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[Y]ou couldn't put out a more mixed-up record. -- Bono, on Rattle and Hum, 1989 (Propaganda)


U2 Give Themselves Away (Part 1)

Musician

"It's one of my ambitions," Bono admits, "that if I'm around Dublin long enough, people won't even notice. I love this city. I love it and hate it and I love it and I hate it. What I hate is how much they have destroyed Dublin, to see them pulling down the buildings. The closest I ever came to throwing a large brick through a window in the last two years was outside the Royal Hiberian Way. I had to be dragged away. I mean -- the rage I feel inside me when I see the pillboxes they have planted outside Christchurch Cathedral!

"Well, Larry just says to me, 'Come on. When you're worried about the way a city looks, you know you're okay. There's a lot of people out there who can't afford to worry about what the city looks like.' "

U2 are home again...for a little while. Their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, is finished and they are laying plans for another international tour. Like every U2 tour, it will be bigger than the one before. At the band's new rehearsal studio, Larry Mullen patiently scans a tape of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," working out the lyrics to the song U2 might cover in their American concerts. The band -- Bono, Larry, Adam Clayton and the Edge -- toy with the tune at the end of an exhausting day of rehearsals. The song is a demonstration of how U2 are excavating old roots for their latest music. In 1985 Bono and his wife Ali spent a month working as volunteers on an educational relief project in Ethiopia. Returning from Africa, he traveled to New York to add vocals to Steve Van Zandt's "Sun City." That led to a meeting with Peter Wolf and the Rolling Stones and the beginning of Bono's exploration of the blues.

U2 finally recognized that there was musical life before 1976. Formed in the slipstream of punk, the band were typical teenagers of that era -- fixated on Television, Patti Smith and the Ramones. Their first chaotic demo session in 1979 was literally out of time, out of tune and out of control. A fellow Dubliner looking at them now is filled with protective Irish pride and a desire to pinch himself hard. Have the fresh-faced makers of the beardless Boy really matured so quickly into such influential rock power brokers?

They are still familiar figures on the Dublin landscape. Adam drinking in a cramped nightclub; Larry slipping into the shadows to watch some unknown local band; Edge on the street, shopping with his pregnant wife Aisling; Bono swapping Dublin stories with an elderly stevedore in his local bar. It doesn't seem very long ago that U2 weren't even old enough to buy a drink.

But they have received the torch; they are the last remaining band of their generation to breathe new life into old rock ceremonies and revived abandoned dreams. And Ireland hasn't quite digested it yet. Unlike earlier generations of Irish artists -- from James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to Van Morrison and Bob Geldof -- U2 have stayed at home. They have not been forced to decamp to London, Paris or New York. They formed at a time when pop music was finally being allowed a place on Irish radio, when international tours were finally crossing the Irish Sea from Britain. Their rise reflects the ideals of a maddening country. Finally Ireland has a hometown team to cheer.

During his early trips to America Bono was pained about being a "Stranger in a Strange Land." Now he is a familiar figure in the Promised Land. The Joshua Tree crosses many different Americas in its ethical and emotional journey. The Irish don't view America as the English do. The continuous tides of immigration have created intimacies. U2's early and enthusiastic courtship of America had natural cultural roots. They could not understand or be bothered by the Anglo-American competition that had been an undercurrent in rock for twenty years.

But for all their affection for America, U2 are Irish, and the Irish have been shaken by the rise of Reaganism in the U.S. So long under the heel of Britain, the Irish instinctively side with the Nicaraguan government against Washington. Bono recently visited Nicaragua and was moved by what he saw as a noble people struggling against a powerful aggressor. Other Irish bands have been playing benefits for Nicaragua, and in Galway a Catholic bishop -- the most accurate barometer of national opinion -- refused to share a platform with Reagan.

