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U2 Drops Bomb

After 25 years of making records the hard way, how do they keep it together? “We had no interest in being the biggest if we weren’t the best,” says the Edge

The Edge, Adam Clayton, Bono, Larry Mullen, U2, video, album, 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb'The Edge, Adam Clayton, Bono, Larry Mullen, U2, video, album, 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb'

The Edge, Adam Clayton, Bono and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2 shooting a video for their new album 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb' in New York City on November 22nd, 2004.

KMazur/WireImage for INTERSCOPE RECORDS/Getty

Bono spins around on his heels to take in the dazzling night above and behind him: the illuminated cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, lacing the sky like golden thread; the lighted offices of the Manhattan skyscrapers across the East River, staring back at him like jeweled eyes. “Look at this!” the singer yells. “It’s wild! What a sight!”

He swings back to face the U2 fans packed on the riverside grass of Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park for a free concert, the climax of a November 22nd video shoot in which the Irish quartet plays all day, all over Manhattan, on a flatbed truck. “When you’ve been doing this for years,” Bono tells the crowd, “you remind yourself why you wanted to be in a band in the first place — to come to the U.S., over the bridge into Manhattan for the first time. An amazing, powerful time.”

Then he introduces “City of Blinding Lights,” from U2’s magnificent new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb: “The chorus is set in New York,” he says, “looking from Brooklyn.” Guitarist the Edge fires up a steely barrage; bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. lock into a jubilant gallop. At the mike, in black leather and dark glasses, Bono again becomes the excited, 20-year-old Dubliner, the former Paul Hewson, who first saw these lights in December 1980, on the way to U2’s U.S. debut at the old Ritz on East Eleventh Street: “Neon heart, day-glo eyes/A city lit like fireflies/They’re advertising in the skies/For people like us.”

Then as the Edge builds a wall of chime under him, Bono achieves liftoff. “I’m getting ready,” he sings with delight, “to leave the ground.”

Later, in the encore, Bono, 44, shows what that feeling sounded like in the beginning by leading U2 into a thrilling version of their first single, a song he wrote in 1978, on his 18th birthday: “Out of Control.”

The next morning, Bono is in his Manhattan apartment, sipping a Diet Coke to nurse a throat ravaged by the long-weekend campaign for Atomic Bomb: the free gig, the flatbed shoot, a three-song appearance on Saturday Night Live. The payoff will be huge. The album debuts at Number One in Billboard with first-week sales of more than 840,000 copies, the third-best figure of 2004 (after Usher and Norah Jones) and the year’s best for a rock band.

Bono, Clayton, Mullen and the Edge (real name David Evans) took two years to record How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, with a small army of producers and mixers, including Chris Thomas, Steve Lillywhite and new Irish wunderkind Jacknife Lee. Now U2 are in high rock-combat gear: chewing up screens with a TV ad for the Apple iPod that doubles as a knockout video for the single “Vertigo”; compiling a “digital boxed set” (Bono’s phrase) of U2’s catalog for iTunes, to go with a personalized U2 iPod; revving up for a world tour to start in the U.S. in March. But today, in his high-rise living room, Bono is looking back at the start of his life with U2, recalling the incident that inspired his flood of memories in “City of Blinding Lights.”

Bono was attending the opening of a museum exhibition in Holland by U2’s longtime photographer Anton Corbijn, “and he had a room full of Bonos, if you can think of anything worse,” the singer says, chuckling with embarrassment. “But to see these giant pictures, through the years — I got stuck in front of one, it must have been 1981 or ’82, of me taking a ride in a helicopter. The eyes were so open. The whole face was so open.

“A journalist sidled up to me and said” — Bono affects a thick, old-world accent — ” ‘Vat vould Bono now say to dis Bono?’ I went, ‘Well, I would tell him, he’s right — and stop second-guessing himself.’

“The band was what I believed in then,” Bono contends. “My faith in myself was a different matter. That innocence — you don’t just want to shed it. You want to beat it off you, scratch it off. You think that knowledge of the world will some how give you an easier route through it.

“It doesn’t,” he says emphatically. “In a lot of ways, that’s the essence of this album — the idea that you can go back to where you started, that you can start again.” To press his point, Bono quotes the last verse of Atomic Bomb‘s Who-ish blitzkrieg “All Because of You,” chanting the words like a prayer: “I’m alive/I’m being born/I just arrived, I’m at the door/Of the place that I started out from/And I want back inside.”

“We’ve closed the circle,” he says, beaming, “back to our first album” — 1980’s echo-drenched thriller, Boy. “Maybe we should have called this one Man.”

Three of the four members of U2 are on the stage at Studio 8H in New York’s Rockefeller Center, sound-checking for Saturday Night Live. Bono is not one of them. He is late, which is not unusual.

