- 20 Nov 19
15 years ago today, U2 were at the top of the UK singles chart with 'Vertigo'. The single also reached No.1 in Ireland, Italy, Denmark and Spain, and went on to win three Grammy Awards. To celebrate, we're revisiting Stuart Clark's 2004 interview with Bono, ahead of the release of U2's 11th studio album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
Paul McGuinness’ house, just outside Annamoe in the Wicklow mountains, on a gorgeous autumnal afternoon in November. Sunday lunch is over and some of the guests have begun to head back to the city. The rest are repairing to the sitting room for a preview of the new album from the biggest rock band in the world.
Dave Fanning is here, as well as Gerry Ryan, from 2FM. Edna Gunderson is in town to do a story for USA Today, accompanied by Lori Earl from Interscope Records. Susan Hunter from Principle Management, Ali Hewson, Moira Ryan, Dave Fanning’s partner Ursula Courtney, Mairin Sheehy from hotpress and McGuinness himself make up the rest of the party.
Oh, and there’s your man. He’s been entertaining the guests before and during dinner, trying – where possible – to throw his arms around the world. Looking at the photo of himself in the Sunday Times with a white as well as a black iPOD over his eyes and wondering where that came from. (“Why would they do that? I didn’t have a picture taken holding a white iPOD,” he says. “We’ll have to find out what that’s all about!”). Sitting the lovely Mariella Frostrup of The Observer, in Dublin to promote her new book, on his knee. Regaling the even lovelier Robert O’Byrne with anecdotes. It’s what comes naturally. But when all of that preamble is done, and the record is pressed into the CD player, well, the singer in the wraparound shades really comes into his own.
It is one of Bono’s most endearing qualities. When a new U2 record is ready to roll, he is more than ready to roll with it. He exudes a level of passion and enthusiasm for what has just been created – with his name prominently attached – that’s utterly and uniquely him.
“Already, ‘Vertigo’ is U2’s biggest ever record on US radio,” he shouts over the huge opening riffs of the first single from the album. Even if you hadn’t predicted it, there’s no mistaking why. The chord changes, in what is also the opening track on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, are gloriously, triumphantly, gorgeously right. “Here’s the bit from ‘Out Of Control’,” he signals.The noise needs no further elucidation. It’s a monster of Zeppelin-esque proportions, shot through with U2 magic.
As the playback progresses, Bono is like a man possessed. He takes you through the songs like an especially expressive conductor, in charge of a wild and wonderful orchestra.
“Now listen to this,” he says. “Every album has to have an outlandish couplet and this is it…”
We push on to ‘A Man And A Woman’ and he makes like a magician about to pull off his ultimate party piece, a conjuring trick to end all conjuring tricks.
“Wait till you hear this,” he yells again. “No one would know it, but I’m about to show you where this song came from – where it was stolen from. I’m going to sing it in a Phil Lynott voice and you’ll get it. This is Thin Lizzy. Listen.”
The languorous guitar strum and Latinised feel of ‘A Man And A Woman’ pour from the speakers. Bono starts singing. Through his nose, just a little bit, and in a Dublin accent. It’s fucking Philo. And you recognise the antecedents of the song, you see them perfectly. Caramba!
“People won’t see where it comes from. They won’t get it. But that’s it. It’s Thin Lizzy.” And he goes back into character, in a way that is both funny and lovely and moving. The original Dublin rocker’s presence fills the room. And a wonderfully beautiful song about “the mysterious distance between a man and a woman” – how come no one ever expressed that idea so perfectly before? – becomes even more mysterious and beautiful in the re-telling.
“It’s a song for adults, for people who have been together for a long time and who are still together,” he reflects.
There is an extent to which, as he conducts those privileged enough to be within listening distance through How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, he is like a barker from a carnival, drumming up business. Or a song and dance man, who knows that his livelihood depends on how people respond to his – or rather to U2’s – latest creation.
Asked about the influence of The Boomtown Rats on U2 once, he said, “Bob Geldof made a salesman out of me.” Today Bono is in salesman mode. Except, and this is the thing, that he does it better and more winningly and more entertainingly than just about anyone else in the world.
