WRITTEN about Bono’s mother Iris and the pain of losing her when he was just 14, Iris (Hold Me Close) exemplifies U2’s strength in eliciting deep emotions through the craft of song writing.
The first verse uses the cosmos as a metaphor for the pain that still lingers in a son decades after his mother collapsed at her father’s funeral, dying days later.
That gives us light
Has been gone a while
But it’s not an illusion
In my heart
Is so much a part of who I am
Bono sings in a guttural voice, devoid of hope. It’s dark in there.
But there is more than meets the eye here. When you look up at the sky at night and look at a star, you’re actually seeing it as it was however many light years away it is.
For instance, if a star you are looking at is 10 light years away, then what you see from here is how the star looked 10 years ago. In fact, there are many stars out there that we can see but don’t actually exist, yet their light is still travelling.
So the metaphor that his mother is a star has a deeper meaning. She might be gone, but her light still shines after all these years.
Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go
Here he’s yearning for his mum to hold him, despite knowing she’s not there. Don’t we all long for one last chance to touch/speak to a dearly departed relative or friend? Here’s Bono sharing something that is quite intimate, but at the same time, anyone can relate to it. You can hear the anguish in his voice.
Hold me close, like I’m someone that you might know
If he was to meet his mother right here and now, would she recognise her son? He’s a very different person to that 14-year-old she last saw at her father’s funeral.
Hold me close, the darkness just lets us see
Who we are, I’ve got your life inside of me
Again, a reference to the stars. You can only see them when it’s dark (well, apart from our sun). So it’s in the deepest throes of darkness, or sadness, that his star shines brightest.
Ask anyone who has lost a parent and they will tell you time does not heal all wounds.
As we do with all loved ones who leave us, we carry part of them inside for the rest of our days. The groove has an uplifting quality to it, contrary to the tragedy being unravelled by the lyrics. “Smack in the middle of a contradiction is the place to be”, Bono is quoted to have once said.
Let’s not forget that Bob and Iris Hewson were Catholic and Protestant respectively. Iris would take Bono and his brother Norman to church on Sundays, and Bob would wait for them after he attended Catholic mass. So in a sense, it was Iris that opened Bono’s “eyes” to God. Through his mother, he found God…through her “eyes”. Eyes have irises, so again, the Iris link is huge here.
You’ll notice in the live version that he kneels while singing the following lines, as you would kneel before God in church.
Once, we are born
We begin to forget
The very reason we came
As we grow up, we start questioning why we are here. We are always searching for that answer, and for some people the answer lies in the hands of religion (God).
I’m sure I’ve met
Long before the night the stars went out
Bono now speaks to God about his awakening, which happened through Iris. She took him to church “long before the night the stars went out”; in other words, long before Iris died.
Bear in mind he’s saying “I’m sure I’ve met”. This is a man who lost his faith after his rock was gone and it’s been a long time before he’s found his faith again. He’s also questioning his faith – why would God take away his mother at such a young age?
We’re meeting up again
Despite the pain of losing his mother still present, he has found his faith again after all this time.
The stars are bright but do they know
The universe is beautiful but cold
A line that is relevant to everyone. We all have our own “stars” up there, and even though they are all beautiful to us, do they know how cold and lonely we are without them? We can see them, but can’t reach out and touch them. Going back to the metaphor of darkness, our stars burn bright amid our sadness.
But it was you who made me your man, machine
Around the time Iris died, Bono met Ali Stewart in high school. She gave him a Kraftwerk album called Man Machine. So here’s a reference to other things that were happening at the time. He lost his mum, but Ali came in as another big love of his life at the same time. They’re still married today.
Then more memories come flooding in. Iris is being a mum to her youngest boy, telling him he can be anything and reassuring him after a nightmare.
I dream where you are
Iris standing in the hall
She tells me I can do it all
Iris wakes to my nightmares
Don’t fear the world, it isn’t there
Now, picture a mother playing with her son on a beach, burying him in the sand as we have probably all done before. But there’s another metaphor here. Her death buried his childhood, because it meant the 14-year-old had to take on adult responsibilities.
Iris playing on the strand
She buries the boy beneath the sand
And then the words cut really deep. Full of guilt, Bono wonders if Iris’s death is his fault.
Iris says that I will be the death of her
How many times, as a parent, do you say to your kids “You’ll be the death of me”? It’s such a throwaway line, but for a someone who lost his mum so long ago, he still carries those words with him. We all know Bono has described himself as a difficult child, and Iris probably in her deepest throes of frustration might have thrown that line at him. No big deal, we all do it. But then she collapses and days later she dies. It’s ludicrous to think Bono is to blame, but in his darkest moments of mourning, the thought that he caused her death might have fleetingly crossed his mind. We all carry guilt after a death. Was our last conversation with that person an argument? Why didn’t I tell them I loved them? This is Bono dragging us in to his most private thoughts, but also teaching us that we should always be careful how we express ourselves because our words can still ring in a person’s ears many years down the track.
It was not me
After all this time, he’s realised just how absurd he is to think that he caused his mother’s death, but there’s a sense of innocence in his voice, almost as if he’s pleading with himself to believe it.
Free yourself, to be yourself if only you could see yourself
Again, Bono remembers wise words from Iris. It’s a phrase a mother might make to a child accomplishing a task for the first time “oh if only you could see yourself”. But he turns this totally on its head with the next line.
It’s now Bono singing to Iris.
Free yourself (from death?), to be yourself if only you could see.
Indeed, if only she could see what he’s done with his life.