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[I]n art and love and rock and roll, the whole had better equal much more than the sum of its parts, or else you're just rubbing two sticks together searching for fire. -- Bruce Springsteen, at U2's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction

The Unbelievable Book (Pt. 2)

Hot Press
[continued from part one...]

Although this book was written with the co-operation and blessing (since apparently at least Partially withdrawn) of U2 it was never an 'official' biography - Dunphy made it clear that he owed no allegiance to the band, he had no special duties to cover up unsavoury episodes in their lives. Yet the absence of the policeman incident suggests either that Dunphy took it upon himself to do so - or that his research was so flimsy that he never heard of it in the first place.

Adam would be the first to admit that this episode was part of his 'wild years', when his rock'n'roll behaviour reached an unacceptable level - particularly for a member of a band who aspired to better things. But while Dunphy addresses the issue of Adam's alienation from the others and gently alludes to the seamier side of his lifestyle, he never confronts the issue head on.

He writes with an almost puritanical scorn of the 'rock'n'roll lifestyle' and its victims (usually the stars themselves, in Dunphy's worldview), yet he seems to give a nodding approval to Adam's behaviour on the basis of nothing more than Adam's easy-going, civilised nature. "His tastes in apres concert diversion were more traditional than those of his U2 colleagues... he usually slept late the next day, sometimes waking up in his own bed", Dunphy comments on Adam's private life. In the previous paragraph he had baldly stated: " 'It didn't make you happy' might have been the epitaph for sex-alcohol-drug-sated heroes who'd got lost among the carnal delights of being a Rock Star." It is typical of the wooliness of the book that he makes no attempt to reconcile his contradictory attitude to the two statements.

Negative comment is reserved for the essays by other journalists which Dunphy has chosen to include at the end of his book (and of course for the interviews he's subsequently done to publicise "Unforgettable Fire," posing all sorts of questions about his "moral integrity" -- but that's another story).

Not quite an appendix, these pieces (three from In Dublin, plus one entirely irrelevant piece on Phil Lynott from Magill) represent the reverse side of the coin -- by and large they're witting, entertaining and reasonably informed essays on the non-deification of U2. The fact that these articles are better written and more informed than anything else in the book does not however justify their inclusion. If Dunphy had felt the issues they broached to be valid, he should have made room for them within his story, embraced them and dealt with them as part of the big picture. To add them as appendages is to avoid his own responsibilities as a biographer. As if saying, "this is the way it was, but these guys disagree," Dunphy reflects his own lack of commitment to the project.

It is this lack of commitment which is so galling. Eamon Dunphy has been quoted as saying he received a six-figure advance for the book. He could quite conceivably earn up to 250,000 (or more!) for the two years' work involved.

This earning potential has little or nothing to do with Eamon Dunphy himself -- it is the money which will be generated on the back of U2's success and drawn from the mass of fans, who have shown U2 such loyalty and support over the years. It is shameful to see such a lucrative job so badly done and the ordinary people who will finally pay Mr. Dunphy's wages for the work involved, so utterly shortchanged.

As a biography, "Unforgettable Fire -- The Story of U2"" is shoddy. As a musical biography, it is a travesty. And Dunphy has no one to blame but himself. In his sports writing he constantly espouses the pursuit of excellence and is caustically contemptuous of anyone who does not meet his 'exacting' standards. Well, it is time to turn that famously abrasive voice upon himself. He may have been a first class footballer, but this is a fourth division book.

Dunphy has repeatedly ridiculed soccer writers who have not themselves been involved in the game, calling their professional competence into question and suggesting that their judgements and responses count for nothing alongside those of John Giles and himself. It is all the more ironic then, that from the outset of "Unforgettable Fire," his lack of musical knowledge and empathy tell us that he has bitten off more than he can chew.

That much was foolish. What is unforgivable, however, is the lazy and sloppy manner in which he put the book together. The cornerstone of any biography is research. For "Alias David Bowie", Peter and Lenie Gillman conducted approximately 150 interviews. For "His Way", Kitty Kelley undertook over 857. In neither case were the stakes any higher than in Dunphy's, nor the potential returns greater -- yet Dunphy's credits acknowledge less than 60 (possible) interviews.

He interviewed only one pupil, Maeve O'Regan, from the band's Mount Temple days. He spoke only briefly to Steve Averill who was intimately involved with the band from the outset and has a wealth of knowledge of music, and of the local scene. He never spoke to Jackie Hayden, who was effectively responsible for the release of their first single. Neither did he speak to either Jim Aiken or Denis Desmond, two promoters who could have given an insight into what it was like dealing with the U2 organisation, the praises of which are sung in the book, from the other side. Nor did he talk to Niall Shortall, a former sound engineer with the group, who is mercilessly shafted in a description of an incident from an early British tour. It is by thus spreading the net, and talking to people who have come into conflict with the subject, that a biography achieves balance and ultimately real insight. But apparently that would have been too much trouble.

I say that Eamon Dunphy conducted less than 60 possible interviews for a reason.

"I never met Neil McCormick," Dunphy writes, "but I picked his brains all the same."

Eamon Dunphy did not pick my brains. Had he done so, I would have picked the thinking behind this ill-conceived book apart.

(c) Hot Press, 1987.