"This image of 'the unforgettable fire' applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of 'A Sort of Homecoming,' but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin."
The Son Also Rises
February 06, 2005
Bob Hewson loved opera. Now, whenever his son Bono hits the high notes, he can't help but think of him. Here, U2's charismatic front man talks to Sean O'Hagan about the song he wrote for his father's funeral, why photographer Anton Corbijn is the band's "fifth member" and his life-changing moment in an African orphanage.
It is 22 years since the most famous photographer in rock met the four gauche young Irishmen who were destined to become the biggest rock group in the world. Back then Anton Corbijn -- an implausibly tall Dutchman -- worked for NME, and carried just two 35mm cameras. Back then, U2 looked like a bunch of Dublin scruffs, all ponytails and shaggy cuts, and sounded as resolutely unfashionable as their taste in headwear suggested.
"That's me wearing what Larry used to refer to as 'the souffle' on my head," says Bono. "That's the beret they begged me not to wear." He sighs in a way that suggests that they -- the other three -- were right. Corbijn, though, somehow made even the young, beret-wearing Bono look, if not cool, certainly credible.
Bono has decamped to his house in the south of France on the eve of another marathon U2 world tour, which begins in San Diego next month. He is leafing through selected images from U2 & I, a lavishly packaged diary of Corbijn's long relationship with the band. As the 400-odd pages attest, it is difficult to imagine another pop group whose music, in all its myriad shapes and forms, has been so defined by a single photographer. "I think of Anton as a collaborator, visually," elaborates Bono. "He taught us to experiment."
The book's trajectory of images backs up that statement. Here, for instance, is U2 as an awkward and uneasy young group, looking all at sea in the sleek and shiny early Eighties pop world. Flick forward a decade, and here is U2 hamming it up in drag for the quantum leap into irony and sonic experimentation that occurred around the Zoo TV tour in 1995. Here is the young Bono, in yet another hat, looking like a Hopi Indian, and staring at the camera with the suspicion that it might indeed steal his soul, or, at least, compromise his integrity.
Flick forward again, and here is Bono as The Fly, playing the role of the world's biggest rock star to the max, lounging in a bath several storeys above Broadway, in shades, with champagne on ice. Even without the music, you can trace, in these images, that great leap from monochrome to Technicolor, from po-faced to po-mo and beyond.
"There was definitely a sense, early on, that we didn't belong," says Bono. "I suppose we felt guilty we weren't real rock stars. We felt that we were pretending. And we sensed disappointment from other people that we were so awkward."
From the people around you? "No. It was a more general thing. It was, like, 'Of all the people to become the biggest rock band in the world, who would have thought it would be them?' That was a prevailing attitude. That we didn't have the star thing down."
And, for a considerable while -- say, the first 10 years of their existence, an eternity in pop terms -- they really didn't have the star thing down. What is palpable in the early photographs is the sense of a would-be rock group not quite knowing how to be. Though they were inspired by Seventies punk, and by the Clash in particular, there is no rebel posturing on display here.
"Well, we tried it, but it didn't work," says Bono, laughing. "We tried on various guises before we found ourselves. I think the only time we were self-conscious was when the cameras came out. The thing is, we knew we didn't know how to look good. We were acutely aware of that. Our attitude has always been: if you don't know, find somebody who does. In this instance, that somebody was Anton." Corbijn obviously saw some seed of greatness in the group, despite the hats.
"Instinctively, he got us," Bono recalls. "He saw the possibilities. Remember, this was the New Romantic era. People were dressing up as potted plants to go out for the night. And you know what? A lot of people still looked better than us! The general look at the time was effete and homoerotic, but we were Irish; we couldn't be that. We looked like we'd just got off the boat. Because we had."
Then, suddenly serious, he says. "In truth, I think Anton found a masculinity in us that was very out of step with the time, but that has stood the test of time." Corbijn's great gift, according to Bono, is that, "He shoots the music you are making, who you can be rather than who you are." Perhaps the most definitive illustration of that gift was his now iconic image of U2 that graced the cover of their breakthrough album, The Joshua Tree, in 1987: four stern figures in a barren and biblical desert landscape. "It was Anton who sent us down that dusty road."
All that seriousness now seems a far cry from the mischief and extravagance that would follow in the Nineties, when Bono played with the notion of rock stardom by creating exaggerated alter-egos like The Fly and MacPhisto. When did they decide they could be a serious rock group, and still have fun?
"Well, initially, it was more that we didn't want to be the band that was too stupid to enjoy being at Number One. After The Joshua Tree, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it was all about the importance of not being earnest. Anton's frozen faces on the cover was exactly right for the music we were making at the time. With Zoo TV, it was more us asking ourselves, 'What are we afraid of here? Our image? So, let's have some fun with image-making.' We called it Judo at the time, the notion of using the force that was used against you."
Was it really that thought-out? "Well, we were always very strategic. We were not very spontaneous outside of the studio and the live stage." That, I guess, is another reason why U2 have lasted, and avoided the predictable embarrassments that attend rock stars in middle age.
For all that, there have been a few surreally silly moments. The famous shots of the band in drag are a case in point. The context was the video shoot for "One." It was a song that attained a life of its own on release, ostensibly a cri de coeur from Bono to his father, Bob Hewson, with whom he had an often fraught relationship. In America, though, it was adopted as a song of shared fellowship by HIV sufferers. Corbijn's playful photographs of U2 in drag were subsequently pulled as potentially too frivolous in such a charged context. "We were doing a lot of fundraising for AIDS organisations at the time," recalls Bono. "Saying this is not just a gay man's disease. We felt we shouldn't use the images in the end. Basically, we bottled it."
