Arthurian legend, as best expressed in the rousing hymnal Jerusalem by William Blake, bestows divine providence upon King Arthur as much through the biblical Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail as through the Lady of the lake and Excalibur. There are, as in the Bible itself, multiple conflicting stories, but they all involve Joseph of Arimathea – the man who buried Jesus in all four Gospels – arriving in England at Cornwall, and spreading Christianity to the Britons, with Glastonbury Abbey as his starting point.
2,000 years later, and a decade ago this summer, U2 was easily the most highly anticipated act in the history of Glastonbury festival. Fans opinions of their 2000’s output notwithstanding, this was a U2 still at the top of their game. This was a U2 who had just had the most successful tour in history, who still had American Presidents on speed-dial and the International Space station at their disposal. This was the height of U2 hubris, where the weight of their past was threatening – but not crushing – them. This was before the Apple fiasco, the Spiderman debacle and the irrelevance of the last decade. Their grammys had little dust on them, they could command an entire week on Letterman and a Prime Time BBC show, and despite the glitch of Get on your boots, the world had not yet turned on them. British media thought it would never happen – U2 believed it was too big for the festival, they said – and “the beeb” gave it the full press coverage when it did come to pass. They weren’t the only ones. U2 wrote a song for the occasion, and spent the previous two years performing the song live. Not only that, they were in the throes of finishing an album for the occasion, and they even had a name for it: Songs of Ascent.
It all went disastrously wrong.
We never heard a studio version of the Flowering Rose of Glastonbury – in the end it was raided for spare parts that embedded themselves in vastly inferior clunky rockers Volcano and American Soul. These songs didn’t become the bands refu-Jesus. We never heard Songs of Ascent. Bono injured himself badly and the entire performance was pushed back a year. And, when it finally happened, on the night, everything went wrong. Unseasonably bad weather made the stage slippery and Bono almost wiped out during Even better than the real thing, and this muted his performance for the entire show. A “Bono-pay-your-taxes” protest dominated the news cycle. And a soundcheck mixup led to the planned understage keyboards being missing from every single song in the setlist.
But perhaps nothing summed up the failure better than Bono’s butchering of William Blake’s aforementioned Jerusalem. He got the tempo wrong. He mangled the lyrics. He lost the audience. The significance he was attempting to convey was completely lost on a crowd battling rain, disappointed in the set and preoccupied by the global recession that served as a backdrop for a U2 who was not broke – but you could see the cracks.
The song Flowering Rose of Glastonbury could have been a Vertigo-like radio hit, but as the bridge of the song says, There’s some things you just can’t control.
Upon first listen, I – like a lot of U2 fans – liked Flowering Rose, but thought the lyrics were quite plain – pandering references to the iconic music festival.
But, as is often the case with U2 – think Mysterious Ways and Until the end of the world being about John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot respectively – everything you know is wrong. The entire song is a reference to Arthurian legend, Christianity and Blake’s masterpiece. According to one version of the myth, Joseph of Arimathea rescued the baby Jesus from King Herod’s attempt to murder him, and that – contrary to the assertion in the Gospel of Matthew that Christ was taken to Egypt – Joseph in fact escaped to the northern frontier of the Roman Empire in Gaul and then set sail for Cornwall with the baby Jesus in tow. In another rendition, Joseph was commanded to defend and protect the Holy Grail – the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper – and given divine orders to convert the Britons. In yet another version, Jesus was the “Jesus Barabbas” released by Pontius Pilate in a switcheroo, and while an imposter Jesus was crucified, the actual messiah (Jesus Barabbas means Son of the Father) escaped and was taken to the farthest limits of the Roman empire by Joseph, beyond the reach of the Roman army.
That the Britons were converted is attested surprisingly early in the Christian record. Church father Tertullian wrote around 180 AD that “the land of the Britons is beyond the armies of Rome, but not those of Christ.”
And so it happened that the festival of Glastonbury happens upon the spot where perhaps – if legends can at all be deciphered through the mist of their own hubris – the baby Jesus, or the escaped captive Jesus, set foot upon England’s mountains green.
And did those feet in ancient times/walk upon England’s mountains green
and was the holy Lamb of God/on England’s pleasant pastures seen
and did the countenance divine/shine forth upon these pleasant hills
and was Jerusalem builded here/among these dark Satanic mills?
The deception in the Flowering Rose is obvious in hindsight. In Arthurian legend, Joseph of Arimathea arrived at Glastonbury and proved his divine calling by turning a wooden staff into a flowering white rosebush on the site that is now Glastonbury Abbey.
Pale as snow, a flowering rose, a flowering rose I would bend my knee. I came to find the flowering rose, the flowering rose of Glastonbury.
Music is a sacrament. In this line, the juxtaposition between spirituality and the experience of music – a theme of contemporary U2 work like Magnificent – is expressed well, but misunderstood. A pandering reference to a music festival, or a connection between the spine-tingling feeling of the introduction to where the streets have no name and the rousing power of the hymnal?
Throughout the glorious journey this band has taken its fans on over the last 45 years, so many live performances have elucidated their progress that their studio accomplishments often get lost among those closest to the band. Red Rocks. Live Aid. Self Aid. Croke Park 87. The New years concerts. The entire Zoo TV experience. Sarajevo. Slane Castle. The overwhelming size of 360. The Superbowl.
Glastonbury wasn’t one of them. It could have been. It should have been. There was no reason for it to fail. They had the songs. They had the vision. There was a spirituality and a metaphor that even an atheist like myself could appreciate.
Blake’s classic ends with the recognition that the legend is probably all bullshit. Jerusalem was not “builded here“. But Blake wasn’t satisfied with that, and it seems neither is Bono. For the last decade, we have witnessed a band beyond the peak of its powers, trying and repeatedly failing to find “relevance”. While it could be argued that the artistic slide had already set in a decade earlier, the commercial and public perception slide started with Glastonbury. After that, U2 tripped over itself one too many times. Apple. Spiderman. Albums that didn’t resonate. Bono repeatedly making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Like Blake, U2 is not satisfied to say that the story is over. Blake’s conclusion mirrors the obsession that U2 has with the future and that no matter the disappointments, resignation is not an option.
I will not rest on bended knee/nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
till we have built Jerusalem/In England’s green and pleasant land
A band like U2 can rescue the moment – and they did – with a rousing version of Streets. But it could only paper over the cracks. The band was about to break.