- 02 Jun 11
In a special interview to coincide with the first visit of President Barack Obama to Ireland, Bono talks about the man who is currently occupying the White House...
“Hey man, it’s me again. Sorry, but there’s someone I forgot to mention.”
Five minutes after I’ve bid adieu to Bono and hung up the phone, the U2 singer calls me back from the study of his Dublin home (he’s on a brief hiatus from the ongoing 360° tour). No great surprises there. Bono’s the kind of guy who always pays attention to the little details. Just about every single time I’ve interviewed him, he’s called or texted later to clarify some point or other.
This time it’s about the actor injured in the rehearsals for the Spider-Man musical last December. “I was talking about the accident and I realised I hadn’t actually named him,” Bono explains. “His name is Chris Tierney. Even though he really had a bad accident, he was doing interviews saying that he was so proud to be part of the show and that people were deadly serious about this stuff. I just don’t want to not give him a name, because he really is an astonishing dude. So I’d really appreciate if you mention him when you write your piece.”
And then he’s gone.
As it happens, the Spider-Man musical wasn’t even supposed to have been on the conversational agenda. In advance of Barack Obama’s impending visit to Ireland, Bono had agreed to talk to Hot Press about the 44th US president for a cover story on Obama. Before we got into that, though, there was the small matter of his close friend Gavin Friday’s superb new album, catholic.
“What an amazing album,” Bono enthused. “I mean, it’s a black beauty – an astonishing piece of work. I know he’s getting amazing reviews everywhere, all over Europe. It’s really good for him. He deserves it. I think it’s a very brave and bold thing to hold one mood for so long, and just kind of explore that mood. And then finally you get to ‘Lord I’m Coming’.”
Up there with Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ in terms of its emotional impact, ‘Lord I’m Coming’ is catholic’s masterful closing prayer. I told Bono that the song had reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. He’d had exactly the same experience: “It’s truly a work of art. It takes you to a place that you cannot explain, even to your friends and family. You cannot explain that song. I don’t know what it’s about. It feels like some sort of requiem. There’s all kinds of suggestions. It leaves me in a puddle, too.
“I thought it was just because I knew Gavin, but I’ve been experimenting on people. Just leaving the room and you’d come back in and it has the same effect. I’m very proud to know Gavin at the moment. Actually, I’m always proud to know him.”
We talked about other things (including the great injustice of U2 not having played west of the Shannon in more than 25 years). When I eventually said, “Okay, let’s talk about Obama now,” the line went completely silent for about 20 seconds. I worried for a moment that I’d offended him. “You’ve gone kind of quiet there, Bono.”
“No, no, I’m ready to talk,” the singer said. “I’m just resetting.”
OLAF TYARANSEN: When did you first meet Barack Obama?
BONO: I’m not so good on dates but let’s just work back on elections. When was the last US election?
Three years ago.
Yeah, 2008, so I guess it was 2004. So for that election there was a Democratic convention. I went to that and the place was buzzing with this speech by this senator from Illinois, who woke everybody up and had aroused feelings that people hadn’t experienced since they heard speeches from Dr. King. I believe we had a sort of glancing meeting there. I then got to know him in the Senate around that period. I’d have met him a few times.
Given your campaigns for Africa, you must have been pleased to see an African-American becoming US President.
He was always very helpful, of course, on our issues, whether that was global health or finishing off the debt piece. With Clinton we sort of did the multi-lateral debt, the IMF and all of that; and with George Bush we finished off the bi-lateral debt, which is the country-to-country debt.
Does Obama’s background, as an African, help?
Obama was, and is, very keen to avoid the cliché of this majestic continent of Africa being portrayed as supplicant. I think that offends his African side and that’s very understandable. Sometimes, with people like myself or Bob [Geldof], because our job is to raise the alarm, the drama that’s necessary to get people to take unnecessary loss of life seriously means that you can project an image of the continent that’s not dimensional or accurate. I have always found in my dealings with Obama that he’s very keen to stress a relationship with Africa that is horizontal, not vertical – ie. partnership not patronage. And, as I said, very tough on corruption, I suppose in a way that only a president with an African father could be. He made that astonishing speech in Accra [Ghana]. I think it was known as his tough love speech on Africa.
How have you found him personally?
He’s been very helpful. I remember I asked him to go to dinner with me and Condoleezza Rice and that was an interesting moment because here’s two African-Americans from polar opposites in terms of the political spectrum, but so much in common in other ways. Extremely sophisticated intellects. I can’t remember who the fourth person was at the dinner, but I remember the first half of the dinner the two of them kind of talking politely through me, and then the second half of the dinner, it was like I wasn’t there (laughs). They were just kind of sharing and swapping ideas. But, yeah: he was effective in the Senate – he was only there for a while – and then, when the election came up they started playing ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ as he walked onstage every night.
