Truths and Consequences
As their new
album zooms to the top of the charts, the members of U2 grapple
with what it means to be rock & roll superstars.
must say, I don't feel very qualified to be a pop star," says
Bono, U2's lead singer, one overcast February afternoon as he drives
through Dublin. "I don't think I'm a very good pop star, and
I feel very awkward at times in the role. I think there are other
people far better suited than me."
pauses and laughs. "I sometimes think it might have been a
mistake - you picked up the wrong guy! Look, I'm built more like
a mechanic or something, a carpenter. I mean, take a look at these
hands -- these are the hands of a bricklayer."
has chosen a highly charged moment to begin questioning his qualifications
for pop stardom. With the release of The Joshua Tree, U2's fifth,
farthest-reaching and flat-out best studio LP, and a massive world
tour in the works, Bono and his cohorts in U2 - guitarist the Edge,
bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. - will undoubtedly
rise to the superstardom that has always been their goal but has
always loomed as more of a promised land, ardently desired but seen
from afar, than an imminent reality. Bono's half-hopeful statement
that "U2 will be the band that's always coming and never arrives"
is about to be proven wrong in spades.
recent triumps have raised vexing questions for Bono - artistic
and personal questions all the more troubling because of the position
of moral authority U2 has attained. Over the past few years, rock
& roll has gone a long way toward establishing itself as a force
for good in the world, and U2 has been at the forefront of the artists
who have contributed to that movement. The band's 1983 LP War helped
restore social consciousness to rock, and its galvanizing performances
at Live Aid and during Amnesty International's six-concert Conspiracy
of Hope tour defined the dual spirit of moral purpose and fervent
celebration at the heart of those events. Success seemed to go hand
in hand with significance for U2, and by the time the Conspiracy
of Hope tour ended with a spectacular stadium concert last June,
the whole pop-music world seemed poised for whatever U2 decided
to do next.
the while, however, as Bono saw the prominence of U2 increase, he
wondered about the myths of excess and frivolous destruction that
had grown up around rock & roll in the course of its history.
He wondered what he and his band were supposed to represent in the
context of that mythology. Was high-mindedness simply U2's "angle,"
an image as confining in its way as the fashion stance of the latest
haircut band? As its audience and profits multiplied, what finally
would separate U2 from the herd of Bands That Matter that had come
down the pike and burned out or taken a sharp right turn into comfort
and apathy? He also wondered about the sirenlike lure that rock-star
indulgence might hold for him. This internal interrogation - a process
Bono refers to as "wrestling with myself for a living"
- stokes the dissatisfaction that burns at the center of The Joshua
Tree, and within Bono himself as he stands on the verge of a potentially
don't accept the rock & roll mythology of 'living on the edge,
man,' - I don't accept that," the twenty-six-year-old Bono
says during the drive through Dublin, gesturing with characteristic
intensity and making it uncomfortably clear that the point he is
making is considerably more important to him than keeping his eyes
on the road. "We're all pretty much removed form reality, I
suppose - the reality of life and death. But rock & roll is
even more removed from reality. Rock & roll artists who are
living on the edge - what can they possibly have to offer? Their
songs are written from such a removed point of view.
all asleep in some way or another," he says. "I've used
my music to wake me up....I find now that I've been reading about
them, I'm much more attracted to those old folkies, you know, like
Woody Guthrie, people who work within their community. They're working,
and their labor is writing a song."
Mullen's home, in the town of Howth, is the destination of Bono's
drive. Mullen's sparsely furnished but comfortable suburban-style-house
-- complete with clothes hung in the yard and a frisky dog -- sits
on a small hill overlooking the Irish Sea. It's drizzling outside.
Framed by a picture window, the grays and blues of the sky and the
sea merge into an impressionist blur. The weather inspires such
a reflective mood that Mullen will joke later on, as the Judds'
sprightly album Why Not Me enlivens the interior of his sports car
on the drive back into town: "Somehow driving along like this
in the middle of Dublin in the rain listening to the Judds -- it's
just not right!"
now, however, Bono pulls off the battered midlength gray wool coat
he wore in the car and sprawls in a chair at Mullen's dining-room
table. Sporting his customary black leather vest and black jeans,
his shoulder-length brown hair drawn back in a ponytail, Bono is
badly in need of a shave -- and some sleep.
