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"Basically, I think we're all nutters, but somehow it works."

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Bono vs. The Beast

A Guided Tour Through U2's New Album

Musician, August 01, 1993
By: Joe Jackson

 

The setting is Dublin's Factory rehearsal studio, where U2 are piecing together Zooropa, the follow-up album to Achtung Baby, Bono admits he is "totally wasted" from working in the studio until 3 a.m. on a track titled "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car." U2 has made this new album while preparing for a summer tour of Europe. Does Bono, or do U2 as a band, feel intimidated by the groundbreaking success of Achtung Baby and the fact that they now must follow one of their most innovation albums in recent memory?

"People say that to us but -- can I be totally honest and suitably humble with you? We just whipped its as by making this new album over the past six weeks! It was easy! Achtung Baby was just us tuning up to get ready for this record!

"We don't feel at all intimidated, though we were totally taken aback by how successful Achtung Baby was. But the new record is a different album. It's more raw, more immediate because we have got the band playing together in a way that we probably never have before. And we really can't afford to stop and think, 'Oh wow, we've got to follow Achtung Baby.'

"You just get into the studio and do it."

Bono launches into an improvised ramble of responses to the songs on the new album, as well as a fly-on-the-wall look at as much of his psyche as he wishes to reveal right now.

Playing the new album's first track, "Zooropa," Bono shouts above the music: "A lot of what's in this album comes from reading the work of William Gibson" -- the cyberpunk sci-fi author.

The song opens with a brace of suspended chords trembling as they chain down the sound of indecipherable human voices shifting from speaker to speaker, growing louder with each beat. It's sci-fi in hi-fi, signifying that Zoo TV future shock is about to begin again.

"This is just a sketch," says Bono. "The album is still changing day to day. As it stands we have 14 tracks which we'll probably cut down to 10. Over the last six weeks it's taken its own shape and we've just gone with the flow."

When the Edge rides in with a steely, angry "Zoo Station"-like bolting together this amorphous musical maze, followed by Larry Mullen's steadying pulse on drums and bass, Bono yells, "It's a trip!" Less flippantly he adds: "That's what I want it to be! Legal drugs. Why else would you buy an album these days?"

He recites with his own recorded voice: "I have no compass/And I have no map/And I have no reason, no reason/To get back."

The moral confusion that dominates "Acrobat," from Achtung Baby, is in evidence again.

"And I have no religion/And I don't know what's what/Don't know the limits/Don't know the limits of what we got."

Taking a deep breath while the song dissolves into screeching white noise, Bono laughs, shakes his head and, as if suddenly remembering there is someone in the room, says, "We were going to call the album Squeaky at one point!"

His self-conscious laugh is silenced as the DAT immediately delivers a second song, which begins with that seems like the sound of a child's toy in a soon-to-be subverted opening scene of a David Lynch movie.

"This is called 'Babyface,' " says Bono. "And in this brightly lit, fucked-up commercial landscape we'll have onstage, we take the audience through a window and there's a guy watching somebody on a TV, a personality, a celebrity he's obsessed with. It's about how people play with images, believing you know somebody through an image, and think that by manipulating a machine that, in fact, controls you, you can have some kind of power [sings, in a chillingly sweet voice]: "Watching your bright-lit eyes/In the freeze frame/I've seen them so many times/I feel like I must be your best friend/You're looking fine, so fine."

As Bono harmonizes with his own voice, the spirits of David Bowie and Lou Reed hover nearby. Right on cue he stops singing and just as you're thinking of the colored girls going do-de-do-de-do-do-de-de-do-de-do, he smiles and says, "There hasn't been a good do-de-do on the album yet -- so here it comes!" Hamming up and calling to mind some of his father's heroes, he adds, "But you admit that Dean Martin was great at that, wasn't he? And Bing Crosby. What I loved was the way they'd casually slip their hands in their pockets while singing. I can't do that at all -- because my jeans are too tight!"

Bono explains that "Dirty Day," the next track, "is exactly as it happened": a largely instrumental sonic rumble, and ramble, made up mostly of improvised riffs and rhythms in the studio.

