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"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."

-- Bono

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@U2 Interview: Bert van de Kamp

Author of 'And They Called Him Bono'

@U2, April 11, 2011
By: Liseth Meijer

 

Last year, Dutch journalist Bert van de Kamp published the book En zij noemden hem Bono [And They Called Him Bono], in which he bundled the interviews he did with U2 from 1982-2001 for Dutch music magazine OOR, plus a few additional interviews. (You can read our review of the book.) In the following interview conducted in February in Den Bosch, Mr. van de Kamp tells us more about the book and his relationship to the band, in particular to Bono.

@U2: Now you're on the other side of the interview. What's it like to be interviewed yourself now, instead of interviewing others?

It's a bit embarrassing, but I'll have to get used to it. Myself, I have a style of interviewing that works for me; it gets the tension out of the way. I see it as just a conversation. I don't have a list of questions; I just start to chat. I try to put the person I'm interviewing at ease, and put myself at ease. Only when my interview time is almost up, I take a small note out with a few things I just shouldn't forget, a sort of crib sheet. That's the only thing I carry with me to interviews. Normally I prepare for the interviews by listening to the record, listening to it closely. I try to get the vibe from the record, get some interesting material from the record.

How did you become a music journalist? You won a competition?

I wanted to write about music; music is my big passion. I always played songs to my friends and told them about the songs I played. The competition I won was a contest by Island Records, through their Dutch distributor. Contestants had to write a review of one of 16 records, all on the Island label. So my career started because of Island Records! The record I reviewed was Roxy Music's first album, Roxy Music.

I had actually hoped to win second prize, because that was all 16 records. But then I got a phone call that I'd won first prize, which was a trip to London for a week, all expenses paid. One of the jury members was the editor of OOR, and he suggested I interview someone for them. So I asked, "Who did you have in mind?" He wanted Pete Townshend, but he wasn't available, so it became John Entwistle, The Who's bass player.

Why did you decide to write the book now?

I thought I'd be the first to write a book about Bono, but then Michka Assayas' book [Bono: In Conversation With Michka Assayas] came out. I was easily discouraged; I thought I'd give up. Then later my wife encouraged me to start working on the book again, and I asked Anton Corbijn to help me with the cover picture. But Anton was working on his own book about U2 [U2&I] and he said he couldn't help me. So I stopped again. I thought if Anton isn't doing the pictures, I'm not doing it. And then in 2006, U2 By U2 came out. When I worked on the book again in 2007, the publisher told me I needed a new interview, but at first I couldn't get through to them. After I finally got through to Bono in 2009, the book was scheduled for 2010.

What changes did you see in Bono; what was the same and different about him over the years?

I've seen him grow up, but basically he's still the same guy. The passion's still there, the way he talks is exactly the same, but over the years you can see that the weight he's taking on can get to him. A couple of times, I've seen him very tired. He's taking on so much, it sometimes wears him out completely; you can see it in his eyes. But he's taking on the world. He's not just the singer in the band; he wants to solve all the world's problems, and people criticize him for it. I can't, but I think you should do it step by step.

At the end of tour in 1989, after the famous "Dream it all up again" speech in Dublin, U2 had to come back to Holland to make up for a gig that was canceled because of Bono's throat problems. I went backstage with my wife, and we were going to meet the band. [Paul] McGuinness said: "The band will come, but Bono is not allowed to talk because of insurance; he's not allowed to speak before the gig." So we were sitting there, one by one the band members came by, and Bono came in with a towel around his neck. He whispered to me: "How are you doing?" I said I was OK, but I wasn't really; I felt a bit depressed at that time. My wife told him so, and so Bono started talking to me, which of course he wasn't supposed to. But he started to cheer me up, even though he wasn't allowed to talk.

You just have to love him. He can be a bit of a nuisance, I suppose, but he knows it about himself. He's very critical of himself. He knows all the Bono jokes, and he'll be the first one to tell you a Bono joke. During the last interview in Ireland we had lunch, and at the start, I said, "enjoy your meal" in Dutch. But Bono, he said: "Bono appétit!" People ask me if Bono is a friend. I say, "Yeah, he's a friend I see every three or every five years." Really, that's not a friend, but I still call him that, because he behaves like a friend. There's no other word for it. I can't call him an acquaintance because he doesn't behave like an acquaintance. He starts hugging you immediately.

In 2009 I was upset with Bono, because I couldn't get through to him. I always contacted him through the office, through management; I didn't want to use Anton Corbijn or Gavin Friday. But they weren't responding. Later it turned out my contact person didn't work there anymore, but no one had told me. Bono did apologize, as well as McGuinness. First thing he said was: "I heard you were upset." I said, "Yes, I am." He said, "Well … you can give up on us, not like our music anymore, you can get totally fed up with U2, but I can't have you be upset!" [Laughs] After the show he invited me over to the hotel. We made up; we were friends again.

In the book, you wrote that during the first interview, you were actually more interested in The Virgin Prunes. What was it that attracted you to U2?

