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"This is where U2 live — a four-piece in a room, struggling to get it right." — Larry

Neil McCormick: White-hot Rock-and-roll Moments

The author and longtime friend of U2 talks with @U2 about the band's early days, the new album, and much more
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As part of the publicity efforts surrounding Neil McCormick's book, I Was Bono's Doppelganger, @U2 recently spoke with the author via telephone. The main reason for our conversation was to discuss his book, but we couldn't pass on the opportunity to talk about U2 at the same time. How often, after all, do you have a chance to chat with someone who's been friends with the band before they were a band?

Having already published our review of McCormick's book and an accompanying article about the book, we now present this lengthier question-and-answer piece in which McCormick talks about U2's early days, the truth behind the October album, U2's fifth member, and much more.

The book is released tomorrow (August 26) by Penguin Books in the U.K. and by Simon & Schuster in the U.S. on October 1 under the title Killing Bono: I Was Bono's Doppelganger.



How does it feel to be the interviewee and not the interviewer?

Well, that feels great. That feels the way it was meant to be. You know, I've been interviewing myself in my head for the last 25 years and now I get to say it in print. The problem with being the interviewer is often you've got better answers for the questions than the interviewee and one is always tempted to improve their answers which is not good journalistic practice. So now I get to sit around talking crap -- you know, my ideal job.

With all of the interviews that you've done so far for the book, have you come up with a set of expressions that Bono does? It seems like every other interview you'll see the "funky pontiff" quote or something along those lines. Are you starting to discover that you're saying the same things over and over again?

You know, to a certain degree yes. One tries not -- and as a journalist, I always think it's my job to try to get something different and it's always a little bit depressing when you come back from an interview, thinking you've got a brilliant interview, and then listen to the quippings because I always do it the wrong way around and find that they've just repeated all of their famous phrases and anecdotes. But, I suppose inevitably, you actually think certain things and you find a certain way to say it and I think we all probably know from our families that the best anecdotes get polished and repeated until they're being told at a social gathering and everyone's having a good laugh except for close family who are rolling their eyes because they've heard it 32 times before. It's like that only more so with someone like Bono.

Bono can give an interview master class. He is possibly one of the best people you could ever interview, but he's spoken to a lot of people and he all the time is honing down what works. You're quite lucky actually because I haven't done that many yet. The publicity for the book starts at the end of the month and by then I will be spewing it out like rote, like all of the worst people I've ever interviewed.

I guess the number one question is why did you wait so long to write this book?

I had to suffer first. The book wouldn't be much fun if I hadn't gone through the wilderness. You know, I was asked to write a U2 book back in the '80s when Unforgettable Fire came out and I wrote an article calling it "The Unbelievable Book," not a book that I am particularly impressed with, even though it's practically given me a career by asserting wrongly that I was the original member of U2 and the first person to leave.

I think next to Lola Cashman, Eamon Dunphy ranks right up there with writers that readers just can't stand.

Yeah. It was a poor choice and the band has to take some blame for that because he basically didn't know anything about music. He's a sports journalist. And so, when I wrote that piece, someone from Virgin Books I think contacted me and asked me if I'd like to write a book about U2. I went into the meeting thinking, you know at this stage my band was just breaking up and I was an impoverished and desperate and a bit fed up and I went to the meeting. But I really didn't want to write a book about U2. I did not want my life, which I had been trying to carve out myself, to end up being someone hanging on the coattails of these guys I went to school with. And so, I had no idea what kind of money they paid for books and I went in there with visions of them offering me a king's ransom. So, I was thinking "how am I going to turn down 100,000?" But I went in and they talked with me about it for a bit and I said, "Well, excuse me guys -- can I ask you something? How much money is involved here?" in a very mercenary fashion and they said, "About 15,000." And I started to laugh. They asked "What's so funny?" and I said, "You've made this very easy for me. No."

But, you know, years went by and this isn't going to be a very short answer because it's been a life's work. I've always wanted to write a book. You know, Bono has the saying "Megalomania starts very early" and that's certainly the case with me. I didn't just want to be a rock star, and an actor and a writer and a director, I wanted to be an author. You know, I love books. I've been a big reader ever since I was a small child. So, there is some question that evolved around my head about what book might I write. What book can I write? Do I have the ability to sustain a large piece of work, and it kept coming back to me that this was a story -- it was a unique story -- contrasting the failure of somebody with the success of someone else. You know, that life in the shadow. It was a unique story -- it was my story. And eventually, I guess I felt comfortable enough with it, possibly because I had had success in a different part of my life. I felt comfortable enough with it to put away the feeling that I was just hanging on somebody coattails, thinking "ok, I could write this." And then, when I mentioned it to publishers and they did start talking about large sums of money, and so the mercenary won out in the end.

