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THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
...IS COMING TO TAKE YOU AWAY! WHEN JOE JACKSON WENT TO INTERVIEW BONO AT U2'S SECRET DUBLIN RECORDING BASE, HE HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT. WHAT HE GOT WAS A CRAZY ROLLERCOASTER RIDE THROUGH THE EXTRAORDINARY WORK-IN-PROGRESS WHICH WILL BECOME U2'S FOLLOW-UP TO THE ACCLAIMED "ACHTUNG BABY!", WITH BONO AT THE WHEEL AND AN UNSEEN PRESENCE WORKING THE ACCELERATOR LIKE A DEMON. "RECORDS SHOULD BE MORE OF A TRIP," SAYS THE MAN IN THE WRAPAROUND SHADES. FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS THEN. THIS WILL BE NO ORDINARY RECORD. AND THIS IS NO ORDINARY INTERVIEW.
Joe Jackson, 19 May 1993
'The music is more important than the musician"
The setting is a hospitality room in Dublin's Factory on early Tuesday afternoon where U2 are piecing together what will eventually be the as-yet-untitled follow up album to "Achtung Baby!" Bono, by his admission "totally wasted" having worked in the studio until 3am on a track titled "Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car" , suddenly hauls out his Macintosh Powerbook and to the sound of the DAT tape playing a drum beat sampled from Leni Riefensthahl's 1936 movie "Triumph of the Will" begins to read a lyric which may be recited to the same music on the forthcoming tour.
Fifteen minutes later he's strapped on an acoustic guitar and is singing a classic U2 blues which turns out to be another track from the album - in its raw and unprocessed state. The juxtaposition of this image of Bono as the quintessential troubadour set against the still-lingering sound of his voice speaking of how he hopes to layer lines from his personal computer onto a stage cityscape which will also contain audio-visual samples from the work of Leni Riefenstahl - this is the history of rock music in a snapshot, its past and maybe even more importantly - it's future.
Likewise, U2. And the man himself. Indeed it is only the black dye in his hair and the specks of grey in his beard which make one aware that the Bono speaking with passionate conviction about his futuristic vision of music delivered through CD, CD-1, video discs and giant screens is fifteen years older than the Bono who first irritated some members of the band's audience when he spoke with self-serving glee about how great it was to be playing rock 'n' roll live as part of a new teenage band called Hype.
Then again Bono would probably prefer to argue that such moments make up not a photograph but "a Xerox copy", which is how he describes "Achtung Baby!" And this interview.
Originally scheduled to be a Q ... A exchange with a pre-determined structure it instead turned into "a jazz rap" to cull another quip from Bono - an improvised ramble through his own responses to more than half the songs on the new album, as well as and a fly-on-the-wall look at as much of his psyche as he wishes to reveal right now.
Following the natural flow of the conversation seemed to be the only way Bono could communicate on this particular afternoon, probably because, as he later suggested, he and the band are in a "mostly an improvisatory mode" on the new album, which is a rather radical departure from "Achtung Baby!" Near the end of our session he admitted: "I came in here today to cancel this interview, because I'm so tired. I was just going to play you a few tracks then split." However, as the music exercised its regenerative powers over his spirit one hour became two and a half. In the end he had to be reminded at least three times that U2 had less than forty eight to go before they leave Ireland to begin the tour and that, oh yes, they also "had an album to finish!".
Playing the new album's first track, tentatively titled "Babble-Zooropa" Bono shouts above the music: "A lot of what's in this album comes from reading the work of William Gibson." It's as accurate a clue as any as to what fans can expect from this particular soundstorm, the successor to one of the most acclaimed albums in the history of rock.
The song opens with a brace of suspended chords trembling as they chain down the sound of indecipherable human voices shifting from speaker to speaker, growing louder with each beat. It's Sci-fi in hi-fi, signifying that ZOO TV future shock is about to begin again.
"This is just a sketch", says Bono. "We've been working on the record in a beginning-middle-end way so there are different structures we want to begin with. We haven't yet decided how this one should open. But then even the album is still changing day to day. As it stands we have fourteen tracks which we'll probably cut down to ten, though it did start out as a mini-album, which we thought would have about four tracks. But over the last six weeks its taken its own shape and we've just gone with the flow."