There’s another couplet that he wants to share with you.
“Listen to this, wait, wait, listen to this,” he says as the music builds. And then he sings along. Rising over the sound system, you hear that voice, deep in its power to move and to convince, singing the lyrics of one of his latest meisterworks, to a room of ten people – lyrics that will resonate soon for crowds of sixty thousand and more...
There is such joy in this. There is such conviction. There is such pride in the new work. He stands up and paces the room. We’re near the end of the album now. He spreads his arms and gesticulates. “Yahwey,” he sings, at the top of his voice and from the bottom of his heart. It isn’t so much the song that gives your heart an uncontrollable lift, but the melody and the way it rises and falls.
“Yahwe–e–ey,” he sings and that lift – “Yahwe–e–ey” – takes you higher. And higher. It lifts you up. It fills you to the brim, Jim.
And, it might be an illusion – in fact you know it is an illusion – but in that moment, in that perfect moment, it seems that everything is going to be alright.
This is the note it ends on, and everyone agrees that it’s time to head back to Dublin.
“We’re going to stop in the Roundwood Inn for a last drink,” Bono announces. “Are you coming?”
Trying to throw his arms around the world indeed…
Forget the musical whys and socio-political wherefores. All you need to know for now about U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is that it sounded fucking great last night when I was doing the Dysoning.
“If you can’t hoover, iron or wash-up to a record, it’s not worth releasing,” Bono says solemnly, as we sit down with a cup of coffee in the room beneath their main Hanover Quay studio. Acoustically dampened floors or not, there’s no mistaking the sound of Edge’s guitar clanging around from elsewhere in the building, as he gets some extra practice in, ahead of today’s full band rehearsal. 14 million Americans are going to be watching this weekend when U2 appear on Saturday Night Live – and if there are any bum notes, well, they won’t be coming from him!
“If you think he’s loud now, wait ‘til we’ve been on the road a few months,” his bandmate grimaces. “He’s having his amps put up to ‘12’ because ‘11’ isn’t loud enough anymore. I often think Edge would’ve been happier if he was in Metallica. The only trouble is the hair – or rather lack of...”
Bono grins that familiar mischievous grin before getting down to the serious business on today’s agenda. There’s precisely a week to go until U2’s eleventh studio album makes it into the shops and, Spinal Tap-related grumbles aside, their singer has the determined look of a man who’s ready to leave the safety of the trenches and do battle.
“How we justify the life we’ve been given is to not make crap albums,” Bono ruminates. “I always say you need 11 or 12 very good reasons to leave your friends and family and go on tour, and we have them on this album. As a band, you could trade off the older songs, and we can stand by so many of them – but the real hit for me is discovering what we’re still capable of.”
On that score, the long-awaited and much anticipated How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb will leave no one in any doubt. U2 have mastered the art of delivering big songs like nobody else in the business. For confirmation, cop an earful of ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’, an emotionally charged response from Bono to the death in August 2003 of his father Bob, that’s one of the album’s stand-out cuts. The pain and confusion are palpable as the bereaved son tells his Dad: “We fight all the time/You and I…that’s alright/We’re the same soul/I don’t need…I don’t need to hear you say/That if we weren’t so alike/You’d like me a whole lot more.”
Even long-distance, dealing with the loss of a parent can be extremely difficult. Paul McCartney told hotpress recently that all of 36 years after the death of his mother, he still finds ‘Let It Be’ almost too painful to sing. With the memory of those sad final days still so fresh, how does Bono think he’ll cope with performing ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’ – a song that’s just made for the stadium treatment – night after night on tour?
“I don’t know. It overpowered me once on CD:UK when we were playing in front of the most beautiful bunch of 16, 17, 18-year-olds. And Cat Deeley, who I used to babysit. She was a very good girl and never woke up once…no, I’m joking! But I was amazed at the song’s ability to draw me back to where it was written.”
Was writing it a reflex action, or did he mull over every word?
