Somebody is screwing up, coming in on the wrong beat every time somewhere near the start of the third verse. And it’s throwing the whole song, not to mention the rest of the band and the mood of fragile optimism in the room, out of whack.
For the past hour at the Factory, a rehearsal facility tucked up against a canal in the industrial docklands section of eastern Dublin, Ireland, the four members of U2 have been stoically grinding through take after take of what they think could be a hot-shit segue in their new PopMart stage show: a sly glide from a bold, hip-hop-style recasting of the ’80s war horse “Bullet the Blue Sky” into the gurgling trip-hop of “Miami.” Except that two-thirds of the way through “Miami”—where the single-note grind of the Edge’s guitar cuts out and Bono goes into a sleep-talk mantra over a black hole of dublike rhythm—the music keeps falling apart.
When the song breaks down for the third time, Bono grins, lets out a long, loud sigh—part comic gesture, part mounting frustration—and asks the Edge if the problem might be the way the guitarist is going into the instrumental bridge.
The Edge, a paragon of poker-face cool, pleads innocent. All eyes then turn to drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who is playing a cool, offbeat-funk pattern; alas, it seems to be one beat behind everything else that’s happening in the tune. “Oh, no, that’s not possible,” Mullen argues with a steely laugh. “You must have me confused with some other drummer.”
“If you played that rhythm every night, it would be great,” Bono cracks. “If we asked you to play that every night,” the Edge adds impishly, “you wouldn’t.”
Bono, Mullen, the Edge and bassist Adam Clayton take another stab at the song. It collapses again in the same place. After an exchange of quips and some earnest discussion between the band and Des Broadbery, the keyboard and computer jockey who is programming the loops and samples used in much of U2’s new material, the truth comes out: Bono is the one fucking up, singing behind the beat in that last verse. He eats his humble pie like a man.
“At the moment, I respond well to orders,” he says with a suitably affected flourish of wounded pride in his voice. “Just tell me when to come in.”
The band has one more go at “Miami.” This time, everyone is in fluid, funky sync. Bono, prepping for vocal liftoff, dances in place at the mike, executing a tiptoe shuffle in his jaguar-spot suede shoes. And when he gets to the song’s rather ditsy main refrain—”Miami! My mammy!”—Bono belts the line with an expertly controlled exhilaration, more forceful than frenzied, more muscular than melodramatic.
Then, as “Miami” starts to fade away, the band instinctively swings back into “Bullet the Blue Sky,” the Edge going into a skittish, R&B-like riffing that jolts Bono into some New Jack Swinging of his own—scatting the chorus from Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
This is not the show that folks will see four weeks from now, when U2’s Pop-Mart—a kitsch-corn-and-gewgaw binge that has been more than a year in the planning—opens for business at Sam Boyd Stadium, in Las Vegas. The 2 million people who have already bought tickets for shows on the initial eight-month stretch of the band’s ’97-98 tour will no doubt have their retinas turned to toast by Pop-Mart’s daily specials: a 100-foot-tall golden arch; a 35-foot-high mirror ball that doubles as a giant lemon and opens like P-Funk’s Mothership; a huge, illuminated stuffed olive spiked by a 100-foot-long toothpick; a Gargantuan video screen (50 feet tall, 150 feet wide) that looks like Godzilla’s idea of sports-bar TV.
But it’s been at least 10, maybe 15, years since paying customers have seen anything like what’s going on at the Factory—U2 in close quarters and intimate, high-tension form, playing their songs with a naked-quartet integrity and personable, life-size enthusiasm.
Bono, a man who has never been afraid of an exaggerated flourish or a bit of costume drama, seems particularly humanized by the zero-bullshit setting and basic agenda. He not only has to get the live, real-time hang of the Pop material but he has to sink into the songs, inhabit them and give them durable, emotional resonance before they become Angst Writ Large on the PopMart stage.
When Bono hits the rising chorus in the elegiac “Gone,” he does so with passionate concentration, shutting his eyes tightly, as if reading the lyrics from the back of his eyelids. As the band revs up for a noisy finish in the techno squall of “Mofo,” Bono leans back from the mike and spreads his arms—like the music is rain and he’s soaking in it. The whole thing is a split-second rush, a momentary pose. No one else in the room appears to take any notice.
