- 20 Mar 01
Journalist NEIL McCORMICK was a schoolmate of BONO when U2 were taking baby steps. Over the past 25 years their paths have frequently crossed, inevitably in rather more exotic circumstances than a classroom. As another year draws to a close, they meet up again: the result is an unusually intimate portrait of a man who came not to save the world but to serenade it. Plus: a close-up look at some of the most striking songs on All That You Can t Leave Behind
If only life were that simple.
Bono may be determined not to let his conscience get in the way of having of a good time, 3yet it is apparent that for he and his colleagues in U2, rock stardom is a complicated business in which the freedom success has brought them is counterbalanced by responsibility. Their political activism and commitment to good causes (notably Amnesty International and Greenpeace) has been a constant feature of a career spanning the final two turbulent decades of the last century.
But while U2 s idealism has never been in doubt, their singer s consuming involvement with Jubilee 2000 has become an increasingly contentious issue within the band, the demands on Bono s time effectively delaying the completion of their new album. Finally released to considerable acclaim at the end of October, All That You Can t Leave Behind was originally scheduled for autumn 1999.
It s only a year late, shrugs Bono, with a comically sheepish grin. Having just double parked his vintage Mercedes outside the Clarence Hotel in Dublin, he hands the car keys to a doorman and secures us a quiet corner of the bar. I have some influence here, he declares. Looking trim, healthy and considerably less weary than when last I saw him, Bono is in ebullient form, clearly relishing his return to the rock frontline. I feel like I ve been wearing a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase, he says. Now I ve found my voice again, and it s an amazing feeling.
When Bono speaks of finding his voice, he means it both figuratively and literally. For while he was out talking himself hoarse on behalf of the Third World, he was also avoiding confronting his own worst demons in the recording booth. Few outside his closest circle will have been aware, but the man regularly acclaimed as one of the world s greatest rock singers has been concerned about his voice for several years, beset by constant throat problems and a nagging feeling he could no longer hit the heights of yore.
I ve never really felt like a singer, he admits, displaying uncharacteristic vulnerability. It was always difficult for me to hear my voice on the radio. It felt tight, constricted. But at least I always had it live. But I was having a lot of difficulty on the last tour. Everyone was saying it was my lifestyle, on the phone all the time, never going to bed, smoking, drinking too much, so I was making changes but I was just not able to really get there.
He consulted specialists and even found himself contemplating having to give up the career he loved until his anxieties were assuaged by the discovery that his problems stemmed from allergies. It was very hard for me to accept, he admits. It seemed more of a Woody Allen kind of condition. By making dietary changes, cutting down his drinking and giving up smoking (admittedly information he imparts over two pints of Guinness, a shot of Jack Daniels and half a cigarette), he has been rewarded with what feels to him like a new lease of life. Indeed, the first thing you notice about U2 s 11th album is that Bono is really singing up a storm. His voice has certainly worn with age but his command of it has never been better. There are notes I haven t sung for years and years, he declares with satisfaction.
The relief he felt manifested itself in other significant ways. If you think you may not be able to sing again, well you re not going to fuck around. The record was made with a certain kind of boldness, he insists. Notorious for leaving lyrics to the last minute, a habit that has contributed to U2 s reputation for highly stressful recording sessions, this time he reveals he found it easy to write. I was looking for intimacies and conversational kind of stuff. I said to myself going in: this is no time for poetry, in the arch sense of that word. No time for smart arse. People are busy, the beginning of a new century, it s like: what s on your mind, what s in your heart, and what have you got in your soul that might make a difference in a day?
Edge, drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton appear to have been in equally positive and productive form. All That You Can t Leave Behind is an album of big songs on which U2 really play to their strengths. Inventive guitars, anthemic choruses, powerhouse rhythms and an abundance of addictive hooks underpin an uplifting collection on which almost every track sounds like a potential hit single. When we finished Pop, I remember Larry saying to me you know, we actually should make a pop album , laughs Bono. I love experimentation and innovation and drifting out into the ether but it s when you bring the results back and turn them into a crystal of four minutes, a little gem that s heard on the radio in Birmingham and Tokyo, that s the moment for me.
The subject matter, however, is hardly the usual trivia of the hit parade. Themes such as mortality, suicide, sacrifice, illness, mid-life crisis, terrorism and religious disillusionment are eloquently tackled on an album that counterbalances the music s inherent joyousness with an undercurrent of righteous anger.