The Joshua Tree reflects that Irish ambiguity toward the United States. U2's new songs draw on the American music they love to carry criticisms of American foreign policies. Bono jokingly casts himself as the American of the group and Edge as the European -- a reference to Edge's initial reluctance to embrace older forms at the expense of the sonic dreamscapes producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois brought to The Unforgettable Fire. Finally Joshua Tree emerged as an amalgam, in which the individual song was the top priority, taking precedence over the old U2 virtues of theme, sustained mood and experimentation.

"The music had to serve the songs," is how Edge explains the new strategy. Though the guitarist was the most hesitant of the four to step out from Unforgettable Fire's aural web, he soon brought his own unprecedented aggressive contributions to "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Exit," the latter worked up and recorded on the very last day of the album.

Concerned as it is with great matters, The Joshua Tree does not ignore the bleak or the personal. "Success had a hollow head," said Bono, and 1986 reminded U2 that every triumph has a dark side. The group's personal assistant, a young New Zealand Maori named Greg Carroll, was killed in an Irish motorcycle accident. The group dedicated the album to his memory and wrote a song called "One Tree Hill" about him.

On a more mundane level, U2 were attacked for their part in Self-Aid, a program to raise money for the Irish unemployed that also featured Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and the Boomtown Rats. Self-Aid raised a million Irish pounds, but U2 were singled out for a front-page attack by In Dublin, the Irish equivalent of New York's Village Voice. To the leftists at the paper, U2 were just liberal hypocrites.

From there the band embarked on Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope tour, a summer extravaganza that brought awareness of human rights abuses to stadium audiences across the U.S. That tour also gave U2 a chance to travel, make music and spend time with older peers like Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and the Police. It continued two parallel trends: U2 became more socially active and U2 moved into ever-bigger venues.

The Irish can be possessive. If The Joshua Tree puts U2 into the pop stratosphere, how will Ireland react? Their history makes the Irish suspect of sweet dreams and happy endings. In a fatalistic country, the urge to celebrate becomes subversive.

The new album is both U2's most ambitious and their most troubled. With a new emphasis on the poetic power of language, they place less reliance on faith. This new celebration is less buoyant. With The Joshua Tree U2 are asking tough questions of themselves and their audience. They know there are no easy answers.


Musician: Can you explain the motivations behind the album?

Edge: As with much U2 work, it's reactionary in a sense. Whereas War was a reaction to the weak, placid music we saw everywhere, I think this was, in a funny way, our reaction to The Unforgettable Fire, in that while it was our best record up to then, we had experimented a lot in its making and done things quite revolutionary for us -- like "Elvis Presley and America" and "4th of July." Well, we felt on this record that maybe options were not such a good thing. That limitation might be very positive and conducive. So we decided to work within the limitations of the song as a starting point. Let's actually write songs. We wanted the record to be less vague, open-ended, atmospheric and impressionistic. Make it more straightforward, focused and concise.

Adam: Also we were away from the big production number of doing tours and were off the road, hanging around town, going to local gigs. I think there was a need for clarity in what we were doing. It is just eight notes. It shouldn't be difficult or complicated. We wanted to simplify what we were thinking.

Were Eno and Lanois the necessary referees?

Edge: The funny thing about Brian is, having been responsible for the European textural sense in music which came in through the back door with Bowie, his passion is folk and gospel music with a spiritual aspect. So he was much more radical than we were.

Bono: Brian's two favorite songs were "Red Hill Mining Town" and "I Still Haven't Found..." In a funny way, he's very unacademic. He's a real song man. Brian's one of those guys who gets up at six o'clock. He drove us mad in the morning, singing "Where Were You When They Crucified My Lord" at top volume when everyone had just gone to bed.

Edge: A producer for U2 is very important because we are self-contained so, every so often, we arrive at decisions that are very contentious and split. With a producer, it's easy to cast him as the devil's advocate you rely on to help you out of it.

