"Some people expect U2 to come on like a political band. . . . Other people see us as prophets. Some see us as pop stars. . . . And we're not any of those things. We're probably all of them. I don't know what we are."
November 28, 2004
They're deal-making do-gooders with a singular sound who have topped the charts for nearly a quarter-century while never losing any cred. But with all the trouble in the world, U2 have put politics aside and gotten personal on their new album. Bono is even giving fans a new kind of lift. What is going on with the biggest band on Earth?
"The job of art is to chase away ugliness," Bono says as he twists the key of his Maserati Quattroporte. "So let's start with the roads. Cars are so ugly. America is supposedly the country that brought us the love of the automobile, yet they haven't produced a beautiful car in decades. Americans used to make feminine cars with a sense of humor, but now it's all SUVs. The Germans kind of picked up the slack for a while, but the Italians ultimately were the ones that took them on. But the Italians pick such arrogant names. Do you know what quattroporte means? Four-door. It means four-door."
Bono laughs, and I pretend to understand why this is funny. I'm not sure why an expository word like quattroporte would seem pretentious, but I certainly can't disagree with his core argument: This is not an ugly car. With its sleek, soft lines, this is, in fact, the nicest automobile I've ever touched. I've never even had dreams about cars like this. Sitting in the passenger seat is like being inside a spaceship.
He's about to drive me back to Dublin's Clarence Hotel, which Bono co-owns with guitarist the Edge and a local businessman (and where Bono plans to have supper with an 88-year-old Irish painter, Louis le Brocquy). I have just spent the last two hours interviewing Bono about How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2's 11th studio album. Our conversation (conducted on the ground floor of the band's headquarters and recording studio) touched on myriad points, some about music but most about politics and celebrity and the meaning of freedom. However, there is only one question about U2 that actually matters, and I'm still trying to figure it out while this four-door Maserati backs out of the garage: Is Bono for real, or is Bono full of shit?
We begin driving away from the studio, a faceless two-story building nestled along the canal in Dublin's most relentlessly industrial neighborhood. Suddenly, Bono -- who is wearing sunglasses despite the darkness -- spots four teenagers on a bench, huddled next to some U2 graffiti and bundled in sweaters (it's 50 degrees outside, but it feels colder). I will soon learn that two of the girls are from Belgium, one girl is from Austria, and one guy is Irish. They have been sitting there for seven hours, hoping to see anything that vaguely resembles achtung. "I'm going to talk to these kids," Bono says as he stops the Maserati and jumps out. I can see him signing autographs in the rearview mirror. This strikes me as quaint, and I begin jotting down the event in my notebook. But then Bono opens the trunk and throws the teenagers' bags inside. Suddenly, there are four pale kids climbing into the backseat. I guess we're lucky this is a Quattroporte.
"We're gonna give these kids a ride," says Bono. I look over my right shoulder at the girl from Austria, and I witness somebody's mind being blown out of her skull. I can almost see her brains and blood splattered across the rear window. The car takes off. Bono drives recklessly, accelerating and braking at random. "Do you want to hear the new album?" he asks the glassy-eyed teenagers. This is more than a month before How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb will be released. They say, "Yes." Bono punches up track four, "Love and Peace or Else." He hits PLAY, and it's loud; it sounds like someone dropping the throttle on a Harrier Jump Jet. Bono starts singing along, harmonizing with himself. He's playing air drums while he drives. The music changes, and he exclaims, "This is the Gary Glitter part!" The music changes again. "This is the Brian Wilson moment!" The teenagers aren't even talking. They're just kind of looking at each other, almost like they're afraid this is some Celtic version of Punk'd.