Did they ask permission for that?
We actually don’t give permission for that because U2 doesn’t want to be partisan, but I guess they knew we weren’t going to sue them.
Having first met Bill Clinton in 1992, you’ve now had direct dealings with three US presidents. How does Obama’s style compare?
You know with politics, I’m sure you’ve felt this, maybe it’s just coming from music, but you do wish that politicians looked a little more like the people you hung out with (laughs). Maybe that’s true of everybody, but they always felt like a different species, didn’t they? And you think, ‘Why is this so unfamiliar?’ And of course Bill Clinton was the first person in the United States that you really thought, ‘Well gosh, he’s kind of like the people we know.’ And the same is true of Barack Obama. He feels like one of us that became one of them – ie. he’s recognisable as a person you might have seen at a show or sports event. He feels familiar to me, and I think that’s good. Whereas Bill Clinton is a very physical person in a room, he puts his hand on your shoulder, he’s a great emotional arm-wrestler, Barack Obama has the demeanour of one you would play chess with. And then, of course, his secret weapon is his flash of a smile and a wicked sense of humour. He’s very funny. You don’t expect that from the chess player and that’s his charm, and it is literally a winning smile because it’s hard to stand up to – because it isn’t insincere. A lot of politicians need to control their smile, it’s like you can see the wires (laughs), but there’s absolutely nothing fake about this man. He is exactly what it says on the tin, so therefore I think that when he lets you in, he lets you in.
So in terms of Africa, what is the next step?
President Obama agreed to follow the trajectory of George W. Bush’s aid increases which were really significant... Just as Bush promised to double aid to Africa, Obama has promised to double overall foreign assistance – though has left unclear how much of that increase will go to Africa. This has been somewhat hampered by the market collapse, but I am still confident he will get there. Already we have seen leadership in new technologies that transform the lives of the poorest of the poor, from vaccines in support of GAVI, to agriculture and food security – something the last Irish government showed real leadership in, with the Irish Hunger Task Force. Obama is also leading the world in fighting corruption in developing countries, especially in the crucial oil and gas sectors. This President will have a lot to do to have the same impact as his predecessor, whose AIDS initiative was and is the largest response in history to a pandemic. He’s a controversial figure, George W. Bush, but I can verify that at the very least there are a few million fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers that would not still be with us were it not for him and his PEPFAR program, or his continued support of the Global Fund.
What are your thoughts on Obama’s forthcoming visit to Ireland?
Being honest, I think less about culture and more about commerce. I just think ‘jobs’, ‘technology’. He’s the BlackBerry President and he gets technology, and I hope that they’re going to spend some time introducing him to the representatives of the wealth of technological geniuses – genii – that we have here. People like the Intune Networks – there’s two young PhD students who could change the world literally. But there’s loads of them. He’s on Facebook, he’s on Google. I worked personally quite hard to get Google to choose Ireland as their headquarters outside of America and I’m very proud of it being here – and Facebook now. The real person we should thank is a woman called Sheryl Sandberg who was the Chief of Staff in the White House – under Larry Summers, she was the Chief of Staff of the United States Treasury. I got to meet her when we were working on debt cancellation. She went on to Google... and we prevailed there. They set up their European HQ in Ireland. But I mean there are so many smart people here. The world is focused on the visit – and they’re probably going to diddle-ee-idle the occasion.
What should they be doing?
I would like it to be much more digital than analogue, the visit, and for people to see the modernity. See, our wealth is not in the ground, but it’s on the ground: it’s our people. We’re smart, we’re innovative, and there’s a whole series of reasons which we can talk about another time, probably it’s not pertinent to this, about why Irish people are good at technology, why they’re good at writing software. The anarchic streak that makes us so difficult in other ways, is the reason why we, to quote that original Apple advert, ‘think different’. And why our more rebellious society works better with technology than a hierarchical society where people know their place. But anyway, that’s a tangent. I don’t know who’s organising the visit, or how they’re doing it, but I would love to get that emphasis across… Actually, one of my favourite moments of a presidential visit ever, (laughs) I don’t know if you remember this, but when President Clinton was going to Bertie’s pub. What’s it called again? Fagan’s. I watched it on the news. It was timed, I think, to be on the 6 o’clock news. The Leader of The Free World went up and he asked for a Guinness, we didn’t hear him say ‘pint’ but he obviously said ‘glass’ because that’s what the barman was about to hand him when another hand – arm! – shoved into the frame of the RTÉ News, pulled the glass out of the hand of the barman and put a pint in it to save the President’s honour – he’d ordered a girl’s drink (laughs). But behind this, an Taoiseach Bertie was standing there, and he’d ordered a pint of Smithwicks and in the second, or two seconds, it had taken for them to switch the pint or the half-pint, he had downed his (laughs). I think it’s called skulling a pint.
