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?
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
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.
I am inside the library of MOCA in downtown LA. Outside we hear the haunting vocals of Katy Perry telling us ‘…let’s go all the way’. She is rehearsing for a charity performance at a huge gala. The day before she was in London for one of the first screenings of her documentary film Part Of Me.
She walks in purposefully, a tiny powerhouse who dismisses her giant security guard. She is in track bottoms and hoody, beige with peacock motif and cream scoop necked T-shirt. Her face make-up free except for a very pale base. Her newly purple hair pushed back into a ponytail. Most of the time the under her hoody. Her eyes look rather large and owlish behind glasses. There’s not even a trace of sleeplessness, jet lag; only focus.
Her wit is quick and her mind is sharp. You are swept up in her enormous drive. It seems like she is taking everything in her stride and that everything is within her dainty manicured grasp. But as the documentary Part Of Me shows, there are many parts of Katy Perry.
The super hard worker whose work ethic is beyond most pop stars or indeed women of her age – 27. An ambitious visionary who is kind to her fans and loyal to her friends, and a vulnerable woman who is not afraid to cry and be filmed without make-up.
The movie was filmed over the course of a year. A year which saw Perry achieve phenomenal success and endure tremendous personal heartbreak. She has filmed all of it.
We see her Pentecostal Christian past with her father the preacher. We see her strumming her guitar when she was 15 with hardcore lyrics about Jesus. We see how her first record company tried to mould her to be the next Avril Lavigne, the next Kelly Clarkson, when all she wanted to be was not the next but the first Katy. We saw how she always wanted to speak to a worldwide audience, to people who didn’t necessarily fit in.
‘My audience don’t necessarily want to go with the trends. They want to feel like they can be themselves and they don’t need any kind of accessory to make them them. It was really important for me to keep some of the more unflattering shots in the film to show at the end of the day I’m just every kind of woman. A normal girl with a big dream who really worked hard to achieve it. You don’t have to be born into something or be born with something. You don’t have to have a material possession or a label. A lot of times peoples perceptions on people like me is that we are perfect from the moment we walk out the door and I wanted to show that is not the case.’ And indeed she does.
We see her making sure she has relationship days. that may mean flying from Birmingham to LA to spend 36 hours with her then husband Russell Brand. We see her valiant juggling. We see the relationship disintegrate. We see her curled up, wrapped only in tears, unable to move. Your heart lurches as you see her wrenched on to the stage.
We see the moment where she makes recording history being the only woman to have five Number 1s from one album ( Teenage Dream) I was there with her in Nottingham when that news broke. Her team had asked to film the interview I was doing but I said no. if I’d known the resulting documentary would be so rivetingly good I would have been proud to be part of it.
‘I remember you didn’t want to be on camera but I didn’t know it was going to be this mega deal with a big Hollywood studio (Paramount) and in 3D.’ The film was made by two British boys from London Fields, Hackney, who filmed her every move for a year. ‘We had over 300 hours of footage. I sold it to Paramount in the spring and it started coming along like a massive train.’
Katy Perry remembers pretty much everything – words, phrases, details stick with her. She is not afraid to show us who she is and my suspicion is that the movie will be huge because it is in no way self-congratulatory. We meet her grandmother, sister, brother, parents, fans. We see her run ragged. We see the life drained out of her. And then we see her in a dress with rotating breasts. The lasting impression of this movie, which could have been the ultimate in cartoon gloss, is that it’s raw and it’s real. And that’s why people will connect to it.
Was she not afraid to show the heartbreak? The face with no make-up? ‘I was in the edit suite saying this is okay. I think my peers might be scared of that but hopefully I can open up a pathway for them to be a little less scared. It has become a big thing that girls have to become so painted and perfect. I certainly think there’s a time and a place for that.’
Her nails are painted black and off white with the ying yang design, a metaphor for the extremes that meet within. This is the same person who did an arena tour including a segment where she was dressed as a cup cake, and who over the last year has had hair of every colour of the rainbow, today is looking stripped of it all. She is looking… I’m searching for the word. She tells me ‘normal is the word.’ But for every part of her that is normal, there is another part that is extreme and extraordinary.
We see in the documentary that she is fearless. Not because she bungee jumps, but because she lets the audience see her heartbreak. ‘I love those documentaries where everyone is fabulous and always perfect, but that doesn’t relate to everyone and I like to be more relatable than that and I don’t want to be above my audience, I want to be one with my audience.’
It is her audience after all and their ability to relate to her that has made her. When record companies wanted to make her into something else she performed her songs in small venues and went by what her audience liked, not her record company. She always had her own vision.
‘It’s funny seeing footage that I’d filmed at 17, 18, 19 and having such a vision for where I am now and a foresight for where I wanted to be.’
She always knew? ‘I always knew it. It was such blind ambition. It was this is what I am doing, nothing is going to get in my way, I am just going to do it and keep doing it and keep trying until it is done.
