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As a pop star I have two instincts. I want to have fun. And I want to change the world. -- Bono

U2's Rock 'n' Roll Zoo

A flashy new shout to the global village
USA Today
Art is manipulation. The phrase flits across banks of TV monitors during U2's performance of "The Fly" on its current Zoo TV Tour. A barrage follows. Conscience is a pest. You are a victim of your parents. Religion is a club.

Then a jolt: I'd like to teach the world to sing. Watch more TV.

The erratic statements "are deliberately bogus," says singer Bono. "Everything's in there. Call your mother. Over 1 billion served. The whole thing means don't trust us. We're rock 'n' roll stars, we'll let you down, we'll mess you around."

If this doesn't sound like the party line from Ireland's rock idealists, it's because U2 is dismantling its myth.

Music with something to say turned the band into the world's top rock act, its critical respect untarnished by mounting commercial success. The Dublin quartet's Grammy-winning The Joshua Tree topped Billboard's chart for nine weeks in 1987 and sold 14 million copies worldwide. Rattle and Hum, 1988's blues/rock-influenced soundtrack to the same-named documentary, sold 11 million copies. And Achtung Baby entered Billboard at No. 1 and has sold nearly 7 million copies since its November release.

The band's image -- built from existential and politically correct lyrics, humorless interviews and grim photos -- is "almost Quakerlike," says Bono (real name: Paul Hewson). That no-nonsense tack "was our reaction to the '80s, which was the material girl, Wall Street, 'greed is good.' Our response was to stare it down."

A distorted media portrayal and reporters' tendencies to grill them on serious issues prompted U2 to nix most interviews, though Bono acknowledges, "at some point, we've got to speak. If we don't, it plays into the hands of our cartoonists. Right now, we want the music to speak for itself."

This week, U2 launched its elaborate U.S. tour, the first since 1987, featuring a trippy and decadent concert of bedazzling visuals and adventurous music drawn primarily from the darkly charming Achtung.

On the day before the tour opens, autograph hounds gather in the parking lot of the Lakeland Civic Center, where the band has assembled for a dress rehearsal. "To me, U2 is the most important band in the world because they're not trying to be," opines fan Gene Harding, 20, of Tampa. "They don't suck up to the market, they don't beg for approval. They're what rock used to be."

Inside, guitarist the Edge (Dave Evans), bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., eat salmon and chicken in a backstage cafeteria. While they smoke and chat with producer Brian Eno, Annie Leibovitz snaps photos and studies Mullen's matinee-idol looks. "He doesn't have a bad side," she marvels. Bono is in his dressing room, "vaporizing" a dry throat.

The band finally gathers onstage for a ragged but exhilarating run-through. Near the end, Bono, in a blinding silver get-up, drags a full-length mirror onstage, self-mockingly kisses his reflection and quips, "I'm too sexy for this suit."

"This show is a real roller coaster ride, and some people will want to get off, I'm sure," says a jovial Bono after warmly greeting fans on his way to a waiting car. During the 45-minute drive back to Orlando, he slouches low in the back seat, nursing a beer. "Our audience seems to follow us, no matter how difficult we make it for them. They're smart; we don't need to play down to them."

The stage wit and glitz evolved from U2's new willingness to exploit rock grandeur.

"In the '90s, the idea of pretending it's four guys who walk onstage and play that good old rock 'n' roll music is just a bit too much to take," says Bono, 31. "A lot goes on behind a rock band at our level, a lot of people are involved, from management to truck drivers. In the '80s, we saw this as a threat. I find it ludicrous now. Rock 'n' roll is slightly ridiculous, and I can enjoy that aspect."

The show's creative axis is U2's "new toy" and tour namesake, the traveling Zoo TV station. A satellite dish randomly tunes in images from 150 channels to concert viewers, and it will be used to transmit performances to distant locales. The inspiration sprang from a 1989 Dublin concert that was widely bootlegged after airing on radio to 500 million listeners, including fans in the crumbling empires of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

"We thought, wow, look what you can do with radio," Bono says. "Zoo TV is taking the next step. We can beam concerts into Peking or Prague for free. We can (spawn) video bootlegs in cultures where it's hard to get our music. That's exciting. Rock 'n' roll is about being untamed sexually, spiritually, politically. That's why in some cultures it's still a threat."

Splashy and technically complex, the show makes no attempt to disguise U2's big-time stature, prominence that Bono insists has not damaged the band's legendary rapport with fans, which "was never based on pretending that I worked in a gas station on weekends. What we have in common with everyone is spirit, not necessarily culture or where we all grew up.

"I actually did work in a petrol station," Bono says with a laugh. "I never mentioned this before. Rock looks like an incredibly egocentric way to make a living. I guess it is. But I don't know anything else."

How does he resist being carried away by the hype?

"Oh, but it's fun to be carried away by the hype," he deadpans. "Where would you be without the hype? I mean, you've got to play some of this thing out. Rock is The Big Music, in bold type. You can't pretend all the promotion and all the fanfare is not happening."

What wasn't fun, apparently, was recording U2's current arty, electronic masterpiece, which dominates the show.

"No, to be honest, it wasn't fun; we called it Achtung Baby to make it look easier than it was," Bono says. U2's 30ish members, close since their teens, clashed during early recording sessions in Berlin.

Formerly obsessed with external events, U2's lyricist turned his attention to the rocky landscape of the heart.

"After watching the gulf war, with scenes of human beings exploded like in a video game, it was hard to take politics seriously," Bono says solemnly. "I realized why Picasso drew those funny faces in Guernica. It's like he couldn't draw people straight anymore. I couldn't write about what was going on out there because it was too big. So I focused on what was going on around me."

Influenced by the dissolution of Edge's marriage and his own struggle between home life (with a wife and two daughters) and nomadic yearnings, Bono avoided pop's typical valentine sentiments and penned lyrics about the anguish and anger of romance. He was partly inspired by the late Roy Orbison, for whom Bono and the Edge wrote the haunting "She's a Mystery to Me."

"You can say a lot about what's going on (in the world) by writing about how two people tear at each other. Roy seemed to say so much more than any political singer or any placard. His songs had this cry for humanness."

Whether Achtung's songs enlighten listeners is of less concern to Bono than his own response. Music may be a catalyst for change, he says, "but the first responsibility of music is to change the musician."

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