I’m standing side stage at the Boston Garden. I’ve just seen U2’s eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE show – it covers the optimistic power of innocence and the folly of experience. It’s a life looking forwards and backwards, to dark and light. It’s personal and it’s political. It’s Bono’s life. For the final number there’s no gratuitous group bow, no basking in audience adulation. It’s Bono alone with a single lightbulb, staring at a replica of the house he grew up in. A Bono dolls house.
He comes offstage dripping – a little breathy. Black jacket, black pants, black boots and a towel. We swoop into a black SUV. Other SUV’s are lined up behind but we’re number one.
A police escort will flank us as we speed through the city at night into the bowels of the hotel. But this moment is not just about rock star secrecy and protocol. It’s about looking at Bono, totally spent and soul baring. He talks in phrases about how he’s on the circumference of awkwardness about the reconstruction of the American Dream, not making sense. He’s undone by this show.
I hold his hand. His is a weak but intense grasp. Apparently, a lot of people loathe Bono. I can tell you that no-one has loathed Bono more than Bono has loathed himself, but more of that later.He can see the contradiction in his situation, raging conscience straddling galloping success
Usually it’s his wife Ali who collects him from the stage and puts him in the car. Once it was Oprah. Today it’s me, so if you don’t like Bono stop reading this now. We are friends. I’ve known him for 20 years since we first met over poached eggs in the Savoy several albums ago. I’ve seen him operate first hand in the White House during the Bush regime, I’ve seen him seem to shrink stadiums with his big charisma and soaring voice, I’ve seen him at home as a daddy, as a husband. But I’ve never seen him shake when he comes offstage.
I’m not reading this hand holding as a display of affection. It was more that he needed a hand to ground him. His eyes looked sad and careworn behind his lilac tinted glasses. He had a stubbly face which gave him definition but strangely also a vulnerability. It was as if his face was smudged.
We’re now in the bowels of the Ritz Carlton hotel but it could be any car park anywhere in the world. He is escorted to a lift that will take him to his floor and he will stay in his room. I go in another lift to the lobby where there’s a nice bar and various people who work for U2 are starting to congregate.
The Edge will come down and his wife Morleigh Steinberg who is a creative consultant for the show, but no other band members. They’re all in their 50’s. They’ve been on the road for 3 consecutive years and one senses that they need to preserve their energy for the next night’s show.
Adam Clayton, bass guitarist, gave up alcohol in the 90’s around the same time as he gave up supermodels. Larry Mullen, the drummer has never been a party animal. He’s much too reserved and now he has an hour of physio after the show because all that drumming takes it out on his arms, neck and back.
The next day I’m in Bono’s Penthouse suite. Room service has delivered lunch of chicken and greens. He takes the metal covers from our lunch and clashes them like cymbals.
There’s a clashing noise at the very start of the show where it mimics the deafening sound of an MRI scanner. It’s about facing death. Bono says, “It’s not a very sexy subject, mortality, is it? But what is sexy is being in a rock and roll band and saying here’s our new song, it’s about death.”
Yeah about as sexy as working the circumference of an embarrassment and awkwardness. He nods cheerily. “Yes, that’s right. The end of the show is when you go back to your house, the home you grew up in. You think that’s who you are. But I’m no longer in Cedarwood Road (the house that he grew up in). I’m now facing a different direction. Does it sound pretentious to say that we are an opera disguised as a rock n roll band?”
Yes, it does. “When opera first started out it was punk rock. Opera only became pretentious. Mozart had a punk rock attitude.”
Let’s maybe not say it’s opera. Let’s just say there are grand themes in the show and it’s not just a bunch of songs. “Right,” says Bono. There was a part in the show last night where he was saying how he lost his head along with Adam (Adam going off the rails is well documented) and then he continued, “and then it happened to The Edge and Larry later.” The Edge looked askance.
When did The Edge fall off the edge? “OK, I was just saying it because I was feeling a little mischievous. I don’t like seeing them looking smug. The Edge, a zen Presbyterian looked a little miffed and Larry looked ‘this could be true?’
He is laughing but he’s thinking seriously about change. “Who would want to stay the same is what I’m really talking about. If success means that you trade in real relationships and real emotions for hyper media centric ones then maybe success is not good. But that’s not what success has done for me. You have a dizzy moment where you think your daily toil is of interest to the general public then you realise it isn’t really.”
Kind of tough to be performing in stadiums and thinking that you’re of no interest to the general public. He corrects, “I mean early on in the 80’s I remember being very self-conscious and thinking what newspaper I choose to buy in the newsagent was going to define me. And I remember hanging out with Chrissie Hynde who was so totally herself at all times. It took me a few years to get there.”
He thinks he wasn’t himself for decades. “In public I had different selves and all of mine were pretty annoying. We went to the film Killing Bono and I said to the Edge about the actor playing me, what’s that accent he’s speaking in? That’s not my accent. And The Edge said ‘it’s not but it’s the accent you used to give interviews in.”
The actor must have researched it from old interviews. “It’s like people have a telephone voice, a telephone personality and I had one in the 80’s.”
We both talk in our telephone voices for a while and laugh at each other.
“What happened with my accent was that I had a Protestant mother and a Catholic father. Dublin Protestants tend to have less of an accent because of their Anglicised influence.”
Was this accent purposely odd so that people couldn’t define if he was Protestant or Catholic?
“I don’t know. To be clear I didn’t know I was doing it but if you have a musical ear you can take on any accent.”
I give him my famous accent test which is to talk with a Geordie, Welsh and Pakistani accent and then repeat and repeat and see how long it takes before they all become the same. And after that it’s Australian, New Zealand and South African. And because I’m winning he suggests we might do Dublin Northside and Dublin Southside.
“I had a fear early on when I moved to the southside of Dublin that my kids might have a southside accent and sound like spoilt brats. One night I was coming home with Ali to our house in Temple Hill when I heard a party going on up the road so I said Ali let’s go over and find out what the neighbours are like. She said ‘you can’t just walk in on them and’ I said just for a laugh. She went to bed and I wandered up the road and I walked in to this party. Some cool music, some uncool music, some friendly, some gave me some attitude. One of them, let’s just say he was called Cormac and he had a Mohawk and a bit of attitude and decided to give me some grief. Because I’m a successful singer in a big old rock band and this is 1988. And eventually he says in that Dublin 4 accent, the southside accent, ‘I’m an anarchist.” I grabbed him and lost my temper for a second and grabbed him and said, ‘Cormac, you’re a fucking estate agent,’ because I knew that’s what he’d grow into.
The next day Ali asked me how the party was and I said there was exactly the percentage of arseholes to really cool people that I grew up with in Cedarwood Road, no different.”
The blinding summer sun streams in and we’re submerged in the hot breath of the humidifiers. Bono doesn’t touch his lunch.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview Quincy Jones said that when he goes to Ireland Bono always insists that he stays in his castle because it’s so racist there. Which castle is this?
“I love Quincy. I saw him recently and gave him all the love I have in my heart but I don’t have a castle.”
He does have a Victorian folly at the end of his garden which Quincy may have stayed in. Most guests do. When I stayed there, there was a wall signed by President Clinton and Hillary.
“Now that I think about it he did tell me that he had some racist incidents in Ireland in the 60s and I said it’s not like that now. Come and stay with us.”
Quincy also said that U2 were never going to make a good album again because it was too much pressure. “Yes, and Paul McCartney couldn’t play bass. We’re all having these meltdowns apparently. Most people accept that the album we’ve just made, Songs of Experience is right up there with our best work. It certainly had the best reviews.” The single Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way is currently No.1 in the Billboard Dance Chart “which we haven’t been for a very long time.”
Despite what he says it must be a pressure to come up with songs like One or With Or Without You or New Year’s Day or In The Name of Love. Songs that have defined decades.
“One of the reasons U2 are so regarded in the US is because black artists like Quincy Jones have always championed us. And back in the day, Donna Summer. Our music wasn’t rooted in the blues and they found it fresh but also not alien. It’s in some ways harder you might argue to relate to it if you are an indie kid than if you are black and American.”
There’s a section of the show where we see a film showing the neo Nazi riots in Charlottesville. The desecration and reconstruction of the American Dream. This he tells me will be restructured for the European shows. How does he think the Nazi stuff will work in Europe when they start their tour in Berlin?
“We will rethink it but there’s plenty of Nazi’s right now in Europe. I think we can reimagine it with the same spine.” In fact, they decide to start the European shows with Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator. “Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers.”
“In many ways it’s a narrative based show. This is our story.” The show is personal and political. in the US it aimed to coalesce the centre and bring both sides into a common ground, as outsiders to the US they would not presume to critique. But it held up a mirror and was timely to what was happening there and then. Europe it is a different matter. It’s their home and inspiration. It’s what made them and it’s where they, their families and friends live their lives. Of course they’ll make statements about the rise of the far right. That’s their tradition. Rock n roll with a conscience.
Of course this show seems to be about Bono’s actual life, ono’s actual street that he grew up in etc. but it’s a metaphor for all of their lives. Ts his voice that carries their story. He speaks for all four of them, woven into a singular voice. Bono is the conduit and the lightning rod but it’s about all of their experiences. They are U2. They are a band. It’s not the Bono show although he is a showman extraordinaire.
“One of the stories we tell about ourself is about our country. Countries don’t actually exist, they are drawn. Part of coming to eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE is realising that history can change and what we are witnessing in the US right now is that it’s rewriting itself with darker tones. We’re here in search for America at a time where America is in search of itself. It’s happened a few times over the life of U2 but we are looking for the same thing the country is.”
U2 and Bono specifically has always been close to the American dream and those who dreamed it. Bill and Hillary Clinton were not only invited to his “castle” where he signed the wall – I saw it there. A + B = a bed for C. But only the other week Bono went to visit Bush apparently?
“I did. I saw the 44th president last week. If you do work with people you don’t just cut off from people. I’m still close with Obama (he hasn’t stayed in his castle) “but he and his missus and his kids have been in our local pub.
I don’t like to think of my relationships with these people as retail. I like to think that having gone through some stuff together we stay together even when they’re out of office.
I saw George Bush on his ranch. He spent $18 billion on anti-retroviral drugs and I had to thank him for that.”
Last week he also met Vice President Pence because he at some point was involved in PEPFAR Was he helpful?
“Well…we haven’t had the vicious cuts that the administration proposed. I would have to say that Congress have played the largest role in this.”
And what about the orange one? “I’m wise enough to know that any sentence with his name in it will become a headline so I just don’t use his name. It’s nothing personal. It’s just you have to feel you can trust a person you’re going to get into that level of work with. Lots of my leftie friends doubted I could work with George Bush but he came through as did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – came through in a way that changed the world on development. If they had not made development a priority, other presidents would not have. They made the lives of the poorest a priority for rich nations. 45 million go to school because of debt cancellation.”
And the orange one? Is he with your plan? “No, he’s trying to cut all that stuff at the moment which is why I don’t want to be near him. If he’d put down the axe maybe we could work with his administration. But we can’t with the sword of Damocles hanging.”
We talk about Ivanka Trump and Bono says, “I have no doubt she has the intention to try and move the gender equality debate.”
As does Bono himself. At one part in the show there’s a screen saying ‘Poverty is Sexist’. The show takes place essentially in a round. A cage which sometimes encompasses the band is also used as a screen for the Anton Corbin film where in his potent trademark black and white film, we see children going to school, having their breakfast, wearing army helmets. A nation, a world at war where the children are in danger.
“We started Poverty Is Sexist a few years ago before the #metoo movement. We were getting messages actually from our daughters. You can’t solve the problems in the world using half the brain power that’s available. He worked closely with Harvey Weinstein on the Mandela movie Long Walk To Freedom (2013) where he won a Globe for the accompanying song Ordinary Love.
“He did very good work for U2. My daughters are very unforgiving in this regard whenever I get philosophical they tell me, ‘it’s not your time to speak on this.’”
I can’t tell if it’s sadness I see in his eyes or just tiredness but there’s still optimism, there’s still solutions.
“There are certain institutions that have kept the world in balance like The UN, The EU, The Breton Woods Institution, The World Bank, The IMF. All of these things whatever your position is on any of them you’ve got to admit that there’s a complete transformation of institutional norms as well as international behaviours. Whether you’re an artist, an economist or a voter you can’t not be interested. At least after Brexit, people are arguing, educating themselves.”
Isn’t it crushing to be such an optimist? “No, I’m cautious. For many people in the United States they are grieving after the last election. A death happened. A death of their innocence. And my attitude to that is it’s OK to wake up out of this naïve view of the world where we thought the human spirit would evolve naturally and the world was getting more fair. There is no evidence in 10,000 years to suggest that there’s a forward motion.
It was Dr King who said the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice. We don’t see evidence of that. I want to believe it’s true but in my lifetime there’s never been a moment like this where you actually think democracy is not a given.”
We talk of mothers separated from babies as they crossed the border and this action being backed up with biblical quotes. “The One campaign fights against the injustice of extreme poverty. People don’t arrive at the border risking life and limb without real purpose. We are Irish people who were economic refugees. We floated past the Statue of Liberty. The idea that we would be separated from our children when we got off the boat…..you could say the European Union was the invention of America. If you think about the post Second World War that was an investment in protecting and unifying Europe because the Americans were smart. General George C Marshall had the wisdom to invest because if we succeeded we would buy their products.”
The Innocence and Experience show is indeed about political grief as well as personal. One minute you’ve got Bono jumping around the room with the room service lids and the next he’s deeply sad.
He said that the poet Brendan Kennelly said he had to write every song as if he was already dead?
“Yes, to imagine yourself free of ego or concerns about what people think about you.”
Was this about his own near-death experiences? By this I don’t mean falling off his bike and having a 5 hour operation November 2014. After he broke his arm in 5 places and his eye socket. At the end of last year he was seriously ill.
“I mean I don’t want to speak about it but I did have a major moment in my recent life where I nearly ceased to be. I’m totally through it stronger than ever.”
He’s talking about this as if he had a decision in it. Did he have a choice whether he could go through it or not?
“No. I didn’t. It wasn’t a decision. It was pretty serious. I’m alright now but I very nearly wasn’t.”
No wonder this has changed the course of his songs, so many that question mortality, that others are letters to his children and wife, reflections, conversations with his younger self about how things could have been, should have been.
“Funnily enough I was already down the road of writing about mortality. It’s always been in the background.”
Sure it has. How could it not be? He was 14 when his mother died. Iris had a fatal aneurysm at a family funeral. He’s always liked to point out how many rock gods lost their mother like John Lennon. Initially he and Larry bonded over the death of their mothers. It was always in the background.
“And then it was in the foreground.”
Did he have a premonition that it was going to happen? “No but I’ve had a lot of warnings. A fair few punches over the last years.”
Like falling off the bike? “That was only one of them. There were some serious whispers in the ear that maybe I should have taken notice of. The Edge says I look at my body as an inconvenience and I do. I really love being alive and I’m quite good at being alive, meaning I like to get the best out of any day. The way I’m set up as an artist is I don’t see the songs as being art or the being in a band. I see life as being what you express yourself with. I certainly have a renewed vigour because it was an impasse. It was the first time I put my shoulder to the door and it didn’t open. I’ve always been able to do that and now I feel God whispered to me. Next time try knocking at the door or just try the handle. Don’t use your shoulder because you’ll break it.”
And this has had an impact on practical things like touring?
“Yes. I can’t do as much as I used to. On previous tours I could meet a hundred lawmakers in between shows and after the show and now I know that I can’t do that. This tour is particularly demanding and it asks of me that I prepare for it daily, that I concentrate on it so I can give myself completely. That’s why these shows are so great. I prepare for it and my voice is stronger than it has been. Have you heard about that Michael Gladwell book the 10,000 hours?”
It’s about you have to put 10,000 hours of work into something to be any good at it?
“I think we just got to 10,000 hours. It’s not genius. It’s just 10,000 hours. I’m not there yet but the band are. They are at their peak. Early on we were good, even great but I didn’t think we were and I didn’t tell them that and I was probably the weakest but I was the front man. I could grab attention. I could propel the songs. They’ve turned in their 10,000 hours and are on a whole other level right now. But nobody’s gonna tell me they saw U2 on another tour and they were playing better. It’s not gonna happen.”
Perhaps it’s because he has a feeling of completion. That it can’t get any better. If you start your show with an MRI and end it onstage alone with a solitary lightbulb, the metaphor is you come in and out of the world alone. He’s 58 but maybe he has lived his life in dog years.
“Everybody gets to this place. Whether you have a face-off with your own mortality or somebody close to you does, you are going to get to a point in your life where you ask questions about where you’re going.” Does that mean this is the peak? There won’t be another U2 tour after this?
“I don’t know. I don’t take anything for granted. U2 in this moment with these songs, these love letters, it’s some of our best work and I’m not sure that can be said about a lot of people who’ve been around this long.”
Bono has always lived in fear of U2 being dubbed a heritage act with greatest hits tours. Last year they did The Joshua Tree tour, not just the hits, they played the whole album.
“As if we’d never recorded the album. As if we’d put them out that year. It’s OK to acknowledge work you’ve done and give it respect, but if it’s the best we can do then we’re not an ongoing concern.”
He tells me that a critic once said ‘being at a Stones show makes people feel good but being at a U2 show makes people feel good about the person who’s standing next to them.’
I tell him the joy of being at a U2 show is that it just makes you feel who you are. The songs and visuals stretch your intellect as well as unfold your emotions.
He winds back to his personal apocalypse and I wonder if his younger self would be disappointed with his older self.
Would his younger self have approved of the album Songs of Innocence gifted to everyone on iTunes? Some people appreciated it more than others?
“We were experimenting. It was intended to be generous. The intention was never the over reach that it appeared to be. I’m not sure that my younger self would approve of where I’ve got to but I like to think that if my younger self stopped punching my face, my younger self would see that I’ve actually stayed true to all the things my younger self believed in. I’m still in a band that shares everything. I’m not just shining a light on troublesome situations, but trying to do something about them. I still have my faith, I’m still in love, I’m still in a band. What about your younger self?”
My younger self would say you fucked up on life, you fucked up on love, you loved all the wrong people at all the wrong times, you’ve been evil and destructive but hey, you’re in a Penthouse with Bono. My younger self would be yay, you made it!
Final word from Bono “You should be the singer of this band.”
I’m back in the Boston Garden Arena. In the winding bowels of the building the U2 production team weave seamlessly. They do this every day and most of them have been doing it for years with a level of loyalty that’s unquestioning. Most of the production staff are women, women who get things done. They pad about in dark jeans or cargo’s and Converse.
I first ventured backstage with U2 a couple of decades ago. There was a different uniform – a floaty maxi dress and platform shoes and women would run, not teeter in vertiginous heels across stadiums. Women no longer have to run in heels and it’s a statement U2 take on board.
I meet Adam Clayton in the guitar bunker beneath the stage. He gives me a tour of what goes on there. The Edge’s technician, Dallas Schoo, is lovingly poring over Edge’s 33 guitars, 25 which he uses every day. The bass guitars are less in number -about 18 but they make up for it in sparkle and Clayton has given them names.
There’s a lilac glitter guitar with a heavily studded strap that he calls Phil Lynott and a more gothic strap that he calls The Cure. They’re all lined up, ready for action. We climb up to the stage itself. I look out at the vast, empty arena and then clamber up into the long slim cage that wobbles. It’s where they perform a chunk of the show. The sides of the cage also double up as a screen for the films for the virtual reality footage and the political movies. I don’t like heights or enclosed spaces and Clayton, ever the gentleman, helps me down.
He’s wearing a Westwood T shirt and Sandalwood. His body is ripped, impressive. He likes to work out. He is 58. We part some makeshift curtains to do our interview which will happen at the same time as he’s having his physio. Soon he is naked but for a towel. The physiotherapist is on tour with the band and Clayton gets his massage before every show.
“I work out a lot – I run and do weight training in the morning so that tightens me up and then in the show carrying the bass and there are various other occupational quirks that affect the body. I have to make sure they don’t develop into real problems. It was a bit of a shock to learn that the things you could do in your twenties and thirties in terms of being a player, when you get into your forties and fifties, they cause repetitive strain injuries.”
Does he mean carpal tunnel? He’s playing his bass and his fingers won’t move?
“Exactly. But actually for me more of an issue is what it does to my hips and lower back, shoulders and neck. You just get so tight you can’t turn, you can’t move. When you go on stage you don’t want to be feeling those things.”
Hargen the physiotherapist is German and he speaks with a German Irish accent. He’s got strong hands that seem to know what they’re doing. Watching someone be massaged is quite meditative.
“It is. You make sure that your channels are open when you’re onstage. You don’t want random thoughts coming through your mind.”
Of course, there was a time in the nineties where Clayton was full of random thoughts and random excesses. The polite gentleman went wild. Fell in love with Naomi Campbell. His man part was the cover of ZOO TV, his inherent shyness replaced by rampant exhibitionism. He’s come a long way since then. He’s married to Mariana Teixeira de Carvalho, a Human Rights lawyer and has a new baby, Alba and his addictions end at exercise, designer T shirts and the perfect Sandalwood scent.
He’s more than come through it. He’s a spectacular player and he owns the stage. His bass guitar strut looks far from tight or injured. He’s pleased when I tell him his 10,000 hours show.
“Ah yes, from Gladwell.” He smiles. Random thought comes into my head. Why does it seem normal to interview a man who’s naked except for a towel, talking about sonic perfection?
“I use only about 6 or 7 guitars. Edge uses 30 different ones. He’s the one seeking perfection sonically. When we started from 1976 onwards, the sound of the punk band was the most aggressive and powerful thing that a teenager could hear and all the bass players were stars. It was much cooler than the guitar so from that point of view – I was. We are also a little more mysterious at the back. I’m a big fan of bass and drum. I realise it’s a bit niche. These days most modern records are programmed and synthesised bass and drums. It’s not real.”
Clayton likes the real thing. “Larry has special needs because for 40 years he’s been pounding something that has been resisting him. He has to get physio done an hour before the show and an hour after. He’s in pain and his muscles need to function properly. Drumming is the most physically debilitating thing you can do. These are things you do in your twenties and thirties. It’s the equivalent of a sports career where you shouldn’t really be doing it past the age of 35 but nobody knew that when rock n roll started and nobody realised it could be a long career. I guess the jazz players of the thirties and forties might have found that out and those people probably weren’t making enough to have doctors to help them. They probably medicated with heroin.”
Does he ever medicate? “If my neck is tight and painful I’ll take an Aleve (like paracetamol).”
Onstage it looks pure and loose but now I’ve learnt it takes a lot of massaging. Three consecutive tours have had an accumulative effect. It won’t continue like that.
“I don’t think so. It’s been good for the band’s playing and the band’s tightness and when you see how much Edge does – singing, keyboards, guitar, Edge is at the top of his game. Bono has learnt to master, to dominate these stages, but we’re due a break. The Joshua Tree tour was a runaway train. We extended it because it was popular and it suited our schedule because our album release date was moved. A lot of people work harder than we do but I think we need a break now. Being in front of audiences that are enthusiastic is an amazing pay off but being away from home for most of the year is gruelling.”
I was only on the road for a few days and I feel a strange kind of exhaustion from travel and from never being never alone. It’s a weird thing. Clayton is looking forward to a holiday “with the rest of the lads with the South of France.” They all have houses near to each other on the French Riviera. Extraordinary that they not only work together but want to holiday together.
“Yes, it’s perverse.” Is that some kind of masochistic syndrome? “No, what really works is we’ve known each other for a long time. Everyone now has children and there’s a whole group of friends that revolve around it so it’s a community and it’s nice to spend time together.”
They all still like each other? “Yes, I’m very grateful for it. I still think that Bono and Larry and Edge are the most fascinating people in my life. They constantly surprise me in terms of their insight, their development, their intelligence. When you find people like that you hang onto them.
We haven’t done anything to embarrass our younger selves. We were young guys coming out of the suburbs of Dublin that didn’t know anything but had a certain idealism of how we thought the world should be and we’ve honoured that. Our tours have always been based on more than crash, bang, wallop and video effects. They’ve meant something.
You learn things as you’re going. Trying to eat as healthily as you can and being in a healthy frame of mind helps you. We have an on the road chef who knows what we should be eating. I’ve gone vegetarian. I’ve heard so much about the meat processing business that I don’t trust anything. I’ve got high levels of mercury in my blood so I don’t eat fish. I’ve not drank for twenty years and that was a completely different life but I notice other people are heading that way. There’s now a theory in the UK that even one drink is harmful to you. I think that’s a bit extreme and a bit of a buzz wrecker but it does seem that alcohol is being thought of as possibly causing cancer.”
Not very rock n roll, is it. But maybe that’s old rock n roll where it was all about living for the moment, doing lines and drinking shots…all night. And now the challenge is longevity and not losing relevance.
After the show in the hotel bar in a cordoned off area, there will still be champagne and The Edge will be the only band member socialising because Edge never does extreme.
Clayton continues, “The longer you are off it the easier it is but I can never have just one. I see people who drink half a glass of wine and I get anxious thinking how can you leave that other half? But there are those people who can have just one glass and leave it and people who the minute they have one they’re off and their mood changes. It’s a powerful drug and a powerful industry. I wonder if the legalisation of marijuana is going to be competitive.”
They have worked the last four summers, either touring or recording. Clayton looks forward to family time and enjoying his daughter’s first birthday. It’s hard to tell if I’m sensing that this could be the end or whether he’s just looking forward to the break.
“Albe really does love banging musical instruments. And she has an eye for looking at the light and noticing. I’m happy to say that there are strong signs that there is an artistic soul in there.”
I’m wondering if his massage therapist has remote superpowers. It has relaxed me too. Clayton’s is the most sophisticated sandalwood. It doesn’t punch you. it gives you a comforting embrace. Edge 56 Bono 58
Larry Mullen was in fact the founder of the band. Mulen is still the heartbeat. Nothing happens without him. He provides dignity, strength. He also has a Dorian Gray thing about him. He’s always looked much younger than his 56 years. He’s always fit and I’ve always loved those drummer’s arms. As we chat in the Boston Garden Arena before the show, he tells me that these days those arms don’t come easy and neither does the drumming. He has to work out, he has to have intense physio.
“It’s not so rock n roll but it’s what you have to do to get yourself up to this. I don’t come from that kind of discipline – the same as the jazz drummers. Technically it’s complicated and physically it’s a different thing.”
He means he’s not the kind of jazz drummer who sits mellow and still and only the arms move. “I’m a street drummer. When you throw yourself about and after doing it for a long time you just can’t quite do it in the same way.”
For Mullen, constant touring has been hard and not just on the arms. In the nineties after a huge tour he simply took off on his motorbike and disappeared with some kind of reaction against the band and also an inability to cope with being home, but that’s long since been worked through. He’s had ambitions to further his acting career. I’m sure his deep, thoughtful presence is an interesting cinematic one. He has had parts in the films Man on the Train in 2011 with Donald Sutherland and A Thousand Times Goodnight with Juliette Binoche in 2013.
“We’ll finish this out and then there will be time to decide what we want to do next. I’d like to take a really long holiday.”
There’s something in the way he says it, not just tiredness, that make me think maybe this really is it.
“I don’t know. You never know. I assume there’ll be another album. I don’t know when and I’d like to think we have some time to consider it. I don’t know that anybody needs a U2 record or a U2 tour anytime soon. People could do with taking a break from us and vice versa.”
Will he try to resume acting? “I’d like to but I had to put all that stuff on hold. The problem is if the tour gets changed the album gets released at a different time, all bets are off. My agent said ‘I can’t do this because you’re just not available so I think I will re-employ the agent and tell them I won’t be doing this for a couple of years. I’d like to do something else.”
Shouldn’t the agent have kept him on the books? “Well, in fairness it was difficult. I wasn’t answering the phone.”
And that’s Mullen for you. He’s not an answering the phone type.
While Mullen goes for his physio I am in catering perusing selections of cheesecake and pasta and soup. I meet Willie Williams the shows creative director over bowls of spaghetti.
This is his twelfth world tour with U2. “What’s been fantastic about working with U2 for so long apart from the fact that they are who they are, is that they’ve always done big, ambitious projects. Then they take a hiatus so I’ve been able to have my own life back and I don’t feel it’s been taken over.”
Williams recently has installed lighting for the Hakkasan group in Vegas. He has designed a centrepiece – a spaceship chandelier at Caesar’s Palace.
Williams also constructed the Innocence tour which was similar in its staging but it’s interesting to see in three years how much technology has moved on.
“For them it’s about finding the connection between spectacle and emotion. We tweak the show as it goes along. The joy of this show is we start with a narrative. We spoke for a long time about the band growing up in Dublin and honing their story so we could tell the experience part of the journey.”
At the time we speak, he is redesigning the show for Europe – the general theme will be Europe at a time of crisis. The European flag will replace the US flag. That should be nicely controversial in Brexit Britain.
There is a cityscape for every night which is redone for every city of the tour. When I see the show this time, Bono has selected different seats for me because he wants me to see other aspects of the show. His attention to detail is like that. For me, it was interesting to watch the stage after having been under it and on it.
After the show we’re back in the hotel bar. It’s Edge and Morleigh’s wedding anniversary. We all eat handmade chocolate cake. It’s a group of people who know each other really well and can move instinctively and swiftly with each other.
The next day we all travel from Boston to New York on Amtrak. U2 have reserved an entire carriage for cast and crew. Once we arrive, the set must be built immediately at Madison Square Garden for their 4-day residency. Edge is the only band member on the train – the others all left after the gig last night to see their families. Edge’s wife and daughter are here with him. Did he give Morleigh a gift for their wedding anniversary?
“You get special dispensation when you are on the road – she is with me and that is the best present.”
He’s very smiley when he talks about family and equally smiley when he talks about guitars. Does he really use 33 each night?
We talk about how in the early days he only used one guitar which meant that Bono had to hit some very high notes.
“These days we try not to do that to him, we try to save his voice. He does hit some very high notes. He has a good range. A ‘B’ would be his top note these days but he has hit ‘C’ which is what a top tenor would hit, which is very, very high – an opera singer would hit that maybe once a night.”
I sense a strong concern for Bono.
“Bono has a very ambivalent attitude to his physical self. He doesn’t naturally take responsibility for his physical well-being, he is more about other things and the body just comes along with it. Which is fine in your 20s but you get to a certain point… somebody once said for the first 30 years your body looks after you and supports you then you have to look after your body. It is a difficult shift for him.
“It is a difficult shift for anybody who is living in the moment, considers himself an artist. It’s about being current, being present. If you spend too much time thinking you are old and past it you probably can’t do it anymore.”