‘People ask me all the time do you know what you are doing next? And I still have the same mindset as I did when I was first moving to LA when I was 17. I know what I’m doing next and then next just because my creative faucet doesn’t stop.’
Her Christian upbringing has been well documented, and little understood. One assumes that by the time she sang I Kissed A Girl some kind of gritty rebellion and rejection of values had taken place. Perry is more complex than that.
We hear how when she was growing up she wasn’t allowed to watch normal TV programmes and the only videos allowed were Sister Act 2 and The Preacher’s Wife. Her world was very narrow, the spectrum of colour muted. No wonder she loves the bold pastel of fairytales and cartoons. No wonder her show is a multi-coloured defiant dreamscape that shows limitless possibilities.
She grew up in sunny suburban Santa Barbara, California – a place that is terrifyingly safe and contained. She always had a passion for self expression and a need to stand out. Yet rather than rebel and reject everything she grew up with she simply transitioned. ‘Yes, it was a metamorphosis. But I’m still an insect of sorts.’
Perry loves words. She’s excited when she finds the perfect word. She favours it. ‘Yes, a transition.’ It’s how she got from being a gospel recording artist to singing I Kissed A Girl. It feels biblical.
‘I’ve always been an open person. Even in my faith growing up I was always asking questions, like what about this and why is that so. I needed education to back up faith. The landscape was black and white and then I found the colour. I think if you come from a really sheltered place, then you want to be open and free, it’s like naturally you want to see the other side of that. But it wasn’t as cold and dark and strict as people paint it in their minds.’
In the film she says you can never be too cartoon. ‘I think I’ve executed the cartoon side of me a lot last year and the year before.’
The layer cake dress, the spiralling breasted dress, the Alice In Wonderland dress… ‘All of those costumes will be displayed in different theatres with the movie.
I love that it’s becoming such a big event. And I didn’t know that when I was doing it. I had the seed of an idea. I love to go big. I’m not afraid of the mainstream and selling out in all the right ways. I’m proud of the things that I’ve achieved and the landscapes that I have covered and I hope the film does the same thing.’
Like the film Perry is mainstream but extreme. It’s a riveting combination. We see the intimate songs performed in huge auditoriums around the world. We see the audience connecting with the outsider, making her an insider, we see her being loved. There is a moment where she talks about how in the past, when she heard other women saying that if you become really successful you have to concentrate on that and not have a relationship. She always thought why can’t you have a relationship and be a success? Because surely the person who loves you would support you? She admits that that was wrong.
‘It’s that continuing blind ambition. For a modern woman it is important to be supported and that there is equality in every aspect and that it’s not two halves that make a whole it’s two wholes that make a whole. So I have learnt.’
There’s a brief pause, a space in which a modicum of sadness or regret may have once seeped in. It’s another emotion that fills that space right now. It’s an embracing of the truth. An embracing of pain that makes it less painful. An understanding that life is in the present and the future is exciting.
‘I’ve always been ambitious since I was nine years old and that was never going to change. That’s exactly me. And the theme of this movie is that everyone wanted to change me along the way and I’ve stuck to my guns. I am going to continue to be who I was born to be and if there’s no accepting of me you are not allowed to be part of me.’
It’s been six months since Russell Brand filed for divorce. They were married for 14 months and dated around a year before that. While her career went stratospheric, his faltered. Perhaps that fuelled the gulf between them. Perry, I believe, did everything in her power to keep everything going.
‘There’s a part in the film where I’m talking about it and I say, “I wont’ always be on tour, but this is the way it is now when you have an album out. then you do a tour. Then you come home, rest and recharge.” I had planned to rest and recharge in the beginning of this year, then I just threw myself back into work because I think when you are a little bit heartbroken you just throw yourself into it.’
Brand didn’t want to wait for Katy’s tour to finish before he ended the marriage. There is no way back now. I wonder if he’ll watch Part Of Me and see her heartbreak in 3D.
In Sao Paulo she had to be helped on stage. ‘My personal problems are not the audience’s personal problems and I had to separate the personal and the professional. That’s my job as an entertainer.’
I tell her she looked like she was going to die with pain. ‘Yes, and I slapped a smile on my face. I wasn’t being dragged on stage, I just needed a shoulder to help me walk up the steps. I had to bend over so that my false eyelashes didn’t come off. I couldn’t let the tears stream because it would ruin the make-up. But I got through it. I’m still here, I’m still singing, I’m still alive. I’ve learnt a lot and I’m moving forward one step at a time.’
On the Graham Norton Show recently she said her dance card was very full but she wasn’t quite sure who she was dancing with. ‘Yes, because that’s how you answer that type of question on Graham Norton.’
Well, how full is her dance card? ‘I really wish I had more time to be cuddled right now but I don’t, and I’m very particular.’
