On the first weekend of October, I visited Bono in Cancún, Mexico, where U2 were on a weeklong break before the second North American leg of the band’s Vertigo Tour. Bono and U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. were both there with their families — in fact, it was Elvis Mullen’s tenth birthday that weekend, and a barbecue was planned at the house Bono had rented on the beach, where he, his wife of twenty-three years, Ali, and their four children were staying.
With a storm gathering outside, Bono and I retreated to the bedroom, where we sat down to begin our conversation. We started at noon and talked into the evening, then started again the next morning. In all, we talked for more than ten hours. Anyone who has been to a U2 concert knows Bono’s dramatic ability to tell a story and his sheer love of words. One on one, he is just as impressive, full of wit and charm. And he does love to talk. Two weeks later, the day before U2’s fifth sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, in New York, Bono stopped up at the Rolling Stone office to spend an hour or two clarifying a few more points. “You’re going to need an anti-Bono-nic when this all over,” he joked.
The story of Bono and his band is a story of commitment to one another — after twenty-nine years, they remain a remarkably stable unit — and to the greater causes of social justice on which Bono has staked his reputation. Bono gives us a vision of how tomorrow can be better than today. He appeals to something greater than ourselves. He tells the story of his life and struggles in terms everyone can understand. He speaks about faith in a way that even a non believer can embrace. The New York Times Magazine called him “a one-man state who fills his treasury with the global currency of fame . . . the most politically effective figure in the recent history of popular culture.”
Our talks range from the early history of the band, to his admiration of hip-hop, to his troubled relationship with his father. Bono is the rare major artist who speaks of his life and work with candor and transparency. He can be as harsh on the subject of his own albums as any rock critic. The interview here represents perhaps twenty percent of our conversation. But for Bono, that conversation never ends — he means to involve his audience in it for as long as he can, and we are all the better for it.
First off: Where do you get those sunglasses?
Bulgari. A lot of people think that, when they see a “B” on the side, that it’s just my own megalomania. Only half the time it is. I’m the Imelda Marcos of sunglasses.
Why do you wear them all the time?
Very sensitive eyes to light. If somebody takes my photograph, I will see the flash for the rest of the day. My right eye swells up. I’ve a blockage there, so that my eyes go red a lot. So it’s part vanity, it’s part privacy and part sensitivity.
I. Growing up
What was your childhood in Dublin like?
I grew up in what you would call a lower-middle-class neighborhood. You don’t have the equivalent in America. Upper working class? But a nice street and good people. And, yet, if I’m honest, a sense that violence was around the corner.
Home was a pretty regular three-bedroom house. The third bedroom, about the size of a cupboard, they called the “box room” — which was my room. Mother departed the household early: died at the graveside of her own father. So I lost my grandfather and my mother in a few days, and then it became a house of men. And three, it turns out, quite macho men — and all that goes with that. The aggression thing is something I’m still working at. That level of aggression, both outside and inside, is not normal or appropriate.
You’re this bright, struggling teenager, and you’re in this place that looks like it has very few possibilities for you. The general attitude toward you from your father — and just the Irish attitude — was “Who the fuck do you think you are? Get real.” Is that correct?
Bob Hewson — my father — comes from the inner city of Dublin. A real Dublin man but loves the opera. Must be a little grandiose himself, OK? He is an autodidact, conversant in Shakespeare. His passion is music — he’s a great tenor. The great sadness of his life was that he didn’t learn the piano. Oddly enough, kids not really encouraged to have big ideas, musically or otherwise. To dream was to be disappointed. Which, of course, explains my megalomania.
I was a bright kid, all right, early on. Then, in my teenage years, I went through a sort of awkward phase of thinking I was stupid. My schoolwork goes to shit; I can’t concentrate. I started to believe the world outside. Music was my revenge on that.
I got the sense that it was kind of a dead-end situation.
Its blandness — its very grayness — is the thing you have to overcome. We had a street gang that was very vivid — very surreal. We were fans of Monty Python. We’d put on performances in the city center of Dublin. I’d get on the bus with a stepladder and an electric drill. Mad shit. Humor became our weapon. Just stand there, quiet — with the drill in my hand. Stupid teenage shit.
Just to provoke people? Performance art?
Performance art. We invented this world, which we called Lipton Village. We were teenagers when we came up with this, a way of fighting back against the prevailing bootboy mentality.
Were there a lot of fights?
Oh, yeah. The order of the day was often being beaten to within an inch of your life by roaming gangs from one of the other neighborhoods. When they asked where you were from, you had to guess right — or suffer. The harder they hit us, the more strange and surreal the response.
You were like the freaky kids?
Yeah. Gavin Friday — who’s doing the music for the 50 Cent movie now — was the most surreal-looking. He had an Eraserhead haircut; he wore dresses and bovver boots. I mean, myself and my other friend Guggi — we’re still very close friends — were handy enough. We could defend ourselves. But even though some of us became pretty good at violence ourselves, others didn’t. They got the shit kicked out of’ em. I thought that was kind of normal. I can remember incredible street battles. I remember one madser with an iron bar, just trying to bring it down on my skull as hard as he possibly could, and holding up a dustbin lid, which saved my life. Teenage kids have no sense of mortality — yours or theirs.
So that was your teen rebellion?
I don’t know if that was rebellion. That was a defense mechanism. We used to laugh at people drinking. We didn’t drink. Because people who spilled out of the pubs on a Friday night and threw up on the laneway — we thought we were better than them.
You were the smart-kid clique?
We were a collection of outsiders. We weren’t all the clever clogs. If you had a good record collection, that helped. And if you didn’t play soccer. That was part of it. Now, when you look back, there’s an arrogance to it; it’s like you’re looking down, really . . . .
At the jocks?
At the jocks, at the skinheads, at the bootboys. Maybe it’s the same arrogance my father had, who’s listening to opera and likes cricket. Because it separates him. You wrote an extraordinary song about your father, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” When I spoke to Edge this week, he said that you’re turning into your dad. He was an amazing and very funny man. You had to be quick to live around him. But I don’t think I’m like him. I have a very different relationship with my kids than he had with me. He didn’t really have one with me. He generally thought that no one was as smart as him in the room. You know that Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” where he gives the kid a girl’s name, and the kid is beaten up at every stage in his life by macho guys, but in the end he becomes the toughest man.
You’re the boy named Sue?
By not encouraging me to be a musician, even though that’s all he ever wanted to be, he’s made me one. By telling me never to have big dreams or else, that to dream is to be disappointed, he made me have big dreams. By telling me that the band would only last five minutes or ten minutes — we’re still here.
It seems there’s some power in this relationship that’s beyond the ordinary father-son story. You were probably one of the most difficult children to have around.
I must’ve been a bit difficult.
He was trying to raise two children without a mother. And here you are, unforgiving and unrelenting, showing up at all hours, in drag and with all kinds of weird people. I think it’s amazing he put up with you and he didn’t just throw you the fuck out. Do you ever feel guilty about how you treated him?
No, not until I fucking met you! He loved a row. Christmas Day at our house was just one long argument. We were shouting all the time — my brother, me and then my uncles and aunts. He had a sense of moral indignation, that attitude of “You don’t have to put up with this shit.” He was very wise politically. He was from the left, but you know, he praised the guy on the right.
The more you talk about it, the more it sounds like you’re describing yourself.
That is a very interesting way of looking at it, and I think there’ll be a lot of people who might agree with you. I loved my dad. But we were combatants. Right until the end. Actually, his last words were an expletive. I was sleeping on a little mattress right beside him in the hospital. I woke up, and he made this big sound, this kind of roar, it woke me up. The nurse comes in and says, “You OK, Bob?” He kind of looks at her and whispers, “Would you fuck off and get me out of here? This place is like a prison. I want to go home.” Last words: “Fuck off.”
II. A Musical Education
What were the first rock & roll records that you heard?
Age four. The Beatles — “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I guess that’s 1964. I remember watching the Beatles with my brother on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas. The sense of a gang that they had about them, from just what I’ve been saying, you can tell that connected, as well as the melodic power, the haircuts and the sexuality. Which I was just probably processing.
Then performers like Tom Jones. I’d see Tom Jones on Saturday night on a variety show — I must have been, like, eight years old — and he’s sweating, and he’s an animal, and he’s unrestrained. He’s singing with abandon. He has a big black voice, in a white guy. And then, of course, Elvis.
I’m thinking, what is this? Because this is changing the temperature of the room. And people stopped talking.
When did you run across Elvis?
