"What do you think we should do?"
On a cloudy afternoon in Dublin, U2 isn't acting much like a band with all the answers. Instead, the members of the group are acting more like four guys who are themselves trying to answer a few important questions, and the main question -- which Bono poses within minutes of the time he sits down in a pub and orders a pint of Guinness -- is what this band should do on the heels of Rattle and Hum.
If they don't have an answer, at least they finally have the free time to think about it. That's something that's been in short supply for the past two years, from the release of their 1987 breakthrough album, The Joshua Tree, through the subsequent international tour, to the recording and filming of the controversial two-record set and motion picture, Rattle and Hum.
"The last few years," says Bono, with his customary intensity -- but also with a distracted air that suggests he's groping to put a rather deep-seated confusion into words -- "have been such a merry-go-round that when you get off and you're on dry land, it keeps spinning. And we haven't quite come to terms with being at home. I have to be strapped in at night, you know? There's this thing of wanting to move..."
He trails off, then looks around at his three band mates. "Wanderlust, I suppose," he says. "That's been with the group for a few years, in many ways, and I suppose it's what Rattle and Hum is about. Not just in terms of locations -- towns and cities and places -- but musical wanderlust. So now we're in detox.
"We would be lying, I think, if we said that everything is okay these days. Everything's not okay, you know? Even talking about U2, we really don't know how to talk about U2 anymore."
Bono shrugs. "I think it's really important to preface your article by saying that one of the reasons we haven't done many interviews lately is that we don't really have that much to say."
You voted them Artist of the Year and Band of the Year for the second year in a row, but lots of you are going to complain that we put them on the cover. A good number of letters, in all likelihood, will say the same thing: "Not them again!"
As Rattle and Hum the movie heads for videocassette and Rattle and Hum the album continues its stay in the Top Ten, it's clear that U2's problem is more than simple overexposure. After years of favorable fan and press reaction to the band's music; years of dramatic stage performances; years in which underground credibility turned into mass success; years of articles based on intense conversations with a hyperbolic, socially minded lead singer and his three more retiring band mates; years of grainy black-and-white photos of deadly serious, brooding faces, growing from dewy-cheeked youth to bestubbled adulthood; after all that, the U2 backlash has set in.
It always arrives, sooner or later, with this level of success; just ask old hands like Madonna and Michael Jackson or the newly dethroned Bruce Springsteen. But in U2's case, the backlash may have hit harder and faster than usual, and it also may be harder to shake off. And that's due, simply enough, to the way this band has always conducted itself.
From their debut with Boy nine years ago, the members of U2 have made it clear that they are dead serious, extraordinarily ambitious and convinced of the importance of what they achieve -- or, more accurately, the importance of what they are trying to achieve. Emerging from the high-energy, fraying integrity and fashionable nihilism of a rapidly fragmenting punk scene, these three young Christians and the token nonbeliever wanted to make rock & roll matter again. Even back then, Bono was the kind of frontman who'd return a compliment like "Great album!" with a serious "Yeah, it is, isn't it?" -- and what originally sounded ingenuous and endearing slowly became problematic. At the same time, though, more and more people began to agree that U2's albums were great. Two years ago, the band released the critically applauded, top-selling, Grammy-winning album The Joshua Tree, went on its biggest international tour and had its all-but-official coronation at the World's Biggest Rock Band.
Enter the Rattle and Hum juggernaut: a two-record set, part live versions of old songs and part new tunes recorded in the studio; a major motion picture, complete with a big push from the hottest Hollywood movie studio of the past few years; splashy benefit premieres in Madrid, Dublin, London, New York and Los Angeles; a collection of songs written by, written about, performed by or recorded with the help of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Billie Holiday; a work that includes shouted declarations that the band is stealing "Helter Skelter" back from Charles Manson, that it's armed with "three chords and the truth"; a souvenir book to accompany the whole thing, which, with Eamon Dunphy's Unforgettable Fire, makes two officially commissioned U2 books within a year; T-shirts sold in theater lobbies; and an ABC television special about the making of Rattle and Hum, featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage linked by Robbie Robertson's narration, which practically canonizes the four band members.
