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The @U2 Interview: Bill Flanagan

@U2, December 13, 2005
By: Angela Pancella

 

Ask fans to name their favorite U2 book, and chances are they'll say "Bill Flanagan's U2 at the End of the World." If they don't, they might well say "Flanagan's bible," the "orange bible" or the "U2 bible" -- but they're still talking about the same book.

It's popular for many good reasons. Bill Flanagan had many strikes in his favor when he embarked on this project -- a long friendship with U2 (his friend Ellen Darst flagged them as a band to watch before they hit American shores), a clear focus on a fascinating time period (Zoo TV and its immediate aftermath with a quick making-of-Achtung-Baby setup) and a witty, engaging writing style (think of his memorable similes -- stage rigging looking "like the steeples of postnuclear cathedrals," luggage bags bouncing "like happy appaloosas," a celebrating Irishman stumbling in the men's room "as if in the presence of the Beatific Vision.").

It's now ten years after The End of the World. The anniversary is a good time to catch up with author Flanagan, once the editor of the late, lamented Musician magazine and now carrying the title "Executive Vice President, MTV Networks International." We talked via e-mail; his responses came quickly. That could mean that since he's had to conduct so many interviews, he understands the deadline pressures interviewers face and wants to be helpful. It could mean he was stuck in boring teleconferences and had access to a laptop he could use for an escape. It could mean he just likes talking about U2 -- which would be great, because so many fans of U2 are fans of Flanagan talking about U2.

Your 1995 self, having just finished writing U2 at the End of the World, encounters the 2005 U2. How are they different from '95 and how are they the same?

I think they have achieved what they were hoping for. I think they were hoping to expand their musical options and grow their chops while maintaining and increasing their audience. I'd say they pulled that off pretty well. I remember at the end of the Zoo tour there was a bit of trepidation around the band that while they could keep making great music, they might not be able to count on filling stadiums in the future. Turned out they could do it all.

They have also completely integrated the innovations of Achtung Baby and Zooropa and Pop and those tours into their older (and newer) styles so that they can do any song from any period and make it all work together. They have greatly expanded the options open to U2 and continued to do very strong work. I wouldn't presume to say that Atomic Bomb is their best album, but it might turn out to be my favorite. Time will tell.

I find it interesting that you like it that much...Atomic Bomb is not an album I've been able to "get."

Well that's all just personal taste, there's no right or wrong. I like Zooropa more than Joshua Tree, too, so what do I know? On the new album, I just love the swoop and uplift, the ecstasy. It reminds me of what was so exciting about "I Will Follow" and "Gloria" back when they started, but with a lot more muscle and confidence. "Blinding Lights" almost brings a tear to my eye. "Yahweh" slays me.

What are your impressions of the Vertigo tour so far?

I thought the Vertigo tour started out last spring a little disconnected, as most U2 tours do. All the pieces were great but they did not all fit together perfectly. The shows this fall have been uniformly fantastic -- some of the best U2 concerts I've ever seen, which is to say some of the best concerts I've ever seen.

Tell me what you think of this assessment: A U2 show is a lot more like an opera than rock at this point, telling an emotional story entirely through music, and with few changes in the setlist from one city to another. Even if the songs change, the "plotline" tends to stay the same: A song with similar emotional content is substituted for whatever is taken out.

Bono certainly does have the opera in him, as he reminds us at every show. To me, those big emotions are exactly what makes it a rock 'n roll show. That's what I got out of the Who and the Clash and Aretha Franklin: big, heart-rending, lung-shredding, eardrum-popping emotions. That's why people react so strongly to Green Day and Coldplay. We need more of that.

What kind of changes in their perception within the music industry have taken place since the Zoo days? There were some interesting run-ins talked about in your book: U2 and Negativland, how Bob Guccione Jr. thought U2 broke up the Pixies, some instances of what sounded like sour grapes. Are they still a band you either love or hate?

At this point I think anyone who hates U2 has shut up and sat down. It's like hating the Beatles, or holding out for Stalinism.

