Like millions of people across the globe, I was shocked and dismayed this past week to learn of the passing of Prince. I wanted to write something this weekend about the few times that U2’s and Prince’s lives intersected, but I was conflicted as to what precisely my topic should be. At first, I was leaning toward this performance from 1995, when Bono joined Prince on stage in Dublin for a performance of the latter’s song “The Cross”. To be honest, though, I didn’t think I could get five hundred words out of that topic, so I decided on the other big kinda-sorta collaboration between the two. I say “kinda-sorta” because I don’t know if Price was even aware that was one of the inspirations behind “Lemon”, a song from 1993’s Zooropa. In Bill Flanagan’s wonderful book U2 At the End of the World, Flanagan reveals that “Lemon” is Bono’s attempt to write a Prince song. I personally have a sneaking suspicion that the specific Prince song that Bono was trying to emulate was Prince’s 1986 number one single “Kiss”. Both songs are heavily rhythm driven and both are sung in a high falsetto voice. Additionally, both are, if you strip away all the trappings, simple pop songs, albeit odd sounding ones, at their respective hearts. “Lemon” is one of the most maligned songs in all of U2’s catalog, and I think that this is simply because it’s so unorthodox. When people talk about U2 losing their way during the nineties, I suspect that this is the song that has enformed that opinion. For the record, it’s an opinion that I strongly disagree with. What makes the song so unusual is the same thing that makes it so wonderful; plainly put, it’s an experimental work of art. With shimmering guitar, a pulsing beat and striking vocals – courtesy Bono on the verses and Edge and Brian Eno on the choruses – the song comes on a bit like something from an otherworldly disco.
Lyrically, “Lemon” is all about man’s attempt to study himself and his relationships through film and art. The line of the song that the title comes from, “She wore lemon”, was inspired by some old movie footage that Bono received of his mother in a wedding party wearing a lemon-colored dress. In this sense, the song has a connection to several U2 songs that were inspired by Bono’s mother, songs like “I Will Follow”, “Tomorrow”, and “Mofo” . Incidentally, I believe that the same movie footage that inspired “Lemon” was played on the big screens at U2 concerts during the Innocence + Experience Tour’s performances of “Iris”, another song about Bono’s mother.
“Lemon” has only ever been played ten times at a U2 concert, all coming at the tail end of the ZooTV tour in 1993. I strongly doubt if the song will ever be played live again, and not just because it’s so unconventional. I don’t think that Bono could sustain the falsetto that’s such an essential part of the piece for the length of time that it would take to perform the song. That’s not a knock against the man – the things he’s able to do with his voice at his age defy belief – but I think that smoking and age combined have stolen the days where a full-length performance of “Lemon” was a feasible possibility. The good news is that one of those very few performances was captured for the ZooTV: Live From Sydney home video release.