Bono: Brian always puts his cards straight down on the table. Dan's bias is towards songs. He thought what makes a rock 'n' roll group is the songs they play. He's also the finest musician I've ever met. I've kept myself ignorant in the studio. I was listening to the vocals of "Red Hill Mining Town" coming back in the mix and I was thinking, "Why does the singer sound like a rich man with pound notes stuffed in his pockets when it's a song about unemployment?" And the engineer was scratching his head. Dan Lanois walks in and says, "God almighty, stereo plate echo! I keep telling these people. They've been using it since they invented it not because it's right but because it's available." So he said, "Turn it off. Put it in mono and edge it to the left," and there it was again.

He's often in the room when we're playing. He plays tambourine with Larry. I think the reason this record is more rhythmically adept has a lot to do with Dan Lanois.

Bono, before you went to New York for the Sun City sessions, had you any prior notion of what the new record would be like?

Bono: The album I had in the back of my head is the album we've yet to make. It has been put aside for this. You see, I was then writing songs U2 almost can't do. U2 can't do blues or gospel. So I thought, "Why can't U2 do these things?" I started to see U2 in some straitjacket we should break out from.

How did the other three respond to these new angles?

Bono: Adam has always been the roots man in the operation. On tour, it'll always be reggae, Aswad or Black Uhuru blasting out of his hotel room. Larry's more interested in songs and simple structures. It's speak up or shut up, write a song, three chords, say what you have to say. So he liked the directness of blues and something like "Trip Through Your Wires."

And the Edge?

Bono: [Pause]...How can I put this?...[further pause]...Early on, Edge was less taken up with it but later, he really came through when he saw that the songs were good. Put it this way, Edge didn't own a copy of Blood on the Tracks. Edge's collection started in '76 at the New Beginning. His interest was in European groups like Can and music back to Eno. So this was opening a new world or [laughs] a new can of worms. And yet the spontaneity of this new kind of music really excited him.

There's this idea of yourself as the American and Edge as the European.

Bono: Yeah and Ireland's right in the middle. There's a tension between the two but it's the right kind of tension. And it's funny because at the end of the record, I was arguing for the more atmospheric songs and he was going for the rock 'n' roll. We'd swapped places along the way, much to our amusement.

Edge: We approached arranging and producing each song like it was unique. We just hoped the album would have a sonic cohesiveness based on the idea that we were playing it. There was definitely a strong direction, but we were prepared to sacrifice some continuity to get the rewards of following each song to a conclusion. I hate comparisons, but, like the Beatles at their height of unusual production techniques, we wanted to do what was right for the song.

Adam: I think we've come up with songs where there was a whole process of music inspiring lyrics and the lyrics then feeding back on the music and the whole thing becoming intense. We found that because Bono had time to produce lyrics that really did work, it was much more satisfying. We feel the songs are deeply personal even if they might not sound like U2.

Bono: I used to think writing words was old-fashioned, so I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone. The time had come to write words that meant something out of my experience.

To what extent did writing a bleaker album reflect personal experiences?

Edge: Well, there's still hope. I think this record's bleak because that's what we're seeing, but there's a positive side.

Bono: You could say this is forbidden ground for U2 because we're the optimistic group. But to be an optimist, you mustn't be blind or deaf to the world around you. "Running to Stand Still" is based on a real story. I don't even know what the act is in "Exit." Some see it as murder, others a suicide, and I don't mind. The rhythm of the words is nearly as important in conveying the state of mind. The album's real strength is that though you travel through these deep tunnels and bleak landscapes, there's a joy at the heart of it, and I can't explain it.

We were afraid of it. Something special about U2 was that we were holding our heads up, when everybody else had their heads between their legs. I found this last year a time of reassessment in my own life. I think Dylan said: "When you reach the top, you're at the bottom."

Greg Carroll's death confronted you with something completely outside the band's control. How did that affect you?

Adam: It showed me that there are more important things than rock 'n' roll, that rock 'n' roll is important in the picture of those things, that you don't know how much time you've got with your family, your friends and, indeed, the other members of the band. I'd rather go home early than stay up all night mixing a track.

Bono: I feel the same.

