The Year of Living Dangerously"); include("../../header.php"); opentable(); ?>

U2 Interviews

The Year of Living Dangerously
© Independent Online: 31/12/1997

U2 started '97 badly, but their annus horribilis has undergone a miraculous recovery. Interview: Andrew Mueller

When I meet Bono, by the pool in the garden behind the Delano hotel on Miami's South Beach, we are hanging out with some of the most beautiful women in the world, getting fully into it.

I get introduced to Helena Christensen, and my interview with Bono is interrupted when he is distracted by Veronica Webb wandering over to say `Hello'. I am inclined to forgive Bono for this, a Veronica Webb wandering over to say hello would distract a man performing an emergency tracheotomy on his brother.

In Miami, U2 have brought their current album, Pop, back to the city where some of it was recorded, and after which one of its songs was named. U2 clearly feel at home here. They've pitched camp in the Delano, flying back after shows in other cities in the Boeing 727 they've leased for the tour.

Some of the band's families have come to enjoy the sun there are seven U2 children and various friends have flown in, Elvis Costello among them. George Clooney is also staying here (``Hey,'' says Bono, as we leave the hotel to find a bar showing the Ireland vs Belgium game, ``there's Batman playing basketball, cooooool!''), and though he hasn't come as a friend of the band, he leaves as one.

U2's organisation has the feel of a large there are 2OO people on tour and happy family.

It may help that many of their closest staff have associations with the band going back most of the 2O-odd years of U2's existence. It may also help that many of their closest staff, whether by accident or design, are women.

The four members of U2 are themselves unfailingly courteous and pleasant, certainly more so than men regularly credited with a combined wealth of £3OOm really have to be.

Edge, the permanently behatted guitarist, cheerfully puts the case for the defence when, on my first night in Miami, I subject the poor chap to a Marguerita-sodden rant about the Spice Girls (the argument is abandoned when even Elvis Costello won't take my side he's a barman in the Spice movie).

Larry Mullen Jr, the ageless drummer whose high-school noticeboard advertisement brought U2 together, introduces himself and apologises for not speaking on the record on the grounds that, ``I only feel comfortable sitting at my kit hitting stuff.'' Adam Clayton, the bass player who comes nearer than any of them to mustering the hauteur of the rock 'n' roll aristocrat, talks after the concert for far longer than scheduled. He agrees that U2 are not like other groups.

``We still live within 2O minutes of each other in Dublin,'' he marvels. ``We spend a lot of time together. Other bands, when they get to our age, there's a couple of jealousies, there are management problems. We've been lucky, or wise, and we can devote our energy to being in U2. We keep a full-time staff, which a lot of people don't. We take risks, and we look like fools sometimes, and other times people say ... `yes. and that's the kind of band I want to be in.' We're very lucky and I tell you, it's only on this tour I've started to realise that
on a daily basis.''

Bono certainly seems to be enjoying himself. He flits between tables in the Delano's garden, dressed in black with silver sunglasses and the leopard-print loafers Gucci made to match the interior of his Mercedes, chatting to those he knows, signing things for those he doesn't.

He's a prolific and entertaining talker who, you can imagine, gave the Blarney Stone the one kiss it still talks about.

Usually, for someone as famous as he, little of what he says is about himself he talks instead about things he's read, people he's met, places he's been. He bangs away about Picasso, a radical church in San Francisco, the morning he woke in a strange flat in Tokyo to find a snake crawling up his leg.

He's also a generous listener. ``I like that generosity in Americans,'' he says later. ``We haven't the cultural baggage that other bands in the UK would have, because we're Irish. We don't see America as the devil like the English do, so we came here early on and spent a lot of time here.''

The Popmart tour started in Las Vegas in April. When the subject of the opening night is raised now, Edge can just about laugh at the memory of searching hopelessly for his plectrum in a smoke-machine fog as the encore started without him. Vegas was a rare old shambles. U2 didn't know the new songs, didn't sound interested in the old ones, and the junk-culture concept holding it together looked, after the sensory overclad of Zoo TV, rather trite.

U2 were lost under a huge yellow, orange and green backdrop which included the biggest television screen ever built. Rumours emerged of poor sales of tickets and also, worryingly, of the heavily dance-influenced `Pop' album.

Things have improved as PopMart has acquired momentum. The shows are a joy, a gleeful satire of consumer culture shrouding some of the most intimate and troubled songs U2 have recorded, and `Pop' has shifted 6.5 million copies.

Perhaps some confusion was to be expected. The transformation in U2 over the last ten years has been extraordinary.

In l987, they released `The Joshua Tree', their biggest-selling album, which remains a benchmark for gazing-into-the-middle-distance ascetic seriousness. This was followed by `Rattle & Hum', which saw U2 recording with Boy Dylan and BB King, effectively sneaking into the rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame and hanging their own portraits on the wall.

It was a period which was regarded by critics, and not altogether without reason, as the epitome of rock's post-Live Aid pomposity. But buried somewhere on `Rattle and Hum' was the line ``I don't believe in riches/ But you should see where I live'' - which might have been the first acknowledgement that U2 needed to resolve a few contradictions.

