Once, I sat on the floor of a darkened basketball arena with a couple thousand other kids and listened while Ben Harper did one of his acoustic half-sets. I remember two main things from that hour: one, my introduction to the lap steel, and two, that he said, “once you write a song, it’s really about you.”
I often think of this, because I knew the moment he said it and still to this day believe that it is the truth. One’s work comes from oneself, and no matter how real or imagined the content may be, it speaks to the nature of the source in some way, in some form.
As a songwriter though, it happens sometimes that i do not want to be held accountable for the things I write. There is a definite separation between what we perceive to be autobiographical and what we deem fantasy. It does no justice to ourselves to lump it all together, for self-awareness is quite different from expression or intuition or other kinds of poetic skill. Nevertheless, I know that the truth remains, that we are speaking of our thoughts, and in our thoughts we may come across various moments of sheer spite, or cheese.
I was thinking yesterday about how it happened – how is it possible? – that young Bono has transformed himself from a young punky rocker to a compassionate leader in global policy, on the strength of his earnestness. He gained respect from the masses, and most likely from the others, too, because he wrote “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and all the others. It’s the one-ness of that spirit with his actions in real life that create his credibility. His songs really are about him, and it’s just absolutely unquestionable. U2’s work is consistent like Monet’s waterlilies: instantly recognizable and carried off with unmatched flair. And there’s no ambiguity about the boundary between the artistic creation and the campaigns for life; there just is no boundary.
Ben Harper, that day in the stadium, was admitting to a struggle within himself, one that put up a wall between the loud and the soft, or something else, even though he told us himself that he knew better. And we sat there on the floor feeling the contradiction in the very performance, and it’s this that I carry with me now, years later. Meanwhile, I have to stop and wonder if you can validate a paradox merely by acknowledging it’s presence. I am inclined to think that actually, the only way to validate it’s existence is to prove the opposite and actually show that they are the same, collapsed under the weight of itself.