An Irish spaceship has landed in a Chicago football stadium, and its pilot is standing under a starless sky, barking mad orders into a microphone. "Take the astronauts' voices out," says Bono, his brogue echoing through 61,000 empty seats. "And if you could take Sinéad out of the first verse ... the sonic boom needs to fade three times faster — it's not a subtle thing, it's a big change."
It's less than 24 hours before the kickoff of U2's first U.S. stadium tour since 1997 — and as far as Bono is concerned, a perfectly good time to tear apart a section of the show. He's fixated on an obscure song: "Your Blue Room," a languid, atmospheric track from the band's 1995 Passengers collaboration with Brian Eno. U2 have never even played it live, but tonight they're trying to transform the tune into an elaborate production number, with newly recorded vocals from Sinéad O'Connor and video and audio shot aboard the International Space Station.
"We're lucky," says U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, watching the expensive effort unfold from a chair in front of the midfield production tent, "that they're not doing it live from space."
The actual setting is exotic enough: a four-clawed metal sci-fi cathedral that's the biggest stage in rock & roll history — large enough to be seen from planes approaching the city. It's almost a living thing, with moving ramps, constant exhalations of smoke and a constellation's worth of rotating lighting rigs. Even the video screen performs tricks, stretching up and down like a Slinky — when Bono asks for it to retract, it does so instantly, rustling with the hum of a thousand bees.
Up until now, the dress rehearsal had been going well, as the band tore through the first half of a two-hour set, playing to vacant cheap seats. The show — already polished in 24 European dates — begins with four songs in a row from the band's latest album, No Line on the Horizon, before diving into the back catalog. But "Your Blue Room" is a mess, the song's essence buried in astronaut chatter and other sound effects. What should be a haunting moment — a Belgian astronaut named Frank De Winne appears on the vast cylindrical video screen above the stage, reciting a spoken-word verse as he floats in zero gravity — isn't registering. "That was not a pleasant experience," Bono says, before hijacking the rehearsal to play the song again and again. His bandmates and the production team already spent an hour on the song the night before, and they know they're in for the long haul when the singer asks for coffee from the stage. Even as they reshape the sound effects and video, Bono is writing a new bridge on the spot for the 14-year-old tune, improvising lyrics and melodies each time they run through it.
Bono's relentlessness has helped get U2 this far — while leading them off a PopMart-size cliff or two along the way. "Bono has to be Father Christmas for 70,000 people every night," says longtime show director Willie Williams, "so it's absolutely fair enough for him to lead the charge." The rest of U2 roll with their singer's tenacity with varying degrees of good humor. After they conclude a lengthy onstage huddle with Williams, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. cracks, "If it ain't broke, break it."
At stake is the biggest rock show of all time — and U2 seem entirely comfortable working at this scale. The monster stage is their workplace, as unremarkable to them as an office cubicle. But there's no denying it: Thirty-three years after four Dublin teenagers first came together in Mullen's parents' kitchen, they have reached their summit. "We're actually at the limit, the absolute limit, when you consider the economics and the practicality of transportation," says the Edge. "We're really as big as we could ever get."
The size of the tour, in some ways, is the point — an argument for the value of rock megastardom itself. In a culture as divided musically as it is politically, U2 are offering themselves up as one thing to agree upon.
"Your Blue Room" is meant to "tie the show together," as Tom Krueger, who directs the show's video content, puts it. The celestial imagery offers a reminder of the optimism about the future that the space program once represented — and the shots of Earth from space match the global perspective of a show that addresses AIDS in Africa and politics in Myanmar and Iran. (And the stage does look an awful lot like a spaceship — David Bowie's "Space Oddity" even plays each night as the lights dim.) "Your Blue Room" is far from a hit, though, and hardly anyone's idea of stadium rock — in each subsequent version, the band keeps trying to make it quieter, more seductive. "It's a delicate thing," Bono says. "The problem is, the song could sink a whole section of the set if it doesn't work." He's ready to gamble and do it opening night, but the rest of the band is pushing for night two in Chicago. (The song ends up premiering on the second night — Bono, who watched the crowd closely, says he saw faces that were "rapt and a little mystified.")
The goal, as usual, is elevation. U2 are trying to make art in football stadiums — to achieve what Bono calls "intimacy on a grand scale" — even if getting there takes $750,000 a day of overhead: a 170-ton stage, 200 trucks and the corresponding carbon offsets, nearly 400 tour employees, more than 250 speakers, 13 video cameras, Sinéad O'Connor and various astronauts. (Red guitar, three chords and the truth sold separately.)
