U2 (Nov 2004)
It’s one of those restaurants on the beach, a balmy summer evening in all senses of the word. We are on the Cote d’Azur. It’s special energy was favoured by artists like Picasso and dictators like Mobutu. Bono is holding court on another table with a man who would like to build a cathedral for all faiths. Larry Mullen is tucking into tempura and chips enthusiastically. His skin shimmers golden, even in the moonlight. He looks at least 15 years younger than his 42 years. He’s stuck besides a woman who has close links to Tony Blair. Sometimes he despairs of Bono’s appetite for the political arena, sometimes they argue about it, mostly Bono makes it work out. You wonder all the time how did he do it, straddle between the rock stadium and the politician’s ear. But then how has he ever embraced being a rock god, and, well, God. If you spend any time in his company you will know there’s a reason why Bono is Bono, and U2 is U2 – the biggest rock band of all time. But more of that later. What’s clear now is that the band of 25 years has survived a thousand tantrums or more, several heart breaking dramas, and they have moved on together because of the love and respect they all have for each other. It’s a very elegant co-dependency. Adam Clayton’s not with us tonight. Partly because he lives the wrong side of Nice and doesn’t like to drive in the dark after the laser operation on his eyes. And partly, I suspect, because he doesn’t torture himself by being around alcoholic beverage. He was so nearly lost into a self-destructive vortex. He is now careful in the other extreme.
Each member of U2 is a little of an outsider. Either because their mothers were lost to them at a young age, as in Bono and Larry, or Adam who was lost to boarding schools. He’d grown up in East Africa. When he arrived in Ireland he felt bad, because although he was the only one in the class who spoke Swahili, he couldn’t speak Gaelic. Edge had a different kind of displacement. He was born in Wales and moved to Ireland but was cursed by not sounding like he fitted. He’s careful now to have an accent that reveals little because of that earlier sense of alienation. The girlfriend of the lead singer of Ash is talking to Bono about clubs in Dublin. He’s looking a little distracted as he’s trying to earwig on the Edge’s conversation. “What are you talking about Wales for,” he keeps on. Later on he tells me it’s his performer’s ear, he can hear everything that is going on in the room. More likely he heard his name being mentioned.
Edge was saying how Bono is different to other people because other people get in a pattern of thinking and he never thinks there are any parameters. That’s why he thinks there’s nothing wrong with phoning George Bush. Some Brazilian rhythms are playing. Some of us are dancing. The lights across the bay are getting more twinkly as the night gets blacker. It’s past midnight, the restaurant is shutting. It’s a short walk along the beach to the twin villas in which Edge and Bono live, separated only by two swimming pools. People find it odd that not only have they worked together creatively and sometimes compulsively for over 25 years that now they actually live next door to one another. There’s not even a fence between them. They never got round to building it. The problem with the walk across the beach is that it is a stone beach, not a speck of sand in sight, and I am wearing stiletto heeled mules. Bono offers to carry me. I opt for bare foot. It’s painful. I’m almost yelping. Then Bono offers me his shoes. They are Japanese inspired flip flops and a godsend. Now he is in pain, but he doesn’t yelp, says it’s like an intense reflexology. When we get back to his place he puts on the new CD How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It’s one of the first times that they have heard the completed work in its correct running order. Bono sings karaoke style along with it. One track begins with the line, “Take my shoes” which he sings directly into my ear. The Edge is looking solemn and worried. “Look at him,” says Bono. “He’s going through all those mixes, assessing it all in his head.” He is indeed immersed in a world of his own. Bono is now singing the line, “I know that we don’t talk but can you hear me when I siiiiing.” It’s a weird cry that vibrates into the night after the already vibrating note from Bono’s voice on the album. Haunting of course. It’s meant to be. “Yes,” he says. “I am hitting a note a man of my age shouldn’t be hitting. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I have a different voice. Where did that come from?”
One theory is that How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is actually about dismantling the life and death of his father (?) who was a big time opera fan and a perfect tenor. Since he’s gone he walks in a different way, maybe it’s his father’s walk, maybe he swallowed him.
“Or maybe something just lifted, like a very strange weight and I am more at ease with myself and this is as easy as I’ll ever get, and this is pretty good. “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. He is the atomic bomb in question and it is his era, the Cold War era, and we had a bit of a cold war, myself and him. Perhaps that was just an Irish male thing. But we had an unusual relationship early on. When he died I had no idea what would happen. I did start behaving a little odd, took on more and more projects.
