- 16 Mar 20
33 years ago today, U2 released 'With Or Without You' – the lead single from their acclaimed album, The Joshua Tree. The single became the band's first No.1 hit in the US, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. To celebrate, we're revisiting our classic 1987 interview with the four members of U2.
It took the combined force of Hot Press' Editor Niall Stokes and U2 journalist extraordinaire Bill Graham to thrash it out with the four members of U2 back in 1987 to uncover the method and the magic behind their seminal album The Joshua Tree.
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If you’re a decade older than U2 and recall their earliest steps - including that first chaotic demo session, a live half-hour take that was literally out of control, time and tune - your emotions mix justified Irish pride with an almost absurd sense of deja vu. You pinch yourself very hard. Have the fresh-faced makers of "Boy" really matured into such influential men, rock potentates on a scale we humbly refused to dream of then?
U2 remain familiar figures on the Dublin landscape, etched in familiar cameos: Adam drinking across from you in a Dublin nightclub, Larry slipping into the shadows to view some unknown local band, the Edge shopping with his pregnant wife Aisling on the street opposite the Hot Press office, or Bono swopping tall tales with an elderly working-man in his local bar.
Unlike earlier generations of Irish artists, U2 have resolutely refused to decamp to London, Paris or New York. Perhaps that's why we have yet to fully come to terms with the special nature of U2's appeal - or with the dawning realization that the torch has been passed to them as the lone remaining band of their generation to breathe new life into old rock ceremonies and revive abandoned dreams. It's much easier to call across the bar and ask Adam to pass the cigarettes.
Once, writing about the United States, Bono was pained about being a "Stranger In A Strange Land" but by now U2 are familiar figures in the Promised Land. And this provides much of the focus for their new and sometimes tempestuous offering "The Joshua Tree". While a song like "Red Hill Mining Town" is specifically about the trials and tribulations visited on working class people in the British miners' strike, the album as a whole represents the American side of U2's collective personality. And underpinning that musical emphasis, lyrically "The Joshua Tree" traverses an ethical and emotional journey across many different Americas.
Previous British rock tourists have made albums of their US sketch-books but this one is different. There's an unmistakable Irish tinge on "The Joshua Tree" that frees it of the condescension and detachment which so often characterises the UK rock perspective on the United States and its people. The Irish don't view America like the Brits. For one, the continuous tide of emigration by generations of Irish has created its own intimacies.
Equally, a natural evolution can be traced between the still vibrant Irish folk tradition and the original musical sources back of country. Indeed U2's own early and enthusiastic courting of an American audience - an attitude which contrasted sharply with the often defensive superiority of British bands of the same generation - had its own natural cultural roots. At bottom is a feeling of empathy and respect - not for American institutions but for the people of a vast and many-faceted continent.
This long-standing and mutual love affair has recently been shadowed by a new ambivalence on the Irish side. Remembering our centuries of suppression by Britain, we instinctively side with the underdog Nicaraguan government against the White House's destabilizing plans. In another small and vulnerable nation, Washington's Central American policies have touched a raw nerve. Released against the sordid backdrop of Irangate, "The Joshua Tree" is about articulating the sense of outrage which America's unique combination of arrogance and apathy inspires from an Irish pespective. But it is about more than that.
In a world where power is abused on a colossal scale and people are trampled into the dust without compunction by political and economic masters who have lost all sense of human dignity, U2 have sought and found the ultimate symbol of triumph over adversity. "The Joshua 'Tree" is about the belief that you cannot kill the human spirit. Arid it is about the final spark of optimism, that in spite of the arid wasteland of contemporary power politics, something beautiful and enduring can be forged out of human commitment and idealism in action.
"The Joshua Tree" is about refusing to lie down in the desert, to wait for the vultures to come and pick on our collective bones. It's about power in the darkness...
Not surprisingly it stands out like a beacon against the backdrop of musical murk which characterises rock'n'roll in the fate eighties.
In the restroom of U2's new rehearsal premises, an abandoned warehouse a mile from the band's Dublin Windmill Lane Studio headquarters, Larry Mullen patiently scans a tape to decipher the lyrics of a song U2 just might cover on their forthcoming world tour. His concentration isn't surprising but the object of his attention, AI Green's version of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", is.
Certainly such a soulful choice might have been deemed uncharacteristic of U2 in the past - but then, besides U2's artistic principles, they also have a mischievous habit of confounding expectations. After all, they've been boxed in before. In late '80 when U2 released their debut album, "Boy", many them in with Liverpool groups, The Teardrop Explodes and Echo And The Bunnymen as part of that year's neo-psychedelic movement. Later, after their third album, "War", they were slotted beside fellow-Celts, Simple Minds, Big Country, The Alarm and the more wilful Waterboys, as crusaders for an anthemic "Big Music". But by now, it's become transparent that U2 owe allegiance only to their own stylistic creed.
