How Long To Sing This Song?
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Just did one of those "scrap the other article I was writing - need write this instead" things. I read a comment under the From The Stands post and I felt a click in my brain. When I feel that click, I must obey it.
The comment was referencing the song "40" by U2. At least I think it was referencing U2. Perhaps I'm just projecting the U2 reference. Doesn't matter, I guess.
Here's the comment (from Taft92 on my last post):
How long to sing this song? As long as it takes.
If you're not familiar with the song, well, neither am I. I enjoy U2, and I have several U2 albums (do people still "have" "albums" anymore?), so I'm familiar with the song, but I don't know the song. I have friends who know the song because they've attended U2 concerts where they would close with the song.
I don't think I really understood the experience of the song until I saw a video of U2 closing a concert in Chicago in 2005 by playing the song. We'll get to the video later, but for now, I'll just give you some research. And yes, I'll get to Illinois losing to UTSA eventually.
U2 released the song in 1983 on the War album. It was the final song they recorded. My quick research says that they needed one more song, tossed it together in a half hour in the studio. Bono wrote the lyrics based on Psalm 40 from the Bible. It was quickly assembled, quickly recorded, and then became a staple at their concerts.
Some think that the lyrics come directly from Psalm 40, but they're more or less adapted from the Psalm. The first verse of the song more or less follows the first two verses of Psalm 40 - I waited patiently for the Lord, He inclined and heard my cry, He brought me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay - but the chorus of the song ("How long to sing this song?") does not appear in Psalm 40. The chorus was written as... well, we'll get to that. I need to give you a timeline first.
I recorded From The Stands. If you haven't listened, I can just give you the basics. I stood near a window overlooking the Grange Grove and Lot 32, looking west. All I could see were red taillights heading away from the stadium. I thought about all those people who show up week after week, year after year, only to watch us lose to San Jose State, Ohio, Western Michigan, Louisiana Tech, Eastern Michigan, and UTSA. Games where we pay an opponent to come to Champaign and they leave an L on our nightstand.
I headed home soon after that, exhausted after a long day. Tried to write when I got home but had nothing so I went to bed. Slept nearly nine hours.
Got up this morning and tried to write again but was struggling once again. I flipped through the comments from the FTS post and there it was. "How long to sing this song?"
That's the very core of my emotions this morning. I'm not really mad. New coach, new systems - recruit and transform and construct and we'll see where we're at in 3-4 years. The last time we had one coach hand an actual program to another coach was 1992 (Mackovic to Tepper). That failed spectactularly, and the hole it dug turned into an 18-game losing streak stretching across three seasons.
Since then, we watched rebuild attempts from 1997 to 2004, then 2005 to 2011, then 2012 to 2015, then 2016 to 2020. We now turn to a fifth guy to try to build something. In his second game, a 37-30 loss to a school that didn't even have a football program until 2011. You can't help but ponder if we would have been better off starting from scratch in 2011 and building from nothing than 26 years of attempted "rebuilds". Maybe that's the secret. Don't rebuild. Just build.
So when I read the words "how long to sing this song?", it seemed perfect. Especially since the song, to me, isn't only a song of lament. It's also a song of hope. "Waited patiently" and whatnot.
I listened to the song three times, and then I decided to consult the biggest U2 fan I know outside of James McCourt: my friend Dave. He and his wife Ann had stayed at my house on Friday night, so this would have been much easier had they stayed Saturday night as well, but texts work. I texted him about the song, wondering if he was the one who told me about U2 closing with the song at concerts and what the experience was like with the band leaving the stage one-by-one and the crowd singing the chorus. My memory was bad. He hasn't seen them close with the song.
But he does know the history of all things U2. After he filled me in - the band closing with the song at Red Rocks in 1983, which was recorded as a live album with the crowd singing the chorus as the final moment on the album, is one of the most iconic U2 moments in the band's long history - I had one more question for him. As I listed to the song on loop, at times I felt hope and at times I felt despair. What did the song mean to him?
He texted back that he was on a walk with his wife and also on the phone with his brother Doug and he'd have to get back to me later. That's not good enough when I'm trying to capture a moment in my writing, apparently, because I pressed him for a short answer since my article might be finished by the time his walk was over. He obliged:
Doug, Ann, and I agree. Lament. Tired of waiting. But also praise at the same time. Resignation. Hope. Tired.
I have to be careful here. U2 wrote the album War about the conflict in Northern Ireland. I'm talking about being an Illinois football fan. Our lament is in no way life and death.
But the song - "I waited patiently" followed immediately by "how long?" - is something I feel. That specific conflict is our very specific experience. I mean, even the actual Psalm 40 begins with the phrase "I waited patiently for the Lord" and ends with "You are my help and my deliverer, do not delay".
