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A songwriter plays a chord with the faith that he will hear the next one in his head. -- Bono

Let's Hear It For...Us!

Q magazine
It's American Election Night, November 3, 1992. A pivotal moment in the history of our times. And there's no question where you'd expect to find U2. This, after all, is the band that found itself making Achtung Baby in Berlin, at precisely the time the Wall came down. There's only one country on earth you'd look for them on this night.

That's right. They're in Canada.

"Oh, Jesus, isn't that just like us?" groans Bono. "It's a hell of a night to have just left America." But the tour schedule has put them here in Vancouver this evening, watching the CNN news coverage on a screen backstage in the stadium they'll play in an hour or two. The Zoo TV tour personnel -- technicians, management assistants, drivers, caterers, all sorts -- are mostly American and cheer each Democrat advance. They study George Bush's resignation speech with unbridled mirth.

But the next day, up in Bono's hotel suite with him and the Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. (Adam Clayton is believed to be in bed), there is an even more majestic episode in the democratic process. Placing Bill Clinton's victory somewhat in the shade, U2 are told that Q's readership has once again voted them "The Best Act in the World Today."

The three men greet the news with what -- to the untrained eye -- might look like casual satisfaction. And yet one senses that intense emotions are swelling inside their overflowing hearts. The Edge, perhaps, speaks for everyone in the room when he says, "So, who wants a cup of coffee, then?"

ONE CALLS THE perma-wooly-hatted guitarist "the Edge," of course, because that's what it says on U2 record sleeves. But it's a fact that everyone in U2 circles knows him simply as "Edge." Even his parents call him Edge, it transpires, although he was born David Evans. (They, in turn, are referred to by Zoo TV staff as "Mr. and Mrs. Edge." Joining the tour for a short holiday, they are a courteous and very Mum-and-Dad-like Welsh couple. They reminisce about buying a toy guitar for baby Edge many years ago -- "a good investment, wasn't it" -- although he used it then for hitting people over the head with.)

Bono has performed this tour, on stage and in interviews, under his alter-ego of the Fly -- a kind of Ziggy Stardust conceit -- who wears black leather and shades, smokes cheroots and grins impishly, and shrugs off the solemn responsibility that being Bono seemed to entail a few years ago. This afternoon, though, we find him calm and reasonably earnest.

Larry Mullen, the drummer, is a welcome presence here. For most of U2's years he's so studiously avoided interviews that some supposed he was being kept away -- like some awful, drooling imbecile -- much as an aristocratic family might hide a mad relative away in the West Tower. Far from it. If anything, his utterances seem more thought out than those of Bono and Edge, though he's less talkative and more inclined to ride the anti-pretentious, down-to-earth ticket.

It's stupendous to consider how much of their time these men spend in each other's company. Traveling, resting, rehearsing, playing -- it goes far beyond the experience of any normal work team. When touring stops, they book into a foreign recording studio. And when they get holiday time, they often spend that together, too. Bono has a wife and children; Edge is now separated from his; Larry has a long-time girlfriend; Adam is relatively unattached. But the truth is, they are all each other's family. Interviewing U2 together, you half expect them to finish one another's sentences. (And often, they do.) It's gone on since the late 1970s.

(Speaking of tours, this year's run of Zoo TV concerts is nearly over. In early 1993 they hope to record and release at least an EP's worth of new material. By the summer they'll be playing live dates again, including Wembley Stadium.)

But where is Adam? The Q interview is beginning. Larry calls up to the absent bassist's room. He's still in bed, is the news. Bono suggests we all go up there and join him in there. Edge proposes a conference call phone-link. But Larry thinks not: "I get the impression he's not functioning on all cylinders. He doesn't have anything important to say, anyway."

The other two hoot their approval.

Q: You've been touring this album, Achtung Baby, around the world for most of 1992 now, which must put the music to a cruel test. Are you sick of it yet?

EDGE: Personally, I can still bear to play the songs.

BONO: The songs on that album are harder to get into, and harder to get out of. They appear very dense -- I once described it to somebody as a dense record and they put down "a dance record," before it came out. So we had this rumor about us making a dance record. It is dense, on a purely sonic level. But despite the distortion and the subterranean feel, the songs are quite structured and the melodies are not big melodies but they get under the skin. So it's a record that takes a long time before you're sick of it.

EDGE: Going into the sessions for Achtung Baby, we needed to prove to ourselves that we could still have fun doing an album and working together, and still produce music that was relevant. I think we achieved both. We had some dark days making the album but we had a lot of fun as well.

