- 20 Sep 02
IN THE FIRST PART OF A WORLD EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW IN THE LAST ISSUE OF HOT PRESS, BONO UNVEILED THE NEW U2 ALBUM, SPOKE ABOUT ITS GENESIS IN CYBERPUNK LITERATURE AND THE BAND'S HUNGER TO PUSH ROCK'N'ROLL TO ITS LIMITS. HERE HE ELABORATES ON HOW U2 GO ABOUT WRITING THEIR SONGS AGAINST THE BACKGROUND OF GLOBAL CHAOS, HIS ARTISTIC REFERENCE POINTS OUTSIDE MUSIC, THE SUBVERSIVE POWER OF HUMOUR, AND HOW HE ADMIRES THOSE WHO 'PARTICULARLY AGGRESSIVELY' DON'T BELIEVE IN GOD. AND THEN THERE'S THE STORY ABOUT JOHNNY CASH AND THE EMU. CAN THIS MAN BE FOR SURREAL? INTERVIEW:JOE JACKSON.
The music is more important than the musician.
* Bono 1992.
The musician is the music.
* Hot Press 1993.
BONO MAY be the most successful songwriter in the history of Irish rock but, given the choice he'd quite happily define his occupation as 'Action Painter'. Pushed to elaborate by some bemused customs official he might even quip, in a characteristically cryptic manner, "Jackson Pollack, painting-in-motion yet surrealism rules, okay?" Then again he might just tell him this story.
"John Cash took me to his house in Nashville one time and showed me around his Zoo", the U2 singer recalls, struggling to suppress an impish laugh and inadvertently adding a new layer of meaning to the opening track on "Achtung Baby", "Zoo Station" . . .
"Anyway, he's driving me around saying 'we got zebras here and a cockatoo there' and we ended up chasing ostriches! Then he turned around and said 'I had an emu here but I had to get rid of it because the thing attacked me, broke two of my ribs and almost killed me. If I hadn't had a stick in my hand, to beat it back, I'd probably be dead right now'. He was very serious about it all, speaking in that dark, deep voice of his, but I couldn't help seeing the headlines: Johnny Cash Killed By Emu! The mind boggles! And that is surrealism, right there! You don't need to imagine things that way. That's how life is, at least as I see it."
In this sense one has to see ZOO TV, and, indeed, the new U2 album - previewed in the last issue of Hot Press - as a technological, multi-media recreation of the landscapes Bono was originally drawn to in the world of the visual arts, long before he discovered rock 'n' roll.
"Action-painting is a good way to describe what I do," he says, picking up on the phrase Kris Kristofferson recently applied to Bob Dylan, in Hot Press. "Wanting to make people see music as well as hear it. That's the way we've come into the new record, and always came into music, to a degree. But the influence of the visual arts in my life does go right back, because my father was a painter.
"I'm not a very good painter myself", he adds, "but I've always seen music in terms of colour. Like the E chord, to me, is red. The three chords are the primary colours and the rest of the images-in-sound grow out of that, or are layered on top of that. What I do with U2 is very much action painting, on record and on stage."
In this context what is Bono's response to the Wire magazine reviewer who suggested that the Edge is the defining factor in U2's sound, and that on "Achtung Baby!" in particular his guitar work is more eloquent than Bono's lyrics?
"I think it is important to realise that the music of U2 is the sound created by its four members, with the lyrics being one of those sounds. And the guitar work being just one other factor. I certainly don't see it in terms of musical hierarchies and I don't think anyone in U2 does.
"The words really are just one part of the music. They are not primarily about any kind of narrative, not about storytelling. They are about feelings, instincts, ideas that can only be hinted at rather than exactly expressed. That's what poetry should be all about. And that, to me is the essential difference between poetry in song and poetry on a page - though it doesn't necessarily make one any the less than the other. I talked to Bob Dylan about this and said to him 'what you are trying to do with words we're trying to do with words and music'."
Bono is not phased by the reductive tendency, in rock criticism, to evaluate song lyrics in the way that people analyse poetry of a more traditional kind.
"You see that happening a lot but it doesn't bother me because if I was interested in writing straightforward lyrics that people would applaud as 'poetry' I could go down that road. And every so often I like to write a lyric like that but it's really not as satisfying to me as colliding my words with our music. Poetry in sound, and in images conjured up by the collision of those sounds, really is more where I'm coming from. And the other side of this equation is that I often try to put their/our music into words. That's my job in U2! As with when Edge gets a dark mood going with his guitar lines and says 'let's try put words to that.' Sometimes it works the other way around but for the most part in U2, that's what I do."
"That's why I played 'Dirty Days' for you", I wanted you to see the base I often work from, as a writer, and the way in which we compose music together. Music and words. "
Bono's emphasis on the word 'see' should finally convince even sceptics that apart from the songwriters and musicians who have influenced him over the past twenty years, painters, photographers and visual artists clearly shape his core aesthetic.
