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U2: Reborn in the USA

Newsday, October 23, 1988
By: Wayne Robins

 

For hours, the same shot repeats over and over on a massive screen in a high-ceilinged editing room in Studio City, just a traffic jam outside of Hollywood. This is not the glamour pocket of the entertainment industry. It's a place where all the main streets look like Sunrise Highway, where the nuts-and-bolts show business work gets done. In this case, film director Phil Joanou, a skinny, energetic 26-year-old, and his crew are trying to balance music, narrative and ambient noises in a scene from the rock group U2's movie Rattle and Hum. Even more delicate, though, is the cultural balance in this particular scene, as U2, Ireland's most popular export since Guinness stout, rehearses with New York's New Voices of Freedom choir in a Harlem church.

Sitting a few feet from the console, Adam Clayton, bass player, looks like he'd rather be behind the wheel of his leased black Mustang convertible. And Dave Evans, the guitarist better known as the Edge, looks out from under the brim of his cowboy hat, tired from mixing the soundtrack album in another studio. What's on his mind may be summed up by the refrain of their song, "Bullet the Blue Sky": "Outside is America."

In fact, U2 has been devouring America, absorbing its culture, assimilating its sounds. From Harlem to Memphis, from Denver to Arizona, from San Francisco to Fort Worth, the group -- Evans, Clayton, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and the mercurial lead singer Paul "Bono" Hewson -- took sound and film crews along during its 1987 tour. The result is an album, released a few weeks ago, and a movie, which opens Nov. 4, called Rattle and Hum. Coming a year and a half after The Joshua Tree, which sold nearly five million copies in America, its subtitle could be, "maybe we found what we're looking for."

"It's just trying to get America out of our system once and for all," The Edge said. "I don't know if we're going to succeed. The Joshua Tree was the beginning of something; Rattle and Hum, the culmination. It happened during the course of the tour, listening to American music, writing songs during the tour, recording some of this at studios along the way. It has a lot of American influences, both in its vision and musical style."

U2's immersion in American music has been deep and wide. The trip to the Greater Calvary Baptist Church in Harlem was for a rehearsal with the New Voices of Freedom for a performance of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" at Madison Square Garden a little more than a year ago. There was a performance with blues great B.B. King, a collaboration with Bob Dylan, a tribute to Billie Holiday, and songs like "Heartland" that evoke, as Bono sings, "Missisippi and the cotton wool heat." Musically and geographically, it is a long way from the band's Dublin roots.

Although they'd always cast a concerned eye on America -- "Pride (In the Name of Love)," a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., was one of their best-known songs -- the influences in U2's music were more Celtic than soul until The Joshua Tree. Propulsive and incendiary at times, U2's hard rock had some of blunt edges and cool textures of Anglo-Irish, even European rock.

"I think what we discovered after a long time of living in Dublin is that we are part of rock and roll, and rock and roll is an American culture," bassist Adam Clayton said. "It's not English, and it's not European, so you do have to come to America to be part of that."

The structure of this two-record soundtrack album set is unconventional. Live concert recordings segue into new studio recordings. U2 originals coexist with songs by the Beatles and Bob Dylan. There's even a recorded performance by Jimi Hendrix ("Star Spangled Banner") and a spontaneous appearance by two Harlem street musicians the band encountered on the way to the church rehearsal.

For all their on-stage charisma, these soft-spoken Irishmen don't seem likely matinee idol material, and more photogenic bands, from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, have bored even their fans with their concert movies. Whose idea was it? "I'm trying to remember so I can kill him, there's been so much work we've been involved in," The Edge said. "I think what we were thinking was, we didn't really want to continue touring at the same pitch we were, because that really meant doing stadiums -- there was no other way we could go. Either you do twenty nights in each town, or stadiums. I can't see us getting caught in that treadmill."

Joanu, 26, is a recent graduate of the film school at the University of Southern California. He had directed two episodes of Steven Spielberg's not-so-amazing TV show, Amazing Stories, and the movie Three O'Clock High, now available in most video rental shops.

Though U2 admired Jonathan Demme, they didn't want to make a film that would invited comparisons to Demme's Stop Making Sense. Joanou was a U2 enthusiast who was the same age as members of the band. When Joanou went to a Connecticut U2 concert to make an unsolicited pitch to direct the film, there was immediate rapport.

"Having met the guy, we figured he knew what we were about musically, and could work with him," the Edge said. "He had the same points of reference, both in music and film. We like a lot of the same movies, like Raging Bull is one of our favorite movies of all time, and it's one of Phillip's favorites. And we knew he wasn't going to go for the obvious commercial movie which we never really wanted to make. We wanted to make something we're going to be proud of ourselves. We're not going to make any money out of this movie. We'd be crazy to think we would."

Even a band with the following of U2, Clayton acknowledged, would have a hard time pulling enough people into the theaters to cover the film's modest, by Hollywood standards, $5 million budget.

"If you get them to sit for an hour and a half of straight music without any background or information, that's something that might be interesting to a really keen U2 fan but no one else," Clayton said. "So we thought it was important to tell a story."

The solution sounds a bit like Easy Rider without drugs, motorcycles or Peter Fonda: "The story we tell in the film is, okay, you may think that on The Joshua Tree we were the greatest rock and roll band in the world, or whatever the press tagged us," Clayton said. "But at the same time we were playing these concerts, what was much more important to us was getting out. We were going all over America. We were staying with the music, not just going back to our hotel rooms and watching MTV until we fell asleep. We were getting out there, meeting people."