But it’s nice to see that even after these songs get the big-pizazz overhaul, some kind of heart will be beating under all the neon comedy. Or as the Edge later puts it, “A big gesture is necessary in that kind of arena. That doesn’t mean that’s all we can do.”
“The thing I’m finding is that the more we play, the more we need to cut away,” Bono admits late one night in his car after practice, zipping across Dublin in search of a pub where he can sneak in a couple of pints of Guinness stout before closing time. “We’re trying too hard to play with the loops and samples. We have to keep cutting away until we have the heart and core of the song exposed—open, beating, bleeding.
“We’ll get there,” he adds confidently, which is good to hear from a guy who mugged his way through U2’s ’92-93 video-blitz roadshow Zoo TV as a rock-noir weasel, the Fly, and a gold-lamé bundle of Irish blarney and Satan-ized swagger, MacPhisto. “We’re trying too hard to replicate the sound of the record. We only need to sound like U2.”
So where’s the rationale—indeed, the need—in carting a big fucking lemon all over the globe? The video screen, hyped in the Pop-Mart press kit as the largest in the world, cost the band $7 million to develop. And for the next year, U2 will spend $250,000 a day in production costs to keep PopMart on the road.
Bono shakes his head like he’s trying to explain the facts of life to an especially dense child. “We’ve got the energy, we’ve got the electricity, we’ve got the buttons to push!” he exclaims. “And we can afford it. While we still can, let’s just do it. “Sometimes,” he adds with an evil little smile, “size matters.”
In Popmart’s World Headquarters—A temporary phone, fax and online hive set up in a lounge down the hall from U2’s practice room at the Factory—a large white board stands on a metal easel. A set list of 23 songs, densely annotated with references to lighting cues, video-screen footage and special-effects segments, has been scrawled on the board in black, green and red Magic Marker.
Some production notes are provocatively cryptic: Big Abstract Sequence, Vegetable Vision, Mr. Thank You, Product of the Day. The names of the ’80s graffiti artist Keith Haring and the ’60s pop-art icon Roy Lichtenstein are on there; U2 have received permission from the late Haring’s estate and from Lichtenstein himself, now in his 70s, to use custom-animated images from their paintings. The song menu is heavily weighted to the new album.
Ten of the first 13 songs are from Pop. A couple of curveballs have been tossed into the mix: “Miss Sarajevo,” from the 1995 movie-music detour Passengers: Original Soundtracks I; the band’s contribution to the Batman Forever soundtrack, the glam-metal corker “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” But with the deathless exception of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” from the 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire, U2 have not pulled anything from their pre-superstar era out of mothballs.
Even the must-play hits from The Joshua Tree are undergoing reconstruction. U2 have refitted “With or Without You” with a subtly doubled tempo in a nod to the song’s original inspiration: the haunting electro ticktock of the 1977 ballad “Cheree,” by the avantsynth duo Suicide. For “Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2 have shifted the center of gravity down to a roiling techno rhythm, with Bono doing a nasally rap that sounds like the synthetic-speech patterns of the physicist Stephen Hawking.
“I want the song to be more about the future, taking the emotion to a new time and place,” Bono claims. He’d like to get Hawking to do that recitation segment–onstage, if possible.
But with only a month to go before the first show, U2 have yet to play that set list on the board all the way through. They don’t actually have a final set list yet. “That board,” Bono says, gazing wistfully at it during a late-afternoon coffee break, “was the set at one point. The set du jour. It might not change that much. We don’t know that it doesn’t work.”
“I’m scared shitless, to be honest with you,” Mullen admits with a nervous chuckle. “Every night I wake up with this nightmare of getting up onstage and absolutely nothing working—of spending millions of dollars and the whole thing is breaking down.”
“I’m left with this awful thought: that we need this chaos to operate,” Bono says with giddy embarrassment. “But I’m not panicking, actually. I think I get off on it.”
“We take complete responsibility for everything that happens in our show,” the Edge says emphatically. “As loud and mad as the visuals have become, in the end they’re coming from us.” He points out that MacPhisto was inspired by a character in The Black Rider, Tom Waits’ 1993 theatrical collaboration with William S. Burroughs and Robert Wilson.