As the cacophony of babbling voices rises like a choir of demented sirens from Dante's Inferno, Bono laughs and says "It'll probably go straight to the Radio One playlist, don't you think?" The tone of his voice is dripping with sarcasm. When the Edge rides in with a steely, angry, "Zoo Station" - like riff bolting together this amorphous musical maze, followed by Larry's steadying pulse on drums and on bass, Bono yells "It's a trip!".
Less flippantly he adds: "That's what I want it to be! Legal drugs. Why else would you buy an album these days?"
Cutting across his own recorded voice as it begins to sing the word "Zooropa" asks "Have you read anything at all by that cyber-punk writer, Gibson? It's a sort of fucked-up sci-fi. And this track shows you what I mean when I say the textures on this record were very much influenced by what he writes about the future."
Extending the discussion to the way in which the same song will be presented during the upcoming tour Bono continues: "Edge's guitar line there may be longer, but we have this brightly-lit, commercial city-scape that comes in now, as I sing (he recites with his own recorded voice): "I have no compass/And I have no map/And I have no reason, no reason/To get back."
The recitation gives way to Bono's suddenly alarmingly impassioned singing which, for a moment, threatens to shame the hi-fi into silence. Artifice gives way to art, the carefully-constructed rock star pose is fractured by a cry of truthful self-expression. The moral confusion that dominates "Acrobat", from "Achtung Baby!", is in evidence again.
"And I have no religion/ And I don't know what's what/Don't know the limits/Don't know the limits of what we got."
As the "Zooropa" chorus roars forth and Bono's set of recorded secondary vocal lines fade into the mix, he highlights each line by again reciting the lyric out loud:
"You 'll be alright/You got the right shoes/To get you through the night/It's cold outside/But it's brightly lit/ Skip the subway/ Let's go to the overground" .
Spoken words give way to words that are sung, wailed, spat forth in rage, shot through with a sense of revenge."Take your head out of the mud, baby/ No particular place, babe/ No particular song/I've been hiding, hiding/What am I hiding from ?"
Taking a deep breath while the song dissolves into a screeching white noise, Bono laughs, shakes his head and, as if suddenly remembering there is someone in the room, says: "We were going to call the album 'Squeaky' at one point!"
His self-conscious laugh is silenced as the Dat tape immediately delivers a second song, which begins with what seems like the sound of a child's toy in a soon-to-be subverted opening scene of a movie by David Lynch.
"This is called 'Baby Face'," says Bono. "And in this brightly-lit, fucked up commercial landscape we'll have on stage, we take the audience through a window and there's a guy watching somebody on a TV, a personality, a celebrity he's obsessed with. It's about how people play with images, believing you know somebody through an image and think that by manipulating a machine that, in fact, controls you, you can have some kind of power (sings, in a chillingly sweet voice): "Watching your bright-lit eyes/in the freeze frame/I've seen them so many times/I feel like I must be your best friend/ You're looking fine, so fine".
As Bono harmonises with his own voice the spirits of David Bowie and Lou Reed hover nearby. Right on cue he stops singing and just as you're thinking of the coloured girls going do-de-do-de-do-do-de-de-do-de-do, he smiles and says "There hasn't been a good do-de-do on the album yet - so here it comes!" Hamming it up and calling to mind some of his father's heroes he adds " But you have to admit that Dean Martin was great at that, wasn't he? And Bing Crosby. What I loved was the way they'd casually slip their hands in their pockets while singing. I can't do that at all - because all my jeans are too tight!"
That new fab four of Dean, Bing, Lou and Bowie give way to Iggy Pop as Bono explains that "Dirty Days", the next track "is exactly as it happened" A largely-instrumental sonic rumble, and ramble, made up mostly of improvised riffs and rhythms in the studio "it may or may not end up on the new record", he says.
