“We see ourselves as just another boy band,” U2 lead singer Bono deadpanned after picking up three Grammys on Feb. 21, 2001 bringing his band’s total to 10. U2’s latest release, “Beautiful Day” won in each of the three categories in which it was nominated — Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Rock Performance by a Duo or Group.
In the course of their two-decade-plus career, Bono and the boys have proven that music with a message can still rock the charts. In the early ’80s the band participated in LiveAid; more recently Bono has worked with London-based Jubilee 2000, which advocates forgiving Third World debt. Not surprisingly, his political choices — and his music — have earned Bono plenty of criticism over the years, with skeptics calling him deluded and egomaniacal to just plain boring. Way back in 1989, Bono sat down with Mother Jones to talk about religion, drugs, and the pitfalls of irony. — Suzy Boothby
It is January 1989, early evening at A&M studios in Hollywood, where Bono Hewson (aka Vox) has been remixing singles. His band has just swept their categories in the Rolling Stone Readers Poll, including Band and Artist of the Year for the second year running. Their double LP, “Rattle and Hum,” ruled the charts over the holidays. judging from the numbers, U2 continues its reign as “band of the decade,” and even, as Time magazine and others have anointed them, the conscience of rock. Yet here is Bono, voice and lyricist of U2, saying only a bit wryly, “I think we’re on the outside again.”
U2’s star ascended with rock’s rediscovery of its conscience. They played remarkable live sets at the 1983 US Festival and 1985’s Live Aid benefit, and spearheaded the first Amnesty International rock tour. While other bands partied, they eulogized Martin Luther King, Jr., “in the name of love.” And by 1987, when their fifth LP, “The Joshua Tree,” sold over 14 million copies, U2 had, become the most popular rock-and-roll band in the world.
But last fall’s release of “Rattle and Hum” — the film, the book, the double LP, and the T-shirts — found critics sharpening their knives. The documentary of their US tour chronicles the Irish rockers collaborating with B.B. King and Bob Dylan, cutting a tribute to Billie Holiday in the same Memphis studio that Elvis Presley first used, joining a Harlem gospel choir to remodel their hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono starts off U2’s cover of “Helter Skelter” by announcing that the band are “taking it back” from Charles Manson.
“The megalomania churning at the heart of this band is beginning to show,” reacted Musician magazine. The New York Times review was headlined, “When Self-Importance Interferes with the Music.” And the Village Voice’s Tom Carson wrote off U2 as “the priggish, thin-skinned egoist and the three dullards.” Savage stuff for last year’s heroes.
At the center of the storm is Bono. “I don’t have an ironic persona like David Byrne or David Bowie to stand behind,” he worried while the film was being edited. “It’s me up there on the screen and it makes me cringe.” If he can appear arrogant, he can also be anything but. In 1981, after a brief interview with Bono, I was told by a representative of his record company that the gay press couldn’t expect anymore interviews with U2. I wrote Bono a letter in protest. He called me up on his next visit, asked me to join him for a drink, and talked for hours.
Then, as now, in conversation Bono is an intoxicating raconteur, erupting with enthusiasm, playful and engaged. He grows fervent when speaking of his beliefs, and one of his strongest is that U2 truly are, as he jokes, “on a mission.” Bono and his songs take on some very big issues: violence and redemption, God and politics, love and death. That makes him prime game for skeptics, critics, and acolytes. And it gave us plenty of ground to cover.
MJ: Let me read you a recent quote from Randy Newman: “I used to be against world peace until U2 came out for it. Then the scales just fell from my eyes…. And when they’re singing with those black people? Do you know that black people just love their music? Bono’s conducting those black people and they’re doing just what he says!…
BONO: I had heard that. Randy Newman is a very funny man, though I think he’s written far funnier lines than those.
Are you interested that criticisms like his have been leveled a lot lately, particularly at “Rattle and Hum?”
I suppose. What’s uninteresting about that is that we are such an easy target, from the word go, because we perform from our own point of view. I sing about the way I see things. Some people write songs about the way characters see things. Some artists perform with a wink. That’s just not the way with U2. When people perform from their gut — when John Lennon sang a song called “Mother” — that was not a hip thing to do. He was exposing himself. It’s performers like that I admire…. If you’re going to spend your whole life worrying about dropping your guard and exposing yourself, worrying that working with a gospel choir might look like imperialism, that would be dumb.
But the criticisms I read of the film are that it was too guarded. Let me read, if I could, another criticism ….
