College with MLK
It cost more than my first car and was the first big purchase I made on my own. It was a new home stereo - a high-end Pioneer 100 watt-per-channel component system that included a turntable, dual cassette tape deck, AM/FM tuner, and a tall glass cabinet to hold all of it - and what I thought were some giant speakers. It was the Fall of 1984 and my junior year in college at TCU. A credit card company had already hooked me up with a Gold Card making me believe I’d finally arrived and setting me on a path for a lifetime of credit card debt. Cars and stereos meant almost everything and I only had had the cars. With the credit card burning a hole in my wallet and my insecurities burning a hole in my heart, I bought the best stereo I could find in search of identity and freedom.
I ordered it from a catalog and had it delivered to my room in the Delt fraternity house. No Internet or Amazon or Apple Store back then. I recall cranking the Pretenders during pre-parties on the weekend, but for the most part, I kept it pretty quiet. I had some KLM head-phones that were my dad’s for times when I needed to keep from waking people - which wasn’t very often in a fraternity house.
U2’s Unforgettable Fire had just come out. I bought the cassette tape version. They made the most sense to me since I could play them in my room or in the car, but they never lasted very long. As we used to do back then, I listened to it over and over and over. Eventually, the cassette would wear out when the tape would start to squeal, which is when you got to throw it out of your car window while driving down the highway, but that’s another story.
I rarely took the tape out of the tape deck. I remember how it was advanced enough to have a repeat feature and I would let it play over and over as I went to sleep most nights. I loved most of the album. “4th of July” was a favorite since I was born on the 4th of July and since it sounded like whales talking to each other. I also loved to sing along with “Pride (In the Name of Love)” at the top of my lungs (and still do). But track 10, “MLK”, mesmerized me. It was a lullaby. “Sleep. Into the night. And may your dreams be realized.” Bono’s voice was incredible. I’m big into vowel sounds and I remember the tone and timbre of each one. “Oh let it rain. Oh let it rain. Rain down on me. Sleep.”
It would definitely put me to sleep each night. I’d have to be careful not to get strangled by the head-phone cables (no such thing as bluetooth back then). But I had no idea what the song was about. I don’t think I even knew that it was called MLK. I lived in a bubble. Life was all about me. This song was my lullaby.
The build-up during the first twenty seconds of the song, with its deep hum getting stronger and stronger, made me turn the up the volume way louder than I should. I’m pretty sure it gave me ear damage. I also think that if Bono had just sung do-re-mi instead of the lyrics I would have loved it just the same. I’ve got a strong feeling about intervals. In music, an interval is the difference between two consecutive pitches. The intervals between each note of the melody of the song was like a secret code to me. I have a hunch that many hit songs are due to mysterious interval combinations that we don’t fully understand. Maybe its an untapped language - like a musical Morse Code.
Animals that communicate through melodies, such as whales and birds, use intervals. I think we do too, but we just don’t know how to fully quantify or analyze it yet. I believe our senses are far more powerful than we understand. Think about it. Many of us are able to interpret light waves and sound waves, which are just varying frequencies and amplitudes bouncing off our retinas and ear drums allowing us to identify people’s faces and voices and their intended meaning. It likely carries over into the sense of touch as well. At a live concert, with the sub-woofers cranked, the thump of a strong bass drum or bass guitar folds into a special rhythm with my heartbeat that I can feel as if someone is punching me or hugging me. Even a well delivered speech with its rises and falls in tone and volume can communicate more than the words themselves.
Bono’s words, in his song “MLK”, were in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life due to King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 (when I was almost four years old). I regret spending most of my life not fully understanding the weight of the song or the contribution of King to civil rights. Bono references King’s speech from the night before his death, when King said, “I have a dream today…” The song says, “…and may your dreams be realized.” I read the full speech today for the first time as I wrote this. It’s shocking to think how horribly racist the U.S. was back then in my own lifetime and how far it still has to go. Part of King’s dream in the speech was “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.” That is a dream that I have hope in as well.
As I listen to the song today on Spotify, while the stereo and Gold Card have long since been destroyed, I still hear the melodic intervals that I’ve heard for the last 30 years. But as I hear them today, I wonder if there was a divine intended meaning all along - one of redemption. Maybe the intervals are even similar to the song King referenced at the end of his speech, “Free at last, free at last. God Almighty, we are free at last.” The world is broken. It fell when, after God created mankind in his own image, we rejected God and chose to be autonomous. But God continued to love us. God rescued Israel from slavery by parting the Red Sea and taking them to the promised land. He later rescued all of us by providing us with a Savior, Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection redeemed us, who trust him, and gives us the hope that Martin Luther King, Jr. referenced.
As I listen to the song going forward, and feel its comfort, it will now remind me that I no longer need to be in slavery to material possessions like a stereo or to other’s opinions to find my worth or identity. Like King, my eyes too have seen the coming of the Glory of the Lord and I now know how the story ends. It ends with a new heaven and new earth where there is no more inequality, no more racism, no more insecurities, no more murder, and no more pain. And until then, while we await Jesus Christ’s return, God continues to love us and bring about his Kingdom through us, his church, as we continue to learn to die to ourselves and live in Christ. “And as the thundercloud passes rain, oh let it rain, rain down on me.”