This is the dilemma they all face. Take care of themselves but not so much care that they are over thinking it.
On the road places them in a kind of cocoon. They’re with your rock n roll family doing the things that they always do. It’s not so much holding back the years but not acknowledging their existence. If they think about being old, it becomes difficult to feel relevant.
We see passengers on the platforms peering in. Perhaps they can spot the odd vacant seat in our carriage. They wonder why they can’t get in. You feel set apart, not so much alienated but special.
“As you can see, it’s a family experience on the road, we are surrounded by the people we love so it’s not as alienating as you think although I am not under any illusions that we are not to some extent institutionalised by being a member of U2. How could you not be?”
The train rocks along.
“I must say I am really looking forward to not being on the road.” (They have a break before their European tour starts August 31 in Berlin). “I am sure there will be a withdrawal of a certain type but I think the minute you feel being on the road is normal is when you know you have got to get home fast.”
“The physio keeps us from not getting in trouble in the physical sense. What we do as a guitar player or drummer is use the body in a very unnatural way. It’s like a tennis player; there is a lot of asymmetrical movement. Your body will change shape to make that the norm which plays havoc… I get to the gym when I can, I am not a big believer in heavy weights and the like, I care more about flexibility. I used to do yoga.”
Edge isn’t fanatical about the gym, he’s not fanatical about anything. He is measured, he has always been the balance of other band members excesses.
Does he have Morleigh on the road with him the whole time?
“No, I wish. She was director in residence for a while when Willie was away. She was our eyes and ears in the audience and helped tinker with the show. It’s a constant process trying different things and she has helped Bono over the years with his use of the stage. Her background is modern dance so it’s all about the visual medium; the shape of the show.”
Their daughter Sian is very smart and engaging. It’s her image that is used for the Poverty is Sexist visual and she’s also on the cover of the album along with Eli Hewson. Last night in the bar, she and I bonded over dyslexia.
“I am sort of dyslexic when it comes to music,” says Edge. “I am totally instinctive. I use my ear and am not technically proficient. I am very lazy so I know just enough music theory to get by.”
The other night on stage he looked perplexed when Bono said that he and Adam had gone off the rails and it happened to Edge later.
When did that happen? He laughs, knowing that he has never gone off the rails. The eyebrows arch as he briefly ponders just how devastating that would have been, not just for him but for the rest of the band.
“I have been pretty together through the years – I am sure we have all had our moments and lost our perspective and started to buy into the bullshit. That’s the hardest thing, to hold on to the perspective. The general rule is that everybody involved in any endeavour always overestimates their own importance while simultaneously undervaluing everyone else; once you realise that you can start catching yourself.”
I even caught myself feeling put out because the second night at the hotel the U2 crew did not have the whole bar to themselves as we’d had the first night. We were given a cordoned off area within the bar. And that is me after two days. How could I become so arrogant after such a short time?
“Good question. I think we all have that tendency to enjoy being made a fuss of. It’s a Seamus Heaney phrase, ‘Creeping Privilege’ you have got to look out for it because it can turn you into a monster or somebody who needs help, a victim. And you don’t want to be that.” He laughs his wise laugh.
“That is the good thing about being a band member, we all spot each-others tendencies to go off track. We are peers and equals. Which is not a given because solo artists have no peers or equals.
“We are not afraid of bad news. In the beginning we had to work hard to get anywhere, it was always a struggle. That’s just how it feels, we enjoy the fight and the internal struggle to get where we feel we need to go and a sense that we have got to fight for our position to maintain where we are at creatively and literally.”
Edge has optimism. Edge sees the past, sees the future and would never let U2 become a heritage act.
“Yes, and we should not feel entitled. Because the other part of this creeping privilege is that you get to the place that you think you are entitled just because you are a name and you’ve been around a long time.”
They keep each other in check. Do they actually criticise each other?
“It generally doesn’t have to be said, it just becomes clear. That’s the nature of our band culture. These things get figured out. There have been very few times when we have had to have what you might call an intervention. It’s basically what friends do for each other because that what we are; a bunch of friends. And even when we are not touring we will all be in the south of France with each other. Recently I have been mostly between Dublin and Venice, California. I am trying to build a house in Malibu but not having much luck. Hopefully in the future I will be there. Meanwhile, we are renting a place in Venice, low key, not a big house on a street. It’s grounding.”
“Touring to me is not the same as travel because you are in a bubble. I still try to get out even if it’s just going for a walk in a park, a bit of shopping, maybe a bar, there is something really educational about travelling. Our kids have to travel to see their dads and I’ve watched how their attitude to the world opens and their acceptance of difference is just a natural by-product of seeing the world. It’s healthy. Being insular in your own little group is not.”
“We have made two of the most personal and introspective albums of our entire career but the show is very political so I am hoping to open it up in more Euro Centric ways. But the music, that’s personal.”
The political only becomes meaningful when it relates to the personal. There is of course a bond between the Americans and the Irish. A statistic claims there are 40 million people of Irish heritage in the US. The desecration and reconstruction of the American dream is also an Irish dream. The European tour will be different because the European dream doesn’t exist in the same way.
“We are hoping for a global dream which is hopelessly idealistic. Let’s start with getting the West on the right footing. If you are ready to look into it on a deeper level an anthropological level you will find that during times of crisis people instinctively reach for the monster they think is going to protect. That can be a movement or an individual. In the US it seems to be a bit of both. For sure the orange one with the help of some very smart advisors has tapped into a movement of disaffection which has clearly been brewing for 20 years.
“I was just in Washington on Capitol Hill, all these neoclassical edifices – the statement is of power. Not the power of an emperor or a king but the power of the state. If you are a miner and you are in Washington worrying that you’ve lost your job or health care it would be so intimidating. Someone like Trump talks to the guy at the end of the bar somehow you relate to him. This is a guy who is pretending to represent ever man and he is the most elitist. So many levels of irony. If you look at the longer arc of history what we are seeing now is a backward step.
“The actual drift is in this direction and a positive thing but it relies on respect in the sense of pluralism which is my culture, your culture; my religion, your religion. People have very strong religious ides which we find crazy, dinosaur deniers. Some people who have whacky thoughts; extreme Christians, extreme Muslims to be able to understand where they are coming from and not demonize or look down on them and not say, ‘Your reality is not as valid as my reality’. The problem is that the divisions are big. Europe, weirdly enough on some levels, has less diversity than America. Europe is post Christian for the most part, in America they share a common language but a huge diversity of world vision. In Europe we have cultural difference, linguistic differences, political differences. If we keep our never EuropeEloper can survive and we can all pull together. Brexit is, of course, a bit of a set-back, but we’ll figure it out.
“Picture us at 16 or 17, we were a really awful, terrible band. We managed to persuade the powers that be to let us play a short set in the school disco. I remember everybody gathering into a little room in a panic because we realised, of the songs we were about to perform we had never managed to get to the end of any of them. So now we can get through the songs and we have sold a few records, we have had a long observance in the same direction and that has gotten us where we are. In other words, total blind thinking.”
They started off with the very smart thinking Paul McGuiness as their manager, who remained from the start until 5 years ago.
“To be fair, we found him. He had done a little bit of management of a Dublin band but his day job was in the world of advertising, commercials, assistant director, he had worked on a couple of movies.”
It was his concept that the band should split everything equally four ways. This levelling seems to have been genius thinking. So many bands split up because of egomania and in band rivalry.
“It was a piece of genuine wisdom – he had heard why so many bands disintegrated. It took us about three minutes to consider and go, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea.’”
We talk about science because he’s intrigued where intuition and science meet, the logical brain and the poet brain. They meet in The Edge’s brain.
When the train pulls into Penn station we head off in opposite directions. I’m already sad to leave behind my rock and roll cocoon. Feels like family. I already miss the fact I won’t have a show to watch that night. People to meet after the show…. talk about guitars and lost dreams and reconstructed ones……what if it really is the end?
“I never call anything my enemy because it’s a negative emotion. I’m just not eating them.” she laughs. She’s rigorous about releasing any toxic energy. Especially that surrounding certain words. She’s not a cancer “survivor”, she’s a cancer “thriver”. Only in the tabloids do people “battle” cancer. She explains to me once you set it up as a war, as a fight, it’s already negative.
In May 2017 she was given the news that the pains in her back that caused her to postpone her US and Canadian tour dates were not in fact the sciatica she suspected. Her breast cancer had metastasized in her spine. She seems very carefree as she piles blueberries and blackberries on her plate. “They’re very low in sugar and I can have butter if it’s grass fed. I believe my body wants and needs a certain amount of fat.”
Because you’re fine-tuned in listening to your body and psychic? “Well, it’s a mixture of reading up on these things. People say to me ‘how can you go without sugar?’ I say, when it’s about your health you just make that decision.” Because it’s life or sugar? “Yes, exactly. An easy choice. I also have an amazing husband who is incredibly knowledgeable about health and plant medicine so I’m very lucky.”
As if on cue, her husband John Easterling (sometimes referred to as Amazon John because he once had a company that sold herbs from the Amazon for health benefits) sits down to the table. He’s tall, rangy, handsome, funny. He reaches to hold her hand as he forks up his pancakes with the other. They’ve been married 10 years. They love each other. You can smell it, touch it, feel it. Every morning he makes her a smoothie augmented with his specialist botanicals. “Every day I make Olivia a smoothie. Apple juice, reishi (a form of mushroom), cannabis leaves which I’ve trimmed from my personal garden, some rainforest herbs. The smoothie supports the immune system, detoxes and balances hormones and supports liver and kidney health. We start the day like that.”
When she discovered the breast cancer had returned, she was in so much pain she couldn’t walk. Surely this was a dark time? John says, “We got lots of messages from people saying I can only imagine what you are going through. We thought it’s stage 4 breast cancer. Nothing to freak out about. We know what to do. We’ll just take care of it so we went to this wonderful clinic in Georgia that has special ways of monitoring the system and that does a variety of IV’s with herbs and minerals that get extraordinary results. The pain level went from a 10 to a 1 in days and her energy levels are back and the counts are good. The more standard trained practitioners are going to have standard protocols but this is a time in history where there’s an explosion of information and discoveries to educate yourself. We have to rise up.”
Did she mix alternative therapies and conventional therapies? “Very limited conventional. I don’t take any pills. Last year I did a course of photon radiation which is very targeted radiation to the problem area. Apart from that, plant medicine and herbs.”
In California cannabis and cannabis oil CBD is totally legal and my cat has been prescribed it. She is 20 and doing very well but it’s not legal in Australia. Even the oil is difficult to get. “It’s crazy isn’t it? That has to change. In Australia they are not up to speed with America yet so it’s harder to get there. Hopefully becoming less so. It’s helped me a lot and should be available for patients, particularly those going into palliative care. We went to Australia to talk to the politicians about making it easier for people to get it and its benefits. I feel it’s my duty to talk about it as a cancer thriver myself.”
It’s hard to get Olivia to talk about pain, even to remember it. She takes a breath and recalls, “I was working in Vegas. I thought I had sciatica. Well, I did have sciatica. I don’t know which came first. I was in chronic pain and one day my girlfriend had a birthday and her favourite thing is tennis so we all went and played tennis and at the end of that day I couldn’t walk and the problem went on and on and on.”
Did the sciatica mask the cancer? “I don’t know if the cancer escalated it or it was always there. I’ll never know. It didn’t occur to me that it could be the return of cancer until a year went by and I was still in excruciating pain. I had an MRI and we found it was in there.”
It’s unusual for breast cancer to occur so many years after its original appearance and at the time of its discovery Olivia had referred to some dark moments but now she’s wiped them away. “The clinic in Georgia suggested the radiation as a safety measure because in the bone it’s hard to get to and since then I’ve only done natural healing.”
I tell her that I had a friend whose breast cancer metastasized to the spine and she did chemo which of course made her feel terrible but she was never offered an alternative. Olivia nods with empathy. “I understand. When I went through this 25 years ago, even though I was terrified of chemo and I didn’t want to do it, I did it. I chose to. I can’t blame anyone else for choosing but people would say why don’t you do it as a safety measure and I’m glad I did it because now I’ve had the experience so when patients at my centre are going through it I have compassion. I understand that it’s really difficult and it leaves you with a chemo brain for years. You’re really kind of hazy. I’m still hazy or at least that’s my excuse!” She laughs, a really sparkly laugh and then she says, “I wouldn’t do it again. It’s a very old fashioned way. We’ve just been watching The Truth About Pet Cancer and even though it’s about pets, it’s still about barbaric ways of treating them with chemo. There are other ways. I have my own herbal guru here so I would and whenever my dog (a black German Shepherd) gets anything, she gets natural therapy from my husband.”
John tells me that he’s actually working on a formula for pets that will build up their immune system and help them be less prone to cancer.
“My whole background is in plant medicine. Cannabis is in the plant kingdom. We’ve had access to it for thousands of years and it’s only recently been interrupted. Our relationship with that plant is very important and now we discover that there’s a system in our bodies that’s very receptive to this plant so people should have access to it. I don’t think it should ever be called a drug. It’s clearly plant medicine. “When we are in Australia we’ll visit politicians, share information, educate and influence where we can.”
John and Olivia use the ‘we’ word a lot as if they think as one. They had known each other for about 20 years before they had the coup de foudre moment. I ask John, didn’t he have any thwarted longings when he knew her as a friend? Any persistent pangs that they were meant to be?
“No,” he grins. “We met at an environmental show where I was displaying my botanicals because they are sustainably harvested.” Olivia and a couple of mutual friends came to the show. John continues, “They sampled some herbage and then they came back the next day because they were pretty excited about all the things they did that night because they got a herb jump before. They got herbed up, yes. I had a herb company for 27 years and still formulate products for doctors’ groups. For years we supported the same charities but that was it. We didn’t get together.”
There wasn’t an immediate special connection? Olivia answers, “No, not for either of us.” John says, “I was busy and I thought that if you’re involved in Hollywood you must be a nutcase and I was doing real stuff for real people. We’d see each other every year at charity functions and the more I got to know her I thought oh, she’s a really nice person. She really does care about people and animals, the rainforest. So we became friends and that’s as far as it went.
Then I was doing a talk in California. She came to it and I stayed in her guest house. The next morning I was driving to the airport and drove off a cliff.” Olivia says, “You see, he didn’t want to leave… He went to the hospital and he wouldn’t take any of their painkillers.”
John was X Rayed and it was discovered he had a fracture in his lower spine. “I could barely move so I stayed on her couch till I could travel again but she had a dog, a setter. Dogs are very intuitive and that dog stayed with me all night, bonding with me. Olivia said. “And then he went on the plane the next day.”
But the dog Scarlet was going to have puppies. John says, “I had just lost my dog so she said she was sending me a puppy. She definitely picked the craziest dog and sent him up. I had never heard any of Olivia’s music. Her first stuff was just not my genre of music and I never saw Grease.”
What? You were the only person in the entire universe that never saw Grease? Olivia confirms, “He was.” John says, “It’s true. I haven’t found anyone else that hasn’t seen it and I’m still looking.
I was living in Florida and her assistant called and said Olivia’s doing a concert if you’d like to come. You can bring your girlfriend. I said I’ll bring the dog so I took the dog and when the lights went down I heard this Peruvian music. Then she walked out and started singing Pearls on a Chain which is a very healing song and that’s when I recognised who she was. She’s a healer and this is her medium of healing. All I could think of was I want to introduce her to other healers who work in the Amazon so after the show I asked her if she wanted to come to Peru and she said yes and I thought oh no I’m taking her to Peru. I’d better watch Grease.”
I wonder about this healing notion. There is a reason why people go to her shows, love her and feel uplifted and touched by something and I’m not sure it’s just when she does Peruvian flute music. There is something extraordinary about her. There’s enormous bravery for a start. We can’t all identify with that but we all want to glimpse it. Plus she’s very switched on to other people’s needs. She shrugs that off and continues with the story. “It never occurred to me I was a healer.” Of course it didn’t. “It was my friend Nancy’s 60th birthday so they came with us, the four of us to Peru. I was really going because it was Nancy’s birthday.” John says, “She heals people all the time.” He smiles at her adoringly.
“I do my show and I’ve done an album recently about grief with Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman. It’s called Liv On. After my sister passed away and after I went through breast cancer I wrote an album. It was the first album I’d written on my own called Gaia. About the spirit of the planet. This is before John and I were together. One of the songs is Don’t Cut Me Down about the rainforest. We were on a parallel path. Then I did an album Grace and Gratitude after I went through another life crisis. Music is always my healing.”
Grace and Gratitude was released in 2006 and I wondered if it was about her partner of 9 years Patrick McDermott who went missing and was presumed dead after a fishing accident in 2005.
“When I’m going through something my way to express it is through music so Grace and Gratitude was another album about coming through something difficult and seeing the beauty in life, being grateful for it and then live on. I have done three albums like that, not pop albums but they are kind of healing.”
Her Spa in Byron Bay is called Gaia, voted consistently best Spa in the world. “It’s a very special place, a healing place and then there’s my hospital (the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne) which is my passion. I have been introducing wellness programmes in a cancer hospital environment. Introducing the patients who go there to the kind of therapies that I was able to have access to but most people can’t afford.”
The people in the hospital have these therapies largely as an extra to chemo. “My dream is that one day the hospital will take off the word cancer and it will be a wellness and research centre because there won’t be cancer anymore. They will have found the answer.”
She doesn’t like the word cancer and she particularly doesn’t like the words ‘MY cancer’. “It’s THE cancer. You don’t own it and I don’t like when they talk about fighting cancer because that sets up a war in your body which can cause inflammation which is the very thing you’re trying to settle down. I use the words “say goodbye to”. I think we manifest these words.” and John continues “and that’s where people get stuck.” Olivia says, “I use the words ‘winning over’ and ‘living with’ because there comes a point where you can’t get rid of every cancer cell in your body. Everybody is dealing with them all the time. Some people don’t even know they’ve got it. It’s a normal part of the cycle. Cells are programmed to die. Cancer cells too.”
Taken out of context it may seem a little woo woo to be so particular about these words but it makes sense that if you have cancer you have to stay calm. You have to stay positive. I do believe what you think becomes true and all these words just help in making us fearful. John says, “Fear is the problem. It’s in a state of fear where you make irrational decisions.”
I still can’t imagine that she wasn’t a little afraid when it came back. “It’s unusual, yes. You do think ha, it’s over. It didn’t occur to me that it would have been that. I felt pretty good. I was working and enjoying my work and now I’m just staying healthy and staying strong, taking a lot of supplements. I did some shows last week. I’m taking a little break from more shows and I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing for the Grease 40 year anniversary.”
One thing that she is going to be doing is auctioning the original Sandy leather trousers. She has kept them all these years. They are of course tiny but I bet she can still fit into them. Everybody had a character in Grease that they identified with.
“They still do. It’s unbelievable. When I do the show there’s every age group. Grandparents my age (hollow laugh), their children and their children’s children. They all have something to connect with.”
For the 25th anniversary of Grease, John Travolta piloted a Quantas plane and Olivia was the flight attendant in full uniform. She laughs with just a hint of nostalgia, but quickly moves on to talk about her wellness walk in September.
“We’re going back to Australia in May to talk to the government about cannabis but the walk is in Melbourne in September. People come from all over the world, some of my die-hard fans. They form little groups and compete with each other to see how much money they can raise. And for people who can’t come to Australia, there’s a virtual walk. It raises money also for the families because to be a caretaker is difficult and very wearing for people.”
Hmm. And that is said by a super caretaker. Meeting her for just a couple of hours, you can see she’s nurturing to the core. What about her dark moments? Who nurtures her? Pause.
“It’s interesting you say that. I’ve about four friends who are going through cancer now. I stay connected with them. I don’t think about mine. It’s not on my mind constantly. I do all the things that I should be doing on a regular basis but I like to support other people because I’ve been there before and I am still here. I think that gives other people hope. If I can encourage them by saying come on I’ve done it before, we can do this together now, it makes ME feel good.”
We talk about some of my friends with cancer, some going through it now, one who didn’t make it and one who said she would rather kill herself rather than have another round of chemo. She shakes her head. “Poor thing. So horrible. I think everybody goes through that moment.” But really she’s nurturing other people. Who’s nurturing her?
“Gosh. I had a good support team for sure. The first time is so long ago now. I had my first husband, my sister, my friends…”
Should people be encouraged to look beyond chemo? “I think yes. I think you should do the research and see what feels right for you. I would never tell anybody you should. Should is not a word that I use but I would encourage them. What else am I doing? I’m involved in many things like trees. I started One Tree Per Child with my friend John Dee. Tree Day in Australia and everyone plants a tree and in the end we’d planted 10 million trees in Australia and 50,000 trees in England so kids grow up from an urban society that they are environmentally conscious.”
She’s also written two cookbooks –Live Wise, Grace & Gratitude and has supervised the Gaia cookbooks. They are all on her kitchen shelf and in regular use. She’s also working on an autobiography coming out in September. Was that fun or miserable? “It was cathartic. I worked with someone who helped me because it would have taken me at least ten years if I’d had to do it by myself. It’s stories from my life, positive ones.
They’ve also done a movie of my life in Australia with Delta Goodrun playing me,” she grimaces. “I probably won’t watch it. When they told me they were doing it I was horrified, because despite the fact I’m well known, I’m kind of private and my private life, even though it gets into the papers, is not something that I want to talk about. I worry about the people in my life. It’s not their fault they were married to me or were my boyfriend so I didn’t want it to happen but then I realised it was going to happen whether I wanted it to or not. So I decided to make something positive out of the negative so I asked that any money that would come to me would go to my hospital so that way I can do it and feel I care about it. I love Delta. I think she’s a really good actress and a great singer so that made it OK because we’re friends.
But in the beginning she called me. “Shall I do it or not?” I said first, I’m not sure and then I said, oh you do it. I haven’t read it and I don’t know how accurate it is because it’s a movie and people weren’t there at every moment of my life but the money will go to the hospital so some good has come of it.”
An expression of pain suddenly fills the large all feeling eyes. She’s remembered it’s time to give one of her chickens Goldie her antibiotics. She’s recovering from a toe amputation in a separate coop with her sister. I thought giving a cat pill was an epic but giving a chicken a pill… “It’s easy,” she says as she scoops the golden feathered creature up in her arms and buries a pill into Goldie’s favourite sourdough bread. The other chickens – 18 hens and 2 roosters, live in a mansion of a chicken coop and they are all various different breeds, colours, speckly bits and feathered feet. We feed them cheese, salad, blueberries and just a little of their favourite bread. Olivia’s chickens eat better than most people. She’s also rescued 2 miniature horses which are so small only the chickens can ride them. How did this great rescuer of wild things come to be?
She was born in Cambridge where she lived till she was five before moving to Melbourne. Her parents were academics. Her father a professor and her mother the daughter of Nobel prize- winning scientist Max Born.
“They were not so much into showbusiness but what I got from them was work ethic. They both worked really hard. My mum wanted me to finish school or go to RADA in London. I did none of those things. I got a job on TV in Melbourne when I was 15. I was lucky. I got to learn the ropes young, rather than going to school and then learning them. I was interested in singing and I’ve had a really blessed life. I’ve been lucky with my managers, my producers…”
In fact, her current assistant has been with her since Grease and she still works with John Farra who wrote all the songs from Xanadu and many other hits.
“I’ve worked with Steve Kipner and Peter Allen many times. I’ve always worked and I’ve always worked hard. Even in the beginning with Pat Carroll when we were Pat and Olivia we worked all the crummy clubs, staying in local digs. We had fun. I never thought this is horrible, this could better. This was my reality and we had a great time.
Even though we came from an academic background, my sister too became an actress. She passed away 5 years ago from a brain tumour very quickly. In the beginning she was what we laughingly called a chaperone. She was funny and cheeky and gorgeous.”
Is she saying she led her into more trouble? “Yes, exactly but she kept me out of too much trouble and we definitely had fun. I think I was more HER chaperone if the truth be known. She always encouraged me because I think I was doing what she wanted to do. She got married very young and had a family and didn’t pursue it.
In the beginning my family really wanted me to go university. I didn’t have the brain of the focus. I could do it now but then… I had the determination. I didn’t settle down till my thirties. I was afraid of marriage because my father had had three marriages and my sister had three so I was nervous and finally I have the perfect husband. I am so happy.”
She reminds me she was 59 before she found the love of her life. Not that she didn’t always have a good relationship with her first husband Matt Lattanzi. “We’re good friends and Chloe is living up in Portland near him. He has a wonderful wife that we both love and we’re all friends.”
I marvel. Most break ups are toxic and carry at least some bitterness. She sighs. “Life is about love and forgiveness and moving on. He’s still the father of my daughter. We actually made a pact very early on, even before we got married that if we ever had a child we would never allow anything to come between the relationship with the child and we’d never make her part of a pawn thing that people do. We’ve watched our friends go through divorce.”
Was she always so grown up? “With those things you have to be because it’s about another life.”
What does she look for in a friend? “Everyone’s different. I have a wide and diverse range of friends. A lot of them go back to when I was really young. People I can trust and have fun with. When I go back to Australia I stay in touch with them and my family. My sister’s children and my brother. He likes to be out of the limelight.”
I didn’t even know she had a brother. “Actually I have two. A brother and sister from my father’s second marriage. They live in Sydney. He is a doctor, a pain therapist. My sister works in administration. My father was a professor of language. He worked at Bletchley Park, cracking the codes in the second world war. He spoke perfect German and had an incredible ear. He was a good singer so maybe I got it from my dad. He won scholarships to Cambridge and spoke German with a perfect accent. When he joined the air force they made him the interrogator of German prisoners of war (including Rudolph Hess).”
Her life here couldn’t be further from academia. It’s all about living and working with the land. John tells me “We love to be with nature with the chickens, the horses, the dog, the cat. I was a tropical guy for a long time in Florida so we like to go to Florida and get in that ocean. We like to be here and hike and just have a good time together. We laugh a lot.”
Olivia muses contentedly, “I get up, feed the chickens, collect the eggs and make sure they’re OK. I used to have a full grown horse but since my reoccurrence last year I haven’t been game enough to ride. I don’t know if I should. I have to make sure everything has grown back in before I do that. It could be good for me but I’m not convinced. My instinct will tell me. My instincts are pretty good.”
Yeah, she made me pancakes when she was going to make me Portobello mushrooms and scrambled eggs.
She thinks her ranch is very healing.
We go to take a walk in her healing paddocks. It’s hard to imagine that this year she turns 70. She doesn’t look 70, not that I’m sure what 70 looks like. With the trademark blonde hair in a tousled, long bob, she strides across the paddock still with determination. Despite being so warm and open in her spirit, there is part of her that is guarded, that doesn’t easily trust, but I don’t see that part today. I must have told about 3 people that I was doing this interview but word spread and during the time I’m there messages from all over the world are coming in for her. Some of my friends actually know her and are sending her love and she sends love back very graciously. She is totally unassuming and if she is self-protecting she does so in a really classy way. When I hug her goodbye, it’s a real proper hug. Dare I say it, a healing hug.
Outside Television City in Los Angeles – the CBS building – here’s a giant billboard of James Corden smilingly promoting the Late Late Show, which has been one of the most runaway successes a television host has ever had. He inherited the show when it was bottom of the rung for guests and viewers alike. Now The Late Late Show’s You Tube channel has over 2.6 billion viewers and after his first year the show was nominated for 4 Emmy Awards in 2016. Once inside he reminds me that he’d been working at CBS for nine months and the show had been on air for several weeks and he still had to show ID to get into the building. Not any more. In 2015 he was knocking on publicists doors hopeful to get someone to sit on the sofa and he could only dream that proper stars could do Carpool karaoke with him. A year later he’s driving around the grounds of the White House with Michelle Obama and Missy Elliot singing Get Your Freak On.
I’m here to watch the show, which is fast paced, high energy and filled with joy. The guests were Diane Lane, Benicio del Toro and Michael Fassbender. And a new Carpool Karaoke with Harry Styles was premiered. I’ve sat in taped talk shows many times. They’re usually boring with sound bites edited and re-taped, mistakes etched out and filmed over. Not here. It’s a continued burst of infectious jaw aching laughter and pace with the odd self-deprecation where he’ll say things like he thinks he’s thin until he watches the show back. But more of that later.
Afterwards in the green room I tell him his show was great and he seems genuinely touched, modest to a fault. He’s bringing the show to London June 6-9th He’s more anxious than excited about it. The UK loved him as a Fat Friend (he co-wrote wrote with Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame) and in Gavin and Stacey but then he became scrutinised. He could do no wrong and then he could do no right. He was called arrogant. His sketch show with Matthew Horne was panned yet on stage in One Man, Two Guvnors he enthralled. He took it to Broadway in 2012 and this in many ways set him up to become the talk show that he is – part musical theatre performer, part television actor, part existential joy. The guests all love him. He manages to be funny without being cruel. A rare gift.
The next morning I see him on the rooftop of the CBS building. He’s mid shoot and pretending to eat a chip from a newspaper wrapping. Quintessentially English but not necessarily quintessentially Corden. He tries to be good about the chips and he’s already done an hour in the gym. Once we’re ensconced in his office he abandons his desk in favour of a cosy sofa and comforting green juice. He shrugs, “I try.”
The office outside is filled with rails of suits and shoeboxes from Prada and Paul Smith. In one of the boxes is an award from Victoria’s Secret. TV’s sexiest host. He blushes pink and shuts the box tight.
With Corden there’s no interview tightrope walking. There’s no awkward moments. There’s no warm up. He’s very much as he is on TV. Always on always present, always to the max. Producers and assistants weave in and out to ask questions about the London shows. He asks them if he can tell me who the guests are or anything about it. They tell him no and he obeys.
Is he excited to return to the UK with a super successful show? “I feel more anxious than excited. Shows have gone across America but taking it to the UK brings a lot of technical problems. What does the stage look like? How do we build the set? How do we afford it?”
Is he also anxious that the Brits may not embrace him in the same way as the Americans? You see him thinking as if it’s the first time it’s occurred to him but he’s used to people embracing him and then not embracing him. “I guess, maybe but not really. I think we have to be mindful that we are making a show or a predominantly American audience but it airs in 150 countries so were just going to make it as exciting as we can.”
So the guests that you’re not going to reveal. Do you choose people that you love or people that you already know? (he always seems to get on intimately with the occupants of his sofa). “I never know who they’re going to be till they’re here at the show. Most people are lovely and the environment of our show is warm and we just create organic conversations as much as you can.”