“No, I never mull over every word, which is one of the reasons for the uneven set of lyrics. For me, there’s something about the moment when you put the first mark on the canvas – you don’t want to overwork it. The paintings I love are the ones where you can see the first brushstroke. It doesn’t have to be the most inspired to begin with; it just has to add up to something inspiring in the end.”
Our relationships with our parents are often complex – and can sometimes be difficult. Bono was close to his father at the end, but it wasn’t always like that. And there was a distance there, it emerges, at least where U2’s music was concerned. At what point did his Dad get to hear the band’s previous albums and tell his son what he thought of them?
“He never talked about any of the music,” is the almost whispered reply. “Oh, I do remember he liked ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Not the album but the song. He thought we were getting quite good around the time of Rattle & Hum – ‘When Love Comes To Town’ was a bit of a favourite.”
But just when they seemed to have gained a new fan, they lost him. “He didn’t know where we were going in the ‘90s!” Bono says. That he might well have come around again to How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb – with its return to emotional directness and its hints of early records like Boy and The Unforgettable Fire – is left unsaid…
Assembled over a marathon 18-month period – “We spend a lot of time mixing the ink, and very little making the picture!” – How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’s eight-man production team comprised Steve Lillywhite, Chris Thomas, Jacknife Lee, Nellee Hooper, Flood, Daniel Lanois, Carl Glanville and Brian Eno. You might, as a result, expect an album that is wildly diverse in its styles and moods, but that’s not the way it panned out. In a sense, it’s a tribute to just how strongly U2 imprint their own vision on a record, no matter who’s taking charge of production.
Talking after the first few sessions, Bono had dubbed it “Edge’s record”. Is that the way it remained?
“It started out as Edge’s album, yes,” he reflects, “but at some point Larry and Adam wrestled it off him and it’s become very much a band record. But it was Edge’s in the beginning – and he finished strongly too. He has a lot of stamina (laughs)!”
There were stories that Bono had been a bad boy, delaying the making of the record with his extra-curricular activities, and getting up a few producers’ noses in the process. Is it true that Eno threw a right wobbler when Bono broke his “no mobiles” rule to take a call from The Pope?
“Brian is a jealous guard of his own time let alone the band’s, and there was a lot of trouble about the time the Drop The Debt campaign was taking here,” he admits. “But our albums are better when my contribution to them is in concentrated doses. I like the creative pitch to be at a higher-level than other people. But when it turns to plumbing, as we call it, or nuclear physics, I’m out of here. I don’t feel as if I’m hyperactive or speeding – it’s everybody else that’s going in slow motion! Edge’s creative pulse is so Zen you can hardly hear it. He makes less noise than me and there’s less damage to the people and buildings around him.”
Another song on the album that immediately stands out is the Noel Gallagher-inspired ‘One Step Closer’, a beautiful lyric about the inescapable nature of doubt.
“He’s on a pint of Guinness and a packet of crisps for coming up with the title,” Bono laughs. “We were discussing my father’s mixed feelings about his religion and his lack of surety about where he was going – there was drink involved! – and Noel said fairly earnestly, ‘Well, he’s one step closer to knowing, isn’t he?’ Referring to the fact, of course, that my Dad had recently passed away.”
Good friends they may be, but I suspect that Noel’s going to give Bono a right earbashing for his “Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are the Lennon-McCartney of politics” rhetoric at the British Labour Party conference in Brighton.
“He had a soft spot for Tony early on! That’s the quote that’s been passed around, but what I actually said is, ‘They are the Lennon-McCartney of geopolitics’. In terms of turning around the relationship between the developed world and Africa, they’re right at the centre of that paradigm shift.”
Faced with his evident command of the facts and figures, anyone who takes a sceptical view of Bono’s pronouncements on this topic is going to find it a very difficult position to sustain.
“After Thatcher left, the UK was down where the Americans are now, at less than 0.2% GDP, in their contribution to the poorest of the poor,” he expands. “When Blair leaves they’ll be on their way to the commitment they’ve made for 2011, which is 0.7%. That’s three times the amount of spending that happened under Maggie, so they deserved the compliment. It wasn’t, however, meant as an endorsement of their war in Iraq or some other Labour Party policies that I mightn’t like.”
