U2: Truths and Consequences

The band grapple with what it means to be rock & roll superstars

Guitarist The Edge (left) and singer Bono of Irish rock group U2, performing at Wembley Arena, London, 2nd June 2nd, 1987. Credit: Dave Hogan/Getty

"I must say, I don't feel very qualified to be a pop star," says Bono, U2's lead singer, one overcast February afternoon as he drives through Dublin. "I don't think I'm a very good pop star, and I feel very awkward at times in the role. I think there are other people far better suited than me."

He pauses and laughs. "I sometimes think it might have been a mistake — you picked up the wrong guy! Look, I'm built more like a mechanic or something, a carpenter. I mean, take a look at these hands -- these are the hands of a bricklayer."

Bono has chosen a highly charged moment to begin questioning his qualifications for pop stardom. With the release of The Joshua Tree, U2's fifth, farthest-reaching and flat-out best studio LP, and a massive world tour in the works, Bono and his cohorts in U2 — guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — will undoubtedly rise to the superstardom that has always been their goal but has always loomed as more of a promised land, ardently desired but seen from afar, than an imminent reality. Bono's half-hopeful statement that "U2 will be the band that's always coming and never arrives" is about to be proven wrong in spades.

U2's recent triumphs have raised vexing questions for Bono — artistic and personal questions all the more troubling because of the position of moral authority U2 has attained. Over the past few years, rock & roll has gone a long way toward establishing itself as a force for good in the world, and U2 has been at the forefront of the artists that have contributed to that movement. The band's 1983 LP War helped restore social consciousness to rock, and its galvanizing performances at Live Aid and during Amnesty International's six-concert Conspiracy of Hope tour defined the dual spirit of moral purpose and fervent celebration at the heart of those events. Success seemed to go hand in hand with significance for U2, and by the time the Conspiracy of Hope tour ended with a spectacular stadium concert last June, the whole pop-music world seemed poised for whatever U2 decided to do next.

All the while, however, as Bono saw the prominence of U2 increase, he wondered about the myths of excess and frivolous destruction that had grown up around rock & roll in the course of its history. He wondered what he and his band were supposed to represent in the context of that mythology. Was high-mindedness simply U2's "angle," an image as confining in its way as the fashion stance of the latest haircut band? As its audience and profits multiplied, what finally would separate U2 from the herd of Bands That Matter that had come down the pike and had burned out or taken a sharp right turn into comfort and apathy? He also wondered about the sirenlike lure that rock-star indulgence might hold for him. This internal interrogation — a process Bono refers to as "wrestling with myself for a living" — stokes the dissatisfaction that burns at the center of The Joshua Tree, and within Bono himself as he stands on the verge of a potentially dangerous ascent.

"I don't accept the rock & roll mythology of 'living on the edge, man,' — I don't accept that," the twenty-six-year-old Bono says during the drive through Dublin, gesturing with characteristic intensity and making it uncomfortably clear that the point he is making is considerably more important to him than keeping his eyes on the road.

"We're all pretty much removed from reality, I suppose — the reality of life and death. But rock & roll is even more removed from reality. Rock & roll artists who are living on the edge — what can they possibly have to offer? Their songs are written from such a removed point of view. "We're all asleep in some way or another," he says. "I've used my music to wake me up. ... I find now that I've been reading about them, I'm much more attracted to those old folkies, you know, like Woody Guthrie, people who work within their community. They're working, and their labor is writing a song."

Larry Mullen's home, in the coastal town of Howth, is the destination of Bono's drive. Mullen's sparsely furnished but comfortable suburban-style house — complete with clothes hung in the yard and a frisky dog — sits on a small hill overlooking the Irish Sea. It's drizzling outside. Framed by a picture window, the grays and blues of the sky and the sea merge into an impressionist blur. The weather inspires such a reflective mood that Mullen will joke later on, as the Judds' sprightly album Why Not Me enlivens the interior of his sports car on the drive back into town: "Somehow driving along like this in the middle of Dublin in the rain listening to the Judds -- it's just not right!"

For now, however, Bono pulls off the battered mid-length gray wool coat he wore in the car and sprawls in a chair at Mullen's dining-room table. Sporting his customary black leather vest and black jeans, his shoulder-length brown hair drawn back in a ponytail, Bono is badly in need of a shave — and some sleep.

Mullen, his blond hair slicked back in a spiky cut, is, on the other hand, characteristically fresh faced and upbeat. Mullen, 25, is the quietest member of U2 — and he clearly idolizes Bono. Just as clearly, Bono feels considerable affection for Mullen. The two men spend a great deal of time together — Mullen getting a kick from Bono's tireless intensity, Bono finding relief from himself in Mullen's good-natured enthusiasm and good-hearted directness.

