This is definitely the most surreal night of my life!” Bono exclaims halfway through the show, with all the sincerity a guy in pelvis-hugging black leather and space-pimp sunglasses can muster. Coming from someone decked out like a futuristic-sleazeball version of the Lizard King, it still sounds like a standard-issue rock-star snake-oil pitch. But in fact, it’s a king-size understatement. Even on a tour remarkable for its giddy spirit of postmodern pranksterism, tonight’s edition of U2’s traveling Zoo TV party in Stockholm, Sweden, is prize-winning weird.
The competition has been stiff. There was the night in Detroit when Bono, using his special onstage phone hookup, called a local pizzeria and ordered a thousand pies to go. There was the night when Bono, merrily zapping his way through the satellite-TV menu with his remote control, unexpectedly treated the audience to a live broadcast of Paul Tsongas’s announcing his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race. And there were the nights — quite a few, actually — when during the encore, Bono picked up the phone and dialed the White House (202-456-1414, in case you’re interested). Although he never got through to George Bush, he did get chummy with the puzzled White House operator. “Who are you?” she’d ask. “Why do you keep calling at night? Sounds like there are a lot of people with you.”
At the Globe arena, in Stockholm, though, the techno-clowning of Zoo TV mutates into interactive Zoo theater. The usual show is a dizzying feast of video high jinks and high-definition irony (Bono kissing a mirror, pumping his crotch into the camera) set to most of Achtung Baby and the requisite hits from The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum. But tonight, Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. are supplementing their regularly scheduled programming with a live TV feed to and from the home of John Harris of Nottinghamshire, England. Harris, an ardent U2 fan who works for the Pretty Polly lingerie company, won an MTV Europe contest, the prize being a private simulcast of the Stockholm gig, complete with an ample supply of champagne.
Except Harris isn’t just watching the show; he’s in it, popping up in the hyperactive Zoo video mix with big, boozy grins and exchanging quips with the host via satellite, like Nightline gone nutty.
“So, John, you work in a knickers factory?” Bono says with a mock snicker. “Well, we don’t wear underwear in Sweden.”
“Prove it!” Harris retorts, emboldened by drink. Bono actually goes for his zipper but punks out to an arenawide chorus of female Swedish groans. Those groans soon turn to cheers when, as a consolation prize, U2 brings out Swedish pop gods Bjoörn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of the late, great ABBA for a genial romp through its 1977 hit “Dancing Queen.”
Later, during the melancholy sway of “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” from Achtung Baby, Harris and Bono are caught on adjacent video screens in a moment of sweet serendipity: Harris slow dancing with his girlfriend, Bono giving the Edge a loving choke hold during the latter’s guitar solo. The most genuinely surreal moment of the show, however, comes at the end, when Harris and his inebriated pals in Nottinghamshire appear on the video screens doing the Wayne’s World bow — “We are not worthy! We are not worthy!” The Swedes, already in hysterics, respond in kind, bowing and cheering in sync.
“You can’t plan stuff like that,” the Edge marvels later, stroking his thin, monkish beard. “Sometimes in amongst all the trash, these moments of incredible poignancy happen. In ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing,’ there were shots of the band and shots of the people in the house and all these TV ads superimposed over that. It was beautiful, this Nike ad with the big shoe coming down. And it was the perfect image and message for the song, sliding down the surface of things.
“That’s the thing, I suppose,” the Edge continues. “The jokes and the fun aspect, the props, the weird suits and all — they are making a joke of rock & roll stardom. But they do work.”
“There is a lot of soul — I think it shines even brighter amidst the trash and the junk,” Bono insists after the show. “Sam Shepard said, ‘Right in the center of contradiction, that’s the place to be.’ And rock & roll has more contradictions than any art form. U2 spent the Eighties trying to resolve some of them. Now we’ve started the Nineties celebrating them.
“Rock & roll is ridiculous,” Bono states emphatically. “It’s absurd.” He is, appropriately, still wearing his leathers and shades. “In the past, U2 was trying to duck that. Now we’re wrapping our arms around it and giving it a great big kiss. It’s like I say onstage — ‘Some of this bullshit is pretty cool.’ I think it is the missing scene from Spinal Tap — four guys in a police escort, asking themselves, ‘Should we be enjoying this?’ The answer is, fucking right. It’s a trip. It’s part of the current of rock & roll that just drags you along — and you can feed off it.