Trouble is the television special never aired. (According to Rattle and Hum director Phil Joanou, the show was delivered to ABC too late for a timely airing.) And while the book sold well, the movie performed about as well as you can expect a concert movie to perform: it had a good opening week, but its business fell by half each subsequent week before it quickly dropped out of theaters.
In the end, the movie will no doubt recoup its $5 million cost and be remembered as a dramatic documentary that contributed to the air of hubris surrounding U2. Designed as a look at U2 as the band encountered America during the Joshua Tree tour, Phil Joanou's movie plays like a homage to U2's importance, from the backstage scene in which B.B. King tells Bono how heavy his lyrics are to the lovingly photographed concert footage. The performances are often riveting, and the camera work is remarkable, but the finished product seems more self-serving than rock films like The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense.
As for Rattle and Hum the album...Well, it sold millions, and lots of people loved it. But it also drew the kind of flak that until now U2 had avoided. A Rolling Stone reader wrote in to say that the album will be remembered as "the downfall of a great band." The New York Times greeted the album's release with a review -- headlined "When Self-Importance Interferes With The Music" -- that described the album as "a mess." "Rattle and Hum is plagued by U2's attempt to grab every mantle in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." Jon Pareles wrote. "Each attempt is embarrassing in a different way." And in the Village Voice, Tom Carson wrote, "By almost any rock and roll fan's standards, U2's Rattle and Hum is an awful record. But the chasm between what it thinks it is and the half-baked, overweening reality doesn't sound attributable to pretension so much as to monumental know-nothingism." Others painted a similarly unflattering portrait of U2 as a humorless, self-satisfied band, trying to boost its own image by aligning itself with the giants of American roots music.
Much of the criticism seems a vengeful reaction against a record that is, in essence, a collection of odds and ends accumulated by the band along the course of its American tour. A little bit country, a little bit rock & roll, plus a little bit of blues and gospel and arena rock, Rattle and Hum is best read as an honest attempt by four rich and highly visible rock & roll fans to come to terms with a couple of their obsessions: their new-found preoccupation with American musical styles they'd steadfastly avoided when they started making their music, and their fixation on America itself, a country that they reflexively hated when all they knew were cheap hotels and bad nightclubs and Ronald Reagan on TV but that began to intrigue them when they got to see the inside of Sun Studio, in Memphis, and sit on the banks of the Mississippi River and go to the right blues clubs in Chicago and cruise Sunset Boulevard in the '61 Cadillac convertible Edge drove around Los Angeles during the making of the album and the movie.
Rattle and Hum is a messy but revealing collection that has some terrific songs -- "Desire," "Heartland," "Hawkmoon 269," "All I Want Is You." But it doesn't say anything definite. "The statement," says Bono, "was that there was no statement." But when you throw in a $5 million movie and a lavish marketing campaign and the book and the T-shirts and the huge posters of those four unsmiling faces that were plastered all over every city where Rattle and Hum was released, you get a project that demands to be taken as a Major Statement. And in the gap between what people thought U2 was promising and what the band actually delivered, you had the beginnings of a backlash, of a potential crisis in the career of a band whose seat atop the rock pile isn't quite so secure these days.
No sooner have the members of U2 settled into a small, high-walled private booth in a pub down the road from Dublin's Guinness brewery -- "the snugs," these little rooms are called -- than Larry Mullen Jr. is recommending U2's favorite local band. It's called the Joshua Trio.
"They're hilarious," says Bono quickly. "They do things like 'Nobody Cares': 'What about unemployment? What about the ozone layer? Nobody cares. No, wait! Bono cares.' "
It's a measure of the band's impact in its hometown that another group exists doing nothing but U2 spoofs. Another measure is the fact that the only way the band can spend a few hours in uninterrupted conversation is to reserve one of the snugs, booths originally built so that Dublin's drinkers could sequester their wives away from the exclusively male territory of the main pub.
