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U2 Interviews

Billion dollar dreams
© The Guardian 04.03.2000

It seems like an age-old story. Rich pop star gets fed up with hotel rooms and ventures off in a new direction. But for U2's Bono, the world has, literally, become a stage. Having doorstepped a host of national leaders in his campaign to cancel Third World debt, he's now made a film with ace German director Wim Wenders. And guess what, it's set in a hotel. 

Sean O'Hagan 
Saturday March 4, 2000 

German TV interviewer: 'You own a hotel. Now, you've made a film about a hotel. Why hotels?' 

Bono: 'Rock bands tend to know a lot about hotels. Hotels are where we live.' 

Almost 10 years ago, after an afternoon's drinking by the pool of the Sunset Marquis hotel, I found myself sharing a cab with the lead singer of U2, heading towards the cluster of skyscrapers that comprise downtown Los Angeles. The area, Bono warned me on the way, was a place of extremes even by LA standards: by day, populated by bankers and bond traders; by night, a magnet for the disaffected, the down-at-heel and the just plain deranged. 

Our destination was the Million Dollar Hotel, a building that had captured the singer's imagination in 1987 when the band had done a photo-shoot on its roof during the tour that followed the release of their 15-million-selling album, The Joshua Tree. Within moments of our arrival, it was easy to see why the Bono, then infatuated with the writings of Charles Bukowski and Tennessee Williams, had been so mesmerised by the place. The Million Dollar Hotel had once been a symbol of the great American dream, and was so named because it was the first such establishment to cost that talismanic amount to construct. This being America, the fact was then duly celebrated in illuminated, 20ft-tall letters on the roof.

Now, though, it was a shadow of its former self, and all the more intriguing for that. The 30s art-deco lobby looked like a cross between a film set and a welfare queue. Its once-opulent rooms were now home to a microcosmic cross-section of the lower echelons of LA's fiercely divided society: blue-collar workers roomed next door to welfare mothers; misfits and drop-outs mingled with the inevitable flotsam and jetsam of Tinseltown, the wannabes and might-have-beens stranded in that cruel limbo-land where Hollywood was both a cab ride and a whole world away. 

We gained access to the roof and stood in the shadows cast by the giant, rusty sign, surveying the gleaming glass-and-steel towers and, way beyond them in the distance, the hazy, sun-burnished hills. Then, Bono led me across to the edge of the building, nodded at the rooftop opposite, which had seemed reasonably close at ground level but which from here was separated by a yawning gap dropping 25 storeys to the street, and asked if I thought I could "make the leap". His beefy minder twitched visibly, wondering, like myself, where this was leading. The leap in question was probably not that big, but the drop... well, let's just say that a cursory glance over the side was enough to dispel any margarita-fuelled bravado and send me scampering back to the relative safety of the garish hotel sign.
Much to the relief of the minder, Bono eventually followed me. "It's do-able," he said, as we left the roof, "but you'd need a good long run-up to it." 

Nearly 10 years later, The Million Dollar Hotel, a film directed by the German director Wim Wenders, starring Australian actor Mel Gibson and scripted by American writer Nicholas Klein, from an original story by the Irish rock star, is opening the 50th Berlin film festival.
Metaphorically, at least, Bono - after a good long run-up - has finally made that leap. "It was initially going to be a play about a leap of faith," he elaborates, in a car on the way to the gala opening of the film festival, "but then it mutated into something bigger and darker. I'd call it a dark fable about the redemptive power of love. And love, of course, is the ultimate leap of faith." 

Italian TV interviewer: 'Ciao, maestro! Why did you pick this Million Dollar Hotel? It is a sad place, no?' 

Bono: 'Very sad. I was there once when a woman was thrown out of a window.' 

Italian TV interviewer: 'Fantastic!' 

The film opens with a long, single-take helicopter shot of downtown LA, accompanied by the opening verses of For The First Time, a slow, reflective U2 ballad from the 1993 Zooropa album. As the camera pans down to, and then across, the Million Dollar sign, we see a young man standing alone on the roof. In slow motion, he runs across the rooftop and makes an altogether different leap into - depending on where you're coming from - nothingness or eternity. As he falls to his death, we hear, in voice-over, one of the great opening lines of recent times: "After I jumped, it occurred to me, life is perfect . . ." 