Well, I’m really not interested.
I just want to give you the opportunity to respond ….
What this suggests is that the music is not enough. That is my expression — the music — and within that music I can take my clothes off. Not for the press, not for the TV shows, not for the film. That film was about music, and in that music was everything that we have to say and offer. Now people want it made easy for them. They want it spelled out. Why can’t people just accept the music? You know the real reason? It’s that people don’t listen to the music anymore, and a lot of critics don’t…. I think our fans know all the songs on our albums, and I don’t think many critics do. I really don’t.
Were there any criticisms that did sting, that hit home, that taught you anything?
No. I must say I was generally very disappointed in the community of critics. It’s funny. I would’ve thought that what people would have expected us to do would’ve been to put out a double live LP, and cash in on “The Joshua Tree,” and make a lot of money for very little work. That is what big rock bands do.
When we didn’t do that, I expected people to recognize that. When we put the records out at low price, stripped away the U2 sound, then just went with our instincts as fans, and just lost ourselves in this [American R&B] music, in a very un-self-conscious way…
But if the LP has been unfairly and stupidly criticized by people who aren’t listening carefully …
No. It’s not even that. It’s that the spirit of it has been completely and utterly missed. The spirit of it is unlike any record of a major group, for a long time. That spirit is the very essence of why people get into bands and make music. And it’s not about being careful. And it’s not about watching your ass….
Is there an artist or band whose career you’d like to emulate? Who you look at and say, “They did it right?”
They did it right? My heroes are the ones who survived doing it wrong, who made mistakes, but recovered from them…. You see, we are unlike all the great rock ‘n’ roll bands in that their records generally get worse, whereas our records are getting better. Most people would agree. We are on the ascendance. We started at scratch, writing a song with two chords on two strings. We are desperate men, struggling with very limited abilities. Though I think U2 are at the peak of their form in terms of our own music, when I look at American music, I mean the Memphis Horns and B.B. King, on that scale, we’re at the bottom of the ladder.
OK, so you want to design a great rock ‘n’ roll group? So, you’re gonna choose guys from Ireland, right? (laughs) No, you’re not. You’re gonna choose people who talk about religion and politics? No, you’re not. I mean, we’re a fluke. Rock ‘n’ roll bands are about giving people what they want. And what they want often is “Wow! Yahoo! Let’s dance!” and “Do you think I’m sexy, do you want my body,” that type of thing. And that’s not what U2 are about. And I don’t know how we’ve gotten here. All I can say is, I haven’t figured it out. No wonder the critics haven’t. (laughs)
In U2’s early days, three members — Bono, guitarist The Edge, and drummer Larry Mullins — joined Shalom, a nonsectarian charismatic Christian group. “They were devoted to the idea of Christ as a commitment to social justice, and having no possessions,” Bono explains. The band members have since parted with Shalom, but not with their faith. “I believe that Jesus is the son of God,” Bono says. “I do believe that, odd as it sounds.”
Do you still believe that Jesus is the way? Doesn’t that biblical injunction deny that followers of other religions can enter paradise?
I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that fundamentalist concept. I believe, what is it? “The way is as narrow as the eye of the needle,” and all that. But I think that’s just to keep the fundamentalists out…. (laughs)
I never really accepted the whole “born again” tag. It’s a great term, had it not been so abused. I accepted it on one level, in that I loved the idea of being reborn…. I think people should be reborn every day, man! You know, every day again and again and again! At 20 years old, this idea of “surrender every day,” this idea of “dying to oneself” … was so exciting! Then I came to America in 1981, the land of milk and the .357 Magnum. It blew my mind that this word “reborn” meant nothing.
It meant something very different; it meant a moral agenda.
Yeah, it had been raped of its real meaning, of its spiritual significance, and instead a political significance was left.
In November of 1982 you, The Edge, and Larry Mullins announced to your manager that you didn’t want to tour in support of your second LP, that the rock world was at odds with your Christianity. What happened?
We were just being pulled in two different directions. A lot of it was based on the idea of the ego. We’d been reading a lot of Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian mystic. His idea was: “Unless the seed shall die and be crushed into the earth, it cannot bear fruit.”