If you think you could lose it all then colours come into sharp focus for you, people become really important, according to Bono. But I am not in any way at peace. I still think the world is a really unfair and often wicked place and beauty is a consolation prize. And it s not enough for me. It just isn t. There s always been a kind of rage in me and it does still bubble up.
It is early evening, and Bono stands in Dublin s wharfside studio complex, head tipped to one side. Do you hear that? he asks. From somewhere in the distance, a strange, fluid, electronic wailing rises, dips and curls as the Edge continues to explore his lifelong fascination with guitar sounds. Twenty-five years I ve had to listen to that, worming its way through my ear and crawling around my brain. Twenty-five years! And one day I m just going to snap! Bono stares, bug-eyed, psychotic, then lets out a hearty laugh.
It is, indeed, a quarter of a century since I first saw this same line-up playing the Bay City Rollers Bye Bye Baby in the Mount Temple school gymnasium (and no, Larry, I still don t think you were being ironic ). While precious few bands have maintained careers of comparable longevity, the continued allegiance of these four old school friends to one another seems less unusual when viewed in the wider context of their acknowledged leader s life. Married to his school sweetheart, Ali, Bono s closest confidantes remain friends from his early youth (notably the dynamic duo of Gavin Friday and Guggi). And yet there are times when it seems like Bono knows just about everyone worth knowing on the planet. Over the years he has cropped up in photographic embraces with politicians and pop stars, movie legends and supermodels, and had his praises sung by everyone from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair, Bob Dylan to Salman Rushdie.
I m a very loyal and unreliable friend, Bono laughs. First off, I ve got to be there for my family, so I lose people along the way. But I seem to find them again. I m a stray dog. I ve always slept on people s floors and eaten at other people s tables. So as we wander around the world now I just keep re-meeting old faces.
I ve known Bono a long time and people often ask me has he changed. Well, we have all changed but in essence he remains the same. Always a bit of a star even in the school corridor, he seems to have expanded to fill the larger than life dimensions his global fame demands, yet he retains about him the same appealing and very human mixture of bravado and sensitivity, playfulness and passion.
I think I m getting back to where I started, muses Bono. You know, when you take people s photographs, even some of the most beautiful faces can turn ugly in front of the camera. People can be ruined by self-consciousness. And I think that s true in a wider sense. When you re in the limelight, when people are staring at you, I think maybe you can lose your beauty. Just finding my feet on very unfamiliar territory kinda knocked the fun out of me a little bit, though maybe not as much as it looked like in the photos! But I think in the nineties I found a kind of mischief that people would associate with me from when we were growing up.
U2 s crusading idealism saddled them with a somewhat humourless reputation in the eighties. Rock stardom was wasted on us, as Bono jokes. In the nineties, as the perspective of their lyrics shifted from throwing stones at the darkness of the world outside to examining the darkness within the human heart ( There is nothing seamier than your own plans made in the dead of night, Bono suggests), the group knowingly overhauled their image.
We got quite good at being rock stars even if it was only play acting, he reflects. But, you know, the leather pants stuck and it was hard to get those goggles off because I found there was a certain freedom in letting people down and getting rid of all that moral baggage. I think that we successfully chopped down the Joshua Tree. And there was a lot of laughter amongst the carnage.
Yet, despite appearing in Vogue with naked supermodels, touring the world on a set dominated by a giant lemon and posing for photos as a kind of post-modern caricature rock band, I would venture that there remains a lingering perception of U2 as a bunch of idealistic goody-goody s.
I wonder if that s a compliment? speculates Bono. I d love to think that there was a nagging element to the music. Because all that other stuff is pure packaging. People talk about irony, but that was an amazing piece of disinformation. We were putting on a show. It was fun, but there isn t a shred of irony on any of those records. We ve always meant it.
Bono s mother died when he was 14 years old, something which he has long recognised as a defining moment in his life. It had the effect of pushing him in two directions at once: towards the emotional exorcism offered by rock music and the spiritual solace to be found in Christianity. In some ways, his whole career might be viewed as an ongoing attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of his faith and his vocation. Although he will ruminate intensely on religious subjects in private, he has always been reluctant to say too much in interviews, lest he be perceived as some kind of evangelist. The belief that there is love and logic at the heart of the universe is a big influence on me, he admits. It s a big subject. If there is no God, it s serious. If there is a God, it s even more serious!
It is this profound commitment to Christian ideals (which he shares with Mullen and Edge) that fuels his political activism.