“Mock the devil,” Bono adds with a conspiratorial smile, “and he will flee from thee.”
Backstage at the globe, a couple hours before show time, B.P. Fallon is talking about the difference between U2’s brand of rock spectacle and the way it really was in the good old Seventies — when excess was king and the stars talked about social and moral responsibility with a small r. It is a subject Fallon knows well. An elfin, animated Irishman billed in the Zoo TV Tour program as “guru, viber and disc jockey” (he spins records before U2’s set and warms up the crowd with hippie chatter), Fallon has been a writer, radio personality and publicist since the Sixties and has worked for and with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
“With Zeppelin, it was just more of everything — more drugs, more sex,” he says with just a faint hint of nostalgia. “Now there’s less drugs, less casualness about sex. And the recession is being felt the world over, not just in America. So there’s more to worry about.
“But this is also a different U2 in a way, not knights in armor,” Fallon continues. “It’s warmer, funnier, more human. They go out there trying to give the audience something to take home with them — the idea that for all of the things that are wrong, you don’t have to feel mortally wounded all the time. Here’s a bandage, some hope and some fun. It’s like if you walk around with an umbrella over your head all the time. Sure, you won’t get rained on. But you won’t get any sun, either. U2’s out there saying: “Fuck the umbrella. So what if you get a little wet?’ ”
Zoo TV and the triple-platinum Achtung Baby are the sight and sound of U2 leaving the hair shirts at home and singing in the rain. At a time when rock’s established order has been upended, with skate-teen gods like Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers holding the Top Ten hostage while Bruce Springsteen is left knocking at the back door, U2 has regained critical and commercial favor by negotiating an inspired balance between rock’s cheap thrills and its own sense of moral burden. The po-faced asceticism of its Joshua Tree-Rattle and Hum days is, for the most part, history. Gone is the spiritual-gladiator image immortalized by that shot of Bono in the video of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” waving the white flag against the hells-caldron glow of the fires at Red Rocks Amphitheater.
The members of U2 have retooled themselves as wiseacres with heart and elephant bucks to burn on the hallucinatory video sport of Zoo TV (a wordplay on MTV and the loony Morning Zoo shows dominating American Top Forty radio). Created in part by Brian Eno and the production team responsible for the English avant-video show Buzz, Zoo TV’s agitated splash of appropriated video images and glib buzz phrases triggers eye-popping juxtapositions of cliche and truth: Everything You Know Is Wrong; Guilt Is Next to God; I Want a Job, Pussy, School; Everybody Is a Racist. (One befuddled interviewer recently asked the band members why they thought everybody was a “rapist.”)
The Outside Broadcast version of Zoo TV now on the U.S. stadium circuit jacks up the mind-fuck quotient. George Bush calls the congregation to order in hilariously doctored footage, chanting Queen’s “We will, we will rock you!” in that irritating read-my-lips whine. Two East German Trabant cars attached to huge mechanical arms and outfitted with spotlights scan the crowd like alien prison sentries while a patchwork video quilt of Gargantuan screens, multi-image Vidiwalls and TV monitors spews words and pictures with exhausting velocity — Rock & Roll Mission Control running on amphetamine fast forward. During “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” Bono appears on the screens in his lizardy leathers in grossly magnified, jump-cut distortions of his real-time posing, looking like Godzilla gone MTV.
Offscreen, from the cheap seats, he looks more like a gnat But Bono has undergone a striking onstage makeover as the Fly, a shotgun personality marriage of discount Jim Morrison shamanism and Jerry Lee Lewis narcissism greased with used-car-salesman smarm and resonant with comic mischief and healthy, if occasionally overheated, self-parody. In “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” he slow grinds with a young woman plucked from the crowd and showers the fans with a phallic spray from his champagne bottle, a sweet ‘n’ silly mix of lemon squeezer/lover man charm. For “Desire,” a song about the addictive properties of success, Bono serves his irony straight up, hitting the stage dressed in a silver-spangled preacher’s suit and kissing a mirror. In a decade rife with cynicism and distrust for public figures, pop stars included, U2 has finally recognized that sometimes subversion and a less furrowed brow can be the better part of valor.