BONO: And as for being on the road, just taking all these expensive toys to play with, it's like being on the road with Disneyland. We've really enjoyed a lot of the bullshit aspects of the road, whereas before we didn't.

What bullshit do you mean?

BONO: I mean just not taking it so seriously. Taking more risks has increased the vibe, or whatever. The opening of the indoor tour was in Florida, and we had no idea how this was going to turn out. People had read reports of egomania and I had read reports that I was an egomaniac, so I decided to get into that. The character of the Fly is licensed to be that egomaniac. So when I walked out on stage people were not sure if all those reports were true! And it was that sense of threat -- they really didn't know what was going on -- that made it so interesting for us. But at the same time we weren't sure if anyone would come back.

Zoo TV is interesting, or confusing, in that a lot of the music is emotionally bleak, or heavy, yet at the same time you're up there prancing around in a glitter suit.

BONO: (with mock annoyance -- or was it?) That's not "prancing"! That's art, that is!

EDGE: Bono was going to dress up as Santa Claus, that was one of the plans for the encore section. We'd do a Zoo Christmas selection of songs.

BONO: Guess whose idea that was. It wasn't fucking mine, I can tell you that!

LARRY: He was Santa Claus and we were the reindeers.

EDGE: We always come up with great ideas for what Bono should do.

BONO: Oh yes he should! Oh no I shouldn't!

Tell me the most unexpected moments of the tour.

BONO: When people bought the tickets. Ha! (He thinks a little harder.) It was pretty unexpected to have the most important man in the Free World dissing us on TV.

Who? George Bush?

EDGE: Yes, George Bush had a go at us on the campaign trail. He said, "I hear Bill Clinton's been talking to that rock group U2. Well, let me tell you..."

BONO: "I've nothing against their music..."

EDGE: (still in Bush voice) "Yeah, but you know, when Bill Clinton wants to talk foreign policy, he can go talk to Boy George. I'll be talking to John Major and Boris Yeltsin!"

Is it true you met Bill Clinton recently?

BONO: Yes. He was in Chicago and we were in the same hotel. We tried to wake him up one night at three o'clock in the morning for one of those late night chats.

EDGE: There were a few bevvies involved, I have to say. Somebody stumbled off to knock on Bill's door, only to run into four dozen Secret Service guys in the corridor. We realized it was even harder to meet him than it is to meet one of us.

BONO: But they did pass on the message, and Bill came knocking on our door the next day, which was very cool of him, and we shot the shit with the now-President.

EDGE: (dryly) Larry wanted to become a narcotics deputy as well. (Guffaws aplenty at this reference to a zany escapade in Elvis Presley's life when, high himself, he got Richard Nixon to appoint him as a special agent in the anti-drugs bureau.) He hopes to go to Washington soon to get his badge.

BONO: A lot of Irish people have had trouble with visas, so I'm going, "You couldn't let Anne-Marie from County Wexford in, could you? Because she's been having some bother getting a summer job..."

Does it feel strange that a rock band should be courted like this by a presidential candidate?

BONO: Well, we all sat down, stared at each other and promised we wouldn't get involved in the election when we came here. We'd tie our hands behind our back. I was going to be gagged. It just wasn't very Zoo TV. But it just drew us in. Timothy Leary defined cyber-space as that place you're in when you're on the phone. And on stage, it was Adam's idea that I should carry a phone. If there's anyone you want to call, from your kids at home, to the President of the United States, or home shopping, or dial-a-pizza...

And that's what got us in. We did the Rock the Vote thing (a campaign urging young Americans to register), but still didn't take sides. Bill Clinton rang into a live radio show that we were on: it was coast-to-coast where anyone could call in. He'd heard that we were calling the White House each night and not getting through. And we got this message that if we called him, we might.

Which in a way was a metaphor for the way people felt, and he knew it was: You can't get through, but you can get through to me. I'll ring him next year from Europe and see how we do.

People come out of the Zoo TV shows trying to remember those slogans that you flash at them in the set. Which mean most to you?

LARRY: I can't see the slogans, because they're behind me and I'm looking out. The only thing I see are those buffaloes falling off the cliff.

BONO: Edge, what about you?

EDGE: I like "Everything You Know Is Wrong." I think it was originally the name of an album by an East Coast comedy group, the Firesign Theatre. It sums up the whole tour for me, a perfect description of Zoo TV. Mocking it and milking it.