I was present for that particular shoot, and shared a drink with Bono's late father on one of the few occasions he was temporarily lost for words. I can still see the look on his face when the four would-be drag queens sauntered into the room. "He reckoned," says Bono, "that I looked like -- and I quote -- 'A dirty-looking eejit'." Now, Bob is gone, and his absence, one feels, is almost as strong a force in his son's life as his presence was. The photographs of the U2 fathers, with and without their famous sons, make for some of the most moving in the book. They are made all the more poignant by Bob Hewson's death in 2001. Bono played a show in London the night before he died, and another the night after, each one, in its different way, charged with his father's presence.
"What can I say?" Bono muses. "He was a working-class guy who loved opera. He used to put it on at home and conduct the music with my mother's knitting needles. Beautiful tenor, he was." So, Bob was the man who put the opera in U2?
"Oh, the opera's in there all right. Every time I hit that high note on the song, I think of him."
The song in question is the new single, "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own." It was written in the immediate wake of Bob's death, and Bono sang it for the first time at his father's funeral. Would it be fair to say that they had a thorny relationship? "Oh yeah. It was a classic Irish male thing. Irish males knocking heads, and believe me, we both had hard ones. He gave me great preparation for being in a band -- no appreciation," he says, laughing. While U2 were recording their latest album, How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Bono's working title for it was How to Dismantle an Atomic Bob.
"For a long time it was like: 'So, when are you going to get a proper job?' He retreated behind sarcasm and biting wit. He had all those Dublin sayings down pat. [Bono breaks into a broad Dublin accent] 'They saw you coming,' he'd say, and 'Barnum and Bailey,' that was another one."
Was he talking about pop music? Or about about U2 specifically? "Probably both. I remember he used to say, 'It won't last kissing time.' That's a great expression. Pure Dub. Underneath it all, though, he had a great way of getting something across. He was a great man to go drinking with. I'm not talking about myself here, mind. All my mates told me that. He'd hang out with them. Loved company. Loved women. Loved Ali [Bono's wife]."
Did he sing a few arias when he'd had a drink? "Occasionally. After closing time. If the mood was right. Not opera, though. 'The Black Hills of Dakota.' You know that one? Take me back to the black hills, the black hills of Dakota..." He seems incredibly at ease talking about his father. "Well, more and more, my old man is making me laugh more than cry. If we'd done this at home in Dublin you'd have seen the 5-ft. cardboard cut-out of him I have standing in the snooker room. What I'd really love is if the song was going up the charts just as this magazine came out with him and the other dads on the cover. That would be great."
I tell him I was surprised to see some of Corbijn's more intimate family portraits had made it into the final cut, including an extraordinary one of Bono, his wife, Ali, and their first daughter, Jordan. "Well, first up, she's a beautiful girl, Ali, and Jordan has blossomed into a bit of a belle herself. And, secondly, with time, and with Ali knowing Anton. Normally, she just says no." So it's down to Ali's policing of your privacy, rather than your policing of it?
"Definitely. I don't have the time I used to to consider these things." And have those things become less important to you the bigger the band have become? "In a way. I used to be much more concerned than I am now about how the band appeared in the media, largely because we spent 10 years getting it wrong. Like I said, the image thing just did not come naturally to us."
These days, of course, Bono straddles two separate, but overlapping, global stages. His name is now synonymous with the campaign for a fairer world, with debt relief and AIDS awareness in Africa. These days, the company he keeps is truly heavyweight: Bush, the Pope, Kofi Annan. There are photographs of him with Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela in Corbijn's book, but one of the most moving -- and raw -- is of Bono alongside Beyonce, on a visit to an AIDS orphanage near Cape Town in 2003. Shades off for once, he looks drawn and emotional. "Well, the girl in my arms was going to die. She was going to die because she couldn't get anti-retroviral drugs. In that moment, I knew it was important to tell her story, and the photograph would be the best way. It was hard for Beyonce, though, real hard. She was caught at a very vulnerable moment." It looks like you were, too. "Yes. There's sadness, of course, but there's anger, too. Recently, we've seen this incredible outpouring of generosity over the tsunami," he says, "and it's so inspiring to me. But what about the catastrophe we can prevent? 180,000 people a month in Africa lose their lives. They are not on TV. It doesn't have to be that way."
Is that your bottom line in all this -- if we can stop this, we should? "Not we should, we must. If we can prevent it, we must. Look, I know we can do this. It's a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I have others, of course, more than most, but this is the best one." He looks at the photograph. "If I am ever feeling lethargic, I think about this girl." So you do have some dark moments? "Pitch black. They don't happen very often, and as the gospel song goes, 'There is a light.' Believe me, the world is more malleable than you think." He now seems on a mission to show that this is indeed the case. And of all Bono's transformations, this one may yet prove to be the most extraordinary.
· Anton Corbijn's U2 & I is published by Schirmer. An exhibition, 22:U2, sponsored by GQ, runs from 23 February to 31 March at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3 (michaelhoppengallery.com; 020 7352 3649). U2's single "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" is released tomorrow. The band are playing in the U.K. in June.
© Guardian Newspapers Ltd., 2005.