"The vocal glides gracefully between recognizable language and fluent Bongolese -- semilinguistic scat forming temporary bridges over lyrical gaps."
-- Brian Eno
People of the Year: Bono
Fighting the good fight, in the name of love and rock & roll
November 19, 2001
He's a prophet and a priest, a star and a figurehead, a man who's used his strong, velvety voice to seduce and uplift through both music and political activism. Paul Hewson, born in Dublin in 1960, and his band mates grew up in war-torn Ireland and harnessed the pain of revolution and social strife into some of the most inspiring music of the Eighties. They have not looked back -- through periods of experimentation in their music and the art of performance, U2 have remained compelling for more than twenty years. All That You Can't Leave Behind was a new chapter -- a summary of where they began and a sobering look at themselves as musicians and humans, both melancholy and hopeful. It isn't surprising that as they prepared to launch the autumnal leg of their Elevation 2001 Tour -- the year's best, biggest rock show -- their single "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" became one of America's post-September 11th salves. It also isn't surprising that Bono's insights on the state of our world and his own loss this year -- that of his father -- and his thoughts on the future, are every bit as enlightening. He speaks with the warmth of an old friend, in the roundabout fashion of a seasoned storyteller.
What have your thoughts been since the events of September 11th?
We make music because it matters to us, and I think music has been a lifeline for people since then. I mean, they're holed up with their CD collections. We feel incredible and humbled to be on tour in the United States at this time. And proud that we put the tickets on sale after September 11th. That makes us feel good. It's a statement: "We like it here! We're coming here! And fuck off!" We walk out onstage and everyone knows that, so before Edge has even put his foot on the pedal it's just gone off. I see it as a real blessing to be here. From what I hear from my friends in New York, it's a better city than it was a few weeks ago for the worst of all reasons. Maybe it's naive to think that will continue, but I always think that the evil that you can't see is the one to fear -- like bureaucratic evil. The sort of evil we're confronted with now likes the shallow water, because when it steps up out of it and walks into town it brings good to the surface of everybody. That's certainly the only thing worth celebrating right now -- the people themselves, not the place that they live. The evil that you can see, when it's here in sharp focus and walking among you, makes your life take on a new meaning.
What are you thinking about the future?
I just made up a shirt that says "2002." It's odd for us, having started out the year making an album with all the artwork of airports and the title and the themes, and all of us walking out onstage in military clothes with flowers woven into them, playing with the symbolism of the peace movement. And to then suddenly be in it is quite odd. I got a call from Ali, my wife, the other day. She was just trying to get rid of stuff at home and found a videotape of us on the MTV Video Music Awards a few years ago in New York doing the song "Please." She said she thought it was one of our worst performances but told me to go back and listen to the song. I put it on and I couldn't believe what I heard. ["September, streets capsizing/ Spilling over down the drain/Shards of glass splinters like rain/But you could only feel your own pain...October, talk getting nowhere/November, December; remember/We just started again."] It's essentially about fundamentalism, political or religious. Religious fundamentalism is where you get to shrink God; you remake God in your own image, as opposed to the other way around. It gave me a bit of a fright, and we're going to put it back into our show.
What good do you think will come of these horrific events?
America is interested in the rest of the world in a way it wasn't. You can't be an island in a global economic sea. The ripples will return as waves, and, you know, the roots of this present crisis are in poverty -- the abject poverty that a lot of Africans are living in. I didn't say that, you know -- the president of the World Bank said that on September 13th. Anyway, fanatics feed off this poverty. Bin Laden is a spoiled, middle-class brat. Fuck middle-class -- he's just a rich kid, as often were members of the provisional IRA. They were political-science students and we grew up in their environs and got to despise them, these people who see ideas as being more valuable than human life. That's how we boxed them in Ireland.
Do you think American global awareness will be a permanent change?
To be interested in the rest of the world is necessary for all of us, and we need it. What I'm working toward on a daily basis is that next year's G8 summit will be a chance for the world to regroup on these issues. Even militarists recognize that this is a war you can't win with the usual ammunition. In our time an entire continent -- Africa -- has burst into flames, and we've stood around with watering cans. And then we wonder. We've just seen what happens when one nation, i.e., Afghanistan, implodes. What if the entire continent of Africa were to explode or implode? That is its present trajectory. You have 40 million AIDS orphans in the next ten years. The teachers are dying faster than you can train them. This is not just a problem unsustainable for Africa, but for the world. As somebody who's been working this groove for a while, to hear Colin Powell addressing these issues now gives me the greatest faith in the future. Perhaps out of this could come a newer, fairer world order, because it is clear that globalization does not work for most of the lives it impacts. The great thing about the United States is you have an expanding middle class. You want that for the rest of the world -- the sense that they can get on the merry-go-round. When most people are left out of the equation, history tells us that revolt is around the corner. So I'm really excited about the future, because I think good is going to come out of this. And I wear gray underwear, and my favorite color is amber [laughs warmly].