In fact, the fame means they have to choose their pubs more carefully, too -- especially after Bono's introduction to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" in Rattle and Hum, in which he excoriates the Irish Republican Army and ends by saying, "F**k the revolution." Since then, says Edge, "certain pubs in Dublin we don't feel as comfortable in. But I think our position has changed in Ireland, irrespective of that. We now drink in little boxes like this." Adds Adam Clayton, "Our world gets smaller the bigger the band gets."
As they hang up their jackets -- which range from a leather New York Police Department model for Larry to a blue pin-striped number for Bono, who's looking corporate in vest, tie and gray beret -- the boys in the band order a round of the locally brewed dark stout (except for Larry, who sticks to coffee) and settle into the little box. Larry thinks it's "a bit claustrophobic." Bono likes it. Adam says he feels like he's "in a men's toilet." And after listening to his band mates argue the snug's merits, Edge speaks up quietly. "It's a bit like being in U2," he says.
But if the four men who've come to this pub on a cloudy January afternoon are feeling enclosed, uncomfortable or affected by the storm that Rattle and Hum stirred up, they're also more than willing to talk. As usual, Bono takes center stage and summons up his characteristic fervor when the conversation turns to U2's music, but everybody chimes in when the talk deals with Ronald Reagan's place in history, or the months the band spent living in Los Angeles last year, or the band members' admiration for musicians as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis and Nanci Griffith, or their plans for their own Mother Records label, which will soon release a record by Guy Clark and is looking to sign other veteran country and folk performers like Joy Ely and John Prine.
"I must say," says Bono, "that my heroes at this point in time all have lines in their faces. I mean, if U2 set out to see through the Fifties rebellion in the Eighties -- because it didn't work, and it was stupid to think that somebody with a safety pin in their nose and a leather jacket therefore had something to say -- well, then, this other idea of a generation gap is also out the window in the Eighties. The young-punk idea is nonsense. I prefer to spend a day with Johnny Cash than a week with some up-and-coming pop star."
This was precisely the kind of thing U2 began to do during the American tour that led to Rattle and Hum -- listening to blues and gospel music, recording at Sun Studio, cutting songs with B.B. King and the New Voices of Freedom gospel singers, doing versions of "Helter Skelter" and "All Along the Watchtower." But in the process, the band drew charges that it was using past heroes to boost its own status.
"Everyone slags us off for comparing ourselves to these great groups," snaps Larry Mullen, "but that's bulls**t. I mean, they said that to the Beatles, as well."
When the laughs die down, Bono picks up the argument. "Seriously, folks," he says with a chuckle, "we're in this big band, but in our own heads we're still fans of the greats, from Elvis Presley and Billie Holiday to the Band and the Waterboys to whoever.
"What happened around the album is remarkable," he says, "maybe even a bigger work of art than the album. The very idea of Rattle and Hum was, if not to burst the balloon, to let the air out of it. Everything about it, from doing really bad cover versions, which is how we started...A big band should be able to be a garage band if it wants to. Being brilliant is to take risks. I don't mean taking risks in the shallow water of the avant-garde but in the deep water."
Bono takes off his beret and runs a hand through his slicked-back hair. "You know," he says, "they say in the Eighties that rock & roll is dead. I don't think it's dead, but if it's dying, it's because groups like us aren't taking enough risks. You know, make a movie. Put yourself up there against what's out there, Robocop and Three Men and a Baby. That's great for rock & roll, not just for U2. I think you've got to dare."
Edge cuts in. "Like Megadeth doing 'Anarchy in the U.K.,' " he says.
"Yeah!" says Bono with a grin. "We mustn't be responsible, we must be irresponsible, artistically speaking. Wouldn't it be awful if we said, 'Oh, we're in a big group now'? Rock & roll ought to be irresponsible, at least in the sense of being able to do a wicked cover version or say something like...How's it go? 'This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back.' If that's gonna get up some people's noses, all the better. I don't even know what it means. It means something, though."