BONO: Mine is "PIG WIFE JAPAN SUCKER BOMB NOW PUSSY." We did it in a day in Dublin and it was like staring into a strobe light for hours. I'm interested in clichs and writing new ones -- "The Fly" is a set of new clichs, like "Ambition Bites the Nails of Success," or "A Liar Won't Believe Anyone Else," or "A Friend Is Someone Who Lets You Help" -- and we started free-associating. I have a load of them. I collect them.

EDGE: They're like guitar riffs for lyricists.

The song "One" seems to get more response than most, now. Have you sensed that?

EDGE: Apparently they were playing it a lot in L.A. in the aftermath of the riots. Funny how a chorus can carry a feeling even though the verses, if you listen to them, are heavy and negative and vitriolic and bitter. Music can do that. I remember when "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was an anthem for the Northern Republicans for a while. We were going, "What? How?"

This was Springsteen's problem with "Born in the U.S.A.," of course.

EDGE: Exactly. The other great one is the Nanci Griffith song "From a Distance": "God is watching you from a distance." If you look at the lyrics it's actually very cynical, but at the same time there's all these kids in Sunday Schools singing it.

BONO: Yes, it's an astonishing achievement. I think Cliff [Richard] sings it too...

(He rummages around in a black holdall to find a mini-PC, an electronic notebook, on which he writes ideas and stray thoughts. He looks up a special section he keeps for "Clichs," but first he comes across this:)

I've got a song here for Frank Sinatra, although he hasn't asked for it. It's called "Two Shots Of Happy, One Shot Of Sad," a barroom song. (He croaks a mellow "One for my baby/One for the road" sort of number.) "Two shots of happy, one shot of sad/You think I'm a good man, but I know I'm bad/Took me to a place, now I can't get back/Two shots of happy, one shot of sad..."

(He scrolls down through his notes on screen.) Look, this my creed here: Love, love and money, the sky over my head...The holiness of Hollywood, the genius of Dollywood, Disneyland, the hole in the doughnut. I believe in James Brown's hairdo, I believe Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to see him die. Atlantic City is the new Rome, chance is the new faith, Michael Jackson (laughter) is the King of Pop. I believe Coca-Cola does add life, I believe the rest of the world should stay where it is...it goes on.

Last night on stage you declared that you believe in shampoo and fruit juice.

BONO: Ah, you heard that? Here's more clichs: "To Live is to Make God Laugh," "You're As Good As the Arguments You Get," "Taste is the Enemy of Art," "Ask Right Questions..."

Do you think you're really "dreamed it all over again" [sic] as you promised after the 1989 New Year's Eve show in Dublin? It's become one of the great sound bites of U2 history.

BONO: It was the end of a long week and we didn't know if we'd ever tour again and everything was up for grabs. It was perfect journalese, because it was the end of a decade, just one of those convenient punctuation marks. But I think you have to keep dreaming it up again, to keep it interesting.

Some people back in Dublin say these shows remind them of our earliest shows back in the late '70s, in the spirit of them, the mischief. I believe that rock 'n' roll is about mystery and mischief. And in the '80s we weren't being a rock 'n' roll band, we were just a very, very loud folk group. But we're definitely a rock'n'roll band again now.

You're saying that you've rediscovered yourselves?

LARRY: We've discovered a lot of things, not just musically, but on every level. With The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, it all became so big and such a blur, that we lost touch with what was good about the band. The music suffered.

BONO: We were trying to keep so many balls in the air, and it took so much energy, whereas this time we've let some fall. I think we were a little bit hung up on being in a big band. Remember, in the early '80s in the U.K. and elsewhere there was this rather ridiculous idea, not a very rigorous idea, intellectually speaking, that if it was big, it was bad. Which of course rules out Elvis.

And we got confused, when we were having the level of success that we had. Along came a fair amount of Catholic guilt, and we felt we had to do right by it, and redistribute our income in all the politically correct ways. And we still feel the same way, we're just not as uptight about it. Trying to do the right thing: "Oh, we've been put in this position, we better not fuck up, we better use our position for some good." But we were actually forgetting about our own good and our own enjoyment, which were what fed the music in the same place. Something in around there is what happened.

And the '80s needed to be stared down. So Anton Corbijn's photos were important. People in the end saw these photographs and they became the way U2 were perceived. And Anton Corbijn is the greatest black-and-white photographer in the world right now, but don't underestimate the power of those images.

And the interesting thing is, we may have almost become the photographs. We became as severe as Anton's images.

