The very first time I heard Bono’s Silver and Gold I sensed the claustrophobic feel of a dark wet night on the South African townships. Dark and wet add menace to the poverty of townships. The shacks close in. Silver and Gold as an attempt by Bono to bring the tradition of the blues into his work for the first time does a great job in mood and feel. What was more amazing is that I wouldn’t walk onto my first township for fifteen years after I got to sense that feel.
U2 had become a political band by the time Bono wrote Silver and Gold in 1985 but they were not on their own. Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn are three prime examples of songwriters who moved from songs of personal introspection to songs of political provocation in the 80’s. Bruce Springsteen’s side kick Little Steven Van Zandt got in on the act too with some political songs and then, having heard Peter Gabriel’s Biko, took some interest in South Africa and put together a star studded protest song to encourage artists to stop playing South Africa’s Sun City, the most appealing venue for concerts, as a support of the economic sanctions many were encouraging against the white government.
Bono’s first attempt at a real song, prompted by not being able to share one in the company of some Rolling Stones, was written in a New York hotel room during that Sun City project. Bono recorded it quickly with Keith Richard and Ron Wood as his band and it appeared on the Sun City album before U2 used it first as a b-side for Where The Streets Have No Name and later as a powerful live song on Rattle and Hum.
As well as the mood he conjures Bono deals with something very powerful in the South African apartheid context. Bob Marley put it well from his sense of slavery on Jamaican townships when on his much covered Spiritual Redemption Song he sings, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.” There is a sinister twist to the slavery in Bono’s opening lines – “praying hands hold me down.” One of the many foibles of apartheid was that it had been theologized.
The theologians at Dutch Reformed Stellenbosch University had given a Biblical mandate for the institutionalised apartheid of the Africaaner government. Evidence of the belief that blacks were less than human can be found on a visit to Robben Island where prisoners who were black got no meat in their diet, compared the coloured who did, because they were seen as less than human!
There is indeed a mental slavery when you are constantly told you are less than human. This is not just political oppression. It is psychological oppression and Bono, having a faith himself, is disturbed that “praying hands” played their part in this horrendous injustice. For the answer he turns to another black voice, Jesse Jackson, who apparently used the phrase “I am someone” in his own civil rights campaigning in the USA. Jesus turns up, as he often does in U2 songs, and don’t think that his name is a throwaway taking-in-vain; Bono is too meticulous for that. In a second verse that could describe the violent end of Steve Biko’s life there is a defiant cry to free the mind; black people are someones!
This battle for psychological liberation continues today across South Africa. Being put down for generations takes its toll. Bono finishes Silver and Gold with two secrets to the freedom from mental slavery. First that the poor might actually be blessed as Jesus says and have more wealth in their humanity than the Racist oppressors. The second secret to breaking the chains is belief that freedom is inside not in the outward circumstances.
If ever there was a place that showed the strength of feeling free in spite of being in prison then it is Robben Island, if ever a man then it Nelson Mandela its most famous prisoner. Somehow against all the odds, as the apartheid regime attempted daily to demoralise them, the prisoners on Robben Island never lost hope and somehow deep within believed that they were free and would one day be free in a democratic South Africa. That dream was a long way off when Bono wrote Silver and Gold and no one should underestimate the contribution that songs like this made to making its last few lines a reality.