Adam: For a long time, we did deny those simple things that give you pleasure -- seeing your brothers, sisters, wives, children -- to keep the band going.

Bono: The emphasis among family and friends when we had a number one record and were a big band was how much you've got -- I'm not talking about money -- not how much you've lost. The sense of loss came through losing Greg Carroll. But the sense of loss continued. I feel it even now, having made a record and not seen friends and family for the last three months, and now not being able to see them again because of the tour and everything. Because U2 work on everything. Larry is working his butt off on the merchandising, making sure the T-shirts -- and this might sound insignificant -- are made out of cotton and at an affordable price. So we're sitting on all these things. For the first time, I begin to see the value of being irresponsible, of not giving a s**t. Because giving a s**t costs a lot. That's serious.

How did Greg, somebody from New Zealand, get involved with an Irish band?

Bono: We first met Greg in Auckland. There are five volcanic islands which make up Auckland and the tallest is One Tree Hill. And my first night in New Zealand, Greg took me to One Tree Hill. He'd worked around the music and media scene and [manager] Paul McGuinness thought this guy's so smart, we can't leave him here, let's take him with us to Australia.

Greg Carroll's funeral was beyond belief. He was buried in his tribal homeland as a Maori by chiefs and elders. There was a three-day and three-night wake, and your head could be completely turned around and ours was again and again.

"With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" remind me there was a time when U2 wouldn't have been remotely considered a dance band.

Edge: We never thought about that side. They used to say about U2 that we had an anti-dance stance, music to fall over, which I thought was funny. I remember in an American club on an early tour, Bono, after a few bevvies, was persuaded to go on the floor and the DJ put on "Out of Control." Not only did everybody leave the floor but he couldn't dance to it either.

How do you think a heavy metal fan will take "Bullet the Blue Sky?"

Edge: It's an idiom reminiscent of an earlier era of rock, but I don't think it's metal. Bono had this thing about fear and exorcism by guitar. I'm not ashamed of how it sounds. It's the spirit and creative motivation that counts.

Recapturing the spirit guitar rock used to express?

Edge: I think the sonic reference points are there. When Jimi Hendrix was playing, it meant so much more than the post-blues yawn when guitar players rehashed something that once was potent and it became a total cliche. My background is much more Tom Verlaine and John McGeoch but, in this case, I thought there should be no limitations. I wasn't going to hem myself in because it might be controversial.

Bono, have your attitudes toward singing changed?

Bono: For three years, I didn't really know if there was a place in rock for U2 or whether I wanted a place in U2. I think I was quite uptight. Sometimes people saw in the songs a self-righteousness -- because I was like the scared rat in the corner who attacks. As I worked out where we wanted to be, I loosened up, and loosening up discovered other voices. I became interested in singing. Whereas before if it was in tune and the right time, that was enough. And this is the same guy who was thrown out of U2 in 1977 because he couldn't sing. I find it hard to listen to the first three records because of my singing.

There's now a greater sensuality.

Bono: Yeah, you just stretch it out and realize a whisper can be louder than a scream. You learn there's a time for letting go and a time for holding back.

To what extent does that come from being more at home with yourself?

Bono: I suppose I'm happy to be unhappy. Anyone who really knows me knows that, as they say, I'm never going to be at peace with my pipe [laughs].

How does this process of personal maturation relate to the artistic vision of U2?

Bono: We grew up in an odd way as people. From eighteen or nineteen, we were pushing the van to Killarney and then on a bus in America and then it's a plane to Australia and Japan. And we were completely occupied with things spiritual. After Boy, the next two albums were almost made in our spare time. We weren't even sure we wanted to be in a band. So we were actually quite retarded on other levels. And even musically. Our musical life began again with Unforgettable Fire. It wasn't even a priority. I think we must own up to that. For two years, we were writing songs and going to the studio for October and War, but that wasn't where we were at, it only reflected where we were at. We came through that and realized we are musicians and we want to be in this band, U2.