his blond hair slicked back in a spiky cut, is, on the other hand,
characteristically fresh faced and upbeat. Mullen, 25, is the quietest
member of U2 -- and he clearly idolizes Bono. Just as clearly, Bono
feels considerable affection for Mullen. The two men spend a great
deal of time together -- Mullen getting a kick from Bono's tireless
intensity, Bono finding relief from himself in Mullen's good-natured
enthusiasm and good-hearted directness.
pulls up a chair next to Bono, and the conversation turns to Joshua
trees -- the gnarled trees indigenous to the deserts of the American
Southwest. The tree was named by the Mormons when they were settling
Utah; its shape reminded them of the Biblical passage in which Joshua
pointed to the Promised Land.
imagery couldn't seem to be any more obvious, particularly for a
man who confesses that the year in which he wrote lyrics for much
of the material on The Joshua Tree was "a bit of a desert"
-- due to his obsession with the viability of rock & roll as
a way of life, his marital upheavals and the death of Greg Carroll,
U2's twenty-six-year-old personal assistant, to whom The Joshua
Tree is dedicated. Bono, however, refuses to pin the symbol down
find it funny," Bono says about responses to the album's title,
recalling that somebody asked, "You're not gonna change your
religion again?" after hearing the Mormon tale. In explaining
why the band chose the title, Bono for once falls short of words:
"I'm not going to talk about the other reasons. You know, the
symbol is a very powerful one, and you don't...you can't...you don't..."
supposed to be the oldest living organism in the desert," Mullen
says. "They can't put a time on it, because when you cut it,
there's no rings to indicated how old it is. Maybe it's a good sign
for the record!"
photos on the album's cover and lyric sheet were taken near Joshua
Tree National Monument, in California, not far from where the ashes
of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons were scattered in 1973. According
to Bono, however, even the band wouldn't be able to locate the exact
Joshua tree that was photographed. "We stopped off on the road,"
Bono says, "and we went out, and we were shooting this landscape
with the tree, and we just got back on the bus and drove off. Then
somebody thought, 'God, say you ever want to go back to that tree?
Or other people might go out looking for the tree.' And then we
though, 'No, better that people can't find it, or some guy will
arrive with it at a gig.' 'Bono, I've got the tree?'"
trees might be extinct by the time this album is over," Mullen
funny side of this is, like, with this album, everyone's trying
to say, 'U2, the next this, the next that,'" Bono says, "You
get record-industry people saying, 'As big as the Beatles -- what's
the name of the album?' 'The Joshua Tree.' 'Oh yeah, oh right.'"
He laughs. "It's not exactly Born in The Joshua Tree, or Dark
Side of The Joshua Tree. It sounds like it would sell about three
course, three million copies is more like it -- and even that's
a conservative estimate for what will likely become one of the most
successful, not to mention important, records of the decade (The
Joshua Tree entered the Billboard chart at Number Seven.) The reference
to Born in the U.S.A. is appropriate, not only because that album
also lifted a populist artist to mega-stardom but because, as in
Springsteen's case, the sheer aural pleasure of The Joshua Tree
and the awesome, uplifting power of U2's live shows will probably
obscure the fact that the album is as foreboding a record as can
be imagined. The Joshua Tree itself may be a symbol of hope and
deliverance, but its twisted shape and the barrenness of its environment
suggest the sort of forces that must be confronted before redemption
perhaps even after redemption comes -- at least in the form in which
this album will present it to U2. In the face of enormous popularity
and its attendant pressures, the band will have to struggle to maintain
an independent sense of self. On a much smaller but equally dramatic
scale, U2 faced the issue of rock stardom and its meaning after
its 1980 debut album, Boy, brought the band members international
recognition when some of them were still teenagers.
think we have to own up o the fact that we really weren't that interested
in being in a band after Boy," Bono says about the intense
period of spiritual questing that he, Mullen and the Edge undertook
at that point. "We were, during October, interested in other
things, really. We thought about giving up the band. And Adam's
reaction to us thinking about giving up the band was he wanted to
get out of the band. October we made with the attitude 'If people
don't like it, hey, maybe that's better than if they do.' We wanted
to make a record, and yet we didn't want to make a record, because
we were going through a stage where we thought, 'Rock & roll
is just full of shit, do we want to spend our lives doing it?'
were getting involved in reading books, the Big Book, meeting people
who were more interested in things spiritual, superspiritual characters
that I can see now were possibly too far removed from reality. But
we were wrapped up in that.
two years, we didn't even know if we wanted to be in a band. We
went on tour, and every night we had this thing: we've got to play
this concert like it's our last concert. We went out with that attitude,
sometimes because maybe it could have been our last concert.