The tour is also the latest skirmish in U2's battle to prove that the biggest band in the world can also be the best — and that, despite relatively weak sales for No Line on the Horizon, their new material can stand up next to the old stuff. "What do you do if you're in a band?" the Edge says. "Do you just keep your head down and sell loads of tickets and CDs around the world? Or do you try and engage and try and do something different?"
The band takes one last shot at "Your Blue Room," and it's all starting to click: churchy washes of organ, the Edge's melancholy piano chords, spotlights on top of the stage converging in a pyramid in the sky, the closing image of the sun rising over Earth, which leads directly into "Unknown Caller," with its opening lines "Sunshine, sunshine." Bono is relieved, and the rehearsal moves on. "One giant step," he says, "for a little man."
On their way to Chicago, U2 almost run into Lil Wayne. Five minutes before the band drives up to a private airport in Newark, New Jersey — it's using New York as a home base for this leg — a shades-wearing Wayne and a small entourage walk along the tarmac to their own private plane, unaware that they're missing a chance at a superstar summit.
The jet that U2 are using today is a loaner, while their usual one is being prepped — and it's so opulent that even Wayne might find it gauche, with couches instead of chairs, dark, polished wood walls and a private anteroom or two. I'm sitting alone in one of those cabins, waiting for takeoff, when a figure appears in the doorway. "Tickets, please," Bono says. He's wearing a denim-on-denim outfit and gray shades slightly larger than his usual model. His hair is shorn brutally short on the sides — it looks like he has it trimmed every day, and he probably does.
As he straps himself into one of the plush seats, Bono is fascinated to learn of Lil Wayne's proximity, and laughs when he's reminded of a nine-year-old U2 lyric: "The last of the rock stars/When hip-hop drove the big cars."
"We should buzz the plane by him," Bono muses, "And yell, 'We were only kidding.'"
The truth is, Bono — who is friends with Jay-Z and enlisted Will.i.am to do production work on No Line — relates to the bigger-is-better ethos of mainstream hip-hop a lot better than he does rock's increasing tendency toward self-ghettoization. "I love the idea of what you might call a more porous culture, where there's much more crosstown traffic," Bono says. "Jay-Z is a pioneer. He'll work with an indie band. He likes to be in places no one else has been.
"In this age of celebrity and pop stardom, maybe it's a sensible thing to question the values of being a pop star," Bono continues. "Radiohead, Pearl Jam, a lot of people, who maybe had much more sense than us, rejected it. But the thing that's suffered from that stance was that precious, pure thing, what they used to call the 45. That new Pearl Jam song ["The Fixer"] — it's brilliant. It's got that attitude, like, 'We want it.'"
The U2360° Tour makes a case for the idea of a vital mainstream, for the power of a stadium full of people taking off their earbuds to sing together. "How long can it last? I don't know," Bono says, pondering his band's increasingly singular superstar status. "Most people are content in their ghetto, and their ghettos are big. I still hold on to this old-fashioned idea of the meta-event — meta goes across, it becomes more than it is."
The show is an unlikely fusion of the two extremes of U2's tours — the technological overload of 1992-93's Zoo TV and the no-frills, bare-stage Elevation Tour. "This is our masterpiece," says Williams, who's been planning this tour since 2006, and comes along on every date to tweak the show as it goes. "It's sort of the culmination of everything I've done with U2." On the band's plane one afternoon, he opens his MacBook and shows off iteration after iteration of architect Mark Fisher's potential designs for the stage (which was known as the Claw until the spaceship idea settled in). One file has a "wheel of style," with adjectives next to corresponding pictures of possible shapes: "domed, kinetic, spiky, pointy, archy, skeletal, wrapped."
But the real point is that from the band's perspective — which I get to see one day when I climb onstage during a soundcheck — the design elements of the stage all but disappear. What the musicians perceive instead is its openness, the in-the-round trick that gives the tour its "360" name — you can spin around and see every seat in the house. The sound system, lifted out of the crowd's way thanks to the four-pillared design, is the largest ever built for a tour — and four separate sets of speakers allow for the live equivalent of surround sound: Sound engineer Joe O'Herlihy gives Mullen's drums and Adam Clayton's bass an entire speaker column of their own, for instance.