“And looking back on it now, because I think now it’s finally ended, now I’ve finally managed to say goodbye, I think that I did do some mad stuff. I got a letter from a friend of mine that said, 1, don’t leave your job, 2, your wife, 3, take large sums of money out of the bank. I wasn’t doing any of that, but what he was saying was when fathers die sons do mad stuff. “I thought I was ready for it, and up for it.” Don’t know if you can ever be ready for death. “Well, he’d been ill for a long time (he had cancer and Parkinson’s disease) and I would go and visit him in hospital, take the night watch.” He was on tour for the final stages of his father’s life, but he would fly back to take a bed in the hospital. “I didn’t know that grief affects you in surprising ways. I didn’t know that a year and a half, two years later, when you’re walking down the street, there’s tears going down your face and you don’t know why. Then you realise why, you’ve got all that unresolved stuff you didn’t get a chance to work out and you wished you had, or pick up a phone call. “We didn’t talk. I don’t think I spent enough time with him, and it’s always awkward with Irish males what you talk about. We got a snooker table, that helped, but not when he was ill. I’d come home from gigs, get to the airport, meet my brother, have a pint of Guinness and a shot of whiskey, and go up to the room so in the morning I was there. In the last days I would read to him. Shakespeare, the Psalms, although that was bad timing because my father was losing his faith just when you really need it. I remember saying to Noel Gallagher that he just wasn’t sure any more and Noel says, ‘Well he’s one step closer to knowing, isn’t he.'” And that became another song, One Step Closer. Like all Bono’s lyrics, they’re essentially about embracing contradictions, humour and despair, celebration and bitterness, God and sex, desire and doom, devils and angels. All embrace each other and become different facets of the same thing. Sometimes they sound biblical even. Even when they are at their most throwaway they draw you in. You can hang from his every word and quite enjoy it. He is a person who wears his inside on his out and you are scooped into that force field.
“This turned out to be such an emotional set of recordings and I don’t remember writing them like that. I don’t know where it came from, just as I found notes I’d forgotten, I found melodies. I also noticed I was walking differently, and I noticed other people noticed certain mannerisms in me. I think you do that. As their manifestation leaves their central presence or being enters into you.” Bono has so much to say to everybody, George Bush, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the swing voters, the peace keepers, the warmongers and the rock and roll population of the world. But he didn’t have very much to say to his dad. Most of the time he drew him lying there. “I drew all the equipment. I found it fascinating with all those wires and tubes. I didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with things, my brother did all the heroic stuff, organising everything, the medical stuff. I think I was just drawing to try and figure it out rather than twitching and looking away. And I was writing because I was trying to figure it all out. That’s when I wrote Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own when he was sick. He wasn’t an easy man to help and I sang it at his funeral. It sounded like The Righteous Brothers, something from a very different age. What will the young people make of it?” he laughs. The song is reaching emotional parts that songs rarely locate. It is beautifully crafted, but also raw.
“The record is full of joy though. I don’t want people to think of it as despairing. My father really was great fun,” he says. The two trains of thought about his father seem entirely contradictory. That he was fun, and that he was unreachable. But somehow, when Bono tells you it you believe it. It’s a rare gift. You accept almost anything. He wonders where the drawings are. Perhaps they are upstairs. He will show them to me later. He says, “I have recently had to let go of grief and thank God for the gift my father gave me, even if I turned out like a Johnny Cash song. I am the boy named Sue, you know. His whole thing was don’t dream because dreams end in disappointment. And that’s it right there. That’s when the megalomania started. Don’t have any big ideas.” He waves his finger as if he is his father, and bursts out laughing as in that moment he knows he is the biggest rock star in the world because he wanted to be. He feels he personally can put an end to world debt just because he thinks so. And the AIDS crisis in Africa. We’re on our way. You see it in his eyes which sometimes flash with an inspiration you can almost touch. That’s the real reason he wears those dark glasses. As if on cue the song Yahweh which is the original name for God in Hebrew pounds out with such joy some of us are dancing on the terrace. The restaurant gave us champagne to take across the beach. More bottles of rose wine have been added, and now Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’Aime is sighing and oozing from the speakers.
The next morning everyone had a hangover. Bono had a non-specific angst. Could be that he was very concerned that I would think that everything in his life was warm and fuzzy. Could be because the photographer Greg Williams was prowling in the gardens with a few hundred kilos of sugar. He was shooting an ad campaign for Oxfam and Bono was to be photographed underneath a sugar mountain. I believe Chris Martin got milk. And there was a brief discussion whether you’d rather be covered in milk, sugar or flour. But it is true that life for U2 isn’t always a cosy sugar cocoon. It hasn’t been exactly 25 silver spoon years. After the initial struggle, remember they used to worry were they too biblical to be cool, then it was simply were they too sated. That period around Achtung Baby and Pop in the nineties was their most turbulent and most arid. That was when Adam went off the rails with drugs and various other excesses. And that was when Larry, after finishing three years of touring (the Zooropa tour 1993) ended up in Japan and so didn’t know what a home was tried to persuade Edge it was a good idea to buy motorcycles and cross America for six months.
