"It's got a really spongy sound. We've found that when you're men, the slower tempos can be funky."
-- Bono, on "Elevation"
Bono Off The Record
Propaganda, Issue 9,
January 01, 1989
Bono is sitting in the boardroom at U2's Windmill Lane headquarters in Dublin. It is late afternoon in early winter and he has just finished a "business meeting" with Edge and Paul McGuinness, the kind of meetings of which there are more and more but in which he is getting "less and less involved."
1988 has nearly run out. Rattle and Hum the double album is in the shops and in the record books, the fastest-selling album of all time, beating Michael Jackson's Bad which itself had beaten The Joshua Tree. Nobody was cheering it into the record books though, says Bono, the aim is to be the best not merely the biggest. Rattle and Hum the Book -- of the Film of the Record -- is also in the shops and also in the best-seller lists. It is the first U2-associated book that the band have expressed unreserved pleasure with. Rattle and Hum the Film has opened to rave reviews and long queues of fans eager to see the band without the disadvantage of sitting through a warm-up act. They exit the cinema after the showing only to queue up again for the next performance.
Bono, like the rest of the band, has been to the charity premieres of the film -- in aid of Amnesty International -- in Dublin, in London, in Los Angeles and in Madrid. After a year of living in America "doing post-production" on the film with director Phil Joanou and getting the album together with producer Jimmy Iovine the band are finally back in Ireland. Back home. This time for a proper break. Despite preliminary discussions about going out on the road in New Zealand, Australia and Japan in the spring, they have decided to leave it until the autumn. They want to be ready not just willing when the campaign resumes.
"As boring as it may sound," explains Bono, "I'm just into reading and writing at the moment." He's been reading Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, Charles Bukowski and John Fantay. He's done some traveling too, along the way discovering the music of Guy Clarke, Lee Clayton, Johnny Cash -- with whom he spent a day and began to write a song -- and John Prine. But no discovery was more exciting than an old bluesman in Memphis.
"In Memphis recently Adam and I went out into the cotton fields and found this off limits juke-joint one Sunday afternoon where they serve moonshine and play the blues.
"We found one of the old bluesmen there who didn't leave to go to Chicago like Muddy Waters, BB King and the others. He was playing in this shed, this kind of dwelling right on the edge of the cotton field. It was an extraordinary music."
He also cites appreciating recent work by Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and the Subterraneans.
"But I feel very cut off from the present because I'm locked in the past and also, in a weird way, the future. I've been listening to a lot of psychedelic music, the warping of sounds, the more avant-garde music of John Cage and Philip Glass."
Meanwhile for the benefit of Propaganda, which he describes as "obviously the best fan magazine in the world," Bono has suspended his recent "no interviews at the moment" policy and found time to talk about the present, the past and the future and U2's role in the big picture.
His words are often halting, uncertain and far more considered than usual. "I'm not as verbal about the music anymore. I feel it's all still inside me and that's why I'm writing and writing. And if I'm writing then I can't really talk."
But if he is far less verbal in conversation than before, he is far more articulate in his songwriting, which is where we start.
Propaganda: Judging by the new material on Rattle and Hum and the continuing trend to put new songs on B-sides of the single releases, you have been doing a lot of songwriting since last year?
Yes, in one way it's a way of withdrawing from the megadom, the helter-skelter, the hurdy-gurdy of it all...it's trying to simplify it and just bring it down to three and a half minutes, to a song. Songwriting is the one area that I -- that we -- have complete control of. Nobody intrudes into that place where you write a song, where you write words...so I find that has become a kind of safe-haven. I've had to simplify it all, just get it down to the song. It's the one thing that you have completely to yourself.
What are you doing now you're home again?
Well writing song yes, but also trying to catch up on a lot of people that I lost touch with. I have a lot of people around here that are really close friends like Guggi who is a painter or Gavin Friday who has his own album coming out...that kind of thing.
Apart from the hullabaloo of the premieres have you been to see the film privately?
The first time I went to see it was a private screening in Los Angeles about a month before it was released. That's when I saw the film with my eyes open, most of the rest of the time I see it with my eyes closed. I look but I don't see it.
But in Los Angeles recently me and Adam went again, with cap and glasses on we just went into the back of a cinema that was showing it.
Was it like being at your first ever U2 gig, being in the audience when you were on stage?
It was an odd experience because I've never been to a U2 concert. I think it's the closest I'll ever get to a U2 concert. It was great because there were two beautiful black girls sitting in front of us who had no idea that we were sitting behind them. And every time Adam came on they just screamed and jumped on each other with excitement. It was hysterical. I was jumping on him.
