"I think all this thing about plastic surgery and pop stars obsessed with the way they look . . . they're kinda cuttin' bits off themselves, you know."
Band of the Year: Rock's Unbreakable Heart
After more than two decades, U2's music and message were more relevant than ever this year
January 01, 2002
"I always believed that music is a transcendent thing, a healing thing," says Bono. "I just didn't think that I would have to depend on it as much as I did this year."
The Elevationair jet cruises through the October Canadian sky. Just minutes ago, U2 were onstage in Montreal's Molson Centre, driving home the second show of the third leg of their monumental Elevation tour. Now, 29,000 feet up, in the front row of the band's 44-seat private 727 on the hour-long flight to Toronto, Bono slouches, shoes off, and in a voice barely above a whisper, reflects on a year marked by triumph (the stunning success of U2's tenth album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, and the accompanying tour) and painful loss (including the death of his father in August and of one of his musical idols, Joey Ramone, who spent his last minutes listening to a U2 song).
"I think if we hadn't been on tour, if we'd been at home, this would have been a very hard year for me," says the singer, who just this morning sneaked in a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and a visit to the Montreal International Film Festival with director Wim Wenders and still made it to soundcheck in time. "I'm grateful to this band and grateful to our audience, but more so to the God that's in the music -- whatever piece of God you find."
It's been a remarkable run for Ireland's Finest. The multiplatinum All That You Can't Leave Behind, celebrated as a return to form for the band when it was released in October 2000, stayed steady on the charts for the entire year. After U2 launched the album with a series of riveting TV appearances, it spun off four singles: "Beautiful Day," "Elevation," "Walk On" and "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." U2 won three Grammys this year for "Beautiful Day," and it's safe to assume the album will pick up some more nominations in 2002. At the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, they were given the Video Vanguard Award for lifetime achievement. In addition to his campaign for third world debt relief, Bono helped organize the all-star benefit remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," personally corralling a new generation of stars from Britney Spears to Fred Durst to Nelly in an effort to raise money for worldwide AIDS relief and the United Way's September 11th Fund.
But mostly, there was the tour. U2 played more than a hundred shows in 2001, performing in front of some two million people. After the massive spectacles of their last two global operations (1992's Zoo TV tour and 1997's PopMart extravaganza), they stripped down to a basic stage design and a set list that showcased the full scope and force of their 23 years playing together with the same lineup. Bono, 41, guitarist the Edge, 40, bassist Adam Clayton, 41, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., 40, schooled bands half their age about what a rock show could really accomplish.
And then there was September 11. In the wake of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, even people who hadn't thought about the band in years began to rediscover the power of U2. In a horrible flash, the depth and substance of the band's work shone in vivid contrast to the superficial gloss and thud of the last decade of pop music. The sense of community and conscience that always defined U2 felt necessary, rather than just admirable. Hopeful songs like "Walk On" and "Peace on Earth" took on new relevance and became reassuring presences on the radio. All That You Can't Leave Behind started climbing back up the charts. The shows became, incredibly, even more emotional and uplifting. There was no longer any question about who the Band of the Year really was.
As the latest go-round of the Elevation marathon kicked off, one month after the attacks, the members of U2 spent several days -- on their plane, backstage, and in their Toronto hotel -- looking back on the tumultuous year, and on the unprecedented longevity of their career as true rock 'n' roll heroes.
Spin: Does it feel different on stage now than it did a month ago?
The Edge: Every lyric takes on a whole new meaning, especially a song like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," which we hadn't played for a good few years. And a song like "Peace on Earth" -- when we finished our record, I was surprised at how certain themes were so strong, a certain sense of mortality, of trying to cope with loss. We shied away from some of those songs when we put the tour together, but now that side of the album has new relevance.
Mullen: "Beautiful Day" takes on a whole different meaning, 'cause that was the thing on September 11 -- it was a beautiful morning. It could have been a video, the beautiful day being destroyed.
