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"I find it to be an ongoing challenge to keep the guitar from becoming too traditional." — Edge

The Fire Within

An Interview With U2's Bono
Record magazine

There can be no doubt about it: the reputation among journalists enjoyed by Bono, the lead singer for U2 (although he doesn't mind the "Bono," the once and future Paul Hewson would like to see his "Vox" surname retired), for his "scorched ear" policy of giving interviews is well deserved. The problem with Bono is not how to get him to say something, but how to get him to stop. Mind you, this is not a complaint; rock 'n' roll starts who are more than willing to talk and who have something to say are a rare commodity. (Strangely enough for one so self-assured, Bono doesn't like "the person I end up being in interviews sometimes. I say, Who is this man? I don't know who he is -- he's not the guy I go to bed with each night.")

Two interviews with Bono, first on a trip to Philadelphia in early December where the band played their first American concert in eighteen months, and later over the phone from the West Coast where the mini-tour was wrapping up, were among the most pleasant, giving and warm exchanges I've ever had -- not just with rock stars, but with anybody. And there was plenty to talk about: U2's status as perhaps the most admired, respected, if not actually worshipped band for youth in the '80s; the responsibilities of such a position, and the limits of that responsibility; the fanatical response to the band in their shows in Philly and New York, and the problems that occurred at the Radio City Show; and most definitely, their intriguing if often troubling new LP, The Unforgettable Fire.

Record: I've read that The Unforgettable Fire is the title of a collection of poetry from the survivors of Hiroshima, and I wondered if that's where you took the album's title from.

Bono: That's right -- in fact, it's more than that. I wish was talked about a lot more. The Unforgettable Fire is an exhibition of paintings, drawings and writings done by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were done by people of all age groups, from 7 to 70 years old, by amateurs and professionals, and they are an art treasure in Japan. We had come into contact with them through the Chicago Peace Museum, because we were part of an exhibit in the museum in '83, the Give Peace A Chance exhibit. And the images from the paintings and some of the writings stained me, I couldn't get rid of them. Their influence on the album was a subliminal one, but I realized as the album was moving on, that this image of "the unforgettable fire" applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of "A Sort of Homecoming," but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin. So it became a multi-purpose image for me, but it derived from that exhibition.

After using Steve Lillywhite on all three of your studio albums, you chose this time to use Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Why the switch?

We were at some sort of crossroads; we could have turned left or right, but we wanted to go straight on, and I suppose Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois helped us make a new departure. But that new departure was a continuance -- we set out to improvise in the three-piece setup of guitar, bass and drums. We wanted to bring atmosphere to rock 'n' roll, to give some more than just taking what's there. There was some regression, as well as progression. We were going back, a retreat to an original aim, which was that a whisper can be louder than a scream. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were aids, and had been in the times of other artists' transitional periods, like the Talking Heads, or David Bowie, who Eno helped revive when he came to Berlin defunct after his funk trip.

And yet the critical reaction this time has been less than overwhelming.

I personally feel that had it been our first record, and had people not had preconceived notions about the follow-up (to War) and the group, a lot of people would have had it at the top of their list, because I think its mood is a very interesting mood. I think if a new band came out with it right now, people would be talking about that group. But I think a lot of people cast their aspirations and belief in rock 'n' roll on this group -- instead of holding up the white flag, they want us to carry their flag.

Still, from what you were telling me on the tour bus, when Pete Townshend told you that he felt U2 was picking up where the Who left off, it awed you, but you didn't seem to reject it.

But we didn't accept it -- we threw the flag away! You have to spend a lot of time with The Unforgettable Fire; you just can't put the needle into the grooves and expect it to jump out on the table and dance for you; it's not like that. I wish it were, but it wouldn't be the record we made. A lot of people who believed in the group went, Let's hear it, this is the group I've been telling everybody about. Then they put it on (grunts, pretends great exertion), waited for the big bang, and really, we hadn't pressed that particular button. It's a much slower and seductive record -- for people who have spent time with it, or came with no preconceptions, it is by far their favorite record.

So it doesn't bother you that much that long-time fans of the band like Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder called the lyrics "a spew of blather?"