U2 first began consciously absorbing American folk, blues and country influences on The Joshua Tree album. While the influences are more pronounced on Rattle and Hum, it's not a drastic departure for the band.

"A lot of Irish folk songs were dealing with similar issues that the blues were dealing with," Clayton said. "So it feels like, although we've been looking for our paradise for a long time, it's been under our noses -- something already in us from our own Irish history."

B.B. King met U2 in Ireland a few years ago and saw common ground. "Most people from Ireland have had problems themselves for a long time," King said. "Their music may be far from blues roots, but I think of blues music as a mother tree, and many kinds of music have sprouted from it, and many different branches."

When you think of it that way, it's not so far fetched that an executive at Island Records asked New York's New Voices of Freedom -- a chorus that does a wide range of material, from pop to rhythm and blues -- to record a gospel version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

"Somewhere along the line, U2 heard it and asked if we'd perform it with them at the Garden," said Dennis Bell, musical director of New Voices of Freedom and producer of artists from jazz musician Dave Valentin to rapper Doug E. Fresh. "We got together and rehearsed it at a church, and we combined our arrangement with theirs. As an R&B-oriented musician, I worry about time, how the drums are going to kick. I was worried if their time would kick hard enough to make the gospel choir pump, but Larry's drumming was right on the money."

The Irish musicians impressed their Harlem hosts personally as well as musically.

"We expected the usual rock star persona," said Regina Hartfield, one of the members of the New Voices of Freedom. "We thought they'd come in, tell us what to do and leave. But they weren't like that at all. They were warm, very comfortable, extremely generous."

Of course, with a camera crew on their heels, U2 didn't get to experience Harlem anonymously. "What I was impressed with was the dignity of the people in the street," the Edge said. "But it was a pretty rough place. There were times when I felt uncomfortable being there, and being white. And although most people are really cool, a few people get pretty agitated purely by the presence of these white guys walking down the street. I've been in a lot of scary places, like Belfast; even some parts of Dublin are pretty scary. But this was heavy in a way I hadn't seen."

For months this spring while completing recording and post-production work on the movie, the Edge and his family stayed in the Hollywood Hills, and the other three shared a house in Bel Air. Coming to terms with Los Angeles, where rock stars are treated with Faroukian fealty, was discomforting for U2, which has built a huge, devoted following by expounding a populism so earthy in its humility that it borders on the spiritual.

"I don't think we feel comfortable with the limosines and red carpets," Clayton said. "Ireland is not a country that has a star culture, and Los Angeles is the pinnacle of that, the citadel. We come from a poor little country where you never see a new car on the road -- most people's cars are five or six years old. For us to be driving around in a Rolls-Royce expecting to be valet-parked everywhere is nonsense. It's easier to catch a bus in Dublin'"

But Hollywood isn't the Ould Sod, and, for all their heartfelt commitment to social justice, no one ever accused them of being ascetics.

"These guys like a good time better than anybody I've ever met," said Jimmy Iovine, the album's producer. "They live life hard, and I admire that. I had a lot to do to keep up with them -- they can work all night, then go out all night after that." One scene you won't see in the movie on which U2 really lets down its collective hair: the band jamming at a blues club in Chicago.

"We got up onstage after a few too many tequilas," the Edge said. "We had a great time, but when we looked at the footage afterwards, it was just so embarrassing. We were so gone, we knew it was wrong. It looked like something totally different to what was actually going on."

When U2 went to Memphis, making a pilgrimage to the Sun studios, the resonances were more "Blue Suede Shoes" than "Four Green Fields." Sun is where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins made the lean, hard rockabilly records in the 1950s that became the foundation of virtually all subsequent white rock and roll.

"When you're in Sun studios, you get this rush of history," Clayton said. "You feel like it's 1955 or something."

If there were ghosts stalking the halls, they were not just "good spirits," as Clayton called them, but inspiring ones. In a quick burst of energy, U2 recorded five songs at Sun. They include "Angel of Harlem," which features the Memphis Horns, staples on the great 1960s soul records by Al Green and others; "Love Rescue Me," with lyrics by Bono and Bob Dylan, with a guest vocal performance by Dylan; and "When Love Comes To Town," featuring B.B. King on guitar and vocals. Another song, Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ," appeared on the recently released Folkways: A Vision Shared album.

No musical trip to Memphis is complete without a visit to Graceland, the Elvis Presley homestead that has become an international shrine. Graceland disappoints many visitors as distressingly banal, but Clayton and the Edge had different perspectives.

"I think what we saw there was something very similar to our own roots," Clayton said. "This guy wasn't particularly flamboyant in his personal life -- it was a very simple country home. The media and everyone else would love to think of Elvis as the ultimate degenerate, but looking around that house I wouldn't have said that."

The Edge had a slightly different reaction. "I saw more of a sense of humor than bad taste," the guitarist said. "What struck me again is that Elvis was so outrageous for his time. I think he knew that, and his house was put together with that in mind."

Despite the infatuation with American culture, U2 has no inclination to set up shop here.

"I'd rather be at home," Clayton said, referring unmistakably to Ireland. "We've spent a lot of time here over the last ten years. We've toured for three months every couple of years, and you do miss home. You miss that feeling of belonging, of being able to walk down a street."


© Newsday, 1988.

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