Given that it’s the overriding issue of the day, and especially given U2’s track record of dealing with human rights issues in general, it’s surprising that nowhere on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is there any mention of the Iraq War or of the iniquities of American foreign policy under the current administration.
“I very much sat down to address it, hence the title,” Bono reflects. “It’s worth reminding ourselves of those days after 9/11, and what they felt like. At no other point in history had there been a sense that people would commit that sort of mass murder as a terrorist act. You’d had mass murder before in Hiroshima as part of a fully declared war – which I don’t think is any excuse, by the way – but no one knew whether we were going to wake up and a quarter of London, maybe Kilburn, would be gone.
“That’s no excuse for prosecuting a war in Iraq, but it puts it all into context. Because – apart from what happened in Madrid – we haven’t had that same level of atrocity in Europe. We may have forgotten the fear and paranoia that was going around at that time. Of course I was going to address this, and yet the opposite came out.
“I told Thom Yorke two years ago, ‘I know what the album’s about and what it’s going to be called, which is How To Build An Atomic Bomb’. That was the original title because the toothpaste was out of the tube. There was an article in the G2 section of The Guardian with two college students discussing how easy it is to get your hands on this kind of weaponry.”
Attention gained, as is his wont, Bono set about making himself an expert on the subject.
“A private arms company in the US has developed this GPS-guided system made out of papier-mache and plastic, which for less than a million dollars can fly 2,500 miles with anything you want attached to it,” he resumes. “Somebody asked their CEO, ‘Are you not worried about these getting into terrorist hands?’ to which he replied, ‘We’ve offered them to the Pentagon if they’re prepared to buy in bulk, but the knowledge to make these things exists everywhere. We’re just packaging it commercially’.
“How long more is Tony Blair going to live in Number 10, how long is George Bush going to live in The White House, how long is Jacques Chirac going to live in the Elysses when you can let one of these things off from your back-garden? At a moment like this, I shouldn’t order coffee but instead put on Bob Marley (starts singing): ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds/Have no fear of atomic energy’.”
There is, nonetheless, nothing on the new record as virulently hostile to US hegemony as ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’. Is this down to Bono now having to do business with George Bush and his aides?
“It’s a real question and one that I can honestly answer with a ‘No’. As I was trying to say earlier, the songs that you want and the songs that you get are often very different. I don’t really have much control over it – and if there are lyrics that offend some of the people I work with, so be it. ‘Crumbs From The Table’ is one of the most vicious songs ever. It’s full of spleen about the church and its refusal to hear God’s voice on the AIDS emergency.
“Whenever U2 gets specifically agitprop, the band here starts nodding off and Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois or Steve Lillywhite will start making people dance. ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ is like U2 doing The Bad Seeds, it’s biblical much moreso than it’s a polemic. We didn’t make those kind of anti-personnel type songs to suddenly stop. There are moments when I keep my opinions out of the press but not out of songs.”
So what does Bono make of what the Rev. Jesse Jackson said last week about troop movements through Shannon making Ireland a terrorist target? And how should we respond?
“Someone who’s paranoid, in my opinion, is a person in full possession of the facts!” he says enigmatically. “These are nervous times. After Bikini Atoll, after Mexico, after indeed Enola Gay was dropped in Japan, everything has changed – and the idea that the human race can destroy everything and remove all traces of itself is now in the air. What does it mean? Two things – you party hard and you hold on to your loved ones a little tighter. I kind of enjoy forgetting I’m in a band.”
U2 have rightly highlighted the dangers of Sellafield. Did they think of joining the protesters at Shannon, cutting holes in airport perimeter fences?
“If you’re against the war then, yes, on a point of principle you should oppose refuelling in Shannon. Whether you do that with wire-cutters or something else is a matter of personal choice.”
Whatever way you look at it, allowing troops and covert CIA operations to be routed through an Irish airport surely dispels any notions of this country being an honest broker.
“I’ve mixed feelings about neutrality,” he admits. “Not helping with the war in Iraq, fine, but not helping with the war against the Nazis, not fine. And that it’s worn as a badge of honour around here is not acceptable. Having it both ways, like we did with the IRA, is one of our less endearing national traits.”