Speaking of the Beatles, where are U2 now in comparison to them? Did the Beatles have it easier? They could make one appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and 75% of the U.S. would see them. U2, on the other hand, does stuff on MTV, VH-1, Oprah, 60 Minutes, Charlie Rose, CBS and on and on...and they're lucky if 10% of the country sees them. Does it make U2's popularity all the more remarkable?

Well, as big as they are, U2 have never been as big as the Beatles were. The only thing since the Beatles that has come close is Michael Jackson during the Thriller period, and he couldn't sustain it. It's true that the Beatles could reach most of the country at one time, but so did Herman's Hermits, the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Beau Brummels, the Association and the Ladybugs. Obviously reaching the whole country at one time didn't mean the whole country was going to go buy your records.

Also, bear in mind that when the Beatles were on top it was much harder to buy records, the record business itself was very primitive. There were no record superstores like Tower or Best Buy, there were not record stores in malls (in fact, for most of the time the Beatles were around, there were not even malls). Almost all records were sold from a single rack in the TV section of department stores. You had to go to Sears to buy a record, and they only had the current hits. Distribution was very primitive. And of course, there was nothing like MTV or VH1. I love U2 but I think you have to give that round to the Beatles; they pretty much invented the whole apparatus.

What would your 1995 self have said about the level of Bono's political involvement these days, and the way humanitarian appeals are incorporated in the concerts?

Bono's humanitarian work is an obvious outgrowth of his earlier convictions and his trips to Africa and Latin America after Live Aid. What's amazing is not that he's done it, it's that he has convinced (what we used to call) the straight world to take him seriously. He is a genuine political and social force in the world, respected by political leaders and activists and serious reporters everywhere. He has really cleared a new path in that respect.

I have known Bono for 25 years and he has been a big star for almost 20, but lately when I'm with him I notice a real change in the way people react to him. It's like going out with Gandhi or something. In a sort of hopeless time, he is a real beacon.

A couple of weeks ago I took a flight with him. It was pretty late at night and we went to the airport and I noticed that the crew on the airplane was acting really whacky. They all seemed to be kind of wired and falling over themselves. I couldn't figure out what was going on. We got on the plane and sat down and we were talking and the flight attendant kept interrupting to ask us silly questions and offer us all kinds of treats and drinks and pillows and magazines and about the fifth time I thought, "What's wrong with this woman? Why is she so hopped up?" And then it dawned on me, it was because of Bono. She and the whole flight crew were flipping out because Bono was on the plane. It was not how professional people normally react to a rock star or any other kind of celebrity. This was something a lot more intense. I've seen people react a little like that to Paul McCartney, Muhammad Ali and Bill Clinton, but I'd have to say that this is even stronger. It's like Bono has absorbed the energy that's been looking for a place to land since the sixties.

Boy, do I hope he doesn't read this.

The praise being heaped on Bono for his humanitarian work is a big change from the Zoo TV era, isn't it? You reported on the savage reaction of the British press when they brought the war in Sarajevo into Wembley. Now, Bono plugs the ONE campaign in every concert and almost nobody grouses. One exception: I get into arguments about whether Bono wearing sunglasses around Bush constitutes disrespect for the presidential office and why he gets so much face time with Congress when he holds no elected post.

Bono wearing sunglasses does not disrespect the office of the President. Condoning and institutionalizing torture disrespects the office of the President. Slandering honest critics disrespects the office of the President. Using fear to control the population....Sorry, I went off there for a second.

Listen, why shouldn't Bono get face time with leaders? Who ever said only elected officials get face time with elected officials? Talk about a closed circle! You know who gets face time with elected officials? Oil lobbyists, teachers unions, campaign contributors, religious leaders, veterans groups, foreign dignitaries, athletes, actors, fund-raisers, journalists, watchdog groups. Why not Bono? He's one of the very few who is not being paid to endorse a position. When he lobbies for something, It's only because he believes it is right. He has no other reason for being there. How many other people on a politician's schedule any day can say that?