Bono: There's a lot of stuff that goes through your head, and the songs can completely change their meanings. Something like "With or Without You" becomes about your audience. It's wild how a song can change. I really learned that from listening to Sinatra, because he didn't write lyrics, but he turned them on their head. Like one of the last versions he ever sang of "My Way" -- it's a duet with Pavarotti, and it's no longer a boast, it's an apology. Same lyric.
Does the threat of terrorism feel familiar at all after growing up in Ireland?
Bono: When I was 13, I used to go through the city center in Dublin to school. I'd take a bus through town every day, to record shops. That's where I first heard the Stooges and all that stuff. There was a little coffee shop, and one day I stopped by like I often did, and then I left, and an hour and a half later the coffee shop was blown to bits. In that sense, it's not as much of a shock for us, but it has clearly altered the mental and emotional landscape of America. There's a new fear in the room, and America has always been about faith -- faith in yourself, faith in an idea of God -- to a point where you might walk all over somebody sometimes -- and it's just different in Ireland. That's not how we think.
The Edge: I fully expect people to get back to normal quick. That was always what was amazing to me about Belfast, because whatever threat we were experiencing in Dublin, London or Birmingham with the IRA bombings in the past, to go up to Belfast or Derry, you really were in the middle of it there. What was amazing was how normal life was. People just got on with it, even as they were stepping around the paratroopers with their shopping.
Bono: Whenever you see this kind of darkness, there is extraordinary opportunity for the light to burn brighter. Not to sound too corny, but there's a real opportunity here for a whole new way of seeing the world. I think in the history books this will be seen as the end of America as an island -- the isolationism and the sense that you didn't actually need the rest of the world. Relatively few Americans even have passports -- you were an island entirely unto yourselves, and now that's no longer the case. You need to be able to get on with the rest of the world because your might is so powerless against this kind of hatred -- it's a whole new thing. There are some very smart people who have already figured out that the only resolution here is to deal with the root of this, which is abject poverty. So the hard questions that have to be asked and answered are going to bring in a new era, a good karma for this country, and I'm really excited about that.
Is is frustrating that there are really no young bands that have taken up your sense of mission for rock 'n' roll?
Bono: One of my favorite groups is the Beasties, and their journey is really one to watch, from just having fun with their own middle-classness to a growing awareness of the way the world is. I mean, we were freaks. Somebody once said, comparing us to Van Morrison, that most people start off writing songs about girls and get to writing songs about God. We did it totally backwards!
Clayton: American music is kind of odd because there are certain times when it seems political, and then suddenly it doesn't seem to recognize politics at all. But maybe that just represents typical culture. You have something on the scale of Marvin Gaye, very much writing for a generation, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And then on the other end of the scale, there's nothing.
Mullen: I think it's much harder now for bands because, culturally, things have changed. In the last ten years, people have been so affluent and not worried, wanting a bigger house with two cars, and then a bigger house with three cars, and then a holiday home. That's what's been going on. So anybody coming in and trying to mess with that has not been taken in -- including U2 over the last ten years. U2 have been in a kind of a wilderness, to an extent. We came back with a record that was about the band. It was clear about what it was -- it was 11 songs on a record, and they were carefully chosen, and we hadn't done that in a long time.
You also acknowledged that it was going to take work to get this album across to today's audience.
Clayton: With this record, we took the attitude that the business had changed an awful lot and we knew we couldn't just do the things that we relied on 15 or 20 years ago. So we did TV, we did TRL, and we enjoyed doing it.
Bono: One thing that's striking about the tour is that the demographic is getting younger and younger. The real surprise, even before September 11, was that a song like "Walk On" would get as much reaction as the old hits. It was a shock for us. The album does lack a bit of some of the things that I think our band does [well], some of the anarchic, slightly abstract things; it might be a little too tightly constructed. But we could feel the lure of progressive rock coming and thought, we've been there, we've gone through that, let's go right into the deep structure of pop music. It was Larry who actually said to me at the end of Pop, in a very Larry kind of way, "Next year, why don't we actually make a pop album, instead of just calling it Pop?"