"Iggy Pop was very much an influence in terms of the way he'd make up songs in performance," he explains. "So this is really U2 in its most raw state. At the moment I'm toying with the idea of something that keeps flashing up in front of me when I hear the music, an image of a father giving surrealist advice to his son. I also see Charles Bukowski in my head and the kind of advice he gives, like 'Always give a false name!' But whatever lyric I finally put to it, the music strikes me as very sad.

"Iggy Pop was very much an influence in terms of the way he'd make up songs in performance," he explains. "So this is really U2 in its most raw state. At the moment I'm toying with the idea of something that keeps flashing up in front of me when I hear the music, an image of a father giving surrealist advice to his son. I also see Charles Bukowski in my head and the kind of advice he gives, like 'Always give a false name!' But whatever lyric I finally put to it, the music strikes me as very sad. What I'm saying there is 'Make it better, son.' The feeling I get is that the father has fucked off, or something like that. Then again it may end up begin about Gorbachev! But what you're hearing there is the base if what probably will become a song, and the creative process is obviously very much dictated by the atmosphere the band originally got while improvising. That's what will dictate the kind of lyrics the song finally has."

Continuing the father theme, Bono laughs and says, "And here's another cheery little U2 ditty we finished last night, 'Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car.' "

Bono sings: "You're a precious stone/You're out on your own/You know everyone in the world/But you feel alone."

"We use the reverb there to bring my voice in and out of focus, so it's right in your ear one moment, then lost in the mix the next. We want it to be disorienting, disturbing," he says, having effectively fractured my eardrum with his shout. As the tape winds into silence he picks up his guitar, saying: "That's a blues, an industrial blues. You could just as easily do it this way." He continues the above lyric but now sings it as a 12-bar blues. "Daddy's won't let you weep/Daddy won't let you ache/Daddy gonna give you/As much as you can take."

"Now even though it has been heavily processed," he explains, "the point is it was written through that process, rather than written as a blues, then put through the technological mix you hear. It was written back-to-front, as it were. Yet to me it's definitely a blues song for the '90s, as true to its roots as a song could be."

Most of the new album was done in Dublin this spring. One song, titled "Numb," however, has its roots in Berlin, and in the recording sessions for Achtung Baby. It opens with a no-shit dialogue between Larry's sticks rapping a snare drum and Edge's guitar spitting out vengeful licks. The vocal, delivered through gritted teeth, is a litany of commands made all the more powerful because they are almost whispered.

"Edge has just got a list of things there, one following the other," says Bono. " 'Don't cry/Don't eat/Don't drink/Don't sleep.' It's kind of arcade music, but at base it's a dark energy we're tapping into, like a lot of stuff on Achtung Baby. And, here, I use my Fat Lady voice that I used on 'The Fly.' There's a big fat mama in all of us! But you need that high wail set against the bass voice because the song is about overload, all those forces that come at you from different angles and you have no way to respond. It's us trying to get inside somebody's head. So in that mix you hear a football crowd, a line of don'ts, kitsch, soul singing and Larry singing for the first time in that context. So what we're trying to do is recreate that feeling of sensory overload."

"Numb" ends as it began, with a drumbeat yet minus Edge's guitar lines. The drumbeat is sampled from the Nazi propaganda The Triumph of the Will.

Changing the tape again, Bono explains: "For us, it's a new way of working. We've been taking audiovisual loops and working with them. That drum loop comes from the scene where an 11-year-old Nazi plays the drum at the 1936 Olympic Games. And we're going to be playing, and using that loop, in the actual stadium where that boy played, in Berlin. That's going to be a very eerie moment, because that boy could still be alive, I suppose."

Silencing the DAT machine and switching on his PowerBook, he brings up his "Lyrics" file, and says, "I wrote this piece called 'In Cold Blood.' I probably will recite it during the show. But this is as I wrote it, I haven't rewritten anything." He recites the following:

I read a book once, called In Cold Blood. Pages of fact did me no good. I read it like a blind man, in cold blood.

So the story of a three-year-old child. Raped of soldiers, though she'd already died, Made the mother watch as they fucked her in the mud. I'm reading the story now, in cold blood.

More now coming off the wire City surrounded, funeral pyre Life is cheaper than talking about it People choke on their politicians' vomit.

On cable television I saw a woman weep Live, by satellite, from a flood-ridden street Boy mistaken for a wastepaper bin Body that a child used to live in.

