"Some people expect U2 to come on like a political band. . . . Other people see us as prophets. Some see us as pop stars. . . . And we're not any of those things. We're probably all of them. I don't know what we are."
Rock Holidays: The Irishness on the Inside of Bono and U2
Steve Turner tours Dublin with a band, who, despite huge success, can still drink quietly at home.
The London Independent,
April 20, 1991
There is a shop just off Dublin's O'Connell Street called Bonavox Hearing Aids. It has a neat window display featuring bean-sized aids in velvet presentation boxes alongside the appropriate literature. Paul Hewson became Bono because someone in his teenage days thought it would be fun to rename him after a shop. In his earliest Irish interviews (1978) he was being referred to as "Paul Hewson (a.k.a. Bono Vox)."
Maybe one day a plaque will be fixed above the shop, but at the moment Dublin prefers to be quietly proud of its most famous singing sons. There are no Bono Boulevards or Edge avenues, no Joshua Tree souvenir stores or guided tours of U2 territory. But then Dublin has only recently put up a statue to James Joyce.
It is this apparent indifference to worldly achievement that has kept U2 in Ireland despite the fact that the business they are in is centred elsewhere. They are still managed by Paul McGuinness from offices in Dublin and have their family homes in and around the city. On the day I arrived, Bono agreed to meet me in the Dockers, the group's favourite Liffeyside pub, where he can still walk in and not turn heads.
After a quick drink in the "snug," a small room in the front of the pub, Bono drove me off down the quayside towards the Grand Canal Basin where, as a fresh-faced band, U2 were photographed for the cover of October in 1981. He pointed out the familiar lock gates with their steel handrails just off Hanover Quay and the skyline of industrial sheds, gas storage tanks and overhead cranes which remains unchanged.
Half a mile back along the quay is a short L-shaped side street called Windmill Lane which has become the closest thing in Dublin to a U2 shrine. Almost all available wall space is covered in messages to and about the group. Even parts of the road and pavements have been given the spraycan treatment. The focus of this display is a narrow entrance at No 4 which leads to Windmill Lane Studios where U2 recorded their albums Boy, October, War and The Joshua Tree. Until last year the group's management rented offices over the studio.
On the other side of the river you can see the looming shape of the Point Depot, where the group kicked off the decade with a concert that was broadcast live throughout Europe. It was here, too, in 1988, before the old Dublin transport building was turned into a legitimate theatre, that part of Rattle and Hum was filmed including some of the interviews and the recording of the single "Desire."
Although U2 are known as an Irish band, only Bono and Larry Mullen have Irish parents and were born in Ireland. Adam Clayton and the Edge were born in England but were both raised in the genteel seaside resort of Malahide, north of Dublin.
Home for Bono was the Ballymun district on the northern outskirts of the city. The Hewsons lived at No 10 Cedarwood Road on an estate of almost identical three-bedroom semis that were built in the early Sixties. "Behind my house there were nice fields," remembered Bono. "Then they started building the Ballymun Flats." The seven tower blocks brought problems to the area. "Them flats changed the whole place," grumbles a local man. "They're full of unmarried mothers and squatters."
It was through the Ballymun Flats that Bono first became aware of the lives of those without hope, a concern that was later to take him to the refugee camps of Ethiopia and to war-torn El Salvador. When he wrote "Running to Stand Still," about drug addiction, it was to the flats that his mind returned. "Sweet the sin/But bitter the taste in my mouth/I see seven towers/But I only see one way out."
Mount Temple Comprehensive School ranks next to Windmill Lane Studios in the U2 fans' list of Dublin sites, for here U2 were not only formed but organised their first rehearsals and made their first concert appearance. The school is in Artane at the end of a short gravel drive which turns off the busy Malahide Road. It was on the school's noticeboard that Larry Mullen pinned a request for musicians keen to form a group to contact him.
Mullen lived close by the school but for all the others it involved a long daily journey. The parents had chosen Mount Temple because it was the first non-denominational, co-educational comprehensive in the city. To get to it Bono either had to cycle from Ballymun or take one bus into the city and another back out to Artane. "In the winter I found it quite handy having to get the two buses, because it brought me right into the city," he remembered. "At 13, when other kids were walking home from school, I'd be in town checking out the record shops."