It takes a little bit of time -- it's like going fishing. You have to wait for that right fish to come along, I guess.

That's right. When Bono called me -- the incident that started the book -- when he called me and he was telling me about his whatever he'd been up to in Miami, nights out with models and Mafiosi, smoking cigars -- Presidential cigars -- singing with Frank Sinatra, writing the James Bond theme tune. Of course, I was a boy who had always imagined that one day, not only would I be a rocker, I would play James Bond. I was rather sickened by the contrast between his world and my world, and I said to him "you know the problem with knowing you is that you're living my life." And he said, " 'cause I'm your doppelganger, and if you want your life back, you'll have to kill me." And that was a throwaway remark and it made us both laugh, but this phrase stuck in my head right there and I thought "You know, that is a great idea -- Bono's doppelganger." So, it was there, it was lurking as an idea in the recesses of a very jumbled brain for a very long time.

You've said that writing this book has been a cathartic experience for both you and for Bono. Can you explain why?

When I started writing, I thought it would be a comic memoir, which to a large extent it is. But in order to create something that was more than just a throwaway-something that had emotional resonance and maybe added up to more than just a music book, more than a book about Bono, more than a book about me, I had to dig deep. I had to be honest. So, I was looking back at my life, and I was looking back at it quite objectively, and I was seeing myself in ways I hadn't seen before. You know, I'd seen myself as a writer looking at a subject, remembering what I had done and deciding to put it on the page, you know, sometimes with my cheeks blushing, and see the struggle I had gone through and see who I was at different times and see how much I changed.

This thing of being haunted by Bono -- of him invading my dreams -- you know, he's such a big figure in our culture. He's inescapable. You hear U2 songs everywhere you go. I couldn't forget that I know this guy and I know this band and the things we went through. I couldn't forget it if I tried, you know you walk into Starbucks or something and there they are playing on the stereo. Then, you get into your car and turn the stereo on and out comes the Edge's guitar. So, it was a process for me to be able to review all of this stuff. It was cathartic because I shed some of that, in a way. You know, the dreams stopped. The lingering sense of envy evaporated because I dug deep and got in there, and got a good look at it. But, it was cathartic for me -- and was it cathartic for him -- yes, because he has been written about, you know, thousands of times. A lot of people have profiled him, but he said that it was the first time he really recognized himself in print.

I haven't written that much U2 over the years, really. My name is very attached to them, but I've only interviewed Bono three times and written a couple of features. So, maybe five or six, well that's not true -- when I was at Hot Press as a young man I wrote a bunch of things, because I was just a fan. But, in the intervening years and in years when I've been making a living as a music journalist, I've maybe written about them six times. The one feature I did write, and again, this may have lead me to thinking about writing the book quite seriously, is a feature I wrote for the Telegraph around the time that All That You Can't Leave Behind came out, and I got a message back that Bono had cried when he read the feature, which was an amazing thing to hear. He did call me the next day and said that it had touched him very deeply and it took him into places because of this thing -- because he recognized himself in print. You know, people often get a bit of him, but they don't get the whole picture. They get the very spiritual person, but they don't get the funny person. They get the rock star person, but they don't get the ordinary guy who has to deal with ordinary things. They don't get his whole picture. I've known him for a long time. If somebody was going to write something in which he's a recognizable human being, then you know, if I couldn't do that after 25 years, then I'm not really worth my salt as a writer.

You've known the band for almost 30 years. How have their core personalities, beliefs, and music style changed over the span of time? Has anything surprised you?

You know, obviously everybody changes and everybody remains the same. If you didn't change, it would be embarrassing, but if you change so much that you become unrecognizable to yourself then you think, "What were you before?" I know them better now, in a way, than when I knew them at school, and so maybe they've just become more defined in my own consciousness. Success breeds confidence and they're very confident people.

Their core values have remained very consistent and, in fact, are part of what has helped them achieve so much. Their relationship with God, which has really -- I know it's three of them, although Adam has his own spiritual sensibility -- kept them on the straight and narrow. Because of their deep sense of spirituality, deep and life-long commitment to their idea of God, they didn't get waylaid by the temptations. They basically have destroyed many a rock and a roll career. It's one of the reasons why they lasted so long is that focus on the things that matter and not these frivolous things of rock and roll.

They are more substantial people than what they were, but they are essentially the same people. You know, Bono was a star in school. He's a very driven, dynamic guy. Fame and success have fed him. He's one of the biggest people you could know. He's a big personality that sparks fly from. But, I've always kind of remembered him like that. He's still very driven. He's still got the same, right at the root of those same insecurities and the same need for love that drove him from childhood.