She has been pictured with Robert Ackroyd, guitarist with Florence and the Machine. ‘Yes, he is a boy, but there is no label. I’m just hanging out with lots of dancers. It’s not appropriate for me to have something serious right now. I need to let my heart heal and to to digest life and to take a break really.
‘As of August 1 I don’t have anything planned and I think it’s going to be alright for people not to see me for a minute. There are plenty of gorgeous peers out there to put out songs for them. I have to recharge batteries and hopefully I’ll come back with an abundance of things to say and great songs. I’m going to get bored and I’m going to stay bored. I’m going to enjoy the world on my own terms, do some reading, catch up on films, I’m just going to be. No plans allowed.’
She has started making notes and taking down phrases and moods for her new album. I am sure there will be some great songs inspired by recent events. She smiles: ‘Somehow you can say things more when they are on top of a melody.’
Is she afraid perhaps of falling love again? ‘No, absolutely not. I’m excited for the future whatever it brings. This is a year about me being creative and finding a new evolution of my music. I don’t think I can always be the candy queen. I might end up starting to become bitter sweet. I have to evolve and I have to continue to push people’s perceptions of me. As an artist I like to do that. I don’t always want to be pegged to the one thought or idea because I love keeping people on the edge of their seats.’
She is clever, funny, warm and despite her protests utterly beguiling with no make-up. More than all of this, courageous.
Katy Perry arrives for lunch in the Dorchester all tartan restaurant. She looks like a 1930s diva in a silk playsuit, the colour of You Don’t Know Jacques nail polish, beige grey, and Stephen Webster jewellery and a big fat diamond engagement ring.
The waiter is floured when she asks for cucumber, avocado and baked beans. She gives a naughty smile. She likes being eccentric.
Her single California Girls has just gone to number one and her album Teenage Dream, soon to follow, is set to establish her in the big time. Many of the songs have been inspired by her boyfriend soon to be husband Russell Brand.
“Russell’s coming in tonight and he’s going to watch the football (England v. Germany). I’m going to take his mum and go shopping because I’m sure he doesn’t want me there getting too animated.”
Would she be supporting England even though she’s American? “I feel really English sometimes. This restaurant is over posh. It’s like the servers haven’t left for 200 years and they continue to live as ghosts. And perhaps there’s a Scottish terrier that will be just wandering around. I am more of a cat person because I like earning affection.”
I’m wondering if that’s something that she and Russell have in common? “I think I’m the ying to his yang and vice versa.”
People were a little shocked when evangelical Christian minister’s daughter Katy first hooked up with bad boy Russell who used to boast about sex addiction and drug cocktails. Since they met last September they have been inseparable and Russell completely monogamous.
Katy is of course gorgeous, clever and funny. But how has she managed to tame him? “It’s not about taming. He changed for himself. Everyone knows no one will change unless they want to change themselves.”
Do you think it was a case that he just met you at the right time? He was ready for a new phase of his life? “Yes. It was a cosmic collision.”
How do you think being a married person will change you? “I think it will be about prioritising things. I won’t be able to get smashed all the time, but I don’t want to. I won’t be able to waste hours on the internet, but I don’t need to. I have to be very precious with my time because I need time for myself individually and I want time with him. It’s just about the balance.”
Is there any talk of babies? “No. I’ve yet to get into that head space. Babies in a few years. If you see a bump it’s just water retention. I do have a new kitten, Krusty (Katy and Russell equals Krusty).
“She’s a lesbian,” she announces. Does that mean you’ve been kissing her? “All the time.” She shows me pictures on her Blackberry of the new kitten. Russell kissing Krusty. Krusty in a teapot. Krusty in a West Ham slipper.
She’s very excited about her cats – Kitty Purry and Krusty, and Russell’s cat Morrissey. Does she still get excited about number one records? “Of course I do.” Who does she call to celebrate? “Russell, my mum, Krusty, Morrissey, Kitty Purry. I collect them all into one room and say, ‘You’d better button up that tux, Morrissey. Straighten up and stop scratching me. We’ve hit number one.”
There’s not much chance of her and Russell and the kitties setting up home in London because Russell has just sold his place here. Aside from that she says, “I will miss it. I’ll miss the formalness of everything. I also like how English people, if they don’t like you they don’t like you to your face. But my serotonin levels would be all fucked up because of the weather. I’m a sunshine person. If the sun doesn’t come out my personality doesn’t come out.”
Her eyes widen. They are big blue kitty cat eyes. Her face is gorgeously glowing, flawless. “I have regular facials with Maki Maodus at Ole Henriksen. I tried different things to compare it to, but Maki, with the oatmealy honey smell that comes from her steam I crave. I’m addicted to all the creams she uses. I love her… If cats had jobs they would probably give facials, wouldn’t they.”