Good man, Bertie!
He actually poured it into his skull. But I hope Obama has a bit of fun. I haven’t spoken to him about it.
You mentioned the Irish sense of anarchy a moment ago. So what would you say to those Irish people who’ll be out protesting against Obama’s visit?
You know, I think protesting is sometimes the only elegant thing to do when faced with unfairness and injustice. I think this man, on the contrary, represents the best of the political class. Although, if ever anti-globalisation protesters wanted to point to an incident of unfairness and injustice, they just have to look at what’s happened to Ireland in relation to the bank bailout, where the people are paying the price for private sector greed. Ireland’s public debt and finances actually weren’t in bad shape, but it was the private sector that brought this problem. I’m all for the private sector, and for people making profit, but as [American economist and Professor at Columbia University] Joe Stiglitz said in the Irish Times the other week – I think it was Joe Stiglitz – the whole point of capitalism is risk and reward. You can’t be having all the reward that these bondholders enjoyed for so long and then suddenly be immune to the risk and the losses, and expect the Irish people to pay for it.
Having always privatised the profits, they’re now socialising the risk.
Yeah. That is an affront; that is an injustice to the Irish people. I’m not an expert on Irish politics or the economy, not because I’m not interested but just because I’ve been so busy and so elsewhere on various projects, but there’s an idea going around for a referendum on the subject of what we should do about the bondholders. There’s two pieces: the sovereign debt and the private piece. It would be a very sophisticated thing indeed should the Irish people demand a chance to debate and argue, and finally decide themselves, on what will in the end be a decision that will affect their children and grandchildren. And surely this would also bolster the Government as they seek to reorganise, because they would have a very clear mandate on it. There’s a deep unfairness there.
U2 have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with America...
I really believe in America – the idea, that is. And most countries are not an idea. Great Britain is a great country, but it’s not an idea. America is an idea, not just a country, and I think it’s an extraordinary idea and meant to be contagious. And though America has betrayed its own principles over the ages, at the heart of it is something extraordinary. If you read the Declaration Of Independence, which I often have because I like to quote from it when I’m on Capitol Hill or shaking the tree for the world’s poor, it’s an astonishing document. I mean, here’s this dude Jefferson who is a complicated guy for sure, but he’s 27 or maybe even younger when he’s writing this. And I mean everyone knows the opening, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” etc. – but at the end of it, if you read it, it talks about “to these principles we pledge our sacred honour” – and the principles by the way are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. So they pledge their sacred honour. And not only that, but they commit, eh… what’s the word I’m looking for? If they commit a crime, by signing their signatures, they commit treason! And the signatories are not just farmers or urban workers; they are the most powerful people in the Americas. If you think of George Washington as the greatest landowner, that’s like Bill Gates, in terms of his wealth. John Adams is like a publisher – though he was far more than a publisher, now that I think of it. It’s amazing to think that these people signed on to this tract, which was an incendiary one. But it wasn’t just about the country of America. There were seven principles that were supposed to change the world. So it’s an extraordinary idea.
U2 were chosen to play at the inauguration of President Obama.
There is this moment sometimes where I think, ‘Do they realise we’re Irish?’ (laughs) or ‘What are we doing here?’ It’s a grand honour and all, but at some point someone is going to have enough and just say, “Will you stop quoting our great lyrics and go back home, son.” But we were to come on after the Civil Rights section, and they were going to replay Dr. King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Replay it. Can you imagine the power of that? So now you have a black president and at his inauguration they redo the speech from the same spot as King made it 40 years previous. Then at the end of the speech, U2 were to kick into ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, and we thought, ‘Wow, that’s drama, that’s a big one to carry, but yes, we’d love to.’ Then we arrived on the day and they said, “No, they’re not doing the speech, they’re going to read bits of it but they’re not going to play the speech.” I was very disappointed because I thought, “What a great intro.” Grandstanding being a speciality (laughs). So I went up to the people and asked what had happened and they said, “Oh, they’ve gone off it.” So I went up to David Axelrod, who was running the campaign, and I said, “Why did you get rid of it? It would be such a moment.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen, the President doesn’t want it.” I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “He thinks that’s a vain comparison.” And there... (pauses)
There you have the man.
