The Beach Boys… the Beatles… and Bono.

For a few days this week I was close enough to the Pacific Ocean to bike along the beach. Watching the sunrise, the quiet of the morning, a travel mug with Earl Grey tea… and time to think.

My mind went to the Beach Boys, whose life was born in the very sand where I was riding, giving birth to a lyrical imagination that found its way into the pop culture of the early 1960s, singing songs like “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls,” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Those years seemed easier, whether they were or not. Viet Nam was more an idea than a reality– if the French couldn’t win there, the U.S. surely could and would. The eenie-weenie polka-dot bikini was playful not promiscuous– the acid rain of the sexual revolution had not yet changed the cultural landscape of America and the world. And on and on.

The early innocence of the Beach Boys didn’t last forever, because it couldn’t. The band’s soaring harmonies slowly bumped into the darkness of their own lives, and of the counter-culture of the 1960s. Drugs and deaths, their souls broke apart, and the band was no longer a band.

The Beatles weren’t able to keep singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” forever. Their innocence too soon crashed into the hard realities of a changing world, their music both promoting and reflecting this movement from puppy love to despair with songs like “Nowhere Man” and “Hello Goodbye” before the decade was done.

Neither the Beach Boys nor the Beatles lasted more than a few short years– we still sing their songs but we don’t believe them to be true.

But Bono and his boys, U2 as we know them, have kept on keeping on. Almost 40 years later they are still the biggest band in the world, playing before hundreds of thousands in stadiums on every continent, still providing us with the soundtrack of our lives. God alone knows how long, how long, they will keep singing their songs, but for now, most of the world is still listening.

What’s different? For all the musical genius of Brian Wilson and John Lennon, their brilliance as musicians wasn’t enough. We can get all A’s and still flunk life. To start off well in life isn’t the same thing as sustaining a life– a truth for everyone everywhere, as true for Intimacy in marriage as it is for the public life of musical heroes. No one of us are perfect; we all stumble. As he must be, Bono is his own very glorious ruin– as we all are. But he knows that, his songs reflect that reality. U2, you know?

I think it is the honesty of U2 that has kept them going. From their earliest efforts on, they have sung songs about the life we live in the world that is there. Yes, they have grown up, from punk-rockers to global icons, from boys to men, and their music reflects that pilgrimage. But for their years together they have offered the world a lyrical vision that is rooted in reality, in the truth of the human condition.

The best art, the truest art, always does that– which is why my bike ride along the beach took me from the Beach Boys to the Beatles to Bono, glad for all three bands, but sobered by the fact that fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun isn’t everything– we can’t hold hands forever. Eventually we all begin wondering “how long…?”

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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