Lillywhite [the producer of U2's first three albums, who also mixed
three tracks on The Joshua Tree] used to say, 'Do your job,' and
we were running away from doing our jobs. We wanted to do whatever
-- at that stage it was probably set up a mission on the street
for people who hadn't got any food. We were thinking all along those
the band's spiritual concerns with rock & roll's outlaw mythology
was a persistent problem in the years following the release of October
and War -- a problem that eventually generated a contradictory response
in Bono. "We were the freak show for a while," Bono says.
"we felt like fish out of water. 'What are we doing in rock
& roll?' We almost felt that we should do drugs out of guilt,
to make people feel at home." Bono says he did give in to some
standard rock vices. "I've kind of evened out now, but over
the last few years, I've backlashed completely. Drank far too much
and did far too many things out of this odd, weird reverse guilt."
in the rock world, then, and in dealing with the public, Bono felt
removed from his own image. "Essentially, I'm a very real person,
good and bad," Bono says. "And the public image is one
of being very good, I suppose. But one of the reasons I'm attracted
to people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Christ, to pacifism,
is because naturally I'm not a pacifist. Naturally, I'm the guy
that would not turn the other cheek. But when people see you're
attracted to that, they think you are that."
reexamining rock & roll history from the perspective of his
own concerns, however, Bono began to see the tension between stardom
and religious fervor not as something unique to himself or U2 but
as part of an honorable tradition. "Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith,
Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder -- gee, I don't think there's
anyone I like in rock & roll that isn't as screwed up as me
in this area," he says. "I started realizing that rock
& roll devoid of that spiritual confusion is the rock &
roll that I don't like anyway. I started realizing, 'Hey, we're
not the odd ones out. This shit on the radio is the odd stuff. It's
a natural place to be."
wearying or even overbearing at times (Bono says, " went through
a period of feeling maybe the people in the band didn't like me
very much; I can be obnoxious at times"), the seriousness with
which Bono regards his responsibilities as a rock star is an important
part of why U2 has won such a huge, devoted following. His enthusiasm
was perhaps nowhere more evident than in September of 1985, shortly
after Live Aid, when he felt he had to follow through on the meaning
of that event by visiting Ethiopia for a month with his wife, Alison,
to assist in famine-relief efforts.
couple was determined not to let the trip turn into just another
superstar's philanthropic junket. It was undertaken with no publicity
-- though their presence in the country was eventually discovered
-- and to this day Bono refuses to say much about it for fear of
offending the less celebrated people who perform such work every
day outside the congratulatory shine of the media's spotlight. "I
don't deserve any prizes, because I could afford to go," Bono
says bluntly one afternoon in a Dublin restaurant. "A lot of
people would give their right arms to go to Ethiopia and help out.
I could afford to."
during their stay in Ethiopia, Bono and Ali helped with the hands-on
physical labor and basic health care of a refugee camp. It soon
became apparent, however, that communicating information about nutrition
and hygiene was a crucial problem in the relief effort. Determined
to assist in the best way they could, the couple came up with a
month-long program that addressed one key health topic (for example,
safe methods of childbearing) per week. Working at an orphanage
of 300 children in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, Bono and
Ali composed four songs and four playlets to familiarize the children
with the European fruits and vegetables that were becoming available
to them, as well as healthy first-aid techniques and proper methods
of planting and reaping. The sing-along songs and plays -- written
with the help of African relief workers in the people's native language
-- were meant to encourage the children to retain their messages
and pass them along.
time in Africa with Ali left Bono flying. "I got more than
I gave to Ethiopia," he says. "My head was in the clouds,
and my feet were not on the ground." But Bono hit the ground
hard when he returned home. "Spending time in Africa and seeing
people in the pits of poverty," he says, "I still saw
a very strong sprit in the people, a richness of spirit I didn't
see when I came home. I had no culture shock going, but I had culture
shock coming back. I saw the spoiled child of the Western world.
I started thinking, 'They may have a physical desert, but we've
got other kinds of deserts.' And that's what attracted me to the
desert as a symbol of some sort."
RS 499, May 7, 1987