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On the Outside with the Edge

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What have you found there?
Well, for instance, music that never gets played on the radio, that never gets exposed to any extent — blues and country music. And American writers, like Raymond Carver, and some Indian writers. Also the openness. American people are very open. In most big cities in Europe people are aloof, very unfriendly. It's not an Irish thing, but you find it in London and Paris. I don't find that in America, and in that way it's more like Ireland.

What do you think of the state of America now, politically, culturally?
Well, it scares me. It scares me a lot, this kind of "let's forget the Sixties" mentality, the new fascism, the new conservatism. But America's always been the best and worst rolled into one, and it's going to be very interesting to see how it goes in the next couple of years.

I'm a little fearful, but it's as bad in Europe. It's as bad in England, as far as I can see. I think in years to come, people will look back at the Sixties as a very peculiar era. We think of it as the way people should be. But if you think about the years that went before and the years that have come after, it's the Sixties that are weird, not the Seventies, not the Eighties.

Many of U2's songs, like "Bullet the Blue Sky," convey less-than-favorable impressions of America and its policies. Yet, in concert, it sometimes seems that your fans don't have a clue as to what you're trying to say.
It would be great to think that people understood what we were talking about, but the fact is that probably about half of them do – or less. The rest pick some of it up, or none of it. I think we have a pretty good balance. Some people come to shows because we're a great rock & roll band. And some people come to the shows because everyone else is going. And some people come because they understand exactly where we're coming from and they agree.

But rock & roll to me is communication. I don't just mean communication of ideas, but communication of feelings. The bands I was into when I was younger were the ones where you'd listen and get a feeling about the person, whether it was John Lennon or Marvin Gaye or Patti Smith or Lou Reed. That's the most important thing in rock & roll. It's not necessarily that your idea is great, but that it's your idea. That's why when we write songs, we don't sit down and say, 'Let's write a song about this because this is an important issue now.' We write a song because we feel we have something to say.

People always ask us if we think our songs can really change anything. And I always say that's not why we wrote the songs. We didn't write them so they would change the situation. I think it would be too much to expect that. But they might make people think for a second, in the same way that we stop and think.

It always seemed that U2 was determined to become a big group. When I interviewed Bono in 1980, he told me, "I do feel that we are meant to be one of the great groups," and he compared the band to the Beatles, the Stones and the Who.
Well, Adam [Clayton] and Bono used to say that a lot — and I used to believe them. We assumed it, in a weird way, and I don't know why. We assumed that we would achieve commercial success, and we never had any kind of problem in going out and working for success, going for it. And therefore that really wasn't a big issue. What was more important was achieving musical success, and we're still trying to get that. I mean, we're getting closer with each record.

Though Bono writes the bulk of the band's lyrics, I understand that it was your idea to write a song about the strife in Northern Ireland, which turned out to be "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
Yeah, Bono was away on holiday – I think it was his honeymoon. And I wrote the music and hit on a lyric idea and presented it to the guys when they got back.

Belfast is only about fifty miles up the road from Dublin, and I'd read about it in the newspapers and seen it on TV. But going there was a bit of an education. What was incredible was that the people of Belfast had the most incredible warmth and friendliness and sense of humor — and there was this thing going on that was just tearing the whole community apart.

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And "Sunday Bloody Sunday" — I can't remember exactly what incident sparked it off, but I just remember sitting in this little house I had on the sea, just bashing out this music, and it just came to me, that this should be about Northern Ireland. And I wrote down a few lines, and Bono instantly improved on them when he came back.

How often do you come up with ideas for lyrics?
Not that often. I might give Bono a title, like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." And that'll light a spark, and he'll write a song about it.

You and Bono seem like exact opposites — he's loud and outgoing, while you're quieter and more reserved.
Generally speaking, that's true. He's more at home in the public eye. It's kind of hard for the rest of us, Larry [Mullen] and me, in particular, because we're not naturally gregarious.

As kids, Bono was the exact opposite of me. I was a very quiet kid in school. I think we shared a sense of humor, though, and when the band came together, it was kind of natural that we would get on.

What was your childhood like?
Being Protestant and being English — or Welsh, in fact — in what is ostensibly a Catholic country, it felt a bit strange at times. There were times when I really did feel like a bit of a freak, and I spent a few years where I was pretty quiet. I didn't go out an awful lot. Those are the years when I listened to the most music.

When was that?
I suppose between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. That was when albums like Horses, by Patti Smith, came out. There were some good records around that time — Lou Reed, Bowie, the first Talking Heads records. Nobody else was really listening to those records, but they really meant a lot to me. I always remember that when someone who's sort of fifteen or sixteen comes up to me and talks about our records. I remember how I felt about records at that age.

Have there ever been any periods when you've had second thoughts about U2 or about being in a rock & roll band?
Yeah. I lost sight of what it was all about for a period. I think when a band goes on the road, unless the band is very strong, things get a bit cloudy. And that happened with us. We had to figure out who we were musically and what we were doing and where we were going. And once we had that all together, then we were fine. But for a while there, I really wasn't sure what we were up to and whether I wanted to be a part of it all.

It was kind of just after the October album, coming up to writing the War album. We'd come off the road, the album had done reasonably well, we'd done an awful lot of hard work, and we kind of had to just take stock of what was going on. I thought it was pretty healthy, actually, and I think that without that, I would be in serious trouble at this stage.

In his recent book 'Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2,' Eamon Dunphy spends a lot of time discussing a crisis the band went through a little earlier than that, when you were making the 'October' album. He suggests that you, Larry and Bono struggled with the question of whether it was possible to reconcile your Christian beliefs with the more decadent lifestyle that has come to be associated with rock & roll.
Well, the book deals with it in a very simplistic way. It's something that's so complicated that I really feel quite inadequate to explain it fully. The October album was kind of our statement in that area. Maybe we're a little clearer now about what we want to be, whereas that album was probably a search. It was us trying to find out what we were doing and where we were going. And now we just want to be a great rock & roll band. And everything else is personal in a way. But it's still there, unspoken, in the music. And it should be there in the way we do things and what we are as a band.

Have you been able to come to terms with what rock & roll represents in many people's minds – the sort of "sex and drugs and rock & roll" image?
My feelings are a whole series of contradictions, and I certainly haven't been able to reconcile them. I just know that when I pick up that guitar and Bono starts to sing, I feel good about it. And that's as far as I think it needs to be justified. I'm not pretending that I've got it all sorted out. I don't think I ever will. But this band's special, and that's all I need to know.

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Song Stories

“Madame George”

Van Morrison | 1968

One of the first stream-of-consciousness epics to make it onto a Van Morrison record, his drawn-out farewell to the eccentric "Madame George" lasted nearly 10 minutes, combining ingredients from folk, jazz and classical music. The character that gave the song its title provoked speculation that it was about a drag queen, though Morrison denied this in Rolling Stone. "If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it's your trip," he remarked. "I see it as a ... a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that."

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