Of course nothing was organic as the start of his because American publicists did not want their clients to share a sofa with other guests. They were used to the traditional talk show format with guests coming on separately. “That’s where Graham Norton’s show was unbelievably useful. We couldn’t book anyone for a long time. The show traditionally had not been a slot with the widest of audience and after driving around to publicist’s offices they would often say my clients don’t sit with anyone else and I would say but they already did a year ago on Graham Norton. So we were starting below zero and that can be incredibly daunting. But what you have to do is take in all of the negative and make them plus points and people love an element of discovery. And as much as I was painfully aware of how unknown I was here, I had done my 10,000 hours.”
Malcolm Gladwell said you had to have done 10,000 hours of something to be good at it in his book The Story of Success and now in a total of 2 years, on You Tube alone, 2.6 billion You Tube views and ten million subscribers making it the fastest growing subscription channel in history. “It’s lovely,” he beams. There’s a padded heart on his shirt which seems a perfect metaphor. He’s wearing his heart on the outside and he’s not afraid to show the love. People feel at ease with him which is why Carpool Karaoke – the guests and James sing as they drive around in a car – works so well.
“There’s a humanising environment.” Oddly Mariah Carey was the first Carpool Karaoke of the Late Late Show although the idea had been premiered with George Michael back in 2011 and Gary Barlow for Comic Relief in 2017. Was he nervous? “Not really because I knew it was a good idea but in many ways I’m always nervous. I’m a fan of nerve. Nerves are good because if you’re nervous of something it matters. You want to do your best. Like when we did One Man, Two Guvnors I remember so vividly the first preview of that show at the National Theatre. I wasn’t onstage for the first seven or eight minutes and I’d wait behind this door. The most nerve-wracking moments of my career have been behind that door and the day before this show started airing and I was behind the curtain and you know there’s a moment where you’re going out on the stage you have to enjoy nerves.
Does he fear being judged? “Of course, everybody does.” You’re only ever setting out to do something that’s your best. No-one sets out to do something bad. You just want any criticism to be fair.” His eyes look a little distant. A little pained. Ever such a little. Perhaps because there was a tine I the UK where criticism was heaped upon him. Was that one of expected? Was it one of those we’ll build you up to knock you down? Themes? He wasn’t allowed to stay on a Gavin and Stacey high forever. He nods. “It got out of proportion perhaps but the fundamental ting was the work I was doing wasn’t good enough. The sketch show (with Matthew Horne) wasn’t good enough. I hosted the Brits not well enough and then the film came out called the Lesbian Vampire Killers and it was awful. Really bad. But in many respects I’m thankful to it because it makes you realign yourself and think this is a serious thing and you’ve got to take your work seriously. The only time I got obsessed by it was the only time I felt there was an enjoyment I the bashing.”
I’d meant to warm up to this moment. I hadn’t meant for this difficult stuff to come so early in our conversation but he doesn’t mind. “Also something has changed in the retelling of this that somehow my career was over. I was responsible for the film, the Brits and the show that wasn’t good enough but it wasn’t like my career was over. At the very point that all these things were happening I was writing series 3 of Gavin and Stacey the most anticipated comedy of the year. So if that’s my low point I’ll take it.”
The shows finale which went out on New Year Day 2010 had an audience of 10 million and considering the show started off on the scarcely watched BBC3 this was an absolute milestone. Does he feel he’s more appreciated in the US because Americans like a warmer tone and maybe the British humour is crueller? “No. Victoria Wood was warm, French and Saunders were quite warm. I don’t subscribe to that notion. “I don’t have any interest in making people feel uncomfortable. It’s not enjoyable to be constantly elevating yourself as a superior being which is what it is when you’re mocking someone or something. It can be funny once or twice but it’s a sure-fire way to get your show cancelled if you have one note and one tone. You have to keep changing it up and making it interesting for people.
I think the biggest difference is America doesn’t have a national press. It’s harder to get a momentum going…” The Corden bashing seems to him “a long, long time ago. It was before I met my wife about 8 years ago.”
This co-incides with a period where he seemed to be looking for love at all the wrong parties. He was on/off with Sheridan Smith then he met his wife Julia who worked for Save the Children and has been described as ‘a hot Mother Theresa’. He chuckles, “That wasn’t my line. That was Ben. Ben Winston my best man (and producer at CBS). It feels like another lifetime. Then I did a series called The Wrong Mans which I’m very proud of the I was in Into the woods and then I moved to America and launched this show. I’ve had my ratio of hits to misses. I hope I’m on the right side of hits. The misses had zero impact on my career. I never felt I came here and had to start again. I just carried on. Some people wrote things which weren’t very nice but you carry on. I think there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and I would say I haven’t always trodden that line properly. I can understand why people might think I’m arrogant but I also don’t think it’s true. I do have a sort of confidence if you like which can be perceived as something different. I don’t even know if that’s true. I think you can’t sum up the people of Britain buy what a few journalists have said. You can find something bad in anybody.”
And as Corden well knows, you can also find something good in anyone or any situation. “Part of the reason we want to take this show home is we felt a huge and overwhelming sense of positivity from the UK. To appear on Carpool Karaoke you can’t take yourself seriously, yet Corden has had Adele, Michelle Obama, Stevie Wonder (driving) Madonna, One Direction, Katy Perry. Harry Styles, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Justin Bieber singing live with Corden, all of which have gone global. He has introduced a new audience to the show so they feel invested in its newfound success. Carpool Karaoke has had a zillion Facebook shares which means there’s a genuine anticipation for his return to the UK. And I think he returns to feel the love.
Corden was born in August 1978 (38) in High Wycombe, the only boy with two sisters. His father was a musician in the Royal Air Force and is now a Christian bookseller. Corden seems remarkably well adjusted. His childhood was nothing like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but when he grew up both of his parents were in the Salvation Army. “Being in the Salvation Army was a huge part of our life until our parents realised that the particular Salvation Army we went to was full of the least Christian people you could ever meet. They were people who just wanted to wear a uniform.”
His mum and dad had the uniform but he left before it got to the stage of him wearing gone. “Maybe all churches are strange organisations because religion is one thing and people are another.” Is he still a Christian? “I don’t know…” There’s a pause while we shuffle cushions around on his couch. “I struggle with it sometimes. I am not one to question science. Science is great but at the same time if you’re growing up in a house but have the overwhelming feeling that all of this can’t be for nothing, it means you don’t know. I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as heaven and hell but I hope there’s something else.”
Now a few years back when he was going through a bad time his mum and dad came round and his dad said, “We should all pray,” and they did. He found it comforting. “It was essentially my parents saying ‘you’re not on your own now. We’re here.’ And it’s incredibly moving when you spend any of those moments with your parents. I feel very fortunate that I’ve always had supportive parents… they pop up in the show and I’m sure they’ll be in London every night. My dad will be playing in the band.” (He plays saxophone, clarinet and flute).
They were in the audience at the Grammy’s and possibly will be again next year when he hosts the 70th Grammy’s in Madison Square Garden. This ear he’s not doing the Tony’s. “I felt I might have a little too much on my plate but the Tony’s is one of the best nights of my career.”
He was really at home on stage there. He knew everybody who was winning and losing. “It was an unbelievably supportive room.”
I’m not sure if it’s thinking of his recent trip to New York on the red eye and back again the next day but he yawns. I yawn. Why is yawning contagious? “It’s weird isn’t it? Also why can’t you tickle yourself?” we laugh. It’s a very good thing laughing is contagious. “We bank on that on our shows. Last night he’d had a drink with Michael Fassbender and Benicio del Toro while Harry Styles was rehearsing. “It was lovely,” he smiles “And Harry. I’m very proud of him. I believed in all of those boys.”
At one point Styles moved in with the show’s producer Ben Winston who was like a godfather mentor figure. Did he ever have a mentor? “There have been people who have been unbelievably influential. Shane Meadows who cast me in a film called 24/7, a boxing movie with Bob Hoskins. He was 24 at the time. If you’re 17/18 working with a director who’s 24 you think oh, you don’t have to wait to do anything. You can just do it. He was an incredibly influential person in my life and the other one is theatre director Nick Hytner. I’ve worked with him twice in the History Boys and One Man Two Guvnors and these were both incredibly formative points in my life. I remember when I watched the first cut of the first ep of Gavin and Stacey. I was incredibly down and called him and he said are there three moments that you think are good enough and I said yes. I suppose so. And he said if you think there’s three there’s at least 10. It’s a bit like if you watch the movie of the book you wrote you’re visualising what was going on and what could never ever be but the more you live with what’s on screen the more you’ll fall in love with it.” He was completely right.”
Fortunately for Corden a lot of people fell in love with it. Corden created Gavin and Stacey with Ruth Jones when he saw his peers, the other actors in The History Boys and his flatmate Dominic Cooper being offered roles in movies – leading roles and he would get offered the fat boy who delivers a TV to Hugh Grant. If there was no future for chubby boys as leading men he would have to create one so he and Jones created Smithy who was so loveable in Gavin and Stacey. Does he miss acting? Being onstage? Acting on TV? His schedule is so intense it makes it almost impossible although he did do a few days shooting for a little part in Oceans 8.
He also plays Hi Five in Emoji Movie which opens this summer. It’s a big part and it’s super cute but it’s animated voiceover so it’s the kind of movie you can show up in your pyjamas and still do a great job. From doing so many TV shows he’s not only put in his ten thousand hours but his comedic timing is honed to perfection.
“I’ll be really disappointed in myself if I didn’t do another play. I’m doing this show 4 days a week but not 4 days a week until I die. We’ll see. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”
Corden was always a natural actor and prankster. When he was about 13 “I called in Richard and Judy on This Morning and told them I was being bullied at school. I was off school on a teacher training day but my Auntie Marilyn recognised my voice and called my mum and then I had to hang up. I’m not proud of it but I guess there were worse things I could have been doing at the age of 13. I said I was Chris from Buckinghamshire or something.”
In reality he was never bullied at school. He was never the fat boy who had to make jokes to be popular, and he even says there were plus points. 2my size and shape has helped me as many times as it hasn’t and that was the very thing that made me want to write. That’s when I started talking to Ruth Jones about Gavin and Stacey. There were eight of us boys as History Boys, all of similar ages and points in our careers and I’d be the character who’d drop a TV off or be the newsagent and everyone else was coming in with film scripts under their arms. And I had to think I’m only being offered these parts because some people would say if you look a certain way you’re not interesting to people and your stories are not as valid as other people’s. I always felt like I’d be offered a lead in something and then it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen and that’s when I thought OK. I ‘m going to have to muscle my way in here because no one was saying come and have a seat at the big table. That’s how the writing of Gavin and Stacey came about.”
His weight has been constantly fluctuating. He’s been stones bigger than he is now and lighter. He lost a lot of weight doing Amelia Freer diet that was successful for Boy George (look up) Her book was Eat Nourish Grow. “It’s always going to be a constant battle. I went to the gym this morning and look at the green juice. I’m trying. There’s so secret to it. It’s eating less and doing more and trying to avoid bread. That’s my biggest weakness.”
And what about drinking? “I don’t really drink very much. I’ve never been a big drinker. I’ve never been let’s get a glass of wine. There’s a delicious cocktail at the Soho House called Eastern Standard and I like them but my biggest problem is avoiding toast. My children are always eating toast. Me and my wife in bed with marmite on toast at 10.30 watching Big Little Lies.” He beams, an extraordinary ear to ear blissful beam.
He has a six year old son Max and a 2 year old daughter Carey. “There’s not a diet I haven’t done. I’m trying to be good and going to the gym and there’s a dance class I like to go to every now and then.”
Is he not too famous for a dance class open to the public? “No, clearly not. Who is too famous to do a dance class?” Harry? “No he’s not.” Katy Perry? “No. once you’re in it you’re in it. You can’t start living your life like that.”
I tell him about when I did a Pilates class with Nicole Kidman and there were 300 paparazzi’s outside the watching us leave. He enthuses about the dance class. “It’s called Plyo-Jam and it’s dance using Plyometrics. Lots of jumping and moving and sweating for 45 minutes and old fashioned fucking star jumps.”
He finishes off his green juice. Very LA. “We’re here for another few years without question unless I get fired. We’ve just bought a house and we feel very settled as a family.” Does hot Mother Theresa Julia work? “Yes. She’s got an amazing job looking after two and a half children – me being the half.” Where and how did you meet? “Through my old flatmate Dominic Cooper. They’ve known each other for years because they grew up in Blackheath. He introduced us.”
Was it love at first sight? “It was for me. I doubt it was for her but for me she’s incredible. People always talk about me and how much work the show must be but it’s nothing compared to what she does. Our daughter was only twelve weeks old when we moved here. I had to come out earlier because my daughter didn’t have a passport. It was a massive thing to just pick up our life and come here, you know. And we’re happy because we’re together all of the time. It’s not like I’m doing a movie where I say I’ll be back in a few months or a play with eight shows a week where every night you’re on your own. Predominantly this show is me being here in this office coming up with ideas and then we go and shoot stuff and do the show. Home every night.”
So in a way it’s more stable for them as they see more of you. “Without a question. Yes. I’m off at weekends and that’s just glorious. I watch football on TV and play with my children.” Is he a good husband? “I hope so, yes. I certainly try to be.” Was he a good boyfriend? “I hope so otherwise I don’t think she would have said yes.” What about other relationships. His on/off with Sheridan Smith. Was that fun? “Yes,” he says hesitantly. “I really don’t want to talk about other relationships in my life because I wouldn’t want to read about my wife’s ex- boyfriend. I don’t know if Sheridan has got a partner but I don’t imagine he would want to read about fun times that we had so I always try to be respectful. We certainly dated for a while.”
Does he stay in touch? “No, no. I don’t. No.” Is that because your wife wouldn’t like it? “No. it’s because we were together, then we weren’t.” And that’s it? “Yes.” Seems very definitive. Is he like that? “I don’t know if I’m like that or not but that’s the situation. My previous girlfriend before that, Shelley, I was with for seven years. We lived together and I think there’s a reason you stop being together so then to carry on in any other way is not my thing. It’s not anything that I’ve ever thought about doing. It doesn’t mean there’s any acrimony but it’s just not part of my life.”
It seems weirdly brutal if you think about it and especially odd for a man who’s so full of warmth but it has a logic to it. Things aren’t working, no children involved. You get on and concentrate on another relationship that IS working. Is he the same person at home as he is at work? As full on? “I try to be but sometimes the days here are a spiral of constantly talking and I get home and the last thing I want to do is talk. However my wife would have spent the day talking less so I’ve realised is wherever you are and whatever you’re doing you just try to be present in that moment right there. Like I’m trying to be as present as I can in this interview as opposed to thinking after this I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. It’s the same in your home life. I try to be a present father and a present husband. It’s something you have to learn to do really.”
Does he sleep much? “Are you kidding? Last night I slept like a baby. 10 o’clock until 6am because the last two nights I was on a plane to New York and only got three hours sleep on a plane. Not fun but sometimes you’ve got to do it. You just don’t have any choice.” He yawns again. “I could genuinely fall asleep right now but I’m not going to. I consider my job being the thing I have to care about every single second until the moment the show begins. Then all I have to care about is enjoying myself. That’s all I can do.
When I first met Boy George – lifetimes ago – in the early nineties, everything about him was a melodrama. He could be charming but he was also outrageous. He was always in trouble for saying the first bitchy thing that came into his head. He definitely did not understand boundaries. That was what brought him success but it also brought trouble. At the height of his fame, he was hooked on heroin. Friends and family didn’t expect him to survive. His younger brother even went on national television to expose the addiction, a desperate cry for help. George was always extreme.
We are astral twins. Born on the same day June 14th. We share this bond with Che Guevara and Donald Trump.
After the plea for help, George was arrested for possession. Over the years, his life continued to spiral. The arrests and run-ins with the law stacked up – all awful, predictable stuff. Then, in 2007, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for false imprisonment – he chained a male escort to a radiator.
A decade after this rockiest of rock-bottom moment, he is back on top of the world. After first appearing as a judge on the Voice UK, George has somehow rehabilitated himself via the unlikely medium of mainstream reality television.
In the US earlier this year, he was the runner-up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice. In Australia, he has become a household name once again after a feisty role as a judge on their version of The Voice. In supermarkets down under, kids who are far too young to remember Karma Chameleon and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me ask for selfies. “It’s funny that I’m so popular with seven, eight, nine years old,” he says. “These kids were really sweet – no attitude. There’s this niceness about Australia, it reminds me of England in the seventies.”
He also finds himself settling back into life on the road. After sporadic reunions, he and the original members of Culture Club set off to tour on a wave of 1980s nostalgia, first in North America (“land of second chances”), now the UK and, towards the end of the year, Australia. “We haven’t had a big row for years,” he says of his bandmates. “Even when we do argue, it gets resolved quickly.”
“I could be more fluid if I did my own tour. With Culture Club, the view is that the audience expects certain things and that’s what we’re going to give them. Rampages on stage are a thing of the past. It’s not that everybody loves everybody but we’re very structured.”
Structure is clearly a new thing in George’s life. After a lifetime of undoings, accelerated by drugs, his years of sobriety have given him clarity. He looks back on the old days with amusement, bemusement and, for the good times, a fair dose of nostalgia but now, as he puts it, “I’m happy.”
Are you in love, I ask the man who sang I Just Wanna Be Loved
Maybe that’s why you’re happy.
“Yes, maybe. I’m not in love but I’m open to persuasion. But I’m quite busy at the moment and I’d rather be working than loving. I’d rather get paid than laid.” Just like the old Boy George. The one who said he preferred a cup of tea to sex.
Work, work, work, then. When he’s not touring, he’s working on his new album. Next year he will have a residency in Vegas with Cyndi Lauper. He’s excited about being a star in Sin City and just how “fluid” that show will be.
But the fluidity has strict limits. Today, he is as dedicated to life as he once was to destroying it. “I talk a lot with my closest friends about happiness,” he says. “I try to find happiness in almost anything. Going to Starbucks, watching videos about new exercises, like ones you can do on a flight when you clench your buttocks.” We practice clenching and he bursts into laughter, neatly exemplifying the point. He likes to fit in a few moves as he walks down the street to Starbucks – if you cross your arms over your chest you burn more calories as you walk. “Finding happiness instead of misery at any given moment is not always easy but I do think it’s the key to survival.”
Food was the last excess to go and, after years struggling with his weight, he’s now back to his skinnier original self. He’s on a regime where he has to wait several hours between eating. Sugar is banned and exercise must be regular but, again, there are limits. “I have been reading articles about naked yoga classes,” he says. “Nudity is the enemy of style and I would never do it.”
George has always been about individual style. He is very anti the selfie generation. “Everybody on Instagram looks the same. Everybody looks like Kim Kardashian. I suppose we had a version of the selfie in the eighties when we would dress up and go to a photo booth but you had to make an effort. You had to have a bit of pioneering spirit. There was never the opportunity for such narcissism before.
Today, he’s using what he learnt in the photo booth to build a burgeoning modelling career.
“I thought if I could do some modelling in my fifties that would be a real triumph,” he says. “You know, you’re always looking at these things as a measure of where you are.” So at 55 he became a model for Dior. “I like to start at the top.”
He’s even taking up a new career in art and he’s planning an exhibition. “It’s a mixture of painting and graphic stuff with a narrative starting in the seventies, being the decade that really shaped me as a person. Glam rock, punk rock, all of the things that have remained my aesthetic. I’ve never lost my love of Vivienne Westwood. I don’t know where the exhibition is going to be but I’m very serious about it, even though it just started off as me doing stuff and people really liked it. A lot of my career moves have been accidental.”
There’s no doubt George looks good but be careful how you tell him that. “It really annoys me when people say you look good for your age,” he says. What does that mean? I’m like fuck off.”
Back in the very beginning of George, there were almost no gay pop stars. Obviously he was gay. He came out to his mum when he was 14. During his acceptance speech for best new artist at the Grammys in 1984, he said: “Thank you America. You know a good drag queen when you see one.” It was, of course, the first thing that came into his head and, even though it was obvious that he was gay, it still made his press agent weep. “It was a period in history where people didn’t want to have it confirmed,” he says now. “Radio stations stopped playing my records. Oh well. Can’t turn the clocks back now.”
George has never hidden who he is, unlike the other eighties George, George Michael. In the eighties, the two Georges were compared constantly “We both were called George. Of course we were rivals.” Boy George had plenty to say about George Michael’s reticence to come out. “It was the eighties. That’s what people did. They were bitchy.”
Boy George said everything that came into his head. George Michael was the opposite. He didn’t use drugs flamboyantly but he used them consistently, and never attempted a clean-up. He only came out after his mother died because he knew she would have worried about AIDS.
“I cried when George died,” he says now. “I felt very sad. You know I was never close to George. We never really became friends. We tried a few times. We had a lot of mutual friends. There were a few evenings where the girls from Bananarama tricked me into going for dinner and he was there and whenever we met we got on great. We had more in common than we didn’t.”
“Don’t you think that there was lots of stuff that was manipulated about him? If shower them with luxuries you are partly to blame as well. I feel you can always separate what you think about somebody on a personal level from what you think about them artistically.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of George Michael’s music recently. I made a playlist the other day as a reaction to when someone put the boyfriend’s 999 call online. I just tweeted ‘I’d rather hear this’.”
People always thought of George Michael as an outsider but Boy George was just as much of an outcast, albeit for different reasons. “Back in the day I used to be not invited to quite a lot of things. Remember that song, Don’t bring Lulu she messes up a party? That was me. During the eighties I would hear about these fabulous Elton parties that I was never invited to. There’s a price for being opinionated.”
Today, he is far from reticent but he is certainly slower to unleash his feelings. “As I grow older I think I get better at being a human being,” he says. “I’ve got better at not saying everything that I think because I do believe in our most intimate relationships, we are held together by the stuff we don’t actually say. I try to not put myself in situations that are bad for me like eating the wrong things, being unreasonable. It doesn’t necessarily stop you doing A, B or C but the clean-up is quicker.”
It’s taken him all of his 56 years to get to this point. For most of his life, his first reaction was an extreme one. He was quick to explode with pain, anger, rage, whatever, and just as quick to get over it. “Perhaps that’s because I grew up with a father who would throw the entire Sunday dinner on the floor and then be, ‘OK let’s put the kettle on.’ He would be fine so everyone else had to be.”
His father Jerry was a boxer and a violent man. When he walked out on his mother after three decades of marriage in which they raised six children, their relationship broke down altogether. They made up shortly before he died and these very different days, George enjoys boxing as part of his fitness repertoire. But he has had plenty of time to process his feelings on fame and bad behaviour.
“When you are successful, people allow bad behaviour just to get things done,” he says. “For instance if a record company is trying to get you on a TV show and you are behaving appallingly they condone your behaviour just to get you to the microphone. If that is repeated over a period of time, you start to think it’s OK. The good side of things that I learnt from my father is don’t dwell. I don’t hold grudges. There isn’t anybody in the world I wish harm to but I said some things that I shouldn’t have just to get a laugh.”
One thing he hasn’t got over easily was the death of David Bowie. Without Bowie there would have been no Boy George, no Culture Club. He was the major influence on the teenage George O’Dowd. “I knew he wasn’t well but you never know how unwell,” he says. “He first got ill in 2002. We were talking a lot during that time and then, quite suddenly, communication halted. I never really understood why. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong so I took it personally. We were never big mates but I did feel like he was my family. The first time I met him I’d just been dropped by Virgin and I was backstage at a Nine Inch Nails and Bowie gig. All the heads of Virgin were there so it was awkward and then Bowie opened his dressing room door and shouted “Georgie Boy!” and gave me a big hug. He was very real, very genuine but, of course, he was complex too. He managed to create this mystery around him. The worst thing that could ever happen is that people think you’re ordinary.”
Of course, he’s right. Ordinary is bad for business, but isn’t it also important if you want to stay sane, saty balanced?
“I don’t know, maybe,” he says. “Maybe nowadays, I can be ordinary.”
To the point of settling down.
“No, that’s not for me. Everyone thinks I’m alone and miserable but I have suitors. I’ll never go hungry. When people say where is this going, I say why does that matter? In that respect, I’m an old-fashioned gay man. I like that fact that being gay exempts you from the military. Gay marriage? Of course you should be able to do whatever you want but I don’t want to marry anybody. I’m happy with my own company. I can close the door and watch TV. I can have people come to stay but I like to see the return ticket.
“I don’t do the App thing. The worst thing that could happen with one of those is ‘Do you know who you look like?’ I prefer a cool customer. I’m not interested in anyone who’s a little bit eager. If there are 30 people in the room I’ll be interested in the one who isn’t giving me attention. “
With sobriety comes emotional self-sufficiency. Or maybe that was always there. “I think I am emotionally self-sufficient. I think you have to like yourself. I’m quick to judge and quick to say I was wrong about all sorts of things. Of course I make mistakes. Some people are exciting to be around and that’s fun. Too much of it is exhausting.”
I leave the new Boy George checking out the contents of the many hat boxes in his room, just a small part of his distinctly unordinary collection of beloved, bejewelled head gear. He is still exciting to be around. He is a long way from ordinary but he’s a long way from the old Boy George too. He’s survived the dark years, he’s paid the price of fame and he’s happy on this side of the boundary.
Bono can rule the undivided attention of a sold out stadium. He can command hearts. When he works a much smaller room, say in the White House, Downing Street, or The Vatican, he is dextrous as well as charismatic. He rules that room with those who rule the world. When he put his sunglasses on the Pope that picture became iconic because of his glasses, not the Pope.
How did he do it? The short answer is he’s clever and relentless, can relate to anybody. But why does he do it? His father told him never to have dreams because he didn’t want him to be disappointed, which encouraged him to dream even bigger, but that’s only part of the long answer.
Contrariness, caring deeply, egomania, ridiculousness, it’s all in there. There’s never been a rock star who wielded so much power. There’s no one in power that doesn’t take his call. During the writing of this piece, there’s no one in power who doesn’t return my call within 24 hours. Not many people say no to Bono, whether it’s Blair, Clinton, Bush or beyond.
And at the same time, there’s no shortage of Bono jokes. Quite a few of them begin, ‘What’s the difference between Bono and God?’ ‘Bono thinks he’s God, but God doesn’t think he’s Bono,’ sort of thing. But Bono will tell the joke before the joke’s on him. People take Bono seriously, but does Bono take himself seriously? Only sometimes.
October 2008. The Women’s Conference. Long Beach, California. I have seen Bono shrink a stadium, make it intimate. But only as a singer in a rock band. When he gives his speech here it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s like being in a very small room with him. He gives great speech.
He follows Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem, where women roared with emotional approval. But he can follow that, he can top that. “My name is Bono and I’m a travelling salesman. I come from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother’s side. Sometimes I come to your door as a rock star selling melodies. Sometimes I come to your doors as an activist selling ideas of debt forgiveness.” He knows his audience. He flatters and cajoles. He says, “Africa is our neighbour, right down the lane, when that continent burns we smell the smoke. It stings our eyes, it sears our conscience, but maybe not as much as it should. We accept it, men especially. A lot of men have developed an ability to live with this absurdity. Most women haven’t.” And then he goes on to say that the America the world needs is the America he’s always loved. Everyone is swept up.
Tony Blair told me later, “I’ve done speeches with him and there’s absolutely no doubt if he’d not been at the top of his profession he’d certainly be at the top of mine.”
When he talks about Africa, even if you’ve heard him say the same thing before, it stings you new. He talks about when he first went to Africa and a child was dying in his arms and he talks about the look in that child’s eye of innocence and no blame. He says that that’s when he became that thing he despises most, a rock star with a cause.
Then he talks about how 20 cents can provide life saving drugs and how you can do this by buying a Red T-shirt. It was a 40 minute speech, but it felt paced, like a rock concert. No boundaries, everyone part of the same beat and emotion.
Backstage, there’s Maria Shriver, the conference founder, scion of the Kennedy clan and married to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. She looks big-haired, well put together. A purple Alaia suit skims her, accessorised with pink rosary beads that signal quirky, heartfelt. I told her she looked gorgeous. She looked at me blankly, somehow insulted, demeaned. Looked at Bono with this who is this woman you brought here look. Bono refused to acknowledge the moment. Bono doesn’t waste energy on negativity, even small stuff. He moves on.
On stage he’d called Shriver a lioness, a term I see he likes to use for powerful women. Later on that’s what he called Nancy Pelosi and it seemed to make her purr.
December 2008: Olympic Studios, Barnes, London. A few days before the album No Line On The Horizon is finished. The studios are about to close down for good, so there’s a real deadline, intensity. I’m sitting next to Bono in the canteen. He’s eating spicy spaghetti. I’m eating chicken. He’s wearing a soft grey cashmere flicked with little metal bits. Hard and soft, I observe. “Yes, that’s me,” he says; he likes a metaphor, he likes to sum up who he is. He likes to be known.
I once told him once he wears his inside on his out. “You did, didn’t you.” He remembers that. He has the memory of an elephant for stupid minutiae and life saving facts. He remembers the first time I met him that we talked about his mother. She died when he was 14. Yet you’d think he was much younger because he seems to remember very little about her. He remembers her chasing him with a cane and laughing. He wasn’t afraid because she was laughing. He remembers his dad at the top of the stairs doing some DIY with an electric drill. The drill was screaming. It was going to drill him to death. He remembers his mother laughing her head off. Laughter and danger got mixed up in his head.
Bono has always loved to embrace a contradiction, in his life, and his lyrics are always mixing God and sex, poverty and romance. He himself is a contradiction; supersensitive but a bulldozer, relentless when he wants something. He is sometimes self conscious, but he never seems to have any fear. He markets mercy but he never whinges. He is self mocking rather than self pitying. Sometimes saintly, never a monk. Being a rock star and an Africa activist couldn’t be more different. The rock star bathes in excess, the activist campaigns to end poverty.
Hard and soft Bono lives in two different worlds. A creative, artistic world that’s driven with strong passions, but where life and death is rarely an issue. He exposes himself to two completely different standards of judgement. Artistically he doesn’t want to fail. It matters to him. He wants to move you. He is painfully self critical. When U2 first started off he would ask how many people were at the gig, and if it was 400 and the venue held 450 he would worry about the 50 that didn’t come. He’s still like that, although the tickets for the venues are now holding tens of thousands. Yet he can walk into a room on Capitol Hill knowing what he’s asking for is likely to be shot down, knowing it’s a for sure rejection. In a global recession people in the First World are worried about how to pay their bills, not pay attention to Africa. The man who pursues success so relentlessly has somehow rewired himself to accept failure as part of his course.
Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, who is often referred to as the band’s fifth member, agrees. “He is a bundle of contradictions, a spoilt rotten rich rock star who became successful from his own talent. He didn’t trick anyone. He enjoys life to the full, but he does a lot of good. I think he has difficulties – one day he’ll win a Grammy for album of the year, and the next he’s described as a terrible hypocrite, a force for bad. Yet the organisations that support his activism are sophisticated. ONE is extremely successful. Red is extremely successful. (Red is his organisation set up so that big brands – Gap, Armani, Apple – give up to 40 per cent of their profit directly to The Global Fund). To date it has raised $130 million.”
Red is to raise consciousness and cash. ONE is to bring about political change. Cofounded as DATA with Bobby Shriver of the Kennedy clan, and recently merged, ONE has a base in Washington DC, London, Berlin and Abuja.
Earlier that day Bono had a ONE meeting in London, Soho office which video conferenced their office in DC. They talked of plans for 2010. They talked about a World Cup campaign for mosquito nets and putting kids in school. They talked about what’s going to happen when Obama has to make tough decisions and makes himself unpopular. Could they still count on him? What Republicans should they now work on? How to encourage Cameron on side? How Sarkozy has let them down by not paying what he had promised. Bono says Carla is going to make Sarkozy change, he says he’ll have to call her and say I know who you’re sleeping with. “Obama is already beyond a rock star,” Bono said. Bush needed to be validated by a rock star. He needed help to look cool.
Back at the studio there’s mounting concern about getting the album finished. A board has got red and blue and green writing with triangles and circles, codes of what’s done and what’s not done.
“This album is all about surrender,” Bono says. “Spiritual surrender, sexual surrender. Quite difficult, don’t you think.” I’m not sure if he was expecting an answer.
He takes me into the part of the studio where he’s laying down his vocal and he sings. His voice reaches out right out. I’m sure this is not the first time he’s sung to seduce. He seduces religious leaders like Bush and Blair by giving Bibles, but singing is his other way in. He does it on stage and on record every time. It’s very easy for him to move people’s emotions. It must be addictive. He just can’t stop wanting to do that.
Early January, 2009. Dublin. It’s the last day of Christmas. Christmas lights are still outside Bono’s house, half an hour out of Dublin. It looks over a bay. It’s a big old Georgian house, wood floors, rose and crimson velvet, cosy. A picture of a nun in the hallway. Lots of pictures. Downstairs is a swirling picture painted by Frank Sinatra and a picture of Bono with half a mouth. “Shall we go for a walk? Shall I show you around,” says Bono. But it’s dark, and it’s freezing.
Down some steps we get to another building called The Folly, a Victorian addition. Ali is having a meeting with some Edun people downstairs. Upstairs is an Edwardian bed, the guest room. White crisp linen that many luminaries have slept in. On the balcony he points out The Edge’s house and Neil Jordan’s house. In the guest bathroom everyone who has stayed their has left their mark. Graffiti and scribbles from film directors, actors, writers. Bill Clinton has written ‘A+B=C’. I wondered if it meant Ali+Bono=Clinton. Later on Clinton told me that it didn’t. “It means if you make enough effort and you face the facts you can change things. There is an inherent equation to the application of effort to evidence. It was both affirming and a kind of tongue in cheek putting down the earnestness with which we ply our trade.”
Bono is very good at impersonating the people he meets. His Clinton and Blair and Javier Bardem are extremely funny in their execution. His Bush is less good. Perhaps he has to like you to be you. Not that he says he doesn’t like Bush. In fact he says his sense of humour surprised him. Bush was certainly good to him. He increased America’s foreign budget to help Africans fight poverty diseases from around $2bn when he came in, to about $8bn today, and it’s going further up.
His seduction of the American Right began in part with Jesse Helms, the then head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms was ringleader for the religious Republican right and was said to believe AIDS as God’s retribution. It was a major turning point that Bono convinced him that it was a responsibility of human kind to treat AIDS sufferers in Africa.
President Clinton says, “I was impressed. He converted Jesse Helms and that was something I could never have done. I think Jesse found it fascinating that a man from a radically different culture would court him, and he was disarmed by the same thing that disarms everybody who doesn’t know anything about Bono. Bono knew more about the subject than Jesse did and he made an argument why it was in America’s interest that you could relate to whether you were a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat – it was conditional debt relief. They have to spend the money on health care, education or development so that those countries would be better for America and they would produce no terrorists. They would be part of a cooperative that would not throw America into conflicts down the road.
“And Bono is the genuine article, a real person. And he also pointed out that debt relief would work from a budgetary point of view, and that was back when I was there and made them run a balanced budget…” A pause. I laugh. Clinton’s always ready for a dig. “He got people to take him seriously because he did his homework.”
It’s hard to keep making an impact when there is a worldwide epidemic of celebrity charity fatigue. Celebrities manipulate. They do something shameful or vicious and undo it by lending their face or their millions to a cause. To make a real impact you have to be better than that, and you have to be convincing. Your cause has to need you more than you need it. Clinton says, “The thing is, he keeps on coming. His heart and his mind are engaged.”
Clinton has a lullaby voice. It’s warm and real, and you see how the two of them connect. He sees a lot of Bono, they have worked together on getting cheap AIDS medicine to Africa as well as on debt relief and boosting trade and investment to the region.
Clinton would have been a good rock star. He tells me he once had a three octave singing range and when he was 16 played the saxophone ten hours a day until his lips split. But he decided that if he wasn’t going to be better than John Coltrane he would go into politics.
Just because Bono could be one of the world’s greatest rock stars, it didn’t stop him going into activism, wanting to make a difference. He’s always wanted to make a difference. It started with condoms. In the 1970s contraception was illegal in Ireland. And there he was doing benefit gigs for the Legalise Contraception campaign. Virgin Records had to pay a fine for selling condoms, which he paid. Not because Richard Branson couldn’t afford it, but because he was making a stand.
Clinton says, “We care about the same things and we are fascinated endlessly by people and their stories. He lives in the stories, not just the statistics and the numbers and the policies, and so do I.”
Clinton is full of stories. He says that he’s happy to tell stories all night with Bono. “Bono has a peculiar gift of mind and emotion and has a grace and power about the way he does it that is quite a thing to behold. There is no question that the way his mind works and his powers of persuasion have been decisively important. They were in the debt relief fight and they were in getting the G8 to double aid to Africa.
“And he has done all of this without sacrificing his responsibilities to U2. But if the rest of the band weren’t on board with this and willing to adjust schedules and all the things you have to do to do both things, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Bono and I are sitting in his study. Lots of books, tea, home made biscuits. It’s an intimate room. It’s a happy house that’s properly lived in. You wonder why Bono would want to leave it at all. In many ways I think he doesn’t. That’s just more of the conflict.
“Contradiction is just the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head. I am a family man, I am a loyal if unreliable friend, I am a rock star. If I go out I sometimes set fire to myself and others. I am an earnest activist, a reflective and a religious-ish person. The right to be ridiculous is something to hold dear and never too far away.”
The view from the window, sky and sea, is what inspired the title No Line On The Horizon. The album took 4 years to make. It suffered delays. Why did it take so long? Is it because he’s doing too much for too many and been stretched too thin.
“The whole idea of an album is in jeopardy, it is an outmoded notion. And we wanted to see if we could have ten or eleven really great songs, it turned out to be harder than we imagined. I would say we worked twice as hard to get there, and that either means we’re half as good or it took just twice as much concentration.”
The last album How To Dismantle An Atom Bomb sold 9 million. Was he finding that success hard to live up to? “It could be that, that over achieving personality.” Is it because he doesn’t like to fail? “I’m sure I have failed at things. The two things I haven’t failed in are the ones that mean the most to me, that’s my music and my family. Activism is all about failure. You think about the people who didn’t get the medicine.”
If your record goes to number one, that’s a definitive result, you can see it. If you are tackling global poverty you’re never going to finish with it. Perhaps that’s why he keeps on going. But what if the songs stop coming? What if it becomes too hard to swap the part of the brain that writes speeches for the part that writes lyrics?
“If I’m honest this is the first album where I thought that might be true. Certainly the last two albums were very easy for me. I’m not saying they were perfect. If I’m excited about what’s happening in one room I’ll generally bring it to the next.”
The danger is if your politics inform your passions you could end up with some pretty boring songs. “There’s a book called Conciliance (by Edward Wilson) that I read once. The author made up the word. It’s a theory that he developed that all disciplines meet at some point and wrap around each other; maths, music, science, cooking. It taught me to separate everything, into top line melody, counterpoint, rhythm and harmony. I learned to do that in every single situation. In economic theory I would be the guy in the room that would find the top line melody because I am a singer. But I also understand the counterpoint is necessary.”
He finds a way in and a way through. His voice on the latest collection of songs speaks in different characters. “I was getting bored with my own point of view and thought I might be able to express more about myself by disappearing into other people.”
There’s a song called Cedars Of Lebanon. It’s the voice of a war correspondent sitting on his hotel balcony. He says that could have been him if he hadn’t been a rock star, because he is attracted to conflict and to danger. Another song, Stand Up Comedy, is about small men with big ideas. “Totally me.”
There are books everywhere. He likes to read about three at once. Currently there’s one about a tribe of pirates from the Barbary coast who took 130 Irish people from a town in County Cork and sold them as slaves in Algeria. And he’s reading Richard Dawkins’s The Devil’s Chaplain. An edition of Seamus Heaney is never far away, and beside it is the Koran given to him by Tony Blair.
U2’s Larry Mullen Jr does not have much time for Blair. He’s branded him a warmonger. Paul McGuinness says that Larry and Bono are like brothers, so they are bound to have arguments
Says Bono, “That’s why I would never want to be in politics. I would never want to be in that position where you have to make that decision, sending people into battle, knowing there will be fatalities but believing you are saving more lives.
“But because of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, millions of people are alive that would have been dead in other far off places through their interventions in HIV/AIDS.”
Later on Tony Blair would call me from Rwanda. He speaks about Bono with some devotion and certainty. Why did he give him the Koran? “We’d been talking about Islam, so it seemed like an appropriate thing to do.” Was religion the thing that really connected them? “Africa connected us primarily. He is completely sincere in what he says and people in power respect him not because he is nice to them but because he really does understand the complexities of our business. He’s not been a fair weather friend to me. He disagreed with me strongly over Iraq.”
Bono and Blair first met about 14 years ago. “I was the Leader of the Opposition and it was an awards bash. He was receiving an award and for some bizarre reason he spoke in Spanish. He said of me, ‘This guy wants to be Prime Minister. You’ve got to have big cohones to want to have that job’. It was a surprising introduction. But since that time he is one the people I like most and respect most in the world.”
Even if I have a theory that rock stars and politicians are interchangeable and the reason that Clinton and Blair are enthraled by him is that they want to be him, Bono doesn’t want to be them. Yet he has made them love him. He has made Bush do things that seemed totally out of character. When he’s told someone’s going to be difficult, he refuses to see it that way. He talks about it coming from a punk rock foundation. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play your instruments, do it anyway. He worries, “Maybe this is a dangerous trait because if you have some skills in one discipline you think they can be applied to others.” It’s hard to know when self belief and passion become arrogance. But arrogance has no charm and Bono has a ton of it.
Ali comes in with a glass of white wine for me and red wine for him, remembering that the last time she saw me that’s what I was drinking. Ali has pale skin, big dark eyes, black hair, is fond of wearing black. She is the kind of woman who amazed President Clinton when she turned up at a gala dinner that was held for him in Dublin when Trinity named an American studies programme after him because of his contribution to the Irish peace process. It was a day after she had given birth to John, their youngest son.
Clinton said, “You would never have believed she had g given birth just the day before.” She’s always struck me as being strong, but with a naughty streak. Bono says, “People always think of her as so graceful and elegant and butter wouldn’t melt up in her mouth. How did she end up with him? I happen to know she’s messy and fun. I don’t trust people that have no joy. I go back to music and people that have joy. Miles Davis’s Blue may not be joy for a lot of people, but for me it’s a sexy place to be in. This house has had a lot of laughs for sure. Probably more than the missus would like, but at the same time she’s got more mischief in her than people think.”
We talk some more about how darkness can be a sexy place, but how his favourite combination is “rage and joy.” We talk about self consciousness. “Some people put me on the defensive and self consciousness of course makes an ugly face. As soon as you put a camera on someone, if they’re self conscious it makes them ugly. I know it’s happened to me. The human face changes just by the act of putting a camera in front of it. I had to learn that – I wasn’t necessarily built for rock and roll. There’s a certain narcissism that every writer must have. But there’s another kind which a performer has and I’m not sure I have the second one. I have to work up to professional vanity. Just right now I’m having to be a rock star again. I had to do a photo shoot the other day. I took off my glasses, but I put on black mad eye make-up. It was like I needed a bit of a mask to step into being rock star again because I felt a bit of a charlatan, a bit of a part-time rock star. Speak to me in a few months and the problem will be trying to put rock star back in the box.” I used to think he wore dark glasses to hide some kind of inspirational fire behind his eyes, now I think that he needs them as a barrier.
I’m not sure if he dreads the idea of a full-on stadium tour. “Yes, I suppose leaving here, leaving this house, leaving these five people who I love so much, and the safety of the place. It’s like a cave.”
Do you feel more fearful about stepping outside your cave these days? “It happens every time really. It’s always been like this. You wouldn’t be a performer if you weren’t insecure. There’s always that feeling, will the crowds turn up?”
Fear and desire are never far away from each other with him. “We’d like to do another album very quickly. We’d like it to have more of this intimacy because this one has real intimacy.”
Do you think you used to be more afraid of intimacy? “Maybe… I suppose the thing about this album is it has a spectrum of emotions, from swagger and defiance to brokenness and playfulness and self heckling.” He’s probably more comfortable in the self heckling. He’d rather be the one that’s putting himself down, it gives him a sense of control.
A few years ago he met Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Ivor Novello Awards. He does a good impersonation of Lloyd Webber saying that for so many years he’d had musicals all to himself. “I went and met him one night and he was very generous and said I think other people should have a go at this. So I mentioned it to Edge and he said I will be in. The first musical we had in mind was Faust set in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra as the man who does the deal with the devil.”
He first met Frank in 1987, and they became friends. He recalls a moment with Frank at dinner where he pointed to the colour of a bright sky blue napkin and Frank said that he remembered when his eyes used to be that colour. He said it without nostalgia or self pity.
The Frank musical didn’t work out. They had another idea for a Rasputin musical. “I asked Pavarotti if he would sing in it, although he was the wrong shape for Rasputin, but he had the right eyebrows. And then Marvel came up with an idea, would you like to write a musical around Spider Man? Julie Taymor is directing it. And it hurts me to say this, but she is tougher than we are in terms of her art. She is a master story teller. I met her on Across The Universe.” I don’t tell him but Across The Universe is the only film in my life that I’ve ever walked out on. It was Beatles songs set to a nonsensical non-story. Bono is enthusiastic though. It’s set to open on Broadway in November.
What would his super power be if he could choose one. He puzzles. Maybe he wants to fly or have X-ray vision, see inside people, make people do things? “I can do all that already.” He laughs.
He tells me he’s never had a journalist in his home before. I tell him that I’m flattered and he makes small of it. We go to eat dinner joined by Ali and the two directors of Edun, all childhood friends that know and trust each other. We eat chicken, vegetables, but no potatoes. Then cheese, chutney, and fancy crackers. Bono is at the head of the table, very much the performer now. A brilliant mimic, he treats us to his repertoire but disappears early for a conference call with LA leaving the rest of us drinking.
I spoke to The Edge who is in New York working on Spider-Man songs. “I’ve never written a waltz before,” he says, feeling pleased to have risen to a challenge.” How does it affect him, Bono not being there much of the time? “It works pretty well. Ideas come to him quickly. In a funny way it might work better for us to have him coming and going. If you are working on a project for a long time you probably struggle with it because I’m the guy working most closely with the music, initially on my own. So what I really love is being able to hear it through Bono’s ears.”
The Edge and Bono are that close. It’s not a problem for him to hear through his ears. In France they live in a house next door to one another and in Dublin they can see each other’s houses. They choose to spend time together, even though they get to spend less time together now.
“He always relishes coming back, which is another good thing. U2 gave Bono the opportunity and a platform, so in many ways Bono’s work is just an extension of the band. Our life informs our music. It’s a natural development. The interest in civil rights was there from the beginning. We don’t necessarily agree on every single aspect of his work. For instance when he did his photograph with George Bush I was set against it because photographs speak so loudly. There was some disquiet from U2 fans, but ultimately I think what he did turned out to be right.” Would you say your relationship with him has changed? “No. We are very close. He is my best friend.?
Adam Clayton doesn’t worry that Bono’s campaigning could ever jeopardise U2. “It’s hard to see into the future, but there’s no reason why Bono’s activism would mean he would give up the band. I think he couldn’t campaign without the band. It’s much less of a proposition for him to be a campaigner without the weight of the band behind him. His writing is very much informed by what he learns in the political arena. It’s not enough for him to watch the News at Ten on a daily basis and form his views from that.” Has it changed the dynamic though? “I think he would always find things to occupy himself. Back in the days when we were loading gear into the back of a Transit van and everyone was pulling together, he would always be off finding somebody to talk to rather than unload the van, and I don’t think it’s really changed.
January 2009. I meet with Jamie Drummond, cofounder of ONE. He has a clear eyed intelligence. “The crisis that is enfolding in the financial world is not dissimilar to the crisis of poverty or climate change. It had to get worse and worse and worse. It seems it is in no one’s interest to take it seriously until it feels like it is almost too late. Wouldn’t be great if human nature were better at anticipating crises. At least on extreme poverty, we hope groups like ONE can help encourage the public to get ahead of the crisis”
Doesn’t the world financial crisis seriously affect all arguments for fighting extreme poverty? Listening to Drummond, he switches it all around to make it make sense. “If Africans were wealthier they could buy our products. With more wealth, people have fewer kids, which can mean amongst other things lower carbon emissions. There will be fewer immigration problems and that is something southern Europe is really worried about. So at a time where simple moral value based arguments might not resonate, these are the hard headed arguments that get through to people.”
DATA – Debt, Aid, Trade, Africa – was the original organisation, it did just advocacy. It helped give birth to both Red and ONE. Red to take care of the private sector and raising money to fight AIDS and ONE to persuade the public to get money and better out of governments to beat poverty, especially in Africa.
Drummond, who is 38, worked for Christian Aid in the mid-nineties in Ethiopia, increasingly aware that Live Aid had made very little difference, all the money that had come to Ethiopia from Live Aid was only servicing the debt run up by the immoral dictatorship.
It was Drummond who helped promote the idea called Jubilee 2000, which set about giving Africa a new start by cancelling billions of dollars of debt. He didn’t know Bono but tried to enlist his support as a way to help sell his idea to the White House. When an Irish voice came on the phone he thought it was a friend playing a joke, but Bono is prone to just picking up the phone to people when they least expect it.
Drummond recalls, “We got involved in the first place because of a grassroots jubilee movement for global justice, and specifically because the great moral leaders of our time, Mandela and Tutu, asked that Bono and others who had supported the anti-apartheid campaign, get back involved in the campaign for justice and against poverty. We’ve been working for them and that mandate ever since. Tutu’s our international patron and Bono is in regular contact with Grace Machel and Mandela.
“When we negotiated the Millennium Challenge Account – giving more money to countries that were democracies, fighting corruption, with no linkage to the war on terror – we got Bush’s support. I think they realised that development could be part of winning the war on terror. By the end of 2002 after negotiations had happened at the Monterey summit, President Bush appeared in a photo with Bono.”
It was a picture that took negotiation and positioning. It’s one thing to appear in a picture with Clinton when there was no war and they are like minded individuals. But in the picture that aligned himself to Bush, Bono risked alienating many people. It is not just Larry Mullen Jr who has no respect for warmongers. To appear with Bono played to Bush’s advantage. It put him in a position as a compassionate conservative when the rest of his agenda was not compassionate. Although at this time Bush was popular he was certainly not popular with the left or centre, and giving aid to Africa is left or centre territory. Bono knows if you want aid you can’t pick sides, but yet you have to make everyone feel you are on the same side.
When Bush first announced $15 billion was being given to well-governed poor countries for the Millennium Challenge, Bono agreed to be in the picture with him. “People were saying how could you be in a picture with this person and we said, ‘But it gets us billions of dollars for poor people in Africa, it’s a price worth paying’. It was billions of dollars. He’s not a cheap date. This opened the door to more. The AIDS initiative helped Africans put 3 million people on life saving drugs. This stuff is effective and in part it flowed from tough decisions like hanging out with President Bush.”
How do you think he won over Bush to get this money? Was it charisma, was it charm? “If he had just charm but he didn’t have a credible grounding in policy it would only get him so far. It’s charm, passion, credibility together. It’s often the case that a prime minister or president doesn’t read the briefing before meeting with a rock star because they don’t expect to be challenged on policy details. Our goal is to get them to read the briefings on our issue in the first place. Then they start to own the issue, and Bono is reminding people why they got into politics in the first place. With most politicians there is an idealistic kernel, a seed, that sets you on your way, Bono goes back to that original DNA that is in every politician, that wants to do good, and he nurtures it with a few facts and a bit of charm, and a feeling like if you team with this guy you can make a disproportionate difference.”
Why do you feel people feel so connected to him? “It’s an amazing talent, and it’s an understanding of the opportunity that you can make a difference. You can try and change the world. It’s an exciting obligation and a pretty powerful potent thing. But it would be unsuccessful if he didn’t make it fun. I find this grim do-gooding portrayal of him quite irritating because he is a fun loving character, a very good mimic, and is quite happy to get salty mouthed, and he notices things that you haven’t noticed about yourself.”
Not only is it more of a challenge to get money for Africa in a world financial crisis, when you’ve spent eight years targeting Republicans, suddenly they are out of power and you have to make new friends with Democrats. Of course you can’t pick sides, but you can also lose allies. Obama doesn’t need extra charisma or a photo with a rock star, he has everything that a rock star has already.
Says Drummond, “It would have been easy to imagine that Obama was finally our dream candidate, let’s just support him all the way. But that wouldn’t do him any favours and for our issues to get through we need the support of the Republicans and of everyone and we need never stop working both sides. In that sense he has taken celebrity advocacy to a new level.”
Partly because he never stops and partly because of his belief if you really want a big thing to happen why bother with a medium sized thing. If you can call the President of the United States, why not.
March 2009. We are in Nancy Pelosi’s office, a symphony of peach and beige, as is the woman herself. She is glowing, tangibly excited to be with Bono. As Speaker of the House of Representatives she has invited chairs of various caucuses, special campaigning interest groups within the party, to sit with her to discuss the aid budget and how to defend it. She introduces him. “The one good thing President Bush did was to increase the aid budget for Africa. That was the only good thing he did and you were the transformer, you persuaded him to do that.”
There follows a sometimes tense discussion going on about a proposed $4 billion cut to Obama’s aid budget. It’s a powerful group of about twelve that includes people who write the laws that govern foreign policy and people who write the cheques. Jan Schakowsky ,influential Democrat from Illinois gets a buzz on her Blackberry, it’s a campaign email from the ONE organisation urging her to restore the cuts, a complete coincidence. Bono sees it as a sign, not a mystic sign, evidence that THE organisation is absolutely connected.
Bono and Pelosi work the room together, sparking off one another. Pelosi sending people out to vote. They need to vote but they need to come back. It could have been a very distracted meeting that lacked momentum but it didn’t. It aroused hope, dispersed the grimness of the situation.
The Senate House is stone cold, echoy corridors. We head to Patrick Leahy, Senator for Vermont. Bono says, “This man is like John Wayne.” It’s his birthday. Bono will give him a cup cake since gifts of more than a few dollars have now been banned. Leahy says, “I’ve seen him win over diehard conservatives. A couple of members of our congress have an almost dismissive attitude to AIDS in Africa, yet he gets in touch with them and they get back on the programme. He has walk-in privilege to this office any time. Only Audrey Hepburn, Bono and my grandchildren have had this privilege.”
Leahy first met Bono 20 years ago and they have since worked on various humanitarian issues. “There are millions of people in this world who will never know who you are and will never know your music because they’ll never have the money to buy it. All that they know is that their lives are immeasurably better because of you.” Leahy is twinkly eyed, all passion and heart. No surprise that Bono connected with him.
A connection with Josh Bolten was less obvious, but as Bolten was Bush’s chief of staff, and before that the budget director, it was essential for Bono to find one. When they met 12 years ago, when Bolten was Bush’s campaign director, Bolten had never seen a U2 concert. In a gamekeeper turned poacher sort of way, he is now on the board of ONE.
“Over the years that I have had interaction with Bono you could never say that he was unreasonable in his ask, but he was going to ask you for more than you were reasonably planning. He was always very well calibrated in his ask. Asking us to make a stretch, but not ridiculously.”
Does Bolten think the aid budget that Bush so dramatically increased is in jeopardy? “It may be. It may be rebranded so it has Obama’s stamp on it to attract more Democratic support.” He was there the first time Bush met Bono. “He was wearing a black suit, black shirt, sunglasses, his Washington outfit and he brought with him an Irish bible as a gift. The president was shocked that there was this crazy rock star who is also a person of faith. The president’s faith is exaggerated as a factor in his daily life. His faith was very private, but it’s a deep faith. Bono is also a person of faith, so he wasn’t untrue to himself, he wasn’t faking but he chose the right element of himself to present, so they hit it off.”
Did they have a special bond? “I think it took a while to build a bond. They didn’t agree on everything. They had a negotiation about the announcement of the Millennium Challenge initiative. Bush was announcing a programme and therefore there would be a photograph of Bono with Bush. Bono was reluctant. A lot of people on the left did not like President Bush, so Bono was courageous. Bono is a charming, persuasive man. He’s very good at all this.”
David Lane, the President and CEO of ONE, used to work the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation. Bono and Bobby Shriver approached Gates in 2002 for funding to start DATA. “The idea of Bill Gates funding a lobby and Bono was pretty far out.”
Although they have known each other for several years, and are friendly they are not super close, yet “It’s kind of shocking. He remembers every conversation we’ve ever had.”
April 2009. Bono and I are in a car on the way to Dulles Airport, Washington DC. He’s wearing jeans, a purple shirt, a black tie undone, pink lenses and a grey furry coat. He says he saw dogs in the street, not dissimilar to the coat, taking an interest in him. He smelt expensive and seductive, like a wooden cigar box.
The meetings in Washington have been partly tense, partly euphoric. There is a threat that the billions will be decreased, but Nancy Pelosi thinks she’ll be able to make it alright. Everybody I have talked to has applauded Bono for his knowledge and charm. The common thread is that he remembers everything about them, their birthdays, their children’s birthdays. His brain for detail is exemplary. How come?
“When I was very young I used to play chess and I was good at it. I can learn useless minutiae, but actually I can forget my way home, or I’ve been known after the tour is long over to come downstairs and get in the back of my own car. But I think you remember what’s important to you. I remember asking Seamus Heaney’s wife how did he remember so many other people’s poems and she said, ‘Words are very important to him.'”
I tell him that I have been thinking about his mother and why I find it strange that he can remember so many inane details, so many facts, but almost nothing about his mother. Is that because he has to live in the present? “Maybe, that might be the answer. And that there is only a certain amount of real estate. The brain is no different to the body. A couple of press-ups and a few weights and it can reshape. My curiosity in all these different directions has been a boot camp for my brain. People who I would have thought of as much faster on their feet, you suddenly seem to jog past after these kind of gruelling days. Every meeting is a monkey puzzle.”
Are your memories of losing your mother so painful that if you carried them with you, you think it would slow you down? “Are you suggesting I have baggage?” I tell him I’ve been puzzling about it for weeks. That I feel I know as much about his mother as he does. He laughs, not nervously or self consciously, but tells me in all his memories she’s laughing. “Yes, maybe it is about not wanting to slow down. With U2 we don’t think about an album as soon as we finish it, we’re on to the next thing. We’ve always been like that.”
This fits in with the idea that he can’t stand people who moan. “I can’t stand cranks and whingers. My favourite quality is lack of self pity. I really like people who have none. I know people with just a tiny fragment of difficulty and they spend the rest of their life walking with a limp. And actually I don’t think I’ve had much to overcome in my life, the odd black eye, the odd broken tooth.” What about a broken heart? “Heart… You only know you have a heart when it’s broken. When you are a singer in a band you stick your neck out for a living, you get used to knocks. And I’ve noticed that the spleen and ire of your enemy usually takes them out, not you, so you don’t have to do anything, almost. There is nothing more attractive than energy moving forward. I think our band has it, our movement has it, and it’s exciting to be on that train.”
Does it never make you feel schizophrenic? “I think I’m more and more myself in every situation. On the surface I can be insecure. You wouldn’t be a singer in a band if you didn’t need a chorus of voices to call your name. But deep down I am really not. I feel I am on solid rock. On another level I feel a strong foundation, so you can take an inordinate amount of thumps and I’m not knocked off my feet.”
As an artist he’ll feel criticism sorely, but as an activist if he’s turned away he just keeps on coming back. That’s part of the train. Bono knows how to make it a special ride. Charm is an overwhelming factor, even though he doesn’t acknowledge he has it. “I have got manners. I try and look after people. Maybe it’s insecurity because you’re trying too hard, trying to please people.”
What he has is an ability to connect on a really deep level really quickly.. “If people are open to be connected with that’s the kind of people I want to be with.” Many people feel that strong connection with you. “But I might not feel it back. I’m a man who sees friendship as a kind of sacrament. I take friendship very seriously and as a result I have some extraordinary friends, in the band, in my marriage, in all the spheres that I move in.” Never at any point does he take credit for doing this all on his own. He’s always thanking people loudly. “I have a day job, I do this part-time. There is a huge network from Oxfam to Concern to Civicus and Taso, people like Kumi Naidoo, Wangar Mataai, John Gitongo, who work on these issues in every waking moment. They are the rock stars, I am the fan.”
I wonder does he see Ali as a lioness, he so often references lioness energy as being powerful and dangerous. “Very much so. Our relationship has changed a lot. For a while I thought I was in charge, I was the hunter protector. A few years ago it became clear there was somebody else in charge and I feel like I hold on a lot tighter to her than she does to me, and that slightly bothers me. She is so independent and I sometimes wish she wasn’t.”