Mullen pulls up a chair next to Bono, and the conversation turns to Joshua trees -- the gnarled trees indigenous to the deserts of the American Southwest. The tree was named by the Mormons when they were settling Utah; its shape reminded them of the Biblical passage in which Joshua pointed to the Promised Land.

The imagery couldn't seem to be any more obvious, particularly for a man who confesses that the year in which he wrote lyrics for much of the material on The Joshua Tree was "a bit of a desert" — due to his obsession with the viability of rock & roll as a way of life, his marital upheavals and the death of Greg Carroll, U2's twenty-six-year-old personal assistant, to whom The Joshua Tree is dedicated. Bono, however, refuses to pin the symbol down precisely.

"We find it funny," Bono says about responses to the album's title, recalling that somebody asked, "You're not gonna change your religion again?" after hearing the Mormon tale. In explaining why the band chose the title, Bono for once falls short of words: "I'm not going to talk about the other reasons. You know, the symbol is a very powerful one, and you don't . . . you can't . . . you don't . . ."

"It's supposed to be the oldest living organism in the desert," Mullen says. "They can't put a time on it, because when you cut it, there's no rings to indicate how old it is. Maybe it's a good sign for the record!"

The photos on the album's cover and lyric sheet were taken near Joshua Tree National Monument, in California, not far from where the ashes of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons were scattered in 1973. According to Bono, however, even the band wouldn't be able to locate the exact Joshua tree that was photographed. "We stopped off on the road," Bono says, "and we went out, and we were shooting this landscape with the tree, and we just got back on the bus and drove off. Then somebody thought, 'God, say you ever want to go back to that tree? Or other people might go out looking for the tree.' And then we thought, 'No, better that people can't find it, or else some guy will arrive with it at a gig.' 'Bono, I've got the tree!'"

"Joshua trees might be extinct by the time this album is over," Mullen says, laughing.

"The funny side of this is, like, with this album, everybody's trying to say, 'U2, the next this, the next that,'" Bono says. "You get record-industry people saying, 'As big as the Beatles — what's the name of the album?' 'The Joshua Tree.' 'Oh yeah, oh right.'" He laughs. "It's not exactly Born in the Joshua Tree, or Dark Side of the Joshua Tree. It sounds like it would sell about three copies."

Of course, 3 million copies is more like it -- and even that's a conservative estimate for what will very likely become one of the most successful, not to mention most important, records of the decade. (The Joshua Tree entered the Billboard chart at Number Seven.) The reference to Born the U.S.A. is appropriate, not only because that album also lifted a populist artist to mega-stardom but because, as in Springsteen's case, the sheer aural pleasure of The Joshua Tree and the awesome, uplifting power of U2's live shows will probably obscure the fact that the album is as foreboding a record as can be imagined. The Joshua tree itself may be a symbol of hope and deliverance, but its twisted shape and the barrenness of its environment suggest the sort of forces that must be confronted before redemption comes.

And perhaps even after redemption comes — at least in the form in which this album will present it to U2. In the face of enormous popularity and its attendant pressures, the band will have to struggle to maintain an independent sense of self. On a much smaller but equally dramatic scale, U2 faced the issue of rock stardom and its meaning after its 1980 debut album, Boy, brought the band members international recognition when some of them were still teenagers.

"I think we have to own up to the fact that we really weren't that interested in being in a band after Boy," Bono says about the intense period of spiritual questing that he, Mullen and the Edge undertook at that point. "We were, during October, interested in other things, really. We thought about giving up the band. And Adam's reaction to us thinking about giving up the band was he wanted to get out of the band. October we made with the attitude 'If people don't like it, hey, maybe that's better than if they do.' We wanted to make a record, and yet we didn't want to make a record, because we were going through a stage where we thought, 'Rock & roll is just full of shit, do we want to spend our lives doing it?'

"We were getting involved in reading books, the Big Book, meeting people who were more interested in things spiritual, superspiritual characters that I can see now were possibly far too removed from reality. But we were wrapped up in that.

"For two years, we didn't even know if we wanted to be in a band. We went on tour, and every night we had this thing: we've got to play this concert like it's our last concert. We went out with that attitude, sometimes because maybe it could have been our last concert.

"Steve Lillywhite [the producer of U2's first three albums, who also mixed three tracks on The Joshua Tree] used to say, 'Do your job,' and we were running away from doing our jobs. We wanted to do whatever — at that stage it was probably set up a mission on the street for people who hadn't got any food. We were thinking all along those lines."