"Certainly at the moment I'm quite taken with a lot of the Dadaists that came out of Germany in the 1930s," he reflects, "because there are parallels between our time and that time. I also am very impressed by John Heartfield, who recently had an exhibition in Dublin. But the Cabaret Voltaire people I really love. Because the point is that the new fascists - rather like our own fascists, the Provos - rely a lot on fear. And humour and laughter, to me, is the proof of the presence of freedom.
"The Dadaists, for example, were powerful in their time because they had the ability to unzip the pants of the starched trousers of these fascists and mock them. And they were outlawed because of that. And I really feel there is a lot to be learned from that. I've certainly learned a lot from that, philosophically and in terms of expressing myself through our art. The potential for subversion in humour is something new to U2."
What exactly did Bono mean when he once claimed that it took the Gulf War to fully awaken him to the true power of Picasso's work, and, by extension, the need to adopt an almost exclusively surrealistic mode of expression on "Achtung Baby!"?
"I certainly didn't mean I needed the Gulf War to introduce me to either surrealism or Picasso, obviously", he explains. "I just mean it helped move me towards a new way of looking at things. I could see how, for Picasso, after the bombing of Guernica, it wasn't possible to approach certain subjects head-on anymore, in a linear, naturalistic fashion. For him that subject was the human figure. He also portrayed that atrocity in very quick lines because he couldn't believe that human beings could treat other humans in such a way. His work also became more humorous but in a way that made it not less serious, but more serious. All of that influenced me."
Recalling the CNN-broadcast images being beamed out of Iraq as allied forces bombed the city, killing countless thousands of its citizens, Bono says: "I realised at that moment that I couldn't deal with this by just writing a straightforward song about it. And this sense of impotence and numbness is the same when I see what's on the news every night. And so you use irony, not just as a defence mechanism but as some way to hit back, to negotiate your way through the madness. And I really have come to believe that humour and irony is a very rebellious force right now. And it's something I've grown more and more interested in these days."
Having said that, Bono admits that apart from the relatively contrived title of "Achtung Baby!" and a few of its self-consciously "sexy" lyrics, you have to look hard to find the humour in U2's latest music - though this deficit is balanced out to some degree by the stabs at humour in their live shows.
"Well, it's just that I really don't believe that music in general, and particularly the music of U2, lends itself to humour," he explains. "But it does lend itself to the kind of hard juxtaposition derived from the Dadaists who were the first artists to use text and so on. And we will draw from the Situationalists who came out of the '60s. That's what U2 are doing these days. Taking from wherever we want in order to capture and recreate something similar to how those artists worked and saw the world. That's why, on the tour, we use clips of George Bush and, in the way I described earlier, television in general, images from rock 'n' roll, pornography-'stealing from the thieves', as it were, creating an epic collage!"
Bono agrees with Daniel Lanois who recently insisted that, making "Achtung Baby!", U2 did not go into the studio with the agenda to articulate their gut responses to the Gulf War or to create what has since been described as the perfect soundtrack for the post-war period.
"Not at all. But it was all there inside us. Yet that kind of analysis tends to come with hindsight. It also comes when people like you push me on these questions and I really have to truthfully look back and say to myself 'what were we attempting to do with that album, what were we tuning into?' But because I do keep notebooks I can look back and authenticate the analysis, to a degree, because I see very clearly how ideas evolved, where I was coming from."
Lanois also revealed that when U2 went into the studio to record "Achtung Baby!" Bono brought with him only one complete song "Love Is Blindness", which he'd previously written for Nina Simone.
"I rarely go into the studio with a complete set of lyrics that we then set to music", Bono elaborates. "For example, that song I wrote for Johnny Cash was written a day before the session. It was the same in relation to B.B. King. As I am chronically lazy, the only way I can do things is by saying to someone that I'll do them first and promising it in front of people because then I have to! So with 'When Love Comes To Town,' though I had only a verse and chorus I said 'I do have a song for B.B.' But then the guy suddenly arrives looking for the song and it was written in a half an hour for him! Some people might say it sounds that way! but I think there is some good stuff in there and sometimes composing something that way can work.
"The same was true, to a degree, of 'She's A Mystery To Me', which was written under similar circumstances for Roy Orbison. It was written the morning he arrived but to actually complete it took much longer. Yet that highlights the two sides to the way I write, which we talked about earlier. With U2 I do tend to work in an impressionistic sense, whereas when writing for others the style is linear and with as strict a narrative structure as I can provide!"
The decisive factor, according to Bono, is the voice of a singer.
"It depends on who you're given to work with", he says. "Lou Reed or Bob Dylan get consonants to play with, whereas my own voice is all about vowel sounds. And there aren't a lot of great words in there. In fact I'm always envious of the words a voice like Dylan's gets to play with. And in order to try get to that place myself, and use my voice as a more versatile instrument, I've gone for distortion of late, like the lower octaves in 'The Fly'. But if I sing in my own natural voice, especially with the music of U2, I have to use very open-sounding language. So it's actually much more difficult, in that sense, to write a U2 song, than it is to write for somebody else. In contrast with what I can do, Johnny Cash has got this great voice which loves certain words and I just wrote those words for him. "
Critics have often heavily criticised Bono's own singing. In an otherwise rave review of "Achtung Baby!" last year, one reviewer referred to him as "the worst singer in the history of rock", suggesting however that his vocalising on "One" was a marked improvement on the "stentorian bellowing" in previous songs like "Pride (In the Name of Love)". What is Bono's response?
