On the Outside with the Edge

U2's guitarist opens up about guitar athletics, Tom Verlaine, and 'The Joshua Tree'

March 10, 1988
The Edge of U2 performs in Australia.
The Edge of U2 performs in Australia.
Bob King/Redferns

Nestled among warehouses in the drab Dublin dockside, Windmill Lane Studios would, under normal circumstances, hardly qualify as a tourist attraction. Since the ascension of U2 to the highest levels of rock stardom, however, the scene outside Windmill Lane has changed dramatically. The building, which functions as a sort of command center for the group's activities, has been covered with graffiti – "Italy Loves U2"; "Edge, I Think You're Brill"; "Dear U2, I've Been Here '40' Times and 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'" – while dozens of faithful fans patiently stand watch along the street, hoping to catch at least a glimpse of rock's reigning heroes.

On one particularly rainy, windswept day in mid-January, their perseverance pays off when U2's guitarist, the Edge, arrives in his 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. As a security guard looks on, Edge rolls down his car window and obliges a few fans with autographs. Then another fan, in his 'mid to late' twenties, approaches and asks for money to get home. Edge gives him seven pounds, then realizes it's time to move on. "It's kind of hard to deal with," he says of the adulation. "I find it a little embarrassing."

Though Bono is the more public face of U2, Edge – whose nickname resulted in part from his tendency to observe things from the sidelines – has quietly played a key role in the band's journey to the top. His minimal, echo-laden style of guitar playing has virtually defined the group's sound and spawned a legion of imitators. He is also responsible for writing the lion's share of the group's music, as well as contributing a few key lyric ideas.

Born Dave Evans in East London in 1961, Edge moved to Dublin with his family when he was a year old. Settling in the middle-class suburb of Malahide, the Evanses, Protestants of Welsh heritage, felt a little like outsiders in largely Roman Catholic Ireland. That sense of not quite fitting in led Edge to music – he took up guitar when he was nine – and when U2 was formed in late 1978, he finally found a focus for his energy. "It became an obsession pretty quickly," he recalls. "We all realized that we really liked doing it. We loved playing together and writing songs together."

Readers' Poll: The Best U2 Songs

And that feeling is now stronger than ever, Edge insists. "I've found out recently that I really want to be in this group," he says. "I don't want to write screenplays or soundtracks or do anything else. I want to write songs, and I want to record them, and I want to go on the road with those songs."

Before embarking on another road trip, though, U2 has to complete work on its feature-length concert movie, which was filmed during last year's American tour, as well as an accompanying soundtrack double album, which will feature four or five previously unreleased studio tracks. Those projects will take Edge to London and the United States, away from his wife of four years, Aislinn O'Sullivan, and their two daughters, Hollie, 3, and Arran, 2.

"Keeping a marriage going can be kind of hard, and you gotta work at it," Edge says. "But I think it's so much more true of anybody in a band, because being in a band is almost like being married anyway. I'm so close to the other three guys in this group that sometimes it feels like a marriage."

Over the course of two days, Edge elaborated on that second marriage in interview sessions at the group's offices and in a nearby pub. "It's only in later life that the lure of the pint of Guinness has really drawn us into the pubs," he says, adding that, especially on the road, "a few drinks can really put things in perspective."

When the band was starting out, did you ever imagine that U2 would become this successful?
Well, I don't know if I ever really thought about it too hard. You know, this year's been a dangerous year for U2 in some ways. We're now a household name, like Skippy peanut butter or Baileys Irish Cream, and I suppose that makes us public property in a way that we weren't before. And that's a bit weird, because we're getting so much mass-media attention. We've seen the beginning of the U2 myth, and that can become difficult. Like, for instance, Bono's personality is now so caricatured that I worry whether he'll be allowed to develop as a lyricist the way I know he can.

What's the greatest danger U2 faces?
Going cold. Because there are too many distractions now. I spend most of my time trying to avoid distractions.

What kinds of distractions?
All sorts of things. Financial things. Once you have money, it has to be taken care of. As much as you try and forget about it and let someone else deal with it, there are times when it just has to be faced up to. I think it was Eno who said that possessions are a way of turning money into problems. And so I've tried to cut down on anything like that.

My lifestyle, and that of the rest of the band, is pretty straightforward. I don't want to get fat. I don't want to get lazy. Money can bring great freedom, because it means you can travel, you can go into the studio whenever you want. You can pretty much do whatever idea comes into your head. But a lot of groups have not survived financial success. So there's a potential problem.

I also think being taken too seriously is a problem. It seems that no matter what we do, people place this huge weight of importance on it. Importance out of the realm of music, whether it's political importance or something cultural or whatever. I think that can be bad.

I assume that's what you were talking about when you referred to "the U2 myth." In the past year you've suddenly become "the spokesmen for a generation."
[Laughs] Well, it gets tough, you know, running Amnesty International, organizing summits between superpowers. It gets pretty exhausting. I sometimes feel sorry for Bono, because he seems to get the worst of that. But we try and not let it affect us, because we'd probably be inclined to do something really stupid in order to prove that we're just like ninety percent of the musicians in other bands.

But ninety percent of the musicians in other bands don't wind up on the cover of 'Time.' What was that like?
[Laughs] I was king for a week, I suppose. I don't know, it felt good. What I liked about it was not just that it was U2, but that music was there that week. That felt good. You know, it's nice for rock & roll to cause a stir from time to time.

You complain about being taken too seriously, but U2 certainly cultivated a more serious image than most bands. Everything from the songs to the interviews to Anton Corbijn's black-and-white photographs made it clear that this was a "serious" band.
I just never liked my smile. That was the problem. [Laughs] I mean, we just write songs. That's what we do. And the idea of being a leader is just so horrible. That's the last thing we ever wanted to be. But I love Anton's shots. They're kind of European. He gave us a sense of being European.

It's funny, but when you leave where you are, you get a perspective on it. When we first started touring Britain and Europe, we started seeing how Irish we were. Suddenly, Ireland became big in our songs. When we first toured America, we sensed our Europeanness. Now, with The Joshua Tree, I suppose we sensed the charm of America, the writers and the music.

How has your perception of America changed over the past seven years?
I like it a lot more. I didn't like it much when I first went there. We were really just passing through, and we didn't get the full picture. I left with only a superficial sense of what America was about, and that superficial level really didn't interest me. During the second couple of tours. I purposely avoided things like the radio and TV because I thought they were bad. But on the last couple of tours we've seen what I call the hidden side of America, the side that's not obvious if you're only in town for one night.

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