Bono, Behind the Fly: The Rolling Stone Interview

Warped in an alter ego he calls the fly, Bono has led U2's yearlong dive into the glitz and glamor of rock & roll. Back home in Dublin, though, Bono sheds his rock-star skin – and talks

Bono
Andrew MacPherson
Bono on the cover of Rolling Stone.
By |

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.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: U2

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."

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bono

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.

How much of the hyper imaging of Achtung Baby and Zoo TV was in reaction to that?
I think that we just knew it wasn't fun the other way. This trying to explain yourself – which is what I'm doing right now – wasn't fun.

It's all about imagination, nothing else. Nothing else is important. It's not about scale – big, small, independent, alternative, anything. Whether you earn a million dollars or lose a million dollars. None of it really matters. What matters is the work and the imagination of the work.

We used to have this thing about our image: "What image? We don't have an image. We're playing with images, like the desert or whatever, and we dress in a way that is sympathetic with the music, but it's not an image." And finally, I just said, "Fuck it, maybe it is." In fact, if it is, let's play with it, and let's distort it and manipulate it and lose ourselves in the process of it. But let's write about losing ourselves in the process of it, 'cause that's what's happening to everybody else on a smaller scale anyway.

Do you have more respect for somebody like Madonna?
Oh, yeah.

Is that something you would have seen before?
No. No, it wasn't where we were at anyway, it just wasn't for us. But Madonna – I'm interested in anything she does. The music is a little off the shelf for me, but it's almost like the lack of personality in the music heightens the personality in her voice.

U2: Three Decades of the World's Biggest Band, Onstage and Backstage

Does having a rock & roll fan like Bill Clinton as president of the United States defang rock & roll? Can there still be any sense of the rock & roll rebellion you're playing with?
We obviously need to find a new word. Saying Clinton likes rock & roll is like saying Clinton likes books. It's the stuff written in the books that's important. Did you see the inauguration? I watched it all.

What did you think?
There was a sense of people wanting it to work. More than I had ever seen before. It strikes me that people just so want it to work. There's almost a last-chance feeling about it.

Larry and Adam went over there. They ended up doing a version of "One" with the guys from R.E.M. – with Mike Mills and Michael Stipe. The song always deserved a good singer, as far as I'm concerned. Stipe's just a great singer. He's kind of like a Bing Crosby of the Nineties, though, isn't he? He's a crooner.

Tell me about U2's meeting with Bill Clinton.
We were on tour, and we got into the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago at about midnight, one o'clock, and I had this really over-the-top Cecil B. DeMille suite. So it was the room for the meetings and the parties, and there was a party in my room – and there was drink involved – and we'd heard he had arrived earlier in the evening, and we said, "Get Bill around, he'd like a slice of pizza." This is like three o'clock in the morning, but somebody thought we were serious and went out to wake him up and was met with twenty-five Secret Service guys who said, "You know, I'm not sure, it's late, he's gone to bed, had a hard day." But the next morning he got the message and said, "I'd love to have seen them, where are they now?" and he came round to my room. We were all looking fairly rock & roll after the night before, and he just laughed out loud. He was very relaxed with it.

Larry asked him, "Why would you want to be president?" and he said: "Well, you know, I don't know if the president of the United States can be the one person to turn it all around, but I know one thing: No one else can." What's interesting about him is that he seems very accessible and wants new ideas and wants to be challenged. We told him that we weren't going to endorse him, that wasn't what we did. And if he got in, that we'd be on his back for the next four years anyway, cause there is an uneasy relationship between us and politicians. But he knew that. He got that. That's when I realized he's pretty cool.

I always thought it was dumb and dangerous to write off all politicians as corrupt. It's just too easy.

Is there any other moment like that you'll take away from this tour?
I'm getting on with my father better than I ever have.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Achtung Baby

Is that something new?
My mother died when I was, like, thirteen or fourteen, and it was just three men in the house. And one of them, you know, was pretty obnoxious [laughs]. My father tried very hard to keep it together. He managed, he did keep it together, but he had to become a kind of general to do so. I mean, he kept the house together, but I suppose at that point it wasn't really a home. And I often wonder if that's the reason I feel so rootless sometimes, if that's what attracted me to the wanderlust aspect of rock & roll. I would sleep on Edge's floor, turn up at people's houses at meal times. I can still sleep anywhere, I can sleep on the street. It must have something to do with that.

And now you have enough distance from that time?
Yeah, to get on. I met somebody recently who told me that my father was incredibly smart at school and when he was taken out, the Christian brothers went around to his mother and said, "Don't take him out of school, he's really great, and he should be able to go on to college and probably be a lecturer." But he did leave, and he went on with his life very practically. He actually taught me not to dream. His idea was, don't get into that, it'll only make trouble.

He was never one to dish out a compliment, that's not his way. I remember I brought him over to the U.S. to see us play, I think it was Miami or Atlanta on the Joshua Tree tour, and I told one of the spotlight operators to get ready. I just introduced this guy – "It's his first time in America, here's my father, he's come here to see us play" – and 20,000 people turned around, and he just stands up and gives me the finger. Like "Don't you do this to me." I just laughed. He's very cool like that.