I might have heard the songs, but it was the Comeback Special, when he was standing up — because he couldn’t sit down to play. The thing was: He’s not in control of this — this is in control of him. The abandon was really attractive.
Who else had a big impact on you, musically, when you were that age?
Before I got to the Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, and those kinds of things — I really remember John Lennon’s Imagine. I guess I’m twelve; that’s one of my first albums. That really set fire to me. It was like he was whispering in your ear — his ideas of what’s possible. Different ways of seeing the world. When I was fourteen and lost my mother, I went back to Plastic Ono Band.
Bob Dylan at the same time. Listened to his acoustic albums. Then starting to think about playing those acoustic songs. My brother had a Beatles songbook — so trying to teach myself guitar, and him sort of helping.
And that song — which is actually such a genius song, now that I think about it, you’re embarrassed the day after you learned it — “If I Had a Hammer.” That’s a tattoo, that song.
That was the first song you learned how to play?
“If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning/I’d hammer in the evening/All over this land/I’d hammer out justice/I’d hammer out freedom/Love between my brothers and my sisters/All over this land.” Fantastic. A manifesto, right there.
You’re still doing the same song.
And so all that stuff was going on in London in the Sixties: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks. What kind of influence was that on you?
The Who: About age fifteen, that starts really connecting. In amongst the din and the noise, the power chords and the rage, there’s another voice. “Nobody knows what it’s like behind blue eyes . . . .” And the beginnings of what I would discover is one of the essential aspects for me — and why I’m drawn to a piece of music — which has something to do with the quest. The sense that there’s another world to be explored. I got that from Pete Townshend; I got that from Bob Dylan.
Imagine is the first really powerful thing to you?
Imagine and Bob Dylan. “Blowin’ in the Wind” — all that stuff — and the folksy thing. Which is, I suppose, what set me up for John Lennon.
Dylan set you up for John Lennon?
Because it’s folk. If you’re interested in folk, in words and whisperings, that quiet thing. I was in my room listening on headphones on a tape recorder. It’s very intimate. It’s like talking to somebody on the phone, like talking to John Lennon on the phone. I’m not exaggerating to say that. This music changed the shape of the room. It changed the shape of the world outside the room; the way you looked out the window and what you were looking at.
I remember John singing “Oh My Love.” It’s like a little hymn. It’s certainly a prayer of some kind — even if he was an atheist. “Oh, my love/For the first time in my life/My eyes can see/I see the wind/Oh, I see the trees/Everything is clear in our world.” For me it was like he was talking about the veil lifting off, the scales falling from the eyes. Seeing out the window with a new clarity that love brings you. I remember that feeling.
Yoko came up to me when I was in my twenties, and she put her hand on me and she said, “You are John’s son.” What an amazing compliment!
About the band, you said, “We come from punk.” What does that mean?
Now, it’s 1976. I was in school. It was the obnoxious-teenager phase. Schoolwork’s gone to shit, angry, living at home with two men. My friends are all gonna have big futures, ’cause they’re very clever. I’m probably not gonna be able to concentrate enough to be that clever.
I’ve always had these melodies in my head. In quiet times — at the local club, in a church hall — if I’m beside a piano, I put my finger on a key. I figured that if I press a pedal under that — boom — this note can fill the whole hall. Reverb, you know. It turns this church into a cathedral. I hear a rhyme for the note in my head — I really do. I can find another note that sounds good with it — but I’ve had no way to express it.
Then a note appears from this kid twenty-nine years ago last Saturday. Like really a kid — he’s fourteen, and I’m sixteen. He wants to start a band. He plays the drums. So my friend Reggie Manuel says, “You have to go.” He puts me on the back of his motorcycle, and he takes me out to this suburban house, where Larry Mullen lives. Larry is in this tiny kitchen, and he’s got his drum kit set up. And there’s a few other boys. There’s Dave Evans — a kinda brainy-looking kid — who’s fifteen. And his brother Dick — even brainier-looking — who’s built his own guitar. He’s a rocket scientist — a card-carrying genius.
Larry starts playing the kit — it’s an amazing sound, just hit the cymbal. Edge hit a guitar chord which I’d never heard on electric guitar. I mean, it is the open road. Kids started coming from all around the place — all girls. They know that Larry lives there. They’re already screaming; they’re already climbing up the door. He was completely used to this, we discover, and he’s taking the hose to them already. Literally, the garden hose. And so that starts. Within a month I start going out with Ali. I mean, I had met her before, but I ask her out.
That was a good month.
Yes, a very good month. What’s interesting is, in the months leading up to this, I was probably at the lowest ebb in my life. I was feeling just teenage angst. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue living — that kind of despair. I was praying to a God I didn’t know was listening.
Were you influenced by punk rock then?
No, this has nothing to do with punk. This is September of ’76. Punk has just started in London that summer. Adam [Clayton] goes to London the next summer. London was burning. And he comes back with the Stranglers, the Jam, the Clash. Oddly enough, though, in our very first rehearsals, we were talking about what music we should play. Everyone got to make suggestions. I wanted to play the Rolling Stones, from the High Tide and Green Grass era, and the Beach Boys, I was getting tired of the hard-rock thing.
Hard-rock being . . .
Big hair and extended guitar solos. I was saying, “Let’s get back to this rock & roll thing.” Then people said, “Oh, have you heard the Clash?” And then seeing the Jam on Top of the Pops in ’76, just going, “They’re our age! This is possible.” Then the Radiators From Space — our local punk band — had a song called . . . “Telecaster” or something: “Gonna push my Telecaster through the television screen/’Cause I don’t like what’s going down.” And it’s a twelve-bar thing — so you can play it.
How far into the band are you now?
It’s just occasional rehearsing. We’re playing the Eagles. We’re playing the Moody Blues. But it turns out we’re really crap at it. We actually aren’t able to play other people’s songs. The one Stones song we tried to play was “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” It was really bad. So we started writing our own — it was easier.
Were the Ramones the big punk influence on you? Or the Clash?
More Ramones than the Clash — though we saw the Clash first, in ’77, in Dublin, and it was extraordinary. There was an air of violence, the sense that somebody could die. But their music didn’t connect with us the same way that the Ramones did.
What connected about the Ramones?
I didn’t have the gravel or the gravitas of Joe Strummer. Joey Ramone sang like Dusty Springfield . . . It was a melodic voice like mine.
Was David Bowie a big influence?
Gigantic, the English Elvis. Bowie was much more responsible for the aesthetic of punk rock than he’s been given credit for, like, in fact, most interesting things in the Seventies and Eighties. I put his pictures up in my bedroom. We played “Suffragette City” in that first wedding-band phase. We started to listen to Patti Smith; Edge starts listening to Tom Verlaine. And, suddenly, those punk chords are just not the only alternative. Now we’ve got a different kinda language and we started finding different colors, other than the primary ones.
III. A Spiritual Life
What role did religion play in your childhood?
I knew that we were different on our street because my mother was Protestant. And that she’d married a Catholic. At a time of strong sectarian feeling in the country, I knew that was special. We didn’t go to the neighborhood schools — we got on a bus. I picked up the courage they had to have had to follow through on their love.
Did you feel religious when you went to church?
Even then I prayed more outside of the church than inside. It gets back to the songs I was listening to; to me, they were prayers. “How many roads must a man walk down?” That wasn’t a rhetorical question to me. It was addressed to God. It’s a question I wanted to know the answer to, and I’m wondering, who do I ask that to? I’m not gonna ask a schoolteacher. When John Lennon sings, “Oh, my love/For the first time in my life/My eyes are wide open” — these songs have an intimacy for me that’s not just between people, I realize now, not sexual intimacy. A spiritual intimacy.
Who is God to you at that point in your life?
I don’t know. I would rarely be asking these questions inside the church. I see lovely nice people hanging out in a church. Occasionally, when I’m singing a hymn like . . . oh, if I can think of a good one . . . oh, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or “Be Thou My Vision,” Something would stir inside of me. But, basically, religion left me cold.
Your early songs are about being confused, about trying to find spirituality at an age when most anybody else your age would be writing about girls and trouble.
Yeah. We sorta did it the other way around.
You skipped “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and you went right . . .
. . . Into the mystic. Van Morrison would be the inverse, in terms of the journey. It’s this turbulent period at fifteen, sixteen, and the electrical storms that come at that age.
There was also my friend Guggi. His parents were not just Protestant, they were some obscure cult of Protestant. In America, it would be Pentecostal. His father was like a creature from the Old Testament. He spoke constantly of the Scriptures and had the sense that the end was nigh — and to prepare for it.