You re not allowed to write off the rest of the world, you just can t, he declares with genuine conviction. And I can say that when I m walking around Capitol Hill or Westminster. I can say if 19,000 children were dying every day in New York or Washington or London you d call it a holocaust, but because it s Chad and Tanzania and Mozambique you don t even call it a crisis. Well, you re not allowed that, sir! Because aren t you a Baptist? You re not allowed that, madam, aren t you a Catholic? I can really fucking arm wrestle these people on that one, but I also have to arm wrestle myself.
Although Bono had promised his band mates that he would curtail his commitments to Jubilee 2000, less than a month before the new album s release he was still making trips to Washington to bend the ears of congressmen blocking debt relief. In between the building of hospitals and schools and the commitment to cancel a hundred billion dollars in debt is a lot of red tape and bureaucracy, Bono explains. It s of Kafka-like proportions, everyone passing the buck and people hiding in the small print. And we re going after each one of them.
Bono s growing frustration with his role, however, is all too apparent. There must be people more qualified to do this than me, he insists. It is absurd if not obscene that celebrity is a door that such serious issues need to pass through before politicians take note. But there it is. Jubilee can t get into some of these offices and I can. But the idea has a kind of force of its own. I m just making it louder. And, you know, making noise is a job description really for a rock star.
Bono insists that he doesn t really want to be known as the man who saved the world. He would much rather be someone who serenades it.
I think pop music is the greatest. It s the most extraordinary thing. You read a book or see a film once, maybe twice, but you can keep coming back to songs forever. They re like pieces out of peoples lives. When people are screaming in some stadium or arena, they re not screaming at you, they re screaming at themselves and the moment that song represents.
I am reminded of a moment when I witnessed the astonishing power of song to unite people. It was after a U2 concert outside San Francisco in 1997, when Noel and Liam Gallagher shared a minibus back to the city with Bono and the Edge. Noel was pressed next to Bono, clutching the singer s knee, as he babbled with excitement about the concert and enthused about U2 songs he admired. And then, with startling synchronicity, the minibus radio, tuned to a late night station, began to play U2 s hit, One .
This is the greatest song ever written! yelled Noel. And he and Liam begin to sing it at the top of their voices. Swept away by the brothers exuberance, Bono and Edge joined in. And as we rolled down a San Francisco highway, long after midnight, four of the world s greatest rock stars raised their voices in an impassioned, impromptu rendition of a song of unity and brotherly love. We are one, they sang, but we re not the same, we ve got to carry each other, carry each other...
As I recall, we wound up in some drinking establishment owned by one of Bono s many friends, with the U2 singer clambering onto the bar to deliver an operatic aria. Many hours later, he rounded up the stragglers to go and watch the sun rise over the Golden Gate bridge.
I m having the best time of anyone I know, says Bono, chuckling at the memory. You re not supposed to have it both ways, I understand that. But I ve been really lucky, I ve been able to live a life, the family s grown up and it s been fun and music and of course sadness and heartache and the only thing I can put up my hand and say is at least I did this. I didn t miss it, do you know what I mean? I think that s probably my special talent. If it s going, I m on that train.
Bono On "All That You Can't Leave Behind"
All That You Can't Leave Behind has been widely acclaimed as a classic U2 album, enjoying favourable comparison with Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. If anything it lacks some of the sonic adventurism of previous U2 outings, as if you are putting all your faith in the actual power of the song.
BONO: "I've heard it said that songs and smells are two things that people really can't forget. So we've made an album of smelly songs! (Laughs) It's like, how hip can you be when you've been around this long? Are we really stepping up to whatever DJ is at the turntable this week? Of course we're going to have fun with the landscape of where the song sits, but we're not going up against the latest grooves or atmospheres, we're going up against 'A Bridge Over Troubled Water and we've got our work cut out!"
The title of the album suggests it is concerned with taking stock of the things that are most precious in life. The theme of mortality runs through a lot of the songs.
"Mortality that's every song. We should have called the album Immortal Combat. In your twenties you think you're immortal. I certainly thought I was. You jump out of windows and you drive too fast, you take all the risks and end up on your feet. But certainly in your thirties I think you just become aware of mortality. When you have a baby, I think that's probably it. There's this sense that now you are outgoing, this is incoming."
There's a quality of philosophical acceptance of mortality, though. There is no fear of death in the lyrics.