Squaring the band's spiritual concerns with rock & roll's outlaw mythology was a persistent problem in the years following the release of October and War — a problem that eventually generated a contradictory response in Bono. "We were the freak show for a while," Bono says. "We felt like fish out of water. 'What are we doing in rock & roll?' We almost felt that we should do drugs out of guilt, to make people feel at home." Bono says he did give in to some standard rock vices. "I've kind of evened out now, but over the last few years, I've backlashed completely. Drank far too much and did far too many things out of this odd, weird reverse guilt."

Both in the rock world, then, and in dealing with the public, Bono felt removed from his own image. "Essentially, I'm a very real person, good and bad," Bono says. "And the public image is one of being very good, I suppose. But one of the reasons I'm attracted to people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Christ, to pacifism, is because naturally I'm not a pacifist. Naturally, I'm the guy that would not turn the other cheek. But when people see you're attracted to that, they think you are that."

By reexamining rock & roll history from the perspective of his own concerns, however, Bono began to see the tension between stardom and religious fervor not as something unique to himself or U2 but as part of an honorable tradition. "Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder — gee, I don't think there's anyone I like in rock & roll that isn't as screwed up as me in this area," he says. "I started realizing that rock & roll devoid of that spiritual confusion is the rock & roll that I don't like anyway. I started realizing, 'Hey, we're not the odd ones out. This shit on the radio is the odd stuff. It's a natural place to be.'"

While wearying or even overbearing at times (Bono says, "I went through a period of feeling maybe the people in the band didn't like me very much; I can be obnoxious at times"), the seriousness with which Bono regards his responsibilities as a rock star is an important part of why U2 has won such a huge, devoted following. His enthusiasm was perhaps nowhere more evident than in September of 1985, shortly after Live Aid, when he felt he had to follow through on the meaning of that event by visiting Ethiopia for a month with his wife, Alison, to assist in famine-relief efforts.

The couple was determined not to let the trip turn into just another superstar's philanthropic junket. It was undertaken with no publicity — though their presence in the country was eventually discovered — and to this day Bono refuses to say much about it for fear of offending the less celebrated people who perform such work every day out of the congratulatory shine of the media's spotlight. "I don't deserve any prizes, because I could afford to go," Bono says bluntly one afternoon in a Dublin restaurant. "A lot of people would give their right arms to go to Ethiopia and help out. I could afford to."

Initially during their stay in Ethiopia, Bono and Ali helped with the hands-on physical labor and basic health care of a refugee camp. It soon became apparent, however, that communicating information about nutrition and hygiene was a crucial problem in the relief effort. Determined to assist in the best way they could, the couple came up with a month-long program that addressed one key health topic (for example, safe methods of childbearing) per week. Working at an orphanage of 300 children in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, Bono and Ali composed four songs and four playlets to familiarize the children with the European fruits and vegetables that were becoming available to them, as well as healthy first-aid techniques and proper methods of planting and reaping. The sing-along songs and plays — written with the help of African relief workers in the people's native language — were meant to encourage the children to retain their messages and pass them along.

His time in Africa with Ali left Bono flying. "I got more than I gave to Ethiopia," he says. "My head was in the clouds, and my feet were not on the ground." But Bono hit the ground hard when he returned home. "Spending time in Africa and seeing people in the pits of poverty," he says, "I still saw a very strong spirit in the people, a richness of spirit I didn't see when I came home. I had no culture shock going, but I had culture shock coming back. I saw the spoiled child of the Western world. I started thinking, 'They may have a physical desert, but we've got other kinds of deserts.' And that's what attracted me to the desert as a symbol of some sort."

Working together in Ethiopia was a time of particular closeness for Bono and Ali. Bono admits they've had their share of problems since the success of The Unforgettable Fire, U2's 1984 album. In describing the personal strains of 1986, Bono says simply, "I live with a very strong person, and she throws me out occasionally." Bono shies away from discussing in any detail the current state of his relationship with Ali, whom he married in August of 1982 and who studies political science at University College, in Dublin. But balancing the demands of recording and touring with the emotional claims of a marriage is no easy task — and it isn't likely to become easier as U2 launches a worldwide tour that could run as long as a year. Asked how he's managed that balancing act in the past, Bono says, hesitantly, "Well, I haven't been able to manage it that well. I'm going to have to try and manage it better the next time. I have to do it. . . . We shall see."But Bono is confident he can rise to the challenge. "I'm determined to make it work, because I believe in U2, and ultimately that's what I want to do. Be in that band."

