"I distrust anything that's obvious, like someone saying, 'Let's be original.'"
Pro Bono: In New York with a Musician On a Mission
The Weekend Australian,
December 01, 2001
Faith, hope, redemption...even in a grieving New York, U2's musical message to the world risked a certain "puke factor." Perhaps only Bono, God-fearing family man and political campaigner, could pull it off.
The view from the balcony of Bono's New York apartment sweeps out over Central Park's uncountable shades of green to a horizon defined by the silver pinnacles of midtown Manhattan. Inside, the space between the wood-panelled walls is sparsely furnished and barely decorated -- the place would be the image of the itinerant bachelor pad were it not for the presence of the U2 frontman's wife of 19 years, Ali, and the couple's four children (Jordan, 11, Eve, 9, Elijah, 2, and John, five months). It is never necessary, where Bono is concerned, to look too hard to find contradictions: the God-fearing hedonist, rock star, family man, multimillionaire, debt-relief campaigner is, as has previously been observed, a great bunch of guys. Bono is here for the New York leg of the band's Elevation world tour, in a city still in shock after the September 11 terrorist attacks. "I ant to be able to adore this city," he is saying, "and I want to grieve alongside it, but at the same time, if artists are not standing up and talking about tolerance...I think that's our gig, and I'm ready to take the criticism for it. I do understand that singing about peace, love and understanding right now will lead to a certain, ah...f--- off factor."
He bought this place about a year ago, and has used it as a personal bolthole as well as a family holiday home. He was at home in Dublin on September 11. "I'd just left New York. Of all the serendipities, we'd been recording a famous anti-war song, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, on behalf of the Global AIDS Alliance. So I guess I left on September 8 or 9."
This version of Gaye's song also features Destiny's Child, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears among others, and is available under the name Artists Against AIDS Worldwide. In recent weeks, U2 have been incorporating their own version into their encores.
"In the aftermath of September 11, it was the most played song on the radio here, but it stopped as soon as military action started because some lines had started to jar -- 'It's no time to escalate/War is not the answer/And only love can conquer hate' -- and so on. Which is a shame, because I think even the militarists realise this is a war you can't win just with ammunition."
It's late on Friday afternoon, and U2 have played two of their three sold-out shows at New York's 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden. Though both performances received the ovations they deserved, proof that you can't please everyone arrived with the morning papers. In the New York Post, Bono got a bit of a going over. "So liberal," thundered the review, "so politically correct, he made you want to puke green."
"Yeah, I saw it," smiles Bono, displaying the amusement that seems his reflex reaction to personal criticism. "Peace, love and understanding, f--- off. But correct me if I'm wrong, but I hardly said a word last night. It's hard for me to shut up, but I really did."
It's true that by Bono's formidable standards of garrulousness, he'd been fairly restrained. The only explicit reference to September 11 at either show had come during the last encore, "One," when a blue screen behind the stage scrolled through the names of the crews and passengers of the hijacked aircraft, followed by the police killed in the rescue effort, followed by the awful, interminable list of dead and missing firefighters; the names of others lost in the rubble of the World Trade Centre were projected onto the venue's ceiling, where they drifted like thousands of bewildered ghosts.
It was a moment few bands would have contemplated attempting, and probably only U2 would have got away with; their unique willingness to place themselves at the heart of situations occasionally leaves them looking awkward (as it did when they relayed live satellite feeds from besieged Sarajevo during concerts on the 1992-93 Zoo TV tour), but when it works (as it did when they played in Sarajevo on the PopMart tour four years later), it is extraordinarily potent.
U2 -- Bono, guitarist Edge, bass player Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. -- have undergone a number of stylistic transformations since forming at Dublin's Mount Temple School in 1978. Though they were heavily influenced, initially, by the music of post-punk outfits like Joy Division and Television, they never subscribed to the alternative sector's disdain for commercial ambition: their mid-1980s albums, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, made them one of the biggest bands on earth. To their eternal credit, that wasn't enough, and U2 spent the '90s releasing some of the most inventive and troubled albums ever recorded by a band of their stature -- Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Pop -- and teaming them with extravagant live spectacles only slightly less ambitious than D-Day, and almost as expensive.
"I like those albums," says Bono, "but I find them unbearable to listen to, because I can hear the paranoia and the panic. Achtung Baby is full of it. Zooropa kind of revolved around that great lyric by Edge, "Numb." And Pop is so f---ing black. I can't think of a more un-pop record. I remember Larry saying after the sessions that maybe next time we should make an actual pop record."
