End of line now on the horizon for U2
The band are in crisis, and the next album will be the most critical in their career, writes Barry Egan
Brendan Behan said that when he came back to Dublin: "I was court-martialled in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence."
I think Bono was out of the country last week when his quote to Rolling Stone magazine about U2 maybe breaking up next year went viral. Maybe, upon reading the offending quote, Larry and the rest of the band wanted to shoot him. But for the rest of us U2's death notice was perhaps written a few years ago as Bono's band entered a period of arguable terminal decline.
At the moment, everyone appears to think that U2 are (to use a favourite phrase of Mr Behan's) f**king shite. No doubt a strong statement to make about our national superheroes, a euphoric band of brothers who helped put Ireland on the map internationally as a cultural entity.
I'm not sure it is an entirely accurate statement about what people feel generally about U2 but there is a certain level of disappointment currently.
That was reflected in the fact that when it emerged last week that U2 could perhaps be calling it a day next year, there was a shrug from the person on the street to the effect that, sure, wasn't the last album, No Line On The Horizon, a dog's dinner of a record and isn't it about time they fecked off and stopped embarrassing themselves -- and us -- with Get On Your Boots (U2's worst song. Ever.)
This is certainly a growing lobby -- made up partly, but not entirely, of jealous contrarians and begrudgers -- of the opinion that Bono and Edge should just toddle off into the sunshine and accept what counts for their pension and don't be annoying us any more with their Spider-man shows or their existential-lite and rock star-self-doubt albums that haven't sold in anything other than embarrassing quantities. (No Line On The Horizon has allegedly sold less than four million copies worldwide.)
Just like Ireland as a nation, U2 are clearly a group in crisis. It must have crossed Bono's mind more than a few times recently that it is better to burn out than fade away -- or certainly to split up before they turn into a by-word for sphincter-tightening embarrassment. Have I mentioned Get On Your Boots, U2's worst song ever?
Some might argue that the rot started when U2 moved their tax operation to Holland, or when U2 seemed to be hanging out with the tycoons who played no small part in causing the economic troubles which Ireland is in now.
It must hurt Bono that his group might no longer be relevant or certainly as relevant as they once were. I am not alone in suggesting this doubt. Bono himself said as much last week when he told Rolling Stone that the rest of U2 are not best pleased about his public airings of doubt about their cred: "The band are, like, 'Will you shut up about being irrelevant?'"
It would probably be taking it too far to call U2 a joke. Yet there are some people who would say U2 are no different to the Rolling Stones right now -- but Mick Jagger at least doesn't pretend to be in it for anything other than the money.
I only say this last bit because Bono would consider his band as an artistic endeavour more than anything. And rightly so: in the past, with albums such as The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2 were a group who dazzled with their musical genius and artistry.
Yet over the last few years, that artistry seems to have been maybe not lost but misplaced. It doesn't take a degree in popular culture or, even better, a modicum of cop-on, to realise that the next album is the most critical in the band's career that began in 1978. I, for one, would be very interested to hear the sessions with dark-lord Rick Rubin that the band discarded prior to No Line On The Horizon.
What lies ahead on the horizon for U2 is hard to say. Indeed as the 51-year-old lead singer of U2 told Rolling Stone (in response to the being asked how does the present square with the band's old lyric, "You glorify the past when the future dries up"), "I'm not so sure the future hasn't dried up. It's quite likely you might hear from us next year," before quickly adding, "but it's equally possible that you won't. We have so many new songs, some of our best. But I'm putting some time aside to just go and get lost in the music. I want to take my young boys and my wife and just disappear with my iPod Nano and some books and an acoustic guitar."
Whether he and the Edge, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton will emerge better or worse, only time will tell.
There is no more sombre enemy of art, poet Cyril Connolly once mused, than the pram in the hall. You could probably make a case for the enemy of Bono's creativity as hanging out with rich people and world leaders (that picture of Bono with George W Bush has come back to haunt him); making shows for Broadway; writing op-eds for the New York Times ("I'm in a crush in a Dublin pub around New Year's. Glasses clinking clicking, clashing crashing in Gaelic revelry: swinging doors, sweethearts falling in and out of the season's blessings, family feuds subsumed or resumed"); too many fancy meals on private boats; long summers in your beachside mansion in the south of France, schmoozing with Bill Clinton -- and various other creativity-sapping extra-curricular activities that possibly took Bono's focus off U2.
Privately, I bet Larry Mullen and Adam and the Edge wish Bono spent less time leveraging his celebrity into political clout to work on causes like poverty in Africa and more time being in the studio with the band he formed in school in Mount Temple five decades ago.
Media critic David Hauslaib hit the Bono nail on the head when he wrote: "You know, the only real curveball that Bono could have thrown to us in his first op-ed piece in the New York Times today would have been a thoughtful and sobering look at the demise of the middle class, or perhaps a statement on the changes the world economy will have on the music industry." Hauslaib went on, "Of course, Bono is Bono so of course his 1,000+ word article is about what it's like being rich and Bono in 2009. Enjoy."
Bono is a multi-zilllionaire who uses private jets like most of us use the Dart or the Luas or the bus; and good luck to him. There was always likely to be a disconnect somewhere along the line. I'm not saying that just because Bono wasn't penniless and living in a garret in Paris or Ballymun, he was no longer as able to write songs relevant to the rest of us.
But with the country on its knees, it wasn't a good idea for us to be reading on the liner notes of No Line On The Horizon Bono's personal thanks to Bernard McNamara, Johnny Ronan, Sean Mulryan and Derek Quinlan, albeit for being supporters of the ONE foundation.
Personally, I like Bono. He is always good crack when you meet him around town. I met him at Sean Penn's 50th birthday in La Stampa in Dublin last year. He invited me to come to U2's show in Paris. Four days later, he was introducing me to the Edge and Helena Christensen backstage in the Stade de France before going onstage to wow 100,000 fans. I love the new expansive reissue of 1991's Achtung Baby, my favourite U2 album.
Sadly, listening to it just makes me despair for the future of U2 even more. How could Bono and the Edge write something as depressingly beautiful and real as the songs on Achtung Baby -- and then expect us to accept No Line On The Horizon without retching? I expect not even Bono knows the answer to that.
Maybe it is time Bono and his pals stop before they become moth-eaten with self-pity and damage their legacy beyond all repair with another No Line On The Horizon.
Or maybe not. "I'm used to the custard pies," Bono once joked. "I've even learnt to like the taste of them." But perhaps this one is laced with a fatal dose of poison, Bono?