Bono refers to Adam and Larry as rock police. He says that Adam has an ear equivalent to a third eye. And Larry has an amazing instinct and decision making process. Everything in Mullen world is black and white, there is never any grey. The most stroppy and the most straightforward, and the most handsome. I first met Larry earlier on in the summer in my first visit to the south of France. The day I arrived the just finished not fully completed CD had been stolen from a photo session from the Edge’s CD player. The police enjoyed questioning all of U2, and the record company were in a general panic. But Mullen seemed laid back. “What can you do?” he shrugged. And when he shrugged, his arms, special drummer’s arms, ripple very nicely. In daylight he has an orange bronze shimmer. I’ve seen him referred to before as Dorian Gray. He says that his father is in his eighties and looks 62. I wonder is he most like his father then, or his mother? Not just in skin tone. He says sadly that he never found out how his mother would age. “She passed away in 1978.” A loud airplane tears across the sky and almost destroys the moment. “When I joined the band it was like running away to the circus. My memory of early U2 is really hit and miss because I just ran away when my mother died. Nobody was there to pick up the pieces. I was trying to do it myself. Impossible.”
He was just 17 and U2 became his replacement family with everything that involved. “Yes, my sister got married and the family unit was broken. Every Irish son is closest to their mother. She thought I’d make a priest one day, she’d be very disappointed.” But now you’re giving out a different kind of communion. “That’s right.” Do you think you were running away from loss all your life? “I don’t know, there may be some truth in that. There’s a sense of running because you don’t want to go through that loss again. In Ireland mother love is so big even married sons will go for Sunday dinner on their own. Anyway, it’s a little more expensive to run away now than back then, but it’s still a circus.”
It becomes apparent that the reason U2 are still together is that they need each other more than other bands. Bono thinks that Larry is the dad of the U2 family because he’s so good at making decisions. Mullen thinks that actually he’s the spoilt child. “Bono’s the mum. No doubt. You know, he’s larger than life and he’ll take on anything.”
Mullen doesn’t schmooze, he doesn’t mince words. He’s very direct and heartfelt. He says, “We’re not making music by committee which a lot of people misunderstand. Songs come as a sketch and we work around and add our influences. My passion is not drumming or drummers, my passion is music. Whereas Edge, and Bono to a lesser degree will be focused on the whole idea and will spend six hours in the studio while Edge is going on his guitars, I just go in and out so I can be more objective.
“We don’t fight, but we all have strong personalities. But in the end we want the same thing. You know we’re very competitive, we want to be on the radio, have big singles. We don’t want to be thought of as a veteran band. We like the fact that people mention Coldplay as our contemporaries.” (Coldplay are about 18 years younger). Then he says, “I got exhausted listening to our CD. It’s not an immediate record. We don’t make immediate records. But then I thought it’s actually really good. I didn’t agree with the title though, but I was overruled on that.” It was produced by Steve Lillywhite, but there had been many other producers involved: Chris Thomas, Flood, Jacknife Lee, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Nellee Hooper and Carl Glanville Mullen raises an eyebrow. “People work for U2 and are never seen again. The U2 black hole. Stephen Hawkins discovered a new black hole theory that things can come out of the end of the black hole. I guarantee if Stephen Hawkins looks closely enough he’ll find several old U2 producers, engineers and road crew.” So why are the four of you still together? “There’s nowhere else to go. What kind of a band goes on holiday to the same place? What kind of families just mix?”
We are sitting under a canopy on Bono’s terrace by the pool and several naked children, possibly belonging to Edge, run squealing by. “We are a tight family with all the pluses and disadvantages of that. But we don’t have an ego problem in the band. Most bands fall after the first hurdle, which is, I write the songs. We all are involved in the process. Also we are not slaves to our instruments. We are not virtuosos. None of us studied. So we all struggle together. “Different things come into play now that we’ve all got families. We don’t have the freedom we once had.” He’s got an eight year old son, five year old daughter and a three year old youngest boy. So even rock and roll must revolve around school holidays. What happened when you went a little crazed after the long touring schedule? “It was about ten years ago now and we’d been on the road with Achtung Baby and Zoo TV for about two years. We finished the tour in Japan. We all just disappeared off into the night and got into awful trouble. The last gig happened and Edge said he was just looking forward to getting back into normal living, but I just couldn’t stand it. I said, how about you and me buy bikes and tour America for six months. For a split second I thought it was a good idea.” Did you have that syndrome where your torturer goes away and you say can you come back and torture me some more. He says, “Yes, that’s exactly how it felt.”