After "War", they resolutely broke loose. Following the final Dublin date and triumphant homecoming of that album's tour, Bono spoke symbolically of "breaking up the band" and starting afresh to re-invent U2 with the same four members. They refused to record any "Son Of War" -style sequel. The Stateside stadium pickings might have been tempting for an emergent group with an already intense following but U2 chose to enlist Brian Eno and his sorcerer's assistant, Daniel Lanois, to craft a new direction, the dreamscape that was "The Unforgettable Fire". They weren't to be trapped as a guitar anthem band.
"The Joshua Tree" is a further shift in the pattern. Bono has jokingly cast himself as the "American" of U2 and the Edge as the "European" but, though such polarities may be artificial in such a tightly-knit group, this graphic album's musical and lyrical preoccupation with so many conflicting American ways contrasts vastly with its more impressionistic predecessor.
Thus, the immaculate conception of "People Get Ready" as a cover. It might not surface. At the end of a tiring rehearsal day, U2 were rather listlessly toying with the song but, nonetheless, its selection is an indicator of how they're finally closing in on soul. "The Joshua Tree" may contain its critiques of American policy but this Janus-faced album also draws on abiding American musics for its most positive values, as U2 display the abundant resources they have, by now, amassed.
It is also the U2 album to date that most palpably acknowledges that there was musical life before '76. Formed in the slip-stream of punk, U2's four members were like any independent teenagers of those years, fixated by the likes of Television, Patti Smith and The Ramones but distrusting such as The Rolling Stones as the play-things of an older generation. Yet Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are crucial to this story. The fathers proved they had much to teach their disputatious sons.
Bono calls it "The Night Of The Long Knives". With his wife Ali, he'd spent a month in Ethiopia, both working as volunteers for World Vision on an educational relief project -a visit he now only shyly and reluctantly discusses - and he'd immediately travelled to New York to add his vocals to the Artists Against Apartheid "Sun City" record. Then Peter Wolf took him off to meet The Stones.
In a New York studio, Mick and Keith were casually running through some old blues standards for their personal entertainment and they inquired if Bono had any songs or party-pieces of his own. He didn't. Instead without the Edge, Larry or Adam to assist, he suddenly felt musically naked and embarrassed. But undeterred and inspired as if by an implicit challenge, he retired to his hotel bedroom for a sleepless night, writing the ghostly and chilling "Silver And Gold" in some seizure of spontaneous creative combustion.
The experience hastened a reassessment. To young blood groups of U2's generation, the blues pardonably meant long hair bar bands filling up the Dublin dates they hungered for. Bono doesn't hide the fact that U2 inherited a skewed tradition. Already interested in gospel, he knew he must now finally check the blues, dredging the record collection of artist friend Charlie Whisker (also, incidentally, the hearse-driver in the ominous stovepipe hat featured on the Clannad "In A Lifetime" video). Those new insights and the prodding of friends like T-Bone Burnett and newly arrived Dublin resident, Waterboy Mike Scott, hardened his and the other members' convictions about the inadequacies of U2's previous songs.
"The music had to serve the songs," the Edge says of their new strategy and though the guitarist was initially hesitant about Bono's latest enthusiasm, as if it might capsize the band, they righted the ship as the Edge sailed in with his own incandescent contributions, notably to "Bullet The Blue Sky" and "Exit", that last track only routined and recorded on the final day of work on the album.
Of course, U2 weren't foolishly trying to recreate the doubtful glories of the British Blues Boom. Though there are hints in the guitar playing, in Bono's use of the harmonica and most obviously in "I Still Haven't Found", the new influences worked as a trace element, a presiding spirit beckoning them to simplify and focus their approach.
And though robust in spirit, "The Joshua Tree" doesn't shirk bleaker personal issues, partially reflecting a year when U2 shipped some heavy blows in Ireland. First and most crushingly Bono's PA, the personable New Zealand Maori, Greg Carroll, to whose memory the superb "One Tree Hill" is dedicated, died in a motor-bike accident when he crashed into an unlighted car. Then there was Self Aid, when U2 fell foul of our talent for selective criticism.
Every reputable Irish recording act still in business - from Van Morrison, Bob Geldof, and Rory Gallagher across to Paul Brady, De Danann, Moving Hearts and Christy Moore shared the bill on the day - but it was U2 who were singled out for a personally abusive cover and editorial in In Dublin which charged them with liberal hypocrisy. It was a grossly off balance and unfair attack, and it hurt, particularly since U2 had donated proceeds from their last Irish concert to the construction of the fledgling City Centre Arts building. U2 have made their commitment to their own environment manifest in very concrete, practical terms.
In the event what U2 delivered at Self Aid was the blackest and most ferocious set of their entire career, the highlight a sinister, gut-churning "Maggie's Farm" with a twist in its tail for the green tide of emigrants bound to work - or to look for work - in Maggie Thatcher's Britain. No longer could the band be put down, even by their most mean-spirited detractors, as purveyors of a soft-centred, blindly optimistic version of reality.
The controversy passed over like a summer squall. Besides, U2 lost no loyalty from their Irish legions. But it contains a paradox: that a band about to embark on the crusading "Conspiracy Of Hope" tour, should be so suspected by anyone in their homeland. Now, Bono gets angry if he's called a liberal.