During the first interview, I was taken away by Bono's charm, the gift of the gab. At the start Edge says something, Adam has a few words in, then Bono starts and he takes over the whole interview. And the others were sitting there silently. I addressed them later, but he was having a great time talking. I like Irish people. Ireland was my favorite holiday spot. I had friends living there, I went there every year, so I loved them as people anyway. And he was such a charming person. The cheerfulness attracted me. I was a bit fed up with the music in that time, fed up with Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll. Suddenly there was this young Irish band. You could hear the Irish overtones in Edge's guitar.

I believe in the theory of the harmony of spheres, that all music is already somewhere in the sphere. Pythagoras, the mathematician, was also a musicologist, and he thought all the numbers represented notes, and all the music was already there. All great songwriters I met said something similar: "I didn't write it, I just have an aerial to receive it."

Like Bono's muse, or waiting for God to walk into the room.

Like Townes Van Zandt, for example. He wrote one of his best songs, "If I Needed You," when he was in bed with the flu, in the middle of the night. He had some coughing syrup and just woke up in the middle of the night and wrote the song. He told me, that afterwards, he went with a friend to the chemist to buy some more coughing syrup. They thought it was in the syrup!

The way U2 play, they jam away, trying to find the song, which must be somewhere. And Bono struggles with the lyrics; he can't write them at home. He's easily distracted -- that's his character -- so he goes away to a hotel, or a distant country, to write the lyrics.

Is Bono different alone compared to when you're interviewing him with other band members?

During the last interview in Nice, I interviewed the whole band, but first I interviewed Adam and Edge. I finished, and then Larry and Bono came in. Some of Larry I used in the book, in the chapter about Edge. It was a very funny part about him originally wanting U2 to be a glam rock band. During the rest of the interview, he didn't say much; he was quite happy to sit there and let Bono do the talking. Larry and Adam are always very friendly to me; they don't mind at all that I spend more time talking to Bono. I always get a cheerful reception from the boys.

There was a five-year gap between the interviews in 1982 and 1987, and between 1987 and 1992. What time period do you think was the bigger change?

1987, I think, because in 1982 I looked at them as boys, youngsters. In 1987 they were adult characters, they had added confidence. Funny thing was, they were already saying to me in '82 they'd become famous. And in 1987 it all had come true. They weren't even amazed about it. It was like a law of nature. So many bands, when they make it big, they forget about the people that were important to them when they weren't well-known, but with U2 it was different. They still treated me like I was important to them. That was a surprise.

What other changes did you see?

There was no drastic change. They had become men, confident men, but still Irish men. One of the things Bono did was getting me used to drinking pints of Guinness; he was always taking me to the pub. One day I was going to interview him in Dublin but it was canceled, so it was going to be a phone interview. When I talked to him on the phone, he said: "You know, when I saw your name on the list, I said, ‘Well, we'll go to the pub and have a pint.'" He was upset, but they had this schedule what date they had to meet and if he'd take me to the pub, I'd be a danger to the schedule, so they put me on the phone list.

One day I was in Dublin on holiday, between '87 and '92, and the only friends I have there are Gavin Friday and U2, so I called U2's office and they said: "OK, you can meet, but no interview, don't bring your tape recorder, because we don't have an album out, there's nothing to discuss." So we met in the Shelbourne Hotel; all four of them appeared. I talked to Bono for two hours; we also had some private things to talk about. When I came back to Amsterdam, the editor of OOR wanted to publish it, but I said no, because I had agreed I wouldn't write about it. That's my way of paying respect to the trust they have in me.

When Bono interviewed Bob Dylan for Hot Press, they met up and they immediately started talking about chess, asking if anyone had a portable chess set. Bono and I never played a game, because time was always limited, and I'd rather have something on tape than just silence. But one day we're going to play a game. I did an article once for OOR magazine, with Peter Hammill, while playing chess, and I put in all the moves in the article.

How do U2 handle fame?

They handle it well, but it is a weight on their shoulders they'd like to get rid of now and then. It can become a bit too much. Gavin says in the book: "Bono is a wise man." But he would never say it to Bono's face. Because it's up to him to kick his arse, not put him on a pedestal.

What was it like talking to Gavin Friday?

Gavin Friday and Bono, I immediately saw them as brothers. I knew they were friends, but I didn't know they had so much in common. They're so passionate about everything. And they can lean over and whisper things in your ear as if you're part of a secret society. Both do that, it's so funny!

What did you like about The Virgin Prunes?

That they were Irish, they wanted to create an event on stage. I also liked that they celebrated life and death at the same time. They had two sides to their music. Their album If I Die, I Die had two distinctive sides, one dark and one uplifting. I liked that a lot. I was in an existentialist stage of my life, but I wasn't into negativity, a no-hope attitude of music.

Gavin Friday mentioned The Virgin Prunes were completely misinterpreted. People thought they were celebrating death. It's quite the opposite. They don't forget about the darker side of things, but they always put something next to it, which is celebrating life.  Gavin is not a rock 'n' roller. Bono is John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. Gavin is David Bowie, Jacques Brel, Édith Piaf, more European-oriented than American. That's the difference between them.

Who's your favorite artist?

