"I'm not sure you ever get to be an ex-rock star. You can get to be a fading star."
U2: Band of the Year (Part 2)
January 18, 2001
There is a small moment of unabashed religiosity on the front cover of All That You Can't Leave Behind. In the early, undoctored press ads, you can see a sign halfway up the left edge, directing passengers to gates F21-36 at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport; on the finished album artwork, the sign says something different: "J33-3." Bono made the change at the last moment. It refers to the Bible verse Jeremiah 33:3, which begins, "Call to me and I will answer you." "It was done like a piece of graffiti," says Bono. "It's known as 'God's telephone number.' "
One of the finest songs on All That You Can't Leave Behind is called "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," and it is an argument between someone committing suicide and his angry friend. In public, Bono has been edging around the song, but at Irving Plaza, for the first time, he introduces it quite plainly: "This is a song about friendship," he says. "It's for a good friend...Michael Hutchence."
"I don't know why I felt uncomfortable to do that," he tells me. "I just wanted to do that." (Hutchence died of asphyxiation in an Australian hotel room in Sydney in 1997. His death was ruled a suicide, though his partner, Paula Yates, who herself died of an overdose last September, argued he lost his life in a solitary sex game that went wrong.)
Bono talks about the times he and Hutchence spent together in the two years after 1993's Zooropa tour. For much of that time, Bono and the Edge lived in a house in France: "A couple of years of pure joy, just listening to music, and people came from far and wide to stay. I grew a beard, put on a few pounds and drank a lot of whiskey, and it was the most extraordinary life, just one of those stupid times when you fall in love with music and everything." (It was the spirit of that long party they originally intended to capture on their last album, Pop, but characteristically, the mission altered: "It's like a party for two songs, and then it's the hangover.")
Some nights they would be sitting outside, having a drink at one in the morning, and Hutchence would just appear. He'd climb in over the gates. And they'd go out. One night they ended up sleeping on the beach.
"The first verse, it's really very defensive," he says. (It begins, "I'm not afraid of anything in this world/There's nothing you can throw at me that I haven't already heard.") "I think other people who have lost a mate to suicide will all tell you the same thing -- just the overpowering guilt that you weren't there for that person. As anyone around here will tell you, friendship is a thing that I hold very sacred. Cocteau, I think he only wrote one serious essay in his life, and it was on the subject of friendship -- friendship is higher than love. He goes on about how it's less glamorous, less passionate, less everything, but perhaps endures and comes from as deep a place. So it really threw me. Can you really be that busy that you don't notice your mate on the slide, as it were? I am the most loyal, and the most unreliable, friend. It's the way I am -- I forget phone numbers…I don't use the phone for fun now...So I just remember feeling this overpowering sense of guilt. And then anger. And annoyance. That song is an argument. It's a row between mates. You're kind of trying to slap somebody around the face, trying to wake them up out of an idea. In my case it's a row. Although, oddly enough, we discussed suicide a few times. And we both agreed how pathetic it was."
When you look back on those discussions, do you think the subject was coming up in anything more than an abstract way?
"Now I'm wondering."
You're confident that it was suicide?
Pause. "You know, I'd love to think that he went out on some spectacular sexual maneuver, but knowing the state of him at that time, I don't think so. But I'm sure of this: If he had lasted half an hour longer, he would be alive now. He couldn't see past, he couldn't see out that half an hour. And apparently that's what people do...and a friend of his told me that he'd brought up our conversation a few days before that."
For what reasons had the two of you concluded that suicide was crap?
"We were talking about Kurt Cobain. And we were talking about...what a loss that was."
Concluding that it couldn't possibly have been the right decision for Kurt Cobain, whatever his predicament?
"Yeah, we were sitting here thinking, 'It's not right, it's just not right.' You can't make judgements about people -- I wouldn't dare to on that level -- but I would always say to Michael, 'My heroes are alive, not dead.' I always hated the idea, as Chrissie Hynde describes it, of 'dying stupid.' And we kind of promised each other we wouldn't, we wouldn't cross that line where things get stupid."
How did the argument in the song form in your head?
