"The essence of good rock & roll -- it's about confusion on every level."
'I Feel Caught Between the Bootboy and the Ponce' (Part Two)
March 15, 1997
Ah, the problems of being the biggest band in the world. In the second of a two-part special, Keith Cameron keeps up with U2 as they party their way around Dublin, dedicate a drinks cabinet to Ol' Blue Eyes and come to terms with where they're at.
Not for the first time in his life, Bono is having a crisis of faith. This, however, is serious. The period in the early-'80s when the imperatives of religious dogma almost broke U2 up was but a lay-by puke-stop on the road to Damascus compared to the state of the man now.
His entire upper torso is tensed, the brow furrowed, lips dry and pursed. This, dammit, is the real thing.
"Can I...Can I bum a smoke?"
Cueing up the next track between live on-air interview questions, RTE DJ Dave Fanning is mildly appalled.
"I heard you'd given up," says the DJ, passing the evil weed.
Bono tokes deep on his cadged Silkie. "Ah, I'm backsliding," he grimaces. "But just between ourselves, eh? The children don't need to know."
These days, the children would expect nothing less. For U2 have famously usurped the traditional behavioural dynamic for successful rock stars. At the green and gawky stage, when they should have been chemically oversubscribed, they found God. Instead of trashing hotel rooms, U2 stayed in them and read the Gideon Bible. Oh, except Adam, who always was a weirdo like that.
Now, ten years since The Joshua Tree propelled them to sainthood, U2 are reveling in the stuff their former ascetic worldview led them to revile. After commencing the downward slide towards 40, most rock veterans are beginning to heed the murmuring heart and tremulous waistband and CUT DOWN. But U2 are just getting into the swing of being able to enjoy themselves. Er, except Adam, again. Bono and the Edge are renowned bon viveurs about Dublin town. Even Larry Mullen Jr., a man whose baby-faced complexion confounds his 35 years and confirms a well-established healthy-living regimen, has been spotted out after midnight. "I left a club before him recently," confirms Bono.
So the cigarette attests to the triumph of the craving of the flesh over conscience. Spend an evening in Dublin with the singer of U2, and it's a concept you'd better get used to. Seven o'clock at Hanover Quay studios: bottle of white wine. Half eight 'til ten: RTE studios. Bottle of champagne, more white wine. Ten o'clock: pizza (three slices). Quarter past ten: The Dockers pub. Meet Gavin Friday and the Edge. More champagne. Even more white wine. Guinness. Matters start going rapidly out of focus. Sometime around midnight: The Kitchen. Still more champagne. And white wine. Quite possibly some whiskey. Propellerheads. Dancing. Oh dear.
"Did I tell you Tricky's a big fan?" Bono yells.
Actually he has, but you've forgotten the gist.
"Says to me," (adopts frighteningly accurate Bristolian accent) 'I don't care what anyone thinks. I used to light me spiff and listen to The Joshua Tree all the time.' See, there's a lot of people coming out now."
The more obnoxious trappings of stardom are conspicuous by their absence here. There is no brute security presence, no area of the club cordoned off for the band and their entourage, no high-and-mighty attitude. Instead, Bono works the crowd like an exaltedly gifted politician, crunching palms with his pudgy five-fingered salute, always listening, apparently interested, intensely tuned-in, aware. If he's acting, then it's another impeccable piece of characterisation. He claims he rarely gets hassle round these parts.
"Living in Dublin, I actually forget that I'm in a band, because the places I go people are nicely bored with me. If there is a hassle it's the right kind of grief to give a pop star, and I don't mind that. I actually like being in a row."
You look like you could take care of yourself, if need be.
"Well, I don't drink whiskey any more when I'm out, because I would be less tolerant of assholes. It's cost me a few bob. Because no matter what somebody does to you, if you return the blow you get sued. I've noticed in America you don't get a lot of physical grief, because people there shoot you. You get psychos there, which is why you have to have security when you're on your. You saw what Bjork went through, and I had it on the last tour in a big way, really horrible stuff. There was a very amusing incident in a particular hotel where this guy said he was going to hit me. He had his gun license faxed in and he said he was going to take me out. So they had to have security around the hotel. And I woke up in the night with this big 'BANG!' and I was up and swinging at thin air. But I'd just kicked the suitcase off the bed! It creates a paranoia, and paranoia is something I really don't want to get into. I think that's a real rock 'n' roll star disease, and I've enough psychological ailments without adding that."