"Stentorian bellowing! Wow!", he repeats, laughing. "Well, I suppose the point is that I never really thought about singing that much up until 'Achtung Baby!' I started focusing on 'proper' song writing with 'The Joshua Tree' so the logical extension of that is to think more seriously about singing in order to deliver those songs in the best possible way. We had never asked, in the band, things like 'what key would suit your voice?' We improvised and I'd put my voice on top of that. So I often did end up singing too high, or too low.
"But I went to see an opera singer and she said 'you have a three octave range and you shouldn't, by rights, be able to sing these notes you're singing so I better teach you how to keep a hold of those notes or you'll lose them.' And after her good work I managed to get through the whole of the last tour without any problems, whereas I have been dogged with problems like losing my voice during tours, over the years. So I would hope that I'm a better singer now than I've ever been."
'Better' is a subjective judgement. Unlike those who rate a singer according to his or her ability to reproduce a beautiful and sustained melodic line, Bono believes that 'better' also can mean being able to effectively tackle the range of characters U2 use in a post-modernist sketch like "The Fly".
"Discovering that we were slowly being reduced to cartoon characters, and caricatures, made us realise we had to create an anti-cartoon to counteract that, and to become far more than people had begun to reduce U2 to," Bono reflects "And we knew it was going to take a mammoth cartoon to balance things out. But apart from that I myself really believe, very strongly, that it's of central importance to be allowed to be all the people you are, or can be. We shouldn't turn people into just one thing or another, whether it is simply 'good guys' and 'bad guys', people who are philanthropists or have heroic ideals and then 'the others'. Everyone is a mix of these impulses. The same person who is capable of the highest state of being is also capable of base actions."
Running a parallel between Albert Goldman's books on two of his heroes, Elvis and John Lennon, Bono elaborates on his own developing awareness of the dualistic nature of life.
"We're always surprised that people who we thought were above us had their heads in the mud just like everyone else," he says. "And an artist has to expose himself in the art rather than leave it to someone else to do so, often for different motives. That's why when Goldman wrote the book about John Lennon we weren't really surprised when we read all that stuff because Lennon had told us already, in his music, whereas Elvis didn't. Or if he did we didn't realise it at the time. So U2 are now very much aware that in terms of what we now do, we get to blow out everything, from the most pretentious side of ourselves to the most base.
"That's what rock 'n' roll should be, that kind of playpen. Particularly in terms of flesh and spirit and your human-ness. It doesn't really matter whether people like what they are seeing. It's more important that they recognise themselves in that. This is far more important than what they recognise about us. That's why, as a performer you must allow your humanity to be stripped away from you sometimes, particularly when you're in public."
Bono pauses, reflects in silence for a moment or so, then continues.
"Somebody said to me a while ago: how does your ego stand being in a band, how does it survive being a rock 'n' roll star? And I thought that was one of the smartest things anyone had ever spotted about rock 'n' roll. People think it's the opposite, that it pumps up your ego. I think it explodes your ego. It blows it out into fragments and that's why so many people who do what I do are so fucked up. So what U2 decided to do, with "Achtung Baby!" and the tour, is to explode our egos, publicly. Blow it up, in the billboard sense and in the sense of saying: look, these are all the things we are. So when I say that rock 'n' roll really is ridiculous in the sense that people like U2 are paid so much money to do all this, to play in a playpen, I mean it!"
Bono suggests that not enough has been written about the psychology of performing , the phenomenon of a someone like Elvis who, according to Sam Philips, started out as the most insecure guy in the world - and probably ended up addicted to audience recognition more than anything else, to provide a sense of self that had never been allowed to develop fully outside the parameters of fame.
"Anyone who needs 50,000 people a night to tell them they're okay has to have a bit missing," he says. "And I do mean that in terms of your sense of self, not necessarily in terms of sanity. And I don't think you start out that way but, as with Elvis, it's a place you can get to very easily."
And what about Bono? When all the trappings of fame are stripped away from his own psyche where does he stand in relation to his own sense of self?
"Don't get me wrong", he says. "I'm not complaining. I'm just saying there should be more written about the psychology of it all. But I myself am very aware of all this, so I think I can recognise the pitfalls. For example, I know how it feels to have that emotional charge coming at you night after night while U2 are touring and there is a process that can best be described as coming down after a tour. There are DTs involved but it's not alcohol or a drug as such that you're addicted to. There is no name for the substance but it certainly exerts a hold over your life after a tour ends.
