In 1979, an up and coming Irish band released their first official recording: a 7-inch EP called U2 3. The A-side was selected by listeners of the Dave Fanning Rock Show on 2FM.
“One day I’ll die
The choice will not be mine
Will it be too late?
You can’t fight fate.”
On “Out of Control,” U2’s first single, a young Bono wrestled with some weighty ideas – matters of life and death, in fact.
“‘Out of Control’ is about waking up on your 18th birthday and realizing you’re 18 years old and that the two most important decisions in your life have nothing to do with you – being born and dying,” the singer later explained. “The song is written from a child’s point of view and it’s about a vicious circle. He becomes a delinquent but the psychologist says, ‘It’s in his childhood.’ No matter what he does, it can’t be because he wants to – it’s always because of what went before, and there’s no decision in anything.” (Into the Heart, Niall Stokes)
The song struggles with the notion that, as much as we may wish to chart our own course for our lives, our path is, in many ways, marked out by events that we are powerless to dictate. What if we aren’t actually as free as we think we are, and instead, we find ourselves constrained by invisible boundaries: parameters laid down by someone other than ourselves, be it our parents, fate, or God? What if the most important aspects of our lives are not, in the end, up to us at all?
Music writer Niall Stokes observes: “He (Bono) was haunted by the sense that the whole crazy business of human life, and human reproduction in particular, was out of control. The song was an attempt to come to grips in an adolescent but nonetheless urgent way with the reality of existential angst as it gnaws away at the heart’s core.”
32 years later, The Airborne Toxic Event released a song that, while perhaps not directly inspired by “Out of Control,” is nevertheless its spiritual cousin, topically if not musically. In “All At Once,” the title track to the album of the same name, Mikel Jollett plays with a similar idea: that the most significant events of our lives – the really big ones, the ones that come to define us and around which all the other, less important details of our life are organized – are unforeseen, unprepared for and, ultimately, uncontrollable.
In a commentary featured on Amazon.com, Mikel provides the background to the song:
I had four close family members die in the last year and a half, and when stuff like that happens to you, I think your life starts to have a little bit of perspective… you start to think about things a little differently, and your day-to-day problems don’t seem like that big a deal. It has this way of lengthening your perspective.
The song is just about the stages of life, and how you wake up one day and your whole life changes, and it tends to happen very, very quickly. You know, you sort of tend to live in these quiet moments in between these massive moments of change. The change happens all at once. That’s sort of what the song’s about, just being in that moment: the birth of a child, the death of a parent, maybe you get diagnosed with a disease or some terrible accident or something awful happens to you – or something wonderful, some great opportunity happens to you. And your life five minutes before that is one way, and five minutes after is another way. And yet you don’t really think of it that way; you think it’s incremental.
In my own life, I’ve found that even those things that we think we’re controlling have a way of evolving a mind of their own, turning on us and mocking us for our arrogant assumption that everything will go according to plan.
Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I decided we were ready to start a family, we had no idea that this “plan” of ours would eventually include two stillborn sons, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, extreme hyperactivity, panic attacks and childhood cancer. Those items were not on our agenda, but they came nonetheless. Moments that changed everything, all at once.
Not only that, but even those events that we should see coming a mile away somehow manage to sneak up on us and catch us unawares.
“We grow old all at once
And it comes like a punch
In the gut, in the back, in the face”
Just yesterday, we were fresh faced kids shocking friends, family and strangers alike by marrying before our teen years had expired. A blink later, we’re planning our 20th anniversary/40th birthday vacation, dropping our eldest off at high school and realizing with a shudder that she’s almost as old as we were when we started dating. Talk about a gut punch.
“And I feel the water rising around us
Maybe that’s okay
Yeah, I feel the world changing all at once
I guess it’ll be okay”
It can be utterly overwhelming, this lack of control. Each time our world changed all at once, I felt the water rising, threatening to drown us in waves of fear or sadness or anxiety, or crush us under the oppressive weight of responsibility. The thought occurred more than once: what if I just stopped paddling, took one final breath, and succumbed to the crashing tide?
But then, hope. Maybe it’ll be okay. Maybe we’ll figure it out. Maybe we’ll grow in ways that never would have happened were it not for these trials. Maybe we’ll find joys we never imagined on this journey we never intended. And maybe, one day, we’ll wake up and realize that we wouldn’t trade this ridiculous life of ours for anything.
Yeah… I guess it’ll be okay.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.