Does she have a diet or exercise regime – she looks kind of perfect, all skinny and curvy? “I skip rope and I eat greens,” she says succinctly. She exudes a kind of confidence that seems pure. She’s not afraid to stand up to her record company bosses. There’s a song on her album called Peacock – cute, double entendred, racy – that they didn’t like. “They were all a bit worried with the word cock and it gave me déjà vu because they did the same thing with Kisses A Girl. They said we don’t it as a single, we don’t want it on the album. And I was like, ‘You guys are idiots.'”
And what about Cheryl or Lady Gaga? “I knew Lady Gaga a little bit when she was coming up and I love her music. I’ve never met Lily but I’m a big fan. I don’t know Cheryl’s music but I love her dimples.” She smiles as if she wishes well on all the world and then tells me she’s very busy planning a wedding so no one will find out where it is. “My cats will be involved of course. Krusty will be the flower girl.”
She got her own way and I Kissed A Girl was a worldwide smash. “I feel very constant. I always try and make a lasting impression with the people who are letting me make a small music video or a big music video, you know. And I work very hard. My father has a saying, ‘You can’t be a flash in the pan.’ This record is important to me because it will resonate the fact that One Of The Boys (her last album) wasn’t just luck.”
She has a Jesus tattoo. Is that because she loves Jesus? “Yes. I got it when I was 18 and that is because I love Jesus.”
Her father is a minister and her parents were strict, yet she gets on fantastically well with them. “Because my ultimate goal was never to be rebellious towards my parents. I first started singing with singing in church. My parents were strict but they weren’t stiff or stuffy. We still had fun. I just wanted to be allowed to do some of the things that normal kids were doing. I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV or listen to any pop music.
“When I moved out I just became this living, breathing, eating, shitting sponge. It didn’t matter what genre music it was, I was just give it to me.” Because you felt you’d been deprived? “Yes, of course. I’ve always been an open person. I was never a kid who just took it. I was always like why, why, why. And that question has got me a long way. I moved, I transitioned. My parents and I now have a lovely relationship. Probably because they realise I am not going to turn into a crazy person or a prostitute or a Charles Manson.”
Do they worry about songs like Peacock? “They haven’t heart Peacock yet. There is a little red button that is constantly pushed with them and sometimes the red has pretty much worn off around it.”
Did it wear off with I Kissed A Girl? “No, it was still there then but it was wearing off when I called and said, ‘Mum, I’m naked in a cotton candy cloud.’ Or ‘I’m marrying Russell Brand.’ They really didn’t know about him. They always give people the benefit of the doubt and it’s up to the person to mess it up.”
Did Russell mess it up or charm them? “He’s very charming with them and he has an ongoing email love letter with my mum and she loves it. She flirts with him, which is totally inappropriate and I tell him to stop.”
Somehow I think Russell is never going to stop. But it’s probably better that he’s flirting with Katy’s mum than random other girls.
Another song, Firework, is inspired by Russell. “Russell showed me a passage from On The Road by Jack Kerouac and he said that this is what I am. The passage read, ‘I want to be around people that are buzzing and fizzing and never say a commonplace thing and shoot across the sky and make everybody go ah.’ So that has been my life statement.”
If Russell was a firework what would he be? “He’s all of them mixed into one. He’s the grand finale. I am one that has little gold leaves that fall like gold dust into the sea. He’s the one with all the noise.”
Are those two fireworks compatible? “They’re always in the same show, aren’t they.” She smiles her quirky little smile.
I wonder though if it is hard living with someone so flashy. Is there no ego clash? “All comedians are interesting characters plagued by their own genius; funny but very serious.”
Has she become more serious? “I think I could be more spontaneous but now my time off is more scheduled. I still love to go out with my friends and I still like Pinot Grigio. But I’ve learnt from some of my hangovers I don’t drink as much as I used to. My last big night out was probably Coachella (California’s Glastonbury). We had little golf carts to get from place to place but the golf cart broke and it was the middle of the night and we were coming back from a concert. We had to walk miles and then we saw another golf cart and got in it, but we got completely stuck again. I’m happy that Russell is sober because it’s had a good influence on me. It steers me in a more positive direction.”
Russell is about to start filming the remake of Arthur. He told me that he thought Katy would be perfect to play the Liza Minnelli character. “I guess she had dark hair and is a singer, but I could never beat Liza Minnelli, and he is going to be brilliant in it.”
Would you like to work with him though? “We work together well in the relationship because there’s no arguing. There is debating and you can do the same thing with a director. It’s really important to have your communication on the same level if you want to get the best out of both worlds. I don’t want to be the couple who make the mistake of working together and it ends up embarrassing. Who knows? I don’t think I’m ready.”
Besides, next year she plans that “I’m going to be touring my ass off. It’s probably one of the reasons I exist. I never want to come off as too mysterious, detached or unreliable. I love the personal connection between people.”
