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"Isn't all art an attempt to identify yourself, really? At some level, I've made a career out of personality crisis."

-- Bono

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William Gibson: U2 Connections

by Angela Pancella

Author William Gibson became one of the founders, if not the founder, of the genre that came to be known as "cyberpunk" by writing Neuromancer; his books often show off a darkly digital world, interactive and anarchic. That view of a computer-hacker-infested future (a future that was not too far off, as it turned out) was coaxed into reality with U2's money to become ZooTV. The Edge and Bono read a lot of Gibson before they planned this multimedia extravaganza, and Niall Stokes also mentions him in relation to the song "Zooropa" in Into the Heart:

"'[Gibson] has this location,' Bono explains, 'the sprawl, he calls it, the city in the future where a lot of stuff is set.' Bono wanted to paint a similar kind of picture with noise."

Bill Flanagan in U2 at the End of the World views Achtung Baby in light of Nighttown, a locale in James Joyce's Ulysses, "a nocturnal urban world that promised knowledge in exchange for innocence." He also notes that an updated equivalent of Nighttown is in Gibson's vision of Tokyo in Neuromancer: "Gibson's name for the darkest section of the twenty-first century technolopolis is 'Night City,' an overpopulated hot-wired extension of Joyce's Nighttown." (Gibson, a college professor once told me, did not write Neuromancer based on his own knowledge of computer hacking or anything he knew firsthand about computers. He extrapolated his vision of the future by watching kids play video games. When someone finally got him a computer, he tried to take it back, thinking that the little light coming on meant there was a problem with it, like when the little light comes on in your car it means "Service Engine Now." He didn't realize it was the "on" light.)

William Gibson was tapped a couple of times in the ZooTV era to make contributions to that spectacle, just as Bono was asked to act in the film version of Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic. The cyberpunk writer filmed segments for 1992's Thanksgiving TV special, along with William Burroughs and Timothy Leary. He also interviewed Bono and Edge for Details magazine. During the interview Bono reflected on the differences between a human being and a celebrity: "At first, when you're reading stories about your life in the media, who you're supposedly sleeping with, how much money you're supposed to be making, what you had for breakfast--you feel violated. Then you start to realize that the person they're describing has very little to do with you and is in fact much more interesting than you are." This prompted Gibson to bring up the idoru, the "idol singers" of Japan, "constructed from one girl's looks, another girl's voice, and a P.R. team to handle moments like these."

In 1996 Gibson wrote Idoru, a novel about a totally virtual Japanese popstar and the half-Irish, half-Chinese Rez, lead singer of Lo/Rez, who apparently wants to marry her. Lo/Rez is a band fronted by Rez and a quiet, technically minded hat-wearing guitarist.

Gibson says Lo/Rez isn't U2, but what he says in an interview about his made-up band can only be said by someone who knows celebrity musicians personally, and is very illuminating:

"I thought of them as being of the sales magnitude of U2, although they're not based on U2 in any way, other than the apparent fact that Rez seems to have bought Bono's house. And I like it that Rez is half Irish and half Chinese and obsessed with Sino-Celtic mythology, which no one else seems to believe exists.

"I've met, in the course of my career, some big rock celebrities. I met Bowie, and Jagger, and I'm kind of on speaking terms with U2 now. I was always very intrigued by what that's like, that whole bizarre business of the enormous mechanism that surrounds an artist like that. You go through this maze of smaller and smaller circles. And when you get to the center, there's just a guy. But it's a guy who's kind of charged with the energy of this system--and he isn't just a guy anymore, there's something else going on there."

What is captured by Idoru is the oddity of sharing a planet with celebrities, those whose very personhood is threatened to be swallowed up by the public's perception of who they are. He has a keen sense of the culture of fandom, particularly internet fandom, which allows every era of a group's career to be present at once, and appreciated for its own sake. Here's a passage describing a member of the Lo/Rez fan club:

"Their first album...was still her favorite, and not just, as her mother too frequently suggested, because they all still looked so young. Her mother didn't like that the members of Lo/Rez were nearly as old as she was. Why wasn't Chia into music by people her own age? ...Chia suspected that her mother's perception of time differed from her own in radical and mysterious ways...in the way that her mother's 'now' was such a narrow and literal thing...Chia's 'now' was digital, effortlessly elastic, instant recall supported by global systems she'd never have to bother comprehending."

Anyone who has witnessed an online debate of the virtues of The Joshua Tree Bono versus MacPhisto versus Pop Bono can find resonance in this passage:

"They were so young, these girls: children. Kathy Torrance [of an "Entertainment Tonight"-like celebrity gossip corporation called Slitscan] had particularly loathed that about Lo/Rez, the way their fan-base had refreshed itself over the years with a constant stream of pubescent recruits, girls who fell in love with Rez in the endless present of the net, where he could still be the twenty-year-old of his earliest hits."

Edge, when talking recently of the launch of U2.com, spoke of it hardly being necessary until this point, because of all the fan sites already devoted to U2. He could have quoted Gibson:

"He saw that the quantity of data accumulated here by the band's fans was much greater than everything the band themselves had ever generated. And their actual art, the music and the videos, was the merest fragment of that."

Gibson, perhaps inadvertently, also parallels the way U2's world stands in direct opposition to tabloid culture.

"Rez, in Kathy's view, had simply lasted far too long. Monstrously long...Perhaps there was nothing big enough to eat him, not even Slitscan. And while Lo/Rez, the band, still extruded product on an annoyingly regular basis, in a variety of media, their singer stubbornly refused to destroy himself, murder someone, become active in politics, admit to an interesting substance-abuse problem or an arcane sexual addiction..."

The U2 connection is hilariously demonstrated by a story in the @U2 archives from the National Enquirer, which was forced, in the absence of anything titillating, to report that U2 were squares.

Gibson has the last laugh. The whole time I read "Idoru" I was picturing Bono as Rez, and then what does he call the last chapter? "Fables of the Reconstruction." (Early R.E.M. title, if you were wondering.)

Some other connections worth mentioning: in a 1994 interview with Giuseppe Salza, Gibson talks about Edge teaching him some Internet tricks:

"...I'm not deeply excited by hi-tech. The Edge of the U2 was over here the other day and he was showing me Net stuff. He showed how he could telnet to his Los Angeles computer and he was very excited. I'll never be like that. However, I feel obliged to be ambivalent towards technology. I can't be a 'techie,' but I can't hate it, either." (http://www.eff.org/Misc/Publications/William_Gibson/salza.interview)

U2 contributed incidental music -- including Numb (the Gimme Some More Dignity mix) and Salome (the Zooromancer remix) to the audio book version of Neuromancer. This might be worth checking out at your local library. (Thanks to Joel Schander for the tip.)

 

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