It is not a problem, either. The Edge, Clayton and Mullen are used to Bono’s long, frequent absences. They spent much of this and last year working on Atomic Bomb as a trio while he was busy with his other job: touring world capitals, debating and charming dignitaries into joining the fight against poverty and AIDS in Africa. Bono first went to Africa in the mid-Eighties as a volunteer aid worker. In 2002, he co-founded the nonprofit activist group DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) with Live Aid creator Bob Geldof and billionaire philanthropists including George Soros and Bill Gates. Bono is nearly as well-known now for his tireless lobbying as for his singing. “He seems permanently on view,” says U2’s longtime manager Paul McGuinness. “Somebody once said to me, ‘In America, you can only be famous for one thing at a time. That’s clearly not true in Bono’s case.’ “

“I’m not sure if him being around more would have made a difference,” the Edge, 43, says of the new album before the SNL sound check. He notes that he, Clayton and Mullen nailed five backing tracks in two weeks while Bono was gone. “But when he is around, he’s completely fresh. Bono’s creativity has always been a quick thing, a head rush. He often gets something amazing right away.”

The U2 sound check is a revelation, a rare look at what goes on under Bono’s voice and bravado: Mullen’s natural, martial force; Clayton’s melodic brawn; the pregnant echo and cutting distortion in the Edge’s cathedral-guitar reveilles. A blast of “I Will Follow” from Boy and the trio’s slow dance through the Atomic Bomb ballad “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” Bono’s elegy for his late father, are so strong that the entire SNL stage crew stops to listen and applaud.

But when Bono arrives for the live-audience dress rehearsal, you can see what the Edge means by “head rush.” Looking like a cross between a priest and a Ramone in a black leather jacket and black turtleneck sweater, with a crucifix hanging from a necklace and banging against his chest, Bono takes the band’s vicious chop in “Vertigo” to higher catharsis. He pushes his voice up to a fighter-jet scream and punctuates the song’s bridge (“Just give me what I want and no one gets hurt”) by head-butting an SNL camera: “a Glasgow kiss,” he calls it.

“People think I tell the band what direction to go in,” Bono says later. “The truth is, they tell me. The singer has to put into words the feelings in the music.” He quotes another of his favorite lines on Atomic Bomb, this time in “Vertigo”: “A feeling is so much stronger than a thought.”

“This is where U2 live — a four-piece in a room, struggling to get it right,” Mullen, 43, contends over a cup of tea one night during U2’s New York stay. “We are deficient in many ways musically. We don’t have the standard vocabulary. But to play at this level, you have to have commitment. You have to have really good reasons — and they need to be your songs.”

“We couldn’t give you an analysis of what makes a U2 song,” the Edge claims. He will tell you this: “You don’t go into the studio unless you have a shot at making Album of the Year. We had no interest in being the biggest if we weren’t the best. That was the only way being the biggest would mean anything.”

Actually, Clayton, 44, can tell you what makes a U2 hit. ” ‘Pride,’ ‘With or Without You,’ ‘Beautiful Day’ — they’re all simple structures,” he says. “The verses and choruses have virtually the same chords. There is a build that starts slowly and keeps going. And you get a climax at the end. But you can’t make a formula of it. So much of ending up with that simplicity is arguing about the complications along the way.”

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (the title comes from a line in the deluxe-edition bonus track “Fast Cars”) might have been out last year if U2 had been content to settle for fantastic instead of transcendent. Clayton remembers coming off the post-9/11 U.S. leg of the 2001 Elevation Tour “really buzzed. We were like, ‘This thing is powerful. We want more.'” In February 2003, U2 began recording what Bono still calls a “damn good” album, with Chris Thomas, the producer of classic British-rock albums by Procol Harum, Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols.

“Vertigo” is a good example of what went wrong. Originally titled “Native Son,” the song was Bono’s argument for the release of jailed American-Indian activist Leonard Peltier. “The lyrics were about something I care deeply about,” Bono says, “but the song didn’t vibrate. It didn’t change the room temperature.” In a second, discarded version, Bono improvised new words, entirely in Spanish. “Bono never seemed to settle on one idea,” Clayton says. “So we’d always be tinkering.”

“We have a long history of driving engineers and producers to the point of despair,” Mullen confesses, “because it’s always ‘I’m not sure about that.’ “

Clayton recalls the moment “the wheels came off”: an overdub session in London with a 20-piece string section in 2003, “to give a few songs some lift.” As the orchestra sawed away, “we could read the room. And they were not going, ‘Wow, guys, this is really happening!'” Shortly thereafter, U2 respectfully parted with Thomas and turned to Steve Lillywhite, who produced the group’s first three albums — Boy, October and War — and who served as an adviser and mixer on later hits such as The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.

“You ask why this album took two years — because it takes that long for us to believe in things,” Bono argues. “I’m not going to sell someone a turkey.” But he’s not afraid to let the world hear his misfires. U2 are fattening their complete-works set offered by iTunes with previously unissued live and studio material, including alternate takes and unreleased songs from the Atomic Bomb sessions.

In his apartment, Bono plays a CD of one of those Atomic orphans, “Love You Like Mad,” strumming air guitar along to the Edge’s clanging power chords and belting the chorus at the top of his lungs: “The pain never felt so good/To feel so bad/I love you/I love you like mad.” As outtakes go, this would be another band’s solid gold.

