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I joined a band to hit things.-- Larry, 2002

The Pride and Passion of U2

The Chicago Sun-Times
TEMPE, AZ -- "U2 started feeling like a bit of a straitjacket," explained Bono, the band's singer, as he relaxed backstage after the second show of U2's tour. "You know, it used to be in rehearsal, I'd be playing something, and the Edge the band's guitarist, formerly known as Dave Evans would say, 'This sounds too much like U2.'

"Well, we are U2. You're the Edge, you know.' On one level, we really didn't want to be too U2 . On the other hand, we weren't gonna break out of being U2...

"So, on an Irish television show, we took U2 out and we shot it in the head," Bono continued. "We murdered U2 live on television. We played this dog-eared blues beat, a song called 'Womanfish,' and another song that became 'Trip Through Your Wires.' And the nation gasped! We enjoyed it; there was this great feeling of relief. We just realized that U2 is the four of us. That is the success of The Joshua Tree, that U2 have survived being U2."

U2 is dead! Long live U2!

As is characteristic for the rapturously garrulous Irishman, Bono seemed to overstate the case a little, to overdramatize, to become swept away by the rhythm of his words. Much of The Joshua Tree, already the band's most successful album and almost certain to establish it at the top of 1987's rock pile, is quite recognizably U2 -- with the familiar spiritual themes and social concerns, the familiar passion and intensity of performance, the familiar creative fire.

What marks the album as a major step for the band is the range, the depth and the maturity of the songcraft. Where once U2 offered attitude and atmosphere -- an anthemic musical heroism that sometimes seemed a little hollow at its core -- the band's continued growth reflects its refusal to sell itself short, to satisfy itself too easily. The Joshua Tree is the band's fifth full-length studio album, and each one has defied audience expectations in the name of artistic freedom. Few popular bands are so willing to follow their instincts; few show such faith in the limitless potential of rock 'n' roll. For U2, the long way to peak popularity has been the best way.

More than the band's much-vaunted Christianity and political concern, it is this faith in its own instincts, its own potential, that defines U2. To understand U2 too simply, too glibly, is to fail to understand the band at all.

Still, the band's sense of moral purpose provides an easy media handle. "Rock 'n' roll zealots" blared the headline over the story in a Phoenix paper that previewed the tour. Bono in particular (formerly known as Bono Vox, and Paul Hewson before that) has been singled out as some sort of rock 'n' roll prophet, a musical monk. Before the band's tour hits the Rosemont Horizon on April 29, the media blitz might well make Bono and band seem like candidates for sainthood.

Backstage, the high-mindedness by which the band is so often characterized was in mercifully short supply. All four members were wearing white bathrobes, with the names "Alton," "Charles," "Luke" and "Duke" inscribed on them. Bono explained that the backstage band refers to itself as "The Dalton Brothers," after the American outlaw gang, and introduced me to his wife, Ali, as Dolly Dalton. Meanwhile, the normally reserved Edge was practicing his Jack Nicholson smile, cracking up the rest of the band. In hotels on the road, Bono uses a pseudonym taken not from the Bible, but from "The Partridge Family."

Rock 'n' roll zealots?

"I think it's become sensationalized to an extent, and that's a shame," said the Edge of the band's spirituality. "Really, the message of the band is far from the message that's coming through in some of the press. The idea that we're in some way self-righteous or leaders of the generation or something is just so preposterous. Really, we're just as confused as anyone else."

The band's mission has always been musical first, with social and political implications following as a matter of course. What the Edge describes as confusion comes across in the music as an embrace of contradictions, a tension that is resolved emotionally rather than intellectually. On The Joshua Tree, songs such as "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" are marked by doubt as well as faith, while "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Exit" suggest the evil that can result from moral self-righteousness.

Of The Unforgettable Fire, the band's previous album, Bono explained that he was drawn to the fire as both a positive and a negative image -- through songs inspired by the unforgettable fire of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and through others that reflected the all-consuming fire of heroin. The Joshua Tree takes its title from the tree that somehow survives in the desert, and much of its material suggests an attempt, within the aridity, to quench a profoundly spiritual thirst.

While so many bands strive for a fixed identity, and an easily identifiable sound, U2 has committed itself to continual change and development. The band formed in Dublin almost a decade ago, as four young men in their mid to late teens, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. along with Bono and the Edge, refused to let lack of musical experience compromise their artistic aspirations. Although inspired by punk's do-it-yourself ethic, U2 didn't fall for the follow-the-leader fashionability into which punk soon degenerated.

On its first two albums, 1980's Boy and 1981's October, U2 was obviously a very young band, full of promise, that didn't quite know exactly what it wanted to say, but was determined to say it very powerfully. The band's creative and commercial breakthrough came with 1983's War album, which concerned itself specifically with the turmoil in the band's homeland, using military rhythms for songs of peace. It was an album of social commitment at a time of rampant apathy, and a work of hard-edged, heartfelt passion at a time when the slick musical dandyism of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet was establishing the "New Romantic" vogue. It was an album that reflected a hunger for music that matters.

As the band was developing into an explosive, overpowering live act, plenty of rock fans figured that another collection of clenched-fist anthems would put U2 near the top of the rock pantheon. Instead of following conventional commercial wisdom by attempting War, Part II, U2 took another course entirely. Although much of the band's sound -- the stirring guitar drones and thunderous drumming -- had been attributed to producer Steve Lillywhite (who later made Big Country and Simple Minds sound like U2 derivatives), the band turned to experimentalists Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce its next album. Where War had been anthemic, 1984's The Unforgettable Fire was introspective, atmospheric, less immediately accessible.