“We had this idea that irony was the enemy of soul,” Bono says of the early days, winding down back in Stockholm with a postshow snack of white wine and Swedish hash in a café. “There was a decision to stare down the Eighties, to photograph ourselves in the desert, to take the Shaker-Quaker lyrics to a conclusion.
“The Nineties demand a very different response than the Eighties,” he argues. “Comedians are the real rebels of the Nineties. They are the prophets. They can tell us where it’s at and make us laugh at the same time. Our guard isn’t up. Rock & roll now, if they see you coming with a placard, they duck. They close the doors and pull down the blinds, go back to watching a game show.”
Bono pauses thoughtfully, toying with the sunglasses, which he has finally taken off. “We have to outsmart the ones without heart,” he says firmly.
That might be because U2 got tired of taking it on the chin from old fans and once-friendly critics during the 1987-89 mega-hoopla over The Joshua Tree and the album-movie package Rattle and Hum. Rolling Stone writers actually had the temerity to name the band Comeback of the Year in the magazine’s 1991 music poll. Bono says he thought the accolade was funny; Larry Mullen hung the clipping in his house, right next to one from a British music weekly proclaiming, U2 In Semi-Hip Shock! But it’s closer to the truth than either of them might care to admit. Achtung Baby, says Adam Clayton, is an album “about what happens when you come back from being out in the world and how you pick up the pieces and how you deal with life.”
Catapulted to worldwide success by The Joshua Tree, then savaged by the rock press for what they judged to be the stuffy, pseudo-field-trip air of their blues and gospel forays in Rattle and Hum, the members of U2 hit the sales jackpot but found themselves caught between their rock dreams and the hard truth of super-celebrity. They were cursed for their suffocating omnipresence on radio and MTV. Their evangelical seriousness was mocked in cover records like the Pet Shop Boys’ sly electro-disco version of “Where the Streets Have No Name” and Negativland’s notorious release U2, a sampling satire of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
In an ironic twist, the latter precipitated a harsh copyright-infringement suit by U2’s record and publishing companies against Negativland and its label, SST Records — which, in turn, triggered a press backlash against U2, former college-radio darling, for harassing an underground band. (Bono now claims that U2 tried to mediate a truce and that it objected not to the sampling — “We have no problem with people using our music” — but to the record’s cover, which it felt was deceptive to U2 fans.)
Ultimately, everything U2 did, said and sang “became writ too large,” in Bono’s words, and the band couldn’t help but squirm. “I remember being onstage and most of the time thinking, ‘This is not quite where we should be,’ ” Bono recalls ruefully of the Joshua days. “Musically speaking, we were unprepared. We didn’t want to be the band too stupid to enjoy its own success. At the same time, I wanted to push out the extremes. I didn’t feel that on that tour we reached the extremes that we could.”
“We were the biggest,” Larry Mullen agrees, “but we weren’t the best. That was an awful thing to feel — to go onstage in front of 17,000 people and go, ‘Whoopee!’ when we were feeling like shit, that it wasn’t as good as it should be, that we really hadn’t done our homework.”
“Plus we were so stupid that we actually decided to put it on film,” Clayton adds with a sour laugh, referring to Rattle and Hum. “Only an Irish band could do something like that.”
Today, the general consensus within U2 about Rattle and Hum is that it was a good idea — a modest production documenting U2’s American adventures on the road and in the studio, supplemented by a souvenir album of live tracks and new songs — that spun out of control. Bono admits the movie had flaws but defends the film’s director, Phil Joanou, saying: “He was into the Big Music. He wanted to make a Big Picture. He gave the music the same weight that Scorsese gave the boxing ring in Raging Bull. You may not like it, but it was a strong point of view.”
What bugged the Edge was the Big Push. He remembers going into the publicity office of Paramount Pictures and being taken aback by the eight-foot-high promotional posters of each U2 member, especially the one of him on which the studio had airbrushed his stubble. “I realized then that something was a bit wrong,” he says grimly.