What about their presentation of faith and doubt over the years? In At the End of the World you ask Bono about his faith, saying that if you didn't address it in an interview directly, people might get the impression that they had gotten like the stereotype of American Episcopalians: "...and if you want, we can baptize your cat." I don't think there's any danger of people thinking that way about Bono or U2 now.

Well, I think his faith speaks for itself, really. He's not a Catholic, but he certainly does do Good Works. (Did I say that in the book about Episcopalians? I should watch my mouth.)

In your book Bono laments that he isn't paying more attention to the craft of writing lyrics; what do you think of his lyrics these days? He also wishes U2 would write songs and try them "in a few different keys." Do you know if he got his wish?

Well, I think U2's lyrics have always been good. I think Bono probably underestimated them. "The orbit of your hips" is a fantastic phrase. "Wake Up Dead Man" is a great lyric. "Kite" is a great lyric. There's a lot of 'em.

Different Keys? I doubt it. That's the price Bono pays for going off to save the world and leaving Edge, Adam and Larry to cut the tracks without him. (I wonder if they ever do one in a key they know would be impossible for him, just to make him sweat.)

How much of your Zoo TV experience got into A&R [the novel you wrote afterward]?

Gee, I don't know, it all gets mixed together. I can't think of any U2 echoes in A&R but there probably are some. It occurred to me later that I had written one book about songwriting (Written in my Soul), one about touring and recording (U2 at the End of the World) and one about the record business (A&R). Taken together I guess they make up my survey of what I know about the music business.

Oh, there's one funny connection between U2 and A&R. When I got in the first copies of A&R I sent one to Bono. A while later I got a call that he lost it and could he get another right away. I thought, "Well, he'll just lose this one, too, I don't want to send him one of the nice hardcover books with the finished cover. I'll send him one of the early paperback galleys with a rejected cover. He won't care." The next time I saw him he said, "Guess what? In our new video I'm carrying your book!" [Ed. note: "Beautiful Day" video] That's why he wanted it! He was giving me a gigantic plug! And because I was so cheap, he's carrying the only copy of A&R with a cover that was never used. No one can tell what it is! Serves me right, huh?

Why do you think your book, of all the books on U2, has gotten the nickname "the U2 bible" from the fan community?

Probably because it's so thick. If I'd published all the notebooks I started with it would be called the Encyclopedia Britannica of U2.

I know a few people who wouldn't have minded that...I wonder, too, if the timing may have something to do with it. Your book came out just as Internet fandom was first coming into being. Lots of folks were discussing your book on Wire, the big fan mailing list, when I joined in '95, and that made me want to go out and buy it. That's interesting...I was not aware of on-line conversations about the book. I never even checked what readers were saying on the Amazon chat rooms. I'm superstitious about that, once I finish a book and send it out there I really don't want to think about it any more.

Do many fans know who you are and give you any feedback about the book if they see you at shows? What are some comments you've heard?

People do come up to me on the subway or at shows sometimes and talk to me about my books or something I did on TV. They're always nice. I'm sure anyone who hated my stuff would not come up and talk to me.

It seemed like Adam was the one who went through the most change over the course of that book. I read somewhere recently that Larry told you he (Larry) came across as constantly angry, but has Adam told you anything about your portrayal of him? And what do you think of his bass playing these days?

A lot of people have been talking about how great Adam has been on this tour, how powerful his bass playing is and just what a strong presence he is on stage. I think he's always played that role behind the scenes, but now for some reason it seems to be more obvious to people in the stands.

I remember when the book was finished I sent manuscript copies to the four members of U2. The deal was they could correct mistakes but not ask me to change anything that was not factually wrong. There were a few tense exchanges, as you'd expect. Larry did actually point out that I made him look like he was angry all the time. I said he was exaggerating and he proceeded to reel off a list of descriptions from the manuscript. It was pretty funny, it was something like, "Larry is angry, Larry is mad, Larry is furious, Larry comes in pissed off, Larry fumes, Larry bitches, Larry complains, Larry admonishes." What could I say? He was right, he nailed me. I didn't know I had done it and the thing is, I like Larry so much and I get such a kick out of him that I saw these descriptions as kind of funny, but he was right -- a reader would not see it that way.