Not incidentally, the design also means that, unlike any other stadium tour, every seat in the house can be filled — which is one reason why McGuinness says the tour is on track to be the highest-grossing of all time.
"Somebody asked us last night, 'Do you need this stuff?'" says Clayton. "And the truth is, you don't really need this stuff. But part of show business is you have to change people's perceptions, you have to find ways to make the songs touch people more, to disorientate people so they're more open to being touched."
On the Elevation Tour, one month after September 11th, 2001, U2 played three of the most emotional shows of their career at Madison Square Garden, with the audience all around them. It's that experience the band is trying to replicate, on a larger scale. "What happened was that the audience were looking at each other," Bono says. "Saying, 'We've come through this.' That's the magic trick. The rabbit out of the hat is to make the audience the star of the show."
A month before Chicago, U2 are 17 dates deep into their European tour, and the Edge has exactly 10 minutes to play tourist in its most exotic port of call. He climbs into the back of a van outside his hotel for a drive through Croatia's capital, Zagreb, to Maksimir Stadium, home of the nation's greatest soccer team, and of tonight's U2 concert. "This will be my Zagreb experience," says the Edge, a smile crinkling the corners of his goatee. "It's the one thing that's strange about touring — you don't get to see things." As usual, he's dressed in black — T-shirt with a geometric pattern on it, jeans, leather Converse, head-covering cap. On a silver chain around his neck hangs a razor blade with the words "Don't Mess" carved into it.
It's U2's first-ever show in Zagreb, and the first time they've played in the once war-ravaged region since a dramatic Sarajevo show in 1997. Edge settles into his black leather seat and begins snapping pictures out the window. The sights of the now-flourishing city rush by: a statue of medieval king Tomislav on a horse; posters for recent concerts by Patti Smith and Dale Watson; clotheslines between buildings (they remind Edge of his Dublin childhood: "I remember clothespegs. Who buys clothespegs anymore?"); streetcars; and, to his amusement, a vast metal structure poking past the top of a dowdy sports stadium. "The view I got, it looks like just another building," Edge says.
The van pulls into the venue's loading dock, beside giant white tents set up for production offices and catering — it looks like a good-size festival is in town. Shaking hands as he goes, Edge walks through a concrete corridor, steps over thick, bound electrical cords and climbs the clanking steel stairs that lead to the top of U2's stage, which looks almost comically garish in the daylight. He greets Dallas Schoo, his genial guitar tech, straps on the first of a series of guitars and begins a one-man soundcheck.
Schoo hands Edge a Rickenbacker, and he plays the intro of "Mysterious Ways" — which, upon close observation, consists merely of one seventh-fret barre chord, a couple of rhythmic scratches and two notes — but it's enough to induce goose bumps when you hear that exact squelchy, sexy sound from Achtung Baby come directly out of Edge's four modest amplifiers. As Edge begins adjusting his guitar's settings and punching the 36 buttons on the pedal board at his feet, Schoo whips out a digital camera and photographs the positions of the knobs and switches on the guitar.
To give him freedom to roam the vast expanse of the stage, Edge is using a Garth Brooks-style headset mike for his backing vocals and also allowing Schoo to control his guitar effects — the tech has a duplicate of Edge's board under the stage.
But Edge keeps wandering back to his own board at stage right, tweaking settings. It's not unusual, Schoo says with some awe, for Edge to create new combinations of effects midsong in front of a full stadium, and then hit "save" to create a preset. "I'm so particular about guitar sounds, because it is the identity of the song in many cases," Edge says. He half-grins, half-winces at this uncharacteristic moment of immodesty, and revises himself: "a large part of the identity of the song."
Whether it's Zagreb, London or Chicago, every show begins roughly the same way: a segment of "Kingdom of Your Love" — an unreleased U2 song with a pulsing beat and choral vocals — blares over the PA, and Mullen struts out onstage alone. A single spotlight shines on the drummer while he plays an extended whirl of tom-toms, snare and cymbal that serves as an intro to the No Line track "Breathe," a sort of power waltz with Dylanesque verses and a chorus that's as U2-anthemic as it gets. Mullen's bandmates join him one by one — Bono pops up last, yanking his mike stand back as if it's a crank that makes the band go.
"It's amazing to walk out when the audience is expecting Bono," says Mullen, over a dinner of rice and vegetables at a picnic table outside the catering tent before one of the Zagreb shows. "I've been waiting 35 years for the drum solo. Wouldn't want to be holding my breath, but this is the closest thing."