"Being right there. Just wanting to be in that half hour. So in the song, I'm right there -- it's like, just wanting to be in that half an hour. I wanted to have that argument in that half an hour. But I didn't put down that it was about Michael Hutchence because, for me, songs, I never make things specific to anything. And I didn't feel comfortable saying it while Paula was alive, because I knew it was important to her that he didn't commit suicide. But he did, and we have to say that. And I know the people that he called that night, and I know." By now, Bono's eyes are as you know they must be. "I felt the biggest respect I could pay him was not to write some stupid soppy fucking song, so I wrote a really tough, nasty little number. Sort of, you know, slapping him around the head. And I'm sorry, but that's how it came out for me."
So it just basically says: If you stay stuck in this suicidal moment, you're an idiot?
"Just, come on, you know. Come on."
Dublin, March 2000. After dinner, they work some more on "Elevation." This time Bono begins to really roll into a rap rhythm. "Will people in baggy pants and skateboards start throwing rocks at me?" he wonders.
"I wouldn't let that bother you," says the Edge, gently.
Bono nods. "It hasn't bothered me in the past."
He, the Edge and producer Daniel Lanois start adding some "doo-doo-doo" backing vocals. They try some harmonies in the style of a macho version of the Mamas and the Papas. "I had a couple of Gibb moments there," Bono says, adding, as extra information, "I think it was Barry." He raves about the Bee Gees, and how as a youth he used to like them.
"One of the extraordinary catalog of songs. Up there in the top few: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees." He offers a theory of why this fact is not more widely recognized. "It's a real lesson of: If you get the shoes wrong, the public will not forgive you, however brilliant you are."
As it gets later, various band members pop in and out. Bono leaves to buy Adam's fortieth-birthday present, a tapestry. Larry returns, picks up the ashtray, tips its mess into a garbage can, fetches a tissue, cleans out the ashtray with the tissue, throws the tissue into the garbage can, and only then lights himself a cigarette. Lanois wanders over to a corner and begins picking out melodies on a pedal steel guitar. Bono speaks in the voice of a gristled old-timer: "I remember the old days, when we used to sit around...unforgettable fires..." Lanois plays some country blues, which prompts the Edge to reminisce. "You know, my first-ever gig was with a country & western band. I made ten pounds. And the guy gave me a great piece of advice. He said that if you put together a set of country songs, you can be working seven nights a week. 'One piece of advice: There's no money in the rock.' "
The Edge asks the waitress as the New York Four Seasons Hotel for advice. She recommends the Big Apple, a martini with vodka and schnapps. He nods. That'll do.
In company, the Edge often looks as though he's thinking plenty but choosing not to say most of it; on his own, he's smart and chatty. He explains his theory about the similarity between the Psalms and the blues, and how they're both vessels for pissed-off truth tellers. We talk about boy bands. "The concept of a boy band is quite bizarre," he observes. "It's a completely artificial version of the street gang, really. Let's be honest. They meet at the audition, so their version of being in the gang is already on the basis of being within show business." He says he likes the Backstreet Boys' records. "I've danced around the kitchen with my daughter to the Backstreet Boys."
To clarify the image, how do you personally dance in the kitchen to the Backstreet Boys?
"If it's with a three-year-old kid, it's whatever way you can."
Afterward, Adam Clayton and I chat in a borrowed hotel room. He orders coffee from room service -- he gave up alcohol and drugs some years ago. "I actually feel much better on a daily basis," he says. "I used to feel pretty rotten most of the time. I had a lot of anxieties and fears that I thought were real." He says that his attitude to his role in the group has changed, too: "In a way, this record was probably the beginning of actually going, for me, 'It's OK, I don't have to come up with the bass line of the century, I just have to kind of plod along with this tune -- give yourself a break.' " He grins, "I may not be the best bass player in U2, but I am the bass player."
In the service elevator going up to rehearsal for a Saturday Night Live performance, Bono sings Dr. Hook's "A Little Bit More" to himself. Arriving upstairs, he asks U2 manager Paul McGuinness a question: "Where did Salman Rushdie go the other night?"
"We invited him," McGuinness says. "I don't think he was there. I think we found he was in Europe."
"He was there," mutters the Edge. "He was that cocktail waitress..."
