"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."
Different Class (Part 2)
August 02, 2001
ADAM CLAYTON FIRST came to live in New York in the aftermath of the Zoo TV tour, and spent six months "decompressing." He is, therefore, no stranger to the white heat of a Manhattan summer and bustles down the scorching uptown sidewalks in full Englishman abroad, hot weather attire: sandals, shorts, T-shirt and sunhat. In one hand he precariously balances two varieties of Starbucks coffee and a smouldering Silk Cut Extra Mild. In the other he clutches a mobile phone and on his back he wears a natty deckchair-cum-rucksack with which he is extremely chuffed. As Larry Mullen notes, "It's the little things that get you through when you're on tour."
We stroll into Central Park, sidestepping the joggers, rollerbladers and cyclists, until Clayton decides we've found the perfect spot. "Today we're going to do something healthy," he announces in his curiously posh drawl, unfolding his deckchair and removing his T-shirt. "We're going to watch other people exercise."
Clayton has the languor and bone-dry humour of a disgraced aristocrat exiled to the colonies for some colourful indiscretion. Bono has taken to teasingly introducing him on-stage as "the poshest member of U2," but the Oxfordshire-born bassist isn't convinced his non-working class, non-Irish status is particularly significant.
"You know, if you're just another arsehole from the suburbs, I think it's pretty understandable if one was offered a chance to take on the world and win, you'd go for it," he contends. "I wasn't destined for greatness in any other area. I'd have ended up being some kind of bad landscape gardener or something. So I much prefer this."
It was Clayton, of course, who flew the flag highest for rock 'n' roll antics during the Zoo TV tour: getting engaged to Naomi Campbell, displaying his penis on the sleeve of Achtung Baby and turning partying into a full-time occupation. Even during the 1980s, when stony faces peered out from beneath wide-brimmed hats, he was the only member with neither a long-term relationship nor strong religious beliefs: "I did have a lot of energy for hanging with people, checking things out, just absorbing."
For his birthday one year, the rest of the band bought him a travelling cocktail cabinet. Bono reveals that "we lived through him vicariously for a few years. I was hoping that he'd do something like buy a yacht and we could all hang out on it. Because all of us were too embarrassed."
So why no yacht, Adam? Where's the warehouse full of cars?
"I did have a warehouse full of cars!" he hoots. "But they weren't particularly good cars. The good thing about U2 is it's always been a bit of a struggle. I don't think there was any point where the success was so enormously great that you could completely lose your mind and think you were the Aga Khan or something. We didn't have the time or the economic position to experience any grand madness."
Bono describes Clayton now as "a Buddha." Apart from Silk Cuts, which he chain smokes with heroic stamina, the bassist abandoned all his vices when he gave up drinking in 1996. He also got rid of many of his possessions, including the cars and his extravagant wine cellar. Q suggests that Clayton was already well-acquainted with All That You Can't Leave Behind's topic of confronting your own irresponsibility. He sighs.
"I think one of the great things about bands is that they allow you to be irresponsible for longer. Whether or not in the end that's a really healthy position to take...I guess I've been lucky in that I fucked about until my mid-30s and now I can have more of a balanced outlook. I think not having a family and kids, I know what I need. It's not very much actually, which is a nice place to be. Part of it's just opening your eyes and realising that there are practical ways that people live and that's OK. There's nothing wrong with catching the subway in New York -- you don't have to get a stretch limo."
Clayton could hold seminars in How To Be In An Enormously Successful Rock Group And Not Go Mad. He appears to be perfectly content with his place in the scheme of things. On the subject of fame he chortles, "Oh, I'm famous cos I know Bono. That's pretty much it."
So do you ever visualise what life beyond U2 might be like? "Not so much now. Occasionally I have fantasised about it, but it's kind of pointless to think a life beyond U2 could in any way measure up to a life with U2. You can't get out of this club. It's like the guys in the Beatles. They're still in the Beatles."
And Adam Clayton reclines into his deckchair to soak up the sun and watch the joggers go past.