Of course you warm to him because he fesses up to his insecurities. His insecurities make his self belief engaging, human. At the airport we say goodbye. I’ve been following him around for so long it feels a sad separation. Everybody who’s lives he moves in feel they have rights over him, that he is their special friend. He may know nothing about this. I wonder could Clinton and Bush, Blair, Obama, the Polish Pope, Frank Sinatra, all feel this connection. The connection is what it’s all about. If you feel you own a piece of him you also feel an obligation to him, to change the world, and that’s how he does it.
Tom Freston, Chairman of The Board for One and on the Board of Red, first met Bono 20 years ago when he was running MTV. He was responsible for seminal television like Beavis and Butthead, South Park, and The Real World on which all future reality shows were to be based. He was fired from Viacom, the parent company, two years ago. “Bono rang me right away. They had started ONE when I was head of Viacom. It made sense that it was something that all the networks, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, VH1 should be involved in. We were always looking for good pro social things to tie in to. He called me the day after I was fired and said this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” This informs my theory Bono doesn’t see negativity.
“He sees the good in everybody. He has a force within himself that’s slightly different from him, bigger than him. He’s aware of it and he can align himself to it to convince people to do things with a sense of urgency. He does this with great poetry, to be able to take this force and somehow make great things come from it. He’s irresistible in a way when he asks people for things. He has a sense of purpose that you can find yourself wanting to align yourself to. He can talk to almost anybody in their own language. He’s friends to the rich and poor. He seems extra human when you see him in action. I know that’s not a proper word, but I don’t know where it all comes from. It’s some spirit, this force in him, maybe even apart from him.”
I have seen this force in action and it is indeed as messianic as Freston describes it, but it’s not saintly. The Washington trip was days that started at 7.30am, maybe 13 meetings a day, then a business dinner. Freston says, “Some nights I’ve seen him be up drinking all night long and the next morning he’ll address 200 freshman representatives with Nancy Pelosi. I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth, but he just lets them have it meeting after meeting.
Like when he calls someone a lioness, that person feels they are a lioness. It’s endearing. But it’s also smart and smart aid seems to be the new buzz word , the kind of aid that’s proven that it works, for instance malarial nets, antiviral drugs, given money to governments who are not corrupt or wasteful. In a recession you want relevant statistics, you want to see results. How Bono does what he does might be mystical, but the results are real.
There are a lot of people in Mariah’s house – a grandiose mansion in a gated community in a suburb of Los Angeles. There’s a camera crew, sound guys, make-up people, photographers, photographer’s assistants, housekeepers, manager, manager’s assistant, bodyguards and people who carry things around.
Outside it’s blackly dark and deathly quiet, inside it’s intense buzzing tour preparation and all of this must be filmed for a documentary. For a person who is notoriously private, it seems strange but not as strange as the hours she and the cast of many seem to keep.
She brushes past me in a black laced up gown and vertiginous Tom Ford heels. Everyone else in the house, including her glamorous manager, seem to be wearing Louboutins. The glamorous manager has reptile Louboutins, drips exquisite jewllery and long thick curls. She tells me I may have to wait.. Mariah has just come back from an event and there is all kinds of filming and I am sure not what else has to be done. A hundred things .So I wait.
I wait in the house that arrived pre-furnished with its over-stuffed couches, mahogany twirly bits and endless chandeliers. The bathroom with its black velvet walls and its black diamond monogrammed hand towels.
I inspect the silver-framed pictures of Mariah and her twins Monroe and Moroccan: they’re at the beach, they’re on a boat, they’re in the sea. They look relaxed in some other life that is the opposite to this bubble of chaos. It’s always just Mariah and her beautiful babies – there’s no man involved. There’s not even a photographic hint of her former husband actor-rapper-entrepreneur-TV presenter Nick Cannon or a hint of her new fiance James Packer, son of the billionaire publishing magnate. He is described as businessman, investor and philanthropist but even Mariah seems unclear about what he actually does.
I’m in a corner perched on a window seat. I email her manager who is somewhere else in the cavernous house to say I need to leave by midnight, knowing there’s very little chance I will.
Every aspect of Mariah’s life is to be filmed and therefore I must be filmed. I resist. This does not go down well. No one seems to understand why I am not thrilled. When a lens the size of a small television looms in, I reach for my jacket to go. Mariah says in her velvet purr: “why don’t you want to be filmed Chrissy?”
Because I want to talk to her not worry about a camera. Because I want cozy, intimate not a performance. She gets it, she asks them to go away. She seems relieved too, that she’s not being scrutinized.
Why does she have all these people in her house? “I want people to see the whole thing, it’s a busy time right now and I happen to be on a night schedule.” (Indeed, communicating with her in the day has been impossible, not because she is a diva but because she was simply asleep). “I do sleep in the daytime but not all day because of the kids so it’s a little bit sporadic. I need to sleep and so I do. I’ve always been a night person. When I was six years old I wasn’t able to sleep. It started then. I was up all night and that was the precedent.”
I am sitting on a velvet cushion on the floor beside her who is in what can only loosely be described as a chair. It’s a multi pillowed arm chair that is halfway between a couch and a chair for a giant. She looks tiny, whatever diet she has been on has clearly worked.
When I look up it’s into her mesmerizing dark eyes, soulful, vulnerable, shy eyes. You imagine her as that child who couldn’t sleep, who felt she didn’t fit anywhere with a white Irish mother and an absent African-Venezuelan father. She was three when her parents divorced. But still, a determined spirit whose only catharsis was singing and writing songs and who never really considered she would do anything else. I am overwhelmed about an incredible sweetness about her. The fact that she’s not confident or showy she doesn’t carry herself as a woman who knows she has the five octave range voice, one of the single most identifiable voices of her generation. The last time she toured Europe was 2003 and she wants to make sure everything is right. After that she will come back for a residency in Vegas which, she says, is an entirely different show.
“I love everything to do with music, I love the creative process, my favourite place is the studio. I love writing songs – to me that’s the best gift.”
She’s been writing songs since she was six and she used to sing them underneath the table because she felt that was the only way she could express herself.
She nods. “t was cathartic. Suddenly I’d come up with a melody. It would come from out of the blue, like a gift, nothing like it.” Prepping for the tour with its endless rehearsals and dress fittings seems less creative. She nods.
Does she have a special diet? An exercise regime? “Yes. My diet is very bleak.” Bleak is one of her favourite words. She giggles. “I overuse the word because there is a lot of bleakness going on. My bleak diet is horrendous but I don’t want to tell anyone about it because it’s none of their business.” I tell her the bleak diet is working well. She sinks further back into her pillows. “I just don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want people commenting.” It seems like she gets hurt if there are nasty comments and a picture where she looks fat but this Mariah in before me is super svelte and even much photographed magnificent breasts are reined in. She’s losing her voice a little. She is rasping. I read that she sleeps with ten humidifiers. She nods. “I need them. At least four or five around my bed. I want them in the bedroom, a group of them. I also like to have a steam.”
Her children will be going on tour with her. “My son keeps asking can we go on an airplane. They’ve been traveling since they were three months old.” Her daughter Monroe, named after Mariah’s long-time girl crush Marilyn, likes to sing.
“She was singing last night with her friend. I can tell she’s got a really good ear – she can mimic what I can do. But she’s only four-and a half and it’s not fair for me to push it on her, so I am allowing her to be who she is. At the moment she’d rather just be silly with it. She knows she’s named after Marilyn and she can recognise her in pictures but I haven’t shown her the movies yet. They are into Disney and Halloween. It took a lot to get them to transition into Christmas.” So she has mini Goth twins? “No, I’m gonna nip that in the bud.”
She had a difficult pregnancy. Pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and it was suggested that the twins should be induced at 33 weeks. She refused because she didn’t want to be separated from them by an incubator when they were born. “I wanted to keep them with me as long as I could which was until 35 weeks and that worked out good.
There’s a flutter of her luscious eyelashes and I admire the diamond butterfly ring and then I notice the engagement ring. It’s not so much a rock, it’s a brick. It’s a mini choc-ice.
I wonder if she met Packer when she toured Australia. “No. I met him in Aspen where I go every year for Christmas. My friend Brett Ratner (film director and producer) are partners in business. So he invited me over. I didn’t feel like leaving the house but I went anyway. This was about two years ago and I didn’t see him again until I was at a movie premier, we started talking, joking around – stuff like that.” What’s his business with Brett Radner? I don’t want to talk too much about what he does but they produce movies. That’s not his entire job but that’s one of them.”
She once said that growing up without a strong male figure in her life on a day-to-day basis affected a lot of her decision making. It perhaps made her see her first husband, record company boss Tommy Mottola, as a stable father figure. He ended up being stifling. Does she still crave that kind of stability? “My perspective on that has changed. I don’t think it was because I was without a father figure, I think there were lots of elements about my childhood that made me who I am. Some made me stronger, some made me more vulnerable. It’s was a combo plate.”
So what’s on her combo plate now? “Oh my gosh it’s just way too full.” Does she feel happy? “Sometimes.”
“Do you feel happy?” Rarely I tell her “Really? We have to change that. You just have to find the comedy in everything. There’s just so much nonsense that’s just not worth spiraling over.
She oozes empathy. I bring it back to her. Does she work compulsively?
“I had the whole summer off. I was relaxing with the kids. Right now, there’s a lot on. I do really enjoy performing. I like having an experience with people trying to make them feel that they are not just watching an untouchable person. I want them to feel like they are in my living room. I like to talk to them a lot. I want to give them something different.”
Is the dress she’s wearing, a figure-hugging black maxi dress, a tour outfit or a lounging in the house outfit? “I am wearing it because I went to an event but I can lounge in this – it’s stretchy.” Although her high heels have been cast off, she still walks on her toes. “Ever since I was a little girl I liked to walk on tippy toes like a Barbie. My babysitter used to say I was walking like a Barbie. I only had one Barbie and I cut its hair. Then I went to beauty school but dropped out. I was singing and working in Manhattan and I didn’t have time for those early morning classes. But I feel that I’ve learnt in life because I’ve worked with almost every great hair and make-up person there is. My tips? I never will wear red lips – they just don’t look good on me. My ideal day? Lying on the beach without a camera or a phone surrounded by pink sand and the water.” That’s sounding a little honeymooney.
Do you have your wedding planned? “It’s a secret.” It’s really happening? She waves the brick at me and says: “I’m not doing this for laughs.” That ring is pretty hilarious in the way that if you’ve got that ring on your finger you will definitely be grinning. “I enjoy it. When you grow up without a lot of things… I try not to take things for granted.” Why does she like the idea of marriage as opposed to just being in love- she has two failed ones behind her so she is not burnt from the experience. She looks at me very seriously. “I am very traditional. I have babies, it’s more appropriate. I don’t know if most people can relate to that but that’s just how I feel”
Did you know straight away that he was the one or was he a slow burn? “Oh we’re not going to talk too much about this part?” she says sounding a little tortured. “If I start talking about this relationship people will interpret it in their own way, so I think it’s safer for everyone involved to just not talk about the very personal aspect of this relationship.” But is she happy? “Yes. And content but I am also very busy.” Her voice is now cracking with exhaustion. “I am a private person.” And that brings me back to why the cameras are here. “We can’t announce what it’s for yet. It’s a very big thing for me.” A very private person who now has no privacy. “Yes, it’s annoying. I wanted to document this tour because I don’t know when I am going on tour again. I wish I could have documented other tours. I am documenting it for the fans, they’ll love it.”
Much has been made of the fact that Mariah would like to do some more acting. She was extremely well received in the movie Precious, which was hugely applauded but won’t be drawn any further on if she would ever swap singing for acting. She doesn’t enjoy being snapped by the paparazzi and quizzes me when I say I saw a photo of her online recently eating ice-cream. “Ice-cream? Not on the bleak diet. That must have been very old.”
So many contradictions. She feels invaded by the paparazzi and yet there are cameras in her house at all hours.
“I am a pretty insecure person but I have to get over that because this is the reality of my life. I look better than I looked a few months ago but I am definitely not one of those people who says ‘i look amazing today’. I have to point out this is a rented house – I would never have overhead lighting. High hats, they call them. In my apartment in New York it’s all recessed lighting, chandeliers, candles. This lighting is abusive.” I tell her I interviewed Dita Von Teese recently at her house where she insists all walls should be pink with no overhead lighting so you can feel you look good when you walk around naked. “That’s my thing about the pink. I rarely walk around naked in the areas that are pink. You still want to look good with clothes on! When I was pregnant, I had a house with lots of antique mirrors on the walls so as I walked around I couldn’t help but look at myself – this huge pregnant woman. I hated myself for decorating the house with all these mirrors. I was so mad at myself.” She laughs and there’s a real lightness to her laugh.
Her manager tells me that Mariah’s light is infectious and now my whole life is going to change because she shed her light on me. Her fairy dust has been showered. There is something so unexpectedly intoxicating about Mariah. The eyes…the giggles….the empathic being. Definitely wasn’t expecting those. You get why people go to her shows to bathe in her glow.
Mr and Mrs Neil Diamond look strangely similar even though he is 71 and she is 42. The same eyes, the same slightly wary nature, sensitive and warm. And when they smile they smile with their whole face.
Katie has an obvious kindness about her. She looks after him both as a manager and as a wife. They met when she was working for the management company to whom he had recently signed. It was not love at first sight, it was business, until gradually she wove her way into his heart. They got married earlier this year.
He too has an almost puppy like desire to please her. Both of them seem to carry a kind of emotional weight.
He has spoken before about his life as a solitary journey – how he was lost in the creative process.
Diamond talks with his slow gravelly voice, it’s almost a purr. He’s talked before about being a loner, about how his past relationships have suffered because he was driven by his music and his songwriting.
With time and maybe love he’s realised he doesn’t have to enjoy only solitude and that he likes people as well. ‘There was no eureka moment where I went hey, I’m going to be with people and have fun. It was a gradual growing up, a gradual self-awareness. I always liked having fun with audiences.’
We are seated in a badly lit New York hotel room. Katie takes charge of pouring decaffeinated coffee. They seem extremely comfortable together. They met a year or so after he ended his long-term relationship with Australian production assistant Rae Farley. He met Farley the year after his divorce from his 25-year marriage to Marcia Murphey who he married the year he divorced his first wife, high school sweetheart Jaye Posner.
He felt a lot of guilt about the failure of his 25-year-old marriage. So much so that he didn’t bother to correct rumours that said he paid his wife $150 million, said to be the highest recorded alimony settlement at the time.
‘It wasn’t true,’ he says as he casts his eyes to the floor. He claims that newspapers simply made up the sum and he didn’t bother to correct it. Even his wife asked him about it. Was she happy with the settlement she did get? ‘She was. She got enough to live on for the rest of her life.’ Was he so generous because he felt such guilt? ‘Somewhat.’ He almost winces. ‘It’s true. I did feel bad.
‘I don’t have many feelings about my divorce now because we’ve been divorced for 20 years. I do have some feelings of guilt about my life. Guilty that I wasn’t with my kids more because I was travelling. But I’ve spoken to all of them a number of times about it. They all have good memories of growing up and I loved them completely when I was back in town. I was theirs full-time.’
Maybe it makes it more special and intense to have a father that works on the road. Maybe if you’d been around all the time there would have been more bickering?
‘That’s right,’ his eyes lighting. ‘I have never bickered with my kids. I was always happy to see them and they were always happy to see me. And I think they still are.’
He has had a lifelong relationship with guilt. ‘I see a therapist. She is very useful. I learned to express myself and I learned about myself with the help of a psychologist. She didn’t make me a better songwriter but she made me an easier person for me to live with. She had nothing to do with my songs – that’s a solo effort. She’s made my life a lot easier because I understand things a bit better, because I’m not torturing myself.
‘I used to blame myself for everything. I have moderated my feelings over the years. Guilt and achievement and responsibility, all of these things…’
You felt guilty for achieving? ‘No. Achievement is one of the things you have to deal with. Your self-achievement, your self-image. I never felt guilty for achieving anything because I always worked for it. but sometimes I feel I am worthless, useless. What am I here for, what am I doing?’
Does he still feel like that? ‘Sometimes. And somehow you have to deal with it. My psychologist has been very helpful in opening the doors to my mind and help me understand myself and the reality of life. I see her once a week, face to face. Occasionally I’ll call her on the phone if I’m out of town. But it’s almost always face to face and I have been doing it for ten years.’
There must have been an instant knowingness when he and Katie first met. ‘No, there was nothing. She was just another business person handing me work to do and another business person I was trying to get away from. I stopped trying to get away after a year or so, once I got to know the person she was, and I liked that person very much. Katie’s got a big heart and she’s very transparent. I can read her heart from a mile away. She does a terrific English accent which makes me laugh every time she does it. Katie, remember where we were staying last time we were in London, darling?’
‘Dawchester,’ says Katie, in a very strange cockney posh. But it’s a valiant attempt. Did it take Katie a year for him to weave his way into her heart? ‘No, she loved me immediately,’ he laughs, a very low naughty laugh.
Katie says, very politely, ‘I took my work very seriously. And when we first started working together it was work on both sides. I wanted to work with him. He was one of the biggest iconic singer songwriters of all time and as a manager I was thrilled to have him as a client. We worked very closely for that first year because he was on tour and we spent a lot of time together. When we first met neither of us were interested in each other. He was work as far as I was concerned.’
They were both single and available? They both nod. I wonder if he’d resigned himself to being alone for the rest of his life after his two marriages and long-term relationship had fallen apart.
‘No, I had not resigned myself to being single, but I wasn’t looking. I was busy doing my work and Katie appeared. It was totally unplanned and unexpected.’
How does he make sure that their relationship keeps working? In the past he’s said that music was his main mistress. Music demands from him emotions that are intense. His second marriage is said to have failed because he didn’t have enough time emotionally or physically left over for his family.
Is it complicated working together having a business relationship as well as a romantic one? ‘We are still working on that because there are times where the work will interfere with our personal relationship. There are times I want to talk about something and we might be in the middle of having breakfast together. I’ll want to talk about something coming up and Katie doesn’t want to talk about that. She wants to do the crossword puzzle and have breakfast, so she’ll say “Can we talk about this later or can we set up a meeting to talk about it?” And I have to say, OK. We’ll talk about it another time.
‘We’re still in the process of working this all out. It requires some give and take on both our parts. I respect her a lot. She’s a professional. She’s very experienced. She knows the business and that allows me to not be drawn into the business part so much. It allows the creative part of me time to blossom, time for me to write songs, time for me to do what I do best.’
Does he write songs more easily when he’s happy in love or more miserable? ‘Misery has never been a productive stimulus. I’d rather be in a good frame of mind because then you’re energetic, you’re outgoing. Although I have written some of my best songs when I’ve been down and not particularly happy.
‘I get unhappy if I get stuck on a song, if I can’t get a line that is satisfactory to me or if I’m working on an idea all day and it’s not working out. That can really preoccupy and distract me. If one of my kids is sick I’m unhappy. If I get a cold I’m unhappy. If I’m underworked I’m unhappy. If I’m overworked I’m unhappy.’
He says all of this with a sense of irony. Most of that severe unhappiness seems to be in the past. He actually strikes me as a very happy man.
Diamond’s many moods from dark to exuberant, can be found on his just released The Very Best Of Neil Diamond featuring all beloved classics like Solitary Man, Sweet Caroline, Beautiful Noise, Hello Again, and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, the duet with Barbra Streisand. He is working on songs for a new album and that is going well.
‘I’m happy because I’m occupied with something that I love doing. Keeping busy is the most important element of me being happy and of course having a wonderful wife makes me happy, to know that I don’t have to go through my life and bear it alone. That’s a happy thought for me. I have someone to talk to about it.’
Was he lonely when he met Katie? ‘I think I was probably lonely. I don’t like to be alone. I’d much rather be in a loving relationship with a woman any day than being alone.’
Did his last long-term relationship (with Rae Farley) end unhappily? ‘I’d say it did end unhappily. It wasn’t a serious relationship. It was going nowhere. There were no marriage plans. It was difficult. It lasted too long.’
Did it last too long because it’s hard to end things even though it’s hard to be in them? ‘I think so,’ he nods earnestly, still troubled by the thought of it.
On stage he has always been a flamboyant performer, over the top, fantastical gyrations that would seem impossible for a man of his age who today walks a little stiffly and places himself in a hard backed chair. He’s wearing dark jeans and a dark sweater, his face craggy and hair more salt than pepper, but he’s extremely magnetic. His eyes draw you in to their suffering and his need to connect. He has over 60,000 followers on Twitter and he follows no one.
‘I believe I am allowed to be over the top on stage and I enjoy that part of myself. Tweeting is expressive, I wouldn’t say therapeutic, I wouldn’t put it that deeply, but I like to share what I’m thinking. Here’s a picture of my dog. It’s funny.’
The Diamonds live in LA where they love walking their dogs Poker and Shamrock and Katie likes to ride horses and spend time with her rescued cat Brigitte. Diamond is particularly close to the dog he calls Pokey who he rescued from being put to sleep. They never buy animals, only ever rescue them.
‘There was something about his eyes that got to me. He was a funny looking guy (part spaniel part something else). I looked at him and he looked at me back. There was a little bit of communication. So I asked this person who was in charge of adoption do you mind if I take this dog for a walk so I can get to know him and see if we like each other. He said sure, so I took a leash and Pokey and I went for a walk and we had a heart to heart. I asked him how he was doing and where he lived before. He was a grown-up dog, mature, and he said, “I don’t want to talk about that right now” so we talked about life and he was enjoying the smells. This is all mentally. And we got to know each other and I got to like him. I think he got to like me. So I said I’m going to take this dog home because I think we can get along and I did just that. The guy in charge of the adoptions was called Chance so that’s why I called him Poker.
‘He’s a great dog and we’re great pals. I talk to him all the time. Don’t people usually talk to their animals? Our conversations are quite abbreviated. We haven’t discussed the Bible yet or the meaning of life, but we have discussed, “No Pokey it’s not a good idea to jump on the couch right now.” And he goes, “Oh okay.” He’s a very reasonable dog. That’s one of the things I appreciate about him.’
Shamrock was a golden retriever puppy who Katie fell in love with when she ran into him at a farm where she rides horses. ‘He’s a very affectionate dog and somehow you have to put a little control over his affections. He will climb up on your lap and sit there, but he is as big as a person.’
Possibly Shamrock is Katie and Pokie is Diamond. ‘That’s exactly right,’ he says. I’m wondering was Shamrock the first significant present he gave Katie and was this the gift that established their relationship? ‘I was her first big present. I’m not taking second place.’
When you decide to get a dog with someone it’s making a statement that you are getting domestic, that you are moving in a permanent direction.
‘Yes, I’ve heard that but I never thought that. I have given puppies as presents before because I love dogs and I thought it would be nice. Katie wanted Shamrock. ‘
Katie was at a friend’s farm where she rides horses and she discovered one of their dogs had puppies. She fell in love with Shamrock, a golden retriever puppy.
‘I didn’t really want another dog, I thought Poker was just fine. But Katie’s got a big heart so I grudgingly in a way said alright, Shamrock it is. And he turns out to be a good guy.’
He is quite a contradiction. On the one hand he loves to make people laugh and loves nothing better than to charm an audience. He is warm, easy to connect with, yet he has spent most of his life in his own head, even if he was in a relationship. His best friend is the one he met at high school who is waiting downstairs to have lunch with him.
He met Herb Cohen when he was 17 and Herb was the captain of the high school fencing team. They had an instant connection and Diamond joined the team. ‘He was the best, I was the worst. But scouts offering scholarships for college came to look at Herb, so they took me as well. We went to NYU together.’
He once said that he didn’t make friends like normal people. ‘I do have other friends. I made a point of opening myself up and allowing myself to make friends. Before that all I had was my work, my family and that was it. The only people I had contact with were the people that work for me and my kids. I’m in touch with my kids all the time.’
I imagine there was an unfathomable void in his life when his 25 year marriage disintegrated. Is he in touch with his ex-wives? ‘I am but not on a regular basis. When it is called for. When it is necessary. To talk about the kids. Sometimes to talk about other things.’
‘My first wife was Jewish. My second wife was not Jewish. My third wife is Catholic. There will not be a fourth wife by the way. I’ve been warned by Katie.’
I ask Katie what exactly did she do to warn him? She blushes. ‘I haven’t warned him anything.’ He interrupts. ‘She hasn’t. I just don’t want ever to lose her. She is too fantastic.’
What is being in love like for him? ‘Being in love completes the perfection of my life. If there was anything missing in the last 20 years it was that I was not in love with anybody and I am in love with Katie. I am in love and I love her.’
I ask Katie is she in love? ‘Absolutely.’
Does she think that’s different to loving somebody? ‘Yes, I do. And I both love him and am in love with him. I love him with all my heart.’ They look at each other. Their eyes lock. You believe them’.
The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ is Out Now
This holds true today. He walks into the room, his book publisher’s office, and his sheer charisma sets it on fire – tall, larger than life, black jeans, black polo, black soft jacket.
I meet him just as his autobiography Over The Top And Back comes out. It is a great read and funny. It charts his youth in the grim coal mining town of Pontypridd. It captures his Welshness.
He got tuberculosis for a year. His mother refused to send him to a sanatorium in Scotland so he was a virtual prisoner in his bedroom where he pined for his girlfriend Linda.
Linda’s presence is a haunting one throughout the book. Now his wife of 58 years he says that she is the only woman he has ever loved. You feel the love when they are kissing in the phone box at the end of their road.
You feel it when she becomes pregnant when they are both 16. They marry but don’t live together straight away. He works 12-hour shifts at the paper mill to support his wife and child. He didn’t want her to get a part-time job. He didn’t want anyone to flirt with her. ‘But most of all she didn’t like it. Linda is a very private person. She’s not a people person.’
When he goes to London to work on his singing career he sells his beloved leather jacket for the train fare back to Cardiff so he can see his wife and baby. In many ways he’s the traditional man. In many ways not.
The book is filled with anecdotes and encounters with Elvis, Paul McCartney, John Lennon – who tried to hold Jones’ hand at a curtain call for a performance in honour of Lew Grade. Jones dropped his hand. That was all too gay. It is something that he regrets now.
That and not standing his ground when Paul McCartney offered him The Long And Winding Road but his record company wanted to go with another. Other than that he is not big on regret.
Both his parents were ‘dressers’. They looked like they were going to a ball when they went down the club. Jones has always been a dresser. That image of him in the white open shirt, the hairy chest, the tuxedo trousers, is iconic. He says it came about because he was simply too hot to perform in a suit and when he took his tie off his then manager Gordon Mills knew that was the look – a raw macho look in the face of drippy hippy things. Jones recalls being on the same bill as The Rolling Stones once. ‘They turned up in suits and changed into their jeans to perform and I turned up in jeans and changed into my tuxedo.’
When Gordon Mills wrote the song It’s Not Unusual with Les Reed he was going to give it to Sandie Shaw but Jones had an instinct and that song changed his life. He could move out of Mills’ apartment in Notting Hill and buy a house, be reunited with his wife and have a red Jaguar. What’s New Pussycat?, Green Green Grass Of Home were the smashes that followed.
Jones moved to Los Angeles because of the tax imposed by the Labour Government in the late Sixties and has never come back to live. In the late Seventies through the Eighties he had a kind of identity crisis. He had put out some country albums and was playing Vegas-style shows in towns in the middle of nowhere around America where the most exciting thing about the show was going to the nicest restaurant in town afterwards.
Jones didn’t want to sign for another country album at Polydor. He might have got into a fight with his manager about that but Mills had been hiding the fact he had colon cancer and was drinking heavily. He died aged 51 in 1986.
Jones’ son Mark, who had been on the road with him since he was 16 took over and instantly brought him back to being authentic and current and being a voice. In 1988 he performed the Prince song Kiss on Jonathan Ross’s Last Resort. It was The Art of Noise arrangement of this song that made it a world hit. Another iconic Tom Jones song and his career was reborn. In 2006 he was made a knight of the realm and he also established a new fan base when he appeared as elder statesman in four series of BBC1 talent show The Voice from 2012 to 2015.
He was always known as The Voice and on his new album Long Lost Suitcase that voice is richer and deepened. Darkened. It shakes the senses with its power. Its title came from the fact that “ I have still got a lot of stuff in suitcases. Being on the road all the time you sort of half unpack or three-quarters unpack and you think, oh, I don’t need that right now so I can leave that there. So a lot of stuff accumulates in suitcases. Old records and old pictures. I found a picture of my grandfather, he died in the First World War and it’s the only studio shot that I have of him. He is standing Edwardian, with his leg crossed and his hat is on a plinth”
He is very much about paying homage to his roots. Is that what made him think it was time for a memoir? ‘So many books have been written about me by people that have never even met me so I wanted to talk about what it was like before fame, all those people in Wales that moulded my character.’
What he doesn’t talk about so much is how as a knicker strewn sex god there were many extra-marital temptations which he didn’t resist. He does say, ‘None of it meant anything.’
We meet on the day of Sparkgate. A paper had reported him saying, “Linda has lost her spark.” He corrects, ‘I didn’t say that. I said SHE FEELS she’s lost her spark. It’s not the same thing. She has emphysema and she’s not happy with the way she looks. I did not say she doesn’t look as she did before. I carry a young picture of her wherever I go because it’s a wonderful memory. I remember when she had that picture taken. But not because she looks better on it. I’ve asked her if I can take a new picture and carry that around, but she doesn’t want me to. I did say I love talking to her on the phone because when we talk on the phone we’re young again. Age doesn’t matter on the phone.’
Just like when he was on The Voice. That was about turning the chair at the sound of the voice, not because of the looks. But more of that later.
‘Linda is the only person with whom I’ve been in love. We fell in love as teenagers. We were lustful as well, but it was love. And the longer you are together the more you realise when the sex gets less important in a marriage the love is even stronger because that’s what you’ve got left. That and the same sense of humour and coming from the same place.
‘People have said to me do you ever think about getting a divorce? I say no. We are family, a family that I could never separate from.
Linda is a strong woman. She didn’t exactly condone his extramarital activities, because she knew that she was loved.
‘I don’t condone it. It was just something that happened. It went along with my career. I felt it was just fun and games and it didn’t hurt anybody. We came through it. My wife loves me, my son loves me, my grandchildren love me.’
Did he ever think that Linda would leave him when she found out about his affair with Marjorie Wallace? ‘No, but I didn’t like the fact she didn’t like me. I was ashamed of myself. Ashamed that she knew about something that was not important via a newspaper.
‘If I had said to her that it was happening she would have said, “You’d better stop that now or there’d be trouble.” And that’s what would have happened. I would have stopped it. Definitely.’
In the book he talks about how Linda got colon cancer and how he could never perform without her. ‘Every song I sing is to her. They cut out a foot of her colon. They also took a foot out of my colon some years ago because they found a growth (benign). I used to say to Linda, “I’m a foot short.” And now we’re both a foot short.