LARRY: What interests me is, we did a lot of sessions with Anton and most of them had been in the snow or the rain, and then there was the idea of doing them in the desert. So we thought, "Good, we'll get a couple of photographs in the sun." The problem was that it was absolutely freezing. We were frozen standing there. Now, I'd just like to know, if it had been sunny, what would have happened? There'd have been a completely different album cover, and it would have brought everyone to a different conclusion.

Returning to this "Big is Bad" theme, it seems to be a more recurrent attitude in Britain than...

BONO: (sharply) Well it's one of the reasons why Britain isn't as big as it used to be. And they'd better get over that idea pretty quick, because it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it's next to a more Nazi idea, which is also an undercurrent in the U.K. scene, which is elitism. They're next door neighbors, those ideas.

I have to say the music press have been very good with us on this last jump we took, and the music press in England is one reason why that scene is so vigorous, but I see it a lot like fagging. The music press mentality is very public school and my impression of what fagging is, and the hidings they give out. It's a very British thing. I see these right-on, left-wing journalists with no idea how far right they are, because they think it's humor. Just as the school teacher uses sarcasm to squash the upstart, the upstart starts to write for the newspaper and uses the same weapon against the person who did figure out how to use A-minor.

It's dangerous. Big can be crap. So can small. Music is not about physical proximity. You can go to a stadium and feel closer to an artist than in a club with some bands, they're so cold and cut off. They're just not very well thought out ideas. Like, "independent" is a mad clich: a lot of these groups are not independent at all. They've just got smaller corporations beating them over the head.

LARRY: Another clich for you: "Alternative is Mainstream."

BONO: Yes, they're all just bogus words.

EDGE: The "Alternative Mainstream" is a nice little oxymoron. That's what it is here (in North America), because the Nirvanas, the Pearl Jams, the Seattle thing, they're selling more albums than Genesis. It's just spin.

There probably is some inverted snobbery involved. You get bigger, you lose hipness -- it's passed on to somebody newer. But you were beneficiaries of that yourselves, once, weren't you?

EDGE: (sarcastically, and to the delight of the others) For about two weeks, yeah. The problem is, there's pressure on groups to retain that clique-ish position. They don't want to get big, because to them, big is sellout. It pisses me off that bands like Echo and the Bunnymen aren't still around...

BONO: Self-fulfilling prophecies...

EDGE: The Clash, the Smiths, some amazing groups that could have done a lot of good albums, they just...petered out. I think it's a shame.

What made you different? Why were you willing to go the whole way?

EDGE: The thing is we didn't live in England. We came out of Dublin, and that affected our attitude to America. A lot of the English groups of our time would come over with a very cynical attitude towards America and American fans. It was a sort of superiority trip. They used to laugh at them.

BONO: They only laughed at them because they were jealous. Because they once were America. Britain used to be America.

You mean, top-dog nation?

BONO: That's right. Now, America's not even America, Japan is America. And the French hate the English for the same reason. But Ireland was never America: we just built the fucking place!

EDGE: For the Irish, the concept of moving away to another country and working hard and doing well there is a very big part of Irish history. And we saw America as just another place to go and work and do some shows and try and sell a few albums. We really didn't see it in any different light from Britain. We just got on with it. There was some big stigma for the English groups about being big in America, which is bollocks. Why should there be?

Lastly then, isn't it contrived, this "reinvention" of U2? In real life, an individual would not sit down and say, "Right, this will be my new personality for the next two years."

BONO: But nobody's personality has changed. We're talking about our work here. We're talking about the book that we've written or the movie we've just made.

EDGE: Also, we haven't changed our position, we've just altered the way in which we're expressing the same ideas.

BONO: You're not going to complain if Martin Scorsese makes Raging Bull and then moves on to The King of Comedy. It's just the subject matter of the work that dictates the way you present it. The album cover, the tour, the way the stage is dressed, the way you are dressed, you're following the logic of the music. I am amazed that some groups seem to stay interested, playing the same music for 10 or 20 years. But our music has been changing since 1980. The change between the War album and The Unforgettable Fire is easily as dramatic as this. We follow the subject matter.

Maybe rock groups were never designed to last this long? Not as constantly changing, creative forces, anyway. The Beatles split up; Status Quo didn't.

BONO: Well, this thing doesn't have to go on forever. And it might not go on. We don't know if we'll be on tour after this. I'm not saying it's one day at a time -- it's never that spontaneous -- but it is one year at a time.

Bono leans forward like a wheezy, front porch philosopher: "Ya jest have ta take each year at a time!"

And he cackles with satisfaction: one more freshly minted clich!

© Q magazine, 1993. All Rights Reserved.