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"Our music is not something to lie down to, to get out of to, to die to, to commit suicide to. It's not a soundtrack to a nervous breakdown." — Bono

A Social Conscience Can be in Harmony With a Chart-Topping Hit

The minute the new U2 album, The Joshua Tree, hit the stores, fans went wild. In Europe record stores opened at midnight to accommodate customers who lined up around the block to buy it. This, the sixth album for the quartet from Dublin (the other five went platinum), has become an immediate smash, with the record hitting the top of the charts this weekend as the band plays a five-show sellout run at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

What's the appeal? Even though U2 has never had a Top 10 single, the group's bracing music and legendary on-stage performances have created a fan loyalty that is matched only by Bruce Springsteen's devoted audiences.

U2 is fronted by Bono, who has perhaps replaced Springsteen as rock's most striking performer. Bono's piercing lyrics and keening, modal melodies make him certainly the most artistically successful advocate of social conscience in rock 'n' roll, and where Springsteen speaks to an audience of aging baby boomers, U2's audience is younger and seemingly more responsive to the group's message.

As the band's tour of the United States began, Bono sat down and talked about the group's strengths and weaknesses.

You once told me that you considered U2 old-fashioned.

Well I think we were out of fashion, as opposed to being old-fashioned. I hope that we have always been out of fashion, although I'm not trying to be deliberately obscure. I mean we're committed to our music, getting it across to as many people as possible without ever compromising our music to do so. I do think we're a little overrated. I mean, I think that the best is yet to come with U2. We're just beginning as a band. When I see U2, I don't see the things we've done. I see the things we haven't done.

Why have you chosen not to perform in stadiums on this tour? You could easily have sold them out.

I don't think we're ready for them yet. U2 has come to the fore not on the strength of our records alone but on the strength of our live performances. And we like playing the smaller venues.

It is funny that 18,000-seat arenas are now considered small venues. You once said you didn't want to play them either -- until you saw how good Springsteen was at Wembley, outside of London.

That's right. I do like playing American arenas, though. The problem, as I see it, is that if we play smaller places then our tickets are sold at inflated prices. It's almost extortion. But we will come back (to the United States) in September, after playing (there) in the late spring. If the band and the gigs are good, we'll always come back. But if we stop enjoying playing, then we're not going to play anymore.

You once told me that you think you become a better person on stage, that you don't think you're nice. What do you mean by that?

People think I must be some sort of guru because we write songs like "Pride(In the Name of Love)" and are attracted to people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Basically, the reason I'm attracted to men of peace is because I grew up in a violent way. I despise the violence that I see in myself. I'm much more the guy with the broken bottle in his hand than the guy who would turn the other cheek.

I feel uncomfortable with the idea of being a hero, because I don't feel qualified for the job. People think U2 is special because the music is special. In fact, we're just ordinary people; our trade is to write songs, the way another person's trade is to work in a factory or teach. It so happens that in the times we live, if you're good at writing songs you get put on a pedestal. But in another time, another era, we would just be wandering minstrels in the village square with nothing. I said that with a wink.

You refer to the things that you haven't done; what are they?

There are certain records we've been trying to make, and we haven't made them. It seems we're always striving after the wind. We never stop to think that we've actually achieved something. This week, when The Joshua Tree was released, they opened the record stores in Europe at midnight to sell it to people who had lined up around the block. We were on cloud nine. But the day after that we were right down in the dirt again struggling to play songs in rehearsal. We're not that much into U2 ourselves. There are still many songs we haven't written, many concerts we haven't played. Every night we're on stage we want it to be the best concert of our lives. We think maybe it will be the best concert for the people who came to see us too. But we never seem to play that concert.

What came closest to it?

One of the highlights for me was being on the Amnesty International tour on the same bill as Lou Reed. Reed is my hero because he survived the '60s and '70s; in the '80s he's got clear eyes and his music is still vital. Being on stage with him was amazing.

Don't you think The Joshua Tree is a great record?

Well, I said to (guitarist) the Edge the other day that if people think this is our best record, they're making a big mistake. We haven't written our best record yet; we have a lot to learn along the way. I think it's our best record to date, but it will not be the peak of U2 by any means. I'm only 26, and Edge is 25, and I think we're slow starters.

Where was the album's cover picture taken?

It was just outside the town of Joshua Tree. It's an amazing town, not far from Death Valley. It's where the psychedelic era was born.

People like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey spent time there, and Gram Parsons (member of the Byrds and founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers, who died in 1975) is buried there. His coffin was burned by his road crew. It's an almost surreal place. It just captured a certain side of America for me. The desert has positive and negative elements.

Other than making the record and rehearsing for the tour, what have you been up to these days?

I spent some time in Africa and Central America. I wandered around and set off on a journey down U.S. Route 66 but never made it because of a personal tragedy. (The new album is dedicated to the memory of Greg Carroll, a close friend of Bono's and a member of the band's crew, who died in a 1986 motorcycle accident.) I've had a lot of personal tragedy in the last year and a half; many things went wrong for me. But they're going right now, and the album is a good omen. It's a complex record, and sometimes people make the mistake of thinking they can write about it after listening to it a half-dozen times. But even though some of the songs are the most accessible that U2 has ever written, others are complicated. It's going to take a long time for it to sink in; for me, certainly, and for others too.

How are you going to get the same sounds in concert without Brian Eno on the synthesizers? (Eno, who co-produced The Joshua Tree with Daniel Lanois, played synthesizers in the recording studio.)

The Edge is pretty expert. He has it under control. It's like NASA, you know. He has all this computerized equipment to be able to do three or four things at once. He plays keyboards with his feet as he's playing guitar. He's like a one-man orchestra.

What was Eno and Lanois' contribution to you this time?

The last album they produced with us, The Unforgettable Fire, was about seeing how far U2 could go, experimenting with sounds and structures. On this record, we were just interested in writing songs, real songs. People think of Eno as an avant-garde artist, an expert at atmospheres and textures. But gospel music is a big interest, and early soul music. He loves a simple song too. I think he's misunderstood.

There is such a simple side to him. He's warm for a person who's associated with the cold wave. He sings songs like "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "Where Were You When They Crucified My Lord?" at 8 in the morning while he's having breakfast. He sings old gospel and early Motown stuff. For a guy who knows so much about technology, he does not bow down to it.

How does the Edge manage to get those sounds out of his guitar? There isn't another guitar player who sounds like him.

I think he just sleeps upside down in his bed. Actually, we're going to bring him on tour upside down in a flight case. Edge is almost an anti-guitar hero. It's the restraint, not the letting go, that makes his playing so exciting.

Do you feel that you really need the rehearsals, after being in the studio for so long?

Well, believe it or not, that's the very reason why we have to rehearse. For instance, Edge forgets all the old songs. Before the last tour we had to go out and buy a copy of Under a Blood Red Sky (U2's first live album). I'm not very good at rehearsals, I must say. I really like to be on a stage, you know, in front of people and playing to people. I don't really like playing to thin air.

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