You were living with his family?
Yes, I’d go to church with them too. Though myself and Guggi are laughing at the absurdity of some of this, the rhetoric is getting through to us. We don’t realize it, but we’re being immersed in the Holy Scriptures. That’s what we took away from this: this rich language, these ancient tracts of wisdom.
So is that why you were writing such serious songs when you’re nineteen?
Here’s the strange bit: Most of the people that you grew up with in black music had a similar baptism of the spirit, right? The difference is that most of these performers felt they could not express their sexuality before God. They had to turn away. So rock & roll became backsliders’ music. They were running away from God. But I never believed that. I never saw it as being a choice, an either/or thing.
You never saw rock & roll — the so-called devil’s music — as incompatible with religion?
Look at the people who have formed my imagination. Bob Dylan. Nineteen seventy-six — he’s going through similar stuff. You buy Patti Smith: Horses — “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine . . . “And she turns Van Morrison’s “Gloria” into liturgy. She’s wrestling with these demons — Catholicism in her case. Right the way through to Wave, where she’s talking to the pope.
The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away form God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt. So the blues on one hand — running away; gospel, the Mighty Clouds of Joy — running towards.
And later you came to analyze it and figure it out.
The blues are like the Psalms of David. Here was this character, living in a cave, whose outbursts were as much criticism as praise. There’s David singing. “Oh, God — where are you when I need you?/You call yourself God?” And you go, this is the blues.
Both deal with the relationship with God. That’s really it. I’ve since realized that anger with God is very valid. We wrote a song about that on the Pop album — people were confused by it — “Wake Up Dead Man”: “Jesus, help me/I’m alone in this world/And a fucked-up world it is, too/Tell me, tell me the story/The one about eternity/And the way it’s all gonna be/Wake up, dead man.”
Soon after starting the band you joined a Bible-study group — you and Larry and Edge — called the Shalom. What brought that on?
We were doing street theater in Dublin, and we met some people who were madder than us. They were a kind of inner-city group living life like it was the first century A.D.
They were expectant of signs and wonders; lived a kind of early-church religion. It was a commune. People who had cash shared it. They were passionate, and they were funny, and they seemed to have no material desires. Their teaching of the Scriptures reminded me of those people whom I’d heard as a youngster with Guggi. I realize now, looking back, that it was just insatiable intellectual curiosity.
But it got a little too intense, as it always does; it became a bit of a holy huddle. And these people — who are full of inspirational teaching and great ideas — they pretended that our dress, the way we looked, didn’t bother them. But very soon it appeared that was not the case. They started asking questions about the music we were listening to. Why are you wearing earrings? Why do you have a mohawk?
How did you end up leaving that?
I think we just went on tour.
And forgot to come back?
Well, we’d visit. If you were going to study the teaching, it demanded a rejection of the world. Even then we understood that you can’t escape the world, wherever you go. Least of all in very intense religious meetings — which can be more corrupt and more bent, in terms of the pressures they exert on people, than the outside forces.
What draws you so deeply to Martin Luther King?
So now — cut to 1980. Irish rock group, who’ve been through the fire of a certain kind of revival, a Christian-type revival, go to America. Turn on the TV the night you arrive, and there’s all these people talking from the Scriptures. But they’re quite obviously raving lunatics.
Suddenly you go, what’s this? And you change the channel. There’s another one. You change the channel, and there’s another secondhand-car salesman. You think, oh, my God. But their words sound so similar . . . to the words out of our mouths.
So what happens? You learn to shut up. You say, whoa, what’s this going on? You go oddly still and quiet. If you talk like this around here, people will think you’re one of those. And you realize that these are the traders — as in t-r-a-d-e-r-s — in the temple.
Until you get to the black church, and you see that they have similar ideas. But their religion seems to be involved in social justice; the fight for equality. And a Rolling Stone journalist, Jim Henke, who has believed in you more than anyone up to this point, hands you a book called Let the Trumpet Sound — which is the biography of Dr. King. And it just changes your life.
Even though I’m a believer, I still find it really hard to be around other believers: They make me nervous, they make me twitch. I sorta watch my back. Except when I’m with the black church. I feel relaxed, feel at home; my kids — I can take them there; there’s singing, there’s music.
What is your religious belief today? What is your concept of God?
If I could put it simply. I would say that I believe there’s a force of love and logic in the world, a force of love and logic behind the universe. And I believe in the poetic genius of a creator who would choose to express such unfathomable power as a child born in “straw poverty”; i.e., the story of Christ makes sense to me.
How does it make sense?
As an artist, I see the poetry of it. It’s so brilliant. That this scale of creation, and the unfathomable universe, should describe itself in such vulnerability, as a child. That is mind-blowing to me. I guess that would make me a Christian. Although I don’t use the label, because it is so very hard to live up to. I feel like I’m the worst example of it, so I just kinda keep my mouth shut.
Do you pray or have any religious practices?
I try to take time out of every day, in prayer and meditation. I feel as at home in a Catholic cathedral as in a revival tent. I also have enormous respect for my friends who are atheists, most of whom are, and the courage it takes not to believe.
How big an influence is the Bible on your songwriting? How much do you draw on its imagery, its ideas?
It sustains me.
As a belief, or as a literary thing?
As a belief. These are hard subjects to talk about because you can sound like such a dickhead. I’m the sort of character who’s got to have an anchor. I want to be around immovable objects. I want to build my house on a rock, because even if the waters are not high around the house, I’m going to bring back a storm. I have that in me. So it’s sort of underpinning for me.
I don’t read it as a historical book. I don’t read it as, “Well, that’s good advice.” I let it speak to me in other ways. They call it the rhema. It’s a hard word to translate from Greek, but it sort of means it changes in the moment you’re in. It seems to do that for me.
You’re saying it’s a living thing?
It’s a plumb line for me. In the Scriptures, it is self-described as a clear pool that you can see yourself in, to see where you’re at, if you’re still enough. I’m writing a poem at the moment called “The Pilgrim and His Lack of Progress.” I’m not sure I’m the best advertisement for this stuff.
What do you think of the evangelical movement that we see in the United States now?
I’m wary of faith outside of actions. I’m wary of religiosity that ignores the wider world. In 2001, only seven percent of evangelicals polled felt it incumbent upon themselves to respond to the AIDS emergency. This appalled me. I asked for meetings with as many church leaders as would have them with me. I used my background in the Scriptures to speak to them about the so-called leprosy of our age and how I felt Christ would respond to it. And they had better get to it quickly, or they would be very much on the other side of what God was doing in the world.
Amazingly, they did respond. I couldn’t believe it. It almost ruined it for me — ’cause I love giving out about the church and Christianity. But they actually came through: Jesse Helms, you know, publicly repents for the way he thinks about AIDS.
I’ve started to see this community as a real resource in America. I have described them as “narrow-minded idealists.” If you can widen the aperture of that idealism, these people want to change the world. They want their lives to have meaning. And it’s one of the things that the Democratic Party has missed out on. You know, so much of the moral high ground in the past was Democratic: FDR, RFK, Cesar Chavez. Now I suppose it’s Hillary’s passion for cheaper medical care. And Teddy Kennedy, of course.
IV. A Political Awakening
After Live Aid, you and your wife, Ali, went to Ethiopia. This was September 1985. How did that experience affect you?
That’s a big question. Your route here is interesting — whether conscious or unconscious. What you’ve got me to talk about is how I justify being in a rock & roll band. Going way back, I, for some reason, associate music with emancipation and freedom for myself. If rock & roll means anything to me, it’s liberation. Not just for yourself — your sexuality, your spirituality — but also for others.
But sometimes the necessary narcissism of being a writer and performer conflicted me. You could be bought off by your success and forget your ideals. End up on the cover of Rolling Stone in a pair of expensive shades and forget who you are. And develop a knowing smirk; develop irony; develop layers of protection necessary to be a rock & roll star in the age of celebrity.
To the point of nearly breaking up the band a few times . . .
Yes, we thought at times there might be better tools to change the world than electric guitars.
What did you want to change?
First, ourselves, I suppose. To become better people. And second, the wickedness of the world. For a lot of people, the world is a desperate place. A third of the people who live in it cannot achieve sustenance. And there is no real reason for that, other than a certain selfishness and greed.
So Live Aid helped you justify being in a band?
