Running To Stand Still (1987)
An aching, masterfully melancholy journey to the center of a junkie’s mind, weaving its way through “a day in the life” of heroin addiction. “Running” beautifully captures the junkie’s conflicted tangle of helplessness, euphoria, regret and emptiness. It’s messy but Bono and The Edge pull it together with extraordinary beauty and grace in this slow-moving ballad – bleak and forlorn – that floats through rainy reverie and smack-addled delirium.
Powerful stuff from Bono and the boys
The easy, acoustic-blues sound and compassionate sentiment of “Running” conjures Lou Reed‘s “live free” anthem, “Walk On The Wild Side,” both musically (listen to the opening) and lyrically, in its open-minded attitude toward the way people live their lives, particularly when it comes to sex and drugs.
You can hear fellow Irishman Van Morrison’s influence peeking through as well. The fingerprints are not all that surprising as U2 has performed a handful of Van songs live: “Moondance,” “Gloria,” “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Into The Mystic.” Bono’s use of scat singing – a kind of “voice instrumental” music (such as, “doo-wop-bippity-bop” or “sha-la-la”) – in “Running” mirrors the technique of Reed in “Walk On The Wild Side” and Morrison in “Brown-Eyed Girl” (among others, like “Tupelo Honey”).
Inspired by the crushing heroin epidemic that rocked Dublin’s working-class underbelly in the 1980s, “Running” takes a sympathetic, albeit tragic, look at a young junkie couple that sees heroin as their only refuge – their only escape from a dead-end existence of poverty and despair.
The dark dreamscape takes place in and around the squalid, crime-ridden residential towers of Ballymun Flats (which have since been demolished) on Dublin’s Northside.
Sweet the sin
Refers to heroin use as sweet/original sin
Bitter taste in my mouth
Refers to the bitter taste of heroin
I see seven towers
Refers to the seven drug-infested high-rise towers of Ballymun Flats
But I only see one way out
Refers to heroin being the only escape for many
Bono blows minds in Paris, July 4, 1987
As Northsiders, U2’s young members saw widespread hardship – unemployment, crime and rampant drug use – first hand in seedy places like the working-poor enclave of Ballymun, where Bono lived. Witnessing that kind of wholesale suffering, no doubt, left a bad taste in Bono’s mouth, just as heroin literally tastes bitter to the user. (In fact, the more bitter, the purer the product.)
The ugliness and decay of the scene compelled Bono, in his mid-20s, to write “Running,” and the band composed or rather improvised the music. The title refers, in brilliant succinctness, to the constant and utterly useless running and searching, and scoring and shooting that goes into feeding an insatiable addiction like heroin. The junkie never stops running but never gets anywhere (certainly nowhere good).
The Irish government, in the early-’80s, viewed heroin addicts (many of them teenagers) as victims of their own reckless choices – throw-aways – rather than citizen casualties of their grim socio-economic situation. This was clearly a deep personal affront to Bono, who saw the government’s policy position as aloof and draconian – and one that was grossly out of touch with the root causes of the epidemic, not to mention possible solutions.
“Running” speaks with empathy to the overwhelming, soul-sucking bleakness of poverty. There is no escape. There is no relief. And even drugs can offer only fleeting comfort. The desperation and rage bottle up inside, with nowhere to go:
You’ve got to cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice
The use of the slide acoustic guitar – which lends a bluesy, country feel – and The Edge’s soft-spoken piano create a somber, surreal scene that burns with the need to escape, at all costs:
You know I took the poison
Refers to ingesting heroin
From the poison stream
Refers to intravenous heroin use
Then I floated out of here
Refers to the full-body heroin high as escape
Singing…ha la la la de day
Refers to a soothing lullaby or a religious hallelujah
Ah la la la de day
Ah la la de day
“Running” starts slow and drizzly, and ascends ethereally into a euphoric crescendo – the drums becoming more insistent with each passing beat. But the “high” is short-lived, giving way to the cold emptiness of the “needle chill,” which seems to describe the deeply depressed, post-euphoric state.
She is raging
Refers to the euphoria of heroin
She is raging
And the storm blows up in her eyes
Refers to the effects of the heroin rush
She will…suffer the needle chill
Refers to the post-euphoric state
She’s running to stand…still
Refers to the constant running that is necessary to feed the addiction
During the long, painfully slow fade – as Bono’s mournful harmonica howls (with echoes of Bruce Springsteen) – you can see that junkie girl, once so beautiful and vibrant, slowly disappear into addiction.
Stolen youth. Stolen dreams and potential. Stolen happiness. And there is an understanding and a wink from Bono and the boys that it all could have been stolen from any of us – but for the grace of God.
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- The music for “Running To Stand Still” was improvised – with producer Daniel Lanois on guitar – pretty much on the spot at Windmill Lane Studios during a recording session for (believe it or not) a different song. And out popped a beauty.
- “Running To Stand Still” almost always follows “Bullet The Blue Sky” during live performances, just like on the album The Joshua Tree.
- Compare Van Morrison’s “Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la…la-la-la-la-tee-da” in “Brown-Eyed Girl” to Bono’s “Ah-la-la-la-de day…ah-la-la-de-day” from “Running To Stand Still.” A brother from a different mother?
- Bono strong: On April 1,1987, the eve of The Joshua Tree Tour kickoff in Tempe, Arizona, Bono fell during a run-through of “Bullet The Blue Sky.” The wound on his chin required stitches.
- Bono strong (again): On September 20, 1987, the third leg of The Joshua Tree Tour, Bono slipped off the wet stage at D.C.’s RFK Stadium and dislocated his arm. He would complete the performance, but his arm would be in a sling for the next 12 shows. Sling sighting: Check Rattle and Hum (film) during “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Freedom For My People.”