U2101 – A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel

I’ve been bouncing around for the past few weeks…moving between Zooropa, Rattle and Hum,  and War, all of which are celebrating noteworthy anniversaries this year. Today, I’m focusing once again on Rattle and Hum, or rather one of its B-sides. From the Angel of Harlem single, it’s “A Room at the  Heartbreak Hotel.” I’ve never been a fan of Elvis Presley. Coming from someone who worships at the altar of rock and roll, that statement sounds a bit odd–even to my own ears. The truth is that I think that Elvis was simply in the right place at the right time, and had the right look to become the face of what a whole slew of enterprising artists were doing. Although he usually gets most, if not all, of the credit, Elvis did not single-handedly invent rock music. That being said, he was an important voice of the burgeoning scene, and his popularity meant that he was rock music for many listeners. In that list of admirers, we can include Bono and Larry from U2. In addition to the Elvis songs that Bono has covered, Elvis has been a topic of several pieces written by U2’s front-man, and Larry showed his respect for “The King” in Rattle and Hum, the film. I think that as much as anything else, Elvis’ life became a by-word for the kind of rock star excess that the members of U2 strive to avoid. Then we come to today’s topic, with a title that was obviously influenced by a popular Elvis song.

Aside from the title, the “A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel” doesn’t owe much to Elvis. It does feel kind of classic, with that organ intro and the female backing vocal. The topic of the song is one that Bono writes about frequently–unrequited love.  I think that everyone alive knows what that feels like, whether it is a school-age crush or something more serious. Many, many songwriters have written about the subject, but a story is only as good as its telling, and no one can tell it like Bono. His impassioned, tortured vocal really sells the ideas that he is trying to impart. I know I’ve said it before, but this is another great example–Bono makes the listener feel the feeling of the song. He puts so much emotion into his performance that it practically infects the listener like a virus.

As much as the rest of the album that it’s from, “A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel” does owe a debt to old-time rockers like Elvis and Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan in that those early proponents of the form inspired U2 when the latter band got to American and discovered that country’s musical heritage. Rattle and Hum has been castigated by critics, who viewed the album as U2’s attempt to place itself on the same level as artists like those I mentioned earlier, but I will believe to my dying day that the album was just the band members opening themselves up to a sound that they hadn’t heard before. U2 has made a career out of trying on different identities, and I think that Rattle and Hum was just an early example of that experimentation. So it’s true that “A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel” owes something to Elvis, as well as his contemporaries, but it is brought into focus through the lens that is U2.

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Ever since I realized as a kid, while poring over the liner notes of the Bob Marley - Songs of Freedom boxed set, that writing about music was a viable career choice, one of my greatest desires has been to write about U2. The band has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to contribute a little something to the fantastic online community that's been built around the band.

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