"Iggy Pop was very much an influence in terms of the way he'd make up songs in performance", he explains. "So this is really U2 in its most raw state. At the moment I'm toying with the idea of something that keeps flashing up in front of me when I hear the music, an image of a father giving surrealist advice to his son. I also see Charles Bukowski in my head and the kind of advice he gives, like 'always give a false name!'. But whatever lyric I finally put to it the music strikes me as very sad. "What I'm saying there is 'Make it better, son.' The feeling I get is that the father has fucked off, or something like that. Then again it may end up being about Gorbachev! But what you're hearing there is the base of what probably will become a song and the creative process is obviously very much dictated by the atmosphere the band originally got while improvising. That's what will dictate the kind of lyrics the song finally has."
Continuing the father theme Bono laughs and says "And here's another cheery little U2 ditty we finished last night, 'Daddy's Gonna Pay for Yor Crashed Car'."
Needless to say the irony in his voice is again as heavy as it was in the deceptively light title of "Achtung Baby!" In this left-of-field frame of mind, highlighting a bar or three in the demonically driven opening of the new post-industrial, hip-hop influenced song he says "Doesn't that sound like the signature tune from The Late Late Show? " Sure it does, but only as it turns up in Annie Murphy's nightmares, followed by "The Fly". And by KC and the Sunshine Band, on a bad acid trip, singing "A ha, A ah, that's the way I like it."
Bono sings: "You're a precious stone/ You're out on your own/You know everyone in the world/But you feel alone."
"We use the reverb there to bring my voice in and out of focus, so it's RIGHT IN YOUR EAR one moment then lost in the mix the next. We want it to be disorientating, disturbing", he says, having effectively fractured my eardrum with his shout. As the tape winds into silence he picks up his guitar, saying: "That's a blues, an industrial blues. You could just as easily do it this way. He continues the above lyric but now singing it as a twelve bar blues. "Daddy won't let you weep/Daddy won't let you ache/Daddy gonna give you/As much as you can takes."
"Now even though it has been heavily processed," he explains "the point is it was written through that process, rather than written as a blues then put through the technological mix you hear. It was written back-to-front, as it were. Yet to me it's definitely a blues song for the 90s, as true to its roots as a song could be."
Moving to another Dat tape Bono reveals that much of the music created for the new album was done in Dublin over the past six weeks. One song, titled *Numb*, however, has its roots in Berlin, and in the recording sessions for *Achtung Baby!* It opens with a no-shit dialogue between Larry's sticks rapping against the skin of a snare drum and Edge's guitar spitting out vengeful licks. The vocal, delivered through gritted teeth, is a litany of commands made all the more powerful because they are almost whispered.
"Edge has just got a list of things there, one following the other", says Bono. "Don't cry/Don't eat/Don't drink/ Don't sleep. It's kind of arcade music, but at base it's a dark energy we're tapping into, like a lot of the stuff on 'Achtung baby!' And, here, I use my Fat-Lady voice that I used on 'The Fly'. There's a big fat mamma in all of us! But you need that high wail set against the bass voice because the song is about overload, all those forces that come at you from different angles and you have no way to respond. It's us trying to get inside somebody's head. So in that mix you hear a football crowd, a line of don'ts, kitsch, soul singing and Larry singing for the first time in that context. So what we're trying to do is recreate that feeling of sensory overload."
*Numb* ends as it began, with a drum beat yet minus Edge's guitar lines. However this particular drumbeat is the one that has been sampled from Leifenstahl's movie "Triumph of the Will".
Changing the tape again Bono explains: "For us, it's a new way of working. We've been taking audio-visual loops and working with them. That drum loop comes from the scene where an eleven year old Nazi plays the drum at the 1936 Olympic Games. And we're going to be playing, and using that loop in the actual stadium where that boy played, in Berlin. That's going to be a very eerie moment, because that boy could still be alive, I suppose."
Again revealing how mercurial his moods can be Bono sits in silence for minute or so and doesn't try to deny the shadows that have suddenly done a death dance across his eyes. Silencing the DAT machine and switching on his Powerbook, he brings up his 'Lyrics' file, and says "I wrote this piece, called 'In Cold Blood' and although I don't know if it will go on the record or not, I probably will recite it during the show. But this is as I wrote it, I haven't rewritten anything". He recites the following:
I read a book once, called In Cold Blood
Pages of facts did me no good.