Along with such personal issues, Greg Carroll's death in a motorcycle accident in Dublin last July also darkened 1986 for Bono and U2. The band members met Carroll when they stopped in Auckland, New Zealand, on the Unforgettable Fire tour. They got along so well with him that they added him to their crew. When the tour ended, Carroll settled in Dublin and continued working for the band. Carroll, whom Bono describes as "like a brother," was struck by an automobile while riding a friend's bike; his friend was riding Bono's Harley, which Carroll had been minding. The band is haunted both by the suddenness of Carroll's death and by the idea that if he hadn't come to Dublin to live with them, he might still be alive.

Bono and Mullen flew to New Zealand for Carroll's funeral, and Bono wrote the exuberant memorial "One Tree Hill" about the experience. "Auckland is made up of five little volcanic mounds," Bono says, "and the tallest one is called One Tree Hill. It's sort of a landmark. Personally, I can't hear that song. I cut myself off from it, because if I didn't and somebody told me, 'Eh, now we'd like you to do the vocal again,' or 'Listen, I think that chorus is weak,' it would be iron-bar time."

For the Edge, U2's twenty-five-year-old guitarist, the impact of Carroll's death was "quite devastating." "What happened was this avalanche of questions," says the Edge one evening in London, where U2 is filming a video for "Red Hill Mining Town" with director Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa). "I suppose that's the privilege of youth — you leave death to one side to be dealt with later. The uncertainty — that this person who had been so close to us was gone . . . For a long time, still sometimes, I feel like he's going to walk through the door."

Not surprisingly, the Edge's response to Carroll's death assumed an unsettling spiritual dimension. "I'm struggling now to put it into words," says the Edge, whose quiet intensity — his voice is often nearly as soft as a whisper — marks a telling contrast both with Bono's driven verbal torrents and his own roaring guitar excursions. "Well, I suppose it was really . . . Is it a question of destiny? Is destiny a power? Is chance a power? . . . How does belief in God come into that? That's the thing about my spiritual beliefs, I have so many unanswered questions. A lot of my belief is . . . the truth is somewhere between" — he holds his hands apart – "here and here; you can't actually be sure about it, where it is. But 'somewhere between here and here' is enough most of the time."

As U2's international stature has grown, the band members have come increasingly to rely on their solid grounding in Dublin to lend normality to their lives. "We're still very much connected with our lives before we were successful," says the Edge. "Things have changed, but we haven't abandoned the values and ideas that we had at the earliest stage of our career. In Dublin itself, and in Ireland, people enjoy celebrities, but they're certainly not going to become sycophantic lunatics if they meet somebody who's famous."

The Edge also draws sustenance from his three-year marriage and his two young children. Of his wife, Aisling, he says, "The great thing about her is she's really not particularly impressed with rock & roll. Although she loves our music, she's not hugely into music She's kind of a stabilizing force. The prestige of what's going on around her — it doesn't bother her." He laughs. "It's sobering!"

Bassist Adam Clayton takes particular pride in U2's identity as an Irish band. Clayton, 27, is the most formal of the band members in his bearing and speech. He is also the one most likely to insist on U2's stature, sometimes seeming arrogant, to borrow a word he tends to use in perfectly neutral terms. "We're a bunch of noisy, rough Irishmen that are arrogant enough to drag their tails all the way round the world," Clayton says, smiling, "and I think that's something to be proud of. I think we have achieved things, and I think Ireland can stand up with its music and say to everyone, 'We're an important place.'"

Bono's relationship with his home town and homeland reflects a characteristically edgy, excited ambivalence. "I feel part of Dublin, I feel part of Ireland," Bono says. "I climb over the wall and I get out of here sometimes because the place'd make you tear your hair out. But I love its people and I love its places and as a city . . . oh, it's a very interesting city."

During the drive through Dublin, Bono notes points of historical significance with pride, but he concentrates on the toll in human lives exacted on the city by poverty, unemployment and heroin addiction, and by what Bono sees as sterile urban development that's alienating the city from its own past.

"They pulled this city down," he says. "They're pulling the beautiful buildings down. If I was ever a terrorist, if I ever were to set up my own militant organization, I'd set up a building-liberation front. I've just wanted to throw rocks through the windows of buildings in this city that they've put up. I just want to burn down so many buildings."

As Bono drives through Ballymun, the section of town where he grew up, he gestures toward the Ballymun Flats, a run-down seven-building housing project that looms over the modest one-and two-story houses in the area. "See the seven tall buildings there? They're 'the seven towers.' They have the highest suicide rate in Ireland. After they discovered everywhere else in the world that you don't put people living on top of each other, we built them here."