‘When they are at home she doesn’t like hairdressers and manicurists coming over because she doesn’t like to talk to them. She likes me to do her hair and her nails.’
Whatever you might think about Tom Jones you don’t imagine him doing hair and nails. I like this devotion. It dispels the chauvinism myth completely.
He is really easy to talk to and we laugh a lot. In his book he talks about his surprising dismissal from The Voice. He writes, ‘What a cold place the BBC is. Sometimes you wonder if it is run by humans or a machine.’ He refers to the Controller of BBC1 Charlotte Moore thanking him personally for his services, but in a press release.
Mark, his son and manager, got a call saying that Sir Tom, the stalwart of the show, would not be returning. This call came at the very last minute possible. He was expecting to start rehearsals as he had done for the last four years in mid-August. Instead the call came that he would not be needed. ‘Apparently someone told Mark, “We don’t think Tom is going to like what it’s going to become.”
‘I like The Voice in America. That’s what got me interested. I did a show called Imagine with Alan Yentob and he said the ratings were so wonderful would I do The Voice UK.
‘Will.i.am said in the beginning that he did The Voice because of me. This season Paloma Faith said the only reason she signed was because she thought she was going to work with me. I’m curious to see what they do with it. I will watch it, of course.’ Will he miss it? ‘No. But I want to see how it does and how the ratings go.
‘They kept telling us we needed to turn our chairs more. And I said no, it has to be real. I don’t want to be lumbered with somebody I don’t like. I have a reputation for picking good voices. But they were pressing on me, and that’s exactly what happened. I ended up with this red haired girl that I didn’t like. They hate it when we don’t turn but I kept telling them it has to be real.’
It doesn’t seem very real at all. ‘The real coaches are singing coaches who keep us informed about how far the contestants can stretch themselves. We talk to them daily and discuss songs, can they handle it, that’s not working let’s change it. But they are the ones who do the real coaching work. We are just the faces. We pick them and they work with them.
‘I loved the blind auditions where you had no cloud what the person is like, you’re just getting the voice. And now they want to put in more backstories.’ Isn’t that making it more like The X Factor? Perhaps you can be a judge on that next year? ‘Nothing is out of the question,’ he says with a smile. And you really believe that is true.
Barry Gibb is holding court in his local Indian restaurant – it’s just around the corner from his not often visited British family home in Beaconsfield. He’s lived mostly in Florida for the past twenty odd years but finds himself reclaiming his British territory since signing as a solo artist to Sony UK. He is of course the soul surviving Bee Gee, the band who wrote one of the soundtracks to the seventies. Often mocked for the size of their flares and their medallions but always revered for their creation of the perfect pop song. Staying Alive? Has there ever been a better groove written?
For me it was always Barry. The eldest, the most handsome, the most charismatic, the most complicated. But this is his first album alone without the support/rivalry/competition/banter of his brothers Maurice who died 13 years ago at the age of 53 and Robin who died in 2014 after a protracted battle with cancer.
Just recently there was his rapturous appearance at Glastonbury with Chris Martin and Coldplay. He performed Staying Alive to blissed out ovation. People love the irony. The sole remaining brother. Yes he is staying alive – at 69 he looks still leonine, with a full-ish mane of hair and thick beard.
Barry was always the leader of the pack but finding himself suddenly pack-less was of course devastating and not an easy trajectory. “After Rob died I just sat moping around thinking that was the end of it and I would just fade away. I thought I was quite happy about fading away but then the President of Columbia records, Rob Stringer, came to see me and signed me and said “We’re gonna move your ass.” And I thought, oh well that’s OK. So I’m back. Glastonbury came out of the blue. The whole experience is amazing. Chris is such a gentleman and I met Gwyneth.” Before I have a chance to ask him how they were getting on with consciously uncoupling he also tells me that he also met Noel Gallagher and that was fantastic and he too is coming for a curry.
He seems incredibly self-effacing. He’s written some of the greatest pop songs of all time, yet I’m not sure he believes in himself. “I’ve never had self-esteem. Every person that I’ve met and admire has the same lack of self-esteem. I’ve seen it with Michael Jackson, I’ve seen it with Barbra Streisand.” He goes on to explain, “Self confidence and self-esteem are very different things,” and weirdly I remember Streisand telling me that too. “I’ve always been trying, trying, trying and I think that’s good. That’s the hunger that keeps you alive no matter what and there’s been bad times where I didn’t really want to.”
After the death of his remaining brother he certainly had a slump. “You are in a kind of tunnel. You have to come out the other side and I waited for that and I watched television. Downton Abbey, that got me through it and Ray Donovan and Billionaire. I love them more than movies. I love the cliff hangers. We get English television in America because I have Apple TV.”
So television got him through it. I’d read it was Paul McCartney? “Well, sort of. He always got me through everything. I met him for the first time at the Saville Theatre in 1967. He brought Jane Asher to see a show and he said “You guys have got something. You should keep going and I always found that very encouraging.” The last time I saw him was at Saturday Night Live when we were both playing. We had adjoining dressing rooms. We started talking about the time before we had any success. We talked about being naïve. Not understanding what was happening. About being a great band and being happy and not competitive.”
Does he mean competitive with the Beatles? “No. about not being competitive with each other.” He’s in a cloud of nostalgia now. “Those days of not understanding the business and not knowing why everybody wanted to know when for a long time they didn’t. That naivety.”
There’s something about Barry that really cherishes naivety. To him it seems to symbolise purity, something unspoilt and unspoilable, untainted. “Ultimately McCartney hasn’t changed his keys down. He’s still singing in the keys he always did and I’m still doing that. A lot of artists have lowered their keys. He never said ‘Just get on with it. Don’t worry’, but he’s always been inspiring to me. What he said was ‘always look down on your highest note,’ and I said yes, OK. So he’s basically did say just get on with it in an abstract form.” Does he mean McCartney gave it to him as a musical metaphor? Stay doing what you’re always doing. “Yes, definitely.” Could he explain more about the competitive elements? “There was always competition within the group. We weren’t competitive with the Beatles. We were just another pop group but they changed the world.”
We circle back to talking about his album In the Now which has certainly changed his world. It got him off the couch. It’s a ridiculously emotional album. It dwells on the past, wanders into the future yet the title references the present. Isn’t that ironic? “Hey, that’s right, but it’s all about the past. It’s about the denial of the past and the future. Yet it’s about the moment and how to seize it. It’s about the loss of the people closest to you so it’s live in the moment, grab every moment because you see what happens. The eyes tangibly sadden. Mo was gone in two days.” Maybe that’s better than long and tortured? “Which is what Robin went through. Andy (youngest brother) went at the age of 30 (drug overdose). All different forms of passing and for our mum devastating. She’s 95. She had a mild stroke two weeks back.”
Ever attentive to detail he notices I’ve got chocolate on my cappuccino when I’ve asked for none, because I don’t want chocolate on my lips. He tells me that his greatest fear is, “a bogie on the nose. Although if you’ve got a moustache it’s a great danger for drinking milky coffee.” I would have thought that by now he would have learnt to navigate a whiskery face. He’s always had facial hair. “Not always. I grew it in 1968 because McCartney grew a beard for Long and Winding Road. He’s always been that big of an influence on me. Even when the Beatles broke up I thought that’s it, we should break up.”
Is that why he is not finishing his coffee? He doesn’t want to have white froth on his face? “No, it’s because I don’t want to get too wired. I only drink coffee in a restaurant. In the morning I have a Red Bull to kick start me. Coffee has never appealed to me. I never drink alcohol except sake which I love. You don’t get a hangover. You never feel bad.” I tell him the last time I drunk sake I fell over. He tells me that the last time he got drunk was as a teenager. “I got so drunk mixing different drinks at a convention, I woke up in the bridal suite. I was so violently ill they put me in the room and left me but when I woke up I did wonder to see if there was a bride. Fortunately there wasn’t.” We laugh, we giggle. We’re having a grand time, then suddenly there’s sadness which he doesn’t navigate around, he tackles head on.
There’s been so much passing in my family that at one point I said I’d prefer to go in my sleep or on stage but I never said while singing Staying Alive.” Perhaps that was made up because it’s a funny line. He nods while he’s thinking about the irony.
Does he have a bucket list? “No, I have a fuck it list.” I laugh but I am mystified. “I have a list of things that I know I’ll never do. I’ll never walk through the Grand Canyon, not with my ankles. I’ll never get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I hate heights. I just think in terms that I’m going to be quite happy with whatever comes around the corner. I don’t plan. I’ve grown up in three different cultures. I’ve seen the pyramids and I’m a real fanatic on the ancient worlds. They lived as if they would come back but at that point there was no evidence. There is no evidence of how that civilisation developed. Those people might already have been there before. I’m fascinated by civilisations that were around twenty, thirty thousand years ago that could be advanced as we are now in different ways. I don’t believe that the beginning we think was the beginning was the actual beginning.”
Does he feel he’s been here before? “Perhaps. I’ve had a few incarnations. I try not to question it. There’s been so much loss in my family, for me it’s a standing mystery.” Does he believe he will see them again? “I really don’t want to question it. Don’t want to go there.”
Chris Martin got him back on stage. Did he also get him writing songs? “They were already written. It took six to eight months to write the songs.” Some of the most famous Bee Gees songs like How Deep Is Your Love and Jive Talkin’ were written in less than a day. “Yes, there was a half day when we wrote Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Shadow Dancing and a couple of other songs in one afternoon. I think we were high. Amphetamines, nothing heavy. We never took heavy drugs like heroin or cocaine. There were no songs written on that,” he says adamantly. There were twelve songs on the new album and three bonus tracks. “Daddy’s Little Girl is one of them and that’s written for my daughter Ali. She’s 24 and still lives with us and I’ve never met a lady with a stronger opinion. Star Crossed Lovers is written for Linda. When we first met your manager didn’t want you to have a girlfriend so she always had to stay at home. I always had to seem available. Everyone was against it but that made her stronger and we’re still together 49 years later.”
He describes her as “an incredible power in my life. She is the one who will tell me exactly how it is and Ali too will say ‘you’re not wearing that’ even if I think something looks nice. They are both incredibly honest.” Today he is wearing beaded bracelets under his black shirt and a discreet silver neck chain with a mystic symbol on it. “I’ve outgrown all that gold and diamonds and chains that I used to wear but I do love jewellery.”
The Bee Gees in their heyday, late sixties, early seventies, were known as Medallion Men. They were never style icons. Kenny Everett used to do a fabulous version of the Brothers Gibb, falsettos and flares. They were mocked at the time when the cool kids were into Bowie and Roxy, but over time Bee Gees songs have been reassessed with How Deep Is Your Love being referred to as a pop song as flawless as Bohemian Rhapsody. Of course within the group there were highs and lows. With the world saw them and how they got on with each other. By the time they created the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever their falsetto came into its own with expert and inspirational grooves – their long awaited moment in the sun. Barry also had a massive hit and place in chart history with the Barbra Streisand album Guilty.
Does he feel that people didn’t understand their complicated sibling dynamic? “Well, I don’t think it’s any different from any other brothers or sisters.” Does he mean there’s a mix of rivalry and closeness? “Yes. All of those things and you have enormous arguments. Then you become incredibly close and you have really angry moments with each other. Nothing different from any other family except our obsession with music. That’s how it was.”
Did he feel as the oldest he was always the leader? “Yes, yes, because the oldest brother is always put in that position. Watch over Maurice and Robin, watch over Andy. And often they didn’t want to be watched over. Maurice and Robin were twins so they were always secretly chatting. I was the one that had to make sure we got paid. I had to look out for business. I enjoyed it. It was important that we were not cheated and I think that was pretty common. You hear all these horror stories about the manager making a fortune. Robert Stigwood was kind to us. We were all given about £100 per week and in 1967 you could live well on that money – and that was before we had any real success.”
You feel him working hard to be happy and in the moment. You see his struggle. This year there’s been a pop icon death overload. Bowie, Prince. How did this affect him? “Prince!” he says adoringly. “I’ve always loved Prince. I didn’t quite understand a lot of David Bowie because he was such an artist. I admire it but I was more involved with people like Prince. The R ‘n’ B influence, the falsetto is more me. We worked in his building where he lived in Minneapolis. We did a performance for the music industry of Minneapolis at one point. He was there but hiding behind a speaker so we never met.” Hiding behind a speaker I say incredulous. “I know. You can’t be that shy, right? But there you are.”
Barry, of course is ready to get rid of all his natural shyness again. “I’ll happily hit the road if this album means something. It’s an enormous effort to go on tour without that momentum and I want that momentum.” Is it harder to go out on stage when he’s been used to his brothers standing beside him? “It’s not hard if your eldest son is standing next to you. He’s not a Bee Gee. He wouldn’t like that. He’s Steven. He’s covered in tattoos. He’s a metal head with a heart of gold. He plays on the album. He’s part of the band, in fact it’s the best bunch of musicians I’ve ever had. I want to be on tour so I need to create a reason for people to come and see me.”
In the Now is incredibly moving. It gets you when you’re least expecting it, as a Bee Gees song has always been able to do. His eyes well up with gratitude. “You’re making my day! I need to feel that full cycle feeling, you know that I can come back.”
Many people think he never actually went away. Whilst there was no conscious decision to stop, there was no decision to write a new album while Robin was alive either. Although they did the odd performance here and there, Robin’s illness really took a toll on any creative output. “The feeling is I am reintroducing myself as an individual.” When he did Guilty with Streisand he was an individual, not a Bee Gee. “But I was never allowed to go on about it. We won best duet at the Grammy’s and my brothers never mentioned it. It’s that kind of brothers and sisters thing. If I would ever say we won this many Grammy’s they would always go one less saying ‘No, no, it was THIS many.’ They co-wrote the song with me. I don’t know why they didn’t want to say anything about the idea that we won best duet but they wouldn’t talk about it. And probably I wouldn’t have if they had won a Grammy. I might be a little bit, oh shit. I don’t know. I feel that it’s absolutely normal if you have success with something aside from what you’re all supposed to be doing.”
Does he see the Bee Gees influence in any of the current music makers? “I always felt that I used to hear it with Prince and Michael Jackson. The multi harmonies, the grooves. A lot of people have told me that I made a difference to them and I’d like to keep doing it for as long as I possibly can.” This time there’s no lounging on the sofa watching Downton Abbey to get him through a difficult period this time. “That’s the trouble.” He shakes his head. “We really loved it and my wife was sitting next to Maggie Smith yesterday at Wimbledon. It was the thrill of a lifetime and then her back went out. She said to Maggie ‘I have to leave. My back has gone out.” And Maggie said, “Well, you haven’t got the serve.” He laughs. Perhaps she’s the same character. Being there at Wimbledon was fascinating. I played for ten years straight and then my ankles gave up on me. I’ve got arthritis. My ankle comes and goes of its own accord.”
How is he with flying? I remember him telling me years ago while I was at his house in Miami that he was terrified of flying. It made such an impact on me, I’ve never been able to fly without thinking of him since. Now he says, “I’m getting better. I’m very fatalistic. If it happens it happens. People always used to talk to me about being frightened of take offs and landings. To me that’s OK. I don’t have any fear of those. It’s being at 30,000 feet. It doesn’t go away. It’s just less. The worst thing is I can’t get a sake because they don’t have it on planes and you’re not allowed to bring it on because it’s liquid.”
Is there a vault of unreleased Bee Gees songs? “No. Robin always emptied it out. I would always say, ‘that’s not good enough to go on the album Robin’ and he would say ‘yes, but it’s another song. Let’s put it on.’ In the eyes of the record company the more songs you give them the better deal it is for them but I don’t feel it was necessary. I don’t even remember what songs they were although I do remember Robin insisting we put on a version of Islands in the Stream and it just wasn’t for me.” Is that because he’s a perfectionist? “I thought the groove could have been more conscientious.”
Part of him is very modern. His black shirt and subtle bracelets, his attitude. And part of him is very old school, very proper, very gentlemanly. “I don’t do Instagram or emails but I do text. I have a Twitter account that goes through Ashley, my second eldest son. I try not to think about that stuff too much.”
It’s not that he’s closed to new technology or new music. “In fact I love the new Chinese artists that are coming up. There’s a group called Versailles that come out of Japan that wear more make up than David Bowie. They look a little Samurai.”
In the olden days he always used to see himself as a lion with his virile big mane. In a 1979 authorised, illustrated biography of the brothers called The Greatest, there were caricatures of him as a lion, Robin as a red setter And Maurice as a badger.
I assumed he would have been a Leo and he says, “I’m actually a Virgo. I’m ambidextrous, left footed, play the guitar right handed and I think I’m a little too old for a lion but I’ve still got a bit of a mane going on.” Pause. “Although I have always associated myself with a lion,” he says rather proudly. “In South Africa I bought a walking cane with a silver lions head on it so if there’s ever a time when I can’t walk I’ll be able to be helped by the lion and it’ll still be lion walking.”
Although he’s known pretty well at his local Indian he says restaurants are rare for him. He says, “Restaurants are rare for me because I’m such a homebody. I don’t rise early and I don’t get going till about noon. I’m still useless to everybody till about 2.00pm and then I get sharp and I start to look forward to what’s on television that evening. I read three books at a time. I love ancient history. At the moment I’m reading a book about the French revolution, another about the conscious mind and I’m obsessed with Egyptology. I’m in to the unknown, the supernatural. All that world. I like things that can’t be explained like ghosts.” Has he seen ghosts? “Yes and it’s not fun because you’re not quite sure what it was about. If it was real. I’ve seen two brothers.” Which brothers? “I saw Robin and my wife saw Andy. Maybe it’s a memory producing itself outside your conscious mind or maybe it’s real.” He likes pondering the big questions. “Yes. The biggest of all, is there life after death? I’d like to know.”
In the meantime his album In the Now ponders the past, the future, all kinds of shadows, all kinds of ghosts and it all feels pretty real and emotional. Yet he’s not a sad man. He laughs a lot and jokes with me. “And I love a good curry,” he says. We hug goodbye and I make him pose with a selfie. He doesn’t complain.
Aretha Franklin has been called the Queen of Soul since she demanded Respect in 1967. That’s a lot of years to be regal and I suppose you can’t expect someone who is constantly revered not to feel a little distant from the world, a little divaish.
Her new album after all is called Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Things like I Will Survive, People, You Keep Me Hanging On, and I Am Every Woman mashed up with Respect. Basically an album where she out divas every other diva.
It’s a compelling album. Her voice on it at 72 is not effortless. It no longer swoops and soars with dexterity, but instead it delivers something else, something that shows struggle, grit, terrifying emotional strength and triumph.
Of course I was excited to meet the diva of all divas. She rarely gives interviews. She hates giving interviews. For a large chunk of time she hated leaving her house.
Her last album with Arista Records – the company that first released her – was in 2003. Sure, there was a Christmas album after that merely to fulfil a contract and in 2011 there was a studio album made for Wal-Mart stores. But the Diva album is a proper return with music impresario Clive Davis at its helm.
The album has been generally applauded, as has her refreshed energy and weight loss. For some of those silent years where no one saw her it’s been said that she became huge. Her weight ballooned in the 90s after she stopped smoking because it was hurting her voice.
Last year she had a mysterious illness and undisclosed medical treatment. She came back after it fitter and thinner. Certainly there was a sense she was ready to take on the world again. What I wasn’t ready for was to take her on.
The interview had been on and off several times in several locations. Over a period of weeks. Finally it happens- within an hour of it being confirmed I find myself en route to Detroit, to the suburb of Southfield and the Westin Hotel, close to her home.
The interview is to be at 7.30pm. Would I go down and meet her to try to charm her? There was a fear the interview would be cut to ten minutes. Of course I would. At that time I didn’t realise she was uncharm-able.
It turns out she didn’t want to meet me first. She wanted to do the interview at 8.30pm, so I decided I would take a restorative bath. Five minutes in the bath I get a call she wants to do the interview now. Still wet I drag on clothes to meet her in the lobby. As the lift door opens and I go to get out she gets in.
She is wearing a black leather blouse, black trousers, black and gold trainers and a zebra print rucksack. She looks a little plus-sized but you don’t see her as fat, you see her as a presence. I would guess she’d be a UK size 16-18.
I wasn’t there at the exact time. Had she decided to leave completely? Was she angry? Will she come back? A few tense moments. Apparently she will come back and she will give me as close to my full hour as possible. The PR warns that I should ask any important questions first which does not bode well because you can’t really ask first off: Are you an emotional eater? What pain were you trying to bury? You can’t ask who in fact was the father of the son you had when you were 14? Or the next son a couple of years later?
You can’ t say how did it feel when your first husband Ed White used to rough you up and why did she want that bit deleted from her autobiography.
Her father was a super preacher who had a turbulent marriage with her mother who left when Aretha was six and died shortly before her 10th birthday. Just after her mother’s death Aretha began singing at her father’s sermons. She debuted with the hymn Jesus Be A Fence Around Me. That fence never came down. Can you even begin to ask her why? No, you cannot.
People become interviewers because they want to ask the questions we all want answers for. Asking questions requires a kind of fearlessness which has always come naturally to me. I have faced plenty of divas – pop stars, prime ministers and wannabe presidents. None of them have awed me. There’s something about Aretha. She’s absolutely terrifying.
I’ve seen her on TV interviews making mincemeat of fawning reporters. One look, an ever so slight roll of the eyes, reduces them to gibberish.
We are in the grand ballroom of the semi chi chi hotel. Me and Aretha poised opposite on low under-stuffed armchairs. There is her son, her granddaughter, a record company person, the British PR, and another man to whom I was not introduced.
There is a sort of wall around her. Later I learn from the staff at this hotel where she regularly comes often for omelettes they have dubbed her The Wall. One staff member who begged not to be identified says, ‘You just can’t get through to her and she makes everyone feel scared. It’s hard to be normal with her. Once I asked her son for tickets to her show but he said even he was afraid to ask her.’
Aretha is sat in front of me with the beginning of an eye roll and I am afraid, I am petrified. But unlike the song I Will Survive I fear I won’t. I tell her that her album is great. And it is. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says.
I tell her when Sinead O’Connor sang Nothing Compares 2 U you felt she was going to kill herself, but when Aretha sings it with her own lines added, that not even ‘a strawberry sundae or ham hocks and greens, or roller skates or garlic toast,’ compare, you feel she is expressing triumph and joy and power. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says, which I’ve come to learn is Aretha’s very succinct way of expressing what she feels which is that I’m full of shit.
She tells me, ‘That was Andre 3000’s idea to take the tempo up and just refresh that song.’
I tell her that on I Will Survive she sounds particularly empowered. ‘No. That was the basic thing that Gloria Gaynor did. Then we mashed it up with I’m A Survivor (Destiny’s Child) which is one of my granddaughter Victorie’s favourite songs. So I said “Hey, let’s put that there”.’
Victorie is here with us. I think she’s about 17. Hair in a ponytail and a striped T-shirt. ‘Victorie is going to be a singer. Every time I type her name in my phone it comes up Victories with an s. Maybe she’s going to have some victories. I hope so. I’m taking her there. I’m mentoring her. She performed for me on the BET tribute.
Does she coach her because she sees herself in her, because they have a special bond? Her eyes swivel and look through me. ‘I coach her because she’s my granddaughter and she wants to sing.’
I laugh nervously.
‘I’ve been around a while, so in terms of coaching her as a vocalist why not, hmmm? I did have vocal coaching at one time when I was a teenager and I was also taught choreography by Charlie Atkins who taught most of the Motown artists.’
I’d read that she wanted to be a dancer at some point. ‘Well, I could have been a prima ballerina. I took classes at the Academy of Ballet where I would do plies, semi-plies, grand plies.’
The barre workout is very popular now. Is that what she does for exercise? ‘No. Really. Is that what people do?’ She looks incredulous. ‘I walk. I have my fitness regime where I walk the big superstores. – K-Mart and Wal-Mart. I walk the whole store. Sometimes twice if it’s not a superstore. I don‘t do it with the cart. Security people mind the cart and I do the walking.’
Do fans recognise her and come up to her? ’Sometimes.’ Pause. Do they ask her to sign something? ‘Yes. Peaches or a lettuce.’ We laugh. ‘They are usually very nice and they want an autograph or a selfie.’
She smiles sweetly and for a moment she seems relaxed so I ask her why was there a period of no albums for a while? ‘Because I was between record companies and during that time I did a lot of concerts. I noticed somebody the other day, I’m trying to think who it was, and they said they hadn’t recorded for nine years, and I understood that perfectly. I love recording, but if you’re in concert as much as I was you’re just not thinking about it and of course you’re minding the store at home. I have four children, so that’s what was consuming my time.’
This puzzles me. Her four children, all boys, or rather men, are fully grown up. The oldest, Clarence Franklin, is in his late fifties, followed by Edward Franklin and Ted White Jnr., who by all accounts is a wonderful kind person, and Kecalf Cunningham, a musician who is known professionally as KPoint.
I want to ask her about why she still feels she needs to look after them but this is the first time in our interview there’s not been a silence. It’s been question, answer, silence. Her talking about walking the superstores is the nearest thing we’ve got to a conversation.
‘I love walking the superstore. You can shop, pick up things you need, and it’s good exercise.’
What is her favourite thing to shop for? ‘I love beautiful things, beautiful clothes. Pretty much what the average woman likes.’
The silence returns suddenly. There is no twilight moment. No cooling down, segueing in. There’s warm friendly and then cold silence. This is not your average woman. So I change the subject. She grew up near here, then moved to New York and Los Angeles.
‘Well, I had to come back to Detroit because of the incident that happened to my dad.’ She had been performing in Las Vegas when she got the news in 1979 that her father Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as CL Franklin, was shot twice at point blank range in his Detroit home. He spent six months in hospital and was returned home needing round the clock nursing care. ‘I came back to stay with him and my sisters and my brother so we could alternate looking after him.’
That must have been a terrible shock? ‘Yes.’ Long pause. Did they ever find out who did it? ‘They did and they were arrested.’ How did it happen, was it random or planned? ‘I couldn’t tell you, but let’s move on.’
Now there’s not just a silence but a silence with pins and needles in it. She was always extremely close to her father. ‘Yes, of course, sure. I travelled as a young featured vocalist. I would sing before he preached.’
I’ve read that his sermons were mesmerising, it was like going to a concert. ‘No. I would not say it was like a concert at all. My dad was a theologian and he ministered the congregation, very enlightening and educational.’ He had a compelling speaking voice? ‘Oh yes. He was famous for that.’ He recorded 39 volumes of sermons and he was quite the singer as well.’
Is she like him? ‘You could say that with respect to certain things.’ She was a daddy’s girl? ‘You could say that.’
And he had great friends? ‘Yes. Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Dr King. These people came into the city to perform on Saturdays and on Sundays knowing about his sermons came to our church.’
I want to know more about what it’s like growing up with all these legends and how does this compare to our modern divas like Beyoncé and Miley but before I can say the word twerk my throat closes up. I know she’s not going to talk about these things, I just know, and I’ve never had that feeling in an interview before.
I wonder if she too is afraid. When I heard that she was terrified of flying it seemed ridiculous that an artist of her magnitude with her 18 Grammys and over 75 million records sold and her constant breaking of Billboard records should have any fears at all. She is a legend.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ she says, almost savouring the moment that I’ve grasped she has fear. ‘Aretha is a woman like every other woman. Everyone has something.’ She looks at me sweetly. ‘I flew for 21 years and it’s just ridiculous for me not to fly. I’ve started working on it. One of these days you’ll see me back in London.’
Will she take a boat? ‘I don’t think so. There’s too much water. I’ll take eight hours on the Jumbo jet. I am thinking about that.’
What happened to create this fear? ‘A bad flight. A small plane. Two engines. Up and down, up and down. And I decided I would not fly again. I was not happy. Not a happy camper.’
It is at this point it strikes me Aretha has the wall because she feels pain like no other. She had a bad flight. She decides she can’t bear it. And that will never happen again.
The wall is not so much a fortress but a place where she traps herself inside herself. The wall I think would have come anyway, due to the tragedies in her early life and how in order to be the Queen of Soul she is the queen of sensitivity. Fame and being feted didn’t cause this wall, it just helped it stay in place.
‘I have a custom bus that I very much enjoy. I can go from city to city and see points of interest, get out and stretch my legs. If we go to California we have all these different things in the desert that you can see. I can do things on my bus that you can’t on a plane. You can’t stretch your legs at 30,000 feet.’
Does she have a bed on her bus? ‘No. I don’t want that. That’s too much bus. I get a good night’s sleep and then get back on the bus.’
Is it true the things she fears most are airplanes and interviews? ‘Where on earth did that come from? Never even heard that. Here we are in an interview and the planes as I said I’m working on it.’
Does she see a hypnotherapist? ‘No, no, no. I would never do that. I went to a fearless flyers class organised by US Air. I missed two classes. Last time I was standing at the gate when the rest of my class flew away because I’d missed a few lessons, but I am determined that I will graduate from that class. You do things like a rejected take-off where the plane goes down the runway, they start the propellers and everything, but then they stop and come back. We do that and actual classes where you watch films and find out a lot of things about planes.’ There’s another silence now.
Later on I speak to Versa Manos of Gorgeous Media Group. Manos was her PR at Arista Records 25 years ago. She looked after Aretha and Whitney Houston. I wonder was she like that then? ‘She is extremely sensitive, so if an interview becomes intimate or is about to discuss any of the big tragedies in her life it might make her cry, so it probably would be stopped before it got to that point.
‘She has had a very harsh early life. She expresses it in her voice all the time. Her detachment from the world is because she is so sensitive. That’s why she became slightly agoraphobic at some point.’
When she sang about demanding respect in 1967 it was when a black woman was rarely granted such a thing and now she is a legend she can demand it.
She sang for President Obama at his inauguration. ‘It was a tremendous moment. Certainly a historical one and I was delighted to be part of it. Throngs and throngs of people that morning as far as you could see. Unbelievable.’
She met him at Rosa Parks’ funeral. ‘Yes. That’s exactly where I met him. He was on his way out of the door and someone saw him leaving and said “Hey, Barack, you haven’t met Aretha and said hello.” He stopped, turned right round and came back. And that was a nice moment. He’s a very nice man. He’s very much in person as you see him on TV, charismatic.’