Are you nudging me to go fluffy for a while? Do you like ice cream?
No, I have to nudge myself! I'm the fuckin' problem here, believe me!
What changes would you like to see in pop culture?
Rather like politicians, you get the pop charts you deserve. I would like to see more imaginative work taking over the pop charts. I want to hear Laurie Anderson on Top Forty radio. Years ago, she had a Number One in England, "O Superman." That's all. It can come from hip-hop, it can come from rock, I could care less where it comes from, just get out of whatever ghetto you're in and get into the mainstream -- you don't have to be of it to be in it.
How do you spend New Year's Day?
On New Year's Eve I always make a prayer, at midnight. If we've got rockets, we tie our prayers to them and send them off. Or that day I'll jump in the freezing-cold waters of the Irish Sea and take a shot of ice-cold vodka when I come out. I like the idea of beginning again. Religious folk call it being "born again." I think you should be born again and again and again. What I loved about the whole Jubilee movement is it was demanding the same thing for countries -- you know, that you get a chance to begin again, you're free of the past. I'd like to start 2002 as a baby. That might be the way to see the world...as opposed to seeing it as a big baby.
What was the best place that you traveled to this year?
I went to Bali for a drink. I really did. I was on my way from France to Chicago, and I went by the island of Bali in Indonesia. My wife told me that I needed some time on my own, that I needed some air. Which might be short for something else, I don't know! But I went there with a friend of mine and, you know, I didn't end up drinking that much. The place is filled with temples; it just smells different than anywhere else in the world. There's a tropical scent that's rich and beautiful. I was wondering why there wasn't the usual resentment of tourists that you find in beautiful places. And at the end of the week I realized that they'd been teaching me. They teach you how to live and see it as a kind of almost religious practice. They give thanks for everything, and they bow to each other, and they wear beautiful saffron sometimes, these beautiful colors, and you see the girls riding sidesaddle on the backs of scooters going to temple at night, and the music is, I guess, the antecedent of trance and rave culture. It's very sophisticated. It's like Philip Glass meets Benjamin Britten or Stockhausen.
Favorite reading materials at the moment?
I'm reading The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things by J.T. LeRoy. It's blowing my mind, just the directness of the prose. And, well, I don't want to come off wrong in this most unholy of wars, but there's a translation of Scriptures -- the New Testament and the Books of Wisdom -- that this guy Eugene Peterson has undertaken. It has been a great strength to me. He's a poet and a scholar, and he's brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written. A lot of the Gospels were written in common kind of marketspeak. They were not at all highfalutin like the King James Version of the Bible, from which all Goths get their inspiration. I love the sort of archery of that, but it's not representative of the original writings.
What was your most memorable personal encounter this year?
Sitting beside my father in his last weeks and hours. And his last words, which were, "Are you all fucking mad?" [laughs long and loud].
That's amazing. To whom was this addressed?
Me...I was sleeping beside him. I'd get back home after gigs we were doing in Europe and England and have a pint of Guinness and a chaser to steady my nerves, then I'd go into the hospital and I'd sleep beside him, you know, because I didn't want him to be alone at night. He had many memorable things to say. He was very funny in the last few days. "Dad, ya got any visitors today?" He says, "Yeah. It's great...great when they leave." He's a tough guy, really, just tough. [Grows quiet for a moment] I had a bit of an epiphany about it all. My prayer for him was that he would keep his dignity. He had a lot of front. But he didn't get to keep his dignity. Cancer is very cruel in the way that it kills you so slowly. But I, you know, I sat there. I drew him. I held his hand. I did things that he would never let me do. He was trapped [chuckles]. But I thought that maybe dignity is not such a big deal. I had dignity up there with righteousness, something you'd aspire to. But the two most important events of your life -- being born and dying - are very messy. Very messy. Giving birth is very messy for mother and child.
They defy being cool. There is just no way to keep it up in the face of something so real.
Right, that's it! That was the insight. That dignity is a human construct like cool, and that it might be vain. I began to understand Indian sadhus and the begging bowls of the Hindu priests that get dignity out of the way. And that maybe humility is the eye of the needle that we all have to pass through.
© Rolling Stone, 2001. All rights reserved.