"No, there's not. It feels fearless to me, the album. The opening line of 'Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of' is 'I'm not afraid of anything in this world'. A pop song starts with that, you have to back it up. That was written for a friend of mine who committed suicide, and it's an argument with him. But it's sort of a declaration of your own position: it's got that attitude of, you know, when your jaw sticks out, like you do before a row. It's like somebody's in a stupor and you're trying to wake them up, 'cause the cops are coming, and they're sitting at the wheel and you're trying to get them out of the car cause they're gonna crash it. I wondered why the first verse was so first person? Why was it about me when I was writing a song about a mate? And I realised it was a defence because I felt so guilty. The original opening line was 'I'm not afraid of anything in this world/But when I see what it's done to you, then I'm scared'. Imagine making pop music out of all this! (Laughs). There's a thing!"
There is a sense of leave taking and making farewells in many of the songs. And it strikes me that you have had close relationships with quite a lot of people who have passed away in recent years .... not that I'm blaming you of course!
"I do have a fascination with older people. People who are coming to the end of their life. Because I think you get that kind of 'fuck off' factor. There's a certain authority that age gives you. And in the scriptures, the giving of a blessing from an old man was a big deal. It was Jacob who put the pig s skin on his arms to pretend he was his father's favourite son who was hairy and got the blessing from the blind man which is actually an amazing story 'cause the blessing stuck! (Laughs) That is mind blowing to me, the idea that God stood by it even though the blessing had been given out under false pretences. So if there's a blessing going, I don't wanna miss it!
Whether it s Frank Sinatra, Alan Ginsberg, Roy Lichtenstein, lots of people, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, I've met them in the end of their days. I've always been in the queue. (Laughs) It's like helping the old lady across the road. I'm out there just in case! I'm really helping myself to the blessing!"
There's some very heavy songs.
"'Peace On Earth' is so heavy. Just calling a song Peace on Earth is like mud pie, right? You just wanna know where that guy parks his car (laughs). I'd wanna give somebody a slap for that! So it has to be a great song. It's a very bitter pill to swallow and it was written literally on the day the Omagh bomb went off, right then. Nobody could actually believe it. In Ireland, on the six o'clock news, when they read out the names of all the people who died the city came to a complete standstill. People were just weeping in cars, on O'Connell Street, all over the place. It was really a trauma for most people. Because not only was it the destruction of the lives it was a destruction of the peace process, which had been put together with sticky tape and glue and tacks and a lot of faith. It seemed it was destroyed. It would be hard to describe to people who were not Irish what that felt like that day. It was certainly the lowest day in my life, outside of personal losses. I couldn't believe it, that people could do that. At that time. That Christmas, the whole 'peace on earth, goodwill to all men' struck a sour note. It was very hard to be a believer that Christmas. In the song, they are real names of victims of the bomb but I also tried to bring it back to Cedarwood Road and growing up and my own violence, remembering all of that. There's a vanity in there: 'they say what you mock will overtake you/and you become a monster so the monster won't break you'. I put in a couple of my own aphorisms as if they are out there! (laughs) It's a terrible cheat as a writer but I'd love to get one of them off, you know? 'Oh yeah, they do say that, don't they?' No!"
There is one line that really irritates me on the album. It's in 'New York', when you sing I just bought a place in New York! and I'm thinking 'typical fucking rock star!'
"I was gonna change the line to something less consumerist but why I left it in was I had just got a place in New York! (Laughs) And it kinda made me smile. Even though the song is not autobiographical. OK, now you're thinking 'the bastard's got a nice place on Central Park' but the character of the song it could be a shoe box, you don't know! In fact, the song originally ended with a free-form conversation about Frank Sinatra and I had to take it out 'cause I think it became self conscious: now it was me talking and then the apartment suddenly got turned into a penthouse and it became a Bono song about mid-life crisis. But it's a true story. I was at dinner once with Frank and he took a blue paper napkin from the table, he was just staring at it, and he said, to no one in particular, I remember when my eyes were this blue . He put it and kept it in an inside pocket. It was very cool."
The song deals very eloquently with a mid-life crisis with intimations of an affair that has broken up a family... but you say it s not autobiographical.
"If anything I'm at the other end of that. I'm trying to calm down. I had a mid-life crisis much earlier, about age 27, for all the classic reasons. I just went downtown Los Angeles, drank a lot of whiskey and made up for all the years pushing a rock up the hill. Or a rock band up the hill! I got quite good at being silly and that in a way prepared us for the silliness of the nineties, which I've thoroughly enjoyed!"
Are you always honest in interviews?
"Ehm... (long pause)... I'm as honest as I can be in talking about songs but I'm really honest when I'm singing them. And that's all I can say (laughs)!"