U2: Truths and Consequences
“I must say, I don’t feel very qualified to be a pop star,” says Bono, U2’s lead singer, one overcast February afternoon as he drives through Dublin. “I don’t think I’m a very good pop star, and I feel very awkward at times in the role. I think there are other people far better suited than me.”
He pauses and laughs. “I sometimes think it might have been a mistake — you picked up the wrong guy! Look, I’m built more like a mechanic or something, a carpenter. I mean, take a look at these hands — these are the hands of a bricklayer.”
Bono has chosen a highly charged moment to begin questioning his qualifications for pop stardom. With the release of The Joshua Tree, U2’s fifth, farthest-reaching and flat-out best studio LP, and a massive world tour in the works, Bono and his cohorts in U2 — guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — will undoubtedly rise to the superstardom that has always been their goal but has always loomed as more of a promised land, ardently desired but seen from afar, than an imminent reality. Bono’s half-hopeful statement that “U2 will be the band that’s always coming and never arrives” is about to be proven wrong in spades.
U2’s recent triumphs have raised vexing questions for Bono — artistic and personal questions all the more troubling because of the position of moral authority U2 has attained. Over the past few years, rock & roll has gone a long way toward establishing itself as a force for good in the world, and U2 has been at the forefront of the artists that have contributed to that movement. The band’s 1983 LP War helped restore social consciousness to rock, and its galvanizing performances at Live Aid and during Amnesty International’s six-concert Conspiracy of Hope tour defined the dual spirit of moral purpose and fervent celebration at the heart of those events. Success seemed to go hand in hand with significance for U2, and by the time the Conspiracy of Hope tour ended with a spectacular stadium concert last June, the whole pop-music world seemed poised for whatever U2 decided to do next.
All the while, however, as Bono saw the prominence of U2 increase, he wondered about the myths of excess and frivolous destruction that had grown up around rock & roll in the course of its history. He wondered what he and his band were supposed to represent in the context of that mythology. Was high-mindedness simply U2’s “angle,” an image as confining in its way as the fashion stance of the latest haircut band? As its audience and profits multiplied, what finally would separate U2 from the herd of Bands That Matter that had come down the pike and had burned out or taken a sharp right turn into comfort and apathy? He also wondered about the sirenlike lure that rock-star indulgence might hold for him. This internal interrogation — a process Bono refers to as “wrestling with myself for a living” — stokes the dissatisfaction that burns at the center of The Joshua Tree, and within Bono himself as he stands on the verge of a potentially dangerous ascent.
“I don’t accept the rock & roll mythology of ‘living on the edge, man,’ — I don’t accept that,” the twenty-six-year-old Bono says during the drive through Dublin, gesturing with characteristic intensity and making it uncomfortably clear that the point he is making is considerably more important to him than keeping his eyes on the road.
“We’re all pretty much removed from reality, I suppose — the reality of life and death. But rock & roll is even more removed from reality. Rock & roll artists who are living on the edge — what can they possibly have to offer? Their songs are written from such a removed point of view. “We’re all asleep in some way or another,” he says. “I’ve used my music to wake me up. … I find now that I’ve been reading about them, I’m much more attracted to those old folkies, you know, like Woody Guthrie, people who work within their community. They’re working, and their labor is writing a song.”
Larry Mullen’s home, in the coastal town of Howth, is the destination of Bono’s drive. Mullen’s sparsely furnished but comfortable suburban-style house — complete with clothes hung in the yard and a frisky dog — sits on a small hill overlooking the Irish Sea. It’s drizzling outside. Framed by a picture window, the grays and blues of the sky and the sea merge into an impressionist blur. The weather inspires such a reflective mood that Mullen will joke later on, as the Judds’ sprightly album Why Not Me enlivens the interior of his sports car on the drive back into town: “Somehow driving along like this in the middle of Dublin in the rain listening to the Judds — it’s just not right!”
For now, however, Bono pulls off the battered mid-length gray wool coat he wore in the car and sprawls in a chair at Mullen’s dining-room table. Sporting his customary black leather vest and black jeans, his shoulder-length brown hair drawn back in a ponytail, Bono is badly in need of a shave — and some sleep.
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