- 10 May 20
Sing This With Me, This Is '60'
The phone rings. Stuart Clark. “It’s Bono’s birthday on Sunday. Niall and I thought that you could put something together for it. You know, Cartify it a bit. Put yourself in it. Your experience of the man.” “What experience of the man?” I asked. “As a fan, you know. You’ve written about him before, you know. Bye.” Click.
Right. Let me first address Clark’s assertion. I am indeed a life-long fan of Bono and U2, since I was about fourteen anyway. If you’ve opened this expecting some of the all too-prevalent Bono Bashing – not a euphemism, although let me assure you, I’m not above that – then you’ve come to the wrong place. I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.
A Sort Of Beginning
U2 were already huge before I got wise to them. I missed Live Aid, thanks to a bus journey from Tullamore to the Scottish Highlands – a long journey, and an even longer story – so I didn’t see the moment that Bono transformed himself through an impossibly risky manoeuvre into one of the biggest stars in the world. It’s worth looking at again, as he jumps from the stage, down to the crowd, driven by the two forces that have guided his career: the need to connect and his own astounding self-belief. The enduring image of that day, aside from perhaps Freddie Mercury throwing shapes, is Bono’s embrace of a young woman from the crowd. Spare a thought for his band mates on stage though, and his manager Paul McGuinness, who were convinced that their mad friend had blown one of the greatest opportunities in the history of show business.
Had I bought The Unforgettable Fire at that stage? I’m not sure. I did buy the single ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ when it came out in September 1984. Despite, or perhaps because of, its subject matter, there is a joy to this song and record, and this is a word I will come back to again. The parent album is a magical thing, although I’m not sure I felt that at the time. There’s material buried away on that record, like ‘Promenade’, ‘Wire’, and ‘Elvis Presley And America’ that would take a while to work its way in. It remains one of my favourite records, by anyone. No need to take my word for it, of course. Miles Davis, apparently, called for this album, to listen to on his deathbed. Where does this story come from? Bono, as far as I can tell. Good man. Oh, and it has ‘Bad’ on it.
It wasn’t for everybody; I can remember my mate Dixie giving out, my first encounter with someone throwing out that old “I prefer the early stuff” guff as he blasted his copy of Under A Blood Red Sky out of his primitive tape recorder. There’s an irony here that was lost on us at the time. It was Under A Blood Red Sky, and its complimentary live ‘VHS’, that convinced the boffin of beep and blip Brian Eno that there was more going on here than just another guitar band, ushering in U2 Mk II. It would have been easier, as Bono has said, for them to deliver another War and ascend, as the record company no doubt were lighting candles for, to the position of the big rock band, the new Who was how he put it, but they decided to detour across the fields, and got there anyway.
A further note about “the early stuff” before we leave it all behind. I know people who consider Boy to be far and away the best thing that U2 have ever done. In retrospect, you can see where they’re coming from. As a testament to adolescent confusion, it has few equals. The story of Bono writing ‘Out Of Control’ in his bedroom, amidst the wreckage left behind by his mother’s passing is irrefutable evidence of an artist emerging.
Trip Down The Wires
By the time we get to 1987, I, and everyone I knew, was excited about a new album. In a tradition that continues to this day, Dave Fanning gave it its first airing on his RTÉ radio show. I was at work that night, in a petrol station, with my fingers poised over the record button. What was this weird shit I was hearing? ‘With Or Without You’ seemed to go nowhere, and took its time getting there; I turned the radio up to hear a barely-discernible ‘Exit’ and then had to jump at it when all hell broke loose. I was wrong, of course. This was another great leap forward, their American album, after the European-ness of Fire. One of the many stories tells of how Bono, on a night out with various Rolling Stones, is handed a guitar to sing one of his songs and he can’t do it, not without the band. Embarrassed, he retires to his hotel room and, with the blues music he’s recently been exploring playing in his head, writes ‘Silver And Gold’. The seeds of The Tree were sown.
