The Joy of Vowels

31 Dec 2000
In the January 2001 issue of Rolling Stone, U2 talk to Chris Heath about fear, mortality and how they plan to save that which saved them: rock 'n' roll.

Here we carry an edited version: find out more at
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Bono leads the way through a maze that runs from Dublin's Clarence hotel - owned by U2 - to behind the bar of the Kitchen, the nightclub beneath it. "I love the fact that at the bottom of this posh hotel is this sewer of a nightclub," he says.

It is early March 2000. U2 have already been recording a new album for more than a year, and they are far from finished. Tonight Bono's going out, but his head is still full of manifestoes and overexcited abstractions: "I feel like it's always raining in our songs, that bittersweetness. I try to resist it, actually What I like about pop music is its pure joy, and in the end it's harder to make ecstatic, electrifying music. It's the hardest thing in the world. We surrender too easily to the blues. We, if we're not careful, are bleeding all over the world. What's striking about our Eighties music is, it's ecstatic a lot of the time - as gauche as we sometimes came across then." He tries to explain how he'd like their new album to be. "Joy!" he hollers. "Happiness means nothing - happiness means getting rid of a headache. Joy is another thing altogether. It's the hardest thing to conjure. You can't conjure it - it's more like a spring. But when it's music, that's the top of the pyramid."

He waves a drink in his hand, explaining how in the Nineties, U2 wandered away from joy - "We got darker and darker, but the lights were all the brighter at our concerts" - in an effort to communicate other things. "Joy in our group comes out of vowels, words with very few consonants, words that form when you're singing," he says. "So as a writer it can be frustrating."

And you're not going to be scared of short words with vowels on this record? "No," he raves. "I'm trying to be embarassable. I think that may be our job. I want to say these things that people are thinking and not saying. Things have got very constricted. I think it's the job of the singer: to fess up to the stuff. I want to make a record that does that, that's nonsense and makes sense, because that's the way we're all living. Red Bull, beats, talking about girls, the Death and Resurrection Show - that's how we're living now. I want that feeling on the record. I think there are more colors available to us than before. Our music in the early Eighties, it might have been ecstatic, but it wasn't really sexy, was it? Now we're sexy and ecstatic."

It has, he says, to do with the rhythm section, with the bass. "Now, literally, we're bringing up the rear."

Tonight there will be more drinks, and more talk of joy, but it is half a year before U2 finish their record. On its release, All That You Can't Leave Behind will be an instant success, the most welcoming record U2 have made in years, and many of its listeners may well imagine it is the joy-infused record Bono had intended. As long as they don't listen too carefully.

December 5, 2000. U2 are in New York, toward the end of seven weeks promoting their record around the world. On their travels they have been doing things they have resisted for most of their career - playing on TV shows, for instance - and tomorrow night they will play a club show at Irving Plaza. U2 never fell for the romance of small clubs - they always wanted the stage and the audience to be bigger - and since they graduated from them in the early Eighties they have never been back.

Tonight they must rehearse. Though they know they will play the four songs from the new record that they have rehearsed for TV appearances, they must decide what else. Bono addresses his fellow band members. "I have an idea," he says. "Two ideas, which I'd like to think about. A little controversial - two cover versions. One is the Who, 'Won't Get Fooled Again,' and the others" He begins to sing: "I remember lying, awake at night, and thinking just of you; but things don't last forever, and somehow, baby, they never really do.' "

It's a Ramones song, "I Remember You." Bono says that U2 played it at their first rehearsal, in 1978.

"Maybe no drums," Bono suggests.

"That sounds great," drummer Larry Mullen says, dryly. "I'll put the kettle on."

The idea of covering "Won't Get Fooled Again" was planted during a recent video shoot in Rio for the song "Walk On," when the Edge, who had a Marshall stack behind him and felt inspired to play what he considered "one of the great riffs," launched into about thirty seconds of the song - "just a goof," he says - and Larry joined in. When I arrive at Irving Plaza, U2 are on the small stage, not playing but listening to the Who's version of "Won't Get Fooled Again," through the monitors. The Edge fingers his guitar, checking the chords. After only two or three minutes he gestures for the Who to be switched off, and they launch straight into their own pared-down version. At the end, the Edge switches to the Rolling Stones' "Bitch." Bono looks unsure about this. "From a youth manifesto to a penis manifesto," he queries.