It's not the guy that fans expect to see first onstage — and not the song they might be waiting for, either. After "Breathe," there are three songs in a row from No Line (the title track, "Get On Your Boots" and "Magnificent") — and three more tunes from the album show up, including the epic ballad "Moment of Surrender" as a show-closer. The emphasis on the new stuff is all the more brave when you consider that No Line on the Horizon has barely moved a million copies in the U.S. — placing it among the lowest-selling U2 albums — and that the album has thus far failed to produce a hit single. "I walk out and sing 'Breathe' every night to a lot of people who don't know it," says Bono. "I'm a performer — I'm not going to hang on to a song that doesn't communicate and add up to something. They're great songs live, and I think it's a great album. I think it will be seen as 'Gosh, one of their more challenging albums.'"
On the way to Chicago, though, Clayton worries that Americans might be more impatient than Europeans: "I'm a little concerned about whether or not we can open with four new songs," he says. "That might be tricky." And after the second show in Chicago, Bono notes that the show "still needs a little more toasting." So by the second week of the U.S. leg, U2 try taking "Breathe" out of the set list, kicking off with "Magnificent" instead and reducing the number of new songs at the beginning of the show to three. ("What strikes me about them is they'll hold on to an idea," says video director Krueger, "until they find a better one.")
The one new song every crowd knows is No Line's first single, "Get On Your Boots" — which the band plays in a more straightforward, harder-rocking arrangement live, stripping it of its electronic elements. U2 love playing the song, but three out of four members now acknowledge that it was the wrong choice for a first single (Edge continues to defend it). "Interestingly, it's going off live," says Clayton. "But I think probably what happened was it's a common U2 problem. I think we probably worked on it and worked on it and worked on it, and instead of executing one idea well, I think we had probably five ideas in the song, and it just confused people. They weren't sure what they were hearing."
Bono has his own ideas. "Look, sometimes our audience isn't as groovy as we'd like," he says with a smile. " 'Get On Your Boots,' as it was released, is a sort of crossover, half-club, half-indie-rock record. People are not sure about the club side of U2. They want 'Vertigo.' And when we did this the last time — with 'Discothèque,' from Pop, they didn't like it either."
But in what must be considered an act of defiance, the band is including one of its clubbiest moments ever in the current show — playing its recent single, the midtempo pop tune "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," in a nearly unrecognizable LCD Soundsystem-style remix, complete with whimsical video of the band members bopping their heads to the beat. Bono had decided the show needed the song during rehearsals in Barcelona, after walking to the top of the stadium and deciding that there had to be a musical moment as futuristic as the stage. Even Mullen, traditionally resistant to such moves, enjoys the remix — not least because it gives him a chance to roam the stage with a hand drum while an electronic beat takes over. And Clayton particularly loves it, because it's based around a sample of a piece of his bass part that his bandmates had almost vetoed as too "twiddly."
The band was apprehensive about debuting this version in front of its less groovy American fans. On the plane from Zagreb, Mullen and Bono discuss the possibility of starting with the standard arrangement of the song and then moving to the remix, before the drummer turns to me. "It would really help," Mullen says, "if you wrote that it's one of the highlights of the show." They end up not changing a thing for the U.S., and in Chicago, the "Crazy Tonight" remix is, in fact, one of the highlights of the show, with the Edge wildly pogoing and Bono singing snippets of Sly Stone.
In the most jarring transition of the night, "Crazy Tonight" moves directly into "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which the group has effectively re-contextualized by adding footage from this summer's Iranian protests. ("We tried just using green backgrounds," says the Edge, "but it was too subtle. People thought, 'Ireland.'") Images from Iran begin to appear on the screen as Bono sings the final chorus of "Crazy": "It's not a hill/It's a mountain/As we start out the climb."
At that point, as Bono sees it, the second and more political section of the show begins. "The first act is a sort of personal narrative, about overcoming obstacles," he says. "Suddenly, from this song about hedonism and self-destruction ... you're on the streets of Tehran. 'It's not a hill, it's a mountain/As we start out the climb' — your personal odyssey is thrown into harsh relief with what's going on in the outside world. Maybe this is how I've sorted my life — all the saddest people I knew were people focused on their own well-being. 'I, I, I, I, I, me, me, me, me.' The way I found a route out of depression, the way I found a route out of idiocy, has been the harsh juxtaposition of other lives, be they around me or in the wider world. I love that moment in the show — I really understand that feeling."