A lot has been made of the notion that U2’s early music came from nowhere, had no tradition. This is, of course, at least partly untrue. It came out of punk, and owed a debt to Television and Patti Smith in particular. They weren’t completely separate from the old tradition either, The Edge has spoken of his admiration for Rory Gallagher and Bono was able to hold his own when this magazine sent him to interview Bob Dylan at Slane in 1984, surprising Dylan by complimenting the sound of 1981’s Shot Of Love, although he still didn’t know the lyrics of ‘Blowing In The Wind’ when the Big Zim invited him up on stage. Dylan saw something though. This is from his Chronicles autobiography:
“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… Bono says things that can sway anybody.”
Bono also steered Dylan towards Daniel Lanois, who saved Dylan’s Eighties with Oh Mercy in 1989, but that’s a whole other story. Bono’s connecting to the blues, soul and country traditions allowed the band to move forward, forming the basis of such defining songs as ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, ‘Trip Through Your Wires’, and the immortal ‘One Tree Hill’. It also gave his voice new targets to shoot for. The coda of ‘Hill’ might be his finest vocal achievement. Jump forward to the night The Joshua Tree cleaned up at The Grammys. Bono stands at the microphone after the band have won album of the year.
“Soul music, that’s what U2 wanted to make. To us, soul music is not about being black or white, or the instruments you play, or whether you use a drum machine or not. It’s a decision to reveal or conceal… Without it, U2 certainly wouldn’t be here.”
That’s what it is, a soul record. The sound of an artist reaching out, revealing themselves in order to connect. “And you give yourself away…” And remember joy? If you can’t hear that in ‘Still Haven’t Found’ then you can’t hear anything. I interviewed Bob Geldof recently, and he reckoned that it was with The Joshua Tree that U2 “became what Bono always said they were.” He was right.
The first time I saw U2 play was in 1987. The second celebratory Croke Park show. It was the first time I saw anybody play, apart from suspect covers band in a local dancehall. I can’t recall a hell of a lot about it now – I think they walked on while Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’ was playing over the P.A. and took over it – but I do clearly remember a sense of connection and community in the crowd, and that’s allowing for the drunk who decided to piss on my leg in the middle of it. I know these concepts aren’t cool, you should be distant like Bowie or Lou Reed, who was brought out on stage in the middle of ‘Bad’, or unobtainable like Jagger, but that wasn’t Bono’s thing. Bono had soul; he had more in common with the yearning, and the ecstatic joy, of the great soul singers. He had me, for life.
Before we leave The Eighties, let us pause for a moment to discuss Bono’s impeccable style. It’s hard to know now what the hell was going on with his hair before he grew it out. He may have thought he looked like Bowie, but he did not. Can I take this opportunity to thank him for being directly responsible for the worst do I’ve ever had? And I’m including the times when my Ma used to cut it with a mixing bowl for a guide. End of aside.
One more thing. Ireland was a different country in the 1980s. The fact that the biggest rock n’ roll band, and the biggest rock n’ roll star, in the world came from up the road gave us young people a bit of hope and a bit of pride before we got on the unavoidable boat or plane. That might not be cool, but it’s true.
Not The Same
“What the hell is that? Turn it up!” I was in some pox-riddled student “flat” in 1991. I had just turned twenty. We knew nothing, really. We had some notion - gleaned from sketchy reports in something called the Hot Press, and Bono telling us himself, from the stage of the Point Depot, that they had to go off and “dream it all up again” - that they were up to something different, but we had no idea. The sound coming out of that battered radio was ‘The Fly’. This was Hendrixy, dancey, T.Rexy, sexy. Sexy? That was new. Look at Bono in the video clip, a bug-eyed sex loon smoking a cheroot. He was cool, how did he manage that? This was surely his greatest transformation. He would later describe ‘The Fly’ as the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree. I would go a bit further and say it’s the sound of four men chopping down The Tree, and then gleefully feeding it into the garden shredder.