Adam is obviously a lot more mature than he was, but you know, aren't we all? The urbane charm he had then is welded to a sense of substance and surprising humility. He could have turned into an ego monster, but he didn't. He's a very humble person.

Edge, you know, Edge has a confidence -- a confidence that has given focus to the intellect that was developing and the imagination that was only showing the first signs when I first knew him. Now the guitar and the band have brought that out of him. But he is one of the most humble, ego-free persons you could meet.

And, Larry, you know Larry was always the quiet one. But, he always was viewed as a character of substance. Larry has also matured and, you know, he's a kind of conservative character. He's the person in the band that keeps everything in check, and some of that over the years was maybe due to a sort of pessimistic outlook. I think he's shed a little bit of that, and he's more comfortable in his own skin. But, he's always been very solid in his values, and so that remains.

It's extraordinary that four people can have gone through what they've gone through and become as famous as they have become and remain so down-to-earth, maybe. I don't know if that's the right phrase ... so positive and good in the way they treat people, and positive in the way they aim to do things in the world. They are very admirable people.

It's been said countless times on that fateful day in September of '76 that with everybody crammed into Larry's kitchen that Larry was in charge of U2 for about five minutes. Do you find that there's a true leader in the band, are all four members are equal leaders?

They'll give you various answers to that themselves, but my answer to it is: Bono is the leader of that band. Bono is the psyche of U2, he's the engine that drives U2, he's the inspiration of U2, because he's an extraordinary individual.

The Edge is maybe musically the most important person in U2. The Edge is the musical genius in U2, but Bono is the engine of the band. I think that if U2's a democracy, then it's a democracy in the same way that America is. Somebody gets to be president. The president of U2 is definitely Bono.

Many fans are always excited to hear stories about U2's early days. While most know now that Edge is a sloppy kisser, not many know about Adam's fashion sense, bathrobe fashion during the rehearsals way back when, or the journey of the first bass that he sold to you for 70 -- can you expand more on those stories?

You know, Adam doesn't even remember his dress sense from school. I mentioned this to him the other day. I mentioned to him his yellow workman's helmet that he was wearing the other day and he just laughed and said, "Did I?"

And yet, I thought that was part of his fashion for the PopMart tour -- I thought he was kicking it back old school.

(Laughs). Yeah, you're right actually. I hadn't thought about that. I don't think Adam remembers a lot actually. There are some lost years in there for Adam. Adam's fashion was a way of arming himself when he went to Mount Temple, a school he hadn't been in before. It was a school that encouraged individuality. Some people were more individual than others.

The story about what Adam had under his bathrobe during rehearsals for the second concert came from my sister, who was 16 years old and had not seen an engorged member before. Adam is famous for being well-hung, and has never been shy about letting people know why, apparently, as it turns out. So, yeah, that's in the book about how Adam's member made an appearance during rehearsals.

The bass guitar. It's tragic. Adam said to me one day that he'd buy the bass guitar. He asked me if I still had that first bass guitar, that first absolute plank, an Ibanez copy that he ripped me off something rotten, selling it to me for 70, which was a lot of money in those days by telling me that it had great "action." I just muttered "yeah, it does" while looking around for the action switch. Years later, I found out the action is the gap between the strings and the frets. I didn't know that then, and I can guarantee you that Adam didn't know that either. It was just a word that he had heard, and he could throw those words about.

But, I thought I could have my revenge and make some money on it by selling it back to him as a valuable antique at a vastly inflated price. But, it wasn't in itself the bass that was worth a lot of money and so, I shouldn't be shocked to discover that the person I had left it with, Declan Peat, the former bassist in Yeah! Yeah! -- I went back to get it off him, and he still had it, but he had sawed the body off it. So, it looked like a Devo guitar. It's just that the body was pretty worthless. I'm sure Declan thought he was doing me a favor; however, it rendered the whole thing worthless. I did, however, consider very briefly that I could have gone down to a second-hand shop in Dublin and bought some old plank and made my money back on Adam, but ultimately I couldn't bring myself to do it, but at least I got a good story for my book.

Can you expand a bit on how Larry saved the day for your band, the Modulators?

Yeah, well, the Modulators being the second band that I had, always had drummer problems. A lot of bands do. You know, drummers are hard to find. A good drummer is very hard to find. A good drummer who can keep time is, you know, worth his weight in gold, which is probably why U2 have hung onto Larry through thick and thin.