Rock ‘n’ roll had this idea: “It’s me!” You know, “Look at me, ’cause I’m looking at you, motherfucker!” Like, “Out of my way, looking out for number one, ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction!'” Watchman Nee’s attitude to that would be: “So what? What’s so important about you anyway?” (laughs)
So it was like we were being torn in two. We felt almost subconscious pressure being applied to us by a lot of people we looked up to within that spiritual community that we were in and out of. In the end, I realized it was bullshit, that what these people were getting close to with this idea was denial, rather than willful surrender. It was denial, which is the next-door neighbor to self-flagellation, and that awful idea that “through pain is gain.” Yes, there is pain. Yes, you may gain from it. But you don’t get into your car looking for a traffic jam. (laughs)
Do you see the world of rock ‘n’ roll and the Church as at odds, in the way that Jerry Lee Lewis said that he had thrown his lot in with the devil when he became a rock ‘n’ roller?
I don’t. I don’t because I think the most important thing, the most important element in painting a picture, writing a song, making a movie, whatever, is that it be truthful. A version of truth as you see it. Rock ‘n’ roll, and the blues, they’re truthful. It says in the Scriptures, “Know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” So, there is this feeling of liberation in the blues for me. There is salvation in the blues.
There is salvation more in gospel music, no?
The truth. The truth shall set you free. Gospel music is about a step of faith, which is a whole different concept. The idea is that you step into a world where, if you like, the kingdom has come. You step into it, and you affirm that. You step into that and you sing! You know, people singing gospel music, they crowded into the churches from the ghettos, to make that “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho / And the walls came tumbling down” step of faith. In their real life, they were living in leaky, rainy conditions, they were living in a sewer. So that’s not the truth of their own experience.
The blues is the truth of their own experience, therefore closer to this idea of “knowing the truth and the truth shall set you free.” In the Psalms of David, there is this powerful wailing against God. You know, “You call yourself God!” and “Where are you when I need you?” The Psalms of David are the blues, and I get great comfort from that.
What do you think of Prince’s brand of salacious Christianity, which says that brilliant sex lights the way to paradise?
I just believe that Prince believes the same thing I do: that God is sex as well as love.
So you feel, when you listen to a Prince album, that you guys are singing the same gospel?
I feel very close to Prince, closer than you might think.
Closer than I would think, in that he’s considered sex-crazed, while critics regularly describe U2 as nearly sexless.
I’m deeply insulted to hear you say that, and shocked, and mesmerized. I don’t think they could have been to too many U2 shows. You’d have to ask our audience. This may be one of those cliches from the critical community who generally themselves are completely sexless. You can’t fuck people with your head, or maybe you can….
Now, come on. You honestly think that the kind of really erotic sounds that you hear in “Sexual Healing” or “Little Red Corvette,” that there are U2 songs that have that kind of carnal energy?
No. Yes, I think there is a sexuality to U2. I don’t think it’s dressed up in leather, or high-heel boots, or that type of thing.
I don’t think it’s the sort of peek-a-boo-type sexuality. So, some people, who have to have a neon sign that says sex before they see sex, may not see it in our music. But sex is a much subtler thing than that. Today you’ll find the exact same girl in the Coca-Cola ads and the rock videos. That’s not rebellious anymore. It sells products. And it is a product. That kind of overt or camped-up sexuality is no longer rebellious in the way that it was in the ’50s and ’60s, when people weren’t owning up that they even had a sex life. People needed that shoved in their face and rock ‘n’ roll was a great medium to do it. But that doesn’t apply now…
See, most things that a lot of people find sexy, I find incredibly funny! I don’t find the things I see out on the Strip, say, latex trousers, turn me on. They just don’t.
What do you find really sexy?
I’m not telling you.
I’m just not.
Why should that be something you’re not willing to share?
I don’t know many people that would want the world to know. I might tell you, but I’m not telling them.
You’ve seen Prince live. How do you feel about the sexual play-acting he does onstage?
I find it funny, very funny. I get off on it. (laughs)
Are you tempted to do anything like that? I mean, that kind of sexual humor is the kind of thing people would never expect from U2.
No. I always go back to the image of filmmakers. I find that makes things clearer. Some people make movies, and there is a certain kind of movie they make, because that’s them, whether it’s Altman or Scorsese or Coppola…. We’ve been trying to get people to dance to “Apocalypse Now.”
You see U2 as more like Coppola, or Scorsese…
Yeah, and I think Prince would be more like, ummm Busby Berkeley?
Or Ken Russell?
Ken Russell! That is what I mean. Prince is the Ken Russell of music. Absolutely!