It's a mark of the change that's come over U2 these past two years. It's also a measure of their growing maturity and depth. "The Joshua Tree" is both their most ambitious album and their most troubled. With a new emphasis on the poetic power of language, U2 place less reliance on faith. They are less buoyant in their celebration. Rather with "The Joshua Tree", they are asking questions of themselves and of their audience which might not have seemed within their scope until recently. There are no easy answers.
Hot Press: Can you explain the motivation behind the making of the album?
Edge: As with much U2 work, it's 'reactionary' in a sense. Whereas "War" was a reaction to the weak, placid music, we saw everywhere, I think this was, in a funny way, our reaction to "The Unforgettable Fire". We had experimented a lot in its making and done quite revolutionary things for us, like "Elvis Presley In America" and "4th Of July". We felt on this record that maybe, options were not such a good thing, that limitation might be very positive. So we decided to work within the limitations of the song as a starting-point. Let's actually write songs. We just wanted to leave the record less vague, openended, atmospheric and impressionistic. Make it more straightforward, focussed and concise.
Bono, before you went to New York for the "Sun City" sessions, had you any prior notion of what the new record would be like?
Bono: Before I went away the album I had in the back of my head is the album we've yet to make. It has been put aside for this. You see, I was starting to write songs and it was almost like I felt U2 can't do these songs. Like, U2 can't do blues or gospel. So I thought to myself, why can't U2 do these things? I started to see U2 in some strait-jacket we should break out from.
How did the other three respond to these new angles?
Bono: Adam has always been the roots man in the operation. On tour, it'll always be reggae, Aswad or Black Uhuru blasting out of his hotel room. Larry's more interested in the songs and simple structures. It's speak up or shut up. Write a song, three chords, say what you have to say. So he liked the directness of blues and something like "Trip Through Your Wires".
And the Edge?
Bono: (Pause) ... How can I put this?... (Further pause)... Early on, Edge was less taken with it but later, he really came through when he saw that the songs were good. Put it this way: Edge didn't own a copy of "Blood On The Tracks". Edge's collection still started in '76 at the New Beginning. His interest was in European groups like Can and music back to Eno. So this was opening a new world or (laughs) a new can of worms. And yet the spontaneity of this new kind of music really excited him.
There's this idea of yourself as the American and him as the European.
Bono: Yeah and Ireland's right in the middle. There's a tension between the two but it's the right kind of tension. And it's funny because at the end of the record, I was arguing for the more atmospheric songs and he was going for the rock'n'roll. We'd swopped places somewhere along the way, much to our amusement.
Edge: We approached arranging and producing each song like it was unique. We just hoped the album would have a sonic cohesiveness based on the idea that we were playing it. There was definitely a strong direction but equally we were prepared to sacrifice some continuity to get the rewards of following each song to a conclusion. I hate comparisons - but like The Beatles at their height, in terms of unusual production techniques, we wanted to do what was right for the song.
Adam: I think we've come up songs where there was a whole process of music inspiring lyrics and lyrics then feeding back on the music and the whole thing becoming intense. And we found that because Bono had enough time to produce lyrics that really did work, it was much more satisfying.
Bono: I used to think that writing words was old-fashioned, so I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone. For "The Joshua Tree", I felt the time had come to write words that meant something, out of my experience.
To what extent did writing a bleaker album reflect personal experiences?
Edge: Well, there's still hope... I think this record's bleak because that's what we're seeing but there's also that positive side to it.
Bono: You could say this is forbidden ground for U2 because we're the 'optimistic' group. But to be an optimist, you mustn't be blind or deaf to the world around you. "Running To Stand Still" is based on a real story while "Exit", I don't even know what the act is in that song. Some see it as a murder, others a suicide - and I don't mind. But the rhythm of the words is nearly as important in conveying the state of mind... If I can be objective and of course I can't, the album's real strength is that though you travel through deep tunnels and bleak landscapes, there's a joy at the heart of it.
How then did Greg Carroll's death affect you - being confronted with something tragic, completely outside the band's control?
Adam: For me, it inspired the awareness that there are more important things than rock'n'roll. That your family, your friends, and indeed, the other members of the band - you don't know how much time you've got with them. I'd rather go home early than stay up all night mixing a track.
Bono: (quietly) I feel the same.
Adam: For a long time, we did deny those simple things that give you pleasure, to keep the band going. Seeing your brothers, sisters, wives, children.
Bono: The emphasis among family and friends, when we had a number one record and were a big band, is how much you've got and I'm not talking about money. Not how much you've lost. The sense of loss came home through losing Greg Carroll. But the sense of loss has continued - I feel it even now, having made a record and not seen friends and family for the last three months and now, not being able to see them again because of the tour and so on. Because U2 work on everything. Like Larry is working his butt off on the merchandising, making sure the t-shirts - and this might sound insignificant - are made out of cotton and at an affordable price. So we're sitting on all these things. For the first time, I'm beginning to see the value of being irresponsible, of not giving a shit. Because giving a shit costs a lot. That's serious.
To dwell on the positive side, how does somebody from New Zealand get involved with an Irish band?