It is a moment of pure cinema that recalls Wenders' last great work, Wings Of Desire, and reminds you why the director, though not on form of late, remains so influential. Similar bravura moments punctuate a film that is, by turns, baffling and strangely seductive, but that also, like too many contemporary films, outstays its welcome by some considerable time. 

Though it features strong performances from Jeremy Davies as Tom Tom, the holy fool at the story's centre, and Milla Jovovich, the model, actress and current face of L'Oréal cosmetics, the dreamy and narcotic narrative - part doomed romance, part murder mystery, part art-scam - unfolds at a meandering pace. The story, though ultimately heartbreaking, is peopled by a cast of damaged characters whose weirdness reflects the singularity of the real Million Dollar Hotel. Gibson fans would be unwise to expect an action-fest, given that he wanders through the film in a metal neckbrace and wears a permanent grimace; the result, we learn, of a botched operation to remove a third arm that grew out of his back. (His best line: "When I was a kid, I could play the violin and wipe my ass at the same time.") 

Rumours Stateside were that Gibson was less than enchanted with the final product, and he did not attend the festival. When I express my own reservations to Bono, he is unexpectedly candid about what has been, after all, a long-term labour of love.
"I think the beginning and end are fantastic, and the last third is good," he says, "but the first act has a few too many lines that aren't funny enough. But there you go. It was a small budget, a 36-day shoot, so you're always going to drop a few balls." 

Austrian TV interviewer: 'Do you believe in angels?' 

Bono: 'Yes, I do. And so does Wim Wenders.' 

At the opening night of the Berlin Film Festival, the invited audience, initially buzzing from a high celebrity presence then lulled into near-sleep by four long introductory speeches in German, give the film a prolonged ovation. It is later awarded the Silver Bear jury prize. Then again, this is Wenders' city, the landscape that he mythologised in Wings Of Desire, and he is regarded here with a reverence that seems undented by his recent run of less engaging films.

"I think Wim marches to his own tune," says Bono afterwards, "and it's a very unmodern position he takes. I mean, I've nodded off during Until The End Of The World - he showed me the full, five-hour version in his apartment - but he's like a jazzman to me. He takes the melody line and changes the chords underneath, he improvises and extracts the essence. It's all about what you're left with. That's not where we're at right now, though, and he knows that, but he doesn't care. Wim once said that America had colonised our consciousness, but now I think it's advertising and MTV that have colonised our movie consciousness. It's Boom! Boom! Boom! Very fast, very self-conscious, and he's the opposite of that. His films are all about what hangs around in your head and your heart afterwards; that lingering resonance. Even people who haven't liked the film have found that it nagged at them for days afterwards. I can't figure out how he does it, but it's fine with me." 

For me, the most successful scenes are the ones without dialogue, when Wenders' allegorical urban landscapes are enhanced by some extraordinarily sensual music. The soundtrack tends towards what might be called "ambient jazz", and serves the narrative in the way that old classic scores used to, creating and counterpointing a mood. It also features two new U2 songs, as well as Jovovich delivering a pretty good version of Lou Reed's Satellite Of Love. The most intriguing track, though, is The Ground Beneath Her Feet, lyrics written by Salman Rushdie, and included in his "rock novel" of the same name. 

Bono and Rushdie first met when the rock star invited the writer - who was at the time a virtual recluse because of the post-Satanic Verses fatwah imposed on him by Ayatollah Khomeini - on stage during the Zoo TV show at Wembley Stadium in the early 90s. Rushdie has described the song as a "kind of a rock version of Orpheus' lament... a beautiful, sad, ballady love song, perfectly suited to Bono's voice". He is obviously a big fan of U2: he recently named them - alongside the Beatles, Elvis, Dylan, the Velvet Underground and REM - in a roll-call of his favourite groups. What, though, did Bono make of Rushdie's rock 'n' roll novel? "I was taken aback by how accurate parts of it were. Okay, he might have got the shoes wrong - though I'm not sure he did - but who cares? His subject is ideas and people, and he certainly got that right. I know he does that magic-realist thing, which can be a get-out, but, honestly, I was shocked by his grasp of the pop life."

Another German TV interviewer: 'Do you consider yourself a pioneer, musical or otherwise?' 

Bono: 'I would certainly consider myself to be one of the inventors of the mullet. I think it comes down to Patrick Swayze or me.' 

The interviewer looks puzzled. 

Bono: 'Anyone know the German for mullet?' 