How can I be one day Batman, and next the Joker? (laughs) No, that doesn't sound right! How can I one day be someone with something to say and the next day deaf, dumb and blind? What upset me [about some of the criticism] was the cynicism -- for me cynicism is Public Enemy No. 1. Actually, the Cynics in the Greek sense were very positive people, so I shouldn't even describe [the critics] as cynics. I wasn't upset that people didn't connect the record -- of course I could understand that, although it did get some very good reviews in this country.

Did you expect there to be such a misconception?

I think there's a common misconception -- that we're a group with a black and white picture of a boy's face on their first album [Boy's cover was changed in the U.S.; the package appeared that way in Britain], and the picture becomes a symbol of some sort of purity and innocence. People associate the group with that. Well, I'd like to be able to own up to that, but I can't always. Like anyone else, we've crossed the line that you would, if you were lots smarter, draw. We've fallen over as many times as we've stood up. Elvis Costello told me recently that we walked a tightrope and fell off as many times as we held on. But he said he admires us for it -- not many of our contemporaries would walk it.

But with The Unforgettable Fire you're getting closer to where you want to go?

Yes, we're getting closer to where we want to go. I don't know where that is (chuckles), but something tells me we're getting closer. We're more hungry and thirsty about music than we've ever been. In that sense we haven't been bought off. The carrot's always being waved in your face, the bribes are always there to formulize your music, to "tin" it, to freeze it. We're not at ease now -- since fame and fortune were not necessarily the goals of what we were doing, we don't feel we've achieved our ultimate goal. I think we're just being born as a group. Adam said it really well: he said we've spent the last five years learning to be U2 and we'll spend the next five finding out what U2 can do.

You told a writer for the New York Times that you can't be a spokesman for a generation, since you've got nothing to say but "Help!" If that's all you've got to say, how could the band be closer to its goal? Is it more frustrating the closer you get to where you want to go -- having, say, 5 percent to go?

That is precisely it, but it would take me a song to say that. It's the 5 percent. You know, the 95 percent -- the race is the prize, to quote. I mean, I hate when I make an off-the-cuff remark to have to live with it the rest of my life -- it's like you're responsible for putting the bars in your own window, so you can't jump out. That's one reason we've avoided doing so much press -- I have a gift for going over the top, it's this drug adrenaline that does it.

I say something like that to avoid responsibility to some degree -- I don't want people coming to me, or the group, as some sort of God substitute or guru-like goons because I can look at myself in the mirror and just laugh, 'cause I know who I am. We've grown up in public in Dublin, and people there know us to be the jerks that we are. I think it's good when I walk down the street in Dublin and one person will say, "That's Bono," and the other person will say, "So what?"

I was trying to explain recently to someone, one of the reasons I'm interested in the principle of surrender, one of the reasons I'm interested in a man of peace like Martin Luther King, is that I'm the opposite. One of the things I'm interested in about the concept of turn the other cheek is that I'm a person liable to give out the black eye. I am the opposite to the songs -- (grasps for words)...I am in no sense a role model.

Nevertheless you obviously are just that for a lot of people -- you can tell that from the fans who were hanging around the hotel last night, by the way crowds sing along and yell at your shows.

Let me say this -- I think applause is a very good thing, I think people should clap one another more often. That's why rock 'n' roll concerts are so uplifting, because a lot of people are applauding others. That should go on a little more. When I'm onstage, I'm also applauding the music.

I also think that some people miss the point. In Sydney, there were people camped outside my hotel room on the fire escape, and the others were also experiencing this, and I felt these people missed the point. Because if people want to treat me with respect they should treat me as a person. All the group feels that way; Larry particularly cannot handle being a piece of something to break off, and it got nearer breaking point in Australia for him. Everyone wants the uplifting thing of a concert, the connection, but if that turns into a lopsided thing then it becomes hard to deal with.

People say, What do you think of groups that are sort of copying your sound? I say, Well, if they capture the spirit of the group, there would be no U2 clone bands, because the spirit of the group is the spirit of the individual, and that's what interests me, the individual. And people must approach me as an individual so that's why I try and avoid responsibility, because if people look to you for that, then they're taking responsibility off their own lives.

© Record, 1985.