What he did do for that time was go to New York for six months, to a drum doctor. A kind of chiropractor specially geared to rock drumming. He learnt how to stay in shape and do some martial arts. Now his thing is, “Whenever we tour and go to a different city, like women like to go shopping there, I go to the local gym. It’s just something I’ve grown to love.” He also likes the idea of doing something which is against his character. He is an introvert but enjoyed taking centre stage in the Electric Storm video. “I would like to be in a band that still makes great albums because I don’t think age has anything to do with it, and I like the idea that I might take on a new challenge of doing some acting. I like the idea of going to it late. But you know, the band is all I’ve ever wanted, and I get paid for it. I don’t want to sound smug because that would be awful. But it’s like, I’ve got the best job in the world, you know.” Sometimes it seems that Adam Clayton has always been an outsider, even within the band. But in the world of U2 extremes always meet. In many ways he is the driving force. It was he who out of, “blind faith and undeniable ignorance” said, “We are going to be bigger than The Beatles.” It was at the time when they’d only played a couple of gigs and were at their most wild and disparate. We meet in a rooftop cafe in Nice. He lives a little separate to the other members, although he thinks that might change soon. He orders a double espresso even though he’s recently given up caffeine. That’s just who he is. Worried about revealing too much, but anxious that I get to the core of him. I tell him that all the other band members remember the bigger than The Beatles moment clearly. “At that stage I really didn’t really know what I was saying, but I know you have to go into it with a passion, and that was my passion, doing it for real. Punk came roughly at the same time and it gave you the feeling that you could make a difference through music. I got swept up in it. It wasn’t about being a weekend flash in the pan. It was about being a world phenomenon.” He gives a slow smile.
He has a very unlined face, but eyes that are much older. No longer the peroxide blond, but he’s arrived armed with designer shopping bags. He’s in search of the perfect T-shirt. He says this album, “Was a very different experience. It wasn’t like we were running around crazy with no sleep.” Although Bono rarely sleeps more than four hours a night. He doesn’t think that he goes fast, just that the rest of the world goes slow. The time of Clayton throwing down his bass guitar and telling Bono, ‘You play it then,’ and storming off to some drug fuelled heaven or hell is long gone. Has something happened to make you more harmonious now? “My personal insight would be that we all turned 40 in the last two or three years and that does make a change. You can look back at how well the band has done and what a great band it is. You can’t help but feel great about it,” he says fidgeting. The waitress forgot his coffee order and he’s already feeling guilty about the double espresso. He says he felt he needed an altered state for the interview. The coffee arrives. He seems calmed.
“Not many people get to 25 years in a marriage or business partnership. You know, collectively I think we’ve come up with a few stinkers of bad decisions. We’ve survived them, and survival is how you deal with your bad decisions as much as it is with your good ones.” What was your biggest stinker? “I suppose the one that I’m most uncomfortable about is how we went off on one with the Pop album. We focused so much on going out on tour and designing the stage show, which was amazing, we forgot to finish the record.” At the time, Pop was panned. It was hailed as the doom and demise. Now in some circles it’s looked at as a bit of a quirky classic. “I think we just lost our way and now it’s just part of our history.” Was that when you lost your way? “No, I was fine then, that came much earlier.” The much earlier period was the Naomi Campbell engagement. You know, the rock star needs supermodel. I always feel it was a shame they met when he was off the rails. But the real Clayton is nurturing and polite, supersensitive, and in many ways they were good together. His affair with Campbell made him the celebrity he’s always tried not to be, although I point out there was that time for the artwork of Achtung Baby! Where he appeared naked to show the girls exactly what a supermodel gets. “Yes, but people still didn’t recognise my face. I was lucky like that. I have always been a little shy of the camera.” So obviously the way you deal with that is appear naked. He laughs at his own contradictions. A lot more comfortable in his own skin these days. He breaks the chocolate that you get with the coffee into four pieces and enjoys each miniature bite. Very controlled. He tells me, “I can neck it when I want to.” Each of the four know each others strengths and weaknesses and extremes very well. “In a way we are not hugely intimate with each other, yet there is tremendous tolerance, room and understanding and love and all the things that support people. There is intimacy, but a lot of the time it is a work situation and then everyone goes back to their families. It’s more adult. It’s not the four guys that you were in the back of a transit van for two and a half years. But how can I sum up where we are now. There is no sign of it slowing down or being diluted. In a way we are at the peak of our powers.” You once told me that it’s impossible to be an ex-rock star and that you were going to go on for ever. “Hm, that was a few years ago. I can’t blame naivety. But there’s always that question. What will U2 become? A parody of itself? A watered down version? Will it continue to have dignity and respect. It’s not getting easier but we’re getting better at dealing with it.” Are you your own family? “Essentially yes. But I’m trying to filter out the romanticism of what you’ve just said with the pragmatism of it.” In all of your families there are some elements missing that you found in each other. “Yes, we are our own survival mechanism. We were dependent on each other in our twenties in a way that you couldn’t have been in any other way of life. We were lifted up and forced together. It was a pressure cooked up till Joshua Tree and then the heat started to be let out. People had more choice in their lives and their lives were more complicated with success, money, options and family. So it became more difficult to be together in that same unit. Getting older means it’s harder to keep up the same disciplines that you had in your thirties.”