SPENDING A FEW days around U2 confirms that punctuality is not one of Bono's strong points. It's as if in order to pack so much into his life he has to believe that time is elastic and it's the job of everybody around him to remind him that it's not.
An hour later than scheduled, he is all charm and apologies as he sweeps into Pastis, a vogueish Greenwich Village bistro where the brunching hipsters are too cool to ask for an autograph, but not too cool to stare. He cuts an impressive dash in a playboyish cream suit and a black shirt, unbuttoned almost to the navel to reveal a rosary nestling in a healthy chest rug. "Wine bar chic," he winks. "It's coming back."
Bono's hair is jet black but the bristles on his chin are flecked silver and, with the sunglasses off, there are deep lines under his eyes. It's a face that looks lived in, doubtless because it has been, and lived in well. Apart from his compact height (5'6") he radiates largeness. He punctuates his speech with acrobatic hand gestures and a generous laugh, marking revelations or particularly quotable aphorisms with a conspiratorial glance. His charm is nuclear.
Over coffee, talk turns to the recent birth of his fourth child, John Abraham Hewson. "JA," he elaborates in a cod Jamaican accent. "Jah. Jubilashun!" The baby was due just before the start of the tour, so he and Mrs. Hewson decided to ensure there was no delay.
"My wife Ali has an aversion to violent films, so she thought if she put on Chopper, which is made by a friend of ours, it might do the trick," he beams with husbandly pride. "And indeed it did! We got to the hospital 20 minutes before the baby was born. Twenty minutes! She's an extraordinary girl."
Is it tough having to be on tour immediately afterwards?
"Yeah, it is. Cyberdad doesn't sit well with me. You know, I'm watching his progress on e-mail. There's something very sad about that."
Would you recommend this lifestyle to him when he grows up?
"Yeah, but I was born a travel rat. My education has been out of the windows of planes, trains and automobiles. I love to wake up in different parts of the world."
What's the hardest part of U2's past to come to terms with?
"There were a lot of unfinished 1yrics that were written in five minutes instead of five hours. I remember the '80s for that. The first two lines of "Where the Streets Have No Name" were just written on the mic -- [dismissively] "I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside." It's like teenage poetry! The idea behind the song, the idea that you can transcend where you are, the idea of music as a sacrament, is so powerful, but it's this fucking inane couplet. [Chuckles] Those sort of things."
You've talked a lot about your temper lately. Did you sympathise with John Prescott clouting the egg-thrower?
"Totally. It usually takes violence to get me violent, but I am sympathetic of people who suddenly forget who they are and where they are. [Grinning devilishly] I work very hard at that every night."
Has that line about "midlife crisis" in the song "New York" dogged you?
"It followed me around, but everyone who knows me knows that I had a midlife crisis when I was about 27. And at the moment I'm on retreat, I mean in the meditative sense rather than surrender. I'm in a very blissed out state."
Most people's idea of a great midlife crisis would be wearing leather jackets, hanging out with supermodels and buying lots of toys. So that's what you did with Zoo TV...
"That's what we did!" he grins. "All those television sets and Trabants were boy toys. And very fast clothes...I'm really excited about getting older because all my heroes are in their 50s and 60s. I do think that when I'm 60 I will finally be cool. Not that that is high up on my list, but I will be and so will a lot of my mates. We're going to be badass."
Fame, Bono contends, is "obscene." His advice to anyone dealing with it is to surround yourself with the right people. He has many friends, some famous (the rest of U2, Wim Wenders), most of them not, and describes himself as "a very loyal, if unreliable, friend."
"In that sense, I'm quite Italian. They're family. If you're smart you create a world where you shrink in size and then you find oxygen and room to manoeuvre. If you're not, then you shrink your world and tower above it, which is my experience of a lot of folk." He laughs self-consciously. "I think I just said I was smart there -- I'm sorry about that."
Who intimidates you?
"When I meet my maker. The rest are easy."