"This new album," he adds "in a way, was an attempt to tune into that energy and stay up during the break in the tour rather than come down to earth again. This time we said 'okay we're up on the moon so let's stay here and make a record!' But that was our choice, to coast on that feeling rather than risk falling. So, in essence, the album could be seen as a substitute 'hit' for us, between tours! Though it remains to be seen whether it will be as much of a 'hit' with everyone else!"
But what happens when there is no substitute available? Surely, coming home to a wife and children and to "the burden of domestic trivia", as Byron described it, can seem like an irredeemable downer after a tour, leading to a scenario in which "stars" like Bono could make life hell for both his family and friends etc?
"You certainly do read of actors who are like that between movies", he says. "And they consciously re-create the drama that they have been legitimately involved in to fill the vacuum when the film is finished. And if they can't they do that they lose their entire sense of well-being and sink into depression because the world they live in, without that drama, is boring when compared with the world they work in. But I don't feel like that. I've got a lot of people around me and that makes me always happy to come home."
Bono pauses, again, before continuing. "But I am also conscious that there is a part of me that doesn't want to come home," he says. "Part of me wants to stay on the moon. But as to whether I am addicted to that feeling, I honestly don't know. I can't give you the answer to that. "
Could Bono ever give up rock 'n' roll to go into writing novels, films, being a painter - whatever - or is the epic scale of audience acceptance, involved in, for example, playing at Live Aid too powerful ever to be equalled in any of the other arts?
"That too is a difficult question to answer," he muses "I'd like to do all those things but whether I could give up that feeling for something else is a good question and one that I may have to face someday but right now, I honestly can't."
Returning to the subject of the new album Bono suggests that tapping into the 'high' among the band between the two stages of the world tour has made their latest recorded music less studied and more improvisatory than "Achtung Baby!"
"It's more of a polaroid. And we said: let it be raw at the edges, let it be a cross-sectional view of where we're at right now. So the whole idea certainly is to somehow ride this wave we're on. The band is playing in a way that we haven't played for a long time and that's specifically because we've just been on the road for a year.
"In fact one of the better innovations on the album was an idea of Eno's, which was: let's stop songwriting and improvise. And there's another album in the tapes I have of what we've done. And not all of it is self-indulgent shite! But for the album itself, Brian is in his usual chair and Flood keeps a taut, hard, industrial edge to the thing. He makes a great contrast with Eno. This time Danny (Lanois) can't be here because he's off publicising his own album."
Linking Lanois to U2, Dylan, Morrison, Presley, Cash and co. is a core of spirituality in their work; this has always been the defining force in the music of U2, from "Boy" to "Achtung Baby!" However there have been suggestions that Paul Barrett, when he originally worked with U2 on "Achtung Baby!", felt that the spirit in many of the songs was being strangled through over-embellishment on a technological level.
"I'm not sure he understood that that is actually what we were trying to do," argues Bono. " 'Achtung Baby!' is a Xerox, a photostat and as such has a texture that a photograph hasn't. A photograph might be more attractive but we were drawn more to presenting a Xerox image, or set of images in 'Achtung Baby!' There was some great work done in STS and Paul Barrett was a real help in that. And Eno agrees with him that there is an album that could be made out of that material. Somewhere in the bootleg that was released there are some nice moments among the gobbledygook. Some of the songs in their raw state do work. And most of those bootleg cuts weren't, in fact, from Berlin, they were STS takes. But I don't think anyone could suggest that the finished record, as it stands, is devoid of spirit. It depends on the song, depends on the material and what picture you're trying to paint. There are lots of voices, spirits, faces showing through in 'Achtung Baby!' "
And yet some of U2's Christian fans may have sensed the absence of what they call The Lord on "Achtung Baby!", the presence of the song "Until the End of the World", which Bono once described as "a conversation between Jesus and Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane," notwithstanding. Likewise in relation to ZOO TV which probably presented a new set of questions from U2 rather than prescribing God as the answer. . .
"We deliberately kept that record for the most erotic form of love so as to almost exhaust it as a possibility and I think that makes it a kind of prayer, in a strange sort of way", says Bono, pausing and choosing his words even more carefully than is characteristic of the man. "And, whatever about 'Until the End of the World', Edge's guitar solo in 'Love Is Blindness' is more eloquent a prayer than anything I could write."
Does Bono agree, to any degree, with those who would argue that the concept of God has been atomised for most people and that the only truthful way to view mankind is in the context of a fragmented world stripped of that unifying force?
"No. Because to me the state of flux which dominates modern times is a good place to be," he says. "The status quo is the enemy of God, the enemy of a spiritual life, as it is the enemy of a cultural life, as it is the enemy of a political life. Status is the enemy. And although the concept of God, for me personally, hasn't been atomised and I have a faith, I am not attempting to clearly define it at this point."
Yet didn't Bono previously define his faith in Christian terms in a very specific sense?
"You go through phases in your attempt to work out what it is you believe. And there was a period back in the early '80s where we lived a much more ascetic life (laughs self-consciously) and got a great grounding in the fundamentals of what Christianity could be. It wasn't the kind of Christianity that I loosely grew up around. It wasn't particularly Catholic or Protestant, it was more the cutting edge of Christianity. And I'm really glad I have that base.