"How did the Who end it?" the Edge wonders.

"I don't know - we didn't get that far on the album," Bono points out. "I just want to warn you, Lenny Kravitz will be out there, and he'll know all the chords."

For fun - they won't be playing these tomorrow - they also run through a hilarious glam-rock medley (incorporating Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll Part I," David Essex's "Rock On" and Slade's "Gudbye T'Jane") and a messy version of Thin Lizzy's lightest moment, "Dancing in the Moonlight." "It's a Pavlov thing," says Bono, stepping offstage. "When you're in this kind of venue, you go back to these things."

The title of "All That You Can't Leave Behind" is taken from "Walk On." When Bono presented it to the band, there was some resistance. "Everyone thought it was too long and not that memorable," he says. "Larry, his reaction was, 'That'll never fit on a T-shirt.' "

Slowly, they came round. As they have taken to explaining to people who ask about such things, it just seemed to fit as the title of a record in which U2 put aside any heavy-handed sheen of technology or irony or impish perversity and perform a collection of tuneful songs. When I first bring up the subject, I get some of the same answers. "This is the stuff that in the end makes us what we are," says the Edge. "It's the stuff that you can't leave behind, the personality of the band, the way we interact with each other." And yet - though perhaps it is quite understandable that they haven't broadcast the information in sound bites - it is also a far darker title than that, and a far darker record. If the title in general refers to those things that really matter, it is also specifically about death, and about valuing whatever accompanies you when you die. "Just the essential things," says Bono. "The stuff you can take with you: friendship, laughter. Wisdom, if you've found any." If there is one theme that suffuses the record, it is a sense of mortality, of how and what you treasure in a world where death awaits. If U2 meant to write a straightforward record full of uplifting songs, real life intervened. "You know, the record we were trying to make was quite a bit more joyful and about a certain kind of love of life and vitality," says the Edge. "And that's in there, but there's also this other side, which sort of crept into the record almost without me noticing. And if the record was about breaking things back down to essentials, I suppose in the end mortality is the ultimate inescapable fact of life." Bassist Adam Clayton recalls how they listened back to the album's provisional running order and decided they needed to add "Wild Honey," one of the more simple, up songs from the recording sessions. "We realized, 'This is our most joyful song,' " he says. "We've got to put that in to stop people jumping out of the window." On a freezing day, U2 are at a photo shoot on the waterfront by some derelict warehouses, the Manhattan skyline behind them. In their trailer, the Edge and Bono arrive at the coffee machine at the same time and try to cooperate, with disastrous consequences. Coffee is spilled. "You can tell we're in a band together," the Edge mutters. During a break, outside, Adam wanders over. He reminisces about his earliest exposure to rock music, overhearing the older boys at boarding school play their records. Elton John, for instance. "I remember being transformed, as a teenager, by theSYellow Brick Road record," he says. "I started to take an interest in choosing my own underwear. I wouldn't let my mom buy it anymore." Another key album was Creedence Clearwater Revival's Cosmo's Factory. "I thought it was all about freedom, and blue jeans, and herbs, and Californian women," he says. He is quiet for a moment. "Cowboy boots as well," he adds. "A lot of cowboy boots."

They step back out of the cold, photos finished. "It's hard work, saving rock," says the Edge, deadpan. He seems slightly concerned that I'll think he's serious; the saving, or rebirth, of rock is a notion that is being connected with U2's name on a regular basis at the moment. But he does say, "I think this album is going to make a difference. Like any good album, it changes the temperature." We talk about Radiohead's Kid A. "It seems to me Radiohead ducked a certain expectation," says the Edge. "I love what they're doing, and I'm willing to forgive any of their indulgence in making this last record, because I'm into it. But it is a shame that they're not either able to or prepared to try and appeal to a wider audience. I'd love to see them at Number One in America in the singles charts." Later, Larry will talk about how both Radiohead and Pearl Jam seem to have sidestepped the big fight to be part of pop music. U2 would like their company. "We don't want to be the only band out there doing this kind of thing," he says. "I mean, there's a beautiful voice, Thom Yorke's voice," says Bono. "I just want to hear it on the radio. I want rock to chase pop down the road, but I understand that some people couldn't be bothered. I really do understand that." Dublin, March 2000: "Do you have any kids?" Bono inquires. I do not. "Lucky you," he says, then swiftly tempers what he has said. "No, my kids are great." He chuckles. "But it is hard to be a figure of fun at work and at home." He talks on. "Girls are wily," he says. "My girls give me lingering kisses on the lips, and I thought it was because they loved me, and I found out they were checking if I was smoking."