Yeah. There you have the man. He didn’t feel that he was worthy. Meanwhile yours truly, the singer of the Irish rock band, had no problem going out after Dr. King’s speech. So there’s your clue to the other man (laughs). Really that shows a great sensitivity. And then, just to finish that out, in the middle of ‘Pride’ I did this thing about Dr. King’s dream. When he said “I have a dream,” people think he was talking about the American dream, and it’s really not true. It was a dream big enough to fit the whole world. And then I mentioned that it was also an Irish dream, it was a Mexican dream, it was an Israeli dream, it was a Palestinian dream. And I got into terrible trouble for the ‘Palestinian dream’ piece. That’s when they got fed up. That’s when they said, “go home!” And I’m thinking, how could you not regard the figure of Dr. King as standing for universal human rights, whatever the geography? There was no problem in the new administration – but in the media there was some real push-back. And we were very proud then to do ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ because he normally walked on to the recorded version. So it was nice having
How do you think the tracking down and killing of Osama Bin Laden has affected President Obama’s standing – whether in the US, Ireland or internationally?
I guess he could have flattened the compound, but as with so much to do with this President, he shows his brains over brawn; the lives of the women and children were, under Obama’s leadership, a critical part of the calculation. I don’t believe it was an execution, as some have suggested. The safety of the Navy SEALs was and should be pre-eminent. Part of me would have liked to have seen a trial. When the allies brought Nazi war criminals to justice at Nuremberg, they showed the world that despite the grave evil that had been done to them, they would demonstrate a very different value system.
I was thinking about Gerry Ryan’s anniversary. Am I right that you first heard the news of Gerry’s death immediately after you came out of a meeting with Obama?
Wow... (pauses). Yes, that’s exactly right. I had a meeting in the Oval Office, of all places; it’s always a moment, to walk into that office. The desk is made of Irish oak, by the way; he has the same desk Kennedy used. But yeah, we’d had a meeting, and it was a wonderful meeting. We really got through a lot of work and managed to have some fun as well, and he then got very concerned because the BP accident had just happened off the Gulf Coast and he went off to that. And then I went and got in the car and we just got the call about Gerry. So this kind of very, very heightened feeling that you have from being around the White House, whether you try to talk yourself down from it or not, you tend to walk out of there with a slightly different walk from when you went in. It wears off quickly, but we had accomplished some of the things we set out to accomplish in the meeting so we were quite high from it, and then the call just wiped all that out and we were just completely crashed. And of course – you’ve experienced this, we’ve all experienced this – you actually don’t believe it, you go through that whole, ‘no, you’ve got that wrong, get back to me when you check that’. But of course it was true.
I wanted to ask a few U2 questions. When’s the new album out?
Well, you know we wanted it out before the end of this tour and we were trying to get it out for round
Is this Songs Of Ascent?
No, actually we’ve a few going (laughs). We have Songs Of Ascent, which is a kind of ecstatic album, ambient, very beautiful songs. But it’s a real stained-glass window of a record, elegiac, I think you could describe some of the songs, beautiful. There’s one song called ‘Mount Zion’, that’s beautiful. There’s a song called ‘Soon’, there’s a song called ‘Every Breaking Wave’. Then there’s – we went in to make some club music with RedOne and we got some very extraordinary club sounding stuff, one called ‘I’ll Believe Her When She Sings’. Let me think if I can remember all of them now… ‘North Star’, that’s a ballad actually, that’s a beautiful song: we’ve actually played it acoustically onstage a little bit on the tour. And then we, the sort of rock album – although I think ‘rock’ is the wrong word for it – the next sort of ‘regular U2 band’ album, we started to make with Danger Mouse. Brian Burton, AKA Danger Mouse. Who is like a mix of Brian Eno and Danny Lanois. He is a cerebral fellow, but with deep reserves of instinct which he prizes over intellect any day, and he listens from some other part of himself. He is really making quite an impact on us, because he’s really encouraging us away from all the things that we know.
How do you mean?
When you’ve been doing this for a while, you learn certain buttons to push. Like, I’ve got some notes that if I hit generally people will go “wow!” in the studio, generally they’re moved. He’s completely unmoved (laughs). He’s like, “No, the melody is not very good. It’s wonderful that you can make that sound.” (Laughs) And you kind of look at him and I really like him, I mean I really like having another… it sounds masochistic wanting even more argument in the room, but in that sense he’s very Brian (Eno). But yeah, we’re got about ten songs with him. People thought, ‘Oh yeah, we’re making it up.’ And then there’s 18 Spider-Man songs Edge and myself have done, and 20 Spider-Man pieces
How’s the Spider-Man production going? It seems to have been plagued by problems.