To many people, it means U2 is announcing itself the heir to the Beatles.
"Let's get down to the Beatles, here," says Bono, the evangelical gleam in his eye getting fiercer with each word. "We're not saying we're a better band than the Beatles. But we are more of a band than the Beatles. We are. There's four of us -- a street gang, essentially, who drew no lines. Not Lennon and McCartney songwriting and Ringo's the drummer. When we walk onstage, it is the band that is the real work of art, the four of us.
"And when we were sixteen," he says, "we didn't think, 'Oh, let's not be the Beatles.' I thought, 'F**k the Beatles, f**k the Rolling Stones.' They may have been our musical idols, but every band in the world thinks it's better than the Beatles. They are the blueprint. And we are fans and in awe of their music, but we're not reverent. It would be childish of us to say we're better than the Beatles, or we're worse than the Beatles. I'm just saying that we're more of a band."
Larry Mullen, who fidgets as Bono grows feverish, sighs. "Back to that one again, are you?" he asks, rolling his eyes.
Edge looks over and laughs. "Oh, shut up, Ringo," he says.
Beatles jokes aside, though, it's unlikely that many of Rattle and Hum's detractors would be convince by these arguments, because for anyone who thinks U2's music is overstated or pompous, the band's interviews can seem similarly self-serving and humorless. And while it may have been daring to make a movie, that movie didn't make a case for humility.
The band members never really address this issue. They talk about the album but around the movie, other than to complain about the compromises they had to make for the cameras. "I think the movie is great for them," says Phil Joanou, "because in a way it's them, but they don't have to take responsibility for the film because they didn't make it. It takes some weight off them, and that's good."
And the relentlessly serious tone? "That's totally my fault," says Joanou. "The movie was meant to be a fairly serious depiction of their music, as opposed to a light one. I have footage that could have changed that, but my plan was to do an aggressive, grab-people-by-the-throat-and-shake-them kind of movie rather than a romp through America with U2. A romp with U2 wasn't something I could swallow, so I went for" -- he chuckles -- "an overly serious, pretentious look at U2. That's a fair criticism, but what the hell?"
But if the members of U2 are perfectly capable of being funny guys, Bono doesn't seem to mind the "humorless" rap. "The time we live in, nothing is taken seriously," he says. "Part of the yuppie ethic is 'Let's not take everything so seriously, man.' The fact that a third of the population of the earth is starving, let's not take that so seriously. The fact that we're moments away from oblivion because of nuclear weapons...You know, these subjects don't get big laughs. That's why I admire people like Robin Williams, who can make their point and make people laugh. That's his job. I don't know, maybe our job is to make people cry, weep, tear their hair out, gnash their teeth...I mean, we are a very serious band about our work. We are. Deadly serious. Annoyingly, appallingly, boringly serious about our work."
And what is their work?
"To go where no band has gone before," he says, as the entire group howls with laughter. "To boldly go where no rock & roll band's gone before, to search out old soul records and steal their spirit..."
The question is crucial, and history says that U2 will settle it with its next album. So far, the band has adhered to a pattern: first it makes an assertive, relatively straightforward album (1980's Boy, 1983's dramatic War, The Joshua Tree), then it follows it with one that's harder to get a handle on (1981's mystically minded October, 1984's atmospheric Unforgettable Fire, Rattle and Hum).
That might mean it's time for another more forceful and cogent LP -- except that these days the stakes are higher and the risks of overexposure are very real. "I'm sick to death of reading about U2," says Edge.
"It's a very interesting time for U2," says Bono, as the afternoon turns into evening and the band orders another round (Larry finally shifts from coffee to vodka). "There is a sense of 'Up drawbridge,' cut ourselves off, and a sense of feeling misunderstood, and a sense of the antagonism toward us. You know, Rattle and Hum was the end of something."
"The safe thing to do," says Edge, "would be to wait three years and then do the next record. But I don't think I could wait that long."