Nothing explains my feeling staring at those taillights last night better than Dave's final three words explaining his interpretation of this song: Resignation. Hope. Tired. I wasn't mad. It didn't "mean" anything other than "this will probably take longer than we hoped". This game reminded us of how hard it will be and probably nothing else.
And once I process that (and after I get a good night's rest), I'm left with two emotions. Lament and praise.
It is so hard to be a dedicated fan of one of the five worst power conference teams in college football the last quarter century. Since 1995 (26 seasons), we've had only five winning seasons: 1999, 2001, 2007, 2010, and 2011. Five winning seasons, twenty one losing seasons. Maybe I shouldn't be referencing Psalm 40 here. Maybe I should have gone with Lamentations 3:
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
Year after year we show up, and year after year we lose to schools like UTSA. It doesn't really matter that they're "really good this year" - my Big Ten university keeps losing to tiny schools from tiny conferences. As a fanbase, we are constantly put in our place. Perhaps a better way to put that: we're constantly told to go sit in the corner. Everyone else gets to go to recess. We have to write sentences.
This is the part that is so hard to explain to people who haven't lived our experience. We just want to be able to wear orange shirts on a College Colors Day Friday without the feeling of dread that after Saturday's game we'll have to deal with Monday. Some will snicker. Some will console. Most will "why do you even care at this point"?
I've never had an answer for that question. The best way I can explain it is with "Illinois football chose me" language. It doesn't make sense to apply this much of my energy towards a team that rarely pays me back. I can objectively look at a Detroit Lions fan and say "just give it up, man" while also knowing there's no way I'll ever change. I'll simply believe that every new coach is going to turn it around because I have no other choice.
But still I wonder. How long to sing this song?
There's no way to possibly explain my feeling when walking through Lot 31 before a game. I could point to any lot, I guess, but Lot 31 seems to have the most long-timers. So many people set up in the exact same spot every Saturday. Just by the way that parking passes are distributed, the largest presence of "I have no choice - this team chose me 40 years ago so here I am" tailgates, at least by my observation, are in Lot 31.
When I walk through that lot, I feel so good. I can't describe it. I've explained it before using the bee girl analogy from Blind Melon's No Rain video. The girl in the bee costume is laughed at for her dance at the beginning. She wanders the town trying to fit in. And then, at the end, she finds a field full of people in bee costumes. When I walk through Lot 31, I'm in a field full of bee costumes.
The emotion there, of course, is belonging. We all long to feel it. And because of our very unique experience - 21 losing seasons out of the last 26 - the season ticket holders are basically whittled down to those who would say "this program chose me". Which means that when I stand in that window and look at all the taillights, I'm filled with this strange gratitude. I'm so happy that this is our thing.
When we're good again - and we will be, because I cannot accept anything else - I don't think I'll have this same feeling. I'll be happier, and my Sunday mornings will be brighter, and your Monday morning meeting will be a lot more fun, but it won't be this feeling. I'll say it like this:
The stadium was half-full last night. When it's full - and I cannot wait for it to be full again - it won't be the same. It will be half "I chose Illinois football" and half "Illinois football chose me". We'll welcome the "I chose Illinois football" crowd with open arms, and the tailgate size will double, and it will be incredibly fun. But it won't be this feeling. This feeling of having found other bee costumes.
Perhaps this is the coach who will get us there. The early returns have been great. Yes, this loss stings, but this is game 2. By game 40-something we'll start to see if we have a program. I really, really hope that the culture built in the State Farm Center the last four years is the same culture built in Memorial Stadium the next four years. UCLA fans got to see that begin to play out last night, and I'm ready to walk out of the stadium feeling like that. Until then, I'm waiting patiently for the Bret to build a program that "many will see - many will see and fear".
(Sorry - I know that joke is probably right on the edge for some of you. Once I saw that one of the lyrics was "many will see and fear", I had to use it.)
I'm patient. I'm waiting. I've waited for 25 years so let's be honest, I'll wait forever at this point. I don't know why, but I still feel fortunate to be part of this fanbase. When it happens - and it's going to happen - it's going to be incredible.
Until then, I'm trapped between lament and praise. I'm trapped in the feeling of this song. Perhaps the best way to end this post is to have you watch a video of the song being performed live in Chicago. Perhaps you were there. Perhaps you knew someone there. But when I think about Illinois football fandom right now, this is where I am. I will sing the new song of the Bielema era. But as I'm patiently waiting, I'm thinking about all the failures of the past. Rebuild after rebuild after rebuild, and now a game reminding us of what it's going to look like for a while. So, uh, one question:
How long to sing this song?