In this way Clayton is different to the others who still like a bit of a party. He is the loner. “I don’t go out very much, but I’m comfortable with that. When I was in party mode I was out every night. I am not seeking that kind of stimulation any more. Now I’m happy to watch the news, listen to music.” What do you listen to? “You know when I was using substances there were records I would go back to because they created certain moods. I don’t do that as much now. I listen to newer records. Current things.” You mean the ones that don’t have drug memories. What were they? “The drug records? Marvin Gaye and James Brown. A little bit morbid. And later on Leftfield.” It’s a place he clearly never wants to go back to. Most of the time he lives split between Dublin and London where his girlfriend works.
“There was a time when I wasn’t comfortable in England at all. But now I have a more positive approach to life. I used to feel gauche, as if I came from the provinces.” The thing about Clayton is he’s always felt he’s been coming from somewhere else. He’s always been between two poles. As a child, very early on, his father who worked for East African Airways, moved out to Kenya. Then it was Dublin. Then it was boarding school and Singapore for school holidays. In a way, even though part of him feels it’s crunch time to settle down, he loves to do what is known as ‘the geographic.’ “It’s much easier for me to say goodbye and go somewhere else than it is to stay and deal with whatever it is that has to be dealt with.” And is this the pattern that created the condition to be totally on the road? “Perhaps, but I still get jittery going to a new place. I don’t like to lose control of the environment. I get twitchy about losing control. I get stressed when I think things might not be going the way they should be and sometimes I just feel abandoned for want of a better word.” What Clayton has finally opened up to is frighteningly sensitive. “Generally I think there is work to be done with some of my issues. I don’t think I’ve cleared out the cupboard totally. But most days I move freely in the world and feel comfortable with it. What I’ve learned about coming into recovery is about acknowledging sensitivity and turning it down a little bit, but that doesn’t mean to say I can’t feel exhilarated.” Each U2 band member is exhilarating to be with in different ways. I can see why Bono sometimes has to change headset and think, let me make my life easier, let me think in black and white like Larry. Adam Clayton is the opposite of this. He doesn’t think in terms of grey, he thinks in terms of nuance, and treats everyone with the sensitivity he feels.
Later that day I was due to meet with The Edge, but he was suffering. It had been his CD that was stolen and he had been interrogated by the police interminably and wasn’t up to being interrogated by me. The next time I saw him was two months later on the beach in the restaurant behind that bottle of rose. His eyes are small but intense. He was born David Evans from Welsh parents in Barking, East London, moving to Ireland with his family when he was one. He speaks very softly, but very precisely. And for a person named The Edge by Bono because of the sharpness of his mind and his features, he is hugely gentle. A puzzling force, usually wrapped in a tight knit hat, even in the summer. When we met to talk again it was the morning after. Even with a hangover his mind loves detail.
Although I’ve assumed by now U2 are a co-dependent family unit bound by telepathy, talent, love and insecurity, each brings something and each makes a contribution. On some albums some contribute more. It is generally acknowledged while it may not be as official or clear cut as the Jagger Richards thing, that Bono and The Edge are the dons of the songwriting. Bono is the words, and Edge is the sound. So, last night, Bono was worried that you wanted to re-record the entire album. “Yes, listening to it made me want to re-record everything. I have been listening to many different edits, all within the boring mundane final mastering process. If you get it right the song just sounds better. If you get it wrong it makes the song sound different in a really bad way. Ten per cent of working in the studio is inspiration, 90 per cent is a very analytical painstaking process for us. And that’s the science part of my brain.” The Edge was almost lost to science. He promised his parents that if the band hadn’t made it in his year off he would start his natural sciences course. He actually began it, sleeping on manager Paul McGuinness’s floor which was near to the college. But he never actually bought the text books. “I didn’t want to waste my parents money but felt I owed it to them to do what they wanted.” The Edge is a person who immediately assumes responsibility for everything. Bono’s passion and political fervour has perhaps been hardest on him. But the reward is perhaps that the album sounds more like an Edge album than a Bono album.