Bono: To do him justice, you can't talk about him the way we felt. We met him in Auckland and there are five volcanic islands which make up Auckland and the tallest is One Tree Hill. And my first night in New Zealand, Greg took me to One Tree Hill. He'd worked around the music and media scene and Paul McGuinness thought this guy's so smart, we can't leave him here, let's take him with us to Australia. He'd been doing front of house for the promoter... Greg Carroll's funeral was beyond belief. He was buried in his tribal homeland as a Maori, by the chiefs and elders. And there was a three day and three night wake and your head could be completely turned around and ours were again and again.
Regarding two other tracks, "With Or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" - there was a time when U2 wouldn't have been remotely considered a dance band.
Edge: We never thought about that side. They used to say about U2 that we had an anti-dance stance, music to fall over to - which I thought was funny. I remember in an American club on an early tour, Bono, after a few bevvies was persuaded to go on the floor and the DJ put on "Out Of Control" and not only did everybody leave the floor but he couldn't dance to it either.
A track like "Bullet The Blue Sky" is of interest in the context of how heavy metal has become so stylised. Late Sixties hard rock was much freer. How do you think a contemporary HM fan would take it?
Edge: It's an idiom reminiscent of an earlier era of rock but I don't think it's metal. When Jimi Hendrix was playing, it meant so much more than the post-blues yawn when guitar players rehashed something that once potent and became a total cliche. My background is much more Tom Verlaine and John McGeoch but, in this case I thought there should be no limitations. I wasn't going to hem myself in because it might be controversial.
Bono, how have your attitudes to singing changed?
Bono: For those years when I didn't really know if there was a place in rock for U2, or whether I wanted a place in U2, I think I was quite uptight. Sometimes people saw in the songs a self righteousness because I was like the scared rat in the corner who attacks. As I worked out where we wanted to be, I loosened up and loosening up, discovered other voices. I became interested in singing - whereas before if it was in tune and in the right time, that was enough. And this is the same guy who was thrown out of U2 in 1977 because he couldn't sing! I find it hard to listen to the first three records because of my singing.
There's now a greater sensuality, which relates to the maturing of U2.
Bono: Yeah, you just stretch it out and realise a whisper can be louder than a scream. You learn that there's a time for letting go and a time for holding back.
To what extent does that come from being more at home with yourself?
Bono: I suppose I'm happy to be unhappy. Anyone who really knows me knows that, as they say, I'm never going to be at peace with my pipe (laughs).
How does this process of personal maturation relate to the artistic vision of U2?
Bono: We grew in an odd way as people. From 18 or 19, we were pushing the van to Killarney and then on a bus in America and then it's a plane to Australia and Japan. And we were completely occupied with things spiritual. After "Boy", the next two albums were almost made in our spare time. We weren't even sure we wanted to be in a band. So we were interested in growing on spiritual levels but actually quite retarded on other levels.
And even musically: our musical life began again with "Unforgettable Fire". It wasn't even a priority. I think we must own up to that. For two years, we were writing songs and going to the studio for "October" and "War" but that wasn't where we were at. We came through that and we realised we are musicians and we want to be in this band, U2.
Edge: And after this album, I'm more interested in playing guitar than I have been for the last three years. I'm having to learn because I've forgotten how a bit, honestly.
On a personal level, do you get annoyed by the newspaper gossip that celebrity seems automatically to bring? The local papers seem to be searching for you in every nightclub in town.
Bono: My father, who I love very much, is one of these guys who believes what he reads. He'll say to me: I hear you were throwing your weight around in some record store when they hadn't what you wanted and you were telling them you were Bono and they'd better have it. And I was laughing, wondering where this one had come from. So I sort of told him off and said: 'Da, you cannot believe what you read.' Then one night we were talking and he said: 'Yes, you can't believe what you read. I'll tell you a funny thing I read and even I didn't believe it. Apparently some fella's going around saying you own a hearse and you were driving around Donegal in it.' (Laughs). Fact and fiction just get blurred in a city like this. (Bono does indeed own a hearse, which he drove in the Clannad video)
Adam: You just can't fight it. It just gets worse and it's going to happen much more in the next year or so.
Bono: I live in Bray but the people in Bray are protective about myself and Ali. They don't bother us. But we get hassled by people from abroad, calling to the house. Some of it is okay but it's also a place where, as Ali likes to put it, she lives also. She says: 'I don't want you watching me put the washing on the line.' I've got to back her up. I don't mind inviting people into the house but I've got to honour her. But we get some amazing things. I remember a whole party of French people who applauded me outside the door. I'd just got out of bed and (laughs) I said: 'No thank you, I'm the wrong guy.'
I don't know how this will sound - but there was this one girl in the bushes. She was Italian, 18, very beautiful, sitting there in the flowers. And she said: 'I just wanted to come to Dublin and meet U2 before I die.' And I thought: 'they always come up with a good angle but this really is a good one.' I didn't know whether to laugh, just in case. So I talked to her, didn't take it too seriously and went off. But the next day, two BMWs came along and out came these Italian men in designer suits with flowers and flowers, presenting them to me because we had looked after this man's daughter who had some incurable illness. And that was almost shocking. How could I live up to that responsibility? God Almighty. I just can't come to terms with that. The bottom line is that music means a lot but what they haven't separated is the music from the musician. Because the musicians are only ordinary people. It's the music which is extraordinary if you like.