I saw plastic explosives and an alarm clock And the wrong men sitting in the dock Karma is a word I never understood How God could take a four-year-old in cold blood.

I live by a beach, but it feels like New York I hear about 10 murders before I get to work. What's it going to be, Lord, fire or flood? An act of mercy or in cold blood?


Pausing after reading the lyrics, Bono sips from his coffee and then says, "Sometimes, in the middle of all the kitsch you have to stick the boot in. But that lyric too is about overload and I want to use it as part of 'Numb' live, though it may only be samples or lines I like. But it's not so much about the cold blood involved in the various acts I describe, it's about the way we respond to those things. Maybe I'll just do parts of that to the drum loop. And if I read it onstage I will be standing in front of a 12-foot-by-12-foot television image of the child playing that drum in 1936 in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin."

Bono uses this example to highlight how deeply committed he is to rock as an audiovisual form of expression. "The way we feel about it is that rock 'n' roll -- whatever that is these days -- is mutating and that it's always technology that spurs these mutations. It's the electric guitar that gave us the fuzzbox, the sampler that gave us rap music and so on. And while I have respect for people who wish to ignore that 'filthy modern tide,' I don't want to, I couldn't. If you go back to the birth of electric blues, many musicians didn't want to leave their acoustic guitars behind. If some hadn't, where would the blues be now, where would rock 'n' roll be? Would we even have something called rock 'n' roll? And it was the bluesmen who also used electronic distortion in its most basic sense. They'd attach bits of metal to their drums so that they'd buzz and distort. And that's what was happening right there at the beginning of the blues."

The same, of course, applied to the birth of rock 'n' when Sam Phillips at Sun deliberately busted a speaker cone to get distortion on "Rocket 88," the track widely described as the first rock 'n' roll recording.

"That's what the whole thing's all about," says Bono. "Doing anything you can to feel the ground going from under your feet and enjoying the sensation! And that's exactly where we're at, though we do a little more than busting a speaker or an amp! But the whole idea is as it's always been during the best moments in rock, pushing things to see what might happen rather than just sitting there and simply recreating, saying, the '70s, which is so fashionable now. Or any other period in rock. If we're committed to the art of rock 'n' roll at all we have to move forward to see what we can make of the beast by pushing everything to its limits. And, to me, that's what is most interesting about rock 'n' roll and popular music, this state of flux.

"And this is where popular music, and rock, is at right now," he asserts. "People are buying video games more than they are buying records. And I have to ask why would people buy albums now? That's why I think records should be more of a trip, literally. If it's about songs, taking the great songs from all over the place, but for me it's got to be more than that. For me great records are, and have always been, like books and movies. They're another place. And I'm not talking about concept albums! Certainly our new record isn't a concept album. But the music of the Sex Pistols was 'concept' music, a 'concept album' all told. It was a world you entered into at 16, a sonic experience hauling you in by throwing images at you. And you disappeared into it.

"So, again, what we're doing is not so far removed from that, particularly when, on the new album, the influence is so obviously someone like William Gibson. All his concepts about the future involve the use of interactive means of communication. For all these reasons it makes great sense to use all that in our music. And that, to me, is where music has to go."

One track on the new album highlights the ways in which U2 are intent on kicking rock into the 21st century while refusing to deny its equally important links to the past. That track, "The Wanderer," features a lead vocal by Johnny Cash.

"Johnny Cash is a very smart man and he's definitely someone who had no problem coming along with us for the ride, for the trip," says Bono, laughing as he changes the tape. "He came in from day one and started singing over what we described as this 'Holiday Inn band from hell!' And yet, seriously, this song is definitely the antidote to the Zooropa manifesto of uncertainty.

"Even if it begins with 'I don't have a compass/I don't have a map' -- in other words, I don't know, I don't know, but I accept this state of uncertainty -- this track gives one possible solution. But overall on the album the key is learning to live with uncertainty, even allowing uncertainty to be your guide."

Some of U2's Christian fans may have sensed the absence of the Lord on Achtung Baby, despite the presence of the song "Until the End of the World," which Bono once described as "a conversation between Jesus and Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane." Likewise in relation to Zoo TV, which probably presented a new set of questions from U2 rather than prescribing God as the answer.