The ’60s generation celebrated both sex and drugs as liberating. Nowadays there has been a lot of bashing of both as evil. You present a fairly chaste image.
In the movie we never even see you take a drink. We never see you doing drugs….
The idea that we would hide the drink from the camera is idiotic beyond belief. It’s another cliché that redundant minds throw at U2. “You present a chaste image.” Oh god!
Do you like being intoxicated?
(Raises a finger) ‘Tis better to be drunk on the spirit; however, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s is sometimes handier.
Do you ever find intoxicants, including psychedelics, creatively useful?
I am already on drugs. I am the sort of person who needs to take drugs to make me normal. (laughs) I have experimented. No, I don’t think that it is something that everybody has to do, one, just to be alive, or two, to write great songs.
I don’t mean “have to.” But do you have a positive attitude towards drugs?
I’m not going to tell you that I have a positive attitude towards people who are hurting themselves. Drug abuse is a very negative thing.
Do you believe there is such a thing as drug use as opposed to abuse?
I do believe there could be.
In your own life, have you experienced …
I don’t want to talk about that. I’ll give you just one example of why it would be irresponsible for me to answer your question in a certain way: I’ve written so many songs using heroin as an image, it might be interesting for me to tell you that, say, “I’ve had experiences with the drug heroin.” It might be interesting for me to do it, and to own up to it.
If it were misconstrued, somebody who, for whatever reason, respects me, that might lead them to get into it. OK. If I became addicted to heroin, I can afford the trappings. I can afford the Betty Ford clinic. I can afford to have my blood changed. I can afford the trappings of being an addict. But there is some guy who lives in a room in Dublin who can’t. And nobody gives a shit about his addiction!
So it is highly irresponsible for rock ‘n’ roll people to perpetuate the myth of drug addiction. One of the things that I get a good feeling that U2 has done is to break open the mythology of rock ‘n’ roll. The mythology that wearing a safety pin in your nose means you’re a rebel. Shaving your head does not mean you’re a rebel.
You’re saying those trappings have nothing to do with the true rebellious soul of rock and roll….
Yeah, the rebellious soul. The mythology of “live fast, die young” perpetrated by rich rock ‘n’ roll stars sickens me. I just want to throw up on these bastards! That’s because in our city, Dublin City, I’ve seen the place truly ravaged by drug addiction. People seriously fucked up, and people inspired by this idea of “living close to the edge.”
U2’s 1983 Album “War,” included “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a thunderous anthem against Ireland’s sectarian violence, and “New Year’s Day,” the celebration of Poland’s Solidarity. It was U2’s first LP to go gold in the United States. Bono and the band intended the record as a stark declaration for militant pacifism, and against nationalism. But it sometimes seemed to exploit the very passions it was decrying. On tour, Bono took to trotting around the stage waving a massive white flag to a martial beat. One early U2 booster wrote that the “great personal fury” of their first LPs had given way to “literal but sincere sloganeering … hapless, dated, agitpop.” He wasn’t alone. Yet in Bono’s eyes, the band was just ahead of its time, voicing the spirit of Live Aid before Bob Geldof had seen its glimmer.
In 1985 you and your wife, Ali, worked for seven weeks in Ethiopia on an educational relief project. What precipitated that?
Just got carried away with myself, and our involvement with Live Aid. I thought Live Aid was an extraordinary thing! It seemed we were, at one time, almost the only voice talking about this idea: that rock ‘n’ roll could be a force for social change, in reality, as well as in concept. This was two, three years before Live Aid, when we were making the “War” LP, and it was something we believed for a while. I had conversations with people, from Sting to Bob Geldof to critics who found it almost a laughable idea, that in the ’80s people could still really believe that.
Bob Geldof was into pop music. That’s the great irony of Live Aid. That proved to me that God has such a sense of humor, this idea of Geldof actually refuting his own argument. He really was the man who said, “Pop music is pop music: bee-bop-a-loola. It’s great, and let’s just enjoy it for that.” That a little round thing with a hole in it could save lives must have been an extraordinary revelation to him.
I truly think that with the “War” album, I and others realized that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t just have to be a parody of itself.
You said the “War” album was “something we believed for a while.” Can you explain that?
I don’t know why, but we always had this belief that there was something sacred about our music, that it was almost holy..