Any other person might have been deeply frustrated by Bono’s absences to go and hang out with Bush, Blair and his work in Africa while they were recording. He took it in his stride. “And yes, it is like your family, and there’s nothing more annoying than your family. But in another way there’s a deep trust and commitment and a sense that for better or for worse, our destinies are intertwined. No-one is under illusion about solo careers being more fun or as successful or as challenging as being a member of U2.” His reasoning for the bond that never broke is that, “together we found we could something well. Even if we didn’t at first. When I first picked up a guitar I was, ‘Wow, I can play this, I can really do this.’ when we actually started playing together there was a sense that I have found my place in the scheme of things. I remember Gavin Friday saying insecurity is the best security you can have.” Didn’t Bono’s political activities cause conflict? “We’ve grown up as being a political band. We never saw a need to separate religion and politics from everything we write about and care about. And it always seemed to be a natural part of the work. Other bands that I would have related to on that level would have been Bob Marley and The Wailers and The Clash on the political level.
“We have always been well aware that steaming in on any issue was liable to get us into trouble, or just come off as uncool. And we have never never valued cool. Although my own real fear was that Bono was going to lead us into doing things that were desperately uncool and we would regret because we would be implicated to a larger or lesser extent. But I have to say, from time to time, even though I have winced on his behalf, I’ve had more times when I’ve just been so proud of him and just blown away with the success of what he’s done. Who would know that someone who stopped his formal education at 16 and had been writing songs and touring the world as a singer can get stuck into the body politic and actually make such a difference and is listened to on the highest levels.” We break for lunch of salad with cous-cous, salmon, chicken. Larry points out that Bono, “will have lunch with the devil himself if it gets him what he needs. I’d be loathe to criticise him, but I do think it is a dilemma, if you’re particularly associated with one politician or another. I admire tony Blair, he’s an alright guy, but I can’t figure out for the life of me why he went to war. I think Bono is in an interesting position to find his way through that one. “During the recording of the album Bono was away a lot and it ended up having zero effect on the quality of the work. It just seemed he’s a lot more active. He was able to speak to the Pope and record a lyric at the same time. I’ll be interested to see in a few years time what effect there will be on him as a songwriter and a lyricist. I don’t think the effects will be now, it’s going to be later.” Bono returns to the table, freshly showered from his sugar cavalcade and we discuss the psychology of hair. Like what does it really mean if he’s always having a bad hair day. He can’t control it, and how that relates to his need to control the world. And we discuss how people have got sex all wrong. We’ve degraded it. In our attempt to understand it we’ve missed the point.
Back by the pool with The Edge we admire the blissful view and the bizarre fact that he and Bono have two houses side by side, neighbours as well as band mates. Edge also has a house in Malibu because his wife Morleigh is native to LA. “And the kids love it because their cousins are there.” He thinks one day he may buy a boat. Ultimately though, “possessions are a way of turning money into problems. I don’t have a big car collection. I don’t have anything that I’d miss if it got stolen. I don’t do investments. That’s turning money into work and that’s not such a nice thing.
“I bought this house because it was about timing. I was going through a low point because I was just separating from my first wife Aislinn and things were tough and this was laying down new beginnings of another sort.” He met Morleigh when they were doing the Zoo TV tour. She’s a dancer and came to help with the choreography. It was a slow burn thing though. “We had known each other but were not very close for a while. And then a little spark happened.” Last night in our drunken conversation Bono had been discussing the fact that you know if you really love somebody if you can be yourself with them. If you try to perform well for them or impress them it’s not as strong a love. Edge agrees, “Yes, I can be myself.” From the slow and precise way he says that, you know it wasn’t always the case. In relationships do you prefer to be the person that is most loved or most loving? “I started out being the one who was most loving. Now hopefully it’s more fifty fifty. I think there’s a certain ego in that there’s a control in being the one who’s the most loving. To actually surrender and say I am going to be loved requires a certain humility. The paradox is it’s generous to be loved.” They all love a bit of a paradox. That’s just another thing they have in common. Suddenly there’s a change of atmosphere, an adrenalin rush, a palpable jolt. Larry and Edge disperse and Bono tells me, “Tony Blair’s just asked me to do an address at the conference.” I tell him I don’t think he should do that. He looks bemused and tells me that Mandela and Clinton had done this same spot for an international speaker. I tell him that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose, and why would he want to align himself with a party that is now alienating so many people.