Politics and religion being almost inextricable in the current phase of global unrest – its wonderfully inspiring melody notwithstanding – naming ‘Yahweh’ after the Hebrew word for “god” might well see Bono being accused of taking sides in the Arab-Israeli dispute.
“It just formed in my mouth, as a lot of U2 songs do,” he explains. “There’s the sound, and then trying to figure out what that sound is – and it was this word ‘Yahweh’. I played it to Jimmy Iovine of Interscope who loved it up until the point where I told him it’s the unspeakable word for God. And he said: ‘Call it ‘Mozza Balls’. Call it ‘Ali’. Call it anything but that!’
“To focus on your question, a delegation came to see me from the Middle East to talk about the fact that there’s no peace movement there. They asked would I give them a hand, and I said, ‘Look, I’m at the point where the world will find it projectile vomit-inducing if I attach my name to another worthy cause. There are also people in my own native country who’ll take it as their cue to brick and bottle me off the stage’.”
So he took a rain-check, more or less…
“The only idea I had,” he continues, “and one they’ll be pursuing, is a Festival Of Abraham, which will celebrate the three traditions that call Abraham their father. Out of that conversation there’s another project – to build a sort of cathedral of understanding in Europe, called the Eye Of Abraham, where Jews, Muslims and Christians can watch each other worship. The two very inspirational people who are heading up the initiative were opposing negotiators during the Oslo Peace Accord, but are now friends.”
As it happens, I spent a year living in Israel during the ‘80s, and the only word for how the Arab population was treated there is “apartheid”.
“The devil gets great value out of a family row where everybody’s a little bit in the right,” he reflects.
Does Bono envisage a time where he’ll go, “I’ve had enough of these political gobshites!” and pass the baton on to someone like Chris Martin?
“Coldplay are just extraordinary,” he enthuses. “They’ve pulled off in two albums what no other UK band has done in 20 years. And you have some kind of moral compass working there – which makes it a spectator sport, because you want to see how he’s going to negotiate his celebrity, and his songwriting prowess, and his sense that not everything is right with the world. He might have a loudhailer and want to use it.”
A lot of musicians go to great lengths to hide or to disguise their influences. U2, on the other hand, have always been inclined to tell people who they’ve been listening to in the build-up to an album. So what was on the studio stereo while How To Make An Atomic Bomb was being made?
“I’m not listening to the latest and greatest like I used to and want to do again,” he rues. “Something had to be really great to break through to me. Interpol’s first album was amazing and felt very familiar. The Thrills are astonishing and the second Devlins album is a beautiful mood piece. I admire the Queens Of The Stone Age’s directness. I enjoy The Strokes and it annoys me that people won’t allow bands to grow, over a few records, any more. It wasn’t all new stuff, though. I was going back to the Buzzcocks and Siouxsie & The Banshees, who both sound as fresh as ever.”
How accurate was the “Snow Patrol to tour with U2” story in hotpress a few weeks back?
“We’d love to take Snow Patrol out on the road,” Bono confirms. “There’s some beautiful singing and songs, and Jacknife Lee made as brilliant a job of their record as he did ours.”
It’s amusing. Ten years ago, sneering at U2 was almost a prerequisite of being in an indie band, whereas now you’ve got the likes of Interpol, The Killers and The Rapture proudly citing them as an influence. It’s a reversal about which you can tell Bono is rather tickled.
“We were never going to hit it off with a bunch of middle-class kids who were lying to themselves about their ambition,” he avers. “We were a bunch of middle-class kids who weren’t lying! The sound of wanting to get out of the ghetto, whatever ghetto that might be, is a very different one to the sound of wanting to stay in it. If you want a cottage industry, become a potter. We joined a rock ‘n’ roll band because we wanted to change the world and all that kind of megalomania.
“The same as The Beatles, the same as the Stones, the same as the Sex Pistols, the same as the Clash and – I won’t say Nirvana – but the same as Kurt did. You could already see him thinking, ‘Do I really have to play in a club all my life to be authentic? Can I have a glitter shirt? Tell you what, I’m going to put on some eye make-up today!’”