I read it like a blind man, In Cold Blood.
So the story of a three year old child
Raped by soldiers, though she'd already died.
Made the mother watch as they fucked her in the mud
I'm reading the story now, In Cold Blood
More now coming off the wire
City surrounded, funeral pyre
Life is cheaper than talking about it
People choke on their politicians vomit.
On cable television I saw a woman weep
Live, by satellite, from a flood-ridden street
Boy mistaken for a wastepaper bin
Body that a child used to live in.
I saw plastic explosives and an alarm clock
And the wrong men sitting in the dock
Karma is a word I never understood
How God could take a four year old In Cold Blood.
I live by a beach, but it feels like New York
I hear about ten murders before I get to work.
What's it going to be, Lord, fire or flood?
An act of mercy or In Cold Blood?
Pausing after reading the lyric, Bono sips from his coffee and then, in a voice so cold it seems to have scurried from the emotions called forth by the poem, he says "Sometimes, in the middle of all the kitsch you have to stick the boot in. But that lyric too is about overload and I want to use it as part of 'Numb' live, though it may only be samples or lines I like. But it's not so much about the cold blood involved in the various acts I describe, it's about the way we respond to those things. Maybe I'll just do parts of that to the drum loop. And if I read it on stage I will be standing in front of a 12 foot by 12 foot televison image of the child playing that drum in 1936 in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin."
Bono uses this example to highlight how deeply committed he is to rock as an audio-visual form of expression, as painting with sound, poetry of far more than merely words, performance as theatre-cinema.
"We've been working with a group out of Providence, Rhode Island called E.B.N - Emergency Broadcast Network. And they work all the time with audio-visual samples. It's not like an audio sample, as in, say, the way a rap group works by taking a guitar line or melodic line and repeating it. They use an audio-visual image. We worked with them on the ZOO TV tour, using that George Bush television clip but with his own words re-ordered. From them we've drawn on that idea. And coming out of this project I don't think there's going to be any singles. There might be a video single, which will be less like a 'rock song' and more just audio-visual soundbites collided together over a rhythm."
At the time of this interview Bono was not aware that Todd Rundgren has plans to unveil the home entertainment industry's first concurrent release of a conventional CD and its "interactive" CD-1 counterpart. The latter, when used in conjunction with a TV will enable users to "manipulate and recombine thousands of musical modules in an infinite variety" which, according to Rundgren will mean that listeners "would have to play the CD-1 disc for 24 hours a day, seven days a week well into the next millennium in order to hear the same song in the same way twice." As with any other form of Virtual Reality it also makes users of the technology more of an intrinsic part of the process. It is this which clearly sets Bono's creative juices flowing full force.
"All that is something U2 will wholeheartedly embrace", he says. "The way we feel about it is that rock 'n' roll - whatever that is these days - is mutating and that it's always technology that spurs these mutations. It's the fuzzbox that gave us the electric guitar, the sampler that gave us rap music and so on. And while I have respect for people who wish to ignore that 'filthy modern tide' I don't want to, I couldn't. And even if you go back to the birth of electric blues, many musicians didn't want to leave their acoustic guitars behind.
"If some hadn't, where would the blues be now, where would rock 'n' roll be? Would we even have something called rock 'n' roll? And it was the bluesmen who also used electronic distortion in its most basic sense. They'd attach bits of metal to their drums so that they'd buzz and distort. And that's what was happening right in there at the beginning of the blues"
The same, of course, applied to the birth of rock 'n' roll, when Sam Phillips at Sun deliberately busted a speaker cone to get distortion on "Rocket 88", the track widely described as the first rock 'n' roll recording.
"That's what the whole thing's all about," says Bono. "Doing anything you can to feel the ground going from under your feet and enjoying the sensation! And that's exactly where where we're at in ZOO TV, though we do a little more than busting a speaker or an amp! But the whole idea is as it's always been during the best moments in rock, pushing things to see what might happen rather than just sitting there and simply recreating, say, the 70s, which is so fashionable now. Or any other period in rock. If we're committed to the art of rock 'n' roll at all we have to move forward to see what we can make of the beast by pushing everything to its limits. And, to me, that's what is most interesting about rock 'n' roll and popular music, this ever-flowing state of flux."