Has she ever said anything she regretted? I’m thinking some of the more barbed quips about Lily Allen. “I’m sure there are things that I’ve said that have been taken out of context. But just so everybody knows for the record. I like Lily very much.”
When I first met Katy Perry a few months ago I was overwhelmed by her huge sense of self. She seemed absolutely certain who she is, what she wants, with a kind of meteoric inner drive.
She comes though softly packaged in silky slinky clothes and super-sensitivity. There’s an urgency that she must grab everything now.
I first heard of Katy Perry a couple of years ago, long before she kissed a girl. My facialist Maki is her facialist. She told me as soon as her fingers had pitter-pattered across her her delicate cheekbones that her new client was going to be the most famous girl in the world. She was so naughty, so sexy, and so Christian.
The combination didn’t make sense to me. There were two failed record deals before her current megastardom. Perhaps it’s because of them that she makes sure she never relaxes. She is never less of herself as she believed that being moulded into what’s the vogue of the moment just dilutes you into failure.
Her current world tour is about expressing every particle of herself. Her cartoon sexuality, dizzying costume changes, fireworks, her love of her cats, and her love of “hubby” Russell Brand – it’s an enormous show in every sense. And the tour is almost a year long, and just after getting married that means there’s almost no domestic downtime. She’d never want that pause, give up on her music career. She wants to make sure it never gives up on her.
Marriage to Russell Brand could have worked against her, eclipsed her. But instead the symbiosis of their single fame has made for mega celebrity wattage. Their relationship seemed implausible chemistry at first. Minister’s daughter meets former sex addict and falls in love. But in fact they are more similar than different. Both love to be quirky almost to the point of outrage. Both have fast minds filled with funny lines. And both of them have a strong sense of spirituality which they manage sometimes to disguise. More of that later.
I am in Nottingham where Perry is to play the Arena. Outside little girls are in alien masks so they look like mini aliens from Perry’s video E.T. Although not quite like Perry in that video where her make-up makes her almost unrecognizable. The rest of her is taut, sinewy, and naked. First off she looks like a fairy and then reveals her lower half is that of a fawn.
Little girls love Perry and the show caters for this. It’s pink cotton candy. It’s Wizard of Oz meets Charlie and the cup cake factory. It’s David LaChapelle kitsch. It’s Lucille Ball kooky. It’s Carry On Down The Yellow Brick Road in the ultimate push-up bra. It’s kitty cats and red sequined shoes. One time there are seven costume changes in one song; it’s more of a magic trick. It’s glitter bustiers and cup cake crinolines that light up. It’s more is more. It’s a metaphor for her work ethic that nothing is ever enough, to make sure people are pleased. No tiny sequin of a detail has gone unchecked by Perry herself.
She’s on stage for two hours singing, dancing and bantering about the weird love triangle that is “my husband, myself and you, you sexy little Brits.” Then she’ll tell us that every song she’s put out has gone to Number 1. (Her last four singles California Gurls, Teenage Dream, Firework and E.T. got to Number 1 in the US). “And that’s because of you. I owe you. It feels nice to be loved.” She says it jokey but she means it. I got the same message backstage when I met her before the show.
I made my way through racks of multi-coloured fluffy costumes and dancers in candy-striped trainers. Perry has summoned me to sit on her hot pink sofa. It travels with her. She is wearing a plush cream bathrobe, nothing else, except a glossy black wig that’s part Wonder Woman, part Betty Page. She’s presented with a dark pink drink.
“Beets, carrots, ginger, maybe some pear. I have it every day.” It’s an LA style smoothie that’s made it’s way to Nottingham. “No it’s just by the end of this tour I’ll be looking like Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose if I don’t drink it. It’s really exhausting and I’m trying to build stamina. My knees have world tour written all over them.” She shows me bruised and bloodied knees, one deep cut. “I got that one a while back. I’ll have to get it lasered off at some point. It just adds to my tomboy look.”
There is part of her that’s a gutsy tough tomboy, but the rest of her is extreme girl. A kind of Disney princess that has a superpower of extreme focus. She explains the bruising came from “a guitar solo interaction with my guitarist. And I had all this extra energy, so I slid through his legs and that felt very rock ‘n roll. So I’ve been doing it every night since.” Indeed she crashes on to the ground hard and slides fearlessly.
An assistant comes in with some vitamins. “Irons and Bs and multis. I take one pill that’s for moisture for my voice so that when I’m on stage I don’t get cotton-mouth. They are like horse pills. I also do no caffeine, although on my days off I might have a latte or something with cheese on it or a Bud Lite. But that’s cheating. I’m proud that I haven’t turned into a fully-fledged drug addict. I have no choice. I have to stay on the straight and narrow. We started the tour in February and we are going to extend it possibly to December. I think a year of being really good is important. It’s an extraordinary thing for me to play this size of venue three to four years into my career. I get to take chances and utilize a lot of different opportunities.”
