You said you sense a shift of mood in this country, that for a few moments U2's subject matter was central to the times, but may not be now. If U2 really is on the outside again, does it upset you?
I think moods just shift, change, and come around. On one level, I am aghast. I was reading an interview with Arthur Miller, who said that after growing up in the Depression and coming back from World War II, having seen those sights of horror and devastation, he never thought it would get to the point where people would walk past the kind of homelessness I've seen in Los Angeles. He couldn't imagine that in America. And that is where we are right now in America.
You think people are getting numb?
That is the word I would use. And I think they need a really strong stimulus....It just seems that a pinprick will no longer pierce. They need a shock treatment.
Do you see a different kind of politics and consciousness emerging in the '90s?
I think we've lower to sink before people will say, "We can't go any further." I think America is living on borrowed time. I think you've borrowed the money to put off this day when you're going to have to realize: Corporations don't need people to work for them anymore. Machines don't ask for wage raises. And they haven't figured out how they're going to, on one level, provide consumers, and, on the other, not have work for anybody. This question has been put off, but it will have to be answered. There is something around the corner...
No. It could be really good...We need to dream new dreams. And I think rock 'n' roll is at least a chance to dream those dreams.
Can those dreams, can records, can music really challenge entrenched power?
I don't know. I don't think so. It can effect change. It can be a catalyst for change.
It can be a voice of dissent. I think "[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction" is a very great political song. I really do. It's like "When I'm drivin' in my car/and that man comes on the radio/and he's tellin' me more and more/about some useless information/supposed to fire my imagination." However, a lot of music is selling the same thing as adverts do right now.
Last year you were lobbied to endorse Jesse Jackson. What happened?
I really, really dig Jesse Jackson. I would have loved to wear his badge. I think he has, actually, some inspirational ideas. I still think that he is part of a political system that is redundant for the '80s. But I don't think his ideas are. It would have been attractive to wear a Jesse Jackson badge, but we felt that, in the end, we're Irish, this is not our country.
The day after your decision, you did a concert and claimed you were not a political band, that you were just musicians. A reporter who was there said he felt that was very much in response to feeling pressured, that there is a tendency for you to just disavow when it gets too intense.
Yeah, there is, and we do. Because as over the top as I am, I will go over the top whichever way, in reaction or action. It was getting uncomfortable. It was becoming a straitjacket for U2 that people were putting such importance on that.
U2 doesn't seem to tackle the kind of politics that might truly trouble or alienate their fans. In the film you go on about apartheid and then ask, "Am I bugging you?" Just about everyone in the U.S. Is opposed to apartheid. Yet you never speak out on issues like abortion, Israel and the Palestinians, the death penalty, AIDS, gay rights. Let's talk about some of those. How do you feel, for instance, about abortion?
I just have my own ideas. I believe that it's a woman's right to choose. Absolutely.
Have you ever talked about that in concert? Or in any context?
And that is the kind of thing that might alienate some fans...
If I had been inspired to write a song about it, they would get it in the eyes, just like [supporters of apartheid] do on "Silver and Gold." I will admit that we are attracted to issues that unify people rather than divide them.
Aren't these issues, the tougher issues, the ones that actually demand that people give something up, that actually rub people and force them to look at themselves? Don't you let yourself and your fans off awfully easy by failing to talk to them? About gay rights, say, or AIDS?
I have talked about AIDS. Did you see that in Cuba anyone with the antibody, not even the disease, is being put under quarantine for life? What interests me is that AIDS patients are being seen as the new lepers.
And aren't those attitudes, and that policy, rooted in homophobia? Isn't that an argument to speak out about gay rights?
OK. My bottom line on any sexuality is that love is the most important thing. That love is it. Any way people want to love each other is OK by me. That's different from abuse, be it homosexual or heterosexual.
But your question is, why don't we write about those issues? The reason is that there aren't enough minutes in the day, or days in the year, for us to approach every abuse of human rights, and because, in the end, that isn't our job anyway. Our own way of dealing with it is to try to get at what is essentially behind all abuse of human rights, to go to the heart of the problem, to the kernel rather than the husk. And that, of course, will always bring me back to the idea of love. Spirituality. That God is love. That love is not a flowers-in-the-hair situation, that it is something you have to make happen. It has to be made concrete.