We are in the studio. A fuzzed-up backing track plays.

"It's a tune called 'Elevation,' " Bono explains. "It's in its raw form. I think it's gonna go off for us." He stands up and grinds a little. "It's got a really spongy sound," he says. "We've found that when you're men, the slower tempos can be funky."

Adam Clayton sits down on the sofa next to me, raves a little about Macy Gray and reflects a little on how the record business has changed around them. It was easier when they started. "They were still working out the rules of hip then," he says. He muses on what might have happened to him if U2 hadn't. He might have become a photographer. "On the other hand," he says, "I might have ended up a long-distance lorry driver." I raise my eyebrows. "One of my first jobs was as a van driver, transporting pottery," he points out. "I only took it so we could use the van at weekends to move our gear." He was fired after six months, when he misjudged a corner on the way to a band meeting and turned the van over. "All I remember is waking up, upside down, dangling, and my glasses had come off. And I thought, 'Fuck, I've got to get to the meeting.' " I ask him why he was so worried about that. "It was very frowned upon to be working," he says quietly. Bono mentions that earlier today they stumbled upon something they liked. "We had this song called 'Beautiful Day,' " he says. "A surf-punk song, and now it's a New Age hymn, and we've been chasing it around for a couple of days, and this morning we came up with something. Maybe it's on the record - it wasn't last weeks"

...Answering the door at his new New York apartment - I have a ten o'clock breakfast appointment - Bono makes only the feeblest attempt to convince me that I haven't woken him up. He leads me to the marvelous panorama from his balcony, Central Park spreading out below. "It's feng shui," he says, a little sheepishly. His wife, Ali, and his assistant have left the previous day; the apartment is still new to him and he doesn't know where anything is. We search the kitchen for coffee, and fail to find it. He opens the fridge and pulls out a bottle of champagne. "Breakfast!" he announces. Then he puts it back.

He decides to ask the doorman to get us something. "You look at the view," he suggests, "and I'll go down." He tries to think what to ask for. "What are those?" He makes a twirling motion with his hand. "Muffins?" I suggest. "Not muffins. What are those round things? Circular. They eat them for breakfast." We are both stumped. It must come to him in the elevator, because eventually some bagels arrive. He says he is still shattered from the show two nights earlier: "More than if we'd played Dodgers Stadium. Stepping back inside these songs - you know the way these songs change meaning as they go - they took me on a real ride. Maybe I felt twenty years of tiredness or something." He unpacks our coffee. "Oh, this is great," he says. "We're in New York!" Coffee splats on the table. "There's a whole lot of dripping going on." And then we get into it. We are talking about the song "Walk On," the one that provides the album's title. It is dedicated to (and loosely refers to) the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who stayed to oppose the totalitarian regime in Burma rather than be with her husband and son. Bono pauses for a long time, trying to work out how to explain something. "If you've ever had a fright in your life, someone close to you dies, or whatever," he begins, "things come into sharp focus and you justSsuddenly some people become more important to you than others. Some ideas become more important to you than others. I think the Dalai Lama says, 'Begin with death, start from there, and you won't go far wrong.' " Bono chuckles. "I don't think he was just having a bad day. Christ says, I think, in the Sermon on the Mount, 'If you love your life too much, you've already lost it.' Which is an interesting one. As a younger man I remember I didn't understand what that meant, because I loved life. You're holding on so tight to it you're incapable of doing anything with it. It's about fear."

But, I put to him, the phrase "all that you can't leave behind" is talking about death, isn't it?