"At the time we probably were extreme because you are extreme in that honeymoon period. And you're always extreme when you're defensive. So I suppose we did build a wall around us and just got on with what saw then as our faith. But I do remember McGuinness saying to me, even back then, 'look, I'm not sure I share your faith but I know one thing, I know it's the most important question to you. And that an artist, a writer is going to have to address that in whatever way you see fit. And if you want to do so you'll get a lot of stick, but go for it.' And we did so. And we did get a lot of stick. "
Slipping into silence for a few moments Bono reflects on the problems U2's Christian base created for many of their critics and their fans - particularly those who see rock 'n' roll as having more to do with 'the devil's music'.
"But that's like people who reduce everything to its smallest constituent part, like judging a song only on its words, which we talked about earlier," he says. "It's like the way some people view sexuality. They want it dressed up and legitimised in the nicest possible clothes. It's the same with religion, people want what they believe in to be very obviously dressed like religion. I find all that reducing things to an and/or equation tedious and all that unnecessary paraphernalia very funny."
And yet, fundamentally, only a person who has a core faith in God can laugh at such things? Does he still have that core Christian faith?
"Yes. I have. But there's also a line in, I think, the New Testament, which says that the spirit moves and no one knows where it comes from or where its going. It's like a wind. I've always felt that way about my faith. That's why on the new album I say I've got no religion. Because I believe that religion is the enemy of God. Because it denies the spontaneity of the spirit and the almost anarchistic nature of the spirit.
"If you attempt to follow that spirit you will be taken down roads to unexpected places. And it's not going to be a journey you can negotiate because of what somebody has written down in a Catechism. I appreciate that people can have a handbook on how to live, if they want it, but in fact, when pushed and asked for his greatest hits, though Christ may say 'I'm in a corner so I'll list Love God, Love Your Neighbour and Love Yourself - definitely the top three', to me these codes should rise out of how you live rather than be imposed from the outside.
"I've talked about the Psalms before but to me they really are a predecessor of the blues. Because there you had an honest dialogue with God, David shouting at God. And he was this character who was a real fuck-up. And he wailed at God: 'Where are you when I need you? My enemies are all around me and you call yourself God? What the fuck is going on here?' That's the tone of the Psalms and that's where I come into the music."
Surely Bono himself, when he sees news reports about atrocities in Bosnia, for example, must feel like standing up and wailing in a similar manner. At points like that how can he even be certain that there is a God?
"I'm sure of one thing," he replies. "Like we say on Zooropa and as I said to you earlier, 'There's nothing certain/That's for certain '. But if I was certain of anything I'm certain that you can't pin our actions, the actions of man in places like Bosnia, on God.That is our final arrogance, that we blame God for our own state. Most people think we got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. I'm not so sure. I think we kicked God out of it. And what I don't see is evidence of God in man. There is enough food, for example, but we just won't share it out. We always see this planet as belonging to God - I think it belongs to us. We probably stole it from God. But you can try and give bits of it back in any way you can."
Bono suggests that, from early U2 songs like "Street Missions" up to the as-yet-untitled Johnny Cash/U2 song from the latest album, his way of giving back has been by drawing his imagery from the Bible and his concepts from his religious base in general. In this way U2 are fundamentally gospel singers, in spirit, if not in form.
"I also love the language of the blues, the poetic spirit of the blues and its connection with the bible," he explains. "But, yeah, all the language I draw on is from the Bible and I love that language very much. It's poetry. And another thing about the psalms which is very interesting to me is that in the Hebrew verse you don't rhyme words, you rhyme ideas. That's why it translates so well. And you see that particularly in the songs of someone like Leonard Cohen, who also rhymes concepts and ideas and not necessarily, or always, words. This whole end-of-line rhyming shit is vastly overrated!"
It has been claimed that Bono originally turned to religion seeking solace after his mother died. Did he?
"That's too fairy-tale a reading of what happened", he says, dismissively. "I don't think that complex mechanisms like human beings work in that kind of cause-and-effect way. And one thing I definitely am learning in life is that words can reduce complex emotions and ideas, again to their smallest part, as we were saying earlier in relation to songs and religion itself. It's very hard to use words to talk about things like the death of my mother. That's why I'm a musician. Using just words can often be too glib in terms of trying to explain such things away, trying to explore the core of such emotions."
How come so much of what Bono has expressed in music over the years is rooted in rage? Couldn't it be said that if the Edge's guitar work defines the sound of U2's music to a great degree it is Bono's own anger and anguish that often defines the psychology behind the music?
"Love and anger are closely related", he argues. "Somebody said that hate is not the opposite to love, apathy is, and I agree with that. Rage can be an assertion of the life-force, a wailing out against everything, as in the psalms. But people really do not understand why some of the love songs we do are so savage, for example. That, to me is evidence of the well of emotion within the band, more than some superficial paen to love in a more obvious sense. It's just that we take the back door to saying the same thing."