An astonishing process of auto-iconoclasm followed with the new decade. `Achtung Baby', the l99l album recorded in Berlin against the backdrop of post-communist Europe, was a revelation to those who'd written U2 off as earnest dinosaurs with haircuts Chris Waddle would have baulked at. Dark, moody, suffused with a Leonard Cohen-esque love hangover, `Achtung Baby' was cool, sexy and witty.

The revolution was completed with the last track of Zooropa, the weird and wired l993 album recorded on and around the Zoo TV tour. The song was called The Wanderer, and featured Johnny Cash on vocals. It wasn't the first time U2 had hooked up with one of their heroes, but it was the first time they'd made one a prop for their own vision, rather than merely offering homage.

Ten years earlier, U2 had dressed up like cowboys. Now, they were dressing a cowboy as a Kraftwerkian Europop mannequin. No wonder America was starting to have doubts [``In mainstream America,'' acknowledges Clayton, ``they don't do camp''].

In Miami, just before U2 play I Still Haven't found What I'm Looking For, Bono makes a speech thanking the crowd for their patience. ``If we keep it interesting for us,'' he tells them, ``it won't be bullshit for you.''

``I have to accept,'' he says the next afternoon, ``that we have confused the punters a little. But we know what we're doing. I can't afford myself the luxury of the idea that if people don't get it they are somehow not smart enough. I feel that if the idea is realised enough, people will get it.''

Bono is a restless interviewee, physically and mentally, sitting up and lying down as ideas occur to him. He's not keen on giving detailed explanations behind the songs on `Pop' [``they're not necessarily my point of view''], which is a shame, as they appear to be some of the most personal he's written Mofo, in particular, contains what must be references to the early loss of his mother, and the strange course that set him on [``Mother you left and made me someone/ Now I'm still a child but no one tells me no''], and does appear explicitly to identify Bono as the narrator [``Lookin' for the sound that's gonna drown out the world/ Lookin' for the father of my two little girls'']. Nevertheless, he's not having it.

When we approach the religious references on Pop specifically the reproaches of an open letter to Jesus called Wake Up Dead Man and I ask if his view of religion has been at all moulded by the fact that he's spent so long being worshipped himself, he actually applauds.

`Wow,'' he laughs. ``I'll get out of bed for that. No, basically. But most musicians I know say that the great stuff is what they stumble upon, and the average stuff is what they can claim authorship of. I do feel that U2 write songs by accident. Maybe that's why we keep shifting ground, to stay out of our depth.''

The hapless metaphor is left to try untangling itself. Bono's off.

``It all started with the psalms of David,'' he continues. ``They were the first blues. There, you had man shouting at God. `Why have you left me? Where have you gone? Who do you think you are anyway.'' In the absence of God, people have promoted a lot of lesser types to the position, which is confusing. Film stars, pop stars, royalty, are not heroes. Nurses are. Mothers are. I'm not up for discussing what I believe in detail because some subjects are too precious for interviews. Also, I haven't got it figured out, so I don't want to make an arse of myself. But I feel there is love and logic behind the universe, and ... I have great respect for atheists. Though, I feel that God would have more time for them than for most who are part of a religion, who seem so odd to me, or doped. I think atheists have a certain rigour.''

While we talk, passers-by stop to ask for an autograph, or to mumble embarrassed `hello's. Watching him deal with this, his lack of condescension or annoyance is startling.

``Well,'' muses Bono, I guess, when we were 23 or 24, we went through the phase where groups move into houses, and start putting paintings on the wall and they don't want to look like rednecks, so they read up on what paintings they should have, and what Chinese rugs ... I guess we must have gone through a Chinese-rug phase, but we were over it coming out of our twenties. The weird thing is that you're left with only the right motives. If the reason you joined a band was to get laid, get famous, get rich they all went by the way fairly early, so all we're left with is ... make that record.''

U2 in general and Bono in particular, have often been scoffed at, especially in Britain, where they have never quite managed to be fashionable [``The one thing they can't buy is credibility,'' spat an NME review of Zoo TV]. This is not unusual for a successful rock group. What is unusual is the equanimity with which they shrug it off many are the millionaires who will, given the chance, bitterly recite every bad review they've ever had. Bono can think of critiques that have amused him, but none that he's taken real offence at.

``Bands at our level deserve to be humbled,'' he says. ``But it was that very gauche nature of where we were at that allowed us entry into a world where much more careful and cooler acts couldn't allow themselves or, depending on your point of view, were too smart to want to visit.''

The trouble is, I tell him, that for most artists their fear of looking like an idiot far outweighs their possibilities of attaining greatness.

Hoping Bono will forgive the impudence, I suggest that this has never appeared to be a problem for him.

``That's right,'' he said. ``Obviously, it's better to do it in private, but when you're growing up in public, that's hard. I think one of the things I found difficult in the eighties was this din of voices telling me `You can't fly, arsehole'. But that's the kind of thinking that results in restrained, reasonable music.''

``I love to write, and that's what I'd do if I couldn't still perform. The deadlines are something I'd have a problem with.''

As we wander down to the beach, I say that it can hardly have escaped his notice that back in Ireland, there might be exciting career opportunities awaiting someone with his credentials. After all, if Dana can give the presidency a shake on the strength of Eurovision appearance ...

``Nah,'' Bono says, and rubs one eye under shades. ``I wouldn't move to a smaller house.''