Bono may front a band that's racked up 150 million records sold and packed stadiums from Amsterdam to Zagreb, but he didn't have the easiest childhood. Growing up in Dublin as Paul Hewson, the U2 singer experienced trauma at an early age when his mother, Iris, suffered an aneurysm at her father's funeral and died several days later.
"I wish I had more of a sense of my mother," the singer wrote in U2 By U2 in 2005. "I forget what she looked like. I have just a few vague memories."
Bono's band of future chart-toppers formed just a few years after that fateful tragedy, so it's only natural that maternal themes have crept into his lyrics over the past 40 years. In celebration of Mother's Day, let's take a look at six U2 songs inspired by motherhood.
"I Will Follow," Boy, 1980
U2's music took on a motherly tone from the get-go — the very first song on their very first album is sung from the perspective of a mother pledging undying devotion to her child. "I was on the outside when you said you needed me..." a 19-year-old Bono sings in the opening verse, undoubtedly with Iris in mind. "If you walk away, I will follow."
"It's a song about unconditional love, which is what a mother has for her child," Bono once explained. "I'm singing from a mother's point of view. I know that's mad, but I've done it a few times."
"I Will Follow" has endured to become one of U2's signature songs, having introduced the world to the sounds that four school kids in post-punk Ireland could conjure. Not surprisingly, it's U2's most-played song in concert and has been skipped only a handful of times across over a thousand gigs.
"Tomorrow," October, 1981
There's something inherently dark about U2's first two albums — the mix of the Edge's icy guitar licks, Adam Clayton's devious bass lines, and Bono's mysterious persona make them great midnight listens. "Tomorrow" is perhaps the gloomiest cut on either, setting the scene on the day of Iris' funeral.
Beginning as a slow bagpipe dirge, "Tomorrow" eventually explodes into a full-band catharsis. You can practically hear Bono yelling and screaming in grief as he asks, "Won't you come back tomorrow?" before proclaiming, "I'm going outside, mother!" "Tomorrow" is possibly the most pained Bono has ever sounded on record, and it features one of the greatest vocal deliveries in a career made on them.
"I think October goes into areas that most rock 'n' roll bands ignore," Bono said in 2007. "When I listen to the album, something like 'Tomorrow,' it actually moves me."
"Mothers of the Disappeared," The Joshua Tree, 1987
The final track on U2's greatest album is not inspired by Bono's mother, but rather by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of Argentinian and Chilean women whose children had been killed by those countries' governments.
The lyrics of "Mothers of the Disappeared," sung from the perspective of the Madres, keep coming back to the phrase, "We hear their heartbeat," lending a slice of optimism to this sorrowful closer. It's a truly entrancing listen, from Bono's rueful words to Brian Eno's keyboard arrangement and Daniel Lanois' mix, which Bono has described as a "performance" unto itself.
When U2's PopMart tour rolled through Buenos Aires in 1998, the band brought the Madres on stage for a show-closing rendition of "Mothers."
"Lemon," Zooropa, 1993
With U2 making its name on earnestly epic stadium rock throughout the '80s, many were understandably confused after popping Zooropa into their Walkman. Among other things, the Achtung Baby follow-up features the Edge rapping, Johnny Cash handling lead vocals for an entire song, and this tune, in which Bono sings falsetto over a disco beat for seven minutes.
That may not sound like the ideal vehicle for a tribute to his mother, but if you're able to make out Bono's lyrics in "Lemon," they're some of the most poignant he's ever written. The idea for "Lemon" came about when Bono watched old footage of his mother wearing a lemon-colored dress at a wedding.
Speaking about that moment of inspiration, Bono once said it was a, "Strange experience to receive, in the post, from a very distant relative, early Super 8 footage of my mother, aged 24, younger than me, playing a game of rounders in slow motion."
Lines like, "I feel like I'm swimming out to her" and "(A man) turns his money into light to look for her," are simply heartbreaking, illustrating the unbridgeable distance between Bono and his mother.
"Mofo," Pop, 1997
Pop marked a continuation of the strange, futuristic sounds that U2 reinvented themselves with in the '90s. But even at his weirdest, Bono continued to take inspiration from Iris.
"Mofo," the opening song for much of the album's supporting tour, finds Bono trying to fill the mother-sized hole in his heart. How else to do that other than become the world's biggest rock star?
"Mother, am I still your son?" he asks, before acknowledging that her death left him forever stunted emotionally. "I'm still a child, but no one tells me no."
It's important to note the familial roles Bono lays out near the end of the song. Fathers "rule," while mothers "soothe" and "show."
"Iris (Hold Me Close)," Songs of Innocence, 2014
As its title suggests, U2's latest album finds Bono looking back on his childhood for lyrical inspiration. There's "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)," about one of his primary musical influences, "Cedarwood Road" about the street he grew up on, and "Iris," the first time he's mentioned his mother by name in song.
"Forty years ago, my mother fell at her own father's funeral, and I never spoke with her again," the singer told Rolling Stone last year. "Rage always follows grief, and I had a lot of it, and I still have, but I channeled it into music and I still do. I have very few memories of my mother, and I put a few of them in a song called 'Iris.'"
The most touching line here is, "You took me by the hand/ I thought that I was leading you," a nice lyrical reference to "I Will Follow" that brings things full-circle to U2's innocence.
TL;DR? Just remember to call your mother this Sunday.
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