“Even I would have probably hated us then,” Bono concedes. “What was scary to me was that people who were criticizing us weren’t really listening to the records. The records were not propagating any kind of ‘men of stone’ thing. The Joshua Tree is a very uncertain record. ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is an anthem of doubt more than faith.
“The media has rock & roll by the balls,” he says, almost snarling. “They draw cartoons, and it’s indelible ink. It’s an attempt to reduce you, your humanity, your sense of humor. The only way to deal with it is to create a cartoon even bigger.
“Which,” Bono adds, putting his Fly sunglasses back on, “is where this show comes in.”
Ironically, the only thing funny about Achtung Baby is the title, which U2 pinched from the Mel Brooks film The Producers via the band’s sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy, who used it as a pet phrase during the recording sessions in Berlin. Oh, and there’s the naked photo of Adam Clayton featured in the cover montage (his manliness has been censored by a painted X). At one point, there was actual talk of using that shot as the cover and calling the record Adam — “tipping the hat to Boy as being Man” Clayton claims, trying to put a serious spin on the idea. Bono is a little more truthful.
“You know, when you’re kids, you sit around and think, ‘Well, if we’re gonna get in trouble, let’s get in a lot of trouble,’ ” he says, smirking. “You wake out of it the next day. But it was a good idea at the time.”
Not really. The metallic blue and monochrome brown splatter effect of the montage, including shots of the band in drag, better suit Achtung Baby‘s deceptively bittersweet, at times even harsh disposition. The impish corrosion of songs like “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” is boldly undercut by darker musings such as “Love Is Blindness” and “One,” Bono’s disenchanted take on the nouveau hippie revival: ” ‘One, man, one world, one love.’ I liked the idea of taking that and saying, ‘One, man, but not the same.’ “
There are also strong currents of rebellious angst and defensive claustrophobia blowing through songs like “So Cruel” and “Acrobat” (with its bristling chorus line “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”), reflecting not only the setting where the album was made — Berlin during the first anarchic flush of German reunification — but also personal circumstances like the Edge’s recent, painful separation from his wife, Aislinn. The guitarist admits that Bono, who writes all of U2’s lyrics, “was influenced by what I was going through.” When asked which Achtung songs specifically bear that influence, he laughs sheepishly and says, “The whole album.”
“It’s a con, in a way,” Bono says dourly. “We call it Achtung Baby, grinning up our sleeves in all the photography. But it’s probably the heaviest record we’ve ever made. There is a lot of blood and guts on that record. It tells you a lot about packaging, because the press would have killed us if we’d called it anything else.”
U2’s musical turnaround from The Joshua Tree‘s clarion twang and Rattle and Hum‘s soul-blues-arena-rock pastiche to Achtung Baby‘s Germanic clatter and hum was at least partly the result of the Edge’s off-hours listening back at the hotel during the 1989 Lovetown Tour, in particular industrial art-funk bands like Nine Inch Nails, the Young Gods and KMFDM. “You could hear the end of the world coming out from under his door every night,” quips Bono. Several genres away, Larry Mullen was getting deep into Blind Faith, Cream and Jimi Hendrix records, picking up tips from Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell on how to play around the beat. The latest rap and house records were also making the rounds.
Still, Achtung Baby was not an easy record to make. Several demo tapes recorded in Ireland were stolen early in the Berlin sessions — either from the studio or the band’s hotel (no one is exactly sure) — and bootlegged within weeks. Also, the Edge confesses: “Berlin was difficult. I had quite a strong feel where I thought it should go. Bono was with me. Adam and Larry were a little unsure. It took time for them to see how they fit into this.
“I also think Danny [producer Daniel Lanois] didn’t fully understand where we were headed, because we were working on more of the throwaway, trashy kinds of things,” the Edge says. “The U2 that he loved was the U2 of The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire, the textural and emotional and cinematic U2. By the time we finished with the lyrics and the mixes, it came back a bit toward more usual U2 terrain. But for a while, I think Danny was at sea.”
