It doesn't take long to figure out which car in this little Dublin parking lot belongs to the rock star. There it stands, a tribute to all that's garish and excessive: a canary yellow 1973 Cortina with leopard-print interior and, of course, fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror.
Bono grins sheepishly as the parking-lot attendant cruises over with the Cortina. "I suspect there was some drink involved when I chose this one," he says. "Now I have to live with the consequences."
Not long ago this car would have seemed a shocking accouterment for U2's singer, an indulgence completely out of keeping with the band's status as benefit headliner, champion of famine relief and Amnesty International, crusader for all that's good and righteous. But with U2's bestselling package deal – the stunning album Achtung Baby and the extravagant multimedia roadshow Zoo TV – the past year has seen Bono, guitarist Dave Evans a.k.a. the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. dive headfirst into the glitz and glamour of rock & roll.
Bono has led the charge, wrapping himself in an alter ego he's dubbed the Fly (complete with a skintight leather suit and bug-eyed sunglasses) and seldom breaking character throughout the Zoo TV tour. He's been strutting through hotel lobbies and dispensing attitude onstage and off like a lifelong master of hype, holding the pose through a year that included a U2 summit with Bill Clinton in a Chicago hotel room and carrying barrels of radioactive waste onto a British beach to protest the Sellafield nuclear power plant.
At first, it was hard to know how U2's impassioned fans would react to the visual transformation or to the churning rhythms and tense sexuality of Achtung Baby. But the band's virtual sweep of the 1992 Rolling Stone Readers Poll – like its domination of the polls in 1987 and 1988 – reconfirms its status as the world's biggest rock band.
Back home in Dublin, though, preparing to take Zoo TV into European stadiums later this spring, Bono seems just a touch ashamed of the Cortina and all it represents; he's just too close to real life here for such shenanigans. The parking lot is in Temple Bar, the city's bohemian district, a short block away from the tiny club where the band played its first shows, in 1978. As Bono drives through these familiar streets, telling stories of his encounters with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, he sheds his rock-star skin and settles back into the much less demanding role of a rock fan.
He still won't go more than a few minutes, though, without talking about plans for U2. He and the Edge are finishing two songs for the soul legend Al Green. The group is working on a half-dozen new U2 songs as well, with plans to release them as an EP in the next few months. For all his new-found fondness for glittery decadence, the character acting has also given Bono a new discipline, a genuine rock & roll work ethic.
"We've never worried before about what key a song is in," Bono explains later that evening over his third or fourth pint of Guinness in a pub down the street from the U2 business office. "I've never really worked on my singing. We're just starting to figure out what to do with Edge's guitar.
"We've been playing to our weaknesses for too long," he declares finally. "It's time to start playing to our strengths."
You've played this whole tour in character, but our readers still voted you Sexiest Male Artist. Does that mean people aren't getting the joke?
Even better – they're believing the joke. I don't know. I've said it before, but there were reports of egomania, and I just decided to become everything they said I was. Might as well. The truth is that you are many people at the same time, and you don't have to choose. It's like Edge describes me – as a nice bunch of guys.
You say that this role-playing is all about embracing the stupidity, the ridiculousness of rock & roll. But is it really fun when it's so choreographed?
That's what it's designed for. It's a language of scale, of surface – the Fly needs to feel mega to feel normal.
One of the lines that didn't make it into the song "The Fly," one of the clichés that we developed, was that "taste is the enemy of art." There's a point where you find yourself tiptoeing as an artist, and then you know that you're in the wrong place. It's like you have a rule book, but you don't remember where you got it.
And along with that being true of the music, it can become true in a wider sense. I felt like I didn't recognize the person I was supposed to be, as far as what you saw in the media. There's some kind of rape that happens when you are in the spotlight, and you go along with it.
The media version of you determines how you see yourself.
I used to think that if you just had enough time you could get it right. You could just say, "Well, this isn't true, no, no, that isn't so." But this machine is so hungry that you can't you can just feed it. So what we're doing is like misinformation.
The contrast with Rattle and Hum is striking. For better or worse, the point of that project seemed to be its spontaneity, but it was the one time when the image, the perception of a U2 album, got very far away from you.
Maybe we just weren't paying attention. The whole thing was just throwaway to us, in the best sense of the word – not the movie, but the record. That showed us just how powerful the media is. We genuinely believed that it was a record about being fans of rock & roll. And we put a bit of Johnny Cash there and a song about Billie Holiday here to kind of show we were just fans. It was so obvious to us. Maybe we didn't understand how successful we were and that it looked like we were hanging out with these guys so, by association, that we were one of the greats. We never saw it that way.
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