Apart from once sporting the same awful haircut as Patrick Swayze, Bono has, as The Million Dollar Hotel illustrates, done a spot of pioneering in one or two other spheres. In the past 10 years or so, having already made U2 the biggest rock group in the world, then deconstructed their stadium-rock sound with a brace of challenging albums and two state-of-the-art, round-the-globe multimedia tours - 1993's Zoo TV and 1997's Pop Mart, respectively - he has pursued an ambitious extra-curricular schedule. He's recorded with Pavarotti and Sinatra; opened a hip hotel, the Clarence, and a successful nightclub, the Kitchen, in his native Dublin; brought John Hume and David Trimble together on a Belfast stage in the lead-up to Northern Ireland's historic Yes vote. In the past year, he has overseen the making of the film, written and recorded the soundtrack, penned an introduction to The Book Of Psalms for the Canongate mini-Bible series, fathered a third child - a boy called Elijah Bob - and seized hold of Jubilee 2000, the campaign to draw attention to, and hopefully abolish, the burden of Third World debt. 

German radio interviewer: 'Recently, you've met Bill Clinton and the Pope. Who's next - God?' 

Bono: 'Oh, I'm sure I'll get to meet him one day. But maybe not just yet.' 

Bono describes Jubilee 2000 as "bigger than anything I will ever have anything to do with again as along as I live". It has thus far taken up a year-and-a-half of his time, and his global lobbying of the great and the good has helped ensure that at least $100 billion is written off the Third World's crippling debt to the west. "Not a bad year's work, eh?" 

A recent issue of Newsweek, in a cover story called Bono's Crusade, neatly summarised how he acted as a catalyst on what was, in effect, a stalled cause.
"Since the mid-80s, advocates have tried to call attention to the rising burden of Third World debt, only to have their arguments disappear into the yawn of public apathy. Their cause lacked sex appeal, visibility. It lacked . . . celebrity. Improvising an ad hoc network of academics, celebrities, demi-celebs and debt-relief advocates, and using his own star power as a calling card, Bono finagled his way into the varnishedcorridors of real power." 

It's true: Bono has successfully argued the case for debt relief and ethical investment with Clinton and his closest advisers, with hard-line Republican economists, with European presidents and with the British prime minister. Alongside Live Aid veteran "Saint" Bob Geldof, he even managed to blag an audience with the Pope, whose rosary beads he now wears draped around his neck - "I swapped them for my Zoo TV shades." 

But why did he get involved with Jubilee 2000 in the first place? "I remember coming back from Ethiopia with Ali [his wife], after working in the camps for a month there in the 80s, and both of us promising never to forget. But you do forget. When I first read about the campaign, it struck me as achievable, as well as desirable. So if I can open doors simply because I'm a celebrity, then I'll use that for all it's worth." So far, the celebrity ticket has got him into the Oval Office at the White House, and into the office of the chairman of American Express, as well as the Vatican. He even turned up in Sandy Berger's (Clinton's chief political adviser) office on the very morning they were doing the deal on Kosovo - "Maps all over the place, and him going, 'Fine, Bono, but how much will it cost us?' It's been surreal, all right, but it seems to be working." 

What's been the most surreal moment?
"The Pope was pretty out there. He had some amazing footwear underneath the white frock - kind of Gucci-style oxblood slippers. Serious dancing shoes!" Some people, I suggest, might find the idea of a
rock 'n' roller meeting with the Pope - particularly the present one, who is not known for his liberal tendencies - something of a sell-out? "For sure. I know a lot of women, in particular, are fed up and upset with the Pope for his stand on issues like divorce and contraception, and I can understand that, particularly as an Irish man. But, in this instance, he was a natural ally. He was into this cause in a big way. It seemed the obvious thing to do to try and get in touch with him. I wanted him to come to Cologne last year for the G8 meeting, but he couldn't make it, so he sent for us instead. Me and Geldof in the Vatican - I mean, you have no idea how surreal that was." 

Thus far, 37 countries out of the 46 targeted by Jubilee 2000 have agreed to all or partial cancellation of the debts owed them by the Third World, with Britain and then the US leading the way. It is difficult to quantify just what this will mean for debtor nations in the long term.
As Newsweek noted, "much of the G8 forgave portions of debt that were realistically unpayable", but, despite some economists' predictions that some countries might actually make higher payments in the proposed new deal, Bono insists that "certain terms will be set in place that the African countries are insisting on - new business deals, new trade, new investment, but on an altogether fairer basis. People forget," he adds, "that Germany was availed of debt relief after the war and that's what kick-started the strongest economy in Europe." 

