I’ve heard some fans and critics present the opinion that U2 “lost their way” during the 1990’s. First off, I completely disagree with the idea that U2 went astray during that decade – they were having fun and experimenting, and consequently they produced some of their most interesting and exciting work. Perhaps, it might be better to say, instead of “they got lost”, that they intentionally took a few different paths, while remaining true to what made them the world’s greatest band in the first place. Today’s topic, “The First Time,” is a perfect example.
In the first verse, Bono sings about a “lover,” and makes the comment that “she got soul…she teach me how to sing.” Bono has long embraced the idea of “soul singing,” explaining at one point in the eighties that a soul singer chooses to reveal, rather than conceal. I think that this desire of Bono’s, the aspiration to reveal his innermost feelings and thoughts, is what makes us U2 fans feel like we know the man intimately even if we’ve never met him. I believe that this ability, to put himself out there for us, could only come from his relationship with Ali. I think that Bono could only learn about himself, let alone reveal himself, because of a supportive, healthy, loving bond with his wife.
The second verse of the song talks about another personal connection, that with his “brother.” Now, this could very well be about Guggi, Bono’s long-time friend who has grown into a world-class painter, and about whom “Cedarwood Road” was written, but I’ve always felt that the subject of this this verse was actually Gavin Friday, another child-hood friend of Bono’s who is a fantastic singer-songwriter in his own right, and who is credited as a consultant on many of U2’s albums and tours. “I feel myself going down, I just call and he comes around,” sings Bono, and any of us who are lucky enough to know the joy of true, deep friendship know exactly what he is talking about.
My favorite part of this song, though, has got to be the third and final verse. Here, Bono makes a little confession about his relationship with his heavenly father, God. According to the Bible, God offers all of us heavenly riches, including a mansion (John 14:2, NKJV). Bono, though, decides that he wants to live in the dust and dirt down here on Earth for a while longer, and he rejects God’s proposal, at least temporarily–“I left by the backdoor, and I threw away the key.”
“The First Time” wouldn’t receive a full-length live performance until 2005 on the Vertigo Tour, 12 years after it had initially been released on the Zooropa album. It had clearly stayed on the band’s collective mind, as it made appearances on both the Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack, and also on the Best of 1990-2000 compilation, one of the few non-singles to appear on the latter. My favorite performance of “Bad” ever, from Chicago, on the twenty-first of September, 2005, contained a complete performance of “The First Time” in the middle of it in a weird kind of medley. As Bono and the crowd trade calls of “love!” I feel my soul taken to a higher place, which is proof that U2’s nineties output is just as transcendent and ecstatic as anything that came before it.
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