U2 have always elicited extreme reactions: either devotion or disdain.
"That seems to be the territory," nods Bono, "a lot of love and a lot of bile oscillating. It's hard to get a reasonable response from people, especially when you're on the road."
There was one notably frightening occurrence when touring The Unforgettable Fire across the southern states of the U.S. This meant playing "Pride (In the Name of Love)" in cities that had been segregated a mere two decades previous, cities harboring more than their unreasonable share of loose-nut white supremacists.
"There was a guy who said if we played that song, that was it, he was gonna take us out. He got organised, he got in touch and said, 'Don't do it. If you do, we're got people there.' The FBI, or whoever, were taking it very seriously. I remember singing the tune, thinking, 'Oh, this is interesting.' But I was fine about it, no problem. Then after the show, Paul (McGuinness, manager) came backstage and said, 'Um, look, it's actually the second night he said he was going to do it.' So I had to do it all again, and not to be melodramatic about it, but I was a little freaked. I didn't even look at the crowd. And when it was finished and I looked up, I saw Adam was standing in front of me for the whole thing! I mean, Adam's so posh, right? He's not grown up with any sense of the street, but I have to say when it comes to digging me out of a few situations he's there."
Yow! Assassination thwarted by mad bassist! Bono demurs at the suggestion that his lyrics might have become less spiritually or politically specific partly as a result of such trifles. Rather, U2 have become skilled in the business of sonic subterfuge. On the new album Pop, by adopting the visually kitsch and the state of the musical art, they prove it's still possible to address issues like the Irish peace process ("Please") or the continuing presence of the British troops ("Staring at the Sun"), without folk gagging on that damn white flag. It helps that Bono is a far more adept lyricist now than he once was -- though this, you have to say, is not saying much.
"I started throwing stones at myself rather than other people or situations," he concurs. "Started writing songs about my own hypocrisy. That's really what seemed to happen over the last few years."
Around the time of The Joshua Tree it looked as if you were writing songs about whatever was on CNN at the time.
"I always felt that records should be records of what was going on in your own life but also what was going on outside of you. And in the '80s, America was going on. Wim Wenders had that line -- 'America's colonised our unconscious.' And if you were awake you had to deal with it. So if people are looking back on the'80s, God bless them if they ever want to. I think some of our records would be a perspective on it. I'm proud of a lot of those records.
"We did stick our neck out to take on big ideas and big themes. People say that's not the job of pop, but we thought it was. I'd come through the Clash. I actually still believe that is part of what rock 'n' roll is. If it's about anything it's about liberation, on any level -- sexual, spiritual, political. Part of the decadence of it in the '50s and '60s was that sex was threatening to an establishment that was castrated. Now that's not so, so I don't think you can use that same stance. People think it's rebellious to trash a hotel room, but it actually just sells records. It's part of the consumerism."
But there must be things you've done which you're now hideously embarrassed by?
"There's a haircut I had in the mid-'80s which launched a thousand second-division soccer players, a few things like that. The gauche things I actually thought, that's f---ing alright, even the white flag which I'll never be let forget. I always wanted to write it large, I always thought that was part of pop. The primary colours. Blue, and...ahhh." He pours some more wine. "Um. Bollocks. I've forgotten the primary colours. Anyway! Naff, definitely naff. But naff is OK too. That's what I liked about Eno, he saw through the naff. He saw that we were going after something else...I guess it's an Irish thing. Irish people are hot, not cool."
What did Eno make of Rattle and Hum?
"I don't think he liked it. I remember he didn't comment much about it."
For those blissfully unaware, Rattle and Hum was U2's late-'80s "hot" nadir, where they recorded at Sun Studios and jammed with B.B. King in a shocking, hubris-filled attempt to find the roots of "their" music. By his standards, Bono is almost penitent.
"Anyone else would have just put out the live album and cashed in the chips, but we were out on the road and writing tunes, owning up to being fans, given up on that now. I like being in space, I like that we're not on land, we're off in the ether somewhere."
The way you look and sound now, the things you do and say, it can't help but seem like you're atoning for your past.
"Well," he laughs, "I'm having a lot of fun if it's atonement. At least whatever we do, we f---ing do it. I think if there's one criticism I'd have, and it's not even of the band, it's me, it's a defensive aggression. Like whatever you shouldn't be doing, you do it when you're in a corner. Again, that's an Irish thing. Like calm down. When you're selling millions of records, 'us against them' doesn't make sense."