She’s grateful. She never separates herself from that feeling of being knocked back and not allowed to be who she was. Although that seems a very long time ago. She was first discovered when she was 15 singing gospel in her parents’ church in sleepy Santa Barbara, California. She went to Nashville to record with country Christian rock veterans and learn the tricks of songwriting. The subsequent album failed. When she was 17 she moved to Los Angeles to pursue pop singing dreams. She was signed by Def Jam Island, released an unsuccessful album, then was signed by Columbia in 2004 and again was dropped. When she was signed by EMI Virgin she knew it could be her last chance.
“I’m a professional. I appreciate hard work and I know it takes an extra level of hard work to do this kind of thing. We’ve been filming everything. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with it or to what end, but this moment is special and I want to document it.”
It’s like when people fall in love, they write poems because they want to remind themselves that these intense feelings of love existed. It feels so unbelievable they have to write it down to make it true. “We might put an episode online. It’s nice because it gets to show that this is a lot of hard work.”
There’s nothing covert about her. She doesn’t want to hide anything. There’s something refreshingly old school about her candour.
“I feel very indebted. Touring to me feels like a debt repaid but in a good way. When people support you so much you owe them actual face time. I’m not always feeling 100 per cent. Four days ago I was sick in bed and went to the doctor. And now I have this lovely bruise on my butt from a steroid shot. I didn’t want to reschedule. You have to have a certain level of accountability. People have bus times, baby sitters. I’m not saying I’ll never cancel because I’m human.”
She whips up her robe to show me the giant butt bruise. It’s large and purple. I’m not sure why she wanted to show me the bruise’s graphic detail. Maybe so I could see just what lovely buttocks she has. Maybe because she likes to show and tell.
“I got a B, an antibiotic and a steroid. I got it in LA so I could get on the plane.” For her four days off she decided to fly from the UK to LA to be with her husband and cats. It seems pretty tough to me, but she is uncomplaining and happy she got to spend time there.
Do they Skype? “Yes, of course. We Skype and Krusty talks (the cat that is the feline love child of Katy and Russell, hence made up of both names). They all love clicking on the computer. That’s when I feel most safe and comfortable when I’m sitting in my house with my cats.” It strikes me as odd that suddenly there is talk of a need to feel safe. She did tell me once that she didn’t like sleeping in the dark.
“I sleep with the lights on unless I’m with Russell. I think a lot of evil things go on in the dark. I have to cover my toes because I’m that kid who thinks there’s a witch under my bed who’s going to eat my tootsies off. I have nightmares.”
She plucks out a throat pastille from a tiny box. Her finger nails are striped in candy cane Minx. She designed them herself. “These are for my voice. I’ve got lots of tricks. I’m sticking to vegetables and steamed things, some poultry. I don’t like the taste of fish. No caffeine. No alcohol. “It sounds boring but I think what I’m achieving.”
In the corner is an elliptical machine. She says that she did 40 minutes on it today. “I only do 40 minutes on show days because a show is about two hours and I don’t want to exhaust myself. I hate it. I’d rather be lying in bed reading books and watching my favourite TV programmes. Lots of English telly. I like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. And I like Morgana. And I like Charlie Brooker.”
She’s very Britified. “Well of course,” she purrs, “with the help of my husband. I think the British always have a dial on the things that are cool first. The music over here is one of the things I loved first. Especially the women like LaRoux, Marina and the Diamonds. And of course Morrissey. I’ve just met him once and he was very lovely to me and very unique.”
Brand’s cat is named after him. “The cat has some of his attributes. He’s always coming into the room with this attitude oh you again, I can’t be bothered, not unless you are going to feed me, and I won’t eat, I won’t eat next to the other cats. He’s a black and white cat and it looks like he’s wearing a tux all the time but a bit disheveled. Kitty Purry just got a nice trim, a lion cut. That means she’s got hair all around her face and neck but nowhere else. That’s perfect. And Krusty, so adorable. When I was sick the other day she was really sweet to me. Very protective. Pets are wonderful because they are constant love, non-judgemental, so sweet.
“Krusty is a lesbian. She’s such a tomboy. But she’s such a girl and she’s very proud of who she is.” Sounds like people really are their pets and Krusty and Perry really are very similar. Perry even looks like a cat with big blue wide kitty cat eyes and little kitty cat nose. I wondered if that’s one of the things that first connected her with Brand?
“I am more of a cat person because I like earning affection.” The earning, the working of her debt for people’s affection is core to her. Of Brand she says, “I am the ying to his yang and vice versa.”
Much was made in the beginning of their relationship that Perry and her Jesus background tamed him. “It’s not about taming. He changed for himself.”
I first met Brand three weeks after he’d met Perry and he pretty much told me the same thing. He’d changed. He was ready to be loved by one person instead of seeking the attention/affection of many. And even though they don’t see each other much due to extreme work commitments, they are extremely communicative, as you’d expect from the woman who first expressed her love in sky-writing. Her Twitter is full of “go hubby go” and “how cute is my baby boy” referencing picture of him in Arthur. “Yes, he’s working really hard right now and I’m working really hard right now.” Brand has had two movies out back to back, Hop and the unmissable Arthur.