The electronic bells and whistles of Achtung Baby hardly need any propping up from the likes of me. It was a volte-face worthy of Bowie himself, but behind the façade, behind the newly hung curtains of irony, that tell-tale heart still beat. I’m not the first to say that Achtung is their Blood On The Tracks – although I might be the first to say the equally brilliant follow-up Zooropa is their Blade Runner, ker-ching – but it is. Look under the shiny bonnet, with its garish hood ornaments, and find some of the greatest songs Bono has ever written. The Edge separated from his wife during the recording, how could this not influence what was being put to tape? Despite that, the lyrics are still credited to Bono alone. Let’s go past a post-modern masterpiece like ‘Even Better than The Real Thing” which, by the way, is sexy in a way that makes ‘The Fly’ look like a pair of raggedy and greying y-fronts, and focus on the heartbreakers.
‘One’, everybody knows. “We get to carry each other” is a line as effective as it is simple, it cuts to the heart of why we’re all here and what we all want. It’s the pain of life, and love, but the hope that it brings, and live it has become a celebration of that hope. You couldn’t say the same for ‘Love Is Blindness’, or ‘So Cruel’ “I gave you everything you ever wanted, it wasn’t what you wanted.” There might be better songs that deal with the crushing oppression of separation and divorce – and trust me here, I know what I’m talking about – but I can’t think of any of them right now. When Bono hits the mark, he is a master songwriter, up there with his heroes. ‘Ultraviolet (Light My Way)’: “there is a silence that comes to a house when no one can sleep” If you haven’t been there, then you don’t know. Hell, he might even have given away his greatest song in ‘She’s A Mystery To Me’, and just imagine if Roy Orbison had lived long enough to cover ‘So Cruel’? I wouldn’t have a heart left in my chest at all.
And then there was Zoo TV. A car crash of art, wild ideas, and trash that has never been equalled. If anything, there was too much going on to be taken in on one sitting, or standing. Take a television station on the road? Sure, why not. Nearly bankrupt the band for the sake of doing something different? That’s the whole Jaysus point of being a rock star! And, let us not forget, he tried to call the White House while dressed as a showbiz devil, equal parts inspired by The Black Rider (William Burroughs/Tom Waits) and C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. A few times. You don’t know what you’re doing? Babe, it must be art.
A Beautiful Day
Slane, 2001. I have written about this before, but I can’t skip past it. Bono attended his father’s funeral the day before the first of their two shows. How was he even there? I had buried my own Da a few months beforehand, and I was still adrift. When he spoke of his father – both nights have long merged into one in my memory – before ‘Kite’, I could feel myself breaking apart. How did he have the strength to do this? Maybe he felt what I felt in that crowd. I am not, in anyway, the spiritual type, but something happened to me at those concerts, some type of healing that I can scarcely understand, or even attempt to express. Yes, I know, I’d had a few Chardonnays, but the music, and Bono’s central performance fixed something inside of me that I hadn’t even acknowledged to myself as being broken. And, maybe, that’s what those shows did for him. Perhaps he was able to take strength from the love of the audience, and then send it back out, to another person who needed it. That’s rock n’ roll. That’s cool. This is a very large part of what Bono and U2 are about.
On another note, do you remember The Republic of Ireland football team as the support act? How we celebrated and went completely fucking bananas when that ball hit net. Bono was watching too. He wrapped himself in the tricolour for one last time, out on that extended stage and told us to “close our eyes and imagine it’s Jason McAteer!” Of course the place exploded, as he knew it would. The greatest song and dance man this island has ever produced, bar none.
The Showman (Little More Better)
As the result of a frankly bizarre set of circumstances, I found myself in Tulsa – the one in Oklahoma – for the opening night of U2’s eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour on May 2nd, 2018, with a gaggle of Irish media types. The night before the show we’d had an audience with The Edge and Adam Clayton and, on show day, we were privy to part of the sound check in the BOK Center. The band repeatedly hammered away at ‘I Will Follow’ and then we were gifted an insight into how hard Bono worked to get it right, as he experimented with the visual impact of his performance of ‘Until The End Of The World’. We had been warned before hand that Bono was not interested in talking, a seemingly gargantuan contradiction in terms, but as we were being lead out, a familiar sounding voice shouted to ask where we were all going, we turned to see the man himself approaching.
