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U2 Interviews

U2 puts on glitz, without old sales Pop
© J. Freedom du Lac, Sacramento Bee, 6/15/97

Lead singer Bono defends album, high-cost tour

If he who dies with the most toys wins, then what about he whose band _tours_
with the most toys?

Yep, chalk one up for the boys in U2.

After all, the band's gargantuan, crowd-pleasing PopMart Tour features more
playthings than FAO Schwarz.

There's the state-of-the-art, 56-by-170-foot LED wall that makes a Times Square
advertising screen look subtle.

Then, there's the 12-foot-wide stuffed olive held aloft by a 100-foot swizzle

Plus a 100-foot golden arch that will serve a few million by the time PopMart
finally shuts its doors next summer.

And, of course, the 40-foot, lemon-shaped disco ball that can carry, say, a popular Irish rock quarter from Point A to Point B at ... very...slow ... speeds.

Take away all the toys, though, and what's left?

U2 answered that question when it turned in a winning performance--sans PopMart props--at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York eight days ago, proving that it's a great rock band with or without you-know-what.

And now, U2's superstar front man, Bono, finds himself on the phone, answering a related question from his room in a posh New York hotel.

[Interviewer] "Was playing without all the toys liberating, or was it..."

"Cheaper!" Bono interjects before letting loose with a wicked laugh. "It was a
lot cheaper."

(What price dazzling spectacle? Daily PopMart production costs are about $225,000, which should help explain the $37.50 and $52.50 ticket prices for U2's shows at the Oakland Coliseum on Wednesday and Thursday.)

"Liberating?" Bono continues, his sleepy brogue coming to life. "I don't know.
We played the same way as we always play. "

"But it was funny; people came up to us and said, 'It's just four of you on a stage.' And I'm saying, 'That's the way it is every night, what are you talking about?'"

"I guess people think the lemon has been keeping us company."

The lemon might be symbolic of U2's fortunes these days.

With 1.2 million U.S. copies sold since its March 4 release, the band's new album, "Pop", has fallen short of the sales expectations set by record retailers, who had hoped the album would kick-start the sluggish music industry. (The group's high-water mark is 1987's "Joshua Tree" album, which sold nearly 10 million U.S. copies.)

PopMart, which began with a sold-out bang April 25 in Las Vegas, hasn't lived up to its blockbuster billing, either: Tour stops in San Diego; Denver; Eugene, Ore; Clemson, S.C.; and Memphis, Tenn., didn't sell out, and thousands of tickets are still available for Thursday's OaklandColiseum show.

"Is U2's 'Pop' Fizzy or Flat?" a recent Los Angeles Times headline asked. "Album, Tour Haven't Delivered Expected Punch, But Defenders Take the Long View".

That sound you hear on the other end of the phone is Bono attempting to whip up a batch of lemonade.

"The record is selling exactly the same as 'Achtung Baby' and 'Zooropa'," he says, citing U2's two previous albums, released in 1991 and 1993, respectively. "It's just not selling as much as some people want; they wanted us to do double the business."

"And this tour is doing brilliantly, considering we went touring two months after the album came out, which is a mad thing to do. Normally, we would go out four or five months later if we were going into the stadiums."

"It's greed, is what you're talking about. And we're not going to be taken up with that. We have our own people to play to, and occasionally, that crew expands and takes in more of the mainstream--or less of the mainstream, depending on what project we're on."

Despite the slow sales, the "Pop" project was hardly a creative misfire. Originally hyped as a dance-music album, it's really just an alternately brash and reflective rock record that features some good-to-great songs adorned with cutting-edge dance-music-rhthms and instrumentation.

"Mofo", for instance, is a blistering, pulsating, industrial-techno tour de force that demands attention with a daring sound that's miles--and genres--removed from "The Joshua Tree's" stadium-ready anthems. The chaotic song's strength, though, is in the lyrics, which are among the
most personal and revealing Bono, 37, has ever written for public consumption.

"Mother, am I still your son?
You know I've waited so long to hear you say so
Mother you left and made me someone
Now I'm still a child, but no one tells me no"

"It's a very desperate lyric," says Bono, whose mother died when he was still in his teens. "But (the song) has a bit of swagger to it to sweeten the pill. It's about the reason why I'm in a band--and why a lot of people who I meet have taken up electric guitar or whatever it is. There is a hole that you're attempting to fill as a painter, or a filmmaker or a shouter in a rock group,
and that's how you turn the pain of what's heppened to you in your life into some kind of blessing.

"When I see Michael Jackson singing, I can see that," he continues. "From John Lennon to John Lydon--there's hundreds of them who lost their mothers. So the nipple of rock 'n' roll is a replacement. Basically, these people--including myself--are throwing tantrums for a living because their mothers abandoned them. It goes back to the blues: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child."

Other pieces of "Pop" sparkle, too: The meditative, little-bit-country ballad, "If God Will Send His Angels", the accusatory Beatlesque hit, "Staring at the Sun", the impatient, (Pink) Floydian, faith-challenging "Wake Up Dead Man".

"It's an awkward, complex, sophisticated record," the singer says. "And it's
going to take a year for it to sink in."

The PopMart show, on the other hand, is far more immediate.

At the tour opener in Las Vegas, the band galvanized a stadium full of fans with
a 22-song set that was played with passion and conviction--if not precision.

"It was more Icarus than Alcock and Brown," Bono says of the show, dipping into Greek mythology and British aviation history to (essentially) say that the opening-night flight wasn't exactly turbulence-free.

Still, the muisc in Vegas was largely transcendent.

And the stunning lighting schemes and the giant animation and live band images
on the video wall weren't too shabby, either.

But if the multimedia feast that was U2's Zoo TV Tour provided overwhelming portions of food for thought, then PopMart is offering a special on artistic comfort food on aisle U2.

"Zoo TV was a very cerebral show," says the band's longtime tour director, Willie Williams. "It was a head show. PopMart is going for a more visceral response.

"The 'Pop' album is trippy, emotional music. It's not clever; it's not the Fly (one of Bono's characters from Zoo TV). It works on a more emotional level, so there's nothing to understand. It's kind of like having a hot bath. You just bathe in all these visuals."

Occasionally, the visuals even star the band members, who are dwarfed by the stage setting, but appear throughout the show in live video shots blown up on the massive screen.

"The job of art is to discover beauty in places where people don't usually find it," Bono says slyly. "In fashion photography, we're photographing the beautiful people. We know they're f------ beautiful; f--- off, you know?

"But you take some freckly Irish head like my own and put it up 40 feet on a big screen--if that looks beautiful, now that's art!" It's also funny; Bono can't stop laughing at the thought.

Don't be fooled by the snickering, though--or by the often-amusing animated images that appear on the screen and the nightly Monkees or Neil Diamond cover by U2's otherwise straight-faced guitar player, The Edge.

PopMart is hardly a comedy show.

"As much as we've got the fun and the funk covered with all the stuff--and it _is_ fun to talk about the 40-foot lemon and to have the drive-in movie screen--in the end, these are tricks to enable us to get away with our songs and not appear to be bleeding all over everybody," Bono says.

"Which, of course, is what we do on a nightly basis."