Yes, it’s fair to say that U2 were part of creating the climate in which the first Live Aid could happen. We were part of creating this kind of positive protest movement in the Eighties — encouraged and underpinned by people at Rolling Stone magazine who recognized in us some of the idealism of the Sixties. We were very moved to be a part of Live Aid. We see that this journey of equality, which had come through the civil-rights movement in the United States, had now switched to what’s going on in Africa: If we really believed that these people were equal to us, we couldn’t let this happen.
That thought process brings Ali and I to Ethiopia, to study this up close. We worked in an orphanage. We lived in a little tent. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire. Woke up in the mornings as the mist lifted, and watched thousands of Africans, who had walked all night with the little belongings they had, coming toward us to beg for food and their life. We saw the everydayness of despair. People would leave their children in rags, some would be alive, some wouldn’t. For a couple of kids from the suburbs, it was a very overwhelming experience.
But it begged bigger questions. Live Aid had raised $250 million — which felt like an enormous sum of money — and we were jumping up and down like we’d cracked it. Only to find out, years later, that that’s what Africa spends every couple of weeks repaying the richest countries in the world for old loans taken out by dodgy dictators who were propped up in the Cold War to fight the Commies. Suddenly, the penny drops: There’s a structural aspect to this poverty. This was about justice, not poverty.
What did you do every day when you were in that camp in Ethiopa?
Working in an orphanage, we developed a program to teach kids principles of survival through a song and one-act plays, so they could teach the adults. There was a song I wrote about not eating seeds, because they used to eat the seeds they were given to plant. I was known there as “girl with the beard,” ’cause I had an earring.
You wrote “Where the Streets Have No Name” about this camp?
It’s a sort of odd, unfinished lyric, and outside of the context of Africa, it doesn’t make any sense. But it contains a very powerful idea. In the desert, we meet God. In parched times, in fire and flood, we discover who we are. That’s my prayer, by the way, for the United States in 2005. Do you want to go to that other place . . . where the streets have no name. You can call it “soul” or “imagination,” the place where you glimpse God, your potential, whatever. That’s what it means at a U2 show. It’s like the Doors’ “Break on Through to the Other Side.”
No matter how crap a U2 show gets, we can be sure the gig will come off if we play this song. But all this stuff about deserts and the parchedness of the earth — I’d completely forgotten where it came from. I wrote those things on Air India sick bags and scraps of paper, sitting in a little tent in a town called Ajibar in northern Ethiopia.
How changed were your attitudes when you, came back from that trip?
You promise that you’ll never forget . . . but you do. You get back to your life, to being in the band. But something in the back of my mind told me there’s something here I don’t fully understand — but that I will, at some point in my life, be able to help those people.
A father hands you his son and says, “Take him, because if he stays with me, he will surely die.” I remember the look in that man’s eye, what it took for a grown man to make that request. He’s handing me his son — and you’re saying no. That’s a very hard thing to walk away from. But there’s part of me that didn’t say no. And when I get a call ten years later from Jamie Drummond at Jubilee 2000 — a campaign to drop the debts of the poorest countries to the richest — I’m back there, immediately.
V. Fame, the Band, the Stage
But after that trip to Africa the band peaked.
In the Nineties, I was having the time of my life. I’ve never felt I was particularly good at being a rock star. I always thought “It went to the wrong guy. Give it to the skinny, effete guy, not the guy who looks like a boxer or a bricklayer.” I wasn’t that good at this stuff. But I got quite good at it.
It started around Pop, which was gonna be this album to celebrate the surface of things. We had a great life; we’re listening to a lot of dance music, staying up all night. We’re young, our friends around. It was just a wonderful time, and we tried to capture this in songs like “Discotheque” and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress.” All those beautiful, sensual songs.
But instead of sounding like the party, it ended up sounding like the morning after the party, like the hangover. I had wanted to describe my hedonism in religious terms — as the concept of carnival, a Christian concept, a celebration of the flesh, before the denial, which is Lent. But the carnival may have gone on a little too long.
So you’d started the ascent or descent into rock stardom with The Joshua Tree?
A little, but not really. We were very earnest. Which explains those very iconic stony-faced photographs, where Anton Corbijn would only take the picture after we’d stopped smiling. I remember [manager] Paul McGuinness saying to me, “You’re in danger of looking like the men too stupid to enjoy being at Number One.”
We always have had a laugh, but in our public persona we’re a little self-conscious, and we need to throw off a bit of moral baggage — which we got to do on Zoo TV. The duality, which has always been there in us, just came out more in the Nineties. And then, it’s fair to say, the sensory overload may have started to take over. And I needed to get back to where I was.
So you got into, like, the usual rock & roll problems of money and drugs and success.
Well, I’m not gonna explain them in detail. I just — I had a taste of the pizza.
But how did stardom affect you overall?
After The Joshua Tree, I didn’t realize that being famous isn’t that important. I’m thinking, “Oh, gosh, if I go out there, I don’t want to let people down.” Bob Dylan taught me this: “You should let people down. You do not have to live up to people’s expectations. And if they have them, well, let them down.” In the eye of that storm — when we were on the cover of Time, Number One singles. Number One albums — I remember him saying, “You’re in a band, that’s lucky. I went through this on my own.”
You know, the fame thing is funny. You need to find it funny. The people who give out about it, give it too much attention . . . it makes you self-conscious. In the Nineties, I started a journey out of self—consciousness toward where I am now, where I wake up and forget that I am in a band. I will not let that thing called fame change my mood anymore. I don’t travel with security. I don’t mind getting turned away at restaurants.
How do you handle the tensions in the band?
We’re quite evolved in the way that we deal with grievances. Maybe the secret of it is that we put the ideas themselves ahead of the people who’ve had them. It’s just, is that idea good or not?
How do you submit yourself — and your intelligence, and all this passion and stubbornness that you have — to the will of a group?
If it furthers the music that we make, I’m all in favor of it. If it furthers the personalities of the people making the music, I’m not. I am very aware of how much I need them. They make me a better singer; they make me a better writer. The idea of being in a room surrounded by people who agree with you is terrifying, ’cause I’m not sure I’m consistent enough in my own judgment.
About music, or things in general?
Things in general. I mean, I’m terrified. Sting says, “It’s just a street gang — you should grow out of it.” Enormous respect for Sting as a person and a musician, but I don’t agree.
When was the last major fight within the band?
At the start of this album, there was some annoyance between us. Someone was playing some songs that I thought a lot of time and energy had gone into — and other people were not very impressed. And I thought their response was rude. But it turns out they might have been right. I write songs very quickly, and improvise words and melodies. If they don’t amount to anything or if somebody says, “I’m bored,” you might lose your temper. Larry Mullen’s in our band; he’s bored most of the time. You could be singing your heart out, and he’ll yawn. But his instincts are eighty percent right. If you’re in the twenty percent, it hurts. Adam will fall asleep; Edge will make some kind of remark about the chord changes.
Then what happens? You start screaming?
I’m right up there, anyway. In order to perform, you’re already jumping off a very tall building.
I read that at one time there was the no-coffee-for-you rule.
So differences of opinion can be dealt with in a sensitive way or an insensitive way. But what’s the underlying issue?
You can imagine how annoying it is to have someone like me come in with my head full of big ideas. But occasionally we get a little too easy with the criticism. These are motherfuckers. This is a tough crowd. I think you need to create an environment where people can take risks. If everything has to be brilliant from the word go, you’re never gonna get off the ground.
What is the dispute over the fact that you’re away so much on your various missions?
This is a slight misconception. I’ll tell you why, and it will make sense. My job is catching lightning. If there’s none around, my job is starting a fire. I work very quickly, and it’s the opposite of the way Edge works. Edge is the Zen master. He’s like the guy that spends eight years mixing the inks to do the calligraphy. I’m restless and impatient with the process. The band are delighted to have a break from me.
When you’re onstage, what do you think about? Who are you watching?
Very little has been written about the performer’s psychology. Performers often perform out of a bit missing, i.e., they have a hole they’re trying to fill, that’s obvious. What’s less obvious is that through this insecurity we develop a kind of a third eye or a sort of reptilian sense of what’s going on in the room. At your house I’m aware who’s entered, who’s walked out, what couple is having a row, if you’re stressed — I pick all that stuff up. It’s really a noise. It gets to be a terrible noise after a while, and you just wish you could turn it off.