Never mind I-D or Dazed & Confused, Bono has his own method of keeping his finger on the fashion pulse.
“If you ever want to figure out what’s cool, you just have to look across the road at what the brothers are doing,” he proclaims. “Are the brothers playing tennis? Suddenly it’s okay to play tennis. Are the brothers playing golf? It’s okay to play golf. The brothers are what got all these people into singing and being in bands in the first place, and the brothers do not find it cool to be sitting there in your garret with your ear bleeding all over your canvas. They think that’s the height of un-cool!”
So can I take it that, any spare time they’ve had, has been spent at The K Club brushing up on their handicaps and sinking pink gins in the 19th Hole? Hmmm, not quite…
“Golf is not allowed in our band,” Bono chuckles, “although we sense Edge may have gone behind our backs. He’ll go on about Iggy Pop or Dennis Hopper or Jack Nicholson – people who he thinks are cool and play golf, but it’s not going to work with us!”
Bono has already acknowledged Franz Ferdinand as competition by saying that, at some point, U2 will need to have a fistfight with them. What was that all about?
“I was only talking about the guitar riffs,” he deadpans. “No, the songs are very good too. I hope they are competition because every time somebody comes around who can really give us a run for our money, they either set fire to themselves or cash-in their chips and go for the Chinese rugs and fish farm in the country.”
Talking of rugs, I hear that Adam is putting his collection of antique ones up for sale at Christie’s.
“He’s definitely downsizing! Adam’s the one that had all the rock star paraphernalia – the mansion, the rugs, the art collection. He did it better than anyone we know who is alive or working on their death imminently. I remember driving up to his country pile with Neil Young and his band, and one of the guys saying incredulously: ‘This is where the bass-player lives?’
“Adam’s always had impeccable taste – except in hair colour (laughs). He’s reached a place where he’s bored by that sort of privilege and is much more Buddhist in his approach to interior decorating.”
When U2 announced last month that they were putting their name to their own iPOD, it immediately added $2 billion to the Apple share price. It also sparked off a furious debate as to whether they’re indulging in clever cross-promotion or succumbing to the sort of greed that Paul McGuinness was referring to in 1986 when he said: “Deep in my heart I’m ashamed that there are artists who can make rock ‘n’ roll and then sell it to Philip Morris or Michelob or Nike.”
So how does Bono respond to the charge that’s been levelled in certain newspapers that the Apple deal represents some kind of sell-out? If you want to get him going, just ask!
“Selling-out? Try using that word on 50 Cent or Jay Z or Russell Simmons. This is such a white bread concept. Selling-out means doing something naff – or that you don’t believe in – for money. It’s embarrassing your fans for cash – and I hope we never do that. How cool is the iPOD? It’s a beautiful piece of technology. How cool is the commercial we’ve made with Apple?
“There’s part of me that likes a bit of a row,” he adds mischievously. “I loved turning a TV ad into a video and waiting to see if it started a kerfuffle.”
Well, it has done. But, where accusations of selling out – or indeed cashing in – are involved, he’s having none of it.
“Never in the history of making music has there been a more independent group than U2,” he says. “There’s never been a group that’s had less interference from their record company. There’s never been a group that has had more financial control over their destiny. We own our own master-tapes. We own our copyrights. We are completely in charge of the way our albums look, of our marketing campaigns…we’ve been doing it since we were 19! That’s what independence is.”
Bono’s started, so he’ll finish.
“There are a lot of preposterous ideas in and around the business of making music. We could start with street credibility if you want. The idea that some 19-year-old kid in drainpipes with the right kind of acne is going to be better than Prince…please! That’s just an example of the shit that we had to grow up with. Another is Indie vs. Corporate. What is that all about? We are in a corporation. Universal Music Group is a corporation. Before that we were in Polygram and BMG – these giant corporate behemoths, we were holding on to them by the tail and walking up their back and availing of their positions of power as a multinational. Radio, not just in America with Clear Channel, but all over the world is owned by corporations. MTV is owned by Viacom. It’s all corporations.”