"Yeah." He tries to explain the reasons why he no longer feels the reckless immortality he assumed when he was twenty, and alludes to a recent private crisis he'd rather not specify. "It's hard for me to talk about in particular. I think I'd rather just say I had a bit of a fright, a shock of some kind, and leave it at that. But it wasn't really just people close to me being sick or Michael Hutchence dyingS" Then he adds, "I think Michael Hutchence's death really threw me, and my father got sick, and it was just one of those years. Everything came into sharp focus for me. There's a lot of genuine love of life on that record." Despite that spirit, I can't think of a record besides Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind more concerned with mortality"Right. And he had a fright." But on this record, off the top of my head - "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," "Kite," "Walk On," "When I Look at the World," arguably "Beautiful Day" - all are thinking about these things or reflecting on them. Is that fair? "Yeah, it really is. I think it is fair. But the shock is, it's not morbid. Or, it's not even too melancholy, and we do melancholy very well. It's all that rain. Irish people do melancholy. But this feels to me fearless. Not 'like you when you were young and didn't know what you were up against' fearlessness. Because I had a lot of that. But it's like, it's somehow much braver to know you can be knocked down, and have been, and to want to get into that fight. I love that about the record. This might be one of those U2 records I even like." In a broad stroke it's a "Well, let's look at what we value now that we know we could lose it all" record. "I think that's it, put simple, you know. In a folksy sense, that's probably it. In every level. For instance, you're talking about big ideas like God and sex and death and family and all that stuff. Yeah, I want to talk about them. I'm not going to not talk about them now, you know. I don't know anyone who's not interested in the idea of religion, either whether they're opposed to it or for it. Yet no one talks about it. It's taboo. People will talk about penis rings easier at a dinner table these days than the idea of grace. It's like, 'Eurghhhhh. Don't go there.' "

There is a small moment of unabashed religiosity on the front cover of All That You Can't Leave Behind. In the early, undoctored press ads, you can see a sign halfway up the left edge, directing passengers to gates F21-36 at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport; on the finished album artwork, the sign says something different: "J33-3." Bono made the change at the last moment. It refers to the Bible verse Jeremiah 33:3, which begins, "Call to me and I will answer you." "It was done like a piece of graffiti," says Bono. "It's known as 'God's telephone number.' "

Dublin, March 2000. After dinner, they work some more on "Elevation." This time Bono begins to really roll into a rap rhythm. "Will people in baggy pants and skateboards start throwing rocks at me?" he wonders. "I wouldn't let that bother you," says the Edge, gently. Bono nods. "It hasn't bothered me in the past." He, the Edge and producer Daniel Lanois start adding some "doo-doo-doo" backing vocals. They try some harmonies in the style of a macho version of the Mamas and the Papas. "I had a couple of Gibb moments there," Bono says, adding, as extra information, "I think it was Barry." He raves about the Bee Gees, and how as a youth he used to like them.

"One of the extraordinary catalog of songs. Up there in the top few: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees." He offers a theory of why this fact is not more widely recognized. "It's a real lesson of: If you get the shoes wrong, the public will not forgive you, however brilliant you are."

As it gets later, various band members pop in and out. Bono leaves to buy Adam's fortieth-birthday present, a tapestry. Larry returns, picks up the ashtray, tips its mess into a garbage can, fetches a tissue, cleans out the ashtray with the tissue, throws the tissue into the garbage can, and only then lights himself a cigarette. Lanois wanders over to a corner and begins picking out melodies on a pedal steel guitar. Bono speaks in the voice of a gristled old-timer: "I remember the old days, when we used to sit aroundSunforgettable fires." Lanois plays some country blues, which prompts the Edge to reminisce. "You know, my first-ever gig was with a country & western band. I made ten pounds. And the guy gave me a great piece of advice. He said that if you put together a set of country songs, you can be working seven nights a week. 'One piece of advice: There's no money in the rock.' "

The Edge asks the waitress as the New York Four Seasons Hotel for advice. She recommends the Big Apple, a martini with vodka and schnapps. He nods. That'll do.

In company, the Edge often looks as though he's thinking plenty but choosing not to say most of it; on his own, he's smart and chatty. He explains his theory about the similarity between the Psalms and the blues, and how they're both vessels for pissed-off truth tellers. We talk about boy bands. "The concept of a boy band is quite bizarre," he observes. "It's a completely artificial version of the street gang, really. Let's be honest. They meet at the audition, so their version of being in the gang is already on the basis of being within show business." He says he likes the Backstreet Boys' records. "I've danced around the kitchen with my daughter to the Backstreet Boys."

To clarify the image, how do you personally dance in the kitchen to the Backstreet Boys?

"If it's with a three-year-old kid, it's whatever way you can."