But would Bono agree that his own rage has been pivotal to the music of U2? Isn't the new album filled with anger, torment, feelings that rise from some subterranean level?
"Yes", he says. "But to me rock 'n' roll is taking some kind of revenge on the world. I'm very aware of that. I always say that to my mate, Gavin Friday. Because he is a guy who got a hard time for being the way he was and dressing as he did, coming from the area we grew up in. I still believe that The Virgin Prunes were his revenge against the lack of understanding he experienced in those days. And there is also some kind of violence in me. I don't know if that is a reaction to growing up, in and around it at home, or just being conscious of it on a broader level. But like everything else about me, I put a suit on my violence and send it out to work for me!"
However, there also are claims that this suit is frequently shredded, that Bono's rage knows no boundaries when certain people cross his path. Allowing for the fact that growing up, in and around violence at home was half a lifetime ago, how does he account for this ?
"I don't know how to answer that. Hell, I'm really a peace-loving guy," he says in mock humble rock-star tones, before pausing. "I honestly don't know what to say to that. But it certainly is a question that I would be interested in an answer to myself. And so would a lot of people who work for me! (laughs)"
What about the claim that artists need to hold on to that kind of fire in order to remain creative? What is Bono's response to Leonard Cohen's assertion that despite often singing of his longing for "a spirit that is calm," in the end he wouldn't sacrifice his songs and poetry for that particular state of grace?
"I don't know the answer to that question either", says Bono. "I don't know which I'd choose, if pushed to take one or the other. It's like when people ask me 'are you exorcising or exercising your demons through your music?' I can only say that I hope I'm exorcising my demons. That's what I'm banking on. Maybe the word demon isn't the best choice though. It's more a matter of tapping into your own darkness. And maybe that has to be a part of creating any form of substantial art. That certainly is something I've come to believe.
"Van Morrison 's philosophy is 'more light, less darkness.' On the other hand, maybe sometimes you must use darkness to show up the light. And that is something I believe to be true. But this is a problem I have with many religious people today. They refuse to stare into the face of the world they're living in. And they refuse to describe it in anything other than the most bland way. They're not attempting to understand the darkness and the world, or to get into it and describe it from the inside so people can really get a sense of what you're talking about. But, more and more, I realise that everything tells us who, and what, we are.
"That, too, is why we draw on so much in the ZOO TV tour, from pornography to images of the Gulf War.That's our way of describing the world."
As Bono speaks fervently on this theme, one gets the sense that he is almost a Christian born-again to darkness, suddenly liberated from the Judea-Christian belief that all that should be celebrated in life is light and living echoes of the Christ and that any manifestation of Satan must be denied. And yet there have been rumours that Bono is now so interested in exploring darkness that he has begun to examine Satanism. Is that true?
Laughing loudly Bono leans forward in his chair and says "Can I say, yes, please? Can you imagine the stories that would spin out of that? Like people coming back to me and saying 'So what is 'One' really about?' That would be something else!"
He pauses and shakes his head in disbelief before answering more seriously.
"You are attracted to the darkness - attracted, in some strange way, to the things you are afraid of. But I never really had that shit of denying the darkness in your nature as a child. It was very much like it would be for young people now. I was just given a few clues and directives and told to get out there and find the answers for myself. But what's really important is that I wasn't spiritually abused. And just as you can be mentally and physically abused as a child, you can be spiritually abused. I wasn't.
"I go to Central America - Nicaragua, for example - and those people have a very different kind of Catholicism," he adds. "It's like I became very interested in carnivals. I went to a lot because they are celebrations of the flesh, as in carn - before Lent. And the Latin Americans are a sexy people. They have what the blacks have in the U.S., which is this ability to bring God with them wherever they go, even into that celebration of the flesh - which is not Catholicism as we know it here in Ireland. They don't compartmentalise their lives. All the lines are blurred and they access these sides of themselves in a much more fluid way than Anglo-Saxons or Northern European Catholicism allows."
"But I don't buy that Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil for the blues idea. I know your original question about Satanism is very real for some people and it's going on. And I know that in the vacuum created by the Church people are being sucked into expressions of other kinds. But I see explorations of darkness to that degree as very dodgy. And the truth is that I've too much respect for the devil to fuck with him."
And yet some would argue that by hauling onto the screens during the ZOO TV Special the work of William Burroughs, U2 are to an extent, fucking with the devil. Isn't Burroughs perceived as a man whose goal, through art, is a celebration of evil?
"Perhaps, but his work is also oddly prophetic," counters Bono "He's describing the human condition and, to me, his diagnosis is accurate. I know people talk about William Burroughs and his 'relationship' with the devil but I met Burroughs in Kansas and all I'll say is that he looked better than I did! And he's ninety! He arrived in with the leather coat, black hat and a bag full of guns!
"But I have a lot of respect for people who don't believe - who particularly aggressively don't believe. That, in itself, is some kind of act of faith. In fact I probably have more sympathy for a person like that than I would for a person who says 'I just don't know'. The most interesting music, to me, is made by people running toward, or away from God. It's part of the same thing when you hear of Robert Johnson running from a 'hellhound on his trail'."