One of the kids asks to hear "Miracle Drug," which makes Bono nervous. An early version of the album was stolen in July, and he is worried that it may have been leaked to the Internet. But he plays the track anyway, still singing along, and he turns the volume even higher when we get to the lyrics, "Freedom has a scent / Like the top of a newborn baby's head." He calls these two lines the best on the album. This behavior is incredibly charming, a little embarrassing, and amazingly weird. We eventually get to the hotel, and Bono drives up on the sidewalk. He unloads the kids' bags, and they walk away like zombies. The two of us amble into the Clarence and shake hands in the lobby, and then Bono disappears into the restaurant to meet the elderly painter I've never heard of. And I find myself thinking, "Did this really just happen? Am I supposed to believe he does this kind of thing all the time, even when he doesn't have a reporter in the front seat of his car? And does that even matter? Was that car ride the greatest moment in those four kids' lives? Was this whole thing a specific performance, or is Bono's entire life a performance? And if your entire life is a performance, does that make everything you do inherently authentic? Is this guy for real, or is this guy full of shit?
TWO HOURS BEFORE I sat in his Maserati with some freaked-out teenagers, Bono and I began a dialogue about rock 'n' roll by discussing a multibillion-dollar computer company. I had interviewed bassist Adam Clayton two days earlier, and he was fine (smart and sarcastic, with very large hands). I had interviewed the Edge earlier that afternoon, and he was also fine (serious and soft-spoken, and wearing that stupid skull cap). I'll talk to drummer Larry Mullen next week over the telephone, and he will be likewise affable. These are all quotable people, and within the context of the band, they are all equally important. Producer Brian Eno once said the U2 was "the only real group" he'd ever met, because their music was so dependent on the interlocking, democratic nature of their songwriting.
But from a cultural perspective -- from the perspective of someone who is interested in what U2 is supposed to mean -- Bono is pretty much the whole band. He's probably the least musical member of U2, but he talks more than the other three members combined. I have never met anyone who likes being interviewed more than Bono. He can effortlessly lecture about anything. And the first thing he talks about is a person rock singers rarely talk about; the first thing he talks about is Apple cofounder Steve Jobs.
"The company that best exemplifies the marriage of technology and pop culture is Apple," says Bono as he paces the floor. "They understand music. They like music. They like the art object. The iPod is probably the greatest pop object since the electric guitar. We -- as a band -- feel strongly about the iPod. We -- as a band -- talked about the idea for an iPod years ago. We -- as a band -- are fans of Apple."
We are in a room with a telephone. Bono points to the telephone.
"We have, just now, ten minutes ago, made a partnership with Apple, right on that very phone," he continues. "We want to work with them. The Edge wants to work with their scientists. We want to play with their design team. We want to be in their commercial. We will do a commercial with Apple for our album, and no money will change hands, which is important, because we have been offered boatloads of money from many other people. But we will make an Apple commercial that's as good as any video. And next year, you will be able to go to a U2 show and download the concert onto your iPod. We're going to make a digital box set, where you can get every U2 album and every U2 B-side and every U2 lyric, all at once. We want to do this because we like their company. It's art, commerce, and technology colliding." It strikes me that Bono is talking about Apple as passionately as he talks about human rights. He is nothing if not charismatic; if he worked in advertising, we would probably say he has a strong "force of personality." But it also feels a bit odd to hear the leader of a rock band talking about how awesome it's going to be to make a commercial for a computer company. I ask him if the partnership will require some sort of compromise, or if this move will bring U2's credibility into question.
"I'm very fond of Steve [Jobs] personally," he responds. "And, you know, we already operate within this kind of corporate structure. We've all been whining about how white rock 'n' roll has its head in the sand on a lot of these issues, and how hip-hop has a much more honest approach. Russell Simmons laughs at all these middle-class college kids who are preoccupied with the fear of selling out. I've never been afraid of commerce. I've never been afraid of people who run music companies. There is this cliche that artists are pure and business people can't be trusted. Well, in my life I've met a lot of artists who were real assholes, and I've met a lot of businessmen who walk their dogs. So these things aren't true. We need new thinking."
"New thinking" is one of Bono's critical phrases: He wants the world to think differently about many, many things. He wants people to realize that the war against AIDS is much more significant than the war against Iraq. He wants American taxpayers to believe that forgiving third world nations of their debt is more beneficial than forcing them to pay it back. These are the causes he has embraced, and not without success. Bono is the most tangibly successful rock star activist of all time (he's certainly the only rock star who has been taken seriously by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the late-ultra-right-wing North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill). This is the man who prompted Time magazine to rhetorically ask in a 2002 cover story whether or not he could "save the world." So when one considers how much power Bono actually wields, when one considers the state of the planet, and when one considers that U2 is metaphorically using words like dismantle and bomb in the context of an album title, one might assume that this U2 album would be the most overtly political album of 2004.