As Bono leans forward in his chair and gestures with his hands as if grappling to pin the most accurate words to the ideas speeding through his brain one realises that the person who was initially totally wasted and later made almost catatonic by being momentarily connected to his darker emotions, is now buzzing with vitality, kicked into high gear as much by the music itself, as by contemplation of the possibilities of where music can go. If ever one needed evidence of Bono's spiritual addiction to music this is it.
"And this is where popular music, and rock is at right now," he asserts. "People are buying video games more than they are buying records. And I have to ask why would people buy albums now? That's why I think records should be more of a trip, literally. If it's just about songs then make collections of songs, taking the great songs from all over the place, but for me it's got to be more than that. For me great records are, and have always been, like books and movies. They're another place. And I'm not talking about concept albums! Certainly our new record isn't a concept album. But the music of the Sex Pistols was 'concept' music, a 'concept album' all told. It was a world you entered into at 16, a sonic experience hauling you in by throwing images at you. And you disappeared into it when you were 16 or 36, or whenever.
*So, again, what we're doing is not so far removed from that, particularly when, on the new album, the influence is so obviously someone like William Gibson. And all his concepts about the future involve the use of interactive means of communication. For all these reasons it makes great sense to me to use all that in our music. And that, to me, is where music has to go."
One track on the new album highlights to an immaculate degree the ways in which U2, probably moreso than any other band in the world, are intent on kicking rock into the 21st century while refusing to deny its equally important links to the past. That track features Johnny Cash who was originally discovered by one of rock's founding fathers, Sam Phillips, and who first recorded for Sun Records in Memphis in 1955. Back then his base was country-pop heavily influenced by the r'n' b and gospel rhythms he heard in new songs like "Mystery Train" by his close friend Elvis Presley.
In his trio Luther Perkins played lead guitar, Marshall Grant played double bass and Cash himself played rhythm guitar. Nearly forty years later Johnny Cash is still playing rhythm guitar but on this recording Bono plays lead while Adam Clayton, Edge and Larry Mullen Jnr. become the new Tennessee Trio. Likewise, Sam Phillips and 'Cowboy' Jack Clement have been replaced by Eno and Flood.
"Johnny Cash is a very smart man and he's definitely someone who had no problem coming along with us for the ride, for the trip," says Bono, laughing as he changes the tape. "He came in from day one and started singing over what we described as this 'Holiday Inn band - from hell!' And yet, seriously, this song is definitely the antidote to the Zooropa manifesto of uncertainty.
Even if it begins with, '"I don't have a compass/I don't have a map" - in other words, I don't know, I don't know, but I accept, even like, this state of uncertainty - this track gives one possible solution. But overall on the album the key is learning to live with uncertainty, even allowing uncertainty to be your guide."
Pausing, rolling the cassette tape around in his palm Bono looks out the Factory window at the sunlight masking all the shit and slime beneath the surface of the water in a Dublin canal. Smiling, he says "Because this song is an antidote to all those other demented voices on the album I'd really like to call it 'The Preacher'. Mostly because Cash also comes from that gospel tradition of songs. At the moment it's called 'Johnny Cash on the Moon!', but you tell me what you think".
Having met Johnny Cash within hours of his finishing the recording session during a recent visit to Dublin and heard him "sing to high heavens", as his manager said, a wonderful song he recorded with U2, called 'The Wanderer', wouldn't Bono consider keeping that as its title? It clearly contains enough echoes of that seemingly endless spiritual quest undertaken by the man, and the band who once sang: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
"I guess it does", laughs Bono "But I didn't want to cut across Dion's vibe, who also has his own song called 'The Wanderer'. So maybe I'll call it 'The Wanderer 2'! Yet whatever about the title, and the context, Johnny Cash is so right for what we wanted to do with this song. We originally put him in the centre of the album sleeve picture on 'Rattle and Hum' because he is that link between the past and the present. And though he reckons he's Scottish we were having none of that! As far as we're concerned Johnny Cash comes from good travelling people stock, and is Irish, one of us! And on a personal level he's been really good to me and opened up a circle that can be closed to rock 'n roll musicians. Jack Clement did too, as he told you in Hot Press. He may have spoken warmly of me in that interview, but the feeling is definitely mutual. I love that man. And Johnny Cash. "
Cue music. Rising at about the same slow, steady pace a camera would use zooming in on Monument Valley during the opening scene of a John Ford movie, Cash glides into the frame as if striding along the bass lines provided by Adam Clayton.