Adam: There's a weird process which I've just begun to understand. Particularly when you get the letters from 15 year olds. And they're asking questions as if you're the second line of defence for their heads. They've become disillusioned with their parents and they think their teachers are assholes now.
Bono: And they haven't yet found out we're assholes (laughs).
But the pressure of celebrity - is it more than you can cope with?
Bono: It's one of my feelings that if you're around Dublin long enough, people just won't even notice. I love this city. I love it and I hate it and I love it and and I hate it. What I hate is to see how much they have destroyed Dublin - to see them pulling down the buildings. The closest I carne to throwing a large brick through the window in the last two years was outside the Royal Hibernian Way. I had to be dragged away. I mean, the rage I feel inside me when I see the pill-boxes they have planted outside Christchurch Cathedral. Well Larry just says to me: 'Come on, when you're worried about the way a city looks like, you know you're okay.' You know, there's a lot of people out there who can't afford to worry about what the city looks like.
At Live Aid, when Bono scrambled off the stage, you must have thought: jaysus, what's he up to?
Adam: If you don't like it, you put down your instruments and walk off stage. That's your choice (laughter).
Bono: Live Aid could've been a classic example of shooting ourselves in the foot. I was as high as a kite after Live Aid because, you know, Linda McCartney kissed me. And I was sharing a microphone with Paul McCartney! But when I got home and watched a video of Live Aid, I was so desperate and depressed. I really believed I had made a big mistake. I couldn't sleep. And I drove down the South East and I met a sculptor who was actually making a bronze piece which was meant to be the Spirit of live Aid, a naked figure and it was called The Leap. I talked with him and he said he'd called it The Leap because I had left the stage and this image connected with him. The figure wasn't me. It was meant to be the whole spirit of it. But I felt, if he understood what I was trying to do and he was a man in his late fifties, outside of rock'n'roll... But there's no question about it, I'm not doing that again. And I still don't understand why I did it.
What were the emotions you felt when you were going on stage at Self Aid?
Bono: That's a bit of a can of worms, isn't it?
Adam: Humble, I guess.
Bono: There was a very interesting reaction afterwards. The people who believe in U2 are very ordinary people, working-class people. The only flak we get for being in a privileged position is from the middle-class. I felt how can I write a song about being unemployed when I am fully employed, how can I stand on stage at an unemployed benefit when I know U2 are not short of cash?
But one guy came up to me afterwards and said: 'I'm really pissed off about what you said on stage.' And I said what do you mean? And he said: 'You said you don't know what it's like to be unemployed. We didn't want to hear that - because we know you know what it's like, even if you don't.' It was amazing, the last thing I expected to hear. And then I heard all these stories about people singing "Maggie's Farm" on the dole queue on the Monday morning, which I found funny. I don't know whether they were slagging us off or just enjoying the song.
There was a blackness to that performance which marked it out from the rest of your live work.
Bono: There's a side to U2 in Ireland, where the mammies and daddies are proud that U2 are an Irish group doing well in America - like Barry McGuigan. And there is a sense too that maybe some politicians had pigeonholed us like (mimics rural hack's insincere sing-song accent), 'there's U2 now, a good example of young people. Playing their music' - when getting off their lazy backsides is what they really mean. And I just wanted to say: Look Mister. Because I knew there'd be certain politicians watching the programme and I didn't want to let them off the book. Because the truth of it was that a lot of people were on the hook because of their policies. I just wanted to be that anger. I allowed that anger to be a part of the performance.
How did you feel about the political impact of the "Sun City" project? It seemed to start strongly but then fizzled out somewhat.
Adam: I'm sure the actual success of the record was politically interfered with. There were a lot of radio stations that wouldn't play it because of advertisers. In certain places, it wasn't released. But I think it's part of a movement that began with Live Aid.
Bono: Many people don't know it but the Dunnes Stores Strikers actually sang on that record. In the background. If not quite in tune, certainly close to it!
Were you happier with the practical impact of the Amnesty International "Conspiracy Of Hope" tour?
Bono: Well, Amnesty doubled their membership in America. But the best news I had all year was a letter from one of the U2 fanzines telling me that all over America now they're setting up these U2 clubs. But they're not exclusive to U2. They're also an appreciation of Peter Gabriel, The Waterboys and groups that, for whatever reason, they've linked together. And I was looking at this U2 fan club poster and it had an entrance fee of 3 dollars. At first, I felt - what's this about, charging to hear U2 records? But then I discovered this money was going to Third World concerns. And that, all over America, they had set tip these clubs where they listen to U2 records and actually write cards for Amnesty. And if you can inspire something on that small scale, that's just everything I could ever ask for. All, in fact, I would ask for.
Where do you think you'd be now if U2 weren't formed?
Bono: Hmmm, that's an interesting one. God almighty. Whoo, Get me another beer!
Adam: I think Dublin wouldn't have contained you. I think you would have been off somewhere.