Edge: And after this album, I'm more interested in playing guitar than I have been for the last three years. I'm having to learn again because I've forgotten how a bit, honestly.

Both water images and the notion of surrender stand out very strongly in your lyrics.

Bono: I used what I thought were very classical and therefore accessible images and symbols, almost biblical. Really simple things so that whatever culture you come from, they mean something. Like water.

"Surrender" us not what it used to be. Everybody else in the group knows what that song means when it says, "And you give yourself away." It's about how I feel in U2 at times: exposed. Lou Reed said to me, "What you've got is a real gift. Don't give it away because people might not place upon it the right value." I think if I do any damage to the group, it's that I'm too open. For instance in an interview, I don't hold the cards there and play the right one. I either have to do it or not do it. That's why I'm not going to do many interviews this year. And that means there's a cost to my personal life and a cost to the group as well.

Going back to the song "Surrender," I always believed in the biblical idea that unless the seed dies, is almost crushed into the ground, it won't bear fruit. Lou Reed was telling me about how he grew up in the '50s when machismo was a way of life and you did not give yourself away. In fact the opposite. He said he found the '50s ideal of cool a real straitjacket in his life.

Why is it that you've become more closely linked with figures from the previous rock era than other bands from your generation?

Bono: Well, this boy from Ballymun was actually on tour with Lou Reed, and he used to stand every night on the side of the stage and watch U2. He seems to care so much about U2 and I learned so much from him. One night, I said to him [whispers], "Berlin's my favorite album," and he said, "It's mine too." He thinks it's the only one he got right. He says so much and he has a perspective on rock 'n' roll. We find that also in our business life. We're attracted to people like Frank Barsalona who brought the Beatles and the Who to the States, and Chris Blackwell who was there with Bob Marley. Our record collection began in 1976. We weren't there when rock 'n' roll began. We are attracted to people who have the perspective we don't have. Like Pete Townshend is a guy you can ring up.

On a personal level, do you get annoyed by newspaper gossip? The local Irish papers seem to be searching for you in every nightclub in town.

Bono: My father, who I love very much, is one of these guys who believes what he reads. He'll say to me, "I hear you were throwing your weight around in some record store when they hadn't what you wanted and you were telling them you were Bono and they'd better have it." And I was laughing, wondering where this one had come from. So I sort of told him off and said, "Da, you cannot believe what you read." Then one night he said, "Some fella's going around saying you own a hearse and you were driving around Donegal in it." Fact and fiction just get blurred in a city like this.

I live in Bray but the people in Bray are protective about myself and Ali. They don't bother us. The people we get hassled by are those from abroad calling the house. Some of it is okay but it's a place where, as Ali likes to put it, she lives also. She says, "I don't want you watching me put some washing on the line." I've got to back her up. I don't mind inviting people in the house but I've got to honor her. But we get some amazing things. I remember a whole party of French people who applauded me outside the door. I'd just got out of bed and I said, "No thank you. I'm the wrong guy."

I don't know how this will sound but there was this one girl in the bushes. She was Italian, eighteen, very beautiful, sitting there in the flowers. And she said, "I just wanted to come to Dublin and meet U2 before I died." And I thought, "They always come up with an angle but this is a good one." I didn't know whether to laugh, just in case. So I talked to her, didn't take it too seriously and went off. The next day, two BMWs came along and out came all these Italian men in designer suits with flowers and flowers, presenting them to me because we had looked after their sister and daughter.

That was almost shocking. How could I live up to that responsibility? God almighty! I just can't come to terms with that. The bottom line is that music means a lot but they haven't separated the music from the musician. The musicians are only ordinary people. It's the music that is extraordinary.

Adam: There's a weird process which I've just begun to understand. Particularly when you get the letters from fifteen-year-olds. They ask questions as if you're the second line of defense for their heads. They've become disillusioned with their parents and they think their teachers are a**holes.

Bono: And they haven't yet found out we're a**holes.