He says, “I am happy to stand alongside him and say I believe in him. I think he’s one of the greatest leaders the UK has ever had. He has done extraordinary things for his country, and Gordon Brown is an astonishing man. There has to be applause. So far, it’s my job to give him applause for what he’s done, even though I didn’t agree with the war. He believed in it and isn’t it extraordinary for a British prime minister to do something that was unpopular with the British people and his own cabinet and his Labour base. I believe that he is sincere… But sincerely wrong. But at least it wasn’t appeasement.” He’s on a roll now and there’s no stopping him. I point out that he’s very useful to politicians who want to get the swing vote that they believe rocks with the 18-30 CD buying public. Would he do an address for President Bush at a Republican convention? “Not so close to an election, but I’ve been in photographs to President Bush after he made a commitment to the biggest increase in AIDS assistance for many years. I am not a cheap date, but it’s my job to turn up for the photograph if they’re ready to cut the ribbon.”
It can only get harder to straddle rock icon and political guru. “The band used to beg me not to talk about it in band interviews because they were sure that it was deeply uncool work. They wanted to keep it separate. However, what often is not written about is how they financially support me in this and it hasn’t turned out to be such a bad thing. Although I have had Edge with his head on the table just exasperated,” he concedes. There is no stopping him though. He’s looking a lot wirier than the last time I saw him. He says that he was shaking off his Elvis period. There’s nothing decadent, druggy, fat or Elvis like about him. Even the shades are off, and the eyes are that extraordinary piercing pale blue. They are at the same time ice and heat.
Everything about Bono seems contradictory. He is most at home with lyrics like Crumbs From Your Table which comes over like a bitter lover’s quarrel, but it’s actually about Christendom breaking the promise to the rest of the world. He loves the elliptical protest song. “You can’t get to the heart of the problem unless you get to the heart. This is the boring bit,” he says urgently. “In the 1970s there was a decision by the developed world that they would tithe 0.7 per cent of the GDP to the poorest of the poor, less than one per cent of the national income. It was called the Pearson Commitment after the Canadian Finance Minister who came up with it. Every prosperous country signed on and the 20 years that followed was unimaginable prosperity, and people went, we didn’t know it was going to be that amount of money and renegotiated the deal with God downwards. So how do we feel about the fact the richer we get the less percentage we give? Does that not strike you as a betrayal? It was deeply shocking and disturbing to me, so I’m going to write about that.” More than write about it, he really wants to adjust it. He talks with such clarity, in words that bypass cliche, or pragmatism. It’s a kind of passionate naivety. But he feels things so strongly and shimmers with that it doesn’t surprise me he played Tony Blair’s guitar. “I had to play it because I wanted to check the tuning. I heard he played guitar every day, so I wanted to see if that was true. And it gives me some faith that I picked up the Prime Minister of England’s guitar and it was in tune, he does play it.” He also believes that under his leadership and Gordon’s, he is quick to point every time he mentions Blair’s leadership it comes with “and Gordon’s” that thousands of people in Africa will live rather than die. More people than those thousands who have unacceptably lost their lives in the war.
Enough about Blair. Would you believe he moves on to say how impressed he is with Condoleezza Rice. “I have to say George Bush really did deliver on his promise to getting more help for AIDS in Africa. I was told it would be impossible and unachievable, but it was not. And I have to say I found him very funny. There I am, sitting in his car next to him, in his motorcade, chatting and thinking I could be arguing for the rest of my life with him on lots of subjects, so I just looked at the most powerful man in the free world as he waved at the crowd and I said, ‘So you are pretty popular round here,’ and he goes, ‘It wasn’t always so. See, when I first came here people used to wave at me with one finger.”
It has been suggested many times, Bono, do you want to run for office.
“And I say, I wouldn’t want to move to a smaller house. Horst Köhler said to me, he’s now the President of Germany, he was once the head of the IMF, in our first meeting. ‘So, you make the money, then you develop the conscience, ya.’ I thought that was cool, but I actually had the conscience before I got into the band.” Is that the Pope’s rosary round your neck? “It wore out so Ali had this one made up exactly the same. You see, Bob Geldof did a deal with the Pope. He knew that it would wear out. He asked for two. I didn’t think, but Bob did.” We laugh about that for a while, and he remembers his feet hurt. Of course they do, they walked hundreds of yards over pointy stones. He rubs them a little and the mood has changed as it so often does so quickly. If the record is about faith and fear it’s because Bono is. Love and desire, constantly inhabit him, as does the difference between them. “It’s great when they combine. But sometimes they are very different, love and desire. Love, sex, fear and faith, and all the things that keep us here in the mysterious distance between a man and a woman.” Just when you think you’re having a conversation you’re having a song lyric. That mysterious distance that’s always interested him. “My favourite relationships are always where there is that distance. The desire to occupy a person and know their every broom closet overpowers your sense of respect for who they are or that they have a life outside of yours. Domination of people through love would never have been accepted in our house.”