Did she get to see much of him? “Yes, I see him. I planned my tour around being a professional and a married woman. I planned my tour eight months ago. I had four days off and those four days off were to see him. It’s a lot of pre-planning but at least the slots are there. He already came on the tour four times.”
Does she feel different when he’s around? “No, but I get certain tips from him about my banter back and forth with the audience. I ask him what all the football teams are because that’s good fo I am thinkr the boys who have been dragged along by their girlfriends.
“When I was in Dublin he said don’t forget Oscar Wilde is from Dublin and when I was in Manchester he said that is where Oasis is from. He’s always giving me bits and pieces.”
They are both over the top extreme, but have huge spirits and are not bored with one another.
Did marriage change her? “Well yes. I think when you’re a single person there’s an energy that you’re always looking for another half. The stresses and other things. Then when you get married you’re like ‘oh, I can take this energy and put it somewhere else’. You feel relieved in so many ways. When you find someone that is your other half you feel a sigh of relief. It’s a beautiful thing to have a partner that nourishes you and gets you and will always be there for you and gets you on so many levels you don’t have to do any explaining. You can make one expression and they understand the mood you’re in. your ultimate team mate.”
Does she believe in soul mates? “People label things however they want to and I’m not labeling him anything. He’s my husband. But I would love to think that that’s the case. When we’re on our deathbeds and forever is over we’ll know.”
The notion that forever is over is perhaps something that haunts Perry. The songs might be dressed up in pink and Firework sparkly and inspirational, its riff used on all the trailers for American Idol. It’s played all the time, yet there is darkness to it.
The song was first conceived when Brand showed her a passage from On The Road by Jack Kerouac which said something like I want to be around people who are buzzing and fizzing, who are full of life and never say a commonplace thing, they shoot across the sky like a firework.
“And I like the idea that when I pass away I’ll be put in a firework and be shot across the ocean in Santa Barbara. That’s always been what I wanted for my last hurrah. It’s poetic. But it’s not about romance.”
It is about the eternal though, what lasts forever and what doesn’t. She has Jesus inked on her wrist. Does she observe this? “I observe it because It’s on my wrist but I don’t necessarily make it a moment every day. Mostly it’s having a heart of gratitude and being appreciative. This is my job and it’s a fun one. I should be humbled every day, which is basically a head frame I have. Not to take the piss out of playing a stupid game of spirituality. That’s not who I am. Who I am if want to put my head and my heart in the right position, so when I’m giving out my energy it’s pure.” She got the tattoo when she was 18 “because I love Jesus.”
It’s impossible to erase her spiritual upbringing no matter how much she sings about kissing girls and loving peacock cocks and wondering what it would be like to have cream to explode from her nipples. Her parents taught her about God and the devil. Her childhood was seeped in it. She took it all in. she questioned it, but she didn’t quite rebel. She never fell out with her parents although there were some “transitions” involved.
I’ve always thought that Brand looked like Jesus, so maybe that was the main attraction after all. The depths of the spiritual instruction she grew up with doesn’t go away.
“No it doesn’t. I’m different. The roots are the same but there’s a sift. For me the general wonderful things I learnt about were about respect and integrity, the difference between right and wrong. I think everyone in their own upbringing had their own silly rooms. Each family is unique and they have their own quirks. Mine was no devilled eggs and no MTV. Instead we had to call them angels eggs, just really small nuanced things like that.”
For her Jesus is as indelible as that tattoo. The juxtaposition of spiritual integrity and overt sexuality is a fascinating one. She takes with her on tour a box of prayers. My grandmother used to have a similar box where you take out one prayer every day and it gives you guidance or wisdom for that day. She says, “Yes, my costume designer got it at an estate sale. They’re ancient. 60 years old. The King James’s version of the Bible. It’s nice to have a regime that we can all be part of. We go into a circle, read our little prayer. We do it at the top of the show. You’ll see it later.” She seems keen that I can see this spiritual aspect.
“I think I’ve always been looking for answers. Wherever you come from as a child you swear you are not going to be like your parents, you’re going to be totally different and never look back. And when you look back it’s right behind you, breathing on you.
“I started off in gospel music when I started singing in church. I’d moved out of the house and everything. It didn’t matter what genre it was, I was like give it to me.”
There is indeed something insatiable about her. The curious thing as well as wanting it all, she wants to pay for it all, feel like she’s earned it all. Quite punishing.
She hates flying, is scared of it even, yet makes herself do it she is so grateful to be on a world tour. “I get to the venue, work out, eat, dress, do make-up, we do our circle, do a meet and greet, do the show. When the show is over I’m on a tour bus. That’s the price you pay.”