A division happened in the ’70s, a division that has widened now in the ’80s. [On the one hand, there is] this whole pop philosophy, the feeling that rock ‘n’ roll can be enjoyed, but only with a wink. Prince almost became the flagship for these people because he could dress up in high heels, do the extended guitar solo, and yet, he appeared to be doing it with a wink. He was laughing at himself, or was he laughing at them?
We are exactly the opposite of that. Call it stupidity, naivete. We are not that. When with “War” we said “no” to that, it was: As well as making rock ‘n’ roll, we may actually be able to jam up the airwaves with some information, actually be able to push out the walls of rock ‘n’ roll a bit, not just writing sexual and spiritual, but political things.
We believed we could make a difference. And of course, we had Bob Marley as a role model. Our relationship with Ireland, and his with Jamaica, made sense. He was singing of Jah making him “whole,” and singing about his lover, and his people. I saw a wholeness to that, a completeness about his music that I would like in our music …. We again had this awful idea, that we actually dared to see our rock ‘n’ roll as an art form. (laughs) That most awful idea.
The explosion of punk had also produced groups like the Clash, who certainly acted as if they believed music could change the world, and addressed issues in much more specific ways.
I thought that was too specific. I like the mystery of music as well. I wasn’t going to spoil the mystery in music. Again, when we put out “War,” the Clash had done their best to plant the red flag, if you like, and all the contradictions of that. But I respected them for it. I respected them for the  “Sandinista” album. I think it was an extraordinary LP, and I think the Nicaraguan Revolution was completely kept out of the media in Europe, and here was this rock’n’ roll band bringing your attention to it.
But after that, they had finally been strangled by the press. I believe there was so much antagonism towards the group in their last few years, that they actually couldn’t stand it. And with the Clash gone, the way was clear for “pop” music. The idea that rock ‘n’ roll could actually make a difference was out of the way for a while. “Thank you, God!” the postmodernists cried.
OK, right then, there I was with me fucking flag! I had read John Lennon’s manifesto, like “put your statement on the back beat.” Give peace a chance! And right, I was ready to placard the songs a bit. I took up that idea on the War LP, and I think it was a turning point, not just for U2, but in ’80s music. And I am pissed off that the LP is not so recognized. (laughs) God. Is this mania? It might be.
Adam Clayton said that right after your Live Aid performance, the band wanted to pack it in. They were all so upset with the performance….
We were very desperate, and depressed by it. The feeling was that I had just shot U2 in the head in front of a billion viewers. (laughs) … In retrospect, we feel it was valid. But at the time, we felt I had taken a real risk, and we didn’t know if people would get it.
See, I’m a songwriter first, a singer second, and a performer third. But sometimes the “performer” is the strongest side. Onstage I often try to find a way to express a song other than the way I sing it. That’s probably through having a limited voice. Not being a great singer, or even a very good one at times, I would look for other ways. That’s why I used those white flags: this idea of a flag drained of all color, the idea of surrender. If there was any flag worth flying, that was it.
In the case of Live Aid, I wanted some way to make the feeling that people felt there visual: a symbol. So when I saw this African girl in the audience, she was shouting and shouting at me, calling and calling … I just impulsively jumped or fell over into this pit. She was being crushed, and bashed around a bit, and I just pulled her out. By holding onto this person, I felt like I was holding onto the whole audience. It felt like holding onto everyone. It seems, in hindsight, that everyone watching it felt that. It actually was that for some reason.
It’s a risky business. I’ve thrown drums off the stage, pushed over PA stacks, burned electric guitars. I find myself resorting to these things. And I know now that it’s pure insecurity about my ability as a singer.
What do you find ignites the political imagination of your audience?
Well, I always hate the message idea. You feel like a postman, you know, delivering all these messages.
I think the ’80s have been a blight, culturally and sociopolitically. And you’re right. I think U2, we’re one of the best things about the’80s. (laughs) And I’m personally embarrassed that we’re “the band of the ’80s.” It’s not such a great compliment. (laughs) However, we’ll see what we can do with the ’90s.
What happened in the ’70s but wasn’t admitted to, was, it became clear how redundant the political ideologies of both the Left and the Right were. They no longer made sense. [It became clear] that Marxist-Leninism, this ideology invented to deal with the Industrial Revolution, which is worlds ago, even though it had been reinterpreted, cannot be applied, and certainly isn’t worth giving or taking a life for. Worst of all, almost, were the liberals, in the middle.