"The Unforgettable Fire was something that we really wanted to do, which was broaden the challenges we were prepared to face musically," explained Adam Clayton. "It was a reaction to War and Under a Blood Red Sky (a live mini-album from 1983), which was all very anthemic in its execution. There would have been no reason to change that, except that we were getting quite bored with that form of expression. It was time to move on; we had to distance ourselves from that rock band 'voice of the people.' "

"It gave us a bit of breathing space," the Edge said of The Unforgettable Fire. "The War album is no more representative of what U2 is about than any other record. I think we've matured a lot since that record. Looking back at that record, I think it's a little too extreme, a little too epic in a sense. I like The Joshua Tree because, while it's retaining some of that power and hard-hitting edge, it also has some of the more gray tones, the quiet moments, as well."

The Joshua Tree would seem to represent the best of both musical worlds for U2, combining the atmospheric textures of The Unforgettable Fire with the song-oriented immediacy of the band's more accessible work. The album was once again produced by the team of Eno and Lanois, but Lillywhite returned to mix three of its cuts -- including "With or Without You," the first single, which has already become the band's biggest commercial hit.

If The Joshua Tree represents a consolidation of the band's earlier artistic impulses, it also finds U2 opening itself to new sounds and influences. It is easily the band's most "American" album, with songs such as "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "In God's Country" commenting directly on the country that the band toured last year with Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope. A couple of other songs reflect Bono and the band's recent infatuation with country blues.

"I only heard my first John Lee Hooker record about 18 months ago," said Bono. "I couldn't believe it -- to hear a man with a guitar keeping time with his foot. Keith Richards (with whom Bono collaborated on the bluesy "Silver and Gold" for the Sun City album) introduced me to Robert Johnson, and this poetic spirit of the blues was something that I responded to immediately...When I got into Van Morrison, and started to see a connection between Irish folk music and American music, a whole world opened up."

The spirit of such influences also suggested a new approach to the band's studio efforts. By returning the focus to the song rather than the sound, the band attempted to give each number its own distinctive arrangement. It also aimed to capture the immediacy of a working rock band, at the expense of technological precision and polish.

'It was definitely a return to a much simpler form of expression," said Clayton. "It was, let's loosen up a bit, let's absorb a few influences that -- up to that point -- we had left outside the door, and let's come up with some songs that you can play on an acoustic guitar in your bedroom. There's no point in killing yourself for perfection, when all you need is spirit."

"Production has become so much about isolation, purity of sound, every little sound in its own space in the spectrum," said the Edge. "We wanted to mess it up a bit, give a feeling of a real rock 'n' roll band, with everything spilling into everything else...We tried to record as many tracks as we could live."

The sound of the album and the sense of the album reinforce each other, as U2 has moved away from larger-than-life posturing to music that more vividly reflects the scope and scale of life itself.

The emotional range of the material, as well as the musical maturity, suggests that a band that once dealt in black/ white, wrong/right has become increasingly attuned to shades of meaning. "The songs really belie the image of the group as sort of flag wavers with anthems," said Bono. "I think each is a lot more about frailty, fragility and brokenness than about being affirmative or faithful...

"Somebody told me recently about John Lennon," Bono continued. "Like he'd be in bars and restaurants, where people would come up to him. Before they'd even say anything, Lennon used to say, 'I don't know.' They'd say, 'What?!'

" 'You know just as much as I know...I don't know...You think I know, but I don't know. I don't know the truth.'

"I think, you know, that U2 are the most human of groups," said Bono. "People applaud us as we fall over as much as when we get up. We're not slick, we haven't got it all together."

Two days earlier, the band had shown its lack of slickness on the tour's opening night, when a throat infection reduced Bono's voice to a raspy croak. Where the show might have been a disaster for another band, the crowd's enthusiasm for the band turned the concert into a spirited singalong, and the rest of the musicians provided more firepower behind Bono than ever. The second show, when Bono had his voice back, was technically a better one, but the first show was more remarkable.

"It was the most depressing moment of my music life," admitted Bono, "to walk onstage, to open the world tour, and, literally, this rasp came out. But at the same time, it really lifted me up to see that an audience could be so supportive of the group. To me, it said more about rock 'n' roll than it said about U2, because the real spirit behind the music doesn't depend on the notes and the way you play them, doesn't depend on a singer and the way he stands. It depends on something a little more elusive than that."

What allows U2 to grow, and, on occasion, to stumble, is the bond that the band has forged with its ever-growing audience. As rock has increasingly become "product" -- a commercial transaction between an act and its audience -- the connection between U2 and its fans seems to take place on a deeper level.

"It's a relationship of trust and faith," said Clayton. "It seems normal to me that if one treats one's audience with respect, that they in turn reciprocate that...For me, music isn't just entertainment; it's something that's deeply rooted in my whole reason for being alive."

As the media buzz surrounding The Joshua Tree and the band's world tour continues to intensify, U2 will be extending that relationship to a far larger audience than ever before. How does a band that has distrusted fashion for so long feel about becoming the musical fashion of the moment?

"It worries me, because to be fashionable means to be out of fashion at some stage," said Bono. "Like people say, 'How does it feel to be the band of the '80s?' (a tag that Rolling Stone magazine gave the band).

"It's OK now, but what about the '90s?...I think, being realistic about it, that U2 has a long way to go. I really believe that our best is yet to come."

© Chicago Sun-Times, 1987. All rights reserved.