"I went out walking/ Through streets paved with gold/Lifted some stones for the skin and bones/Of a city without a soul/ I went out walking/Under an atomic sky/ Where the ground won't turn/And the rain it burns/ Like the tears when I said goodbye/ Yeah I went with nothing/Nothing but the thought of you/I went wandering".
"There used to be a "wa-wa-wandering" I sang at that point, behind Cash's voice but we cut that out", says Bono.
"I went wandering/Through the capitals of tin/Where men can't walk/or dream they talk/where sons turn their fathers in/ I stopped outside a churchhouse/Where the citizens like to sit/ They say they want the kingdom/But they don't want God in it/ I went out with nothing/Nothing but the thought of you/I went wandering."
Clearly moved by Johnny Cash's earth-shuddering singing Bono shivers and says: "That's voice! It's not a subload! I don't know how he lives, carrying that voice around with him, it's so heavy."
"I went out walking/Down that winding road/Where no one's trusting no one/And conscience's a too heavy load/I went out riding/Down that old eight lane/I passed by a thousand signs/Looking for my own name/I went with nothing/But the thought you'd be there too/I went looking/Looking for you."
Half-jokingly Bono says "Have you read Ecclessiates yourself?". Smiling at the sound of a country guitar lick in the song he points his thumb at his own chest, nods his head and in a boy-like manner says " that's me!" As Cash begins to recite the next verse Bono, echoes the words. This spoken duet is not on the record. He recites:
"I went out there/Looking for experience/To taste and touch/And to feel as much/As a man can before he repents"
Then Cash on the record, and Bono in the room, sing: "I went out walking/With a bible and a gun/ The word of God lay heavy on my heart/ I was sure I was the one/ Now Jesus don't you wait up/Jesus I'll be home soon/ Yeah I went out for the papers/ Told her I'd be back by noon/Yeah I left with nothing/But the thought you'd be there too/I went looking/Looking for you/ Yeah I left with nothing/Nothing but the thought of you/I went wandering".
As this quite perfect and undeniably historic song fades, Bono improvises a gospel cry as a counterpoint to the muted choir of voices disappearing into the distance. Southern blues and gospel have indeed become "Liffey soul and gospel" - the phrase Bono once used to describe "The Fly". It's an extraordinary moment, offering an insight into precisely what Bono means when, cryptically referring to my own passion for Presley and Sun and maybe even my scepticism about the deification of U2, he says of their new album and the tour: "It may be a long way from Memphis but it's the same mud."
He's right. And only a fool would deny that if Memphis was the spiritual birthplace of rock 'n' roll during the early 50s then forty years later it's spiritual home has to be Dublin or, more specifically, wherever U2 choose to record.
Reflecting on Sam Phillips' recent suggestion on his 70th birthday, that the rhythms of prayer rather than merely the rhythms of sex, sit at the heart of rock 'n' roll as he helped create it, Bono concedes that maybe the song with Johnny Cash should finally be called "The Wanderer", thus effectively subverting the codes of cock-rock evident in Dion's original song and in rock 'n' roll in general.
However, erotic love is also something Bono wanted to celebrate in all its fleshy glory in "Achtung Baby!" - as he reveals in the next issue of Hot Press.
Bringing it all back home, indeed.
Next Issue. Bono talks about "Achtung Baby!" ; his artistic roots and influences; being an "action-painter" in song; the state of rock, and rap in 1993; his goals, his demons and how for him "the presence of the devil" can be found not in the blues but in any place there is "the negation of the spirit." Declaring his faith in the subversive power of humour and surrealism he also speaks of the day Johnny Cash was almost killed by an Emu.