Mullen: We were very conscious of wanting to be on the radio. We wanted to compete with what was going on around us, with the boy bands and with the Christinas and all that. And why not? There's no point being in the ghetto. Unless we're making music that's vital and that people can hear, we're wasting our time. We play nine or ten songs from the new album in the set, and that's pretty extraordinary. They fit in a way that's seamless. It's not that they sound the same, it's just they share the same spirit.
So many people have gone back to the album since September 11, to songs like "Walk On" and "Peace on Earth," on which you sing, "Sick of hearing again and again that there's gonna be peace on Earth."
Bono: Now that's a bitter little song! I think people get the bitterness now, 'cause before I think they thought it was lovey-dovey, "wouldn't it be nice," as opposed to "fuck off, God!" Which I hope is even stronger coming out of the mouth of a believer.
Clayton: There was an emotional depth that we felt comfortable with, and a lot of that was about friends and family. It was created against the backdrop of Bono's father having a terminal illness. So all that was on the album, but people that didn't have a recent tragedy in their lives weren't necessarily going to get that. And somehow the events in New York and D.C. have actually focused people on that aspect of the record that is about loss, which is amazing. You couldn't have planned it.
Bono: I think the Dalai Lama said, "If you want to consider life, start with death" -- the journey toward enlightenment starts with that. And that's what happened to me when my mother died when I was a kid in school, and at my grandfather's funeral. I was this really confident kid, aggro and smartarse, a freckled face -- I looked like a baked bean when I was a kid, I really did. Then a nose started to appear. It was a bit of a shock -- out of this baked bean came this nose. I was a little alarmed, and then this chin came, until the two of them finally called it quits. I had the courage of somebody who didn't know anything, who didn't know fear yet, and then came the cold water of your home turning into a house and your relationship to women changing forever. I was 14. But now I see it was a great gift to me. Hopefully most people can avoid that until they're older, but some people have it young. I don't know what age New York City is.
You came into this project saying, "We want the job of best band in the world back." And here you are, Spin's band of the year. Does that feel fulfilling, or has so much changed this year that it maybe doesn't carry the thrill it would in the past?
Bono: It's the most extraordinary feeling. We pushed our audience so far, and we pushed ourselves so far that we were almost unrecognizable to our closest friends. I am so proud of the work along the way, of an album like [1993's] Zooropa and that tour. We took our position as far as any band that was big in the mainstream ever had, and I am really proud of that. I always wanted to follow a band that would really push it like Bowie used to do, and I think we've done that. But we didn't push so far that there were only a few people left in the room.
Mullen: There's no sense of "mission accomplished," but there's a sense of real appreciation, like, "This is really amazing, and it's only the beginning." We're working on what we're gonna do next to consolidate what we've achieved. We'll continue on and screw up and maybe fail, and then we'll get back up again. But it means a different thing now, because there's nobody out there doing this. I love the new R.E.M. record, and I love Radiohead, Pearl Jam -- those people are our contemporaries, and I want them with us, and I believe it will happen -- it's just that this is our moment, and maybe next year it will be somebody else's.
But Pearl Jam made a very active decision that they didn't want to be the biggest band in the world. R.E.M. did the same. Is it hard to maintain that ambition when there's no real competition and you've got to find it in yourselves?
The Edge: I think complacency is really the thing you have to watch out for, the assumption that just because you had one successful record that you suddenly think it's easy [laughs]. Every time we go into the studio to make a record, it's the same intensely difficult process. I think if you go in knowing that, it helps. We've survived a few less-than-perfect endeavors, be they albums or tours or whatever, whereas maybe for other groups that might have completely destroyed them as a band.
Mullen: I think a lot of that comes from Bono, because he will put his ass so far out there. He's got an extraordinary capacity to deal with blows and to rebound, an incredible instinct. There are very few people like that, and there are very few bands who are prepared to take the risks that U2 takes, and that's because of the way he is.