In Spain at the Madrid premiere they just about tore the cinema down, it was unbelievable. I love that about the Spanish, I love it. They out-riot the Irish any day, that was wonderful. But the way I've seen it best has been with just ten people in a small cinema, before it came out and I really enjoyed it.
Would you change anything or is it gone now?
It's gone now. I think we were pretty uncompromising in the making of the movie. A lot of people would have liked it to have gone various other different ways. It could have been like the Monkees with the outtakes -- there's some ridiculous outtakes. It could have been an in-depth psychoanalysis of the band.
It could have been those things and people could have got to know us more as people but we felt very strongly that this was about us as musicians first and foremost.
A British film critic said that from the band's few comments in the film he longed to know more about your views as individuals.
We thought we were better at playing music than we were at talking. It was like we could have three minutes of rap or three minutes of "Bullet the Blue Sky" and we just thought we were better at "Bullet the Blue Sky."
Also we are feeling a little overexposed in a way and we were kind of withdrawing a bit and hiding behind our music more. That is after all what's most important to us. We didn't want to focus too much on our personalities. We also felt that it was cool that Larry came through more because he's normally trapped behind the drum kit so it seemed to make sense that he came up front.
It also took the focus off you, the film affirmed that this is a band.
That's correct, that was first and foremost in our thinking behind it. I felt that my say is when I sing, I write the words. So let Larry do some talking for a change, let Edge do some talking.
Joanou turned out to be quite an inspired choice to direct, there's even been talk of another collaboration, perhaps you doing music for his next film.
We haven't talked much about another project but I really enjoyed working with him. He certainly has seen the dark side as well as the light side of U2. We're pretty paranoid people. When you start filming us we're a bit like the Indians who feel like you're taking our soul. We're always asking "Who's the white man with the camera?" We wanted to scalp him half the time.
We're right to be a bit suspicious but he won us over because he wanted to make a film about the music. Because we feel that is what's extraordinary about U2. And I think he has made a remarkable film, I don't know how he did it.
You once described Blood Red Sky as the end of U2 part one. Is Rattle and Hum the end of U2 part two?
Yeah. We might have a full stop to come. It's just about there. Maybe we'll release a single or something that will finish it.
You talked recently about the Prince approach to recording, to put more and more records out. You're also writing constantly. Do you want to get U2 albums pouring out?
I do. I want to make another record and another. I also want to play. I have a feeling we'll play this year, definitely Australia, New Zealand and Japan but perhaps back through England and Scotland as well. I don't think there will be an LP out by then but I think we might put some songs out by then.
We're in kind of a reckless period. I mean we're not carefully planning things. We're being a lot more careless about the design of U2. We want to be able to be more spontaneous. There's no grand plan. The idea is just to make records and put them out, and play the places we want to play.
Back in the early days you talked about being the biggest band in the world. What do you do once you've become that?
Being the biggest band in the world is not as important as being the best. The best being the most vital, the most reflective of what's going on...that's all part of being the best.
Tunnel of Love, for example, is miles better than Born in the U.S.A. but only sold about one tenth as many copies. In a way Rattle and Hum could have been that too, after The Joshua Tree, but unfortunately everybody likes it.
Yes, true, we made it hard for people to love, you couldn't put out a more mixed up record. I mean we really worked hard at that. We worked hard at messing it up for the masses and they still went out and bought it. It is an amazing feeling that the audience is kind of as hip as you are.
When "Desire" went to number one in England it seemed all wrong. For a song like this to be on Top of the Pops, to be on pop radio stations, it seemed like interference from another channel.
I don't know how that happened but it did the trick. Yes, we really wound up the compression on that.
Have you got America out of the way yet?
The only problem is looking for a place that isn't America. You've just got to turn on the television here and it's like living in America. Same as when you go to England...we're all kind of living in America.
Will another culture influence the group so greatly, will there ever be an African U2 period?
Well it's fair to say that the blues is not just an American art form. It's African, re-interpreted. Three chords are Irish, Scottish. But Africa and South America and these places...I can feel a widening of our vision musically speaking. We just got caught up in this blues and gospel it seems so alive, and you just feel your way.
A couple of years back you were with T-Bone Burnett and he played you some of his songs and then asked you to play some of yours. And you realised that yours didn't work like that. Now you could do that, you could play him yours.
Yeah and I do. We really enjoy that. In fact only last week I was in a bar in Nashville with Cowboy Jack Clement and Adam. There was a guy up on stage with greased back hair, about fifty or maybe a forty-year-old man who has been through a lot more than most. He is up there playing songs, a famous country songwriter, playing to a bar of fifteen people and his song was "If I were in your shoes I'd walk out on me."