Our drummer never turned up to rehearsal, and then didn't turn up to our first big gig in the Howth Community Center. He had an excuse. He had been arrested and he was under probation restrictions, which was very punk rock of him, but it didn't help us as much. So, we called Larry and he stood in.

Larry played drums for me. He was the drummer in MY band [said emphatically], and I'll never let him forget it. Actually, Larry already considered himself a professional and probably considered us a bunch of amateurs. So, while agreeing to play, he didn't agree to rehearse, which is fair enough because we were essentially punk rock and it all went the same -- four to the floor, fast rock and roll, really. Basically, we would tell him what song we were gonna play and Ivan [McCormick, Neil's brother] would indicate what tempo or some exchange and we would just bang into it.

But, it all went horribly wrong when we played our version of the Beatles' "Revolution." I don't know if you know the Beatles' "Revolution," I'm sure you do, but it starts with a very fast guitar lick which is "da-nanananana, da-nananana, da-nananananan," and then it goes "You say you want a revol...," you know, it slows down to about half speed and it was the most complicated song we had ever learned, it had a lot of chords in it, and we could just about play it at half speed. Ivan kicked off with that fast guitar lick and Larry, having no idea what we were playing, joined in. So, we played the whole song at double the speed the Beatles played it at. We played the song at breakneck speed, staring at each other aghast as the bassist and the guitarist tried to keep up with the drummer and I spat out the words as quickly as I could, and the song must have lasted about a minute and a half, but you know, we got through it. We were so pleased with it and after that, we always played it that way.

Do you find yourself thinking back to those days at Mount Temple, McGonagles, and the early pre-U2 gigs with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of wonder, or do you have a different way of looking back at those early shows?

You know, they were "Beatles in the Cavern" moments. People told us about seeing the Beatles in the Cavern before they became the amazing band in the world, the Fab Four. I saw U2 in bars, hotels, and car parks before they became the band that the world fell in love with. And, it was a rock-and-roll time and I was falling in love with rock and roll. I think of them as just white-hot rock-and-roll moments. It was ridiculously surprising for me to be there even at the time. It just has been given an added resonance by the fact that they're still around and so people are amazed that you might have been around and might have seen that.

I remember the songs well. I remember songs they never recorded well, I saw the development of that act. I always thought they were exciting when, realistically, there's practically no possibility they could have been exciting, so it was just all of our mutual naivet. I thought they were a great live band then and I think they're a great live band now. So, that was a privilege definitely.

Who do you think was the most instrumental in the success of U2? Who do you wish played a bigger role?

Most instrumental in the success of the band was Paul McGuinness. That, because, as great as the band were, I doubt they would have made it out of Ireland alive without a manager with vision...and what are the chances these two forces would come together, but they did. McGuinness was looking for a band he could take to America. He believed in the possibility that an Irish band could go to America and take on the world, and he was looking for someone to fill that role. That was his sense of vision -- almost impossible for Ireland who had never really produced an international superstar. You know, maybe Van Morrison from Northern Ireland. Ireland was very parochial, backwater, at the time. It wasn't a place where rock stars came from. Yeah, Paul McGuinness is probably the most important person in that part of the story.

And, who should have played a bigger part? My brother. My brother should have been the second guitarist in U2. And, then I could live in his chateau in France, and I could work for him and write books in my spare time.

The state the music industry seems to be in is another theme going through the book. Do you think they'll ever return to the day of nurturing and developing artists?

No. Sadly. It's going to get worse. It's already getting worse. You know, in the early 1980s, there were over a dozen major record companies. As of next year when BMG and Sony merge, there will be four. They don't invest in talent in the way that they used to. There's far less access for bands. There's far less bands and artists. There's far less records released than there used to be by major labels with the power to develop.

The independent scene has become more important. The independent scene is nurturing, but it doesn't necessarily have the power to nurture. To keep a band on the road costs a lot of money. And, it takes a while for that to pay off. You've got to go out there and play gigs, build an audience -- that's what U2 did.

The Edge has said to me quite recently after October -- which is probably the orphan of the U2 canon -- it's a good album. It's full of interesting things, but it is not better than Boy, and it's not as good as War. Lyrically, it was a bit ill-formed because Bono claims he had his notebook stolen. Actually, he said to me the other day that that was just an excuse anyway because there probably was nothing in the notebook. It was made in a rush. It didn't do as well as Boy, and that is a very key thing. You know, Boy came out and they were building something. They're a great live band. It sold respectably, and then they'd release another album and it would sell more, but October didn't sell more. It sold less. And at that point, there was talk, discussion, a sense that they might be dropped by their record label. But, the record label felt there was something there worth persevering with and kept pouring money into something that wasn't making a profit.