Yeah, it was a lot of fun to write the music. I was running up to Edge’s place and it was just a playpen, we just really had a laugh. Ironically, Edge and myself agreed to do this and we said we’ll only do it when we’re in good form because it is Spider-Man so let’s just have fun with this. And we really did. And the songs are right up there, but where we’ve gone into problems was... (pauses) the production ran into big trouble when our lead producer died. He had a stroke in Edge’s apartment as Edge and Paul McGuinness were signing the deal. He died right in front of Edge. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible moment and, from that moment on, things have just been really nightmarish on the practical side, you might call it. And then the media have been very interested – so what would be a normal mistake in another production is now a sketch on David Letterman (laughs). The dirty little secret of Broadway is there are a lot of accidents. Dancing is like being an athlete.
It’s certainly very physical.
It’s fraught with danger and then we had one very serious accident that was a real freak, the rest were just kind of the sort of accidents that happen on Broadway. But the combination made it look like we were being very lackadaisical about safety, when in fact the guy from Cirque du Soleil, who was the world’s expert, was working with us and we had really gone to every length for safety. Then because we have the system now on a hair-trigger so that if anything happens, if the computer picks up any variety, it just shuts down. So then we have situations where during one of the flight sequences...
Your lead actor is left hanging in the air.
Yeah. He just stops in mid-air. We had a bunch of old dears arrived in, the other night, in hard hats. Big yellow hard hats (laughs). But we’re breaking new ground and it’s been tough. And check this: the first time any of us had seen the play and the songs all together at the same time being acted out was the first night of previews. It had never been done privately because we ran out of time, the technical stuff is so difficult. But eventually, the story is now unknotted, we have achieved coherence, and it should open mid-Summer. There’s new previews coming up. But I’ll tell you, it’s funny. Myself and Edge just wanted to do some musical theatre, for a challenge. The Beatles used to play songs from musicals because that’s how you got a better-paying gig in Liverpool, but actually it explains a lot of the richness in their songwriting. And McCartney has said this, they were eager students of the American Songbook, lots of material that had come from musical theatre, [Stephen] Sondheim – they knew all these chords, so I think it’ll pay off in song writing terms enormously. It’s been a real education for us.
Has it been a painful experience?
I have to say my respect for Broadway is gone through the roof. It’s a difficult thing to make people who are sitting only ten yards from you believe in magic, but if you can, the theatre is still a place of wonder. There have been comedic moments. It would be like you, Olaf, saying, “I’d like to get into some boxing” – and the next thing you find yourself in Madison Square Garden at the world’s biggest pay-per-view and Mike Tyson is sitting in the other corner (laughs). And you’re like, Edge and myself would be looking at each other and thinking, “How did this happen?”. You can’t imagine if you’re not living in New York what it’s like, because the theatre in Broadway means so much to the city and every taxi driver’s talking about it, every second Saturday Night Live there’s talk of it, every talk show, Jimmy Fallon, it’s New York Times, it’s New York Post, everyone’s on Twitter about the cast (laughs). It’s just been a wild ride.
I was asking you earlier about the album, and you still haven’t given me a release date.
Oh right. I think next fall. I mean as always, it’ll be ready when it’s finished, although I never feel like a U2 album ever gets finished, we sort of finish the songs live. But when it’s nearly finished, we’ll release it. And that will probably be next fall. We want to get it right. I mean, look, why would anyone want another U2 album? Lots of people have them, why would they want another one? It just better be really great, and the reason we didn’t put out Songs Of Ascent was we felt that the next thing that people need to hear from U2 is not an art project, that it has a rock ‘n’ roll heart, even if it’s not rock ‘n’ roll music. It has the songs, you play them live. I’ll tell you what I will do, I’d love to play them for you. Actually, we got a call from Chris Martin, and I’m very fond of Chris Martin, I really enjoy his company. He rang me and he said, (imitating Martin’s voice) “I’ve an idea. Why don’t you just take all the best songs you’ve got from all the four albums and just put them out in one? One album, that would be great, wouldn’t it?” (laughs). And it sounds sensible, and it would be the right thing to do, but it’s just not the way we are. Actually, I was then speaking to him the other night about Glastonbury and I said, “Have you any suggestions?” And he said, “Yeah, play all your B-sides!” (laughs). He says, “We’re on the night after so play all your B-sides.”