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[T]he developing countries have had enough of charity they want to get off the nipple of aid and stand up on their own merit. -- Bono

Carla and Bono: 'Intimacy is the new punk rock!'

Madame Figaro

[@U2 note: the following interview appeared in the March 27 issue of France's Madame Figaro. The following English translation comes to us thanks to Beth M.]

Summit meeting at Carla's: she hosts U2's legendary singer for an interview as private as it is unusual. On the program: political commitment, God, Ireland, Bob Dylan...  Madame Figaro slipped onto the couch. And actor Victor Perez behind the lens.

Wednesday, last January 20th, Bono, the charismatic leader of U2, the greatest currently-working rock group, is passing through Paris. After being received at the Elysee Palace in his role as a human rights activist, he heads to the home of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy for an exceptional meeting. They met at Cap Nègre, Bruni's vacation home, through a mutual friend. "Bono, The Edge [guitarist of U2--Ed], and Daniel Lanois their producer arrived for lunch in a helicopter. It made a bit of an effect," Bruni remembers. They met again from time to time, most often at the Elysee Palace, where the Irish singer with 170 million albums sold comes regularly to speak up for his ONE organization, which functions as an advocacy group to push nations into action in Africa, and Red, a project whose goal is to raise money for the Global Fund and the fight against AIDS. He speaks freely with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy about political commitment, about the Irish soul, and about their shared great passion for music and especially for their hero Bob Dylan. Roll tape.

Carla: Your militancy for organizations, your devotion to others, all this work is impressive when as a rock star you could be content with the fantastic life of an artist. I was wondering if the enormous energy and sharp global awareness one feels in your writing came from your Irish blood...

Bono: It's clearly something like that. Moral indignation, yeah, that'd be us. The Irish are funny, but they have a melancholy that can turn into rage – good or bad. You find that in our politics. And in our art. The Irish are obsessed with politics. Every taxi driver, bartender, clerk, and especially the women. Artists express this indignation even when they try to avoid it.

Yeah, the Irish are funny. In literature, for example, their revenge on the English after political oppression was to take their language, twist it, wring it out, stretch it out, or shrink it. It's really flagrant in Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, and Beckett. But my Irish nature isn't the only thing that explains my active commitments. It's a form of egotism, actually. See, I find that the life of artists whose motivation depends a great deal on narcissism leads to a state of chronic unhappiness, of relishing one's own moroseness. Fighting for others got me out of that; it's like I'm working outside myself. Yes, that's it: working for others and with others saved my life.

Carla: I know exactly what you mean. It's indisputable that there's a lot of ego in artistic creation. Encountering others isn't only a vital necessity; it's also an enrichment that widens your perspective and gives new viewpoints. Focusing on yourself isn't the most interesting thing, even if that can produce admirable romantic songs. But you, you write about other people...

Bono: Carla, you're a storyteller. You tell stories. Myself, I'm totally lost when I use "I." I don't know how to tell stories. It's a fault. On the other hand, what I do know how to do is describe situations, in a way that's more emotional than psychological. That's what I did, for example, in writing about Ireland in the early '80s.

Carla: And it's thanks to your songs that a whole generation got interested in your country's history. I remember "Sunday Bloody Sunday" so well, one of those emblematic songs, which went straight into our heads and our hearts. The political impact of that song counted for something in every debate in the world.

Bono: Carla, do you like the Clash?

Carla: Very much.

Bono: They're the ones I learned from. They're the ones who opened the way to political debate in punk rock. I was never a political analyst, but listening to the Clash made me get interested in the theme of justice. As soon as I witness an injustice, my Irish blood has one reaction: I've got to do something. That's what happened when I went to El Salvador and Nicaragua in the mid-'80s. I went with my wife Ali to support an organization whose goal was to keep children safe. We saw horrible things... A village being strafed, American shells exploding, a cadaver thrown out of a passing car on the side of a road... Ordinary people caught up in an ideological war that would look ridiculous today. It was very shocking. How could you remain unmoved? How could you not want to bear witness and take action? Some songs like "Bullet the Blue Sky," with Edge's famous riff, were born of that nightmare.

Carla: I've been wondering something about you: Are you religious?

Bono: "Religion" is a complex word, and especially in Ireland. My mother was Protestant and my father Catholic. They got married in a time when doing that was practically impossible. A good portion of my father's family didn't even trouble themselves to come. My parents taught me to be highly suspicious of religions in all the ways they can be extreme, but also to be very reverent before the idea that Jesus Christ was born in poverty, lying on hay, and that he was at the service of the poor and the lowly. I have that reverence, and I am a believer.

My relationship with God is easy. There's nothing awkward about it. Many people's concept of God is not intellectually sound, or it's too intimidating and complicated. I'm thinking of these people who take the crucifix off the bedroom wall when they have sex. (laughs) Me, I can end up in a bar, drink a little too much, do handstands, make an idiot of myself, and manage to go back home without having the impression God is wagging his finger at me. I don't think God enjoys wagging fingers. But if I made the effort to ask, God might point out to me that that extra glass of whisky wasn't so becoming. (laughs) I believe God understands human nature. God made man in his image, after all...

Carla: If God exists and we resemble him, he can't be perfect...

Bono: I know some great intellects among people who see faith as a gift. My father, for example. I used to ask him all the time, "Do you really believe?" He invariably told me that he prayed, but he didn't expect God to hear his prayers. That's a modesty I'm lacking, but it's a little sad. You need, as Lou Reed sings, "a busload of faith to get by." Faith is a marvelous thing. In spite of all its errors, nobody should forget that the Catholic church has done a huge work in Africa, for example. They're the servants of the poor and I respect them. 

Carla: I respect them, too.