Have you ever felt like calling it a day?
"It happens all the time. I do think if we made a crap record, you probably get one shot at trying to repair the damage. I think that would do it. Two crap albums, then maybe it's time to check out starting your own religion or something like that. Something I have some experience in! Having two daughters makes me really sure I don't want them to grow up and have their dad be in a crap band! Hahaha!"
Is there anyone you're in awe of?
"Prince. I think he's extraordinary. Add all those f---ing great tunes up. Neil Young. Frank Sinatra just blew me away. Actually me and Edge wrote a tune called 'Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad.' We made a drinks cabinet shrine to Frank that when you open it plays that song! We've never released it. It has this verse that goes: 'Guess I've been greedy all of my life/Greedy with my lovers, my children, my wife/Greedy for the good things as well as the bad/Two shots of happy, one shot of sad...' The last line goes: 'You all it compromise -- well, what's that?' I sent it to him for his 80th birthday, full orchestra, the whole thing. Quite an indulgence."
He smiles, obviously chuffed. Chuffed not just that the Bono of 1997 can afford to do such things, but also that he can do so without fear of personal recrimination. As events at the Kitchen dissolve into a sweaty, shouty fog of carelessness, one notes the presence of Bono's wife Ali, a woman whose reserves of patience must border on the divine.
"I do get burned-out a bit," agrees Bono, "but I'm also very old-fashioned. I've still got my family and my mates round me. I was the straight guy to begin with, a lot of my mates are actually far more out there than I was. So it wasn't like I had to keep hold of my straight friends. I like boring things like loyalty, and I like to have a good time too. We have a lot of laughs. Maybe as a reaction to 'we're so f---ing into our shit,' that when we're not we go," he chuckles, "off."
LET'S SAY it all goes dreadfully wrong. Pop poops. It is U2's second turkey in a row (even the drummer thought that Passengers' thing was rubbish). Thus, by its own declared criteria, the band is obliged to call it a day. What would they do then?
Bono spreads his palms, as if the answer were self-evident. "Open a casino! Croupier," he says pointing to the Edge. "Larry would be the bouncer. Adam would be the guy who arrives on the yacht with the two babes. I don't know what I would do in a casino."
"Boxer, possibly?" the Edge suggests.
"Oh yeah! You'd need a fight attraction."
Physically, at any rate, this is not such a fanciful notion. Stocky, barrel-chested and buzzing with enough surplus energy to power a medium-sized town, Bono has the pugilist's demeanor. He's been to several fights in Las Vegas, the urban cash register where the PopMart tour kicks off next month, but can't recall a more dreadful, yet compelling, spectacle than the night he and Larry went to the Point in Dublin to see Ireland's Wayne McCulloch and a Mexican opponent flay each other close to oblivion.
"They just went at it," Larry recalls. "It was quite distressing in the end."
"But what incredible heart this guy has, Wayne McCulloch," says Bono. "Unbelievable. That nearly put me off going to the fights, but once you see a great one that puts you back in there."
"To be at a fight is a scary thing," says the Edge. "The sound. It's just when it gets actually to the point of survival it's so messy. It should be banned, is the truth."
Bono looks surprised. "D'you think so? Aye, come on, Edge."
"No, I think it should be banned," the Edge maintains. "But until it is, er, I'm gonna watch it!"
"Yeah! That's like Chrissy Hynde. She's a vegetarian, but she's at all the fights. She knows her boxing, too. That's another conundrum about being in a band. 'Cos I feel caught between the bootboy and the ponce, or the poet. They're the two sides of you and you can't quite make up your mind which you are. And in order to make records you have to be wide open, porous. It makes you vulnerable. But then in order to go out on the road and to go on sale you have to become a bit of a bootboy to protect yourself. I think that's one of the reasons you get people coming to fights who you wouldn't expect to. Maybe it's the machismo they've given up."
Protruding from the breast pocket of his army fatigues is a toothbrush. The bootboy known as Bono still cleans his teeth twice a day.
"I haven't got my armour on yet," he smiles, crunching palms for one last time, dwelling on the move, relishing it. "Next time you see me, I'll be a full-on jerk."
© NME, 1997. All rights reserved.