People have wondered over the years just how and what has been accepted with Mr and Mrs Bono Hewson. Ali is a childhood sweetheart. She has the thickest of thick black hair in a bob. I met her briefly on my first trip out. Friendly, kind of sophisticated, but accessible. Slim but curvy. A pin-up. There was a period six or seven years ago when she threw him out of the house. Reasons were never specified other than she deserved to be a saint to have put up with him for so long. In an invasion of that mysterious distance, for the first time they are going to work together on a project. “It’s a clothing line which will be made using Fair Trade and the developing world. We are lining up with a designer called Rogan who’s brilliant and he’s not an arsehole and he wants to work with us.” Have you ever worked with her before? “No, it came about because I said stop asking other rich people for money and actually create something that people want.” Christof, who is Bono’s housekeeper cum Basque chef, brings us glasses of wine, even though Bono says he is allergic to it, makes him fall asleep. Sleep is definitely something he hasn’t got time for. He asks me if I agree with Freud that sex is the centre of life. He thinks it’s just close to the centre. “It’s an extraordinary thing to relegate this subject to something that’s prurient or humourless or deeply earnest and dull. Look how it is used to sell products.” Sex is pretty fascinating and dominating, do you think that romance is more interesting than sex. “I think sex without romance is, is…” Dull? “No, it’s just not on my radar.” Really? “I can’t say it hasn’t been. You know, there are times when you’ve got to if you’ve been in a long term relationship, so I wouldn’t lie. Actually, I might.” Sex and death, love and desire all weave their way in and out of the melodies that haunt him and in turn he gives to us. “If you want to meditate on life you start with death, right. It’s not that I’m particularly afraid of it. But, you know, when somebody is not there for you there’s a sense of abandonment.” It’s this very abandonment that has created in him the need to bond with the world. “The Maoris have an amazing practise. When somebody dies they sleep with the body then get up and talk to them. They get it all out. I lent you two quid you bastard, how am I going to get it back.” Is that what you feel like saying to your dad? “Yes. He told me the thing I regret the most in my life is that I can’t play the piano. When I was a kid I remember my granny’s piano. My head was lower than the piano. I would put my hand up, find a note, I was really attracted to it. I loved it and I remember when they were selling this piano because my grandfather died. My mother died at my grandfather’s funeral, collapsed at the graveside. He wouldn’t have it in our home. It wouldn’t fit and all his life he regretted not having the piano. He listened to opera all the time but never showed any signs of enjoying it, it was all on the inside. He was impossible to know, just like Ali.” Oh right, you married your dad. “God forbid.” He tells me that he is reliving his own childhood, “Because I’ve got a six year old and you start remembering things, like I’ll sing songs while I’m putting them to bed that I didn’t know I knew the words of.”
And it’s also like he’s rediscovering the loss of his mother through the loss of his father. “Sounds like you feel sorry for me,” he says when he sees me thinking that. “But all rock singers have lost their mothers. There isn’t one that hasn’t. John Lennon, John Lydon, all of them.”
He can always turn a negative to a positive and after you’ve been with him for a while he can see who you are and what you’re thinking. He tells me that if he was a machine he’d be a bulldozer but that I’d be a film projector and that I could never be digital, only analogue.
Afternoon is blending into evening now. It seems like we could have this conversation probing our cores infinitely. He says, “You can exorcise your demons or you can exercise them. And someone described the analysis if it goes wrong as a glass of water with a rusty nail at the bottom. You examine it, you put it back, difference is the water is disturbed and it is dirty. I don’t know what I’ve discovered about myself from analysis. The thing to watch for is navel gazing, and I do have a very nice one, but I think the most of what I’ve learnt about myself you discover in other people.” There’s a song lyric that talks about being loved too much. “No, you can’t love too much. You can’t out give God.” he pauses, “But you should try, I think. That’s a great place to be. That’s where I’d like to spend the rest of my life. I’m not able to live up to it, but I think I try.”
it’s almost time for me to go, but he’s concerned that I think his life is too much of a bubble where no-one disagrees with him. “It’s not just warm and fuzzy, it’s gritty here. You know, working with U2 can be just one big row. Part of the sexiness is the friction. Rock star disease is where you are in the company of people who agree with you all the time… Although personally I might love a bit of that.” At some other point he quips that he needs to be told he’s loved at least a dozen times a day. And he probably is, one way or another.