BONO HAS HAD good reason to ponder his maker of late. There's death lurking in the corners of All That You Can't Leave Behind, and the more you discover about these songs, the further out of the shadows it creeps. First came the revelation that "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out" Of was inspired by the suicide of Bono and Edge's friend, Michael Hutchence. Then in April, Joey Ramone, an early influence on U2, died of cancer while listening to "In a Little While," turning a song originally written about, and during, a hangover into a lullaby for a man's last night on Earth.
Then there is Bono's own unspecified "fright." He recently discovered that he was allergic to certain enzymes in wine, which explained his tendency to fall asleep suddenly. Once, he conked out on the mixing desk in the middle of a Sonic Youth concert; another time he walked out of a meal with Ali in Paris and woke up half an hour later on a car bonnet. It turns out, however, that these enzymes disappear over time, so now he can only drink vintage wine. "It's one of those awful rock stories, and unfortunately it's true," he confirms ruefully. "It's just one of those things where, y'know, God has you on a short leash."
He also discovered that other food allergies explained why his vox hadn't been so Bono in recent years. He has changed his diet and given up cigarettes, but it's transparently clear that for awhile back there he thought it could have been something more serious. It's a dark record, isn't it, Bono?
"Yeah, there was some dark stuff going around. I'd be lying to you if I said that there was no appeal to me in the, y'know, the abyss. Everyone wants to slip out of daylight and into the shadows. It's a more comfortable place to be sometimes. You know, half of that argument I'm having with Michael on that song, I'm having with myself too. I just can't fully surrender to...the party. I just can't quite do it. Nearly, though."
Did you think at some point that you might?
"Oh yeah! I'm just as irresponsible as I am responsible. People around me tell me I have to look after myself better but I look after myself a lot of the time because I care so much about the people around me."
How significant were your own health worries?
"Yeah, I had some health worries. I had a bit of a fright. I had a lot of stuff l had to..." he veers away. "It can happen to you even if you don't have a scare. Suddenly your mortality walks into the room. You feel immortal when you're 16. You want to drive the car as fast as you can, and then there comes a moment in your life when you don't want to crash because you...you...you love it. I just realised that I really like being alive. [Thinking hard] So did Michael Hutchence, you know. And in a lot of ways he was better at getting through his day than I was. I was the one, you would have thought, with baggage."
What was the worst case scenario? Did you genuinely think you were going to die?
"Ah," he exclaims dismissively, "1 don't even want to talk about it. I think it's just fair to say that a lot of people around me were sick, dying or dead and I didn't want to be one of them. The love and the lust for life that you feel off that record is very real."
What's the most important belief you've left behind over the years?
"That innocence is more powerful than experience. Anton Corbijn did a museum retrospective in Holland, with a room full of Bonos, which was a little disturbing. There was one photo where I saw a face that I don't see any more when I look in the mirror. It's nothing to do with youth -- it was a look in the eye and I think it probably got beaten out of me by the journey. It's the power of innocence."
BACK AT MADISON Square Garden, there are ghosts circling the arena. Bono precedes "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" with an a cappella version of the Beatles' "In My Life": "Lovers and friends I still can recall, some are dead and some are living." Before "In a Little While" he announces, "This is a good song but Joey Ramone made it a great one. He's changed it for me forever. I want to say to New York City that the Ramones were ground zero for us. It's where we started." That was almost 25 years ago. Since then? Punk rock; bad hair; Live Aid; stadium rock; winning America; going too far; buying boy toys; going arty; losing America; playing Sarajevo; riding the lemon; meeting the Pope. And now? Maybe being the biggest band in the world again, if they fancy it.
"Ah, forget the biggest," scoffs Bono, high above New York. "Disneyland is big. On one level I feel that if you're shy and want to make private work for your friends, be a fucking potter! But what I mean by the band is The One. It's something to do with the moment that music breaks out of its box and suddenly is relevant to a wider world." His hands soar and sweep. "It's the embrace of it. That's what turns us on."
© Q magazine, 2001. All rights reserved.