Yes, but it turns out to be the mark of a performer. When I go onstage and a song is not connecting, I can feel it. You can feel people going to the bathroom or to buy a T-shirt, and you’re annoyed. Mick Jagger is one of those kinds of performers. So are David Bowie and Eddie Vedder. There are performers who don’t feel that, don’t know whether the place is empty or full. But I’m not one.
What are you thinking when you’re singing?
If it’s going the way you want, you disappear into the song and the song is singing you. At times it isn’t, so you’re very much aware of the sound in your earphones. For me, I have an advantage I can’t sing in the registers that I sing in. So I really have to step inside the song or else I’m not going to be able to hit some of those notes.
So in other words, unless you’re personally willing to pour your feelings into, it you’re just not capable of making that stretch.
It’s not any glorious dedication to the art. It’s just a necessity. I probably think if it wasn’t that way, I might try to fake it, because it’s expensive.
Expensive in what terms?
On your emotional life. In a U2 show there’s a lot of different feelings you’re going through. My family refers to “giglag,” where the coming down off of that can be unpleasant. I am as high as a kite the day after, but the next day I can really hit a wall.
Do you occasionally lose control when you’re singing? Not get out of control, but you just get so transported into the song.
That’s when it’s good. When it’s good you don’t know it’s happening. It really is an extraordinary thing because it seems to require no effort. And of course the other side of it is you can bump into some aspects of your character that you’d rather not have bumped into.
What are you trying to do with the audience?
To lose my own sense of self, self-consciousness — and theirs. It’s an amazing thing. We’re not really a rock & roll band. We’re pretending to be a rock & roll band, and sometimes we get away with it.
Sometimes a song like “Desire” or “Vertigo” will arrive, and you go, Whoa! That’s rock & roll! But what we actually do is something completely different. Our set list is designed in a kind of three-act structure, to get people out of themselves and to get ourselves out of ourselves. And to get to that place where everything feels possible and you want to call your mother, leave your wife, start a revolution or crack open the piggy bank and go on holiday for a year.
You have to open up and expose your deep fears, your ambitions, your heart.
Our definition of art is the breaking open of the breastbone, for sure. Just open-heart surgery. I wish there was an easier way. But in the end, people want blood, and I’m one of them.
You told a Rolling Stone reporter in 2000 you’d had a huge health scare. And you wouldn’t discuss it. What was that about?
At one point I thought I might have throat cancer, which would’ve closed down the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I didn’t even tell the band. My voice had been on low par for about five years. It started after the Zoo TV tour. You can really hear it. It seemed to just come down in power. The singing on Pop isn’t very good. The tour I found difficult to do. I didn’t know if it was my voice or whatever. I don’t want to get too melodramatic about it, but actually it is pretty melodramatic if you think you mightn’t be around to see your kids. But luckily I’m out of those woods.
For me, the highlight of the stadium show comes during “Love and Peace or Else” — that thirty-minute stretch where you put up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and put the “Coexist” blindfold on. You put your hands up as if a prisoner in Abu Ghraib. Who put this together, and how does it work?
It’s shaped by the band. The desire for me as a performer has always been to break down the barrier between the them and the us. Early on, I joined the Iggy Pop school of swan-diving into the crowd. I’ve wrestled, I’ve fought, I’ve playfully bitten girls in the audience. I’ve been head-butted and groped. But we discovered there’s other ways of breaking down the barrier. First and foremost is the mental — your own attitude. The stage design and video art, but also the re-interpretation of material.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is suddenly now about terrorism in the United States. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was a song about Central America and the bullying of the left by the right in the 1980s. Suddenly it’s relevant again.
Do you ever get scared when you go onstage and preach?
I’m sick of Bono. And I am Bono. It’s like, oh, man, shut up. But there it is. You just don’t want to be dull. We might be annoying. But we’re not dull.
But you get up there like some kind of preacher. It’s like watching Martin Luther King. You’re not scared by doing that?
I’m scared of embarrassing my bandmates and our audience, but I am convicted that this is a generation that wants to be remembered for something other than the war against terror or the Internet. Your generation had a job to do in pursuing equality and civil rights, and you took to the streets and you accomplished a lot.
Our generation wants the same thing, and we recognize that the enemies are subtler. This business of equality is a pain in the arse because it won’t lie down, and it won’t let you lie down beside it. It keeps demanding to be redefined for a different time.
A prominent head of state said to me if we really believed that these people in the developing world were equal, there is no way that we could allow 3,000 Africans, mostly children, to die every day from mosquito bites while we have the medicines and technology that could save their lives. It’s as absurd as separate drinking fountains for blacks, in the 1950s. It’s racism disguised by distance. Our audience agrees with us, and history will, too.
But let me ask again: Don’t you feel you’re making yourself a target? Doesn’t it scare you to go out onstage and preach like that?
No, but maybe there have been times when certainly I should have been. In 1998, we were playing in Chile, in a stadium full of people and on national television. We invited the mothers and relatives of those who had “disappeared” and demanded that President Pinochet answer these people: Where are the bones of these mothers’ sons? At least tell them that. All the police leave the stadium. There’s no security and half the crowd is booing. I kind of respect that our audience who disagreed with us made itself clear. There was “gringo, go home, you don’t understand this” aspect. But I did understand it. There have been moments when things have been scary.
About Edge, what’s his importance in U2? Do you think he’s getting the credit he deserves?
I’m definitely overrated in the scheme of things for U2. It’s just one of those things that comes with the turf. However, it is annoying to me that this genius of the guitar — and genius rarely comes with modesty — never pushes himself forward. Most guitar playing in the rock era is white guys redoing black riffs. Some amazing versions of that; but this man, this kind of Zen Presbyterian, has really redefined the emotional terrain that a guitar player can create.
There are feelings that Edge has brought with his guitar playing that didn’t exist before. I’ll see people rate some guitar player ahead of him in a list because they’re faster. It’s like saying Jackson Pollock was sloppy. Edge is a giant of guitar playing. He’s right up there.
Can you describe the sound of his playing?
Those icy notes and those fragile arpeggios belie a rage beneath that calm surface. He has a lot going on in his head, but he doesn’t speak about it like I do. He’s a musician, and it comes out in these tones that no one’s heard before, and it allows me to get to that ecstatic thing that I’m looking for. Without that, it’s difficult.
How do you guys put a song together? Can you describe that process?
Sometimes it’s songwriting in the traditional sense, myself and Edge coming up with chord sequences and a sketch of a melody or a verse or a title. But then the other way we write is through improvisation, and that’s where Larry and Adam contribute. “Miracle Drug,” on the new album, started with Adam’s bass part, and then I start singing and Edge starts improvising. Larry has a strong melodic sense. He pushes, as always, for clarity. For a punk band it’s quite a jazz-like approach. Even though the final outcome is not those annoying fusion though chords or anything highbrow bollocks. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of” is Edge improvising melody and chords on piano.
Without any notion of what you’re going to write about?
It sounded to me like a white soul things. And then Larry goes, “It sounds saccharine.” We’re going like, “Is there any way of bringing it back to earth?” Then I go against the melody and sing, “I’m not afraid of anything in this world/There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard/I’m just trying to find a decent melody, a song that I can sing in my own company.” It’s this sort of countermelody, and then Edge sings, “You got to get yourself together . . . .”
At what point did it come to be about Michael Hutchence?
Sometime after Michael died, I must have written a few lines. He got himself into a terrible hole. If he’d just hung on ten minutes more . . .
I felt I had let Michael down because I was lost to my own busyness and hadn’t called as much as I would have liked, In fact, Ali had spent some time with him and she’d said he looked a bit shaky to her.
But do you think you really had the necessary clues?
No, I just wished I’d been around a bit more. He would confide in me and I in him. We were really great friends. In Cannes we’d go out and we wouldn’t come home, we’d just sleep on the beach, having a laugh.
Other singer-songwriter partnerships are really tough: Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, Gilbert-Sullivan and so forth, Yours keeps working, it keeps going. Why?
We’re tough on the work, but not on each other. Edge deserves the lion’s share of the credit. He has, in a sort of sacramental fashion, learned to sublimate his ego to his music.
And allows you to be the big ego?
I think he’s delighted to be out of the line of fire. He’s the clever guy who actually figures being the frontman is hard work. Smart people know what he does, and he doesn’t care about the rest of the world. I get annoyed and I say, “How do people not know?” An example would be “With or Without You.” It was self clear early on that this was a little bit special. The song is all one build to a crescendo. The song breaks open and comes down, and then comes back. Everyone in the room is, “OK, Edge, let’s see if you can let off some fireworks here.” Three notes — restraint. I mean psychotic restraint, and that is the thing that rips your heart out, not the chorus. Same at the end of “One.” It’s not the falsetto, it’s the guitar running contrary to the opera. It’s really extraordinary.