The current album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, is not quite that, but it is a rediscovery of U2's core values: faith, hope, redemption. It is not insignificant that the accompanying tour, which took in 15 countries between starting in Miami in March and finishing in the same city this month, is named for the album's second single, "Elevation."
ONE OF THE few things Bono did utter on stage in New York was a brief salute to the Irish Republican Army, who had announced that they were ready to begin decommissioning their weapons. Bono's views on Irish paramilitary violence have never been in doubt -- in the concert film that accompanied 1988's Rattle and Hum, he famously introduced the song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" with a scalding anti-IRA tirade, the keynote phrase of which was "f--- the revolution" -- but how much applause is the organisation due for announcing that after 30-odd years they're going to destroy as much or as little of their arsenal as they deem expedient?
"I like the line -- I don't know who said it -- that just because you have a past, it doesn't mean you can't have a future. I really believe that. That's a fundamental for me. That we can begin again. That's the whole concept of a lot of what U2 do. It's certainly the whole concept of Jubilee."
Jubilee is the London-based debt relief coalition, formerly known as Jubilee 2000 and now called Jubilee Plus, which has been pressuring Western governments to write off the debts owed them by their Third World counterparts. It's not a very rock 'n' roll subject, and Bono has carried out his work on Jubilee's behalf since 1998 in a very un-rock 'n' roll manner. Rather than sloganeering about peace and love, he has met with economists, hit the books and been as serious a lobbyist as has ever worn wraparound sunglasses. Using his fame as a skeleton key, Bono has taken Jubilee's case to dozens of U.S. congressmen and senators, White House staff including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the prime ministers of France, Great Britain and Canada, the presidents of Russia and Nigeria, and Pope John Paul II.
"Most were smarter, and more hard-working, than I thought. It's a dangerous idea, that all politicians are wankers. If that's given, you stop voting. Without wishing to be too windy, democracy is a blip on history. The moment that lethargy takes hold, your civil liberties will be robbed from you."
It could, just about, be argued that Bono has a mandate of his own. U2 have always worn their beliefs on their record sleeves, and they've now sold more than 100 million albums -- a figure well in excess of the electoral support enjoyed by any head of government, even before you consider how many people would spend $30 to vote for their candidate. But even so, does Bono ever wonder why these potentates are listening to him?
"Oh, most of the time," he laughs. "Larry Summers, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, the guy whose signature is on the dollars, was drumming his fingers on the table in the White House and staring at the ceiling for the first 20 minutes I was in there. But an hour later, he walked out to his chief of staff and said, 'We've got to help this man.' I'm aware of the absurdities, but ideas to me are like melodies. Some just have a certain unarguable quality, and debt relief is one of them."
The jobs of rock 'n' roll singer and political campaigner do not seem complementary. The former comes with a licence -- if not a duty -- to be unreasonable. The latter calls for engagement and compromise. How badly does one job interfere with the other?
"Well, the new album might have come out a lot sooner. But the campaigning helped, because I was coming back to the studio energised by the idea that maybe the world was more malleable than I thought, that if you put your shoulder to the door, sometimes it opens. Celebrity is a pretty useless thing. I figured that if you can find something to do with it, you might as well."
Celebrity is not a useless thing, though. It's about the most useful thing you can have. It's the only way anyone can get people to listen to them any more.
"Well, OK. But it upsets God's order of things. It is noxious. As New Yorkers have learnt, nurses and firemen are real heroes. Celebrity is a bit silly, but it is a currency of a kind, and if I can spend it on behalf of Jubilee, I will. If you find yourself on a football field, and the ball lands at your feet, and the goalie is looking elsewhere..."
Fair enough. But you can understand why it makes some people uncomfortable.
"Of course. There are three of them in the band."
THE TEMPERATURE DROPS with the sun and we retreat inside after only about 10 minutes of struggle with the toddler gate. Workaday practicalities are not Bono's strong suit: later, he will fail to locate a corkscrew in his own kitchen, and contrive to lock the pair of us in the flat while trying to open the front door so his family can come in.
Bono turned 40 last year, but says that milestone meant little. Far more important, he says, were the births of his two youngest children ("It made me much more determined to have a go at things") and the death in August this year of his father Bob Hewson, aged 75, after a long illness. Bono lost his mother, Iris, when he was 14, and the subsequent relationship between the postal worker father and the rock star son was not always tranquil.
