RS 499

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.

"I 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."

He 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."

Bono 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.

U2's 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.

All 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 dangerous ascent.

"I 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.

"We're 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."

Larry 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!"

For 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.

Mullen, 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.

Mullen 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.

The 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 precisely.

"We 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..."

"It's 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!"

The 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?'"

"Joshua trees might be extinct by the time this album is over," Mullen says, laughing.

"The 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 copies."

Of 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 comes.

And 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.

"I 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?'

"We 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.

"For 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.

"Steve 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 lines."

Squaring 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."

Both 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."

By 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."

While 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.

The 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."

Initially 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.

His 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."

From RS 499, May 7, 1987
By Anthony DeCurtis