Did she maintain contact with him? ‘No, no, of course not.’ The eyes roll again. Did he ask her to sing again? ‘No. There is only one inauguration.’ But there’s a second term. ‘Oh. Well, how can that be an inauguration the second time? That’s not the same thing. The moment that was historical will only happen once in history and it happened when I sang the National Anthem. That’s the first time it ever happened. How can it happen again? I was there at one of the greatest moments in history. I was touched. That moment was the fruition for many who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly when we saw Reverend Jackson and there were tears flowing. I’m sure many, many things went through his mind, Dr King being one of them. It was the fruition of the hopes and dreams of a nation. Ah-hum,’ she says triumphantly. It’s an ah-hum that says her father would be very proud. ‘Ah-hum-hmm. Absolutely.
‘They were great friends Dr King and my dad. The march in Detroit was a precursor to the march in Washington. He actually did the “I have a dream” speech here before Washington. The applause was so thunderous the walls were shaking. There have been so many gains, but there’s certainly still a way to go.’
She says this with such passion I wonder how close she was to Dr King? ‘He was a guest of my dad’s.’ Not a personal friend? ‘Oh, please stop, definitely not. I understand exactly what you mean. None of that.’ She says this with a quiet ferocity, but then the moment passes and she becomes sweet again.
‘When he was a guest of Dad’s in our home we had a housekeeper who I used to call Catherine the Great because she was such a great cook. She asked Dr King what he would like for breakfast. Bacon, omelette, grits, or sorjetses because she couldn’t say sausages. Dr King thought for a moment and he says, ‘Well Catherine, I’ll have some bacon and I’ll have some of that sorjetses. He was such a gracious man he didn’t make fun of the moment or try to correct her, he just went along with it.’
At this point a voice comes in and says the interview must stop but Aretha is having none of it. ‘I love cooking. I do a great chicken and dressing and I do good spaghetti and omelettes. I also like banana puddings and peach cobbler. You know, these days I just very lightly taste. I don’t over taste when I’m cooking. If you mess up there you can gain a lot of weight. My favourite food to eat and cook and the most difficult thing for me to give up was ham hocks and greens. I just love ham hocks and greens.’
Maybe she should just stick to the greens? ‘Well no, I’d rather have the ham hocks with a little hot sauce, some cornbread. What could be better?’
A voice cries out, “The interview must stop.” Aretha says, ‘No. Let’s have another give minutes. She came all this way.’
So this is the even weirder thing. The minute she knows the interview is going to end she doesn’t want it. She becomes relaxed and super chatty. She tells me there are three deals on the table for the biopic movie of her life. ‘There might be Audrey MacDonald, Jennifer Hudson, or a gospel unknown playing myself. I don’t know yet.’
What about Alicia Keys? Aretha covers Keys’ No One on the Divas album so I thought there might be a connection. ‘That’s so interesting,’ she says animated. ‘There a possibility of Shonda Rhimes (writer and producer of Grey’s Anatomy) writing it. Uh-hmm,’ she says savouring it. Would she control the script? ‘I would certainly have edit approval and I don’t think you could beat that except maybe with the ham hocks.’ She giggles.
Her posse want the interview to finish and now we have passed a few sticky moments I think Aretha doesn’t want it to finish. The hot and cold is perplexing.
I ask her if we can have a picture. I sit on the floor before her and it looks as I am kneeling at the feet of a queen. ‘Do stop with that,’ she says. ‘There’s only one Queen, your Queen, and she’s still handling it. I really admire that Queen of yours. Such maturity from such a young age, and such great walking shoes.’
The tape recorder is off now and she is much more relaxed. She wonders if the Queen walks around the palace maybe as she walks around the superstore. She admires my eye make-up, which is dark and glittery, just like her eye make-up, which is dark and glittery.
Suddenly there’s an incredible warmth to her, or maybe it’s relief that I’m going. Puzzled I speak to Roger Friedman, Showbiz411.com columnist and friend of Franklin. Sometimes she’s sweet, sometimes she’s not.
‘Yes,’ he concedes. ‘She can be a puzzle.’ He tells me that changing her mind about interview dates and times is just because she changes her mind a lot and nothing more should be read into it. He tells me that she comes to New York to learn classical piano and teaches her teacher gospel piano in return.
‘A critic in the New York Times had accused her of using Auto-Tune on her Divas album. I asked her if this was true. I heard her ask, “Do we use Auto-Tune in the car?” She had no idea what it was. Of course she doesn’t use Auto-Tune.
‘What you have to remember is Aretha is a living legend. James Brown is gone, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. She wanted to do this album as they were her idols. It’s so easy to make fun of celebrities. They are so daffy or whatever. But we have to appreciate who we’ve got and what they mean to us. Every singer wants to be Aretha Franklin and they never will be. She is singular. She can still make an album with all the trills and whoops and everything she adds that no one else can do. It’s easy to make fun of her as she is the ultimate diva, but all the other divas who are legends are dead. We have to treat her with respect now.’
She is indeed the ultimate diva and respect is something she not only demands, but has earned.
I first met Celine Dion on the boiling hot rooftop of Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, just after watching her powerful, emotional stage show, complete with a raging real water storm for the Titanic number My Heart Will Go On.
I have always thought she is an odd mix, a diva who is totally humble. She has never been cool. She told me, ‘I don’t try to be, that’s not me.’ She’s never been edgy. Yet she’s sold over 200 million records worldwide, making her the best selling female artist ever. Her amazing multiple octave voice reaches across far expanses of the world.
When we met the album she played me was beautiful, perfect, but weeks before its release she decided to start again, to try to become the thing that she’d never been – cool.
‘The new album is half full of the songs I sing on stage, but the other half was because I started to be sent a lot of amazing songs, so we kept going to put them on the album.’
The new single, Loved Me Back To Life, is written by Sia, one of the hottest songwriters around. Other songwriters are taken from the cool pool of hitmakers like Ne Yo, Eg White, Tricky Stewart, and Babyface.
‘When all these amazing songs came in my 12-year-old said this is not possible that Sia and Ne Yo are sending you songs. I thought they wrote for Rihanna. They must have made a mistake.’
Her voice is also very different. It’s like a cat’s purr. ‘It’s very dry. Normally my voice would be blended. That’s been the recipe for it all my life, so I decided to modernise.’
These days she looks every inch a proper pop star in glamorous expensive designer slinky gowns. Yet her quirky rural French Canadian accent is still there when she speaks.
She is 44 and seems to have undergone the ageing process in reverse. She started off geeky looking and launched a thousand jokes of “Why the long face, Celine?” But she’s not only grown into her features, she is radiant. Lustrous hair, giant sparkly eyes, creamy skin.
When we are face to face the air conditioning isn’t working and it is 110 degrees outside at midnight and hotter inside. She doesn’t complain.
Maybe it’s happiness that has made her look better as she’s got older? ‘Maybe. I’ve worked hard for nearly 30 years and I feel like only now it’s paying off in terms of happiness. Emotionally I feel stable. So I do feel more beautiful. If I’d had 30 years of career and no children I would not have felt beautiful. I would have felt like I’d accomplished only part of a life.
‘I think motherhood has given me a stability and a strength. It’s given me a different approach to how I feel about myself.
determined not to commit until she was pregnant.
‘I don’t have to do any of this.’ She means performing and recording. ‘I do it because I love to sing. But the only reward that would mean anything to me is my children. There is nothing that can top being a mother. I’m 44 years old. I would like more but I don’t know if it could happen. I want the twins and I to have quality time. It’s selfish to keep wanting more, although I would love a girl. Imagine all the shopping, the jewellery, the shoes, the dresses I could give to her.’
Her twins came with a determination that is super human. Her first son René-Charles, now 11, was also an IVF baby and she had already had embryos frozen for future planning.
‘I did IVF six times one after the other (in 2010).’ Nobody does that. She shrugs. She must have been crazy with screaming hormones. She shrugs again. ‘I don’t know. You might have to ask René (Angélil, her husband) that. I was not over emotional, not even tired.
‘I did five years at Caesars Palace and went half a year around the world on tour, and it was finally time. I thought as long as my health permits me I’m going to go and on until I get pregnant. I told my doctor that unless he thought physically I couldn’t do it, I would go on until someone told me to stop.’
Six IVFs one on top of another are not only physically draining but mentally debilitating. I tell her about a friend of mine who has had four attempts over as many years. When she finally got pregnant she was in denial. She couldn’t believe or invest in the pregnancy because it was too important to her.
Did she suffer from anything like that? ‘No. Tell your friend to have coffee with heavy cream every morning and take it easy. Any pregnancy whether it’s in vitro or not you feel a danger. You have to remain positive and try to relax as much as possible. I always say that the first country my children own is inside of me, so I try to make it a good one and be healthy.’
Dion comes from a huge family. She’s the youngest of 14. She grew up in Charlemagne, Quebec. Her father was a lumberjack and they were extremely poor, but it wasn’t something she noticed. Did she always want to have a big family? ‘I never thought about it at first. I was on stage from being a child and I was busy professionally at twelve. I’d barely had a period.
‘I didn’t think about children in general but when love came into my life and I got married and I had money and success I was like, what’s missing? For a long time I thought that’s the price for me to pay for success. I’m from a big family. I now have a lot of money, I’m not going to be able to have children, you have to pay a price, you can’t have it all.
‘It was quite self-punishing. Then I thought I’m going to try to have it all. I’m going to try very hard, and it happened.’
She had René-Charles when she was 33. Getting pregnant at 42 was obviously going to be even harder. ‘So I had to deal with it. I was going to do whatever it took and of course there was a window of doubt. And I kept that window. I was 95 per cent positive, five per cent doubting. I didn’t want the doctor to call me and say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not going to work and I would crash.
‘I needed to protect myself a little by saying I already have one child. I can’t make all my life, my spirituality, my strength, my happiness, dependent on the next pregnancy. What about my child now? I would say to him I hope you are going to have a brother or sister and when it didn’t work I told him it didn’t work, we’ll try again.’
How long did all this take? ‘We signed the contract to come back to Vegas and we had to postpone two or three times. If they’d said you want babies, we need a singer, I would have understood. I told René I can’t stop. I have to try and try and try all the way.
‘People stop because it’s very expensive but I kept on going and would only have stopped if I’d been told my health was in danger but I was not going to stop just because I had a contract for singing. I would have hated every song for the rest of my life, so I said try to postpone the Caesars Palace shows because it wasn’t a good enough reason for me not to try for a baby. A life or a contract? I couldn’t live with that.
‘If the doctor had said this is your last try, your health cannot go on any more, but he never said that. I was reacting better to the treatment as we went along.’
Cancelling a Vegas contract would have cost her millions of dollars but she already has millions of dollars. She is reputed to be worth £300 million.
She knew that IVF meant there was a good chance of a multiple pregnancy and when the test was finally positive, ‘I had three babies inside me. It was unbelievable. Every week I would go to the doctor and there would be three heartbeats. The doctor was freaking out because in your forties if you are expecting more than one baby there’s a high risk of Downs Syndrome, and also you’re more at risk from other things like high blood pressure. (You’re also at risk pre-eclampsia).
‘I went for ultra sound every week and saw baby A, baby B and baby C, but one week baby C was not moving. (Baby C had died). It was around three months into the pregnancy. The baby is tiny. It doesn’t even come out. It makes a dry patch on the placenta. That’s the only proof of a baby.
‘My husband and I shed a little tear. Then you reason to yourself that baby has passed, let go for a good reason. It was to give more strength to the other two babies. Who knows what might have gone wrong if three had remained. I didn’t have to make any decisions, any choices, I just focused on my two babies, and they got stronger and bigger. Nobody wants to have a 1lb baby.
‘When my twins were born they were 5lb 10oz and 5lb 4oz. almost 12lb of baby. I gained 60lb in all. That was just belly.
‘I had a C-section. I had one with my first child at the last minute and I was already dilating. That was hard but because it was twins they recommend the C-section and I wanted healthy babies. It wasn’t a fashion choice.
‘We scheduled it carefully. We wanted to wait till the babies were at least 5lb.’ She was 35 weeks pregnant when she gave birth to twins Eddy and Nelson in November 2010. They remained in a neo-natal intensive care unit for several days.
‘They were a little jaundiced at first so we had to stay in the hospital and we had a little bit of blood on their heels for a couple of days, but they were fine, more than fine.
‘We named Nelson after Nelson Mandela. You can’t have one child with the name of a hero and the other Bob the Builder. So I named Eddy after my other hero (Eddy Marnay), who wrote all my French songs for me at the beginning of my career.’ (He also wrote songs for Edith Piaf).
She says the twins now love to dress up and play with her clothes. ‘They have strong and very different personalities but both of them love to wake up first thing in the morning and go to their closet and decide what they will wear.’
Sometimes her Canadian French speaking is difficult to fathom because she speaks with a strange syntax. Sometimes it makes her speech poetic and heartfelt. ‘They told me one day I’d start dreaming in English and then speak it better. It didn’t happen. Although now I’m not sure what language I dream in. I like to sing in French because sometimes I connect better with the words. A table is not a table, it’s a feminine thing. But a chair is a masculine thing. It’s more precise, like Japanese, but Japanese is all about the emphasis.’
She starts singing in Japanese. I’ve no idea what she is saying. But even sat down in a suite at Caesars Palace her voice is astounding and overwhelmingly emotional.
Does she find it hard to juggle being a mother of three and performing every night” Isn’t it difficult to shift the focus?
‘I’m not sure there is a shift of focus. When I’m on stage my kids are with me. When I’m home my head sings songs. I don’t bring them with me because I don’t want to live that showbusiness life. I want to sleep, go home and get into my pjs.’
She has a house nearby. ‘After the last song I change very quickly and do a runner. I’m home at 10 o’clock to be with my babies and I leave at 4 o’clock, so I’m with them as much as possible.
‘In the morning one of my biggest pleasures is to have my kids round me and coffee with heavy cream, no sugar. I hold the cup like it’s a little bird nest. It comforts me. At night I go to bed and my kids are sleeping and I whisper I can’t wait for tomorrow to have my coffee and my kids. It’s the simple pleasures of life that make the most sense.
‘None of my children are good sleepers. My eleven-year-old, my big boy, likes to wait up for me to come home. My twins wake up constantly, but I don’t care. I have lots of help. My sisters and nannies make sure they are fine.’ She smiles in a kind of dreamy gratitude. She is very emotionally available and direct. If something moves her she cries. If she likes you she hugs you. She’s always waving her arms around on stage and off to express how she’s feeling.
‘I can’t believe I did this show for five years and then they wanted me to come back for 70 shows a year. We like to change the show and evolve it in case the same people come back. She likes to please people. She tries hard. She used to try even harder so her face would sometimes appear strained and tight. she dressed in trouser suits a lot, restricted. Now she loves the floaty, the drapey, the soft. Does she feel more sexy? ‘I feel more happy and sure of myself.’
I have read recent rumours that she is pregnant again. ‘No-o-o,’ she says emphatically, and goes into a small diatribe about the internet and she doesn’t even own a computer and assumes that’s where I’ve read it. She does add: ‘We did not really close the whole chapter on children, but right now I don’t have plans. I’m not pregnant. I’ll let you know if I am.’
There’s a wistfulness in her voice. She grew up as part of a huge family and would have liked to have something similar. She’s always claimed that her family were wonderful and loving, yet growing up was torture for her.
The song 17 by Janis Ian is particularly emotionally resonant for her. When she performs it in the show it brought much of the audience to tears because they identified with being ugly and rejected, which she felt at that age. Today she is a glamorous diva, but there is graciousness and humility that exudes from her, probably because she grew up tormented by her looks.
‘It was hard for me. I was not pretty. Going to school was hard for me. I was skinny and my teeth were really bad and we didn’t have the money to fix it with braces. I didn’t have these.’ She gestures to her now perfect formed and perfectly lined up sparkling whites.
‘When you’re the good looking little girl everyone wants to be friends with you and nobody wanted to be friends with me. I’ve never forgotten that. Of course I’ve emotionally grown. I’ve been a girlfriend, a wife, a mother. But when you’re ten years old, teeth right out there that are twisted, it’s cruel. I never wanted to go to school. I wanted to be home all the time because there I knew I was loved and would not be laughed at.
‘I don’t know if it’s normal that at eight you feel this way. I just know I love maturity and I never want to be eight or 25 again.’ Coincidentally at 26 she married Angélil, who was 52. ‘At 44 my life is getting better. Both parents gave me wonderful values of life, a foundation of love and support.
‘As soon as I hit showbusiness my mum was with me all the time. She didn’t trust anybody.’
Angélil became her manager when she was 12 and he was 38. At the time he had a bit of a bad boy reputation. He’d been married twice. ‘My mother didn’t trust him. She wrote to him to take care of me but she stayed with me till I was 18. I learnt a lot by meeting a lot of older people with experience. I would not change any of my journeys.
‘In my early 20s I fell in love with René but we were hiding it from the world because it was impossible to fall in love with a man who had three children and was married twice. It was a no, no, no with my mum.’
She bows her head and for the first time. She looks as if she is talking with difficulty when she remembers this. She shifts in her seat when she says it was deemed ‘inappropriate.’
‘When he first started managing me he was married. I was not involved with him but people imagine things. It was not proper, it was not the right thing to do.’
His marriage had been dissolved by the time she sang for Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988, aged 20. In the euphoria of winning the song contest she kissed him and has said that kiss was one of the greatest moments of her life. They married in 1994.
On the day she discovered she was pregnant with René-Charles her husband was declared in remission from skin cancer. ‘Imagine, we faced life and death in one day.’ She had put her career on hold to care for him through his cancer treatment.
Her love for Angélil is palpable and vice versa. He is now He was sat in front of me during her performance, hung on her every note, warmed to her every word, beamed with pride.
He carries himself with grace and confidence. His son Patrick from his first marriage is part of Celine’s management team and is equally gracious. Angélil was recently in a Quebecois movie called Omert where he played a Montreal mob boss. It topped the box office across Quebec. He got the part because in Canada people think of him as a kind of godfather-like character.
‘Sometimes I treat him as that character. They came to him because they know his personality. He is charismatic and low key. He’s a good poker player. He’s got the look.’
‘Today I feel more beautiful and more strong than I ever have. Next week my mum is coming to the show and then we’ll all move to Florida for a month where my son goes to school. She also has a house in Montreal.
‘I don’t want to be busier than busy. I don’t want my kids to feel I’m not there for them. I’ve wanted them for too long for that. I want to make the most of them. Now the simplest things make me happy. I’ve got a feeling the sky ‘s the limit. I don’t feel I can’t do this any more. I feel like I want to do everything; enjoy time with my children, enjoy the growth of my twins, and I also love to sing.’
She doesn’t just sing to her audience, she gets inside them, communicates joy, pain, everything she’s ever felt. ‘It proves to me that the world is still alive. If I cry it’s because I’m alive.’
I am waiting in Malibu in an over-stuffed flamboyant house, lots of velvet, gold leaf, plumped pillows, chandeliers. It could be Cher’s house but it is in fact the house of a rich Russian person who has rented it out for my interview. Cher lives in another Malibu house eight miles away in her own gothic glory.
Cher, her manager, her make-up artist, her photographer, get lost in those eight miles and arrive a little late. The photographer has been hired to take my picture with Cher. It wasn’t something I asked for but Cher thought that I might like it.
She arrives with a green drink in her hand, giant hazel eyes sparkling as much as her giant treble-diamond ring. She is wearing a black tailcoat, white waistcoat, foamy chiffony shirt, dark jeans, thick boots. Rock chick clothes. Oddly she pulls it off. Her best features are her hair and her eyes which are so mesmeric you forget to look to see if you can see if the skin on her face has been pulled and tightened.
What everyone really wants to know about Cher is how did Cher, gay icon, gothic rocker, activist, former hippie chick, disco diva, Oscar winning actress, daytime vamp, the woman who launched a thousand drag queens, really feel when her daughter Chastity first came out as a lesbian and then underwent full-on sex change therapy to become a man.
You wonder just how you are going to ask her about this because you’ve read that she was mortified and you could imagine she would be. Cher, so slinky and feminine, loves men, manicures, sequins.
She made dresses for golden ringleted Chastity who would appear with her parents on the Sonny and Cher Show in the Seventies. How could she have imagined that her little girl would grow up first of all thinking she was a bull dyke and then realising she wanted to be a man, a very fat man at that?
I am surprised that Cher is warm with a relaxing motherly presence. Still, how does she feel about her daughter becoming a son is a difficult question.
Now the only child of Cher and Sonny Bono is 43 and renamed Chaz and is delighted to be burly, bearded hairy backed. He had death threats when he appeared as a male partner on Dancing With Stars, the US equivalent to Strictly.
I stumble over the pronoun. She and the he somehow get mixed up in my mouth and Cher gives me a look of concern and empathy for my embarrassment.
‘You mean Chaz. Don’t worry. I screw up the pronouns all the time,’ she says with a Mona Lisa smile and it reminds me that she won an Oscar for Moonstruck. Is this calm facade brilliant acting? Remember she was also nominated for her very un-Cher downbeat role in Silkwood, and so hilarious in The Witches of Eastwick. Of course more recently there was Burlesque where she simply a parody of Cher-isms. I decide rather than studied introspection what I see before me is real.
‘I would have said that Chaz is like Sonny and there is a portion of him that’s like me.’
What about when Chas became Chaz? ‘Oh yes, I had a hard time.’ She looks me right in the eye. You can tell her heart was quite pierced by this.
‘I didn’t have a hard time in the beginning because when Chaz came to see me and told me this is what I want to do I said well if you’re miserable then you’ve got to do it. But then as it was starting to happen, you know, it’s a strange change for a mother to go through.’ To suddenly have two sons instead of a boy and a girl. ‘Right,’ she says. I am surprised by how easy it is to talk to her about this.
When it was first happening she was afraid to see him in case she didn’t recognise him. She asked if he would save his old answering voice because it was his girl’s voice before it had been lowered by his daily injection of testosterone.
He had his breasts cut off and fat redistributed in a thickset blokish sort of way. As yet he has not had an operation to reconstruct his clitoris into a penis. He talks at transgender conferences and provides counselling for others in a similar situation. He is a pioneer. Perhaps he really is like his mother.
‘When I’m talking about Chaz in the old days it’s very difficult. [to get the pronouns right]. If I’m talking about something that’s happened with Chaz when we were in Aspen and when Chaz was little, he was she. But things that happen from now, or from a little while ago, Chaz is he.’
Did she have a sense of loss and mourning for her daughter? ‘It was difficult but now I don’t think about it so much. We talked about it on and off for years. He would talk about doing it and then he would go off it. And then finally he did it. It’s a huge decision and not something you make lightly. But it’s turned out well.’
Her voice has a certainty in it, and almost a soothing quality. ‘For the people who don’t understand it I try to help them understand it by saying, you know, I just love being a woman so much, but if I woke up tomorrow and I was a man I couldn’t function. And that is the only way to describe it to someone who doesn’t understand. But it’s hard to relate to, oh, I must change my sex. But I know that if by some miraculous something I woke up as a man I would hate it so much I can’t tell you.’
I look at Cher with her white fingernails, the pointed tips painted black, her ultra pouty pink lips and feathery-mascaraed eyes, her long dark glossy curls. There’s something almost doll-like about her. I stare at all of this. How could Cher, the most girlie of girls, cope with having a daughter who wanted to be a son?
‘You know, your children go their own way and I think it took so much courage. I don’t think I would have had that much courage. But he was so miserable in that body and now he is happy. Totally happy.
‘When I say I knew he wanted to be a man I don’t know what I really knew. I knew that he wasn’t happy but I didn’t know the exact reason he wasn’t happy, but this seems to be the thing that was missing. [When he was a lesbian] he was in a relationship [with a girl] but they broke up a long time ago. She is a lovely girl.’ Jennifer Elia, an attractive brunette, was his partner for five years and he’d always told her about his gender struggle, but when the change was complete the relationship faltered.
Was that because she was in love with him as a girl? ‘I don’t know. I think she was having a hard time with her sobriety for a while. But also they had been together for a really long time and I think the transition for her was really difficult.’
Apparently when Chaz was charged with all the male hormones he got aggressive and sexually demanding and in a documentary Being Chaz, Jennifer admitted that her sobriety had been tested over her girlfriend becoming her boyfriend and she said, “He’s not the person I fell in love with.” Indeed he (she) wasn’t.
What’s impressive is that Cher is old school. You ask her a question, she answers it unflinching. She doesn’t even try to plug her new record. She is not like some newbie pop star who only wants to talk about her music. That said, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to be modern. She has come up with a record that is relevant – tracks produced by Paul Oakenfold and a song with Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters and songs written by Pink.
At 67 she still has the stamina to tour constantly (new world tour in 2014) and in silly tiny sequined outfits where she must feel she’s literally turning back time. At the end of her hot and throbby performances during her residency at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas from 2008 to 2011 she always said, “Top that, you bitches.” Sure, she likes to run with a young set because she likes to outrun them.
‘You know we were working out this morning, my teacher and a couple of friends and I said give me a break, I’m older than everybody here, but the teacher said, you’re full of shit, you’re 30. You work out better than my 30-year-olds. So in some ways I forget how old I am and in some ways I don’t.
Cher’s age is indeed a conundrum. I’m not sure what 67 looks like but it doesn’t look like Cher, and she doesn’t act it. Sure, she might have had a little help with her face. She admits to a nose job and a breast reduction. She denies the constant rumour that she had one of her ribs removed. She says that her good friends are often the teenage and twenty something children of her friends. ‘Young people like me. I don’t know why.’
Certainly she was friends with Lady Gaga. There was going to be a collaboration with Gaga’s prolific producer RedOne – a track called The Greatest Thing. RedOne thought instead of the original plan of Cher singing it, it would make a great duet. In the end Gaga was disappointed with the result and vetoed it. Cher voiced her own disappointment that the two icons could not be on song. When someone leaked a version of The Greatest Thing. Cher was all over Twitter in her anger at the unfinished version’s appearance.
Cher is an epic tweeter. I’m surprised she could take the time off tweeting to talk to me. She tweets whatever comes into her head. No censorship, lots of swear words,1.7 million followers. In her tweets she is forthright, funny, and likes to complain about Madonna. In person she is a lot less flighty.
Her new album Closer To The Truth will be her first in eleven years. ‘I am not a Cher fan. I don’t listen to the records I’ve made for fun. This one I’m surprised by.’
Has she now become a Cher fan? ‘No, no, no, let’s not go that far. It’s just my voice is very distinctive and it’s not a voice that’s appealing to me. And on this record there are a couple of songs, Silence and My Love, that I sing in a different way, a kind of straight way, no vibrato.’ Indeed, these songs do not sound like Cher. The voice is high and melodic.
Does she feel like a different person to who she was ten years ago? ‘I feel like an older version of myself. I don’t think I’ve changed much in what I think is right or wrong or what I think is bullshit. My mother is 87 and she’s pretty much the same person as when I was little.’
Recently she made a documentary – Dear Mom, Love Cher – about her mother. Georgia Holt looks tall and strong and at least 20 years younger than her 87 years. She also sings and sounds exactly like Cher. Her mother was six times married and says, “Don’t pay attention to age and it won’t pay attention to you.” Her mother is part Cherokee, hence the high age-defying cheekbones.
‘I had two grandmothers, one died at 87, the other at 97, and I said to the 97-year–old one, “Nana, how old do you feel?” And she said, “Darling, I look in the mirror and wonder who that old lady is because I feel so young.” And that’s sometimes how I feel. I forget that I’m older.
‘The other day somebody said how old are you and for a minute I forgot. I thought I was ten years younger and I still thought that was old. It’s not easy getting older in this business for sure.’ I notice she doesn’t mention any numbers here.
Does she feel that in her business becoming old is the same as becoming extinct? ‘No, there’s just not the access to older performers that there is to younger performers, especially women, because it’s a young person’s art.
‘More than any other time in history the people who came up in my time are now having a hard time. We don’t want to stop singing. The Stones don’t want to stop and I don’t want to. But it’s hard. You try to find your niche and stay relevant in your music and you keep going.
‘I hoped there wouldn’t be a prejudice because I was a certain age and people wouldn’t even give the record a listen.’ She says this in a deadpan way but it is obviously something she’s thought about.
Was that why it took so long to get the record out? ‘No. In those eleven years I wasn’t thinking about it. Honestly. I just forgot. I forgot to make a record. I was on the road, I was in Vegas. I did the movie Burlesque. I had some vacation and I didn’t really have a contract for a while, I was in limbo, so I went on the road and didn’t think about it.’
She performed a lot of shows. ‘That was very stressful. On the last day I wanted to kill myself. I cried and cried and cried. We were at the Hollywood Bowl and I spent the night on the tour bus. I’d never done that before. It was so weird that suddenly I just didn’t want to stop. The only thing that is stressful about being on the road is the road. The shows themselves are fabulous. I love that part. I just don’t like the road, the isolation of the road.
‘It’s hard because I can’t go many places. We might buy out a movie theatre or miniature golf course or paint china or go bowling. The only way we’d do those things is if we buy them out and no one else is there. We want to be where there’s no people with iPhones.
‘I remember going to the movies thinking why is everybody texting and emailing, and then I realised they weren’t, they were taking photos of me. So it’s hard for me to go about in a normal way. I love having freedom. In the old days the paparazzi were polite. They would say can we take a picture? They wouldn’t ambush you and be aggressive.’
‘Once we had to get a restraining order against a paparazzi. He made my boyfriend go into a ditch and we rolled our car. This was in the eighties.’ Her then boyfriend was bartender Robert Camilletti.
‘My boyfriend went to jail because he was so angry he went to their car and he ripped it apart and they said he tried to kill them. If you saw these guys they were just old and just wankers. If he wanted to kill them he could have done easily. But after they’d forced us to roll the car he was so furious he tore their car up. He went to jail for a day and then got so much community service. I think he could have killed someone and got less community service.
‘We had a restraining order on these paparazzi and they came on the property and they broke the restraining order and he was angry the whole time because he was trying to look after me. Whenever I went out I’d have to sneak out the driveway and lay on the floor of the car.’
Is being too recognisable a double-edged sword? Is there pleasure in being an icon as well as pain at the lack of freedom? Would she swap?
‘No, I’d rather have both of course.’ She pauses: ‘I’d probably go for freedom. Fame is great and then it gets hard. Like things you used to take for granted you can no longer do. Like if I wanted to make a run to Safora (a beauty supplies shop) I have to know exactly what I want to get and go for it, like a hunting expedition.’
It must be tough being Cher. It must be even tougher being Cher’s boyfriend. Traditionally Cher has dated men who are younger than her, but not always less gothic looking than her. There’s been Val Kilmer, Gene Simmons of Kiss, Bon Jovi Richie Sambora, and biker Tim Medvetz.