Does Bono ever feel there is a hellhound on his trail, or that he, and the band, are falling deeper into shadows from which they may not easily escape? Does he ever get scared, encounter forces he didn't want to draw forth?
"Yes I do", he says, solemnly "And you get bullied by a song in that very sense sometimes. There was a song on 'The Joshua Tree' called 'Exit' and I just want to take a bath after we do that. I just want to wash it off my skin. And I broke my shoulder and did unearth a lot of shit - from within myself - doing the song on stage. It also was a song somebody used in a murder. It came out later that the guy claimed the song had made him do it. That's what I mean about not wanting to fuck with the devil."
Does Bono feel in any way responsible for the fact that a work of his, and U2's, ended up allegedly making someone commit a murder?
"Not at all. That sounded to me like a good lawyer at work for his client. But I still feel that you have to go down those streets in your music. If that's where the subject is taking you, you have to follow. At least in the imagination. I'm not sure if I want to get down there to live. I'll take a walk occasionally, and have a drink with the devil, but I'm not moving in with him."
Yet couldn't one legitimately claim that U2's work has now become, by and large, the musical equivalent of exploring Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"?
"Yes. A lot of the time it is", says Bono. "There was a section on 'The Joshua Tree' set which we called 'The Heart of Darkness'. It was part of the 'Bullet the Blue Sky' into 'Running To Stand Still' then 'Exit'. But, as part of my answer to your question, let me backtrack a little. This whole question about the nature of the devil is very important to me. But I don't necessarily see the devil in the kind of darkness most people associate with the devil. Like in those dens of iniquity or illegal drinking houses, or wherever.
"For me you see it more in corporate life. That's what I mean when I talk about having a drink with the devil. There are probably countless guys in suits who have given up their soul to succeed in what they do. Because there is a great power people have if nothing will get in their way, if they have no morality, no uncertainty, no doubt. All those things that trouble the spirit. This, to me, is where darkness lies - though, at the same time these people can be incredibly interesting to talk with.
"But I'm also saying: don't look for the devil in obvious places. And I really do believe that the territory I might be exploring, as a writer, is not as dark as if I were, for example, working on Wall St. But in terms of U2 exploring only the heart of darkness I think there also is a lot of contrast in our work, a lot of, as I said I described it to Van Morrison, going through the darkness to finally fully appreciate the light. And no matter what route you take to explore these things, what's really important about music, and art in general, is that it does, at least, attempt to counteract those forces that conspire to negate and kill the spirit."
Listening to the violence, sexism and misogyny in a lot of rap music, does Bono empathise with the defence that, they're exploring the same streets U2 are, presenting the human condition as it is today, as they know it?
"I think censorship is only tested when somebody does something you don't agree with, or don't like. And you have to allow people self expression. If they don't find that form of expression then whatever is inside of them comes out in much darker ways than rap songs or anything like that. I just picked up Public Enemy's album 'Fear of a Black Planet' yesterday and opening it I saw 'Burn Hollywood, Burn/I smell a riot.' This was two years before the riots. And if people had really been listening to what was coming out of rap and coming out of people like Chuck D. and what they were saying, maybe the riots wouldn't have happened. But fear is the enemy. You should never be afraid to express even the darker side of yourself, or ourselves."
But does that then mean that rappers should be allowed to be misogynistic and sexist? Is that a legitimate expression of the human experience?
"I personally don't like it, but I'm not going to stop somebody expressing themselves," he says. "I think statements of that nature are dumb. And, generally speaking, stupid people who make such statements should be given just enough rope to hang themselves. But if you put a veil of secrecy about them, you imbue them with some kind of status that they don't deserve."
At this point Larry has ambled into the interview room to remind Bono that the band want to resume work on the new album. With less than forty eight hours to go before the Zooropa '93 Tour begins, Bono is quite aware of the pressures they are under. However, as Larry leaves, he says "let me play you one more song." Lifting up his guitar he strums a chord, places his cuban-heel'd boot on the chair, balances the instrument on his knee and begins tuning.
"We're after talking a lot here today about gospel music and soul music and the devil's music. This is a mix of all those things, a song I wrote for Al Green."
Focusing his voice he misses the pitch of the opening notes. Clearly, this is Bono unplugged and sounding, during the first section of the song, remarkably like a soul-brother to Van Morrison singing a variation on "Crazy Love": "I got a lover/ A lover like no other/ She give me soul, soul, soul, soul, soul/And she teach me how to sing/Give me everything a lover needs/ Soaked to my heart/She sprinkle my needs/But for the first time/ I feel love."
"Then", he adds "it goes into something like 'My father is a rich man/ He wears a rich man's clothes/ Give me the keys to his kingdom/ But I took another road/ He said: my son I've got a mansion/ There are many rooms to see/ But I left by the back door/ And I threw away the key.' "
Missing a tricky note as he sings falsetto Bono stops and laughs. "It's the Prodigal Son theme, let's leave it at that!", he says. "But I want you to hear what it became."