Are you guys best friends?
He’s one of my very best friends. I tend to put people into two categories: friends I worry about and friends I don’t worry about. Ali and Edge are definitely the friends I don’t worry about. They’re similar and they have similar roles in my life. I’m just in awe of them.
VI. Dylan, Springsteen, Jagger
Tell me about Bob Dylan, How did you first meet him?
I went to interview him for the Hot Press, an Irish music paper, in 1984. We talked about playing chess. Van Morrison was there, too. Dylan was responsible for Rattle and Hum because he’s the one who said, in that interview, that you have to understand the past, where the music comes from. He was talking to me about the McPeake family and the Clancy Brothers and then Hank Williams and Leadbelly, none of whom we knew. Bob came out on the Joshua Tree tour, played a few songs with us. During Rattle and Hum, he came down and played keyboards. We went out to his house in California and wrote a couple of songs together.
What was that like?
I think he was just keeping an eye out for me. I probably didn’t realize what this meant, and I may not have respected his privacy the way I should have.
In what sense do you mean?
People say, “Oh, you’ve written with Bob Dylan” and I’d tell them what happened, not realizing that his privacy was sacrosanct. So I don’t know why he continued to be my friend. He kind of comes and goes.
What’s hanging out with him like?
I find him to be the least obtuse person in the world, except when there’s more than a few people in the room. He’s much better one to one.
The collision of the Beatles and Bob Dylan gave us the galaxy that our planet is in. I would consider myself to be more of a fan than a friend. He might call me friend; I would call me a fan. I find him very old-school — ancient values, ancient wisdom. For a man who helped to give birth to the modern era, he’s really coming from a very old place. A pilgrim, a sojourner, a troubadour. It’s almost a medieval way he sees the world, in terms of performing.
For a person like myself who’s trying to keep my dignity in a very undignified era and trade, where your own opportunism can trip you up, he just reminds me all the time of what’s possible.
Your favorite Dylan songs and album?
“Visions of Johanna” and Bringing It All Back Home. I loved it as a teenager, and still love the humor and discovering some of the references as you get older, just realizing what that was about.
And the Beatles songs you like the most?
The White Album, because of the combination of the really experimental and the real songwriting craft. That’s our yin and yang: really heavy, really soft. The White Album is probably my favorite album, although our last two albums are much more like Abbey Road or Let It Be.
What about Bruce Springsteen?
Bruce taught us so much — how to play arenas, and not rip people off, how to communicate to the back of the stalls, how to be emotional, how to be operatic and not overblown, how to have dignity.
Yet we couldn’t be more different. Back in the Eighties I remember saying to Bruce, All these characters in your songs. Why don’t you write about yourself? He looked at me and said, eyes darkened, What’s there to write about? What’s my life? I play gigs, I go home. You know, chastising me with his humility.
What’s your personal relationship with him like?
We both belong to the big top. I think he’s bemused that I’m still up on the tightrope. As big brother he would advise a net. He’s careful, considered. Bruce taught me some very valuable lessons, like how to hold on to your life as a civilian and how to disappear out the back door in your civvies, back to ordinary life. I’d like to teach him a few lessons, too.
How to crawl out of a nightclub on your hands and knees by pretending you’ve lost some loose change . . . And then magic tricks, like how to disappear into a continent like Africa, where people really don’t know who you are.
What are your favorites of Bruce’s songs?
Darkness on the Edge of Town, the early Van Morrison-influenced stuff, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. And his Elvis-like howl. It’s a haunting, spooky music that he can make. It turns up here and there on the last album. I don’t know the landscapes he’s traveling through. I like when they’re a little topsy-turvy, and when, like on that album, you feel he might get lost.
If Dylan is Faulkner, then Springsteen is Steinbeck. He’s one of the great guitar players, by the way. And I always admire a man who marries above his station — Patti is hot stuff, that red-haired woman. You can’t not like a person who goes home to her.
U2 and the Rolling Stones are the only two bands to operate at a certain level and are similar in so many other ways. What is the relationship between the two bands?
It’s not competitive; we want them to win because if they win, they increase our value. I want “Streets of Love” to be a hit, not only because it deserves to be, but also because in fifteen years we might write something like that. And if it can’t be a hit for them, I’ll certainly want to figure out a way how it can be a hit for us.
You guys have got to be referencing each other. I went to see the Zoo TV tour with Mick in 1992. He was designing his next tour and so he was there checking yours out.
We invented the B stage, the idea of going into the middle of a stadium or arena, on that tour. That was our idea that they borrowed.
How did you feel when it showed up on his tour?
Did you ever take the occasion to elbow him about it?
No. The debt is much more in their direction.
What did you learn from the Rolling Stones?
Swagger. Flirtation with an audience. Taking care of business. It’s not sexy to not know what’s going on. I always respected Mick for that. He made those guys very wealthy and they made him cool. It’s worth remembering. Keith always reminds me of that Bob Dylan line “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” He has enormous personal integrity, the way he wouldn’t talk about women, the way he would light a cigarette for you, the way he carries himself. He’s much more graceful than people realize. I know he’s got some demons, and I’m sure it’s not pleasant to see that being worked out. It’s a shame that he and Mick don’t get on better. If they’re doing this well without that kind of relationship, can you imagine how well they would do if they were actually ringing each other up getting up a better verse, a better hook?
They’re supposed to be the greatest rock & roll band in the world, and you’re the world’s biggest band.
I think greater is a better accolade myself and . . . they might watch their step. Their body of work: I can only stare at in awe. And Mick’s a great journalist. He’s a great lyricist. He described his world very well, with humor, with intelligence and, you know, the odd Polaroid.
I like a lot of stuff from their later albums, like “Out of Tears,” from Voodoo Lounge, “Out of Control.” Exile on Main Street is one of the reasons why I live in the south of France part of the time. They made that album around the corner from where my house is, and there’s humidity on that record and a certain freeform that I relate to.
When you and Mick get together, do you have some laughs?
He’s very funny, very charming, quite a conservative character. He’s got the yacht club jacket on, or whatever it is. It’s a relief to be around somebody not in the pursuit of groovy. And his kids have impeccable manners. One of his young children came up to me and said, “People think my daddy’s the devil . . . and he lets them.”
VII. September 11th, 2001
By September of 2001, New York had become your second home. “City of Blinding Lights” and “New York” are among the classic rock odes to the city. Where were you on September 11th?
I was in Venice. I’d gotten lost on the back streets with my son Eli and a friend, and I was trying to find directions. It was just after the first plane had hit. I knew on that day that everything would be different from them on. Some people said to me, “Well, that’s the end of your work on Africa and AIDS, because now America will just focus in on itself and build some very high walls.” I disagreed with that, and I was proved right.
The vulnerability that was exposed in these events has helped Americans understand how others live with these vulnerabilities on a daily basis. The pictures of New Orleans, they look like Mozambique to me. There’s an African word, ubuntu, which means something along the lines of “I am because we are” — the interconnectedness of people and things. That time of America behaving like an island is over. If there was some kind of plate glass around the country, it smashed on September the 11th.
I saw you play Madison Square Garden one month later.
That was one of the most extraordinary moments of our lives. When “Where the Streets Have No Name” went off, and the lights went up, I think half the house was in tears. New York had let us into a very private moment. We did not feel in any way like visitors or tourists. We were the same people.
When you have a shock like what happened in Manhattan, you face your mortality in a very real way. You’re living with the chance that any moment something else can happen and take you or your loved ones away.
A lot of people told you that you shouldn’t play New York. It’s too soon, it’s too dangerous.
Yes, they told us not to play, and our own people begged me not to put up the names of all the —
Of the dead.
But I felt it was so important to do that because these people weren’t statistics. They were real people. I was looking around from the stage and seeing the names of brothers and sisters and fathers, and it brings it home.
It sounds like September 11th raised the stakes for you.
It completely changed everything. The mood at the shows was very different. People were holding on much tighter to our band — as I do myself when things are going on in my life. I put on music. It changes the music you listen to.
It seems like your album is about that moment, or defines it.
Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft and All That You Can’t Leave Behind are the two albums that people associate with that time. We are proud to be in that company.
You were touring America with your social crusade during one of the most vulnerable moments in American history.