The record shops he discovered were around Grafton Street. Coffees would be taken at Bewley's Cafe, where it would be served by waitresses in black dresses with white pinafores, or at the Coffee Inn on South Anne Street, a small greasy spoon with formica tables and red plastic booths.
Bewley's has a Joshua Room which deceives some into thinking it is a tribute to the boys' best known album, but it is a memorial to Joshua Bewley who founded the cafe in the Twenties Grafton Street was important because it was where the local music business operated. U2's early reputation, as evidenced by the excited reports in Hot Press, came from appearances at McGonagles, Dandelion Green and the Baggott Inn.
Dandelion Green, which was really only ever a parking lot, stood at the southern end of Grafton Street. It has been replaced by the St. Stephen's Green Shopping Centre. McGonagles still exists but was closed during my visit. This was more than made up for at the Baggott Inn on Lower Baggott Street where an oil painting of the group in their Joshua Tree pose hung on the wall of the bar. There were also U2 cuttings in frames. The publican booked U2 many times, initially as a support act for the long-forgotten the Art Of Phibes. "There have been times when you wouldn't have known they had played at all," he remembers. "But when they became the main act they packed the place out every time."
Despite U2's close association with Dublin, they have never written songs about it in the way Van Morrison has of Belfast or Bruce Springsteen about New Jersey. When asked which U2 songs are recognisably about Dublin, Bono can only offer "Running to Stand Still" and "Promenade," a song that provided a documentary of a stroll through Bray.
I asked Bono whether the music of U2 was Irish in any unique way. He said that although the flesh of the music did not appear to be, he was becoming more certain that the soul of it was. "If you look at music as emotion," he said, "then I think you'll connect us to the ballad tradition, to the wailing and keening of the old music.
"If you don't look at our album covers or our titles but ask yourself what feeling you're getting, then I think you'll see that at its heart the music of U2 is quintessentially Irish. But it's not Irish on the outside."
Bonavox Hearing Aids, 13 North Earl Street, Dublin 1.
The Dockers, Sir John Rogerson's Quay, Dublin 2.
Grand Canal Basin, Hanover Quay, Dublin 2.
The Point Depot, North Wall, Dublin 1 (box office: 363633).
Windmill Lane Studios, 4 Windmill Street, Dublin 2.
Bono's childhood home, 10 Cedarwood Road, Ballymun, Dublin 11.
Mount Temple Comprehensive School, Malahide Road, Artane, Dublin 3.
Bewley's Cafe, 78 Grafton Street, Dublin 2.
Coffee Inn, 6 South Anne Street, Dublin 2.
McGonagles, 21a South Anne Street, Dublin 2 (774402).
Baggott Inn, 143 Lower Baggott Street, Dublin 2 (761430).
Outlying areas: Howth is where Bono lived immediately after his marriage in 1982. It was in a small, three-roomed cottage on Sutton Beach, Howth, that the group rehearsed for their recording of the War album.
Malahide was the home of Adam Clayton (Yellow Walls Road) and the Edge (St Mary Park Road). Some of the earliest U2 rehearsals took place in Edge's garden shed.
Larry Mullen was raised at 60 Rosemount Avenue in Artane.
Bray is a seaside town south of Dublin where Bono once resided in the Martello Tower and where he wrote "Promenade."
Unforgettable Fire by Eamon Dunphy (Viking, pounds 11.95) is the official biography and is good on locations and addresses.
Another Time, Another Place by Bill Graham (Mandarin, pounds 3.99) provides an interesting insight into the band's early days in Dublin. Lots of photographs and a text by the man who introduced U2 to their manager.
The U2 File and U2 Three Chords and the Truth, both edited by Niall Stokes (Omnibus Press, pounds 5.95 each) are collections of reports and interviews first published in Hot Press, Ireland's rock newspaper. Invaluable for U2 buffs and includes the group's first publicity that appeared in April 1978.
Irish Tourist Board, Baggott Street Bridge, Dublin 2, Ireland (765871).
Irish Tourist Board, 150 New Bond Street, London W1Y 0AQ (071-493 3201)
© Independent, 1991. All rights reserved.