One of the several reasons I have for disliking Radiohead is Thom Yorke harping on about how anti-corporate they are while happily letting EMI sell their new CD for twenty quid a pop. Bono disagrees.
“I have to say I’m the one who’s always mourning the lack of Radiohead on pop radio because I long to hear Thom Yorke’s voice and I long to hear a band as able as that up against, you know, Blue,” he insists. “I can’t blame Radiohead from pulling back from the fray. You have to have a stomach for it. It’s a lot to swallow, but not your pride and not your dignity. Just the amount of work and annoyance and negotiating the machine called pop music. Sometimes you want to just make a more private, personal document of your life. Whatever they want to do, I will work on their road crew. If they had a cellist, I’d carry the cello on my back. They can do whatever they want in my book and it’s alright with me. They’re that good.”
It’d be impossible to let the interview pass without mentioning the 100 Greatest Irish Albums, as voted by a huge panel of musicians, and published in the most recent edition of hotpress. How did U2 feel about having to make do with third place behind Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy? Is Bono seething that his counterparts went for Astral Weeks and Live & Dangerous ahead of The Joshua Tree – or will he do what John Kerry did and concede defeat gracefully?
“Would I have had Astral Weeks as my number one?” he muses. “Yeah. White man singing like a black guy, as everybody during the ‘60s was, but in a local, colloquial language that formed a new hybrid. It’s Van’s life up till then on one record, his map laid out for ever more.”
If he were allowed to break the rules and vote for himself, which U2 album would get his douze points?
“I prefer Achtung Baby, (which came in at number six) to (the third-placed) Joshua Tree, but I’m just pleased that there are still Irish musicians we haven’t pissed off and who are prepared to vote for us (laughs).”
He’s had 13 years to consider the merits of Achtung Baby, but how long will it be before he’s able to work out where How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb comes in the pantheon of great U2 albums?
“There are certain things you know at the time like how good the songwriting is, but you can’t tell what an album might mean to other people. You can only really tell what it might mean to you, and that is not always about the quality of the songs. There’s some weak songwriting on The Joshua Tree, but emotionally it’s overwhelming, so people have very big ties to it. It’s not about whether my songs are bigger than your songs – but if it were, this new album would be right at the top of the list!”
Along with it being dedicated to Bono’s dad, there’s the added sense of poignancy that comes from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb being the last album that U2 will get to record in their Hanover Quay headquarters. The compulsory purchase order having been issued, the band are waiting to hear when the new high-rise home they’ve been allocated by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority will be completed.
“Civic duty would suggest that we have to move, in order to make way for a park,” he says turning to look at The Liffey, “but tears will be shed over the fact that we’ve lived so many lives here. Both through our songs and the people who’ve helped us make them. There’s something magic in that there mud out the window!”
While one can understand Bono describing having to move as “a right pisser”, hopefully the development will be another example of Dublin getting over its post-headache and matching its EU counterparts in terms of planning, development and infrastructure. Which reminds me – has he been on the Luas yet?
“I love the Luas but, no, the closest I’ve come is having one nearly knock me down,” he reveals. “If I had to choose a method of rapid transport to be killed by, it would be the Luas.”
In my book a tram is a tram, but in Bono’s the Luas is a thing of virginal white splendour.
“The job of art is to chase ugliness away,” he says. “Let’s start with the streets. Cars are ugly. Busses are ugly. The Luas is beautiful!”
While we’re talking, I just thought I’d get a bit of gossip on the side for that wonderful organ, Hello magazine. Apparently, Bono received some lessons in bling recently when Jay Z and Beyoncé came to stay with him in Killiney. Well, I just had to find out more! The Hewson kids were delighted apparently, but how did the man himself get on with hip hop’s first couple?
“Really well,” Bono smiles. “The amazing thing about Jay Z is that he’s very comfortable, in a way that I relate to, with penthouse and pavement, highlife and lowlife. I think he’s an astonishing rapper, whose only challenger at the moment is 50 Cent.”
On a similar theme, most people who feature comprehensively in Bob Dylan’s autobiography would be straight down to Eason’s to find out what The Big Zim’s written about them – but not Bono.