Bono: When a politician meets me, it's really our audience that he's afraid of. It's the constituency of rock 'n' roll, which is probably people ages 15 to 30. They're terrified of that because that's the floating vote. After 30, they say people make up their minds. So that's the bracket that can shift everything. [Irish politics and history have grown] out of the imagination of playwrights and painters as much as from politicians. And I would like to see us be the salt in the process. In every Irish pub there's somebody up against a wall and somebody like me haggling in their face, or it might be me up against the wall. Where we grew up it was my father at the table on Christmas Day, with all of us just shouting our heads off at each other. I got prepared for being in a band because that's what being in a band is.
Have you been writing at all on tour?
Bono: I just started writing two days ago. I went to Bali for six days. I really haven't had time to grieve for my father, who died a few weeks back, so I went to this place, and I was just really moved by these very religious people who give offerings, like, every hour of the day. Their whole life is a sort of ceremony, and they seem happy to see you because I think they know that they're teaching you. So I just started writing down five or six songs, mostly lyrics. I worked on a song about my dad that Noel Gallagher and I had started, called "One Step Closer to Knowing," and I think that's going to be very special. Another one is called "Electrical Storm," and another is called "You Can't Give Your Heart Away," and there's this thing called "A Man's a Man," for a movie called Gangs of New York, which Martin Scorsese is directing.
After the tour ends, do you think you'll go straight back into the studio?
Bono:Yeah, I think we've been given this new audience, and I think it's time to take this thing, this spirit, and keep the momentum. But with the same songwriting discipline -- 'cause this has been a journey into songwriting all over again.
The Edge: That's what he always says. No, I don't think so. I think there's a certain energy that can sometimes carry you from one project to the next, but I think at the end of this tour we need to actually take some time. When you're writing songs, it's about input, about what you're listening to, what you're studying -- that all comes through. On the road, in some ways you're disconnected. I think the next record needs to develop into something distinct. Right now, I think it will be a guitar record.
But you have to say that!
The Edge: But actually, I didn't for so many years. That's the funny thing. Really, until quite recently, most of my guitar playing was an attempt to obliterate the conventions of guitar playing. But I'm very excited about the sound of electric guitar again, the raw sound. I think the guitar as an instrument is really about to come back into its own.
At this point U2 is in totally uncharted territory. There's never been a band that's stayed so vital for so long.
Bono: I don't think it's that extraordinary, actually. I just think it's extraordinary that more people haven't taken it up. Because if I were a novelist, or a photographer, or a film director, the audience would just be kicking in. This is roughly the age Scorsese probably was when he made Raging Bull.
The Edge: It's always been the same goal for us. It's about writing the perfect record. In the end, that kind of fuels everything. I don't think U2 is going to go on forever. I don't know how much longer we will go on. But while we are still working well together and while everyone's still up for it, we're just gonna keep plugging away, because it's not gonna be around forever. To be part of a great rock 'n' roll band is so rare, and if we've learned anything over the last 20 years, it's that fact. None of us is taking that for granted right now.
How do you think the four of you have been able to stay intact as a band for over 20 years?
The Edge: Maybe because we were friends before we were in a band. We're not like so many groups you hear about where the members don't ever talk offstage or out of the studio. It's not like that with us -- quite the opposite. If we end up at a party, at the end of the night you'll probably find the four of us off in a corner hanging out. Sometimes, in the middle of a show, it just dawns on me, wow, I better really enjoy this moment because it's amazing. It is amazing! Those moments happen quite a lot these days. It's also a weird thing, that a bunch of guys our age are essentially in the same street gang they got into when they were 17. There's just a very, very deep connection between the four of us. And I hope there always will be, whatever we end up doing. We've come this far.
Bono: One really exciting thing is that we're a bunch of musicians who don't sound like anything else in the world when we play together. Remember that when you listen to the radio -- take the singer out and ask yourself, "How much of what I'm hearing sounds like they're the only people who could make this music?" Just ask that one question and the musical landscape changes drastically.
Mullen: It's inexplicable. There's no way to try and put it in a box and say, "This is the formula." It's about something much bigger than the four of us, even bigger than music. It's outside of that. And that's kind of scary, in its own way. What is this? What's going on? Sometimes I feel like it's an out-of-control spinning top -- you start watching it, thinking, well, I wonder when it's going to stop.
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