Bono: And I appreciate the mystery of the church more and more. When I was younger, I loved American Black Gospel, that abandonment you see in Southern churches. Now, I go gather my thoughts at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. I sit at the back, I recollect myself, and I taste this silence that's so unique and so enigmatic. I sit, I look, and I examine myself.

Carla: Tell me about your organizations RED and ONE; our readers should know...

Bono: They're organizations designed to fight poverty and AIDS. ONE is an organization that's trying to help activists and put pressure on governments, in the name of the world's poor. The basic principle is that human dignity is a fundamental right. You can't deny a person his dignity on the pretext that he wasn't born in the right place on the planet. There it is. If you are born with HIV in a Western country, it's not a death sentence, but it is in Gabon. ONE refuses this idea, fights neglect, and pushes to change the world, even if the task is enormous when the countries in question are frequently suspected of corruption.

RED is something else. It's a project aimed at people who aren't necessarily interested in understanding the political machinery, but who want to show solidarity. How can I help? I buy a RED T-shirt, a RED iPod, or a RED Nike jacket. The person reaching into their wallet isn't you, it's these heroic companies who pay out a percentage to the Global Fund. We've made 150 million dollars in three years; that proves that people and companies want to get involved, and that's heartening.

I hate the breeziness of saying, "the world is the way it is, nothing can change it." That's false. It's a lie. You can, and therefore you must, fix certain injustices. I've always known that. Since I was 12 years old, when I used to listen to Bob Dylan in the '70s, stretched out on the bed in my little room on the north side of Dublin. The outside world was so depressed, but Bob Dylan was singing in my ear that the world could change. I believed him and I still believe him.

Carla: Bob Dylan sang the same thing in my ear. I believed him too (laughs).

Bono: What's your favorite Dylan album?

Carla: Maybe Nashville Sky, because of "Lay Lady Lay." When I listen to that song, it's just as if I were opening the window to discover a sunny morning.

Bono: That's great! (starts to sing) "Whatever colors you have in your mind/I'll show them to you and you'll see them shine/Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile." Dylan is like Picasso... He paints things you can't see with your eyes.

Carla: He's a character that's beyond time. I adore his writing. I've listened to his songs thousands of times. There's never a superfluous word.

Bono: We co-authored a song, "Love Rescue Me." I went to see him in Los Angeles with a melody in my head, something Dylanesque, nothing very U2. (sings) "Love rescue me/Come forth and speak to me/Raise me up and don't let me fall/No man is my enemy/My own hands imprison me... Love rescue me." It's not a work of art. It's very minor, for him at least. But he was patient with my naivete and with my ambitions, which were not very well defined. And we finished the song for an album called Rattle and Hum. He even sang on the album...

Carla: My husband and I met him after a concert. He gave him his harmonica!

Bono: Are you kidding?

Carla: But the harmonica didn't stay in his pocket long. (laughs) I confiscated it. From then on it was MY harmonica.

Bono: That's very funny. Have you always been like this? You seem to like singers who aren't from your generation: the Dylans, the Cohens...

Carla: Absolutely. Even though, sometimes, you've got to listen to the new generation, their nerve, their modernity.  But I don't find much poetry today like people like Dylan, Cohen, or Brassens wrote. Georges Brassens was an extraordinary storyteller, just like Dylan; he picks up a thread and spins it out. An obsession is necessary among all great writers.  You have to be obsessed by something or someone.  That's what the evidence shows with Dylan, Cohen, Brassens. In France, there's also Barbara who cultivates this mixture of wit and sadness. Of course, their music doesn't have that kind of trance that rock induces, but they've got something else; they tell universal stories.

Bono: Your songs, too, Carla; they have what I call the gift of intimacy. What interests me is that right now everyone is listening to lots of music everywhere with earphones on. Look in the subway. And you, Carla, are whispering stories in these people's ears. It's extremely intimate. This way of listening to music has changed things; you go right into people's heads and hearts. You don't shout anymore, you murmur. And there's something really radical about that, isn't there? Yeah, intimacy is the new punk rock. (laughs)

Carla: You're probably right, but at the same time, that violent physical emotion that rock gives goes along with youth, and it's very attractive. When I was younger I needed that energy. 

Bono: I said that to Dylan. "One day, we're going to try to create with music what you do with words: a vertigo that would lead into a form of musical ecstasy. Our surrealism is going to rest on the sound of the group." I was 24 years old. He was so supportive. He still is.

Carla: His last concert was fantastic. Perfect simplicity, generous intimacy, manners. And especially self-restraint [retenue]. I love retenue.

Bono: (repeats after her in French) Retenue...

Carla: It all adds up to an indescribable magic that gives me shivers.

Bono: Dylan gives me shivers, too. And I love his later songs, the ones he wrote at 50. I love his discipline and his continuity. I'm thinking of that phrase "discipline and obedience in the same direction..."

Carla: That's Nietzsche...

Bono: Yes, exactly. Stay on the same road, persevere, be true to yourself. If I could get one motto tattooed on my arm, it would be this one: "A long obedience in the same direction."

Carla: No need to get a tattoo, you're living it.

Bono: I hope so, for my family, for my clan, for my art as well. But especially, I'd love for everyone to have that hope at the moment of death, the hope that you aren't leaving this world the same as you found it, but you're leaving the world a little better. We ought to celebrate the tiniest changes everywhere we find them -- in ourselves, in our family, our neighborhood, our country, the world. I'll say it again: I hate the idea of the inviolability of things. You can and you should shake things up. Besides, history proves it. Look, not long ago women didn't have the right to vote, and that was something just taken as a given. That appalling fact didn't stand the test of time.

Carla: Nothing stands the test of time. That's a fact. (laughter) But not to give up on changing the world is for us an act of hope.

Bono: A long obedience in the same direction. And changing the world. Let's not forget it.

© Madame Figaro, 2010.