Here’s an Irish rock star, who has lots of ideas about what he thinks America is and isn’t, and what it should be, and won’t shut up. You could be forgiven for wanting to turn that radio down. Except after 9/11 a lot of people were asking the same questions. Not just, How could this happen to us? But very big questions about what is America. I was touring the country at the time, saying America is not just a country, it’s an idea, and that idea is under attack. When you’re under attack, you have to double-lock the doors. You have to rethink things. You have to make sure of what you believe in.
Do you think that our current government has successfully asked and answered those questions?
I think it’s astonishing that, in the list of the twenty-two richest countries in the world, the United States is at the bottom in what it gives per capita, i.e., per person, to the poorest of the poor. Now the U.S. reply is, We’re keeping the world safe for democracy. Our military saved your ass before, and it’s going to save it again, look what’s coming up. But some people don’t want America World Police. By the way, it might be cheaper to make friends out of potential enemies than to defend yourself against them later. That’s why the campaign for aid has not just a moral, but a strategic imperative.
VIII. Working With Bush
When you’re going to go sit down with George Bush, how do you prepare? Not in terms of policy, but psychologically?
I don’t have any fear. I have no feat of politicians or presidents or prime ministers. They should be afraid, because they will be held accountable for what happened on their watch. I’m representing the poorest and the most vulnerable people. On a spiritual level. I have that with me. I’m throwing a punch, and the fist belongs to people who can’t be in the room, whose rage, whose anger, whose hurt I represent. The moral force is way beyond mine, it’s an argument that has much more weight than I have. So I’m not feeling nervous.
Do you say to yourself, I’m going to curse less, keep certain things in check?
Am I going to watch my mouth? Yes, I am. I’m trying to be respectful. Remember, before I’m going in there to meet the preside in for the first time, I know he’s already set to double aid to Africa. So I want to shake this man’s hand.
In 2002, he promised $5 billion for fiscal year 2006 for the Millennium Challenge. He’s only asked Congress for $3 billion, and that’s been reduced to almost half by a committee in the House. Actually, only $1.75 billion has been committed.
We’re disappointed with the speed of the flow of the money. Yet, it’s in our interest, too, that this money is not misspent, because we have to go to Congress and make the case for this money. I don’t want to be standing there in three years, embarrassed because the money went to the wrong people.
It didn’t get enough attention from the administration, and we have criticized them on this. But our work helped to get a historic AIDS initiative going that surpassed the Millennium Challenge. I can report that money for AIDS, $15 billion, is flying out the door. Within a year they had 180,000 Africans on anti-retroviral drugs. Within a year!
We would have preferred the money to go through the multilateral Global Health Fund to help fight TB, AIDS and malaria. Allergic to multilateral initiatives, the president had pushed for a unilateral thing, setting up a whole new office to deal with the AIDS emergency, called PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]. Randall Tobias runs it. And they have done impressive work. That does not excuse the fact that the Millennium Challenge was not set up with the same kind of sense of emergency, but it does show that a commitment to our issues has been forthcoming.
Getting back to the Millennium Challenge for a second, when you get a promise of $5 billion a year, and then three years later all that has been committed is $1.75 billion annually, which is like a few days’ spending in Iraq these days, what evidence do you have that he wants to be generous?
I think the AIDS initiative backs up the sincerity to the commitment to the poorest of the poor. The Millennium Challenge, the money is still promised, and . . .
He makes a lot of promises that he never keeps.
The money is still promised, and I know more than anyone that politicians love to make big promises. But you have to get the check signed before you cash it. That money will come through.
You’re trying to tell me now you’re going to get that . . .
$5 billion a year, yes.
Come fucking hell or high water.
The Bush administration has issued written guidelines that in order to receive money for AIDS, countries must preach abstinence. So Brazil has now refused the money the United States offered because they will not sign a pledge to condemn prostitution. Uganda, which had perhaps the most success of all programs for AIDS prevention, had to reverse their policies and abandon free condom distribution to keep the money from the United States flowing. Is that about saving lives or promoting a religious, political agenda?
It’s not the case in Uganda. Some religious groups funded by the United States may refuse to distribute condoms, but overall this government buys more condoms than any previous administration, or, in fact, any other donor country — shock, horror!
There are two questions here. Let me address the first, about spending on AIDS. The numbers you’re referring to are across two accounts. One, the PEPFAR account, the United States AIDS Emergency Fund, and two, the Global Health Funds Account. The money was low in the Global Health Fund, and Congress has been heroic, in my opinion, in pushing those numbers up, particularly coming from the Senate. John Kerry and Dick Durbin have been heroes, And on the right, Rick Santorum.
The president would rather spend the money his way, and the money that he committed on PEPFAR has gone out the door, exactly as promised.
No. Now that’s the second question. He favors this unilateral approach, which has a conservative agenda attached to it. However, the ABC program, as it’s known, is pretty much accepted by most religious groups, including very conservative groups. ABC means abstinence, be faithful and condoms. The C is in there. And that is the balance that this administration wants to see.
Most people accept, from left to right, that ABC is a good thing. We would like them just to give the medication They won’t agree to everything. But just for a second, step back three years. I was laughed at for suggesting that a conservative administration would distribute expensive anti-retroviral AIDS drugs to Africans. There was a sense that these Africans are having sex in an irresponsible fashion and we’re not going to pay the bills for it. Think of the change. The United States is way out in front now. And this president did that.
So a half a loaf is better than no loaf?
It’s a very large loaf, arriving with some conditions that I would prefer were not there, but, largely, they are not as onerous as these incidents suggest. These are regrettable and they should not happen, but where there are policies that get in the way of overall goals, we go after them.
What can you do to hold Bush to his promise on the Millennium Challenge account?
Work the Congress, and the best way we can work the Congress is to show that this money has been spent well. That’s the only way we’re going to get the money. We’re trying to prove a principle here: that aid works.
Are you prepared to use your power to shame, as you did with the Canadian prime minister, for Bush going back on his foreign-aid pledge?
Yeah. And we’re constantly carping. We’re constantly pushing stories in the press on the Millennium Challenge.
But you went public with Canadian prime minister, why not with Bush?
We’re not shrinking violets here. We’re capable of having a row. We had what was known in The Washington Post as a good old row, you may remember. I had come out of a meeting with the president and roundly criticized him for the slowness in the Millennium Challenge. One senator threw a newspaper at me in a meeting. “How dare you disrespect the president of the United States!”
You’re been getting criticized for making a deal with Bush. There’s cynicism about that, that maybe you’ve made a deal with the devil here.
First of all, I don’t support any president, whether from the left or from the right. I support, or do not support, what they do in the area that we are discussing. I can’t criticize a man who has doubled, tripled aid to Africa — especially after we asked him to, and he said yes. To get along with someone, you don’t have to agree on everything, but just one thing if it’s important enough.
Do you feel now you can’t criticize him on the war in Iraq?
Everyone in the administration knows how I feel about the war in Iraq. Everyone. I criticize it to Tony Blair as well. Do I campaign against the war in Iraq? No.
That’s the compromise. I feel I gave that up when I started to work for other people whom I will never meet, those 180,000 people in Africa who now owe their lives to American money, which paid for these lifesaving drugs. I work for them. If me not shooting my mouth off about the war in Iraq is the price I pay, then I’m prepared to pay it. Others have been eloquent on this issue.
Does it frustrate you not to be able to say what you think?
I’m a big-mouthed Irish rock star; of course it frustrates me. Look, I don’t bring the subject up, but when it does come up, I’ve been very clear.
There’s a link: The Americans are trying to explain to devout believers in Islam that the U.S. is a benign force in the world, and it’s very difficult after Shock and Awe. I say you could start in Africa, it’s forty percent Muslim. Be a benign force there. Spreading democracy is a noble pursuit, but if they win the battle and lose the war by putting people off democracy, it’s been too expensive, as far as I’m concerned.
What’s your take on Bill Clinton?
I love him. I see him all the time. We’re going to have lunch next Sunday, I think. The kids, we’ll all go around to his house. His third act is one to watch. He may end up doing more good out of office than he did in — and he did an awful lot when he was in. I know the thing that maddens him most is what happened with the Middle East peace process. He nearly had that deal done. I’ve only seen him lose his temper once, and it was over that.
It’s a shame that he didn’t get through his agenda. He had a lot of fires to put out. We wouldn’t have peace in Ireland without him, that’s for sure. In Africa, debt cancellation wouldn’t have happened without him. He’s right up there.
There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about you receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. What’s your attitude about that?