Adam: They're trying to contact you to see if you can enlighten them or be responsible for them and, of course, you can't. But when you read a letter, you think, can I reply? Do I shatter this person's illusions? Do I say, I'm just a normal guy? That's what life's about. You've got to get on with it.

At Live Aid, when Bono jumped off the stage, you must have thought, "Jaysus, what's he up to?"

Adam: If you don't like it, you put down your instrument and walk offstage, that's your choice [laughter].

Bono: Live Aid could have been a classic shooting in the head. I was high as a kite after Live Aid because Linda McCartney kissed me. And later, I was sharing a microphone with Paul McCartney. But when I got home and watched a video of Live Aid, I was so desperate and depressed. I really believed I had made a big mistake. I couldn't sleep. And I drove down the Southeast and I met a sculptor who was making a bronze piece which was meant to be the spirit of Live Aid, a naked figure called The Leap. He called it The Leap because I had left the stage and this image connected with him. The figure wasn't me. It was meant to be the whole spirit of it. I felt he understood what I was trying to do. And he was a man in his late fifties. But there's no question about it, I'm not doing that again. And I still don't understand why I did it.

Adam: I think if those things were done in an ego way, the audience and the public would pick up on it.

What did you feel onstage at Self-Aid?

Adam: Humble, I guess.

Bono: The people who believe in U2 are very ordinary people, working-class people. The only flak we get for being in a privileged position is from the middle classes. I felt, "How can I write a song about being unemployed when in fact, I am fully employed? How can I stand onstage at an unemployment benefit when I know U2 are not short of cash?"

But one guy came up to me afterwards and said, "I'm really pissed off about what you said onstage. You said you don't know what it's like to be unemployed. We didn't need to hear that, because we know you know what it's like even if you don't." It was the last thing I expected to hear. And then I heard about people singing "Maggie's Farm" on the dole queue the next Monday morning, which I found funny. I don't know whether they were slagging us off or just enjoying the song.

There was a blackness to that performance which set it apart from the rest of your live work.

Bono: It didn't seem the right time. There's a side to U2 in Ireland where the Mammies and Daddies are proud that U2 are an Irish group doing well in America. And there was a sense, too, that maybe some politicians had pigeonholed us: "There's U2 now, a good example of young people playing their music and getting off their lazy backsides." I knew there'd be certain politicians watching the program and I didn't want to let them off the hook. Because the truth of it was that a lot of people were on the hook because of their policies. I allowed that anger to be a part of the performance. Plus I probably overreacted to In Dublin magazine's story. They said, "How can U2 be part of the solution when they're part of the problem?"

What was the practical impact of the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour?

Bono: Well, Amnesty doubled their membership in America. But the best news I had all year was a letter from one of the U2 fanzines telling me that all over America now, they're setting up these U2 clubs. They're not exclusive to U2. They're also an appreciation of Peter Gabriel, the Waterboys and groups for whatever reason. I was looking at this U2 fan club poster and it had an entrance fee of three dollars. At first I felt, "What's this about? Charging to hear U2 records?" But then I discovered this money was going to Third World concerns. And that all over America, they had set up these clubs where they listen to U2 records and actually write cards for Amnesty. If you can inspire something on that small scale, that's everything I could ever ask for. All, in fact, I would ask for.

Is "Running to Stand Still" about heroin?

Bono: I heard of a family, both of whom were addicted. And such was their addiction that they had no money, no rent. The guy risked it all on a run. All of it. He went and smuggled into Dublin a serious quantity of heroin strapped to his body so that there was on one hand life imprisonment, and on the other hand riches. Apart from the morality of that, what interested me was what put him in that place. "You know I took the poison from the poison stream/Then I floated out of here." For a lot of people, there are no physical doors open anymore. So if you can't change the world you're living in, seeing through different eyes is the only alternative. Heroin gives you heroin eyes to see the world with. And the thing about heroin is that you think that's the way it really is. That the old you who worries about paying the rent is not the real you.


(Continued in Part 2)