Did she find it unsettling that boyfriends didn’t like being Mr Cher? ‘It wasn’t so much unsettling for me. I’ve also had some amazing boyfriends and some really famous ones but it takes a certain kind of man to be able to put up with it. It certainly puts a strain on them. Like Robert for instance. He didn’t buy into go into jail or having people chase him. He’s a private citizen and people were very mean to him. That stuff doesn’t keep you from having relationships it just makes it harder to go for a walk on the beach or something like that. You have to outsmart people and try and just live your life.’
What have the men she’s gone for had in common? She perks up. ‘Actually many of them have had amazing senses of humour and they’ve all been really kind. I love people who are kind and I wouldn’t date anyone who wasn’t, it just wouldn’t work for me.’ Kindness is very underrated. ‘Yes, and it’s a game changer for me. Intelligence is great but I don’t know that it trumps everything. Kindness and an adventurous spirit is what does it.
‘I still like to do dumb things. I like to do kid things. So I like it when the person I’m with wants to ride a paddleboard or go-karting or take a run to Disneyland or go to Hawaii. I like people who are adaptable because I have to pick my moments.’ Meaning if she suddenly finds a break in her schedule she likes to make the most of it.
Does she have a boyfriend now? ‘Er, well, actually, no. I just broke up with someone. Or let me rephrase that. It went to a certain place and I couldn’t see me putting any more time into it so it wasn’t really a break-up. I think relationships have to go in stages and we just couldn’t go to the next stage. We are really good friends but there was no impetus to keep going. Love feels to me like unbelievable fun, and if it’s not unbelievable fun you stop it.’
Is she the person that ends a relationship? ‘Most of the time. I am a serial monogamist. My relationships seem to go for two and a half years, maybe three, and then that’s it.’
She was married to Gregg Allman, from The Allman Brothers, from 1975 to 1979, but her longest relationship was with Sonny Bono. They met in 1963 and broke up in 1972, but didn’t divorce until 1975. He died in a freak skiing accident in January 1998, aged 62. Meeting him, loving him and losing him were the most important things that happened to her.
‘Meeting him changed everything and leaving him changed everything as well, and losing him was huge. It’s like when people say losing a parent is a huge defining moment. It was like that. Even though we weren’t that close at that point in so far as we weren’t seeing each other very often, but it was a huge, huge loss.
‘I was in England when it happened and I remember going to a certain place that I didn’t think the paparazzi would follow because I was so upset. I got there and I was sobbing and sobbing.
‘It was the end of an era for me. It was the end of a time that had been so important for me. It was the end of something that had been a major part of my life. It was like a parent dying. When I met him I was 16 so he was…’ I finish the sentence, a father figure. ‘…Well he was a mentor. He got me a job background singing and he always believed in me and wanted me to be a solo artist and I didn’t really want to and then we became famous together. I had so many milestones with him that would never have happened without him. I wouldn’t have done any of that. I had the energy but I was so scattered. He was the person who focused it all.’
She was born on May 20, 1946, the last day of Taurus. In some astrologers view the beginning of Gemini. Is that scattered energy her Gemini side? ‘If you knew me you would see that I am very Taurus. I am sturdy, in my own way a plodder, but I have the vocal energy of a Gemini.
‘Taureans can be very spontaneous and are stubborn. And I’m really stubborn, ridiculously. A lot of Taureans can end up quite corpulent because they like food, like Orson Welles, and I like food when it is good, but it’s not a major thing for me to eat for the sake of it, but I’m very materialistic. I like my house and I love things.’
Did she have to fight against the love of good food? Is she very disciplined? ‘No. When I was growing up we were very poor and my mother was from the South and we didn’t eat a lot of meat because it was expensive so I never got a taste for it. I eat vegetables because meat is something l don’t like the taste of. I do have a terrible sweet tooth.’
They moved around a lot when she was growing up and her circumstances could change dramatically depending on who her mother was married to or if she was on her own. Mostly she grew up in California where her mother had bit parts on TV shows.
‘She married my dad twice, I don’t know why. She told me she never loved him that much. She just said he was very convincing but that never made much sense to me. I didn’t meet him until I was 11.’
How was that? ‘He was nice. I enjoyed him.’ Wasn’t her whole life trying to find her missing father figure? ‘No, because when I met him it was fun. I was a lot like him in certain ways. Suddenly I knew where a lot of my expressions came from.’
So nature rules over nurture? ‘Right. Elijah is like that too with his dad.’
Unfortunately, Elijah, 37, inherited his father’s addictive personality. Gregg Allman was a heroin addict. Elijah had a problem with drugs. ‘There are so many thing that Elijah that Gregory does which is odd because they never spent much time with each other.’
Didn’t Allman once try to kill her when he was high on drugs? ‘No, he didn’t try to kill me. He would never have done that. But he lost his temper when we were in Jamaica and I had to spend the night on the beach with this fabulous who was the housekeeper in the house we rented and we sat on the beach all night while guys with torches hunted crabs. It turned out to be an interesting adventure. We didn’t split then. Not then. He and I went back and forth, back and forth because I was crazy about him. But you can’t have people that are doing drugs that are around your kids.’
Elijah inherited that side of him? ‘Well, yes. But he’s okay now. He’s great. But it took a chunk out of his life. A chunk out of both of them. He very much looks like his dad. I think he is going to be a manager.
Does she think not having her father around made her attracted to a certain type of man? ‘It might have done because Sonny was very nurturing. And when I first met him I was very sickly. He was much older than me and he had a vision. I was just running around dancing and hanging around with my friends. I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t have any focus. Maybe I would have got there anyway, but Sonny was the one who said if you do this, this will work. This will be the right thing to do. He was a catalyst for everything.’
Was that when she fell in love with him? ‘Oh no, I did that way before. We didn’t work together at first. I think I hero-worshipped him because he was as very extraordinary person. Not fabulous all the time for sure, but he was a very forward thinker, interested in life. He would do things that maybe men would have had a problem with. Like I used to dress him crazy in the beginning and he just said okay, fine, this is fun. He was open to a lot of things. He wasn’t open to a lot of things as well and we got into fights, but he liked to stretch himself. I think he’d given up before he met me and I was a spark for him too. He tried to have a career that didn’t work out so we sparked each other.’
So what happened with this man that was such a huge influence, what went wrong? ‘It didn’t go wrong. I was just finished. It started to become more about the work than the relationship. Plus I was 27 and I didn’t need to be told what to do any more.’
She says this without a trace of regret because regretting nothing is all part of her mantra. She takes a swig from her wheatgrass drink. ‘Honestly, it doesn’t taste disgusting. It’s got powdered vitamins in it. I’m not the kind of person who wants to suffer ill health.’
I’d heard she had a phobia of getting sick ‘No, that’s not true. But a long time ago I had Epstein Barr (syndrome) and it made my life a misery for two years.’ The symptoms are extreme tiredness, lethargy. ‘I’m not very phobic at all. In general, I’m very happy.’ If this is not the case, she’s done a very good job of convincing me.
Michael Bublé is wearing a doll size leather jacket, a teeny red T-shirt and the skinniest dark jeans. I am shocked at how much he’s shrunk and tell him that his ankles are the size of my wrists. He looks pleased.
‘I suppose that I am supposed to be little. I was much much bigger and I really had to eat a lot to get like that. I was chunky. I look back at pictures at me,’ he shakes his head. ‘I remember seeing the cover of Call Me Irresponsible (his 2007 third and pivotal album) and thinking “Ooh, you’re fat”.’ It wasn’t so much that he was fat he was unhappy and eating to block out misery and insecurity.
‘Like everybody, I go up and down. I’ll probably put on ten, take off ten. My wife is really healthy so I’ve got used to eating her healthy food.
‘I used to eat pizzas and burgers and McDonalds. Now I’ll eat a nice piece of fish and vegetables. You just get used to it and you start eating like that all the time. It becomes the new normal.’
Bublé has always been a man of extremes, he ate too much pasta and loved too much and too many women. All that changed when he met his wife, Argentinian model/actress Luisana Lopilato, in 2009. They married 2 years later and are now expecting their first child, a boy, due in July.
When they first met she didn’t speak much English and he no Spanish. It was one of those coup de foudre moments. They met backstage at one of his concerts in Argentina introduced by the president of his Argentinian record company.
At the time he was recovering from his break-up with British actress Emily Blunt. He and Luisana took things slowly and carefully, a first for Bublé.
We are in a homely suit at the Sunset Marquis. It’s a classic rock and roll hotel where televisions have definitely been thrown into the swimming pool and late night tantrums are commonplace. But not with Bublé, not any more.
His latest album, To Be Loved, is seeped with cosy contentment. It’s a happy record. No pain. It’s not been an easy road to get there. He has described his break-up with Blunt as the” worst and the greatest thing” that’s ever happened to him. He bought books on how to be happy. He saw a therapist.
Then he met his future wife but continued with his therapist. ‘I married a girl who doesn’t drink, except once in a while. She goes to the gym every day, eats good. It’s part of her pattern so it becomes part of your pattern. It becomes your lifestyle.’
Does he never have emotional cravings for cheese? He laughs, ‘Let’s be honest, I could live on bread and cheese for every day of my life. If someone told me every day from now on you have to live on bread and cheese I would say “Yesss!”.
The difference is last time we met he gave me his family recipe for spaghetti carbonara – his grandfather is Italian and he has an Italian passport. It had gallons of cream in it.
‘I don’t make it any more. Pasta made me feel yucky, bloated and gassy. Maybe I was allergic to wheat. It’s something I’ve wondered about. I don’t drink any more either. That’s a lot to do with it. You are who you hang out with and my wife doesn’t drink and is very healthy, but four years ago I was tiny, so tiny when I went through the break-up. I was drinking every day, doing nothing, smoking cigarettes and I was really skinny. But I wasn’t healthy skinny I was heart attack skinny. I’m the kind of kind who if I drink I lose my appetite, boom, and if I have a bite to eat I don’t want to drink, I feel full.’
It sounds like he wasn’t eating or drinking for nourishment but to fill a hole of awkwardness, regret and insecurity‘I have never had a drink because I enjoyed the taste. And I don’t do one drink. I’m like Barney from The Simpsons, once it begins it begins.’ The trick is that these days he doesn’t let it begin.
The promotion schedule for this record includes flying from London to Melbourne and back to LA without an overnight stopover in either city. Just enough time to perform a show. He’s always been driven. A huge work ethic handed down from his father Louis, a fisherman, and his grandfather Mitch, a plumber. It must be hard at the top. Surely he’s scared of using his status of being one of the world’s top selling artists? He’s sold over 40 million records and when tickets went on sale for his tour in the UK (he plays six nights at the O2 from June 30) they sold out at the rate of 1,500 per minute. Everyone loves Bublé. He spans generations, both cool and uncool.
‘I’m not thinking like that. I’ve got the baby coming and then I might take some time off or I’ll try acting so I can have my wife and baby with me on set. Right now my priority is all those fans, those people who’ve supported me.’
Bublé doesn’t believe in getting something for nothing, he believes in thanking people wholeheartedly. He believes he has a duty. ‘I used to open for Jay Leno and I used to say “Jay, what is the secret?” and he’d say “Go to their back yards, don’t go to the hubs and expect everyone to come to you. Go to their back yards and when you are in those little c cities that’s how you build relationships, that’s how you build loyalty. And that’s the truth.
‘You can’t put out a record and say Germany, France, Japan, thanks for buying my record. Of course I love you but I’m not going on tour. You’ve got to, you’ve got to go,’ he says with urgency.
I ask him if he finds it hard to say no to things other than too much cheese? ‘Yes, I do.’ Is there part of him that’s now completely reassured with his success or is part of him thinking what if this record doesn’t sell, what if people don’t turn up?
‘Do you know what’s weird, that’s not happening that insecurity. Everything has changed. It’s all changed because of the baby. I’m having a difficult time doing these interviews. I’m proud of the record, it’s a beautiful record, possibly my best record. It’s different and I was brave but being brave stemmed from not caring. That sounds cold but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
‘When my manager says I wonder if we’re going to sell two million or eight million I’m thinking yeh, either is a great bonus, but let’s hope my wife is healthy and my kid is healthy. I’m 37-years-old and I’m starting to think what’s it all about. It surely isn’t about how many records I can sell or how many stadiums I can fill.
‘This has given me something else, a very different attitude. I’m saying I’m going to do this and if they don’t like it they don’t like it. My perspective has definitely changed. I have no drama to tell you about. I wish I could say these songs came from misery or heartbreak. This was a happy record, truly a joyous occasion.’
It is of course a wonderfully sentimental record. When I heard his version of Young At Heart it made me cry. Bublé has always loved old people. He is extremely close to his grandfather. He still loves to do family sleepovers where they all lie on the couch and sing the old standards together.
‘That song is special to me. I’ve been co-writing with my friend Alan who is a genius, he’s a wonderful arranger, he is my piano player, my musical arranger, my everything. That sounds gay but I would go gay for him. I love you Alan Chang. So he wrote this beautiful arrangement. By the way his girlfriend wouldn’t be happy with me going gay with him.
We were going to go to East West Studios here in LA to put the track down. We had all the musicians, all the strings, everything was ready. We had a bar set up so that when the musicians and I were all done we could all have a drink together so I could thank them. And the night before that day my mother called and said “Mike, your grandpa is not good.” So I just told them all “I’m sorry I can’t be there” and I just left and flew home to Vancouver.
‘They did the recording of the band and a week later I was to sing the vocal. My grandpa pulled through, he was okay. So the next week I sang the vocal and called the producer Bob Rock and said this is just not going to make the record. We are going to have to do something else. He said why and I said it’s emotionless, it’s cold and dead. Everyone was crushed because it was such a beautiful arrangement but I said I’m not feeling it.
‘About a month later I was in the studio and wanted to record a Peggy Lee song called Come Dance With Me. The producer said, “Why don’t we do Young At Heart again while we’re in the studio?” So I thought about my grandpa and I thought about myself. It was the first dance at our wedding. I love the song. And I though okay. And it just goes to show how different it was a few weeks later. I’ve just Skyped grandpa now. I Skype him all the time. I thought about him while I was recording it because I could. Before I was too upset. I smiled through the whole thing. I did it in two takes. It’s not perfect but there’s the emotion in it.
‘It just shows if your head is not in it and your heart is not in it it’s just not there.’
That’s the thing about Bublé, his head and his heart, his whole soul, is always in it. He pours his whole being into those songs so you feel him, you know him. He becomes an emotional touchstone. It’s not about the songs, the voice, it’s about how he puts himself in your heart.
On this album he’s written more of his own songs. Does it worry him that his own songs have to stand up against timeless classics? ‘Yes, sometimes. I just took my favourite songs but for every album you record you could make 50 others. But for this one I was in a good place and I wanted to make it authentic and gentle.
‘The producer Bob Rock agreed that this is a soul record. This is Phil Spector wall of sound. We got as many people in the room as possible, a small room. You hear every note, every background singer and Bob as a producer, he understands everything. His job is to listen to the artist and bring his vision into reality and he does that. I would turn gay for him too. Especially with that long blonde hair of his. I could ride him into the sunset. I would always joke that I was going to tickle him. I love to get tickled. My wife would be sitting with me tickling like this,’ he demonstrates a tickling motion with his slender fingers, ‘and I would go Bob, tickle me. And he would go, fuck off.’
At the mention of his baby he smiles so hard that even his cheekbones, now angular and sharp, seem to round with pride.
‘He’ll be born in Vancouver and raised in Argentina and Vancouver. Mum will only speak Spanish and dad will only speak English. I am a proud Canadian of Italian heritage and he will have all these heritages.’
He wrote the song Close Your Eyes with the wonderful Canadian singer songwriter Jann Arden, and he wrote it about his wife. ‘Jann is the funniest woman I’ve ever met and I love writing songs with her. This song happened one day, I sat at the piano. I can never write sober, but I started to think about my wife and how much she means to me and how much she helps carry me, you know. How she shares the load with me. I started to think about all women and how strong they are and how important they are in the life of a man and this song is about how we depend on them. It wasn’t just that I was missing her it’s that I get sentimental and I was just thinking; you’re always the one that pulls us through. And people call women the weaker sex. How foolish is that This is what this person is to me. All of these things that are strength and support.
‘I notice the stability my wife has given me in simple ways. In other relationships I would think let’s go on vacation and the girl would say, “Let’s go to Hawaii”, and I would say who do we call, what couple do we get to go with us? It’s like I always needed someone else there. With my wife it’s just we’re good together.
‘I had my father and my mum come to LA this weekend. We had a few drinks and I was sitting talking to them and I said, “39 years. How do you make it work?” My dad said, “I love your mum. But more importantly I like her too.” And that’s really something.
‘Lu is my best friend. Honestly, easily, she is. And I didn’t realise that if you are with somebody in a romantic capacity that they would become your family. I’ve always separated family. I thought romance and friendship was linked but different.’
Do you think perhaps the nature of romance is that you were idealising someone that was unreachable in the past. ‘Yes, and I think it was more obsession than love and I’ve lived that a million times.’
Do you feel that when those past relationships became more familiar and more friendly you lost interest in them romantically? ‘Yes, exactly.’ Do you think that some of the past relationships, although you loved them, you didn’t actually like them? ‘Yes, absolutely.
‘I went to dinner last night and I was alone. It was couples, couples, couples. All I could think of was I wish she was here because I would be funnier, more talkative and more interesting, although the truth is they’d probably like her more than me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to dinner and people said, “Mike, we love you, but we really love her”. And I love that, it’s wonderful for me.’
There is no doubt that what drove Bublé in the past was a need to be loved, and now that he feels that he is loved the dynamic of everything he does is different. I got the impression that he would never want to displease his record company even though he is their biggest selling artist.
He wrote a song with Tom Jackson called I Got It Easy. He tells me the story to illustrate the profound change that has gone on within. ‘We were on my tour bus having a party, my wife and everybody. Like I said, I don’t drink so much any more, but we were having a cocktail and we just came up with this song. It coincides with things I think are happening all over the world – economic crisis, disasters, shootings. There’s all of this darkness. But for the rest of us if you can afford to download a track from a CD then you’ve got it easy.
‘They told me that people wouldn’t like I’ve Got It Easy. The record company didn’t like it. They said it’s dark and you don’t sound like you. It’s not a hit song, it’s not going to get on the radio. But part of the new bravery I feel is I said, Maybe it’s not a radio song. For me it’s a thoughtful, personal, important song. I said to my manager, I want to grow. And he said, you write hit songs, why do you have to grow? He called the record company and said, whatever we have to pay for the mechanicals on the final song, we want it. I told the record company if it doesn’t get on the radio you deal with it. It’s a polarising song. My mum hates it, my sisters love it.’
Did he call the album To Be Loved because that’s how he feels now? ‘I wish I’d come up with the title. ‘My manager Bruce Allen came up with the title. We call him The Colonel, like Elvis’s Colonel. He’s managed me since I was 25 and Bryan Adams since he was 17. And Jann Arden and Bob Rock as well. He got emotional to see his record family together. He said, “I’ve got my family here. The kids are all together and making this beautiful thing. I’m getting sentimental. Isn’t it wonderful to be loved.”
Does he feel loved? ‘Yes, I’m very content, although I miss my wife. I don’t like that I’m missing the pregnancy part. She is in Argentina making a movie and doing a shoot for the lingerie company she is the face of. She tells me, “Mi amore, I have a big tummy.”
He shows me a picture on his phone of his pregnant wife. She is blonde with a goofy smile and pregnant belly. ‘Look at how happy she is to show me this. I think she’s sticking it out. She’s definitely a rambunctious girl.’ She also has giant breasts. ‘She does! Always! Giant!’ he says with a giant smile.
‘That’s the question most people ask. Are they real? They are real of course. They are bigguns though…… Everything makes me happy: my family, listening to music, dancing, life, hockey. Hockey is my number one passion. It would overpower music. Playing it, watching it, eating it, drinking it, I just love it.’
He tells me he could chat all day. He’s never been a nervous interviewee. He’s always liked to share and to make the interviewer laugh. You wonder how long he can make life on the roadwork now that he has the option of stability and fatherhood. He says he’s serious about acting.
‘I have anxiety sometimes when I think about new things I want to try. My first choice would be a drama, a serious drama. I wouldn’t want to do a musical or comedy. But I’ve made a record and it’s coming out in 42 countries.’
While his wife comes out to a show here and there he’s not fond of other people’s women on the road. He doesn’t for instance like women crew or musicians.
‘I say, “There’s no relationships on the road” and they say to me, “Of course we’re not going to have relationships. We are professionals and we have a boyfriend at home.” The next think you know they’re bonking the sound guy. And then the sound guy is fighting over another girl and it becomes a drama. It’s an incestuous life. Let’s make it easy. Every time I’ve had female crew we’ve had serious break-ups and yellings. Obviously I love women. It’s not about not loving women. It’s about I don’t want to be surrounded by drama.’
There was a time not so long ago when he courted drama, he danced to it like a moth to the flame. ‘You know what else I don’t like? I don’t like shimmery saxophones.’ What do you mean? He does his impersonation of a shimmery saxophone. ‘They creep me out. They remind me of The Muppets in a bad way. I don’t like it when I’m on the road and the brass section starts improvising. It’s like when someone takes a poop on a piece of paper and goes this is abstract art.
He and his wife have recently started a charity called lendafreehand.com to help dogs about to be euthanised because their owners can no longer afford to feed them. Bublé has always felt the underdog. ‘I am the underdog. I’ve sold a bunch of records. I’ve never been asked to be on the Grammys or any of that stuff. I do big business. I sell more records at any point than, well, I am in the top five touring acts in the world. But I don’t show up at the parties. I don’t have a reality TV show. I’m not seen shopping in Beverly Hills. There’s a difference between being famous and being a celebrity. Maybe I’m just too normal for everything like that. But my manager always says, “Hey kid, keep being the underdog. You’re doing the right thing.”
Michael Buble – April 15, 2013 (Hello Magazine)
I walk in to the giant hotel suite where I am to meet Michael Bublé. Giant bed, giant overstuffed couch, giant TV, but no Bublé. He’s hiding behind the door and jumps out to surprise me. He is giggling and excited, his arms and legs looking skinny and agile.
He is happy about his new record To Be Loved. But that’s not what’s making his heart dance. He has just found out that he’s having a baby with his Argentinian wife Luisana Lopilato who he married in March 2011.
His nut-brown eyes sparkle. ‘The baby changes everything. It comes first. This is truly a joyous occasion.’
I’ve seen Bublé ecstatic before, but this is different. This is not a high that’s been preceded by a low. This is grown-up contentment. He’s 38 and is ‘ready and excited for fatherhood.’
Last time we met over a year ago he said, ‘We are planning a baby for next Christmas. My wife’s a big planner.’
In fact it was Christmas when she discovered they were pregnant. ‘I was genuinely shocked about the baby. We’d been planning…..but hey, good luck planning, that kind of thing. And also my wife lied to me. Well, she didn’t exactly lie, but she knew she was pregnant but she didn’t tell me but she wanted to come to Vancouver and tell me in person to surprise me.
‘I thought, okay, she’s got her period the chance for this month is over because I’d asked her, anything happening? “No, honey. It’s not this time,” she said. He mimics her Argentinian accent. ‘So I was in shock completely.’
The first person he told was Reece Whitherspnoon.
One of the songs on the album is the classic Something Stupid, which has always been one of his favourite songs. ‘I had it in my head I was going to do a duet and I was thinking let’s get someone in the music industry who isn’t who you would think it would be. Let’s get Rihanna or Katy Perry. My manager said what about Reece Witherspoon. I am infatuated with Walk The Line. I loved her in that movie and I loved her voice, a little Peggy Lee-ish. Anyway, she was interested but she was nervous because it’s not her world.
‘I called her up the day I found out I was having a baby. No one else in the world knew but I told her first. That’s weird, isn’t it ? it was an incredible day and I just found and I was so overwhelmed. And I knew she’d just had her baby. I said, Reece, I’ve got to tell you this before we even get into a conversation. I’m having a baby. She was excited for me.
‘We talked and talked about baby stuff and then I just said, listen hon’, I’d like to have you on this record. I said, look honey, this is huge. This is the greatest day of my life and if you would do this it would awesome, it would be the icing on the cake. If you’re not comfortable with it I still love you. I get that you are nervous and it’s not in your comfort zone, but if you could just come in, if we don’t like it we won’t use it. She came in and she was perfect the first take.
‘ The second she opened her mouth I was so chuffed. It really was the icing on the cake. She’d obviously done a lot of work and prepared really well. It was the very last song we recorded on the record.’
He talks very fast and excitedly about the baby. He takes out his phone and shows me a picture of his wife wearing a brightly coloured bikini top and a slightly pregnant belly. At the time he didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl and we have since learned it is a boy.
‘I didn’t want to find out but my wife does. She’s the boss. She’s carrying the baby so she gets her say.’
I had read that if it was a girl it was going to be called Bella Bublé but I’ve since found out that’s the name of his publicist Susan Leon’s dog. Her old dog had just died and she was devastated ‘So I got this little puppy. We were working late and Susan was about to go but I told her oh just wait a minute, I’ve got somebody bringing something. The door knocked and there was this little puppy and I said “I love you Susan”. So the name Bella was already taken.
‘My wife loves the Twilight Saga so I was worried she wanted to call the baby Bella or Edward. My wife knew she was carrying a boy. “It’s a boy”.
He mocks her accent again. She kept saying before she knew officially ‘I’ll take either, I’ll take a healthy hermaphrodite.
‘He’ll be born in Vancouver and raised in Argentina and Vancouver. Mum will only speak Spanish and dad will only speak English. I am a proud Canadian of Italian heritage and he will have all these heritages.’
The last time Bublé and I met he ordered caviar and a hot dog from the room service menu, a kind of metaphor that he is an extreme character. Today it’s a simple coffee with a little cream. He has worked hard on himself with a therapist to moderate his extremes but the love of Luisana has helped more than any therapy ever could.
I remember when he was crazy in love, hence the album title Crazy Love, with the British actress Emily Blunt. He wrote the song Everything for her which went on to be a worldwide smash, but his heart smashed too when the relationship fell apart.
‘It would be weird for me to be in touch with her and her family as I have my own family now. He refers to his siblings-in-law as cunadas. He certainly speaks a lot more Spanish than he used to. He’s been taking lessons. ‘My wife tells me I still sound like a cave man.’
They met at an after show of a concert of his in Argentina. ‘There was a party at my hotel. I was drinking a lot more at the time because I was dealing with what I was dealing with and the president of the Argentinian record company said he would like me to meet Argentina’s most famous actor and actress. She walked in with a Brad Pitt looking dude and I thought this is the worst ever, the girl of my dreams walks in with her boyfriend.
‘She didn’t speak English but he did so we had a long conversation. I didn’t want to be rude and hit on her. If someone did that to my girlfriend or wife I would not be a happy boy. It’s code between boys. I was getting hammered and slurring my words and finally he said, “We are not a couple.”
‘Meanwhile Lu is texting her mother saying “I have met Michael Bublé and he is gay.” Then we started talking. She had just come out of a relationship and was not ready to get into one. I said to her, “You’re my wife. You just don’t know it yet. I’m coming back to marry you.” And that’s exactly what he did although she looked at him a little incredulous at the time.
He wrote the song Haven’t Met You Yet for her. People would joke to him in the street “Have you met her yet then?”. He knew in his heart he absolutely had.
‘I asked her father’s permission to marry her and we had a big beautiful Argentinian wedding. She lives mostly in their gated house in Argentina, just outside Buenos Aires. He has a house in Vancouver close to his beloved parents and grandparents and a house in LA. He says they are with each other whenever they can be. Sometimes if they have to be apart they watch a movie together in their separate beds in separate parts of the world.
‘I’ll get a bowl of popcorn and sit in bed and we’ll play the movie at exactly the same time. She can see me and I can see her. At the end she’ll say “Mi amore, I am going to sleep” but we keep the iChat going on all night as we sleep. I know it sounds very strange but it keeps me connected in a virtual way. And if it disconnects one of us in our sleep we’ll reach over and press the call button. I might be passed out but I’ll hear brrrng brrrng and I will press answer. It’s a nice feeling.
‘My wife is very conservative so lots of things I used to do I don’t do. I don’t drink very often and I eat very healthily. For the most part I like the place I’m in. I don’t need to be in an altered place. What happened to me after the ex was probably the most important time of my life. When we were done I was devastated. I had to do therapy, I had to. I knew if I didn’t change I’d never be happy or content in my own skin. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me and the greatest thing. It ended through both of us being young and naïve and making silly mistakes. I looked in the mirror and said wake up. I did so many things out of insecurity…’
Clearly he may still have anxious moments but that obsession for filling a deep dark space with spaghetti and cocktails has long gone. He doesn’t stop being grateful. He doesn’t stop working hard, but perhaps not just as obsessively.
He had his mother and father with him in LA last week but they don’t like to stay too long because carers for his grandparents. Does your wife come with you to LA? ’Yes, she comes everywhere with me whenever she can.’ She does not however come on tour with him very often. ‘I don’t like to travel with women. I don’t like to have women in the band. We are a family and we have this perfect dynamic and I don’t want to add something in. every time I have women on the road it ends up in tears.’
I imagine he likes to keep his work life a little separate from his domestic life. ‘But if I’m away I miss her like crazy. If you really love somebody why would you want to be with somebody else? These days if I see a good looking girl I think oh look at that girl, but I would never do anything about it. I was a different person before. I was insecure. I’m not proud of how I acted. I was reckless with people’s hearts, but I have learnt from it.
‘Am I happy now? Yes. And I’m happy making her happy. ‘You know my wife is a big advocate for animals. She’s rescued thousands of dogs in Argentina, so for Christmas we bought part of a company called Freehand. In the US they euthanize three million dogs every year because people can’t afford to feed them. For every bag of dog food you buy in the store we donate a bag to the pound. It’s like a pound for pound. We don’t pay for advertising. Celebrities help us by getting the word out. We have a website called lendafreehand.com. My wife has eight dogs and six cats. I’ll come home and there’ll be the scariest one-eyed dog looking at me and she’d be “Isn’t he so cute?” and I’ll be “ it’s the hound from hell.”
‘There are so many charities and worthwhile causes that the only thing people have to do here is buy their dog some dog food.’
He asks me please can I mention the dogs. He says he’d rather I mentioned the dogs than his latest album because it would make his wife happy. His wife and mini Bublé have changed his perspective and made him feel loved.
*To To Be Loved is out on April 15.