“I’ve heard he talks about me introducing him to Daniel Lanois, but that’s it,” he admits. As it happens, following a thorough forensic examination of the book – memo to Bob: indexes and writing in chronological order are both good things – I can tell him exactly what his friend’s been saying about him:
“One night, Bono was over for dinner with some other friends. Spending time with Bono was like eating dinner on a train – feels like you’re moving, going somewhere. Bono’s got the soul of an ancient poet and you have to be careful around him. He can roar ‘til the earth shakes. He’s also a closet philosopher. He brought a case of Guinness. If Bono had come to America in the early part of the century he would have been a cop.”
Having looked like a kid who’s being read the latest Harry Potter, Bono laughs uproariously at the cop line.
“Well, it’s better than being a priest! I’ve always found him to be a real gentleman – old school, especially with his family, and upright. The mask gets put on for fun and occasionally he can’t get it off, but he’s never like that with me. I find him very honest and wish I saw more of him. Every so often he’ll call, but usually I’m not there.
“Do you know what the first thing Bob Dylan ever said to me was? ‘Can I have your autograph…but it’s not for me!’ He knew the effect that would have on a fan of his. That’s his sly sense of humour!
“He’s Picasso. It’s a wonder that after doing this for as long as he has, he can produce something like ‘Mississippi’ on the last album. I’m in tears, and then five tracks later I’m laughing out loud. He’s the only song and dance man in the world who makes me belly laugh!”
Bono is about to launch into another Dylan vignette when a flustered looking aide walks in and reminds him that three-quarters of the world’s biggest rock group are waiting upstairs for their singer.
“Have you got 15 minute to spare?” Bono asks me.
“Come and have a listen to us rehearsing.”
I had been planning on nipping home to catch Neighbours, or something edifying like that, but seeing as Bono’s got his heart set on it, I dutifully follow him into the studio where Edge, Larry and Adam are belting out an instrumental version of another How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb newie, ‘City Of Blinding Lights’.
Without the rest of the gang missing a beat, their errant singer walks up to the microphone, clasps his hands behind his back and almost sighs the opening verses, “The more you see the less you know/The less you find out as you go/I knew much more then/than I do now.”
I can tell you something for certain, delivered with even half this panache, it’ll send shivers up hundreds of thousands of spines next year, when the band hit the road.
Today, though, they’ve an audience of one who thinks he’s died and gone to rock ‘n’ roll heaven. Up this close, U2 sound nothing short of phenomenal. There’s no chat, just satisfied grins and nods at the end when they know they’ve nailed the song. They’ve followed the flight-path a hundred times before, but from where I’m sitting auto-pilot is a concept these boys just don’t understand.
“How are we doing?” Bono shouts over.
That job of best band in the world they’re re-applying for? I think they’ve got it.
A table in the corner of the Roundwood Inn. Ali has gone on ahead with the kids. Susan Hunter is ordering the drinks. There’s a pint for Gerry Ryan and a pint for…
Dave Fanning looks at it longingly. Bono half picks it up. “Who’s this pint for?” a voice asks Susan. “You have it,” Fanning says. “No, no, you have it,” Bono says and he picks it up. Makes like he’s going to have a slug. Puts it down again. “No, I insist, you have it,” he says again. Looks at Fanning with a grin. Picks it up. Waves it under his nose. Has a slug.
There is laughter in the air. Gerry Ryan has a mobile with a video camera and is taking pictures. Dave, Moira and Bono. Bono and Moira.
“I was talking to the young fella there at home a few minutes ago,” Ryan tells the U2 man. “Told him I’d heard the new album. ‘Is it any use?’, he says. That’s a great one. ‘Is it any use?’ I’d forgotten all about that phrase.”
In a way though, it is the question. Is it any use? Bono isn’t phased. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. If it isn’t any use he’s fucked. Maybe we all are. But he’s steady on his feet as he strides towards Susan Hunter’s car, signs a few autographs along the way – and the troupe finally leaves for Dublin.
With love is the answer. There is no other one. Everything is going to be alright. Just wait…