He was introduced to each of us in turn. “Pat Carty, Hot Press,” I said, by way of explanation, as I was, by some considerable distance, the most unfamiliar face present. “Oh,” replied Bono, or something equally profound. He then gathered us into a circle to explain the thinking behind the show, mentioning something about it being akin to being in a Marvel movie every night. It was fascinating to see him work this small crowd with as much cunning and craft as he would the slightly larger gathering that evening. It was also distinctly odd. If you’ve made it this far, you know that this man has been a looming and large figure in my life, and here he was talking to me. All right, not directly to me, but you get the idea. It was one of those “how the hell did I get here?” moments. I was waiting for the hand on the shoulder to tell me to leave. I still am.
More on that tour. The shows were spectacular. I was sent to report on them in Belfast, which offered some sort of pleasing circularity seeing as how I was there for the first one. They were, of course, phenomenally great, but the show had changed almost completely from opening night. Bono does not like to stand still. When they came to Dublin, I was asked to go on a popular drive-time radio show, to explain what was going on. Suffice to say that the host and I did not hit it off, he gave the impression that talking about U2 – or maybe it was talking to me – was beneath him. When it finished, I was slightly crest-fallen, thinking I had blown it. The phone rang very shortly after with an invitation, from U2’s PR Company, to that night’s show in the 3Arena. Do I think Bono was listening in, and moved his mighty hand to make it happen? No, but somebody in his organisation had. They’re good people.
How Long, To Sing This Song?
I am awoken from this reverie but another clatter from the fancy blower on my desk. Stuart Clark, again. “Pat. How are you, mate? When I said earlier about giving us your take on the man, you will remember to talk about him too, right? Say something about his philanthropy, his life outside the band, that kind of thing. We don’t just want pages and pages of your musical memories, as fascinating as they might be. Thanks, mate.” Click. Who does he think I am, Fintan O’Toole? OK, look, I got to go, yeah I’m running out of change, but I’ll give it a go.
There’s something deeply admirable about the way that Bono has used his fame and position for something other than pulling birds, getting high, and enriching himself, although he’s certainly managed the latter fairly well, and fair play to him. He even succeeded, back in the Eighties, in getting someone as apolitical as me to join Amnesty International and write a few letters. His work with Amnesty, his campaigning to raise awareness about the AIDS pandemic in Africa, for debt-relief, for fair-trade and any number of other causes led to him being called the “most politically effective celebrity of all time” Whatever you think of all this - and, hand on heart, I’ve gone to the bar a few times when the speeches started - surely it’s not too fanciful to argue that if all his time and effort has made even one life better - and it has done far, far more than that - then it has been a worthwhile pursuit.
But what about his taxes? Bono pays more tax in Ireland than you and I and all our families and friends will pay in ten lifetimes. That’s just a fact. Has that €10 million that the band just donated to secure PPE for our front line workers not quieted that racket? Then nothing will.
Bono married Alison Stewart in 1982. They met when they were teenagers. They’re still happily married with four children. The biggest rock star in the world is still married to his childhood sweetheart. He fell in love with a strong woman, and had the good sense to do everything in his power to hang on to her. That says more about the man than I ever could.
There’s the pips. I could say more, a lot more, but then we’d be here ‘til his next anniversary. What’s left to do but wish the man the happiest of birthdays? Singer, song writer, performer, artist, thorn in the side, pain in the arse, scourge of begrudgers, husband, father, rocker, roller, raconteur, provocateur, inspiration, hero, villain, talker, plámáser, cute hoor, icon, chancer, philanthropist, contortionist, song and dance man, the man – my glass is raised, here’s to you, Bono, and may you have many more. If you didn’t exist, we’d have to invent you, just to have someone to argue about.