Which it is not.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is not political at all. It's a wholly personal album, and many of the songs were inspired by the death of Bono's father, Bob Hewson, who succumbed to cancer in August 2001. When the band entered the studio a few months later, the songwriting process went pretty much as it normally does. The Edge brought in guitar demos, the band collaborated on the sonic skeletons and turned them into songs, then Bono added the lyrics. And though Bono fully intended these songs to be political, it just didn't happen.
"When we make a record, it's not a contrived process," explains the Edge in his signature monotone. "It's not like we sit down and say, 'We're going to write about this.' I don't think any of us thought, 'Let's make it a political record.' But we certainly though that was going to be part of it. I am a little bit surprised that it's so personal. I was expecting it to be a little more political, but it hasn't gone that way."
What's most interesting about the Edge's sentiment is how hard the band actually worked at that goal. The album's first single, "Vertigo," which oddly resembles the Supreme's "You Keep Me Hangin' On"), was originally titled "Native Son," and every lyric was different. Initially, it was an overtly political track, but it felt forced. This was not a rebel song. And what Bono ultimately realized is that you cannot be political just because other people assume it's your job. No matter how many times he appears on The O'Reilly Factor (which he did during the Republican National Convention), he's still more of an artist than a politician.
"I write feelings, not thoughts," Bono says while lying on a studio couch, almost like the caricature of a therapy patient. "Feelings are much stronger than thoughts. We are all led by instinct, and our intellect catches up later. This album proves that point. I would have certainly preferred to take on the issues that I deal with politically, but what came out of me was the other things in my life I wasn't tending to: My family, the hypocrisy of my own heart, and my father's death. I mean, why am I not spending more time with my kids? Why am I trying to save other people's kids instead? How can I sing about love when I'm never at home? There are a lot of things that need to be addressed in the world. But those other things just came pouring out of me."
AS YOU READ this magazine, the United States either has the same president it had a few weeks ago, or it has a new president who is taller. That was not the case when I spoke to U2. During the week of our interviews, it was still September. Obviously, we talked a great deal about the impending election (the Irish are far more interested in America than America is interested in Ireland). The Edge was open about his support for John Kerry, but Bono -- supremely aware that he will have to work with whoever wins -- remained staunchly nonpartisan. "I have forsaken my right to talk about the issue," he said, and I find it hilarious that he actually uses the word forsaken. For the past 25 years, countless people have referred to Bono as "messianic." Now he actually talks like Jesus.
Bono's nonpartisanship has been the catalyst for everything he and his band have accomplished. It's why he can work with legitimate political figures in a meaningful way, and it's why U2 can becomes business partners with Apple without giving up on rock 'n' roll. But it does raise a paradox: The reason U2 was (arguably) the most important band of the 1980s was that audiences felt they always took a side. What made "Sunday Bloody Sunday," from 1983's War, a powerful song is that something seemed to be at stake, even if you had no idea what happened in Northern Ireland in the winter of 1972. If anything, U2 seemed to care about things too much; there was simply no middle of the road on the driver toward Joshua Tree. And somewhat surprisingly, the band now expresses mild sheepishness about the '80s, even though that era made them famous.
"If you had to reduce U2 down to the waving of the white flag, which is a moment from the War tour, that would be the worst thing," says Clayton, when I ask him what he hopes U2 will not be remembered for in 50 years. "At the time, I think it was in the spirit of the performance. But we weren't very ironic people back then. We were pretty serious people, and we didn't see that we could have been a little more subtle about things like that. But hey, as mistakes go, that's probably not a bad one."