...You see, [with] problems like Belfast's in Northern Ireland, or racism in the Southern states here in America, you're dealing with entrenched communities. When you're dealing with illogical views, the hells that are just deeper, the answer is not argument, often. They're not problems of the intellect. I am friends with a painter here in L.A. Back in Northern Ireland, he witnessed a murder, an actual killing in a field. He was wanted for questioning, and had to leave as a result. He's a Protestant. And he told me, even though he married a Catholic and he's a very right-on man, when he hears rebel songs, the hairs on the back of his neck stand up! He can't help it! He told me he couldn't explain it, it was like it was in his genes. That is why I will always look not to the flesh of the situation, but the spirit. These are spiritual conditions, malaise. You know hatred is beyond reason. Love is an antidote to that...
This gets back to the reason I wanted Van Morrison on the Amnesty International tour. A lot of people think he doesn't seem politically motivated. But this man is a soul singer, and his music melts the hardest of hearts. That's very political, because it is hardhearted behavior that results in bigotry, racism, closed-mindedness, and greed -- all the things that we deal with. I must say to you, and you might not want to hear this: I find myself going away from the specific, and even more towards the universal, more towards that one point, which I call "liberation."
Last November, Bono and U2 bassist Adam Clayton set out from Los Angeles on a three-week drive through New Mexico, Texas, and Tennessee, ending up in New Orleans. "It was in a brute black Jeep with a sound system out of Studio 54 -- not exactly the 'Dharma bums,' " Bono admits, "but we kept meeting people who kept us up all night." In Nashville they met Johnny Cash and John Prine. At a Mississippi juke joint they discovered "contemporaries of Muddy Waters" who never left. "It was in a field," Bono says, "and as close as I've ever been to the blues." Of U.S. rock's roots, he chuckles, "I don't know whether we've gotten the fascination out of our system, or just got it into our system." There's a lot riding on U2's next LP, and the band knows it. Pressed about the project, Bono talks vaguely about exploring "developments in pure sound."
"I have this feeling of starting over, that things have reached their end," he says after a pause, "and also this notion that while people always talk about being joined in common wants and aspirations, I'm finding the reverse. Finding we're united in desperation. I dunno, I come back to that line from our song "In God's Country": "We need new dreams tonight." The job is to dream up a world you'd want to live in."
Seven years ago you predicted, "We're going to be enormous, like the Beatles, the Who." Do you have a vision of what you'd like to be doing seven years from now?
I never wanted U2 to be the biggest rock 'n' roll band in the world, just the best. The more I know about rock 'n' roll, the more I don't know...Ten years ago, when I thought about being in a rock 'n' roll band, I saw so much. I saw everything: being on radio, television, making movies, records, being on the road. It was huge, like a really wide spectrum of things that were very important. Now that spectrum has shrunk down to nothing. The essence of what it is to be a rock 'n' roll band to me, now, is just that three-and-a-half minutes. Not giving interviews, not being on television, not all that goes with it. What has drowned out the sound of the rock 'n' roll circus has just been the rock 'n' roll song. Just that one thing. That's the most exciting thing for me.
And that's what you want to focus on, more than any of the other stuff?
To try and make sense of the madness, we've found sanity in a song. Everything else, hotel rooms, cars, buses, airplanes, record companies, motion picture companies...it's incredible. Just incredible. Sometimes I meet young bands. I just tell them one thing. I just say, "You know one song can change everything for you. Everything." They say, "I can't afford the gear. We've no lights. We've no PA. I'm unemployed." I just say, "Put it into the song. Don't put it to me. Put it in a song and I'll listen to it then." One young punk came up to me and said, "We can't even afford strings, man. You've got f**king airplanes." I said, "We wrote 'I Will Follow' on two strings. If you can't get two strings together, f**k off!"
© Mother Jones, 1989.