"He was a very tough guy," he recalls "and very funny. Which is a dangerous combination if you want to cut somebody down, and he could. But we'd made our peace."
The day Hewson died, U2 were due to headline Earl's Court in London. The show went ahead. "And it really helped me," says Bono. "It might have put the audience off their tea, but it really helped me. That recent tour in the U.K. is something I will never forget, because every night I would go expensively home to Dublin to sleep beside my father, on the floor of his hospital room -- the crowd was still ringing in my ears as I sat down to his silence."
Bono has recently written a song about his father, called "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own." In the absence of a handy guitar, he half-sings, half-speaks some of it ("You don't have to put up a fight/You don't have to always be right/Let me take some of the punches for you tonight"), and then subsides into an uncharacteristic hush.
"I've said before," he says, eventually, "that to need 20,000 people a night to tell you they love you to feel normal is a very sad state of affairs, but that's actually not what's going on. That's me being a smartarse. Because your audience is probably one. You're probably going up against yourself or, if you dig deeper, one other person -- a lover, or your father, maybe. So people look at someone like me and think he wants the world to love him. No. He probably wants one person to love him, and we all have to f---ing hear about it."
At every show since his father died, Bono has dedicated "Kite," from the new album, to his memory. It was originally written about Bono's children.
"It's a reference," he explains, "to an absurd moment of parenting, where I took a kite up on Killiney Hill with Jordan and Eve -- I'd been away, and wanted to do the dad thing. It was very Tommy Cooper -- the kite blew off the line and smashed to smithereens on the first flight, and Evie just asked if they could go home and play with their Tamagotchis. So the song is about realising you have to let go of them at some point. Songwriting is still a surprise, because you often think you're describing one thing, and it just turns on its head. Suddenly I was back in a caravan site when I was a kid, and I realised that he had tried to do exactly the same thing with a kite, and it had gone equally badly. I realised I wasn't singing from quite as theoretical a place as I thought."
"Kite" is not the only new song that seems to have changed meaning since the beginning of the Elevation tour. "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get out Of," originally conceived as a lament for Michael Hutchence, has assumed the qualities of a universal balm. So has "Walk On." In the sleevenotes of All That You Can't Leave Behind, the song is dedicated to Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi. In New York, the chorus's echoes of "You'll Never Walk Alone" lend the song a communal power that verges on the hymnal -- something Bono acknowledges with a chorus of "hallelujahs" as the song embarks on an extended coda.
"For me," he nods, "music is praise. Praise to creation. Even when it gets ugly, or brutal, as long as it's truthful it must be beautiful to God. Even anger, or people working out the biliousness in their darkest corners -- truth can never be truly ugly. Though I know some people's response to that would be, well, you're on drugs, Bono -- what's going on here is people having a good time."
For all that Bono has been mocked as a messianic windbag -- not least by himself -- he still seems driven principally by doubt, which is why U2 have stayed interesting, why they're still able to play "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" like they mean it. All That You Can't Leave Behind, from the title down, is an album about departures, from homes, from lives, from life, from any cosseting certainty -- it's no wonder it has started climbing the U.S. charts again. For a band that have well and truly arrived, U2 still do a lot of travelling.
"I saw this photograph recently. Anton Corbijn had an exhibition in Holland, and he made me go into this room full of Bonos -- a horrifying thought. And I noticed a shot of me at 21, and the look in the eye was so much clearer. Part of me must have thought our critics were right, and that beautiful naivete -- that I now see in my own children's faces -- I went about killing off. I thought it was something that you had to get rid of, and it's not true. Innocence is much more powerful than experience, especially when it has that teenage fearlessness beside it. That's really something."
Isn't that just rampaging adolescent ego? The kind that makes a grown rock star want to save the world?
"You'd think so, but it's not. Not long after that picture was taken, when we were 23, all of a sudden America was going off for us, and the U.K. You'd think that your ego should inflate, but an odd thing happens -- it implodes. I can remember times of being paralysed by fear where once I had faith -- in myself, in God, people around me. It was gone. At some point along the way I lost my nerve, and replaced it with front. I think I'm getting back to a more courageous place now."
So if you could go and meet the youth in the photo, what would you tell him?
"That he was right. That's what I'd tell him."
The two-disc DVD Elevation 2001: Live From Boston is released on December 10.
© The Weekend Australian, 2001. All rights reserved.