Afterward, Adam Clayton and I chat in a borrowed hotel room. He orders coffee from room service - he gave up alcohol and drugs some years ago. "I actually feel much better on a daily basis," he says. "I used to feel pretty rotten most of the time. I had a lot of anxieties and fears that I thought were real." He says that his attitude to his role in the group has changed, too: "In a way, this record was probably the beginning of actually going, for me, 'It's OK, I don't have to come up with the bass line of the century, I just have to kind of plod along with this tune - give yourself a break.' " He grins, "I may not be the best bass player in U2, but I am the bass player."

In the service elevator going up to rehearsal for a Saturday Night Live performance, Bono sings Dr. Hook's "A Little Bit More" to himself. Arriving upstairs, he asks U2 manager Paul McGuinness a question: "Where did Salman Rushdie go the other night?"

"We invited him," McGuinness says. "I don't think he was there. I think we found he was in Europe."

"He was there," mutters the Edge. "He was that cocktail waitress" They rehearse onstage: "Beautiful Day" and "Elevation." Bono makes suggestions for the way the cameras could move during the songs. Waiting for the cameras to be reset, they begin playing "Gimme Shelter." During "Elevation," Bono grabs a camera in his face and pulls it down to his crotch.

Larry and I escape downstairs to an empty Conan O'Brien show dressing room. He is the person in the band who is most alert to possible losses of dignity, and so is least keen about these TV appearances. "I have a sense of what the perception is, and what people like about U2 and do not like about U2," he says. "I'm in an interesting position because I'm the drummer and people say things to me that maybe they wouldn't saySthey don't treat me the same way they would treat a singer or a guitar player. People say what they feel, and don't feel that they're messing with my art." That's a compliment and an insult. "Yeah, all at the same time. I'm the guy who walks into a bar and a guy'll go, 'Larry, how are you? Bono, he's such a prick. I saw Bono on TV the other day - God, he's an asshole.' And they want me to agree with them, and obviously I don't, but I'm interested they're saying it. What are they picking up? Maybe they're just having a bad day, maybe they just don't like Bono." So you keep an eye out for how Bono or anyone else shouldn't appear a prick? He nods. "I see myself in the role as band bodyguard, and I take that role very seriously." Right now, they are debating how to handle their spring tour. The Edge has already said that he doesn't think a completely stripped-down show is viable: "I think the dynamic will be to have both. It would be amazing to have a show that had a really simply straightforward rock & roll band and then to take that somewhere else and into some sort of extraordinary moment visually." Mullen disagrees. "I just think: simplify," he says. "Let's just get on the stage and play and be a band. I don't think my colleagues feel exactly the same way." Aside from anything else, he still has traumatic memories of the PopMart tour's business side. "It was a disaster," he recalls. He loved the show itself, but not its endless crises. "We spent so much time worrying we were going to go bankrupt. You would have thought after twenty years of doing this that you'd learn. It cost a fortune to put that show on. Absolute madness, absolute madness."

On Saturday, U2 rehearse once more on the SNL stage. Bono's voice is gone, so he suggests they rehearse another new song, "New York," to replace "Elevation." "I've lost the top falsetto in a bar somewhere," he explains. But during the full show run-through, he returns to the original two songs. At the end of "Beautiful Day," he goes into "All You Need Is Love"; at the end of "Elevation," "I Am the Walrus."

For the show itself, after changing some lyrics to acknowledge that Joey Ramone is present, he sings even more of "All You Need Is Love" over the end of "Beautiful Day." Then, halfway through "Elevation," he turns it into a real U2 performance. Live, it has always been his habit to reject the size and boundaries of where he is performing: climbing over the PA, going into the crowd. Tonight, he steps off the stage - he has told no one he would be doing this, not even himself, though he will explain it as some theater to make up for the failure of his voice's top register - and keeps on going. The cameras turn to follow him, all that boring preparation in vain, as he rushes through the cast and technicians, in front of sets waiting to be used. This time, he pushes into the final "We all shine on" part of "Instant Karma," and then - as he twists back past SNL host Val Kilmer toward the stage - he sings to Kilmer's face, "Come on, baby, light my fire." Bono calls me the next day to round up a few loose ends and offers some careful advice as to how he should be portrayed. "Just remember," he says. "Tall, skinny, intelligent, and what a sense of humor."

© 2000 Rolling Stone. All rights reserved.

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