Bono: I don't know. To be honest, U2 saved my life in a way because I a unemployable. There's nothing else I can do.
There was a time when you talked about a streak of delinquency there.
Bono: Not I think I would have imploded, as distinct from exploding in my musical life. I mean I worked as a petrol pump attendant. Can you imagine me as a petrol pump attendant?
You've seen people who were friends turning to drugs as one sort of escape route - as people in Dublin have done in increasing numbers recently. Would that ever have been a possibility?
Bono: I really understand the attraction ... I don't come from the viewpoint of someone who is completely unsympathetic to drug users. I understood it then and I understand it even more now because of, for instance, being onstage for two hours and then not being able to sleep for six or seven or eight hours.
What was the impact personally of seeing people going through the ordeal of drug abuse?
Bono: Ah, I wrote the song, didn't I? I just wrote "Bad".
The point is Dublin is rife with a particular problem which people have to come to grips with in their personal lives. To understand the background to the song might help people.
Adam: In its simplest form, I've always seen heroin as a very evil thing. Consequently that's always inspired a great fear of it in me so I can assume that anyone who takes it has a similar fear. To actually have their back so much against the wall, to be controlled by it, is something I can't understand. I haven't been that close to the edge. I've certainly been near it a few times in one way or another but to imagine that next stage is pretty much impossible.
Bono: (referring to "Running To Stand Still") I heard of a couple both of whom were addicted and such was their addiction that they had no money, no rent, so that the guy risked it all on a run. All of it. He went and smuggled into Dublin a serious quantity of heroin strapped to his body so that there was on one hand, life imprisonment, on the other hand, riches. Apart from the morality of that, what interested me was what put him in that place. (Quotes the lyric) "You know I took the poison from the poison stream/Then I floated out of here. " Because for a lot of people, there are no physical doors open anymore. And so if you can't change the world you're living in, seeing through different eyes is the only alternative. And heroin gives you heroin eyes to see the world with; and the thing about heroin is that you think that's the way it really is. That the old you, who worries about paying the rent, the old you who just worries, is not the real you.
How did you feel about losing Phil Lynott?
Bono: A thing that really bothers me personally is that for two years, myself and Ali lived in Howth, on the same road as Phil, in a little cottage that we rented at the time. And I would see him everywhere else but on that street. Every time I saw him, he'd say 'Why don't you come down for dinner? You know, you have to come down for a bite.' And I would say 'you have to come up for a bite. You have to drop up.' Every single time. And I never did call down and he never did call up. That's what came back to me. I never did call up.
Sexually, U2 have a very clean image. How have you reacted to gender-bending pop and glam rock games?
Bono: I am interested in that aspect of sexuality. When I look at my lyrics, I'm obsessed with borders, be they political, sexual or spiritual. It's not a subject I've broached yet but I wouldn't rule it out. I'm also interested about the New Victorian era because of AIDS. I know a lot of homosexual men and most of them I get on with. Some overtly camp men I don't get on with.
But it all comes down to love. How can anyone attack love? That doesn't specifically condemn or condone homosexuality or any kind of sexuality. I could never attack love.
Sexuality was and is traditionally associated with rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. But how does it relate to U2's idea of subversion?
Bono: I think there's nothing more radical or revolutionary than two people loving each other because it's so hard to do it and to keep those feelings going. In a sense, U2 are owning up to those feelings and emotions that have been swept under the carpet of rock'n'roll in favour of these cartoon things.
Edge: One thing about the gay question is that in America, gay rights and gay liberation has suddenly been put back ten years because AIDS has suddenly become an excuse for anti-gay feelings. I think that's a very unfortunate development.
You were in Nicaragua during the year. What do you remember most about it?
Bono: The funny thing about it was Somoza's house, the house of this great ugly dictator. I was expecting a palatial residence but it was all falling down - and they just left it falling down. Then the theatre, the arts centre in Managua, is bombed out and they left it bombed out and just placed the stage in the middle of a gutted building. People come through holes in the wall to watch the plays and they leave it there as a testament to the earthquake. So you sit in this bombed out building watching a performance and somebody like Daniel Ortega comes in and it's no big deal. I said to somebody: this is the sexiest revolution I ever saw, you know the women in their khaki greens, they've got smiles stuck on their faces. They're not at all malevolent like the troops in Salvador...
They must be finding it hard to keep smiling in the face of the US blockade.
Bono: The spirit of the people in Nicaragua is being beaten down. They've no food, they've no supplies and I was actually at a rally of Daniel Ortega's and just the look in the people's eyes, they wanted so much to believe in their revolution. People think with their pockets a lot of the time and you can't blame them for it, women trying to bring up children and fellas with no work. It's just very sad to see the stranglehold America has on Central America in practice. When you go into a restaurant and they give you a menu, there's 15 items on the menu and they don't tell you at first they've only got one. You have to ask 14 times before they tell you, no, we just have rice.
But now you're about to tour America, Reagan's America.
Edge: It's a very different America from the one we've seen over the last couple of years. People were so behind everything Ronald Reagan stood for but now I think when we go back, we'll be seeing a broken country in a sense. Either that or people refusing to look - which is a more frightening prospect. I've been talking to some Americans since Irangate. People's faith in the Administration, and therefore their faith in politics generally, is shattered.