For Bono, Berlin was a dadaist escapade. The band members arrived in the city literally on the eve of reunification. As soon as they got off the plane, they hit the streets and joined the parade — the wrong one, though. “It was really, really dour-looking German people holding up big signs, looking very unhappy,” Bono explains, laughing. “We’re walking around, going, ‘Wow, these Germans really don’t know how to throw a party.’ Then we discovered we were in the wrong parade. We were in a demonstration for people who wanted to put back up the wall, all these Stalinists and hard-core Communists. We could just see the headlines the next day: U2 Arrive to Protest the Destruction of the Wall.”
Later that night, the band settled into its temporary quarters in the former East Berlin, a onetime guest house used by high Soviet officials, including Leonid Brezhnev. At about 7:00 a.m., a naked Bono went downstairs to get a drink of water and discovered a German family standing in the foyer: “I said, ‘What are you doing in our house?’ And the guy said: ‘This is not your house. This is my house. This is my father’s house.’ And it became very clear that indeed the man had found the house that had been seized from his family, probably by the Nazis first and then the Communists. He’d found it after forty-five years.”
The surreal effect of getting history in the making right in his face — not just in Berlin but in the barrage of body counts, “smart bomb” stats and Pentagon disinformation that he saw on TV during the gulf war — left its mark on Bono’s lyric game, although not in a way he was happy about. “I realized I couldn’t write songs about it,” he says. “Everything we’d learned in the last ten years meant nothing in the face of this, that we could talk so coldly about flesh being burned off people’s bodies. Humor was the only response. I knew we had to find different ways of saying the same thing. Writing and approaching this head-on just would not work.”
Any fears that U2 had gone off the deep end with the Sturm und Clang of Achtung Baby were dispelled for Bono at the premiere of the Zoo TV Tour, in Florida last February. The show opened with no less than eight songs from the album, and “people went for it,” Bono now says proudly. “The first show, you just didn’t know. How is this going to go down? And they went for it. I think our audiences are smart and that they expect us to push and pull them a bit. They had to swallow blues on Rattle and Hum, for God’s sakes! They can take it.”
Not every fan, though. Bono explains that while U2 was recording Achtung Baby in Berlin, two German girls — “rings in their noses, the whole sepulchral look” — appeared on the studio doorstep to give the band an earful about Rattle and Hum. ” ‘So what was wrong with it?’ we asked,” says Bono. ” ‘Too many love songs! What is with the love songs? George Michael writes love songs. We don’t want you to write love songs.’ And we said, ‘Your timing is excellent. We’re making a new album.’
“We played Vienna the other week, and those two German girls were standing in front of the hotel waiting for us,” he says. “And I said, ‘Well, what did you think of the album?’ And they said, ‘It was shit!’ ” Bono shakes his head in amazement. “They waited all that time and stood in front of the hotel all night waiting for us, just so they could tell us we’d made a shit record!”
No one in the Zoo TV Tour entourage, almost 200 strong for the outdoor shows, is enjoying the show’s spirit of subterfuge more than Bono himself. While the other members of the band make no concessions to rock-star fashion offstage — Larry Mullen is usually outfitted in basic biker apparel, and the Edge is never seen without his wool stevedore’s cap — Bono revels in his alter ego, the Fly, whenever he gets the chance. He walks through hotel lobbies and crowded discos wearing his shiny black leather, and the lounge-lizard sunglasses are never far from his grasp when they’re not already on his face.
“It’s plastic, in the most enjoyable sense of the word,” he says exultantly of his Fly shtick. “When I put on those glasses, anything goes. These are the paraphernalia of the rock star. I’ve had to stop ‘not drinking.’ I’ve had to smoke incessantly. I’ve learned to be insincere. I’ve learned to lie. I’ve never felt better!”
Bono doesn’t quite have his insincere act down yet. In Stockholm, during an interview in a bar, he is approached by a doe-eyed Swedish girl who shyly begs him for a dance in the disco next door. Bono makes a series of lame excuses in a soft, polite voice – “I have some more work to do here,” “I actually have a bad knee,” “I’m a bit drunk, and I might fall down” — but the girl won’t take even a gentle “no” for an answer.
