"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."
20 Years of Achtung Baby: 5 Questions with Catherine Owens
November 28, 2011
Catherine Owens is probably most well known to U2 fans as the director of U23D. She also painted many of the Trabants used on the Zoo TV tour set. What you may not know is how her decades-long friendship and working relationship with the band has helped them to develop tour themes and shape the concert experience fans have come to expect. Owens, who was in a girl band when U2 were starting out, played guitar "because it was a good way to meet the bass players" (including Adam, with whom she maintains a close friendship). Owens abandoned her musical pursuits to attend art school in Belfast. Since then she has been a trusted adviser and friend to U2.
@U2: You met the band in the mid-1970s, when the music and art scene was burgeoning in Dublin. How did that help you prepare for work you did with them on the Zoo TV tour after Achtung Baby came out?
Catherine Owens: It was a lot of fun. When I left college, the band commissioned me to do a mural for the rehearsal space. They asked me to paint three murals on canvas when they were rehearsing The Unforgettable Fire. They had a big rehearsal space. So that was the first thing I ever did for them. They wanted some political paintings to perform within. There was a portrait of Winnie Mandela. She was trekking back and forth to bring goodies to her husband (Nelson Mandela) in prison and trying to get her children in to see them. She represented a very different thing at the time. And there was some insane collage portrait of Margaret Thatcher, Col. (Moammar) Ghadafi and Ronald Reagan. Who knows where that one was coming from? They all had headphones going into the same Sony Walkman. It was something completely bizarre. They were three leaders who were, I don't know, semi-dictators. It's interesting to see how long those figures, how long people dominate the landscape. It was their (U2) early days of political meanderings.
Years later the band started prepping for Zoo TV. At the time they were saying how they would like to customize the Trabants. They said, "Well, we know an artist, let's ask her." I had just begun to live in New York and had really gotten into the art world and what certainly included the experimental performance artists and what they were doing. And there were conversations with the band about what was happening there. "Who is doing interesting things and what can we take into our show that might be relevant, that we can be a bit of a voice for?"
There was a fantastic artist, David Wojnarowicz, who has since sadly died of AIDS. At that time he was very involved in making work about AIDS. That was at the earliest, earliest stages of that conversation. Zoo TV was in 1992, so we started talking in 1990 and 1991 about what the tour was going to be about and the AIDS epidemic had become front and center in the mid-‘80s, so it was very much a conversation the band wanted to include in the tour.
And at that time they were working with the famine and Amnesty (International), so the tour had those themes going on within the multi-personality performance characters that Bono was building. And the decision to go for the huge multimedia, never-been-done before -- those are words U2 love to use -- had never been done before. So if there was a chance to incorporate that into anything, they just go straight in. It doesn't matter what it is. So I think that was a very big deal then, that tour being multimedia.
Brian Eno was very involved at the time and he made some content. I was there. Mark Pellington was making these beautiful things for MTV at the time called Buzz Clips. I went to meet him, and he became part of that conversation. Then David Wojnarowicz provided images for the buffalo, images that we still use today.
What were the Trabants you painted?
We had a Keith Haring car, which we called the Radiant Baby car. We had the Female Goddess car. We had a Smell The Flowers While You Can Car (David Wojnarowicz car). It was a purple car that when you tilted it up you could see the purple flowers. We had a Text Car, a Graffiti Car and a True Believer Car, which was a yellow car with all sorts of icons related to goddess imagery -- like African drawings and infinity symbols. The Lucky Charm Trabant was pink with a charm bracelet on it.
What's on that Text Car was random -- it was a to-do list, basically. And it was things that needed to be done that day. It was kind of the idea that you're traveling and thinking about all these things and what's going on inside your head. I asked some people around the camp, "What are you doing today?" And whatever they said I just put it on the car. It was things like, "Phone so and so, pick up this or pick up that," random things that all came together.
I think all told, I did maybe eight of them. And then, as the tour went on, over two years, a couple of cars got replaced due to damage. But I think they were just replaced with solid colors. I don't think they were ever replaced with artwork.
Describe your role during the Zoo TV tour.
The Zoo TV role hadn't been defined or described yet. That really got defined over the years that followed with PopMart and Elevation and All That You Can't Leave Behind.
So at that point, it was almost like being an artist-in-residence. It was like, "What can she do? OK. Let's give that to Catherine." And Brian Eno had work in that show. And we commissioned Mark (Pellington) to do the text for the screens.
My role was a lot of coordinating the visual concepts to track to the audio concepts. For example, I would get to hear an album fairly early on in its final mixes and generally be advised of what would be going on. The band would consider developing a theme. I think with Zoo TV it was developing multiple characters. On PopMart it was the idea of working with surface, sort of the transitory nature of things, bigger than reality. So that would have been the whole concept so I would have been matching the concept with imagery to reflect those concepts. So on PopMart, for "Mysterious Ways," we had footage that was the very same as an English performance artist, who had been one of the main life models for painter Lucy Floyd, and a man called Lee Barry, a transsexual who created this extraordinary piece of video where he was dressed in a glitzy, glittery, Mylar mask and fringy clothes. So that sort of was a perfect over-the-top-piece. It was kind of that time in England when there was a lot of Ecstasy, a lot of clubbing going on. So that sort of coupled with the Mirror Ball and the Trabants. We would create these conversations on stage to support what the band were doing musically.
They were the kind of conversations working in a think-tank fashion in Dublin. People would say "This is what we're thinking of doing." Then the wardrobe person would say "This is what I'm thinking of doing." I'd say "Maybe I can combine a couple of those thoughts." So it was very much a collaborative creating a performance art piece, with all the characters, all the different people contributing. It was very much a democratic creative think tank.
Are you happy that the cars have become so iconic?
You know what, that was a fun time. That was a fun, insane concept. All of these insane concepts, it's so important for people to understand that real creativity and real joy comes out of being that crazy. It doesn't come out of being strategically perfect. It comes out of the mad ideas of people, saying of the very first Trabant that Anton worked on in Berlin, "Oh I know, let's put the band in a car and paint a character on top of the car they can drive around Berlin in this 20-mile-an-hour vehicle." And then the vehicle transforms into another conversation, and then that goes into another. The band has really great ideas and great concepts.
So many people said that'll never work, it's never been done before. When 10 or more people say no, it can't be done, that gives them a green light that means "go." They are spectacular like that. I can't even tell you how extraordinary some of the crazy ideas (were) that came up at the table that totally came into being.
When you first heard Achtung Baby, what were your thoughts about it?
One of the things I do when I first hear an album is I write copious amounts of words down. When I first heard that record, it was all sensuality, sex, body, really sort of South America and was very much to do with sexuality and sensuality. I really felt it was like, there are four fabulously gorgeous men at a certain prime, and I felt it was all there.
It's funny in a way. I have such a different relationship with each of them. I see such distinct segments of their lives when these albums come out. I'm always just thrilled how the albums reflect who they are at the time.