This is a rock star who has done his homework. "I have some very cool people backing me up, like Jeff Sachs, who's an economics professor at Harvard. He can crunch the numbers when they try and bamboozle me. But, yeah, you have to know what you're talking about or these guys simply eat you for breakfast. I mean, think about it: I'm a scruffy rock star marching into the White House. It's a bit cheeky." 

Perhaps what is most intriguing here is not Bono's long-term embrace of the ideal of rock star as both activist and philanthropist, but the sense that we are living in a historical moment when the intercession of caring, credible celebrities can have an impact - in terms of global realpolitik - that would have seemed impossible even a decade ago. As Bono points out, since the likes of Clinton and, latterly, Blair came into power, there exists what might well be a one-off window of opportunity for pop-culture idealists to make a real difference. "These guys grew up with rock and roll, they speak a different language from the likes of Reagan, Bush and Thatcher, who saw the 60s as the decade that poisoned their nation's youth. I would not have got a foot in the door of the White House in the old days, and I may not again after Bill Clinton goes. So, basically, you have to seize the moment." 

How, exactly, do you seize the moment with someone such as John Rockefeller, the Amex chairman, and all the other global über-capitalists whose corporate creed surely regards the cancellation of debt as anathema. "Well, I was told over and over again that the bankers would stop this going through because it is against their religion. That it's just not in their genetic make-up. That, to me, just meant I had to shift the focus from the politicians on to them. My whole vibe was, 'Who's Elvis here?' I wanted to cut the crap and go straight to the top." 

At the top, he finally encountered "the real Elvises", the likes of Larry Summers, the 43- year-old secretary of the American treasury, and Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, builders of the healthiest US economy in recent times. 

At this altitude, Bono's previous celebrity contacts came in very handy. A meeting with Bobby Schriver, a Kennedy nephew who also happens to be a music producer, resulted in Schriver's brother-in-law, Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling up hard-line Republican, John Kasich, on the singer's behalf. "The Kennedys can open doors that I could not even get within stone-throwing distance of," Bono laughs, still obviously relishing his head-to-head with the American right.
"The meeting I had with Kasich [House Budget Committee chairman] was probably as far-fetched as it got, because this dude could not be a liberal if he tried. I was told over and over that he was the guy whose ear I needed in the Republican camp. I finally got through to him, and he goes [breaks into loud American drawl], 'Hey, Bono, what can I do for you?' I told him, and then waited for the phone to click, but he just said, 'Right. Okay. I gotta think about this, but, hey, just one question - do you think OK Computer is better than The Bends?' The guy was a total Radiohead nut." 

French TV interviewer: 'Is it difficult to make music when you have so many other things to do?' 

Bono: 'Nah. Making movies is hard. Saving the world is less hard. Making music is easy. The new U2 album is the easiest thing I'll do this year.' 

The morning after the film's premiere, on the plane from Berlin to London, I ask if maybe all this extra-curricular activity signalled an unconscious frustration with the limitations of pop music. "That's an interesting thought, and one that has crossed my mind a few times," he replies, "but, essentially, it comes down not to frustration but to boredom, and my own curiosity about the world. I'm definitely driven by that and, in one way, pop music doesn't satisfy that drive. The thing is, I find it easier to hang out with writers and film-makers than I do with musicians. And, that's my fault, not theirs. And I actually enjoy being out of my depth - I thrive on it." 

It sounds as if you might be bored with pop per se ? "No way - in the past year, I would keep waking up with all these tunes in my head and getting really frustrated because the band weren't around me to rehearse them. It gave me a real sense of what we do, and what we do well, and how much I missed doing it. Plus, we're leaner and tighter than we've ever been. If anything, I'm more fired up by U2 than I've ever been." 

For the present, at least, Bono is back at his day job, in the company of the Edge, Larry, Adam and long-time studio collaborators, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. A new, as yet untitled, album is currently being recorded in the group's Dublin studio and is scheduled for release in August. It will be followed by yet another planet-straddling tour that, reading between the lines, might well feature a return to rock basics after the full-on - and no doubt cripplingly expensive - extravaganzas that were the Zoo TV and Pop Mart jaunts. Bono describes the feel of the album-in-progress as "stripped down but joyous. It's the sound of four guys playing in a room, rediscovering what they're good at." 