When I was young, you were either a Beatles or a Stones fan. I liked them both, but I was in the middle; I supported Bob Dylan. And the Beatles and the Stones were both Bob Dylan fans. He was amazing in the '60s, and it's amazing he's still around; he still does 200 gigs a year. Bono's a big fan. In the second interview [in the book], Bono asked me: "Who do you want to interview?" I said Bob Dylan. Bono told me: "I'll make it happen for you." But he never did. He makes all sorts of promises he can't keep.

How do you think Lypton Village influenced Bono and U2?

It was a major influence on the way they looked at the world. It made them look at the world through the eyes of a child. They did that on the first record, but I think they still do it in a way. Now they've lost their innocence. [At a special exhibit of Anton Corbijn's photos of Bono] Bono was looking at one of the first pictures Anton took of him, next to a helicopter. Someone asked what he would say to that boy in the picture. "Don't second-guess yourself." He regrets having lost that innocence. You can never get that back. But still you can try to look at the world the way that boy did. And in a way, they do try. That makes it special. They don't take anything for granted in this world.

Is that also why Bono wants to save the world? Is it about keeping childhood dreams alive?

I think it's logical and understandable that if you have that dream of how things should be and you rise to a position of power. …  As a rock star you have power over youngsters, over your audience. When you get into this position that you can shake hands with leaders of men and tell them to basically put things right, you feel like it's your duty to do it. And that's the way he looks at it: Use your power and influence and your fame for a good cause.

At the end of the book, you mention some more songs besides "Mother Of Pearl," "Glastonbury" and "The Sacred Heart Of Malibu." These songs were still a work in progress, but could you tell a bit about how they sounded? One was an instrumental outtake from No Line On The Horizon.

It was a riff being played over and over; it sounded like a Velvet Underground song, but played by better musicians. It was medium tempo; it went on and on, not in 4/4.

[In the last chapter of the book, the author describes how he sang background vocals with Niall Stokes on a recording of "Glastonbury" in Edge's home studio.] I sang background on what was "Glastonbury," but now they play it totally differently. The line I sang was, "I was born, born to fly!" but it isn't in the song anymore. The funny thing was, the day before, I was in a pub with someone who asked me if I'd ever met Niall Stokes. I hadn't. "Well," he says, "I can introduce you." Next day I was standing next to him singing in the microphone!

It's always difficult to say how songs turn out, because unreleased music changes all the time with U2.

Anton [Corbijn] was upset with the fact that they let him make a movie and then turned the whole record around. They took some songs out and put some new songs in. He was supposed to make a movie with the songs in the order of the album. I'm sure there were some words between them. Anton has a great sense of humor, but when it concerns his work….

Had you met Anton before doing the interview for the book?

I knew Anton from before he started working for OOR. When he came to London, I lived there already, and he stayed at my place while trying to find a place for himself. He found a place close to where I and my wife were living. There was a time when Anton shot photos for all the stories I wrote for OOR. We traveled in a car to meet artists in the '70s.

When Bono announces from the stage that OOR supported U2 from the beginning, he was right, but when he mentions my name, he's wrong. I wasn't there from the beginning, in 1981. The first time I saw them, I didn't like them that much. It was too simple, too jolly for me at that time. I liked heavier stuff; I couldn't see the heaviness in songs like "I Will Follow." I like the second album better, because there's some melancholy there, more Irishness as well.

What's your favorite U2 album? The Joshua Tree?

I guess so, but I also like the last trio. When I first saw that title, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, I laughed, because I could see the discussions between them. This is a Bono title. He would come up with a title like that, and he'd have to convince them one by one, including Paul McGuinness, that it was a good title. I was there when they were deciding about All That You Can't Leave Behind. Bono wanted to change the title of "Stuck In A Moment." He wanted the long title: "Stuck In A Moment (You Can't Get Out Of)." So they changed it.

But the funny thing is, everyone who refers to the song always just calls it "Stuck In A Moment."

I remember I said to Bono: "I just call it SIAM." But he didn't understand. Anyway, I'm a bit crazy about acronyms. I also pointed out to U2 that there's an eight ["Acht" is German and Dutch for eight] in Achtung Baby, their eighth studio album.

What's your favorite Bono lyric?

It's a line from the song "Kite," that death is not the end. "I know that this is not goodbye." They played "Kite" for me during the third gig in Arnhem [in 2001]. Bono said: "I'm going to do something I've never done before. I'm going to dedicate a song to a journalist." I was sitting there thinking: "Oh my God, it's not going to be…" He dedicated this song to his dad every night, and the only time it was not for his dad, it was for me. It's a special song. And I also love that line from "Walk On," where he turns the cliché around: "A place that has to be believed to be seen."

Can you describe Bono in one word?

Looking at the cover picture, I have a word in mind; maybe we should choose that word: pilgrim. I think he's on a pilgrimage. That's why I was so happy with this picture, and also because of the title, which has a sort of a Biblical reference. The title fits the picture, and the picture fits the title. It was taken during the photo shoot for the cover of The Joshua Tree, in a town called Bodie, I think. It was a former iron ore mining town. But it could also be Israel in the time of Moses. It has a timeless quality to it.

(Bert van de Kamp photo via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons licensing.)

(c) Meijer/@U2, 2011.



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