Eventually, he caves in. “Okay,” Bono says with a smile and takes her for a turn on the dance floor. He may like to play the role of the Posey Rock Star, but under-neath that faux asshole exterior still beats the heart of a guy who finds it hard just to say, “Fuck off.” Which is just as well, because as the Edge points out, “None of us will ever be allowed to become assholes, because three other guys in the band will just not let them get away with it.”
The Fly is not Bono’s first stab at role overhaul. In pre-U2 days, he was plain old Paul Hewson; he became Bono Vox when a member of his Dublin school gang nicknamed him after a local hearing-aid store. (Bono then did the honors for his friend Dave Evans, dubbing him the Edge.) But the Fly is more than just pop hubris incarnate, according to its creator.
“It’s like Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, in my mind, are the same guy,” Bono explains, noting that the song “The Fly” was written “like a phone call from hell, but the guy liked it there.”
“It was this guy running away — ‘Hi, honey, it’s hot, but I like it here,’ ” he says. “The character is just on the edge of lunacy. It’s megalomania and paranoia.” ” ‘The Fly’ is not just about irony,” the Edge suggests. “There are these characters, certainly in Dublin and I’m sure everywhere else, who sit on these stools by the bar all day. And they know everything. They seem to have moles in the White House and seem to know exactly what’s going on in Moscow. They’re bar-stool philosophers, with all these great theories and notions. And they’re on the edge of madness and genius. Some of the things they say can be incredibly smart. And yet they are probably mad. I think that’s what Bono was playing with.”
In that sense, the Fly is very much an offshoot of Bono’s own outspoken, proselytizing nature and his willingness, ever since U2’s earliest days, to go out on a long, thin limb to explain his and the band’s socio-spiritual agenda. The difference is, he agrees, in the Fly’s comic exaggeration — the leathers, the shades, the posing in hotel lobbies.
“We came from punk,” Bono says, “and that wasn’t very funny. Johnny Rotten was very funny in interviews, but the Clash weren’t funny. And the immediate aftermath of punk, Joy Division and that funereal, fuguelike music, that was the music we came out of. I suppose now I’m rediscovering the more irresponsible roots of our music, which is just for the blast.”
In the end, though, Bono can’t help agonizing over the “blast” either. When the subject turns to rock & roll itself — the oppressive weight of its Sixties and Seventies past, its immediate future and embattled relevance in an atrophied society — the bar-stool prophet takes over, in all seriousness. The sunglasses come off, and the heat goes up.
“We’ve gotta love things because they are great, not because they remind us of something great,” Bono declares with his trademark urgency. “It’s a very rare thing when a new mood arrives. You guys have to get excited every month, every week, about something new. But a lot of times it’s not. It’s just a feeling you’ve heard before, a resonance that you dig. I think groups are only as great as that ability to create something new, say something that hasn’t been said before. Or if it has been said, it’s never been said quite like this.
“Sex and music is all a lot of people got right now,” he goes on at high, impassioned speed, “because organized religion is in demise, and I personally won’t miss it. I don’t think religion has anything to do with God anymore or very rarely has. It is also becoming clear that the material world is not enough for anybody. We had a century of being told by the intelligentsia that we’re two-dimensional creatures, that if something can’t be proved, it can’t exist. That’s over now. Transcendence is what everybody, in the end, is on their knees for, running at speed toward, scratching at, kicking at.
“That’s why music is, for me, important. I’ve stopped answering the ‘for you’ questions and the ‘for them’ questions. But, yes, for me. Rock & roll music — the noisier the better — is still my alarm clock. It still keeps me awake. It’s a hymn to the numbness, a reasonable response to the way we live.
“I saw a documentary on World War II, and somebody was saying that a nervous breakdown is the reasonable response of a sane man to an insane situation. I think rock & roll still has to be the sound of that nervous breakdown. Because that scream, from Howlin’ Wolf to Nine Inch Nails, is part of it. The other part of it is Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, music that makes the light brighter.
“But I like both; I want both for my band,” Bono raves, pounding his hand dramatically on the table and nearly smashing his Fly glasses, which are lying nearby. “I want heaven and hell. We’ve always been given this choice, to choose between the flesh and the spirit. I don’t know anyone who isn’t both.”