“Bono and I saw the show in Hamburg [Germany],” the Edge says, “and I thought there was a certain license in that figure that would be interesting for Bono.’ It wasn’t just Bono. It wasn’t the other three members of the band going, ‘Oh, my God, he’s wearing devil’s horns! How embarrassing!’ We were into it.”
Bono, the Edge, Mullen and Clayton—friends and bandmates since their teenage school days at Mount Temple Comprehensive School, in Dublin, now all in their mid-thirties—were into PopMart up to their necks even before they had any Pop songs to speak of. They and their longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, were bemused by the assumptions made by friends and music-business associates after the close of Zoo TV.
“We would bump into people,” McGuinness remembers, “who would say, ‘I know what you’re going to do next time. You’re going to strip it right back to basics and come back with a clean, back-to-the-music production.’ We all said, ‘No, we’re not. Why does anyone think that?’ Having effectively reinvented the stadium music spectacle and learned in a costly way how to do it”—touring without corporate sponsorship, U2 made a small net profit on Zoo TV, attributable directly to T-shirt sales—”we had completely the opposite instinct.” As Clayton says, “At the end of the day, you want to see Liz Taylor with the diamonds. You don’t want to see her in a track suit.”
U2 had their first serious tour-production conference with show director Peter “Willie” Williams in February ’96. “Bear in mind, there was no title for the album, no lyrics,” says Williams, who was the production designer for Zoo TV. “So I was going on instinct.”
His first proposal—that the band play in the round with so-called Riot Rigs, moving trucks outfitted with video screens and satellite stages—bit the dust, mostly for logistical reasons. The band also passed on another early Williams concept, a nightly millennial bash called U2000 featuring a huge clock racing to midnight, Dec. 31, 1999—at which point, U2 would play their big hit from the War album, “New Year’s Day.”
Williams and set designer Mark Fisher found that when recording sessions weren’t going well, the band could be distracted, even irritable, in meetings. “Me, Adam and the Edge would be in the studio, playing for six hours straight,” Mullen says, “then someone asks you to sit down and talk about a giant lemon. ‘Oh, and what do you want to wear?’ ‘Fuck off—that’s the simple answer to that question.”
But the intuitive tug of force between Bono’s irrepressible energy and the other members’ more composed, grounded intensity—a distinguishing trait of U2’s music—was crucial in making hardball decisions about PopMart’s concept, execution and cost.
“For every mad idea of Bono’s, he drags us somewhere interesting,” Clayton says. “And he benefits when we hold him back from where the ice is thin.” There were, for instance, the Lotto Balls, a stunt Bono wanted to use in the show during the Pop tune “The Playboy Mansion.”
“It’s a lotto song, faith vs. chance, prosperity vs. peace,” he explains. “And we were trying to get these huge balls—I researched this—with little projectors in them. People could push them over their heads. But I’d be projected on them, singing. I was just gone on that.” The expense, however, was prohibitive. “I think we’re still working on a lesser version,” he says, ever hopeful.
The one thing that Bono was determined to have in the show was a ballroom-style mirror ball. A couple of years ago while on the Caribbean island of Barbados, he went to a local club where, he recalls, “It was old guys and their wives, islanders, waltzing to country music and Elvis. And there was nothing there—just a mirror ball. I was knocked out.”
For Pop-Mart, the mirror ball became something more radical: a monstrous lemon-shaped object that moved out into the crowd and opened up like a spaceship. An LWA—Lemon With Attitude. “Think George Clinton!” Bono barks excitedly. “Think Parliament-Funkadelic! This is the thing about white music. It dresses itself up in the seriousness of the songs. These hip-hop guys, that’s some serious shit they’re dishing out. But they have fun with it.”
Williams was up for a laugh, too; he wanted the mirror-ball lemon to roll out into the audience to the Mission: Impossible theme. “But Edge’s stance was, ‘Let’s not make it all ha-ha,'” says Williams. “If we send this mirror ball out and the soundtrack is weird or trance-like, we could make it a little disturbing.”
“I’m always looking for why,” the Edge states frankly. “I want to get at some vision of what we’re doing, why we’re heading in this direction.” Mullen is perplexed about the why of PopMart. “The arch, the disco lights, the big screen are ideas I love, but the supermarket thing I’m having a problem with,” he admits. Because of the emphasis on disposability and plasticity—the antithesis of everything the band strives for in music?