Now, that wouldn't happen today. If there's another U2 out there right now, and you and I wouldn't necessarily know about this, and they released a good record and they were building, and they release a second record and it wasn't as good as the first record -- it didn't do as well as the first record -- they'd never get to make a third record. That's the record industry now.

Would you like to be the one who gets to induct U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? If it can't be you, then who should it be?

You know, I thought Bono was the only person who ever inducted anybody into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with one of his speeches about how he wouldn't have been where he was today if it wasn't for Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, the Ramones, pick the box -- the Who. So, Bono can induct himself.

Well, that would be quite the introduction! With the disappearance of the new U2 album, have you been able to hear any of it?

(Laughs.) Ha! You're not accusing me of stealing it?

Oh no, not at all. I'd never accuse you!

I have heard the album. I know that it was stolen because I spoke with Edge just after it happened and he was in a bit of a state of shock. Yeah, I've heard the album.

What are your thoughts on it?

It's fantastic. It's a fantastic U2 record. It's got big songs. It's got a big sound. It's not an out-and-out rock record as they were threatening to make. But, there are slashes of that old, very old, U2 wide-screen guitar. There's a lot in there. This is a big song album -- big songs about big issues with a big, ballsy sound. It's wonderful.

Do you foresee it being as big as The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, or bigger than that?

Well, I don't know, because those moments create themselves. U2 were riding the crest of a wave -- it wasn't just to do with U2. Just as fame isn't about the famous person, but what the audience needs or wants from them at that given time.

I'm sure that U2 being the professional organization that they have, delivering -- you know, they try and make big records that speak to the world and that's what they've delivered. I'm sure their organization will spring into motion and try to make this a 10-million plus selling album. But, whether they will capture the zeitgeist in a way they did at the end of the '80s, start of the '90s and just reverberate through the whole world is something that no one can predict because some force of the world that will decide that.

How are you collaborating with the band on the U2 by U2 book project?

They've read my book, obviously, because Bono wrote the forward for it. I just kept them in the loop, really. I did speak to him before writing it, because if he said that he was uncomfortable with it then I wouldn't have done it. They read the book and they loved it, and they needed someone to work on their own book. Suddenly my name floated up. They made me an offer I couldn't refuse.

It's great fun, but it's also demanding. The book is going to be a first-person narrative by U2, you know, it's U2 by U2. It means my conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, which means I'm living on Bono time at the moment. He's got a very elastic sense of time. He says he'll call at 5, and you know, 10:30 you get a phone call if you're lucky.

But it's interesting. I'm finding out things I didn't know and so are they. I can't give away the secrets of that book, but it's going to be great.

Any talk in there at all about the Dalton Brothers?

We haven't got there is all I can say. I've been working on it for a couple of months now, and you know, Edge is in 1987, but Bono is still stuck in 1982.

Why the different titles for your book?

There were two titles, and my initial title was I Was Bono's Doppelganger. I like that title. It made me laugh. Bono, however, wasn't mad about the title. He came up with Killing Bono.

So it was his idea?

It was his idea. You can blame him. So, he started going on about this: "That would look great on a T-shirt. I know a few people who would wear that T-shirt." And in fact, he called me up one day and he left a message on my answering machine which said, "Neil. It's Bono. You have to kill me. It's for your own good. And mine."

I related this story to both of my publishers, and the Americans were so delighted with the very catchy title Killing Bono that they thought this would be perfect for America. Not for the reasons that have been suggested by some British acts that Americans wouldn't understand what the word doppelganger means. Just because Killing Bono is a very catchy title. I like my original title, so I was quite ambivalent. I left it up to the publishers to decide. The British publishers went with I Was Bono's Doppelganger, so I'm happy with that. The American ones went with Killing Bono. I get to have my cake and eat it too, in a way.

I love the British cover, which makes me laugh, which was my idea actually. It is me dropped into the photo of The Joshua Tree, but the Americans came up with another cover. You know, maybe it's got a bit too much graphics on it in the end for it to look fantastic, but the picture of Bono looking into the mirror and seeing me staring back at him that was taken by Kevin Davies is fantastic. It's gorgeous. So, you know, it's great for me. You know, the more the merrier. It's like putting an album out in different sleeves. Maybe some insane fans will buy both copies.

Are there paths you'd wish U2 would explore more?

No. U2's destiny is a musical destiny of their own. Any artist's musical destiny is their own. Really, what you think they should be doing is of no significance whatsoever. And, a lot of critics write reviews of things saying "Well, they should have done this and they should have done that," which is just rubbish! You follow your own muse. U2 follow their own muse rather gloriously. And so, long may they continue to do so.



© @U2/Lawrence, 2004.