Though 1991's Achtung Baby and 1993's Zooropa albums both saw U2 successfully embrace a newer, hard-edged sound, 1998's Pop was a less realised attempt to merge rock and dance music. I asked him if he thought that the group had maybe lost their way on Pop; that they had, perhaps, sacrificed their essence in the race to stay ahead of the game. "I don't look at it as any kind of failure. It sold seven million copies for a start. We had strong material and, though we worked everybody into the ground, I don't think we finished the songs or cracked the arrangements. We simply ran out of time.
The tour was booked and we had to do it. We won't make that mistake again." 

If Pop was an album that could be said to have been born out of a particular moment - "I became a fan of club music, of drug culture, of everything that was going on at the time. I just immersed myself in it all" - then the new album sounds like a return to some kind of tradition. "Pop was about assimilation," he says, warming to the unstated subject of U2's place in the pop scheme of things, "but now I think that maybe assimilation is not the future. 

"Ironically enough, it was Howie B [the DJ-cum-producer who worked on Pop] who turned us on to this. He's fascinated by the things that rock bands can do that he can't. He kept saying, 'You're a band, you don't need all these samples.' And it's true. We've become a three-piece rock band with a singer again. It's a good feeling." 

Suddenly, on the packed plane, he bursts into song, an a cappella fragment from a new track called In A Little While: "In a little while/This hurt will be no more," he sings, his hands clapping time to the melody. "In a little while/oh Lord . . ." As besuited necks crane, he repeats the lines, louder now, a song, and a feeling, taking shape in this crowded cabin.
"That's the vibe," he laughs, swigging from a bottle of airline wine, oblivious to the slight commotion he has caused in the hermetic world of club-class privilege. "It's totally upful. There's another song called Tough, which I wrote for my dad - a kind of you-don't-have-to-be-tough-all-the-time song - and a big soul tune called Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of. Brian Eno has bet me £100 that it will be the biggest song we've ever written." The spirit of the old pre-Zoo TV U2 - the fabled "big music" of Gloria and Pride (In The Name Of Love) - might be reasserting itself once more. "It's nothing at all like the old stuff," he says, "but, I suppose, if you don't like the spirit of U2 - if you don't like the moods and colours of U2 - you probably won't like it." 

Once, when I asked him about the dark tones of Achtung Baby around the time of that album's release, he told me that it was "a series of variations on the theme of love betrayed". I wondered, then, if the new album had a similar unifying theme. The answer was long in coming - and somewhat surprising. "It's all written from a certain point of view, and if there is a governing idea it comes from something the Irish poet Brendan Keneally once said - that the best way to write was to imagine you're dead. You lose all vanity, then. I'm approaching it like it's our last record, really." 

Is he suggesting that it might actually be the group's final album? "No, not at all. I'm just approaching the writing of it like that, as an experiment. I suppose what I'm saying is that you should treat every album as if it's your last, as if your life depended on it. The new stuff has fire and it has spunk. It's ecstatic music . . .
There," he laughs, "that should put loads of people off." 

Ecstatic, though, is what U2 do well. As Bono points out, "it's easy to do angst and anger, but happiness is a whole other struggle". He has, he says, been fired up of late by the "swagger and joy of Oasis on their day", and by the originality of Radiohead - "There are some extraordinary moments on those last two albums that, to my ears, are as good as anything ever made in pop music" - and, reading between the lines, it is these groups, rather than any of his contemporaries, that U2 are eager to compete with. "I don't want to be in a band unless it's the best band in the world," he had told a gaggle of European radio interviewers earlier in the day, not boastfully, but simply as an illustration of the drive that still burns inside, that still undercuts everything he puts his overcrowded mind to. 

"These days, everyone wants John Lennon's sunglasses, accent and swagger," he says, as a parting shot, "but no one is prepared to take their clothes off and stand naked like he did in his songs.
Putting your head over the parapet means something completely different these days, but it's still a big part of what rock is all about for me. You have to use your celebrity, negotiate your position and be aware that celebrity can diminish a cause as much as illuminate it. It's risky, but rock'n'roll is all about taking risks. For it to mean anything at all, you have to take different kinds of risks, you have to keep making that leap." 

• © Sean O'Hagan. The soundtrack to The Million Dollar Hotel is released on March 13. The film opens April 28. The new U2 album will be released in the late summer.

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