Part of that revisionism might have to do with age. U2 have now moved into the ever-expanding class of Rock Bands That Could Plausibly Have Fathered the People Who Now Buy Most of Their Albums (Bono is 44; the Edge, 43; Clayton, 44; and Mullen, 43). Their ironic distance also seems to be a product of 1997's Pop album and its subsequent PopMart tour, two projects that ostensibly failed. "That record was this fusion of electronica and the club world," says Clayton. "But we should have focused on tracks that were going to be radio-friendly. I think that was where we kind of screwed up."
Still, the decision to tour with a giant lemon was important; it was really the point where U2's aesthetic changed completely. And this transformation is still happening today: They are actively trying not to be self-aware, which (by definition) is almost impossible. But they're still trying.
"I don't think anyone who's famous didn't want to be famous," says Bono, which might not be true for all celebrities but is certainly true for him. "The people who hide in the shadows and cover their heads with their coats when they're being photographed by the paparazzi probably think being famous is more important than it actually is, and -- in a way -- probably need fame more than anyone else. I've gotten to the stage where I almost forget I'm in a rock band, which was never the case in the 1980s. And that was annoying, because that wasn't sexy. Self-consciousness is never sexy. I mean, I've watched myself being interviewed on TV, and I've just though to myself, 'What an asshole.' "
FOR THE PAST nine years, Larry Mullen has been wracked with back pain he credits to having never been taught how to play drums. Because he sits behind the kit incorrectly, and because he holds his sticks incorrectly, and because he basically just "enjoys hitting things," his spine had paid the price. He missed our scheduled initial conversation because he had to get medical treatment in the States. One of the things Bono casually mentioned in our interview was that Mullen "cannot tell a lie," an interesting way to characterize a coworker. So when Mullen and I talk a week later, I describe the situation with Bono and his Maserati and the teenagers, and I ask if this was a constructed event or a guileless occurrence.
"Well, it would be very easy for me to just say, 'Yes, it was guileless,' because how would you ever know if I was lying?" Mullen says. "But the truth is that Bono really does do stuff like that all the time. He really has this insatiable urge to be all things to all people, even when we try to stop him. Now, does he act differently today than he did 25 years ago? Of course. Bono thinks rock 'n' roll is shallow, in a way. He has always enjoyed the trappings of fame, but he feels this urge to balance it with something more substantial. He really is a walking contradiction. It's always all or nothing with him. There is almost nothing in the middle."
Like the other members of U2, Mullen -- who technically founded the band by pinning a MUSICIANS WANTED note on a school bulletin board as a teenager -- has slowly come to recognize just how bizarre his life has been. Like most bands, the 1976 incarnation of U2 had impossible dreams: They wanted to become famous, and they wanted to be on the radio constantly. They wanted to change the cultural climate. They wanted to be the Beatles and the Stones of their generation.
"I think Bono did have a clear goal," says Mullen. "But I was 14 when we started. I was just enjoying the experience. And we had to work harder than most bands, because we couldn't play and we didn't understand songwriting at all. The truth is that we all had dreams, and we all wanted to be transcendent, but I don't think anyone really believed any of that would happen."
But here's the thing: I think Bono did believe all that would happen. And even if he didn't believe it, he's certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it, because it seems like he's though about everything. At one point, we talked about the Pixies, one of roughly 18,000 artists Bono claims to adore. Among the things Bono loves about the Pixies is that they "invented something." I ask Bono if he thinks U2 invented anything. His answer is like Bill Clinton's speech after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing -- it's somehow completely natural and completely rehearsed at the exact same time.
"Oh yeah," Bono says, and as he talks I can vaguely hear the Edge playing the intro to "I Will Follow" through the walls of the studio. "I wouldn't be holding my head up this high if I didn't think that. If I can use the analogy of the spectrum, I think there are certain colors we absolutely own -- certain sounds, certain emotions. We can write songs about God and have them right next to songs about girls. I think we weave God, sex, and politics together in a way that's very unusual to white music. And I'm not saying this is a reason that someone should like our music, or that it proves we're great. But I do think that can be said with some objectivity. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant."
Well, it sort of does. But arrogance doesn't matter when you're right.
© Spin, 2004.