"This was the best punk rock band ever, because they actually invented something."
-- Bono, on the Ramones
Bass Notes: U2's Adam Clayton on Geography, Spirituality and Rock 'n' Roll
The Montreal Gazette,
May 26, 2001
Bassist Adam Clayton is on the line from Milwaukee, and by way of introduction, we're talking about the previous night's show. Clayton is sure of the tone of the Elevation Tour -- "It's been going kind of, I guess, amazingly" -- but not of where its last installment was played.
"Could it have been Columbus? Does that ring a bell?" After realizing he was asking me where U2 had played the previous night, Clayton deferentially sought out a passing member of the U2 party to confirm that it had been Pittsburgh, proving 1) the road really is a blur and 2) the U2 bassist is an uncommonly grounded rock star. And while 1) is a banal truism of rock 'n' roll interviews, 2) is rarer than a backstage pass.
When UltraFame is your daily suspended reality and you are so wealthy that money is an abstraction; when your lead singer calls Clinton "Bill" and Blair "Tony" and numbers them among his personal speed-dial friends (no word on Chretien, "Johnny"), then you have ceased to be a private citizen and are likely a member of U2. And of them, Clayton is perhaps the ideal interview. I ran into Bono on Ste. Catherine St. in 1985, right after a roof-raising Forum show, and in the brief minutes of our chat before the hordes ran over him, he was unguarded and personable. Fifteen years later, an interview with him would be great quote, as we say, but necessarily part of a persona. Edge? Gracious, levelheaded, but unlikely to discuss his belly-dancer wife. Larry Mullen Jr.? He's the drummer. No, Mullen would be interesting, but he does wear the scowl of the tough interview.
Clayton has always seemed best positioned to comment on the body and the soul of U2, which are entwined as never before on a tour that brings them closer to their fans than they have been in a decade -- the relative intimacy of the arena vs. the stadium -- and on an album whose high-minded precepts of peace, love, fidelity and courage are ambitiously packaged in cinematic, accessible rock any earthling can understand.
Why ask Clayton? Well, he's available...but he's also approachable -- looking bemused in every photo ever taken of the band, up to and including his brief role as a cabbie in the superhero video-game video for "Elevation" starring Angelina Jolie (literally, "Angelina Pretty").
As bassist, he is the least posterized band member. He was reputedly the least dedicated "Christian" of them in the early 1980s and therefore less zealous about their sense of mission. Moreover, he was supposedly the band piss-tank, the most cosmopolitan, lapsarian and therefore sullied U2 member. And yet, while he does "have difficulty with the way (spirituality) can be portrayed sometimes," he also believes what his lead singer has said about the Elevation Tour: God is in the house.
"I don't quite know what it is...but I definitely know when it's there. It doesn't happen every night, but some nights there's a sense of community and fellowship. And people have said there's a spiritual aspect to what's happening in the house."
Clayton calls these arena shows some of the best U2 has ever played. Stadium operas lose the "light and shade, the subtlety of the songs. You need to work on a different level."
They've done it, of course. I have in front of me a photograph of Clayton in an orange hoodie tunic and white goggles playing a yellow space-bass from the Las Vegas launch of the PopMart tour. Clayton laughs.
"That Pop tour was...great on many levels, but I think we made a few mistakes along the way. I guess we should have known better. But we didn't give the record long enough for people to get to know it. And we didn't introduce people to it in the way that we did this record."
The success looks automatic in hindsight. U2 had conceived and executed All That You Can't Leave Behind as an album with 11 potential singles. Still, the liftoff of "Beautiful Day" and the three Grammys surprised everyone. U2 remains gigantic, challenged by their own celebrity to maintain substance in the material world. "Very little's changed. I think that what has changed in those 15 years (since the first Forum show) is there's been an increase in celebrity," by which he means the machinery of celebrity. There are more people who need U2 to be famous and magical, perhaps at every level, from the aficionados to the political fixers. Bono was "the right man" for the Debt Relief movement because he has "a clear head about the value of (his) fame, but he's also very good at analyzing the situation and going, 'Why can't you do this?' and getting in there and slugging it out with politicians."
Meanwhile, Clayton listens to the "really great" new R.E.M. record, and the Depeche record, and Stereo MCs. He is the unmarried U2, unless something's happened in the few days leading up to the interview. Nothing's happened in the few days. He is uniquely positioned to salute the commitment of the wives and mothers whose men are away waging rock. It is "incredibly hard, but not as hard as it used to be." That includes Clayton, who gave up drinking five years ago.
"Touring nowadays...you know that you don't wanna stay up till 4 o'clock in the morning drinking. And it sounds kind of boring, but you really make a lot better use of the day if you're not staying up till 4 o'clock in the morning. And there's only so many towns you can do that in anyway.
"I lost that particular battle. I think when you get into that cycle of partying -- and when you're in a band you can party much longer than anyone else in your generation can. For a start, you don't necessarily have to get up and go to work first thing in the morning. People will make sure you do what you've got to do the next day."
The decision to quit "kind of brought me back down to earth, and now, having gone through all that, I definitely prefer it the way it is. I feel much more focused, much more...useful."
But does it create a rift between Clayton and the other U2s, who presumably enjoy the odd Irish Mist? No. Besides, "I think whatever the others would do nowadays" he says, laughing, "could never possibly be as bad as what I did to myself."
He is all the more aware of how remarkable their success is. There is no space here to discuss the achievement of surviving two decades intact in an age when few bands last five years. We can, however, discuss how All That has introduced the band to a "whole new generation" of younger fans who want to "get physical" at a show.
"You know, really what we wanted to do when we were talking about doing this tour and playing indoors was to feel that contact again with the fans that we'd kinda missed for the last 10 years playing stadium shows. Whilst in Europe a lot of stadium shows have general admission, in America stadium shows are reserved seating. And you don't necessarily get the most enthusiastic people up the front. You get the people who reserved those seats."
With their American Express cards.
Here, money is less abstract, more a measure of the compromises a band makes in the arena of global stardom. Clayton is necessarily aware of the Elevated ticket prices on this tour. By comparison with other acts, U2 remains a bargain, despite the reader's gagging at that disgracefully relativist comment. However, the Elevation Tour has been designed to bring some fans closer to the group this time, dropping them into a cutout in the stage, closer to Bono and the messianic pulse of the music. That's good thinking. Should God really prove to be in the house, you want Him to have a crack at a decent seat.
© Montreal Gazette, 2001. All rights reserved.