“The drug of choice in this group is the feeling of being overwhelmed by a song,” Bono says excitedly. “I have to step inside these songs, really go through them, or else I can’t hit the notes.” He laughs at the absurdity: four men who have been making records since 1979, still doggedly stumbling their way to greatness.

“It would be great if we could figure out an easier way to do this.”

This one’s for my father, Bob,” Bono tells the audience in Brooklyn, introducing “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.” “A Dublin man, a working-class man, loved the opera, used to stand in front of the stereo conducting with my mother’s knitting needles,” he says, fondly describing his dad, who died of cancer at 75 in August 2001. A post-office clerk, Bob Hewson had struggled to raise Bono and his older brother, Norman, after their mother, Iris, died of a brain aneurysm when Bono was in his midteens. “When he died a few years back,” Bono adds, before the band slips into the song, “he left me a gift — a voice that I hadn’t had in many years.”

The next day, Bono explains what he meant: “In the Eighties, I had some big notes I could hit. But I didn’t know how to handle them. I didn’t have the sensitivity. Now I seem to have …” He pauses, unusually stumped for words. “They say that in death, a loved one leaves you something — a gift that’s not in the will. I think I got this voice from him. In the middle of that song, when I sing. ‘I know we don’t talk, but can you hear me sing?’ his voice comes in.”

He pauses again. “He had a beautiful tenor: sweet and tremulous. The thing I really regret is not recording it.”

Bono wrote the lyrics to “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” after Bob fell ill, to a tune left over from U2’s 2000 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “But the powerful thing is that it turns around in the end,” he says. “I started writing about my father and ended up writing about my own selfish sense of abandonment: ‘Don’t leave me here alone/Sometimes you can’t make it on your own.’ That’s me confessing to him something I never did — that I needed him.” There is another, longer pause. “That was a shock for me.”

Bono is, in his way, a methodical writer. For Atomic Bomb, he worked from 7 to 9 A.M. each day on lyrics as well as letters and essays for his political work. The words “were always there for me,” he says. Bono also describes himself in “All Because of You” as “an intellectual tortoise.” “He is a unique character,” says Clayton. “He is organized intellectually. But he wouldn’t know where his car keys are.”

And Bono often does not know exactly what he is writing until after he sings it. “I’m surprised by Bono’s subconscious,” the Edge says, smiling. “He is too. I sometimes know what a song is about before he does.” He cites Atomic Bomb‘s “Miracle Drug,” inspired by the real-life story of Christopher Nolan, a schoolmate at Dublin’s Mount Temple Comprehensive, who was born with severe physical — and, so his doctors believed, mental — handicaps. “His mother refused to accept this,” the Edge explains. “She read to her son every night, even though there was no response.” After being treated with a drug that allowed him physical movement, Nolan learned to spell and type, using a pencil attached to his forehead to hit the keys. By the time Nolan got to Mount Temple, the Edge says, “It was clear that not only was he fully there mentally, he had been writing stories and poems in his head for years.” Nolan is now an acclaimed writer and poet; his first published volume was aptly titled Dam-Burst of Dreams.

“What’s interesting about ‘Miracle Drug,’ ” the Edge continues, “is that later on, Bono realized, ‘Shit, I’ve been doing all this work to get retro-viral drugs for Africa. I was so sure this song was just about Christy Nolan.’ “

“Miracle Drug” illustrates the porous line between Bono’s two lives. “From the world of politics,” he says, “I bring home an idea we’ve always held close, which is that the world is more malleable than you think.” At the same time, Mullen says, “It would only take one crap U2 record to destroy the currency he has. He needs us, while he’s in Africa and Washington, to be in Dublin working our asses off.”

You don’t have to ask Bono for a demonstration of his lobbying technique. It comes naturally. While answering a question about U2’s support for his activism, he veers into an impassioned, informed address on American gross-domestic-product figures, drug prices and death rates from treatable diseases in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It is a vivid display of the raps and stats he has fired off in European capitals, during his visits to the 2004 Democratic and Republican national conventions and in his meetings at the White House with President Bush during the past three years.

“He doesn’t have to have me in his office,” Bono says of Bush, with nonpartisan respect. “This is a man I couldn’t disagree with more, on so many things. And yet on the things we do agree on, he is passionate too.

“And I go on and on. Things can get a little heated. Of course, there are lives at stake. Someone said to me, ‘You can’t tell people you had a good old row with the president.’ In fact, a senator threw a newspaper at me.” A perfect diplomat, Bono declines to say which senator.

“I’ll tell you one thing politics has done for me. It has made my time with U2 feel like playtime. I have no memory of this album being hard work. The root cause of a lot of the problems in politics is hardness of the heart. Music and the light that goes with it is the best thing to thaw that out.

“Being in this band has never felt like so much of a lifeline,” Bono says with a grateful sigh. “I’m holding on to them a lot tighter than they’re holding on to me.” 

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