Mullen thinks for a second. “Yeah,” he concludes. “But you always end up with a little commerce at the end of the day. By using the supermarket, there was an admission: It’s a bit trashy, we know what it’s all about, and we’re selling it.”
Ironically, chart pundits claim that U2’s retail magic has waned since Achtung Baby, which sold more than 10 million copies around the world. During its first week of release, Pop sold 350,000 copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan—only half of what Metallica’s Load did in its first week last year.
Bono points out that Pop, in fact, sold more than a million copies worldwide in its first week. “We don’t just live in the U.S.,” he says a little irritably. “It was Number One in 28 countries. I can’t believe people think that’s not enough. What do they want from us? I’d like this album to sell 10 million copies. I think it probably will. But, so what? Is it any good?”
McGuinness is more succinct on the subject—”We have a much wider agenda than just the records”—and quotes something he once said to Chris Blackwell, the head of the band’s label, Island: “I’m not in the record business. I’m in the U2 business.”
Williams takes credit for the show’s name, PopMart, a combined pun on “pop art” and Bono’s reaction to an architectural sketch of a futuristic gas station that Mark Fisher brought to one of the production meetings. (“Bono picked up this drawing and said, ‘This looks like a supermarket,’ ” Williams recalls.)
But it is Bono, unsurprisingly, who most heartily embraces the goofy huckster vibe and free-market hyperbole of PopMart totems like the golden arch. For the record, McGuinness says any resemblance between the arch and the McDonald’s logo is accidental; he cites the Gateway Arch, in St. Louis, as a possible inspiration for the PopMart version.
Bono is a little less coy. “They’re just making a few inquiries,” he says of the hamburger chain. “It’s like the Vatican doesn’t own stained glass or the cross. And there was the line in Zoo TV: ‘Over a Billion Served.’ Maybe it’s because we’ve seen that we’re in this world—commerce. Do we do like we did in the ’80s and try to separate ourselves from it—do that scramble where you keep withdrawing? Let’s go exactly the opposite: just have every advertisement lighting up the show.
“Warhol did the same thing, taking things from everyday life, the stuff that high art was ignoring, giving it another meaning—you don’t need to hear from me about the ideology of pop,” Bono continues, nevertheless aware that he is in high-speed, sermonizing mode. “But there’s a freedom about it. The songs can hurt, and the songs can uplift. But they don’t have to be reverent.”
Still, even U2 know when they’ve crossed the fine line between good and bad taste, especially when it comes to something as sensitive as religion. Consider the Squeaky Nun, a small squeezable rubber toy in the shape of a nun holding a prayer book, which Williams found in a store in San Francisco. “It was a great thing to bring out during dodgy moments at meetings,” Williams says.
But he went a step further. Williams had one of the PopMart animation teams work her into the video footage. “She inflated. She would bounce around like a clown. Then they really got into it and did Evil Nun. “We took this back to the band. They looked at it and went, ‘Uh, no. Now you’ve gone too far.'”
It starts out as a little bit of strumming—Bono idly brushing his fingers across the strings of his fire-engine-red wide-body electric guitar. After a while, he begins singing bits of improvised verse and la-la-la’s that slowly resolve into a catchy song fragment with folk-pop traces of the Everly Brothers and the Rubber Soul-era Beatles.
The rest of U2 are in momentary repose at the Factory, waiting for the crew to make some minor technical adjustments. But the Edge soon steps in behind Bono, adding a simple, punctuative guitar line to the singer’s tune. Clayton and Mullen start playing a supportive rhythm. In a few minutes, what started out as Bono warbling to himself has turned into a sketchy but beguiling little piece of music.
“That was something Bono came up with right there and then,” the Edge explains later. “That happens a lot. I’ll hit on something, or he will hit on something, and we’ll just see what gives for a few minutes. Bono wasn’t blown away by it,” he adds with a ring of disappointment in his low, soft voice. “I thought it could have been something good.”
“Unfortunately, it broke down before it became anything useful,” Bono demurs with a broad, what-the-fuck smile over a pint of creamy, jet-black Guinness stout.