Anyway, Cowboy Jack got up and he played some songs. And myself and Adam got up and played some songs to this fifteen, twenty people who had no idea that we were in a band. We played "Love Rescue Me." I got down from the platform and this old Indian was standing at the bar. He called me over and he said: "D'you write that tune?" I said "Yeah." He said, "Good song...but you can't play it."
I loved it, it was great. He loved the songs but just thought we couldn't play them, that we really messed them up and he was just hoping it wasn't any writer that he respected. The audience liked them too even though we couldn't play them.
What have you been writing recently?
Well I've written a whole pile of stuff, a whole pile of prose poems: "Elvis is alive, We're dead," that's one of them. I've written a song for Nina Simone called "Love is Blindness but I Don't Want to See." I wrote a gospel tune for the Neville Brothers called "One Love." If somebody's music inspires me I write them a song.
You've talked of stages of writing.
To see like a songwriter is the easiest. Everyone can be in a situation and you see behind the surface of things, or see a person's motive for saying something. Hearing like a writer is a lot harder, you've got to really listen. Thinking like a writer is the next step and then you are. I find that I'm more interested in writing now than in just writing songs. I have a lot of unfinished work. I'm not saying where I am in that. I think I know where I am in that but I think there are these stages of development in a writer.
Would you consider sending your prose to a publisher under a pseudonym?
Yeah. Definitely. That'd be the test and I don't doubt that I'll do that at some stage. I'm sure that'll be the last I hear of it as well.
Do you like Propaganda?
I really like it. I think it's one of the best laid out magazines apart from anything else. It also makes me laugh. I never seem to know what's going in and so I'm as anxious as anyone to read what Edge etc. thinks of me. It's obviously the best magazine of its kind in the world. I have never seen a better one. And as soon as I do you're sacked! I really do think it's the best. I'm actually really proud of Propaganda.
There are hundreds of U2 fanzines around the world. You see some sometimes. Do you have any favorites?
My favorite at the moment is Adam. Because they don't like any other member of the band other than his lordship. I'm a big fan of that magazine.
Do you like U2 fans?
Yeah. I married one. I'm best friends with another. Also those fans who have the most to say send letters and we get to read the more interesting letters. I usually get the ones that people have put a little time into. I think real U2 fans have a very clear idea of what we're about. Probably clearer than we do.
What I love about a lot of the U2 fanzines is that they enjoy the imperfections of the band too, they love the weak side of U2 as well as the strong side. They enjoy our failings, they enjoy the mistakes we make as much as our successes. When you hit the nail on the head it's wonderful but when you hit your finger it maybe says more about you.
Many people want to set up a myth around U2
But I don't think U2 fans are a part of that. I think the media would like to paint a picture of U2 and they have a rather cartoonish image of what U2 are. They have that because they haven't really listened to our music, they haven't really seen what U2 are about. They have this cartoon picture of us. Their image of U2 is based on the singles or a few broad strokes like a TV appearance whereas our audience are on a completely different level. The media occasionally get it right but mostly get it wrong with U2. The fans have a clear picture of what we are because they are immersed in the music.
I think it's just a minority of fans that go overboard. I think the real U2 audience out there know us for what we are.
For example the "spokesman of a generation" stuff about me is not from U2 fans, it's from the media.
A lot of the fans who came to Dublin are just into Dublin, or Ireland or the band or all three. It's a trek. There are stupid people in the world, and -- I hate to say this -- but there are some stupid U2 fans. Some stupid U2 fans think that we have all the answers and that maybe we can save their world. But the majority of U2 fans are much smarter than that.
Joe O'Herlihy was telling me earlier that ten years ago last October he played his first date with you. Can you remember 1978?
We're a lucky band to have found Joe O'Herlihy. Actually '78 was a really exciting time for U2. We had just discovered F sharp minor. So we had the fourth chord and we'd only had three up to then.
It was in '78 that we started actually being able to play in McGonagles in town and just started to discover what U2 were. '77, '78 and '79 are a bit blurred for me. I could be talking about any one of those three years.
Any hankerings to play McGonagles again?
No, I must say I prefer playing Wembley Arena, I really do, that Is no joke. The music never seemed to fit into those places, they always seemed too small. The music seemed too big for McGonagles. We wanted to blow the roof off. I always felt like that. We needed to find a bigger place to play even if there weren't any people there...just to fit the music in.
When I think of '78 I think more of Lypton Village, the whole street gang, of not going to bed at night, of lying on my back on O'Connell Street on my birthday, of a policeman waking me up, of an all-girl punk group called the Boy Scouts, of the Virgin Prunes, of U2, of putting on street performances, of the butt end of punk...
