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Bono: The Rolling Stone Interview

The musical veteran discusses three decades with U2, how he became a political force and why he he has faith in the future

U2, singer, Bono,

U2's Bono at MCI Center in Washington D.C. on October 19th, 2005.

Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post/Getty

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.
[Laughs] Right.

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.”