The Ballymun Flats provide a key image in "Running to Stand Still," the grim, dreamy antiheroin ballad on The Joshua Tree. "It's amazing how cheap smack did Dublin in," Bono says. "And then some of my best friends started....It all got a bit messy then. I wrote 'Bad' out of that, and on this record I wrote 'Running to Stand Still': 'Sweet the sin/But bitter the taste in my mouth/I see seven towers/But only one way out. ... I took the poison, from the poison stream/And I floated out of here.' It's almost the only way out of here.

"There's this thing, if you're really desperate in Dublin, you can risk all or nothing on a 'run.' If you've got a really bad habit, you can go to Amsterdam or Pakistan or wherever and risk smuggling in a big bag. You either go down for life or you get rich quick."

There's a bright spot in the neighborhood, however, which Bono mentions as he drives along a quiet street lined with small, working-class houses, where he grew up and lived for twenty years. "There's about a hundred bands on this street now," he says, bursting into laughter, delighted at U2's evident influence. "It really is rock & roll all the way here."

Despite U2's Fierce Attachment to Ireland, The Joshua Tree is full of images of America — a locale that also came in and out of focus amid the murky dreamscapes of The Unforgettable Fire. The wild beauty, cultural richness, spiritual vacancy and ferocious violence of America are explored to compelling effect in virtually every aspect of The Joshua Tree — the title and cover art, the blues and country borrowings evident in the music, the imagery that pervades songs like "Bullet the Blue Sky," "In God's Country" and "Exit" (which drew its original inspiration from The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer's book about Gary Gilmore's murderous odyssey in the American West). Indeed, Bono says that "dismantling the mythology of America" is an important part of The Joshua Tree's artistic objective.

"You know, America's the promised land to a lot of Irish people," Bono says. "I'm one in a long line of Irishmen who made the trip to the U.S., and I feel a part of that. That's why I embraced America early on, when a lot of European bands were throwing their noses up. And America, indeed, seemed to embrace us. Of course, my opinions have changed from utter stars in the eyes." The band's new attitude toward America finds roaring expression in moments like the Edge's Hendrix-like guitar solo at the end of "Bullet the Blue Sky," which is the result of Bono's advice to the Edge after Bono had made a trip to Central America: "Put El Salvador through your amplifier."

The Edge is more direct about how the band's vision of America has grown more complex since the days when gaining an audience in this country seemed everything U2 could hope for. "The underbelly of America has come open to us," he says. "America seems to be everything that's great about the world and everything that's terrible about the world all rolled into one. . . . For us, it's the contradictions of the place, the paradoxes, the strangeness — that's what 'Bullet the Blue Sky' is all about.

"There is a tradition in America, which for a long time seemed to be pretty much dead," he says, "of people in rock & roll holding a mirror up to what was going on around them. Asking awkward questions, pointing out things. I suppose The Joshua Tree is in that sort of tradition."

Bono sometimes seems overwhelmed by the task of confronting the monumental problems in America and the world. "I wrestle with everything," he says, shaking his head. "Maybe I'm just one of those people. Politically, I'm looking around — there's elections coming up all over the place, in England, in the U.S. I'm sick and tired of party politics. You know, the left, the right — I'm sick of the left, I'm sick of the right. Even the liberals are giving me a pain in the ass. We need new solutions to new problems." He quotes from The Joshua Tree's "In God's Country": "'We need new dreams tonight.' Where are the new visionaries -- the people who dream new dreams?

"We're entering into a whole new era here, a frightening new era, akin to probably what the Industrial Revolution was. Massive unemployment — machines don't ask for pay raises, they don't go on strike, they work seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. I can see there's going to be a lot of people out of a job. There's that. There's spiritual issues, the complications of your spiritual life. So what do you do?

"I nearly feel like just going, 'Tutti frutti,' at the moment, 'be-bop-a-lula,'" he says, laughing. "I'm starting to think that actually says more, because words are failing me at the moment, they're really failing me. That album is wrestling not just with myself, but wrestling with everything. Searching, and all that — on all those levels, I'm unhappy. There isn't a level I'm happy on, really."

The willingness to engage large, open-ended issues in their art and lives — and maintain both their sanity and their sense of humor — is finally the band members' best qualification for superstardom. It's why they don't need to indulge the empty rock & roll mythology of "living on the edge."

"I am finding that the real world is far more dark, far more dangerous," Bono says. "To cop out of it is cowardice."