People are looking for an expression, because everybody, every person that has a family thinks about what they’re going to bring a child into. Everyone walking along a coastline wonders, will it be here in ten years? People have worked for ten years in college, paying fees, and they wonder if they’ll have a job in 10 years. The answer to that has been to work with blinkers on, and to be better than the guy sitting next to you in college, and if you’re not better, cheat! And fucking blindfold your opponent.
There are people just looking around, and they know there must be a focus. And they’re looking at the Democratic party, and they don’t see anything. They just see white walls. Something inside them says, “This doesn’t make sense.” They look to the Right, and the gospel of greed, and they can’t stomach it. They might be able to. If they’ve got a few kids, they might have to. But generally, the rock ‘n’ roll audience is 16, 25, 30. They haven’t, thank God, made their mind up. That’s why it’s such an exciting time: rock ‘n’ roll.
So they’re looking over here, and over there. They just don’t know. They just don’t know. And the music you turn on is proof that nobody knows. It’s just a noise to drown out unanswered questions. You just drown it out. The Beastie Boys’ “We’ve got to fight for our right to party!” — an amusing line. I appreciate it, but it was not seen as ironic as, I presume, it was intended. Yeah, we’ve got to fight for that right, alright. That is the anthem of the ’80s!
Are you saying that what captures your fans’ political imaginations is speaking to those doubts they have?
I think it’s at least owning up to them. We’re very clear, and it’s very clear in our music that we don’t have any answers. But that the questions are at least worth asking. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” How much more clear can you make it?
You said you sense a shift of mood in this country, that for a few moments U2’s subject matter was central to the times, but may not be now. If U2 really is on the outside again, does it upset you?
I think moods just shift, change, and come around. On one level, I am aghast. I was reading an interview with Arthur Miller, who said that after growing up in the Depression and coming back from World War II, having seen those sights of horror and devastation, he never thought it would get to the point in America where people would walk past the kind of homelessness I’ve seen in Los Angeles. He couldn’t imagine that in America. And that is where we are right now in America.
You think people are getting numb?
That is the word I would use. And I think they need a really strong stimulus…. It just seems that a pinprick will no longer pierce. They need a shock treatment.
Do you see a different kind of politics and consciousness emerging in the ’90s?
I think we’ve lower to sink before people will say, “We can’t go any further.” I think America is living on borrowed time. I think you’ve borrowed the money to put off this day when you’re going to have to realize: Corporations don’t need people to work for them anymore. Machines don’t ask for wage raises. And they haven’t figured out how they’re going to, on one level, provide consumers, and, on the other, not have work for anybody. This question has been put off, but it will have to be answered. There is something around the corner …
No. It could be really good…. We need to dream new dreams. And I think rock ‘n’ roll is at least a chance to dream those dreams.
Can those dreams, can records, can music really challenge entrenched power?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. It can effect change. It can be a catalyst for change.
It can be a voice of dissent. I think “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction” is a very great political song. I really do. It’s like: “When I’m drivin’ in my car / and that man comes on the radio / and he’s tellin’ me more and more / about some useless information / supposed to fire my imagination.” However, a lot of music is selling the same thing as adverts do right now.
U2 doesn’t seem to tackle the kind of politics that might truly trouble or alienate their fans. In the film you go on about apartheid and then ask, “Am I bugging you?” just about everyone in the US is opposed to apartheid. Yet you never speak out on issues like abortion, Israel and the Palestinians, the death penalty, AIDS, gay rights. Let’s talk about some of those. How do you feel, for instance, about abortion?
I just have my own ideas. I believe that it’s a woman’s right to choose. Absolutely.
Have you ever talked about that in concert? Or in any context?
And that is the kind of thing that might alienate some fans….
If I had been inspired to write a song about it, they would get it in the eyes, just like [supporters of apartheid] do on “Silver and Gold.” I will admit that we are attracted to issues that unify people rather than divide them.
Aren’t these issues, the tougher issues, the ones that actually demand that people give something up, that actually rub people and force them to look at themselves? Don’t you let yourself and your fans off awfully easy by failing to talk about them? About gay rights, say, or AIDS?
I have talked about AIDS. Did you see that in Cuba anyone with the antibody, not even the disease, is being put under quarantine for life? What interests me is that AIDS patients are being seen as the new lepers.
And aren’t those attitudes, and that policy, rooted in homophobia? Isn’t that an argument to speak out about gay rights?
OK. My bottom line on any sexuality is that love is the most important thing. That love is it. Any way people want to love each other is OK by me. That’s different from abuse, be it homosexual or heterosexual.