"People say, 'Better not release a record within two years,' " Bono says. " 'It mightn't sell so well.' But so what? We don't have to do anything we don't want to do now. That is what it is to be rich -- and in that sense, we are filthy rich. We used to have to finish albums and go on tour just to stay solvent, right up until The Joshua Tree. We don't have to do that now, so we're just gonna play where we want to play."
If financial security means they don't have to do anything in particular, Rattle and Hum also says that they can go in just about any direction they choose. By being something of an undefined, sprawling mess, it gives them freedom: instead of suggesting any one future direction, it simply shows a band that's learning more about the roots of its music and trying to use that new knowledge somehow.
"I do think we're slow learners," says Bono with a chuckle. "We really move at a snail's pace. We just learned the fourth chord. We've done a lot with three -- just wait till we start using the fourth.
"There are few bands that have come so far with so little," he says. "I think U2 has, as a white rock & roll band, broken a lot of barriers. In terms of subject matter, even in terms of vocabulary. There are certain words that as a writer I own. Lots of them. There are certain tones in the guitar, certain approaches, which we own. I've very excited about U2, looking back at what we've done. But I'm much more excited about what we're about to do.
"It's the end of the cold wave. You know, that sort of Halloween, bogeyman music, death-march music. And we just did not fit into that, and we have been flying in the face of that for ten years. And now I think that's ending. You see artists in Germany, the new avant-garde, their idols are people like [nineteenth-century romantic painter J.M.W.] Turner. It's extraordinary. To see soul music at the center of things, Cajun music, Irish music..."
Not, he hastens to add, that U2 is going to become a band of roots-rock purists. "The future is not to look back," he says. "The future is to reinterpret the past. We didn't really reinterpret the past on Rattle and Hum. We gave in to it, and it was fun. But the future is to reinterpret, and preserve the spirit. That spirit is the real key, the spirit of abandonment."
With that, Bono heads to the men's room, and the conversation lightens. The other band members, it seems, are just as happy to order a few more drinks and talk about the history of sexual segregation in Irish pubs. Then their singer returns, announcing as he steps through the door, "All my favorite words are stolen."
"They are?" asks Larry with a start.
"They are," Bono says. "They're all gone, meaningless. Like born again. What a great idea -- everyone should want to be born again, every day. But now it means nothing, because some very dangerous people got a hold of the word. Wherever I look, words have been used up. Gone. They don't mean anything. God. Light. Sex. And the most powerful word has got to be love, but the fight is on for that one."
He sighs. "That's the key for U2 as well," he says. "With all these big ideals, we've got to bring things down to two people, really. One is good, two is better. And that's where I see us going."
And so, in the end, we have to ask Bono the question he himself asked a couple of hours and a couple of pints ago: In 1989, after Rattle and Hum and everything that came with it, what should U2 do?
"I think we're really clear about one thing, maybe," Bono begins hesitantly. "What we have to do is simplify. Simplify everything and just get to the center of what it is to be in a band, which is to write great rock & roll songs and perform them. We picked up so much along the way that's just extra baggage -- people and houses and big motorcades and airplanes and helicopters and boats...
"They're all there, but we don't need them," he says. "All we need is three and a half minutes. You know, the spirit that we found that was always in our music is stronger now. It's exciting for a rock & roll band to strip itself right down, to take off all recognizable signs and just bash away and say, 'This is still us.' "
The final question, though, is still troublesome. At this stage in their career, is it possible for the members of U2 to truly simplify themselves? They spent the last decade carefully, consciously and deliberately building themselves up to the point where they are a Big Band in nearly every sense of the term; are they really willing and able to demythologize U2 without at the same time remythologizing themselves in some other way?
"I don't know," Bono says simply. "That's our dilemma. All we can do is simplify, strip away and just make shiny, bright music. Music that will..."
He stammers for a minute, struggling to find the right words. Finally, he gives up and shrugs. "You know, just dream it up," he says quietly. "Just dream it up."
© Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc., 1989.