Pavarotti And Friends benefit concert for the War Child charity in Modena, Italy. Brian Eno, Bono and The Edge joined Pavarotti for the performance. You can hear it on the Pavarotti And Friends 2 CD.
In 1999, George Michael covered the song for his Songs From The Last Century album.
When U2 play the song live, as they did frequently during the Vertigo Tour, Bono takes over Pavarotti’s solo.
It begins unusually. The Edge’s guitar playing is slightly off-rhythm, quietly seducing as it fades in. The tone of it is different. No fuzz, no loud histrionics. If the Northern Lights had a sonic equivalent, this would be it. Then, the rest of the band joins in. It takes a few seconds for drummer Larry Mullen Jr. to lock everybody in with his patient rhythm. Then, Bono starts asking a series of rhetorical questions.
As he sings, it’s hard not to notice how remarkably restrained he is here. Even during the choruses where he briefly uses his falsetto he’s not going for broke. The limitless passion he exuded in Pride, Where The Streets Have No Name and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is noticeably absent.
But there’s a very good reason for that. Miss Sarajevo is about thriving in secrecy during a time of great turbulence and uncertainty. It’s about carrying on your daily life despite living in hell. More than anything, it’s about love in the face of death.
Bono’s lyrics are direct and poignant. There’s a nice recurring theme he develops right from the opening line. Instead of simply parroting the time-for-love, time-for-hate balancing act of the Old Testament book, Ecclasiastes, (which The Byrds reworked into Turn! Turn! Turn!), he flips the ideology on its head. He simply wonders if there’s time for anything normal in a war-torn country like the former Yugoslavia. With devastation all around them and fear polluting the atmosphere is it possible for civilians, particularly beautiful young women, to live in some kind of denial in order to maintain their sanity? Are they able to organize something as trivial as a beauty pagant without succumbing to the guilt, anger and sadness they would normally feel if they allowed themselves to focus on nothing else but the war raging outside their secluded quarters? Can they even be faithful Muslims amongst so much hatred? Is prayer an effective spiritual sedative?
Wisely, Bono never offers any answers. Maybe there is no right answer. Or, maybe there’s more than one right answer. Regardless, these queries he poses, which seem so simple and straightforward, are much more complex beyond the surface. These are questions we take for granted. Not the people of Bosnia, most especially those beauty pagant contestants.
And then, out of nowhere, Luciano Pavarotti takes center stage. He is not restrained by any means. It is a magnificent solo which gives the song the emotional payoff it has been building up to. How appropriate that the word “l’amore” is the word that showcases the endurable strength of his tenor vocal. It doesn’t matter that we have no clue what he’s singing about. (It is an Italian libretto, after all.) It’s the feeling that counts. His presence, much like the song itself, evokes chills.
His passionate delivery nicely embodies the stubborn spirit of those young women of Sarajevo. In one of U2’s quietest numbers, it is the ultimate act of defiance.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, August 3, 2007