The 360° tour's sound system may be the loudest ever built — but in a surge of voices tonight in Zagreb, the crowd is somehow almost drowning it out. "Love is a temple," they sing, latching on to the line as if it's from their national anthem, "love the higher law." Standing at center stage, holding a green guitar, Bono repeats the line, his own voice shaking with sudden emotion. "We get to carry each other," he sings, tweaking the lyrics slightly to lend the lines some more syncopation: "Whether you're my sister, or whether you're my brother."
Moments later, as the Edge turns the chord progression into a keening cry and the rhythm section churns the song into something too propulsive to be a ballad, Bono has the house lights turned out and asks the crowd to take out their cellphones — a concert cliché that becomes something much larger: "Turn this place into a bigger universe," he says, and then, maybe surprising himself, starts to yell, "Turn on your own light! Your own light!" The lights blaze, a miniature galaxy of souls. The show achieves liftoff.
Bono had carefully introduced "One": "This next song means a lot of different things to a lot of different people," he said, as a Croatian translation appeared on the video screen. "Tonight we want to play it for everyone in this region who's had their warm hearts broken by cold ideas." There was a hush as the crowd took in the words, then an explosion of applause.
The next night, Bono is still thinking about those moments. "The Balkans invented a certain doggedness, a certain stubbornness," he says. "And so it would take a bitter and twisted love song like that for them to really relate to: 'Did I disappoint you?' The anger, the bile, the spleen of that song makes it OK. We're not one. We're one, but we're not the same. We are not the same. These people gave up everything over a difference. I think everybody has a different take on that song, and on a nightly basis it changes for me. I can hardly breathe when I'm singing it. I can hardly get the words out."
For the first time in my half-dozen encounters with Bono, his sunglasses are pushed up on his forehead, and his naked blue eyes are blazing with intensity — either he's still adrenalized from the shows, or that's just what they look like without the shades. He's sitting in the band's leased jet as it heads back to U2's touring home base in the South of France. This one is almost disappointingly unflashy — the back, where the band's touring staff sits, looks like a first-class section of a commercial airliner, while the front, for the band members and their families, is something like first-class-plus, with tables to sit around.
Across the aisle sits Bono's wife, Ali Hewson — striking, dark-haired, with the brown eyes that he's never stopped singing about — who is reading newspapers and eating dinner, and their two young sons, who are both curled up for naps after sprinting about backstage for most of the night while their dad did the same onstage.
"Love is a big word to be throwing around in these parts," Bono continues, building up steam, talking over the engine noise. "Carrying the badge of nonviolence, at first glance, looks well on an Irishman, but we lived 100 miles from troubles. So in a way, it was no great act of courage for us to drain the flag of color and preach nonviolence.
"It's a completely different thing if you live in Croatia or if you live in the western Balkans. These people have, within recent memory, seen just what a thin skin of civilization we had in the late 20th century. We had just made Achtung Baby and Zooropa — and people weren't only not loving their neighbors, they were torturing their neighbors. They were attaching electrical cables to their private parts and making them squeal. I would not be at all offended if somebody were to say, 'How the fuck dare you come and speak about love?'"
Bono is wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, and he's at peak tour fitness, looking a few pounds lighter than he did in January. He doesn't drink much on the road anymore, but he's not exactly an ascetic. (Later, he sheepishly admits to "an Elvis moment": stopping a motorcade rushing out of Chicago so he could get a Big Mac.) Underneath the table, his pale feet are bare — he's kicked off an extremely un-rock & roll pair of sandals.
He reaches an unexpected conclusion, making the case that his band, among the few rock superstars without Woodstock-era roots, is still driven by the best ideas of that time. In the end, maybe the spaceship is a time machine — and the destination is 1967. "You think of the Beatles and you think of 'All You Need Is Love,' and that burst of ideas, that renaissance that was the Sixties," he says. "The core of it was this idea of love, out of which came the women's movement, gay movement, anti-war movement. It was all based on this simple Judeo-Christian idea, the philosophy of having to love your neighbor, it not being advice, it being an order, an edict: 'Love your neighbor.'"
Bono smiles for the first time since he started talking about torture and hate. "It's a strange thing," he says, "when you come out with this stuff at a rock show."