But afterwards backstage, I remember hearing footsteps behind me as I left the stage, and I looked round, and here's my father, and he put his hand out. I looked at him, and I thought, "Wow, he's really gonna say something really big here," and he just looked at me and said: "You know something? You're very professional" [laughs]. And of course, that was a high compliment from where he was. The fact that professionalism has nothing to do with . . . for me, that's like the last thing I'm interested in. It was very funny.

I don't generally talk about my family, but another thing he did, he taught me chess. That's something I've never admitted to because it was always so uncool to be a chess player. It's the most un-rock & roll thing you could do, so I never ever talked about it, but that was actually my obsession before rock & roll. When I was a kid, I played in adult tournaments and played internationally when I was ten or eleven. Things like that were important moments for me. I really, really enjoy opera now, 'cause he used to listen to it all the time. He'd just kind of throw you something like that.

Has he come around to your work?
Yeah, I think he almost likes the music now. In fact, he'll say, "I like that one, I don't like this one." He's full of opinions. He plays at being a crank. It's traditional in our family to have a row at Christmas. We always have a fight at breakfast at Christmas – it's like the polite thing to do where we come from. And I only recently figured out that he was doing it with a wink. I'd spot it in the schoolyard, I'd spot it from anyone else. I just didn't think that's where he was coming from. And he's just one of those, a stirrer. But I'm really enjoying my father at the moment. I put him in the "One" video.

You mentioned R.E.M. earlier, and it seems like U2 and R.E.M. are among the few bands to strive for a mass audience while maintaining a respected position in the alternative-rock camp. What do you think of the resistance to mainstream success that seems prevalent in the alternative scene?
It hasn't happened before in America, but it's been like that in the U.K. for a long time, so we're used to it. And a bit bored by it, having been there. "We'll never play theaters, we'll stay in the clubs!" Oh, all right, okay. Then a year later, these groups say, "Oh, we'll only play theaters, we'll never play arenas." Then it's "We'll play arenas, we'll never play stadiums." AAAAGHH! Let me out! To hear it all happening again is just incredible to me. And it's all middle-class kids that are saying it. You never hear working-class people saying those things, you never hear blacks saying it. It's such a bourgeois phenomenon. It almost identifies you as bourgeois.

U2: The Rolling Stone Covers

From where U2 started, do you understand the impulse?
Yes, especially in the American culture, I do understand it. I don't think it's very rigorous, though, I don't think it's well thought out. I can see why somebody would just retch on the lowest common denominator that has dominated rock & roll from radio play and sales pitch. There is a sense in which you say, "Well, whatever that's a part of, I'm out of there." I can understand that. But you gotta think it through, and in my experience in England, what they call independent is a bogus term. With independent record companies, a lot of times you have smaller corporations bullying you.

By the way, I think it's good that Sonic Youth and Nirvana are on Geffen Records. I don't think they should be embarrassed by it. I think Kurt Cobain is a fine singer. I know the "R.E.M. with a fuzz box" argument, but I actually think they are an important group and they've got vitality and they should just do anything they want to do. The fact that they sell as many records as Madonna is great. You see, we've been there. There is kind of a Catholic guilt that can go with success, but I just hope some of these groups don't start tiptoeing.

I always felt it was our responsibility to abuse our position. That was one of the ways we went into the sessions for Achtung Baby. Because we had been spoiled by success financially, we had what Groucho Marx called "fuck-off money." If you waste that, you're just a wanker, you don't deserve anything. At this point in U2, we've made more money outside U2 than we ever did inside U2, so there's only one reason for walking into a recording studio, and there's only one reason for going out on tour, and that is to do exactly what we want to do.

Is there any concern that in playing the showbiz stuff to the hilt, you risk tarnishing your protest image? To stage a dawn raid on the Sellafield nuclear plant in full Fly gear – can people sort that out?
Well, I always thought of the Fly as a meltdown kind of a guy. I don't want to put too much emphasis on this character, but you gotta find new ways of saying the same things, you really do. I don't think it's a contradiction to find yourself on the beach at a nuclear power plant wearing those sunglasses. I think it is very surreal, and it was amusing to us even then. We were aware of how ridiculous it was.

What did you think of last year's Pope-shredding incident by Sinéad O'Connor?
Maybe you have to be Irish to understand her bitterness toward the pope. You could argue that the pope is sincere, but to deny people contraception at this moment in time is a very irresponsible act. It's more than an irresponsible act. You can't buy condoms in this country – not easily – and so when Sinéad talks about him being the enemy, I imagine that's what she's talking about.

I don't want to be her apologist, and she doesn't need one. I felt very close to her in the early days, and I still feel strongly about her. We fell out with her, with her manager actually, who was her boyfriend, and as a result we were the devil for a few weeks. But now that she's the devil [laughs], I think we're getting on a lot better. To live off your emotions is a necessary evil if you're a singer, but it doesn't make for an easy life.