He’s sitting in a pub around the corner from the north-side Dublin neighborhood where his family, the Hewsons, once lived. “I can’t even remember what I was singing. But that’s our thing, the joy of it: to fashion something like that into a song.
“I sometimes think I have a kind of Tourette’s syndrome,” he says, “where if you’re not supposed to say something, it becomes very attractive to do so. You’re in a rock band—what can’t you talk about? God? OK, here we go. You’re supposed to write songs about sex and drugs. Well, no, I won’t. It’s not conscious. I don’t know how the fuck we end up in this place. It’s just a contrariness. When you stumble on something, you go.”
U2 have always been obsessed with emotional debate and spiritual self-examination, in and out of music. In the early ’80s, at the same time that the band was exhaustively touring America, Bono, Mullen and the Edge briefly subscribed to an eccentric, Dublin-based evangelical group, Shalom Christianity. The Edge (real name: David Evans) says that it was “an attempt to explore our faith in a DIY way.” Bono was actually baptized in the Irish Sea.
The three of them quit, the Edge adds, “at the point where structure and hierarchy started to emerge.” By the time U2 posed for the cover photos of The Joshua Tree, they still looked more like Pilgrims than a pop group.
The Edge admits that until the industrial-rock grunt and ironic giggles of the band’s ’91 rebirth record, Achtung Baby, “humor was something we saved for after shows. But we started to see how the lack of it was painting such a terrible picture of who we were.”
Pop is not quite the headfirst dive into dance futurism that the album’s pre-release buzz suggested. The collaborative input of DJ and remixer Howie B is evident in the overtly techno gallop of “Discothèque” and “Mofo” and, to a less-flamboyant degree, in the burbling propulsion of “Gone” and “Miami.” But it is motion as sucker bait and singalong subterfuge.
For all of its postmodernist flair, Pop is a record of contemplative songs and tempered disturbance—acute complaint rendered with economic drama. When Bono sings the opening lines of “Wake Up Dead Man”—”Jesus, Jesus help me/I’m alone in this world/And a fucked-up world it is, too”—he sounds like he’s pleading for mercy through a bloody nose.
“Gone” deals explicitly with loss, remorse and mortality: “What you leave behind, you don’t miss, anyway.” “I see a lot of light in those songs,” maintains Bono, who shares co-writing credit with the Edge for the lyrics on Pop. “[“Gone”] started out as quite defiant. But at some point in the song, something else happens. I know. I remember writing the thing down and going, ‘Why do I feel like this?’ That is why I find it hard to talk about songs. I’m in them.”
Bono is practically drowning in “Mofo.” In one verse—”Lookin’ for a sound that’s gonna drown out the world/Lookin’ for the father of my two little girls”—he’s caught in the grip of contradiction between total rock-star retreat and his real-life obligations as a husband (Bono met his wife, Ali, in high school, around the same time that the band formed) and the father of two young daughters.
In another part of the song, he addresses his late mother, Iris, who died following a brain hemorrhage when Bono—then just Paul Hewson—was 14: “Mother, am I still your son? You know I’ve waited for so long to hear you say so…Now I’m still a child, but no one tells me no.”
After Pop came out, Bono explains, smiling, a bunch of his friends left messages on his answering machine, just saying, “No! No!” “I stumbled into it,” he says, a bit shyly, of the autobiographical core of “Mofo.” “Lines jump out, bits and pieces come up. Then you put the puzzle together.
“It’s all the same thing, really,” he continues intensely. “People looking up on the mountain for light, going to ashrams or churches on Sunday or taking drugs. I think it’s in the ordinary things, in the trash you’re throwing away, commerce, all this stuff. Go through it; find out what’s on your mind. Look at the hole in your heart.”
Bono draws a heart in the air, then pokes out a circle in the middle with his finger. “I can actually make a shape of it more than I can tell you about it,” he says. Clayton can see the shape of his own life, his reconciliation with adulthood, in parts of Pop. “Somehow he articulates stuff that you know you’ve dealt with,” he says of Bono.
Clayton tries not to go into particulars: “I don’t want to martyr myself. I got drunk, and I took drugs from time to time. And I missed a show,” a reference to the Zoo TV show in Sydney, Australia, which he missed after an epic bout of partying (the bass was played that night by his roadie Stuart Morgan).