"We deliberately kept that record for the most erotic form of love so as to almost exhaust it as a possibility, and I think that makes it a kind of prayer, in a strange sort of way," says Bono, pausing and choosing his words carefully. "Edge's guitar solo in 'Love Is Blindness' is a more eloquent prayer than anything I could write.

"You go through phrases in your attempt to work out what it is you believe. And there was a period back in the early '80s where we lived in a much more ascetic life and got a great grounding in the fundamentals of what Christianity could be. It wasn't the kind of Christianity that I loosely grew up around. It wasn't particularly Catholic or Protestant, it was more the cutting edge of Christianity. And I'm really glad I have that base.

"At the time we probably were extreme, because you are extreme in that honeymoon period. And you're always extreme when you're defensive. So I suppose we did build a wall around us and just got on with what we saw as our faith. But I do remember [manager Paul] McGuinness saying to me, even back then, 'Look, I'm not sure I share your faith but I know it's the important question to you. And that as an artist, a writer, is going to have to address that in whatever way you see fit. And if you want to do so you'll get a lot of stick, but go for it.' And we did so. And we did get a lot of stick."

Surely Bono himself, when he sees news reports about atrocities in Bosnia, for example, must have doubts about the existence of God.

"I'm sure of one thing," he replies. "Like we say on Zooropa, 'There's nothing certain/That's for certain.' But if I was certain of anything, I'm certain that you can't pin our actions, the actions of man in places like Bosnia, on God. That is our final arrogance, that we blame God for our own state. Most people think we got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. I'm not so sure. I think we kicked God out of it. And what I don't see is evidence of God in man. There is enough food, for example, but we just won't share it. We always see this planet as belonging to God-I think it belongs to us. We probably stole it from God. But you can try and give bits of it back in any way you can.

"People ask me, 'Are you exorcising or exercising your demons through your music?' I can only say that I hope I'm exorcising my demons. That's what I'm banking on. Maybe the word 'demon' isn't the best choice though. It's more a matter of tapping into your own darkness. And maybe that has to be a part of creating any form of substantial art. That certainly is something I've come to believe.

"Van Morrison's philosophy is 'more light, less darkness.' On the other hand, maybe sometimes you must use darkness to show up the light. And that is something I believe to be true. But this is a problem I have with many religious people today. They refuse to stare into the face of the world they're living in. And they refuse to describe it in anything other than the most bland way. They're not attempting to understand the darkness in the world, or to get into it and describe it from the inside so people can really get a sense of what you're talking about. But, more and more, I realize that everything tells us who, and what, we are.

"That, too, is why we draw on so much in the Zoo TV tour, from pornography to images of the Gulf War. That's our way of describing the world."

There have been rumors that Bono is now so interested in exploring darkness that he has begun to examine Satanism. Is that true?

Laughing loudly, Bono leans forward in his chair and says, "Can I say yes, please? Can you imagine the stories that would spin out of that? That would be something else."

He pauses and shakes his head in disbelief before answering more seriously. "You are attracted to the darkness -- attracted in some strange way to the things you are afraid of. But I never really had that shit of denying the darkness in your nature as a child. I was just given a few clues and directives and told to get out there and find the answers for myself. But what's really important is that I wasn't spiritually abused. And just as you can be mentally and physically abused as a child, you can be spiritually abused. I wasn't.

"I don't buy that Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil for the blues idea. I know your original question about Satanism is very real for some people and it's going on. And I know that in the vacuum created by the church, people look into expressions of other kinds. But I see explorations of darkness to that degree as very dodgy. And the truth is that I've too much respect for the devil to fuck with him.

"There was this song on The Joshua Tree called 'Exit' and I just want to take a bath after we do that. I just want to wash it off my skin. I broke my shoulder and did unearth a lot of shit-from within myself -- doing the song onstage. It also was a song somebody used in a murder. It came out later that the guy claimed the song made him do it. That's what I mean about not wanting to fuck with the devil."

Does Bono feel in any way responsible for the fact that a work of U2's ended up allegedly making someone commit a murder?

"Not at all. That sounded to me like a good lawyer at work for his client. But I still feel that you have to go down those streets in your music. If that's where the subject is taking you, you have to follow. At least in the imagination. I'm not sure I want to get down there to live. I'll take a walk occasionally, and have a drink with the devil, but I'm not moving in with him."



© Musician, 1993. All Rights Reserved.

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