Reader's Poll: The Best U2 Songs

What's the band's history with David Wojnarowicz. [a controversial American artist who died of AIDS last year]? You used his images in the ''One" video. Did you collect his work before?
Adam is the man who turned me on to Wojnarowicz's work. Whatever you do now, you are in the post-AIDS age. It's there, and you've got to walk through it or around it. And if a record deals with any kind of erotic subject matter, the specter of AIDS is even all the more close.

You know, if Freud was even half-right, if sex is even close to the center of our lives, how is it that we leave it to pornographers and dum-dum guys? We leave the subject to them, and it's reduced to titillation in the cinema, to these kind of half-baked plots. Wojnarowicz dealt with the subject seriously, he took it on. I can't believe how people can just walk around it, you know? I'm sympathetic to Madonna in that respect, too. Whatever you think about her work, she's actually just trying to say: "Look, here I am, and I have these feelings and ideas, and I know you do, but you're not owning up. I will."

Releasing multiple videos for "One" and "Even Better Than the Real Thing," all the remixes – it seems like you're approaching this album as something mutable, more like a performance-art piece than a fixed statement.
Rock & roll is mutating into something else at the moment. The video-game business is bigger than the music business. Images are everything, and we want to be there when the sort of audiovisual-microchip-interactive music is born.

The exciting thing about what's about to happen is we're working with Sega on a Zoo TV interactive CD. You're going to be able to mix your own videos to our songs. There will be a color box, if you like, of images. I'm really excited about that. And you're going to be able to remix our music for yourself, which scares me a little. You have to swallow hard before agreeing to something like that.

Rattle and Hum, and even The Joshua Tree in its way, seemed to be about stripping down, getting into the more elemental part of rock & roll.
Yeah, but even from our earliest days we were always best when we were in new territory. And technology is there to get to that. To me, the technology is there to abuse – like Jimi Hendrix's fuzz box. With Edge onstage now, my stage left, well, it's like Cape Canaveral. It's a technocratic side that helps him get to other places and sounds you've never heard before. This is one thing that I don't quite get – did you say that I won singer, Best Male Singer? Did Edge win?

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: The Edge

The Edge was the runner-up for Best Guitarist.
You see, people are getting it the wrong way around. I'm a good singer, he is a great guitar player. He is so far ahead of the posse. It's embarrassing for me to have to say this, but it's kind of indisputable, 'cause everybody else is still painting the same colors. While everyone is imitating, he's creative.

To abuse technology, to find new tones, new moods, that's what U2's about, and I was trying to put words onto those new moods. And sometimes those moods are not specific. I just try to put into words what the others are doing with the music. Occasionally, it is idea driven, but usually, that's what I'm doing.

That's hardly the same thing as "All I need is a red guitar, three chords and the truth."
Um . . . am I blushing? [Laughs] Well, anyway, the point of that whole thing was to say, to quote the Clash, "We're a garage band, we come from garage land." It's just that idea that all you need is three chords and something to say. It's what rappers say as well. Instead of three chords, replace three chords with a beat – you need a beat and a line, and that's it.

Achtung Baby is a very European-influenced record. What stayed with you from all your explorations of American music, from working with people like Roy Orbison and B.B. King?
One word: Rhythm. Which is the sex of music. You learn a lot watching somebody like B.B. King and going back to those early R&B records. That was the thing we needed, I think. That's what was missing in the puzzle for U2. It's a different place that was necessary for us to go in light of the new subject matter. You can't write songs about sex if you don't have it in the music.

What prompted the darker sexuality of Achtung Baby?
I'd often found the sort of neon-light aspect of sex very funny, the leather and lace aspect. It wasn't a sexuality that I particuarly related to, but it does seem a dominant sexuality. It's the one used to sell products, and it's the one on every corner, and so I got into it [laughs], and it's great! It's just something I'm trying to understand, and I understand it a lot better having dressed up as a con man for the past year.

U2 In Their Own Words

But there are moments – say, the line in "So Cruel" where you sing, "I'm only hanging on to watch you go down" – that are almost nasty. You've said a lot of that comes from Edge's divorce.
Oh, there's lots of stories in there, by no means only his. In fact, it's the story of just about everybody I know. People are desperately trying to hold on to each other in a time when it's very hard to do that. And the bittersweet love song is something I think we do very well. It's in a tradition, and Roy Orbison was probably the greatest in that tradition.

Some of these songs, though, are much more bitter than sweet, much angrier and edgier than Roy Orbison ever was.
I think the opposite of love is not hate. It's apathy. You only get angry about things you really care about. So that kind of anger can emphasize the positive by allowing it to come out, to be bitter, to bring up all that stuff.

The Fly character has become the dominant image of this phase of U2. How do you get out of it? How do you get the glasses off when the tour ends?
[Long pause] We're right in the middle of it now, but the music . . . the music tells you what to do, and in the end that's what you gotta do. The music tells you what clothes to wear, it tells you what kind of stage you should be standing on, it tells you who should be photographing you, it tells you who should be your agent. You might see the glasses as a mask, but Oscar Wilde said something like "The mask tells you more about the man." Something like that.

But it's always the music that tells you what to do. And so if I want to take the glasses off, I just gotta change my tune.

This story is from the March 4th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 651: March 4, 1993
x