Are you ever surprised to be sitting here ten years on?
I'm very glad that we're not still playing McGonagles. Although I like going there, I much prefer not playing there.
Some of the songs you are writing now could almost be written for small clubs.
Well that's true and it's why we enjoyed playing the Dominion Theatre in London for the Jamaica relief thing in October. It was interesting because the songs fit into the place.
One reviewer said recently that now you're at the top you want to be a garage band again.
It'd be a pretty psychedelic garage I can tell you. The biggest shock I got at the Smile Jamaica thing was the people singing the refrain to "Love Rescue Me." It was an extraordinary thing and it did feel that the song had been around for years...not weeks. Smart lot aren't they?
In the middle years you talked a lot about breaking down the barriers between the audience and the performer. Does that become more difficult the bigger you get?
We actually stopped trying to do that. I stopped trying to do that physically, stopped trying to leave the stage and go into the audience, and actually instead we tried to do it in the songs. That's the best way of breaking down that barrier.
Is it ever a pain being at the top, being a businessman, having to go to meetings, talk about money, discuss merchandise?
Actually I go to less meetings now than I used to. I'm feeling very cut off at the moment from U2 the Organisation, and I find myself seeking refuge in the songs. I think the only way I can feel like that is that I know we have the best possible people in the world working for us.
Everybody in this building makes it possible for us to let go and let them.
The band didn't do many interviews this time around and you did hardly anything.
I wouldn't agree to do an interview unless I really wanted to do it. I just felt this time around that I didn't have much to say...as you have found out. I find now that I'm not quite as good as articulating in conversation what I have to say but I'm better at articulating it in songs. And I find that I'm talking to less people but writing more songs.
Do you ever read the press about U2?
I read some but not all.
When it's about you do you ever recognise yourself in it?
For a period there I didn't know I was the person they were talking about. It really foxed me, it vexed me. I thought , "Who is this guy, I don't think I like him...it's not me."
It's not just the interviews, they are more or less me, but it's the portrayals generally by the press. Whoever that guy was he definitely needed a holiday. It seemed very one-dimensional, a very hollow version of the group that came across. In one interview I'd be deadly serious, in another I'd be completely mischievous. I just realised that people get a clearer glimpse of who you are through the music than through any interview you may do.
Edge says how you've matured as a songwriter. Is it a new approach to songwriting or have you more to say?
I haven't mastered the art of songwriting but I find at the moment that I just enjoy writing words. I've learnt a lot from Bob Dylan and from T-Bone Burnett but I've learnt the most from Edge, Larry and Adam. I write all the time. It's so simple this songwriting, it can't be taken away from you. It's just you, a piece of paper, a pen or just sitting with a guitar or a piano. It seems like sanity amidst all the madness of being with a big group. I'm more rather than less interested in that than anything else.
"Love Rescue Me" was written with Bob Dylan. How did that come about?
What happened with "Love Rescue Me" doesn't often happen but when it does it feels really worthwhile. I just woke up with that song in my head. I said to myself, "Right I'll go have a cup of coffee" and I couldn't. I couldn't even go and have a cup of coffee or have breakfast because it was so strong. I was wishing it wasn't there almost but I thought, well, I'll just start writing it down:
Love Rescue Me From the night's insanity.
That was the first line and I don't think it even made it to the song.
Love Rescue Me Come forward and speak to me Raise me up don't let me fall No man is my enemy My own hands imprison me Love Rescue Me.
I wrote that verse straight off, melody, everything, and thought "Well...what's that about? I'll get back to that." I was going out to see Dylan that day and I just played it to him and we started working on it and the picture emerged.
People talk of the muse. Are there times when you just need to capture it immediately while it's here.
Well some songs seem to write themselves, whereas others you really have to work at. That was written in minutes. "Desire" was also written pretty quickly. I really enjoy it when they come real quick. There was a lot of verses that were left out of "Love Rescue Me." We wrote a whole pile of verses...the only logic that each verse shares is the refrain "Love Rescue Me." I like the randomness of it, the wandering way it goes.
It might be the theme of the whole album.
Yes, there might not be any other logic to it, that's correct.
You wrote a song with T-Bone a couple of years back. "Having a Wonderful Time Wish You Were Her."
I really like that song but I didn't write very much of it. T-Bone was very generous giving me 50% of the song. I've written others with T-Bone like "Purple Heart" on his latest album, I think we've started another one. He's working on his next LP -- the one to answer every question ever asked. It's called I Can Explain Everything.
T-Bone's heart is as tall as he is.
You've stayed in Ireland when so many others have left, particularly successful artists. How come?