It’s a recurring theme – price you pay, her debt, her bargain. Is she happy? “Yes, I feel very fulfilled. I’m not always in the Snow Whitest of moods because my humour is very cynical and sarcastic anyways. I’m here because people put me here. I’m responsible to give payback. I am close to my fans and I feel indebted to them. I wouldn’t say I’m the most spiritual in the world, but I’m very aware of how small I am in this big world and every day is a chance to remember where I came from, every day is a chance to ask for humility and grace. I have a constant feed between me and God and every day is like ‘don’t become too proud, remember where you came from, be positive.'”
Perry may well have encouraged spirituality in Brand but he was already on the way to devouring mysticism and acquiring his own spiritual guru Radhanath Swami. Her mother finds Brand charming. She feels that he is going to be “a great man of God and his transition is happening.” She says she has a “lovely” relationship with her parents. She is a middle child. Her older sister is on tour with her organizing meets and greets. Her brother is an actor in LA.
Is it true she bought her mother a facelift? “Oh no, I did not. She aged well and by her own choices. There are quite a few things that are written about me that aren’t true.”
Is it true that her mother slept with Jimi Hendrix? “That’s also not true. She danced with him.”
What about her father. Was he really best friends with Timothy Leary? “He was a hippy and he went to Woodstock and he was an acid dealer. He was associated with that famous dealer of acid and psychedelics. I’m sure he was just one of many, but that is his testimony.”
Testimony in that religion is like in AA when you say ‘I’m an alcoholic’ or saying aloud the act of contrition.
“So they’ve had their wild days too. Now they are ministers and they’ve been ministering for over 35 years. We all came from somewhere. I have to remember that not everybody knows and it would obnoxious to think that they all should know. I’m fine with it.”
I read that when she was in India she engaged the services of a mystical psychic parrot. So much weird stuff is written about her it’s hard to sift the truth. “I think it might have been trained. Sorry to burst your bubble. But the whole idea of the tarot parrot was the sound of those two words together. That was the only reason I hired it.”
You wonder how much she enjoys fame if it is indeed more of a restriction. Paparazzis chase her constantly. Stories with even less truth than the psychic parrot sprinkle the tabloids, made up fights with other girl pop stars, fictitious rows and melodramas.
“When I was nine-years-old and started singing I didn’t think ooh fame, I thought songs, stage, costumes, exciting performances, making your own record. Those were the key ingredients to it. Being on the cover of a magazine, those are byproducts and I try not to give it too much energy. I don’t like tabloids and I don’t like paparazzi. I don’t feel I owe them anything. I don’t necessarily mess with them. when I see them I never pose unless I’m working. I always take back doors. Never condoning this kind of activity because I think it’s disgusting. It’s spineless. Some places are worse than others. Nobody should want to sign up for that.
“I’m four months Google free,” she announces, sounding straight out of an addiction meeting. “I don’t Google myself any more. That was my New Year’s resolution. I don’t read papers. I don’t even look at reviews. I have a good team around me so if anything pops up that’s really good or bad I’ll know about it. All the things I need to see I see. Generally I feel much better being able to live my life like a normal person and not read yesterday’s news. It’s intense but I don’t play into it and I don’t give it any energy. I’m careful of certain things I say and I do. If I know the interview is being recorded I can be a little wilder because you’re seeing me. But if I’m doing a print interview where there are only so many words that are being put into an article and I know I’ll be edited so I’m just very aware of what I say.”
Has she changed in this respect? “I think I have become a lot more focused and my bullshit tolerance has gone. I like working with great people, I like putting on a great show. I appreciate good people and relationships, my family and friendships, and my fans are really important to me. If you fuck with my fans you fuck with me. You dn’t want to fuck with Mama Bear.”
Have you sifted out a lot of people? “No, I’ve always stayed away from those types of people. when you’re going to different levels not everyone can get there. if they have greatness within them they can rise to that level. Some people just don’t want to go there. I want to be a better version of myself every day. I want to evolve. I believe if you are not changing all the time then you are not moving forward. You’re stuck.”
Weirdly the whole arena smells of candy floss although there’s none of it in sight. It must be all the bubble gum pink that’s auto-suggesting it. In fact the backstage food is made by a team of chefs that specialize in delicious organic food. Both her managers are here on tour with her and one of them talks in a delightful Alabama accent which adds to the syrupy warmth. There’s a quiet announcement that her single E.T. is Number 1 in the US. Everyone cheers and their joy seems genuine and she much loved.
Perry and her band and dancers in multi-coloured pastel furriness and candy striped sneakers gather in their circle. Perry herself is looking more and more like Wonder Woman. She arches back as if she is mustering her super powers. I wait expecting a little prayer asking Jesus to guide the show into loveliness. All their heads go down like a rugby scrum and they shout “Robin Hood!” and head for the stage.