But your question is, why don’t we write about those issues? The reason is that there aren’t enough minutes in the day, or days in the year, for us to approach every abuse of human rights, and because, in the end, that isn’t our job anyway. Our own way of dealing with it is to try to get at what is essentially behind all abuse of human rights, to go to the heart of the problem, to the kernel rather than the husk.
And that, of course, will always bring me back to the idea of love. Spirituality. That God is love. That love is not a flowers-in-the-hair situation, that it is something you have to make happen. It has to be made concrete.
… You see, [with] problems like Belfast’s in Northern Ireland, or racism in the Southern states here in America, you’re dealing with entrenched communities. When you’re dealing with illogical views, the hells that are just deeper, the answer is not argument, often. They’re not problems of the intellect.
I am friends with a painter here in LA. Back in Northern Ireland, he witnessed a murder, an actual killing in a field. He was wanted for questioning, and had to leave as a result. He’s a Protestant. And he told me, even though he married a Catholic and he’s a very right-on man, when he hears rebel songs, the hairs on the back of his neck stand up! He can’t help it! He told me he couldn’t explain it, it was like it was in his genes.
That is why I will always look not to the flesh of the situation, but the spirit. These are spiritual conditions, malaise. You know hatred is beyond reason. Love is an antidote to that….
This gets back to the reason I wanted Van Morrison on the Amnesty International tour. A lot of people think he doesn’t seem politically motivated. But this man is a soul singer, and his music melts the hardest of hearts. That’s very political, because it is hard-hearted behavior that results in bigotry, racism, closed-mindedness, and greed — all the things that we deal with.
I must say to you, and you might not want to hear this: I find myself going away from the specific, and even more towards the universal, more towards that one point, which I call “liberation.”
Last November, Bono and U2 bassist Adam Clayton set out from Los Angeles on a three-week drive through New Mexico, Texas, and Tennessee, ending up in New Orleans. “It was in a brute black jeep with a sound system out of Studio 54 — not exactly the ‘Dharma Bums'” Bono admits, “but we kept meeting people who kept us up all night.” In Nashville they met Johnny Cash and John Prine. At a Mississippi juke joint they discovered “contemporaries of Muddy Waters” who never left. “It was in a field,” Bono says, “and as close as I’ve ever been to the blues.” Of US rock’s roots, he chuckles, “I don’t know whether we’ve gotten the fascination out of our system, or just got it into our system.”
There’s a lot riding on U2’s next LP, and the band knows it. Pressed about the project, Bono talks vaguely about exploring “developments in pure sound.”
“I have this feeling of starting over, that things have reached their end,” he says after a pause, “and also this notion that while people always talk about being joined in common wants and aspirations, I’m finding the reverse. Finding we’re united in desperation. I dunno, I come back to that line from our song “In God’s Country”: “We need new dreams tonight.” The job is to dream up a world you’d want to live in.”
Seven years ago you predicted, “We’re going to be enormous, like the Beatles, the Who.” Do you have a vision of what you’d like to be doing seven years from now?
I never wanted U2 to be the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, just the best. The more I know about rock ‘n’ roll, the more I don’t know…. Ten years ago, when I thought about being in a rock ‘n’ roll band, I saw so much. I saw everything: being on radio, television, making movies, records, being on the road. It was huge, like a really wide spectrum of things that were very important. Now that spectrum has shrunk down to nothing. The essence of what it is to be a rock ‘n’ roll band to me, now, is just that three-and-a-half minutes. Not giving interviews, not being on television, not all that goes with it. What has drowned out the sound of the rock ‘n’ roll circus has just been the rock ‘n’ roll song. Just that one thing. That’s the most exciting thing for me.
And that’s what you want to focus on, more than any of the other stuff?
To try and make sense of the madness, we’ve found sanity in a song. Everything else, hotel rooms, cars, buses, airplanes, record companies, motion picture companies … it’s incredible. just incredible.
Sometimes I meet young bands. I just tell them one thing. I just say, “You know one song can change everything for you. Everything.”
They say, “I can’t afford the gear. We’ve no lights. We’ve no PA. I’m unemployed.” I just say, “Put it into the song. Don’t put it to me. Put it in a song and I’ll listen to it then.”
One young punk came up to me and said, “We can’t even afford strings, man. You’ve got fucking airplanes.” I said, “We wrote ‘I Will Follow’ on two strings. If you can’t get two strings together, fuck off!”