We can afford to. We can afford to pay the high price of a pint. Actually I've a funny feeling that it's the very things I hate about Ireland that I secretly love. I probably like the hard times that they give us here. It makes a change. It definitely works against you rather than for you that you're in U2. People are incredibly cynical about success. It's stupid but it comes from years of associating success with oppression.
People who had money here in Ireland years ago were people who were not Irish people but English people or Scandinavian people, going back 700 years. When the country began we were not an aggressive race of people. In the Dark Ages we were more into study, the monastic life, this was a safe haven for monasteries all over while Europe was in the Dark Ages. For that reason people came to Ireland and took advantage of that. Now I don't think people can quite believe that we are independent...if you're successful here you must have screwed somebody over because that has been the history of success.
Does it feel good when you come back to Ireland after being away from home for so long?
I love it here. I don't know what it would be like if I couldn't leave here. I don't know how I'd feel. The fact is I can leave any day, any week, I want. But if I wanted a divorce here and I couldn't get one or if I had to pay half my wages out every week in high taxes, then I don't know how I'd feel.
Do you go driving around the country when you're at home?
I love the West of Ireland. I do it all the time, just drive in the car. I'll probably do it this week. I like being rained on, I like the wildness of the Irish climate.
Do you get bothered by people?
No, people in the West of Ireland honestly couldn't care less who you are. If I was a star footballer in the Mayo team then I'd be a big celebrity but rock 'n roll means nothing to them. These are fishermen and farmers.
What about Dublin, do you still love it?
I don't see as much of the city as I used to. When I was 17 and a hustler for U2, when I went around the city with my U2 tapes knocking on doors, handing them out and when I used to work in the centre, then I loved the city of Dublin. I used to go down and pretend I was a student at Trinity and get subsidized lunches and all that. I really got into Dublin then. Now I don't feel as free to roam the city. If I do it now it's usually after 2 a.m.
Do you ever play Boy or October or War?
I'm trying to think of the last time. I think Boy and War are the more popular albums of that earlier period but I think my favorite in a way is October. It's Adam's favorite too. I really like "I Fall Down" and "October" and "Tomorrow." I like "Gloria" too although I don't like the way I sing "Gloria." I don't like "Rejoice," I've gone off that, I find it hard to listen to. I find it hard to listen to our records -- I really do.
With such a large repertoire of songs many of them can't be performed live, perhaps ever again. Do you ever miss the chance to play "Stories for Boys" or "Into the Heart" or "I Fall Down"?
"Into the Heart" / "An Cat Dubh," there's something I really enjoyed playing live, perhaps there could be a possibility of us playing that live again. I can't imagine us playing "Stories for Boys" again, it wouldn't seem right. We played "Out of Control" on the last tour.
Does it seem like almost another band?
We keep breaking up the band and forming it again, you know that. But sometimes it does feel like another band, it really does.
So what will you do next?
I feel that we're going to make some really great rock 'n roll records, some great...what is it nowadays...CDs just doesn't feel the same...we're going to print some really cool information! Definitely where we're at now is to simplify. Why are we in this band? To make music. Let's keep on making music, that's the only way we can survive being in a big band.
Will you mind if in a couple of years time you release an album which only sells a couple of million?
No. Absolutely not. I expect to go down in terms of sales. We worked hard at it on Rattle and Hum but it didn't work! The great thing about being in a band this big...
Have I said this before?
You haven't said it yet
Oh -- that's the reason I'm not doing interviews at the moment -- we just don't need to do anything and we can just do anything we want to. There's just a great sense of waywardness in the group at the moment. We feel we'll do what we want to do and when we want to do it.
I think this is a great atmosphere to release records in. We don't have to do a tour that lasts a year and nearly kills us anymore -- just so that we don't lose a fortune. For years we had to do so many things just to stay solvent.
We have always made the music that we wanted to but the schedule, the time scale, was dictated by whether we could afford to. That's the excitement of being in U2 at the moment.
"Where to now Captain?
I don't know Captain what do you think?"
It's anywhere. We just point the Starship Enterprise in the right direction and our audience has proved to be an elastic kind of audience. They're into the where-to-next kind of approach. They're one step ahead of us in some ways. Rather than have to lead the audience around by the nose we get the sense that they're right behind you every step of the way.
We thought if we stripped away the U2 sound completely, if we immersed ourselves in gospel music, country, soul...we're bound to shake off 50% of U2 fans: they can't cope with this. But they really could. We might have the most elastic audience when you think of what we've gone through in the last five years. As long as the songs are good they'll go with us all the way. When we start writing shit songs then I'll know that it's over.
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