As he moves towards the DAT machine for the last time during the interview I'm prompted to ask why there are so many references to fathers and sons in the songs he unveiled today. Many also deal with a father and son in conflict. Is that rooted in his own life?
"I hadn't really noticed that," he says, running his hand through his hair. "So I don't know where it's coming from. But it's certainly not coming from my own life at the moment, because I really am getting on better with my father than I ever have. I've probably just tapped into something else more generalised. But this brings into focus a classic example of how a song can take you somewhere far removed from where you started out. That's why I don't like to see our songs reduced to 'oh this obviously is about such-and-such a relationship' or whatever.
"Songs rarely end up anywhere near where they started out. It really is songwriting-by-accident.That's, basically, what we do here in the heart of the U2 Corporation! Songwriting by accident and (laughs) interviews by accident. There must be something in the air in this place. But what you're about to hear really is an improvisation by 'accident', a memory of a song originally written for Al Green, brought into a totally new interpretation in the studio."
Again, the sound of an acoustic guitar gently picked and strummed fills the room. Bono's voice in the recording is more focused and delicate but shrouded in the kind of echo that is totally true to the Mississippi haze in Memphis, to Al Green and even to the eerie, doomsday quality in "Heartbreak Hotel".
"I got a lover/ A lover like no other/ She give me soul, soul, soul,soul, soul/ It's a cold morning on the street/There's nowhere else for me to be/For the first time/I feel love/ I got a lover/ And I've a brother in the east/I've spent my whole life running/Just running after me."
"Sometimes I forget the lyrics, as I did there, so I'm just humming out, trying to bring the song back," Bono interjects. "But what's really interesting to me is that the band start playing when I get to the end of the next verse, when I get to that line (sings with himself): 'And I threw away the key/ (more passionately) And I threw away the key.'
"It was at that point I realised that there was no ending to this particular story of the prodigal son, that the character had gone out from under the covering of the original subject" he continues. "And Eno comes in right there, adding to a mood which takes the song away from the original concept of 'I'm home, dad' to the point where I felt you shouldn't know if the character gets back in or not, that maybe he should be left to wander. "
Bono, on tape, wails out the kind of atavistic cry that would have made David, in the psalms, ask again of his God "what the fuck is going on here?"
"That's where the mood and music took us, to a new conclusion in the song. Or rather no conclusion but a new point of departure," says Bono. "That's what Danny (Lanois) meant when he said to you, that the words make their way to the music that suits them best while we're recording and often must yield to the music.That's how U2 works."
As the music fades the image conjured is of all the musicians left ceaselessly wandering. Bono finally breaks the silence by suggesting that despite my earlier claim that a lot of the music made by U2 is 'aggressive' he has also operated in a more gentle, more 'feminine' mode. Indeed, he agrees that if the so-called greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world wants to be truly subversive then apart from acknowledging God and the devil in their work, they must create music that is masculine and feminine. Citing as an obvious influence on songs like "So Cruel" from "Achtung Baby!" the decidedly 'feminine' sensibility of Scott Walker, Bono argues that his own work has always been a blend of these two forces.
"Scott was a definite influence and his is a very delicate mode of expression on the outside, though it too is often laced underneath with a lot of pain and rage", he says. "But I think my work operates in that area too, in a lot of ways. In fact we've had this running joke on all our records, like me saying 'Can you please get me so I don't sound like a girl?' Yet now I quite like that timbre in my voice. And apart from that I've learned to 'destroy' my voice with the megaphone. I always felt it was too exposed, that it was the feminine side of me that was coming out. But on 'Achtung Baby!' I was able to draw on both sides of my own psyche and voice, in that sense. That's another major development for me, apart from the ones we spoke about earlier, over the past two years."
Noting that Scott Walker's "Nite Flights" is on Bowie's new album which also was clearly influenced overall by the Walker Brothers album of the same name Bono muses over the question of how specific songs and albums influence other recording artists. Jon Bon Jovi recently admitted that "Achtung Baby!" certainly had a profound effect on him when he came to write/record songs like "Fear" for the album "Keep The Faith." But does Bono, or do U2 as a band, feel intimidated by the ground-breaking success of "Achtung Baby!" and the fact that they now must follow one of the most innovative albums in recent memory?
"People say that to us but - can I be brutally honest and suitably humble with you? We just whipped its ass by making this new album over the past six weeks! It was easy! 'Achtung Baby!' was just us tuning up to get ready for this record!"
"But no we don't feel at all intimidated, though we were totally taken aback by how successful 'Achtung Baby!' was. But the new record is, as I said, a different album. It's more raw, more immediate because we have got the band playing together in a way that we probably never have before. And we really can't afford to stop and think 'oh wow, we've got to follow 'Achtung Baby!'
"You just get into the studio and do it. And if I don't get back in to the studio and work on that track 'Babble-Zooropa' right now, the band is probably gonna come out here and drag me back in!"