Larry, Bono and Edge were all very graceful about the whole thing -- and it was awkward for all of us -- but each of them at least suggested that I change some things in my descriptions of them. Adam was the only one who did not. Adam was a complete mensch about it. He said, "Well, there's some things in the book I wish were not there and I wish you didn't know about, but it's true so fair play to you." I thought he showed incredible class. But that's Adam. He's a very strong and dignified person.

What was the dominant impression of Edge that you got from spending time with him on the road? What would you call his biggest strengths, songwriting and playing-wise?

Edge is a remarkable talent. As Pete Townshend said many years ago, "Edge is a giant." In fact, Edge is a lot like Townshend in terms of the range of his vision and talent. He can write the records and make the records, all by himself if he had to. If Bono had not been in the band, U2 would still be a hugely important group.

Whose idea was your book in the first place? And what kind of process did you use to write it?

The book came about because Betsy Bundschuh, an editor at Delacourte, read an article I did about U2 in Musician -- the invasion of Sellafield -- and asked if I could expand it into a book. I had been approached quite a few times to write books about U2 and I always scared them off by saying I did not want to write a standard bio that went through their whole lives and every album and tour. I wanted to write something that covered a short period of time in great depth. Betsy was the first one to say yes to that idea. So I sent the band a note and Bono called and said, "This sounds like something we might want to do." I went out and spent a couple of days with them and we talked about it and they agreed to very, very generous terms -- they wanted no money, they wanted no control. They were just great about it. So I went back and told Betsy we were on.

The way I wrote the book was that I'd go out with them for about ten days at a time, as often as once a month. I kept a notebook in one pocket of my raincoat and a tape recorder in the other and tried to get everything down. Usually we'd stay up all night and I'd crawl back to my hotel room after dawn and then I'd have to stay up a couple of more hours writing down every thing that had just happened and translating all the scribbles on napkins and so on. When I got too tired to write any more I'd start talking it into the tape recorder until I feel asleep. A few hours later the phone would ring and we'd be off again. By the end of the tour I was so tired I was almost hallucinating, but I think that actually put me on the same wavelength as everybody else. The book gets more manic as it goes along, but that's appropriate, that's how everybody felt, I think.

When I got back to America I spent about six or eight months going through all the note books and tape recordings and trimming it down, while trying to keep that real-time feeling. A lot of the book is just typed right out of the notebooks. I tried to make it all coherent, but I didn't clean it up to the point where a reader would miss the experience. It was important to me that the book feel like what it felt like to be on that tour. I was thinking of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail a lot, and also Spaulding Gray and Armies of the Night and The Boys on the Bus and Teddy White and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Radical Chic. While I was putting the book together I would get exhausted and I'd read SJ Perelman to perk up, so I'm sure that got in there, too.

Imagine you didn't have your current responsibilities at VH1 and your family wouldn't mind you devoting another couple of years to a big project. Bono calls you up and says, "Hey, Bill, let's do another book!" Would you be interested?

The suggestion of doing a second volume comes up sometimes but I think it's a bad idea. I really don't think anybody needs to hear any more from me about U2 and I would not want to impose on the band like that again. I thought Killing Bono was a really funny angle on U2, and Michka Assayas' book is just like spending a long evening with Bono, so there's lots of ways to go.

Are there other bands that you would like to see written about from an "embedded reporter" perspective?

I liked Greg Kot's book about Wilco, it was a real old-fashioned biography from someone who had clearly been moved by the music and cared about the band and felt the story was important. It seems like that should be the minimum requirement, doesn't it? I'm always surprised that so many of the rock books that come out seem to be clip jobs by writers who don't really know their subjects very well. And yet so many of the best rock writers -- Charles M. Young, Jay Cocks, Fred Schruers, Mikal Gillmore, Paul Nelson -- have not really written rock books. Then again, as my editor said to me not long ago, "YOU don't want to do it, do you? Why should they?" I'm glad Peter Guralnick is out there swinging. I wish a few more people were.



© @U2/Pancella, 2005.

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