I don’t think that’ll ever happen. You don’t give rock stars Nobel Peace Prizes. As much as it would be the biggest honor you could possibly have in your life, there are other people in my line of work that deserve it more.
What are the fundamental lessons that you’ve learned about the art and nature of politics?
Anything’s possible in politics as long as it’s not your idea. That’s what I’ve learned. Share authorship. Same thing I learned in the band. And that bipartisanship may take longer but it will get you a lot further.
What tools do you have to use in there, besides your fame and your charm?
A relentless and rigorous argument that unless we deal with the enormous inequality that exists in the wider world between us and them, we’re not going to have the life we enjoy now. I mean that spiritually, I mean that economically and I mean it politically. I’ve rarely met an American or an Irish or an English person who doesn’t somehow know that.
IX. Looking for Grace
Your manager, Paul McGuinness, said to you once that the duty of an artist is to illustrate the problems of the world, to bring them before his audience, but not to solve them.
Artists won’t be able to solve it, but this generation will be able to eradicate extreme poverty. Not poverty, but extreme poverty. I call it stupid poverty: kids dying of starvation. This should not happen, and does not have to continue to happen. The people have to give the politicians their permission to spend what is, after all, their money.
I’m tired of tin-cupping, begging for the beggars. We have now 2 million people signed up to the One campaign to make poverty history. By 2008, we’ll have 5 million — that’s more than the NRA. That’s real firepower.
You think your duty as an artist now is to help make that happen?
I wish it wasn’t, because I’d much rather be in a studio writing a song. When that song forms something that didn’t exist ten minutes ago, and now it looks like it’s heading to be played on the radio in Tokyo, that is a thrill. I enjoy my work campaigning as an activist, but my gift is I’m a singer, a songwriter and a performer. And I just happened to have learned other skills to protect that gift, and those skills seem to suit an activist.
What drives you? Is it fear of failure or to show you can do anything? What’s the source of that energy?
Fear of a missed opportunity. I can see a way through to what my friend Jeff Sachs calls “the end of poverty.” This is not wide-eyed Irish rock star nonsense. These are achievable goals. I seem to be able to communicate them and so if I don’t do it, I’ve walked away from an opportunity to really effect some change in a world that badly needs it.
You’ve been on this never-ending peace and nonviolence crusade since you’ve been seventeen years old. Do you feel anointed or chosen to do this? Do you have a messianic complex, like Bruce teasingly said?
That’s fair enough. As regards anointing, I put my hand up for this job. I’ve probably just worn the good Lord out. “OK, you can have the anointing then.” I’m sure it wasn’t in the cards. It’s like the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, who go to Isaac for the blessing and the younger brother, Jacob, pretends he’s Esau in order to take the blessing before Isaac passes. I’m like that guy. Why does God Almighty stand over the blessing if it was stolen? Only recently I figured it out. Jacob wanted it more than Esau. He knew how powerful the blessing was.
Once you see not only the problem, but also the solution, there’s no escape. You see it, you can’t look away from it. I want it to feel like an adventure, not a burden. I don’t mean just for me, I mean for the movement. This is an extraordinary thing, an uplifting thing. This is not, Oh, my God, all the poor starving Africans with flies around their faces. They are very noble, royal people, full of easy laughter and very innovative. This is about us too. It’s about who are we? What are our values? Do we have any? It’s exciting.
How do the guys in the band feel about the way that your crusades are shaping the perception of the band?
They were very, very worried for the first few years. It’s very unhip work. They thought our audience would tire of it, but our audience has ended up feeling more powerful themselves as a result of me raising my voice for them.
Can you describe for me what you think the mission of U2 is today?
Not be crap. There’s a deal: You don’t worry about the cost of your kids’ education and their medical bills and you can have a house in the south of France, but don’t embarrass us by making second-rate music.
Going to a very dark place inside yourself — it’s expensive. A lot of bands understandably get to a level of comfort and don’t want to go there. U2’s still ready to go there, and we feel there’s a lot to prove. What can myself, Edge, Larry and Adam do? As long as we don’t develop fat arses, I think there’s another ten years in us. Crap album, fat arse — out.
What would U2 be like without Bono?
I think Edge is singing very well these days. Beautiful falsetto. He sounds like a bunch of beautiful black women. Edge would lead the group to some extraordinary places without me, and they would have less pressure, but less fun. We have a lot of laughs. And I’m sure I give them some. They laugh with me as well as at me.
Do you need them for your own balance and sanity?
The truth is I need them more than they need me.
Just the way I’m wired. They raise my game. I’m terrified of being in a room on my own, or with just people who are in my employment. That is my definition of hell on earth. You’re as good as the arguments you get. I’m a better person for being around these men. They’re very dignified people.
How do you feel about getting older and playing to older audiences? Does it affect your perceptions of yourself? You know there’s a golden circle out there.
There’s a golden circle because rich people have feelings too [laughs]. We have a vital audience from the colleges, but we also have an audience that has been with us for a long time, and that brings with it a real weight.
And there’s a resonance to that?
The Us against Them situation in the Sixties isn’t the case anymore. I know seventy-year-old men who are much more radical than their seventeen-year-old grandchildren.
There is a power that comes from age. You see the face of Johnny Cash before he left this world and you hear that voice. Or you see Mick Jagger these days, who looks like Nureyev. Their faces are more interesting. They’re much more dangerous men as they get older. They know their way around the world, and they have more to say. If you were a novelist or a photographer or a painter, you’d just be getting going at forty-five. Why is it that that’s generally not been true in music? People, particularly groups, blow it very badly. I think it’s to do with what we were talking about earlier, and that is the inability of people, particularly groups, to move around each other.
The Edge said to me you should be the chairman of the board of Overachievers Anonymous.
There’s another one I have to cop to. God has made a lot of a little. I will say that.
Where do you see yourself in twenty years?
I’d like to return to fiction and poetry. I’d like to just be a writer, and a singer, and a performer. At sixty I’m going to be much better looking than I am now. I’m sure of that. I don’t hope I die before I get old. A lot of my heroes tend to be people who are alive, not dead, and living long.
In other words, you want to be doing the same thing but in a more pure form, maybe without all the outside work?
Words are becoming more and more important to me. I was never a guy who listened to the words. I just wrote them. And I’m really enjoying writing, whether it’s speeches or letters, or prose poems, scripts or lyrics. Maybe it’s because I stop talking when I start writing.
If you hadn’t been in U2, what would’ve happened to you?
I would’ve been a journalist.
Why do you say that?
Curiosity. I like writing. I’m attracted to things I’m afraid of. Disaster groupie, journalist, scriptwriter. The media plays a really valuable role in a free society. The United States has the best-quality journalism in the world, though your television really sucks.
Can rock & roll contain everything that you want to do?
It’s so exciting — music. It really is. I believe that old adage that all art aspires to the condition of music.
What does that mean?
It’s such an extraordinary thing, music. It is how we speak to God finally — or how we don’t. Even if we’re ignoring God. It’s the language of the spirit. If you believe that we contain within our skin and bones a spirit that might last longer than your time breathing in and out — if there is a spirit, music is the thing that wakes it up. And it certainly woke mine up. And it seems to be how we communicate on another level.
I just came back from one of the most moving experiences of my life: playing Poland, hearing huge audiences singing every word of a language they weren’t born into. They felt them before they understood them. It’s humbling as a lyricist and hugely uplifting as a musician.
The thing that drives me on is a sort of curiosity about the world and people. Occasionally I lift the stones and find a few creepy-crawlies under there. The access that I’ve had through music to other artists in other fields, economists, novelists, doctors, nurses in the field — it’s been amazing for me.
When we were in the middle of punk rock. I wanted to hang out with Johnny Cash. I wanted to know what was going on under his hat. And I got to. And Frank Sinatra — I got to know what was going on under his hat and in his heart, and he shared things with me. That blessing that I was talking about — I’ve been chasing that blessing all my life from all different sources and places. From Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson to Billy Graham.
Do you have any regrets?
I have loads. I won’t speak about them, but yes, I do. Musically, that I didn’t finish those songs in the Eighties. That’s why I get a kick out of playing them live. I’m finishing them every night.
Have you found what you’re looking for?
I used to think that one day I’d be able to resolve the different drives I have in different directions, the tension between the different people I am. Now I realize that is who I am, and I’m more content to be discontent. I do feel I’m getting closer to the song I hear in my head, getting closer to not compromising that melody with some crap words. I mean that on every level. I wasn’t looking for grace, but luckily grace was looking for me.