“It’s all the little things that add up, too,” he says. “The phone calls you’ve forgotten to make, all the things that you’ve avoided doing by sticking them at the bottom of the pile. We’d never done college, the finished-education thing. In fact, it wasn’t hard to figure out, ‘Well, if I deal with some of this stuff, it gets easier, and you don’t make the horrendous mistakes that you don’t mean to make.’
“It was that thing, for me,” Clayton concludes, “that Bono was able to put across. Which was saying, ‘It’s Ok to grow up. It’s all right to be a man.'”
But what about the part that comes after that? “I’m just not that bothered about it, the idea of dying,” Bono says, erupting in hysterics. He then tells a story about the time he underwent a heart examination: “They found something in my heart, a kind of bump. I had to get into this big machine. And they said, ‘Just wait outside for 30 minutes, and we’ll tell you how it’s going.’ ” So he waited—for 30 minutes, 40 minutes, more than an hour.
“There’s calls from people upstairs, people with white coats going into this room. They were all looking very serious. And I did, for a second, think about it. Dying. “Then they came out and said, ‘Look, uh, our machine’s broken down. Would you mind doing it again?’ So I had to go in and do it again. I went to see the doctor afterward, and he said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. You have what we call an eccentric heart.'”
Bono laughs and winds up for the punch line: “I just looked at him and said, ‘I could have told you that.'”
At the end of the Zoo TV tour in ’93, Larry Mullen was still so wrapped up in the fever and rigor of touring that he wanted to keep going. “Myself and Edge talked about buying a bus and continuing around America for another six months to wind down,” Mullen recalls. “And we were serious—that was the worrying part.”
The only time that the Edge remembers when the career demands and emotional strains of road work spilled over into physical violence was during one of U2’s early visits to America. “This is an example of how intense we were,” the Edge explains with a sheepish smile. “Everything we did, it was like our lives depended on it.
“Anyway, this one night, Larry stopped playing in the middle of a song because something had gone wrong with his drum kit,” he relates. “Bono lost his temper and started smashing the drum kit with the microphone. Larry just freaked and left the stage for the dressing room. And Bono was after him. Myself and Adam are going, ‘Oh, my God.’ I remember Talking Heads were in the audience. So I put down my guitar. I didn’t hit Bono. But I had to grab him quite strongly because I thought he was going to throttle Larry.
“And that was the most volatile we ever were,” the Edge says with some relief. “Those early, early shows. There is nothing scarier than playing to a half-full bar of people who are really not that interested. That is much scarier than going on in front of 55,000 fans who think you’re great.”
For Bono, who, at 37, has been a rock & roll star for nearly half his life, the only thing scarier than playing in either an empty tavern or a packed baseball stadium is being reduced to caricature—mistaken for one of those zany props, the overblown commercial symbols that he’s trying to fuck with in the PopMart stage show.
He loves to talk, and he loves an audience. He also knows that in an age of high-resolution, low-content broadcasting, there can be a big difference between intention and, on the other end, reception.
“Celebrity has gotten so ugly and oppressive,” Bono says ruefully in the pub, wiping a Guinness-foam mustache from his upper lip. “People have had it up to here. OK, fine. I say, ‘Throw the rocks.’ I like a row. But are we, U2, really the target? You’re famous, you’re in all the magazines, you’ve got shit loads of dough. You can’t be the real thing? That’s wrong.
“If we make a piece of work that we’re proud of,” he asserts, “I’m going to take it anywhere I can. I’m prepared to take on the shit storm to do it.” But not indefinitely.
“It just takes everything you’ve got to put this thing together,” Bono says of PopMart, “and I don’t know if we could do it again. Or if we’d even want to.”
Already, U2 have been talking about taking a hard left turn away from the electric sass of their recent records into something more organic and influenced by traditional Irish music. And if PopMart does prove to be the end of something for U2—their celebrity, their 10-year arc of big-bigger-biggest success—then, Bono figures, “it’s a hell of a way to go.”
“Then again,” he says, grinning, one evening after practice at the Factory, “if things go the way they look, there’ll be nobody who wants to see us, anyway. It sounds like we’re just going to get to Las Vegas with one song. “And that,” Bono declares with a cackle, “should sort out the problem.”