They rehearse onstage: "Beautiful Day" and "Elevation." Bono makes suggestions for the way the cameras could move during the songs. Waiting for the cameras to be reset, they begin playing "Gimme Shelter." During "Elevation," Bono grabs a camera in his face and pulls it down to his crotch.
Larry and I escape downstairs to an empty Conan O'Brien show dressing room. He is the person in the band who is most alert to possible losses of dignity, and so is least keen about these TV appearances. "I have a sense of what the perception is, and what people like about U2 and do not like about U2," he says. "I'm in an interesting position because I'm the drummer and people say things to me that maybe they wouldn't say…they don't treat me the same way they would treat a singer or a guitar player. People say what they feel, and don't feel that they're messing with my art."
That's a compliment and an insult.
"Yeah, all at the same time. I'm the guy who walks into a bar and a guy'll go, 'Larry, how are you? Bono, he's such a prick. I saw Bono on TV the other day -- God, he's an asshole.' And they want me to agree with them, and obviously I don't, but I'm interested they're saying it. What are they picking up? Maybe they're just having a bad day, maybe they just don't like Bono."
So you keep an eye out for how Bono or anyone else shouldn't appear a prick?
He nods. "I see myself in the role as band bodyguard, and I take that role very seriously."
Right now, they are debating how to handle their spring tour. The Edge has already said that he doesn't think a completely stripped-down show is viable: "I think the dynamic will be to have both. It would be amazing to have a show that had a really simply straightforward rock & roll band and then to take that somewhere else and into some sort of extraordinary moment visually." Mullen disagrees. "I just think: simplify," he says. "Let's just get on the stage and play and be a band. I don't think my colleagues feel exactly the same way." Aside from anything else, he still has traumatic memories of the PopMart tour's business side. "It was a disaster," he recalls. He loved the show itself, but not its endless crises. "We spent so much time worrying we were going to go bankrupt. You would have thought after twenty years of doing this that you'd learn. It cost a fortune to put that show on. Absolute madness, absolute madness."
Bono has a bad day on Friday. It is the twentieth anniversary of John Lennon's death, and he had thought of going up to the Dakota building with flowers. "Then I kind of chickened out," he says. "For somebody like myself, John Lennon really did kind of write the rule book…As a tunesmith, as an irritant, as a willing taker of pratfalls. He was in the queue for the mud pies -- all of that stuff that I do, I got from his little red book. Even songs like 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' the sort of placard with a backbeat. And I really did feel a bit depressed about it on that day."
He'd met Sean Lennon earlier in the week, and when he got home, late that night, there was a message on his phone from Sean and Yoko: "They called me, which was a most beautiful thing, really. And the two of them were just playing chess in the Dakota, on their own, at one o'clock in the morning."
On Saturday, U2 rehearse once more on the SNL stage. Bono's voice is gone, so he suggests they rehearse another new song, "New York," to replace "Elevation." "I've lost the top falsetto in a bar somewhere," he explains. But during the full show run-through, he returns to the original two songs. At the end of "Beautiful Day," he goes into "All You Need Is Love"; at the end of "Elevation," "I Am the Walrus."
For the show itself, after changing some lyrics to acknowledge that Joey Ramone is present, he sings even more of "All You Need Is Love" over the end of "Beautiful Day." Then, halfway through "Elevation," he turns it into a real U2 performance. Live, it has always been his habit to reject the size and boundaries of where he is performing: climbing over the PA, going into the crowd. Tonight, he steps off the stage -- he has told no one he would be doing this, not even himself, though he will explain it as some theater to make up for the failure of his voice's top register -- and keeps on going. The cameras turn to follow him, all that boring preparation in vain, as he rushes through the cast and technicians, in front of sets waiting to be used. This time, he pushes into the final "We all shine on" part of "Instant Karma," and then -- as he twists back past SNL host Val Kilmer toward the stage -- he sings to Kilmer's face, "Come on, baby, light my fire."
Bono calls me the next day to round up a few loose ends and offers some careful advice as to how he should be portrayed. "Just remember," he says. "Tall, skinny, intelligent, and what a sense of humor."
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