Bono: I believe you. I really believe in America. I really believe in Americans, I should say.
Edge: There's the America of Ronald Reagan but there's also the America of Bobby Kennedy, of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
Bono: And of Werner Von Braun. I mean, there's a right-wing vein running through America at the moment and it's made of steel and with all the will in the world, it seems almost impossible to break or bend that. It lies dormant for maybe a few years and it comes out with its cold steely grip on America. Dick Gregory, for instance - there's no question in his mind but that Lenny Bruce was escorted to death's door by this right-wing America. There's no doubt in his mind that Martin Luther King was escorted to the same door. He's a conspiracy theorist, he believes that heroin was introduced to white America only when white America began to wake up and speak out in the early Sixties on campus. I'm not a conspiracy theorist but there is no question: there is this iron hand.
Edge: Whether it's official or riot.
Bono: Well, the paper-clip conspiracy - it's quite clear now that America became a haven for nearly 300 Nazis and war criminals. That Nazis helped to put the first man on the moon is now a fact. But, that said, I still believe in Americans. I think they're a very open People. It's their openness that leads them to trust a man as dangerous as Ronald Reagan. They want to believe he's a good guy. They, want to believe that he's in the cavalry, coming to rescue America's reputation after the Seventies. But he was only an actor. It was only a movie. I think the picture's ended now and Americans are leaving the cinema feeling a little down in the mouth.
Edge: David Lee Roth should be the next President. He'd scare the shit out of the Russians, (laughs).
From here, you wonder just how much, or how little, many Americans know about what their government's doing.
Bono: Just give me the truth. I always think of that line: just give me the truth. Because in America, the media is so important in deciding what is and what isn't the truth ... I must say I'm still really, stuck with my memory of our first trip to the US. We were just so wide-eyed. We really embraced America and indeed America embraced us. And over the last few years we've had to re-evaluate our impression of America because of that fact that we walk onto a stage every night. When we're in America playing to 20,000 people and that's a lot of people, we have to ask ourselves the question: what can rock'n'roll music do? Go round in circles? But I think on this record there are questions asked, if riot answered, about America.
Edge: Awkward questions.
Bono: And insofar as we are Irishmen, on one level we have no duty to speak out against America or bite the hand that feeds us, as they would say. And I think we have bitten the hand that feeds us but we do so from a position that, as I say, we have belief in Americans. We're not anti-Americans or anti-America, we're anti-Ameri-kay. It's still a thrill to be there. I mean, America is the promised land for a lot of Irish people. It really is.
Adam: And I suppose there's a serious sort of Irish influence in America, when you think of the family links.
Bono: Try the Kennedys. The Kennedys made poteen. I mean they were bootleggers in the days of prohibition. I'm sure there was some potato wine involved there (laughs).
But is there some real hope of penetrating, of denting, the apathy?
Bono: Well, I think, first of all, it's not your first reason for being on stage, to effect change in the political climate of a country. I don't know what the first reason is but it's not the first reason. But I like to think that U2 have already contributed to a turnaround in thinking.
Edge: And if we have, it's not even the point, is it really? You don't write a song because you think it's going to change somebody. You write a song because that's the way you feel.
Adam: You write a song because something hurts. I mean if you look at social change within America, that came from the Delta areas, the plantations or wherever. A lot of the change in America is rooted in blues music; that was what people listened to. It was the protest music of the time.
Bono: I don't think it's up to bands to have their politics and point of view worked out. I don't think it's up to me as a singer to have answers. I just think it's important that you put questions. I don't know of a rock'n'roll band that ever offered up answers and I think it's wrong for pop-stars to be politicians. I like the idea of Jim Morrison who called the Doors "erotic politicians" (laughs). I thought that was kind of funny. Because you're put in a position where, because you have made music that means something to people, your politics or point of view is given far too much importance. What comes to mind is Elvis Presley who meets with Nixon and he's made an anti-drug marshall - and the man is loaded, out of his brains, with the badge on. I've said it before: Elvis Presley's genius was the way he held the microphone, the way he sang into it.
You know, Bill, there's a question I'd be interested in asking you. People expect that if you don't come through with a very strong point of view that you're therefore a liberal and personally I share with everyone - it seems everyone else in my generation - an apathy with regard to Irish party politics. The questions I ask are deeper than that. But why are there only these three choices in Ireland, left and right and middle?
Or middle, middle, and middle.
Bono: Yeah in this country, it's middle, middle and middle or right, right and right, depending on your point of view. I ask myself why I have to make a choice, left and right. I wonder how ideologies born at the turn of the century can ever be hoped to apply to the 1980s. Reaganomics or Thatcher's England - they reflect old, old ideologies. Old ideologies on the left, old ideologies on the right and if you don't like either of them, you're supposed to be a liberal. And I don't like the liberal point of view - least of all... I just picked up your review, Bill, this idea of U2 enjoying the middle ground.
Hold on, I didn't write "enjoying"…
Bono: Well, we might sit on the fence politically at times, and because, for instance, there's a picture of myself and Garret Fitzgerald in the paper, people think maybe my politics are the same as his party. But I've stressed that my interest in him is much more as a man than in his party or their politics. What's the alternative? I don't know what the alternative is in Ireland. Ireland seems politically so absurd, that the main parties have all the same policies and the Labour Party which is my own background - my Dad voted Labour most of the time and I would generally vote Labour - yet if we go by the elections, the Labour party doesn't mean anything at this point. I just look around and I see grey.
The term "liberalism" isn't necessarily a word of rebuke. It's more a word of description.
Bono: It is to me... I don't feel liberal at all and I don't think anyone who knows me would call me liberal.
Obviously, there's a question of what one means by liberal.
Bono: I know. It's just that I'm more interested in the man as opposed to men, one man as opposed to a crowd of men. And that explains the spiritual side of my writing because I think in a funny way the country almost gets the party it deserves, that it has choices... I know I had a row with Paul Weller about that at Band Aid - about the old argument that it's the system. I just don't go: "It's the system." I think men choose the system they live under in our age...
But if the choice is so absurd, where do you turn?
Bono: It's just that I suppose I'm more interested in what you might call a revolution of love. I believe that if you want to start a revolution you better start a revolution in your own home and your own way of thinking and of relating to the men and women around you. I'm trying to come to terms with global ideas like Live Aid, Artists Against Apartheid, Amnesty International and the "Conspiracy Of Hope" tour. These ideas are great ideas. We believe in and belong to them yet, for me, the future lies in small scale activity. For instance, commitment to a community, like U2 are committed to Dublin, commitment to the people in your place of work, commitment to relationships and the ones you love. I find that the people often with the big ideas and the big mouths, you know - it's like the old story that Lennon beat his wife...
Stalin probably did! (laughs).
Bono: Okay, Stalin probably did beat his wife and definitely other people's wives and their husbands. And let's say that's when I start these questions, the more fundamental questions, those big black and white issues I'm more interested in as I get older.
I told you in a nightclub about a year ago I was sick of being reasonable. I learnt to come out as an unreasonable man (laughs). I know what you're getting at and I know what other people are going to get at. "Red Hill Mining Town" is a song about the miners' strike and the only reference to lan McGregor (The British Coal Board Chairman) is "through hand of steel and heart of stone/our labour day is came and gone. "People beat me with a stick for that but what I'm interested in is, seeing in the newspapers or on television that another thousand people have lost their jobs. Now what you don't read about is that those people go home and they have families and they're trying to bring up children. And those relationships broke up under the pressure of the miners' strike. Those men and women lost pride in themselves and that affects their sex lives, literally... (quotes again)... "the glass is cut, the bottle run dry, our love runs cold in the cabins in the night/We're wounded by fear, injured in doubt/I can lose myself but you I can't live without/Cos you keep me holding on." I’m more interested in the relationship at this point in time because I feel other people are more qualified to comment on the miners' strike. That enraged me - but I feel more qualified to write about relationships because I understand them more than what it's like to work in a pit.
Both water images and the notion of surrender stand out very strongly in the lyrics.
Bono: I used what I thought were very classical and therefore accessible images and symbols. Almost biblical. Really simple things, so that whatever culture you come from, they mean something.
What's the implication of the notion of surrender?
Bono: Surrender is not what it used to be.
What is it?
Bono: In "With Or Without You" when it says "and you give yourself away and you give yourself away" -everybody else in the group knows what that means. It's about how I feel in U2 at times - exposed. I know the group think I'm exposed and the group feel that I give myself away. And funny enough, Lou Reed said to me, 'what you’ve got is a real gift: don't give it away because people might not place upon it the right value.' And I think that if l do any damage to the group, it's that I'm too open. For instance, in an interview, I don't hold the cards there and play the right one because I either have to do it or not do it. That's why I'm not going to do many interviews this year. Because there's a cost to my personal life and a cost to the group as well.
But there is a spiritual value about giving yourself, your ego, away?
Bono: That goes back to the song "Surrender". I always believed in the Biblical idea that unless the seed dies, is almost crushed into the ground, it won't bear fruit. Again Lou Reed was telling me how he grew up in the 50's when machismo was a way of life and you did not give yourself away, in fact the opposite, and he said he found the fifties idea of Cool a real strait-jacket in his life.
Why is it that you've become more closely linked with figures from the previous rock era than most if not all the bands from your generation?
Bono: Well, this boy from Ballymun was actually on tour with Lou Reed and he used to stand every night on the side of the stage and watch U2. He seems to care so much about U2 and I learned so much from him. And one night, I said to him (adopts conspiratorial whisper) "Berlin's my favourite album" and he said "It's mine too." He thinks it's the only one he got right. But it's true: we're attracted to people like Frank Barcalona who brought The Beatles and The Who to the States and Chris Blackwell who was there with Bob Marley. Our record collection began in 1976. We weren't there when rock'n'roll began. So we're attracted to people who have the perspective we don't have. Like Pete Townshend is a guy you can ring up.
Larry: Why don't you give everyone his telephone number? (general laughter).