Bono: 'I still have the rage but I have worked it through.. I'm dealing with it'
Over a glass of wine, Bono talks about his daughter, his wife, his art, and rage
It's the kind of conversation only a rock star like Bono could get away with, especially at his age, without sounding like a mad man on the loose.
It's possibly the kind of conversation, also, you could only have with Bono late night in a restaurant - in this case at midnight in a restaurant in downtown Vancouver. (U2 are on a world tour, entitled Innocence + Experience, which began last Thursday in Canada.)
"This woman comes to see the doctor," Bono begins, "who indeed may have given her the syphilis that has resulted in her losing her nose." (Read that sentence back again. Could you imagine Ed Sheeran saying that?)
"She is going to the doctor for a - shit! - a skin graft. And the order of the day back then in New York was that they take away a piece of your skin to make the skin graft, except they want the blood-flow to continue.
"So she spends weeks with her arm stuck to her nose.
"And she talks like this!" Bono, like a character from a Monty Python sketch, says doing the accent and the actions of a poor woman with her forearm surgically attached to the top of her head and a piece of her forearm skin over her nose-hole to maintain her blood-flow.
"It is comedy. And it is absolutely true - that is how they did it. And if you're in any way squeamish, Jesus! But it's historically accurate. When you are exposed to some of these medical procedures that were popular at the turn of the century, you kind of can't believe your eyes. But every time where I've gone 'that definitely isn't true', they turn out to be true! Then there is the Irish woman who brought typhoid, Mary Typhoid. There are some bad Irish accents, I will say that."
"Literally over a hundred years ago," interjects Adam Clayton, "being pregnant was a death sentence. And to think of the advances in medicine now..."
Lest anyone think Bono and Adam are drinking some mind-bending absinthe-based concoction to be waxing so lyrical about syphilis, typhoid and death from pregnancy-related complications in the previous century, they aren't. In fact, Adam is drinking water while Bono is enjoying a nice glass of pinot noir wine. No, the reason the topic has come up is this: Bono's daughter Eve is one of the stars of HBO series The Knick, set at a New York City hospital in 1900.
"She is very, very good," Bono says proudly of 23-year-old Eve who plays a young nurse named Lucy Elkins. "Eve's part enlarges in the second series. It is not out yet.
"The Knick is amazing for her. She just loves it. Steven Soderbergh [the director] is a genius. She finishes filming tomorrow in Brooklyn.
"And when she finishes, she comes to see the old man," Bono beams.
His beam lessens when he recalls Eve's love scene with her co-star in The Knick, Clive Owen. "There are certain episodes I'm not allowed watch," he laughs. "That's how I know what she is up to. But she is a very serious actor. She is also serious fun. She is very special to be around."
How would she describe her father?
"I'm sure you'll get to ask her. But we do like to hang out. I mean, beyond the family duties, the Hewsons are known for wanting to hang out together."
Asked what was his daughter's reaction when she first heard Iris (Hold Me Close) - the song that Bono wrote about the death of his mother when he was 14 - he says, poignantly: "Evie looks quite a lot like Iris."
"I have very little memory of my mother," he continues, "because in our house we didn't talk about her. Because that is the way a lot of Irish males dealt with it. So I didn't really have a lot of memory of her. So her visual representation is not there. There are no photographs of her. Nothing.
"Years later, this film turned up, by a friend of a friend of the family. It is black and white footage of her playing rounders on the beach in Rush.
"I put it on and, apart from the cheesy music, it was very, very moving. And it is in the show now," he explains. "And she also, I think, turns up in the lemon dress that she wore to her sister's wedding."
Is it true that when U2 started off, and their rehearsal rooms were beside his mother's cemetery, he never visited her grave?
Was it too painful?
"No. It's worse than that. I never went there because I didn't think about it. That's even worse. Now, the answer to why I didn't think about it is probably that it was too painful. But we were talking about this just recently," he says, turning to Adam.
"We were just saying: 'How mad is that?' But then again, someone said: 'When is the last time you went to see your dad's graveside?' I went this Christmas. But we don't do that in our family. So I'm even carrying on a bit of that tradition."
"But the really weird thing about that was," says Adam referring to Iris Hewson being buried in the cemetery next to U2's early rehearsal room and Bono never visiting her, "the rehearsal place was out in the middle of the country. It was where Regine's [Moylett, U2's long-term London-based publicist] band The New Versions used to rehearse. And I always thought the only reason you knew that was because you were visiting your mother's grave."
"No," says Bono almost solemnly. "I never went once."
Intriguingly, U2's second single, I Will Follow, released in October, 1980, seems to be Bono, then only 20, in some way processing Iris's death. Particularly with lyrics like:
'A boy tries hard to be a man
His mother takes him by the hand
If he stops to think, he starts to cry
Oh why? If you walk away, walk away. . .'
Was he consciously dealing with Iris's passing with I Will Follow?
"A lot of times," Bono answers, "I didn't really write lyrics in the beginning. There was just sketching. Emotional sketches of an emotional landscape. The song is about agape love. It is about unconditional love." (In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine a few years ago Bono was asked if the song was about his mother and he said that it could also be about God.)
"I do remember taking a kind of delight in writing a song about my mother. It seemed very punk to me to be so un-punk. But I wasn't so ballsy on this album," Bono says, referring to Songs Of Innocence, "because after putting Iris (Hold Me Close) on the album, I did have a moment, where I went: 'Ugh! Bad mistake!' I tried to stop it. Then I had an incident which confirmed it was the right thing to do. But, yeah," he smiles, "families and how to survive them, as John Cleese called his book!"
Bono says his brother Norman is "moved" by Iris. "He says - even though he is seven years older than me - that he doesn't remember much either, which is much more odd than me!"
I ask Bono was he aware when he wrote the Songs Of Innocence album that he was psychoanalysing himself and his past quite intensely.
"I guess everybody has a complicated life. You should take advice from people who understand the workings of the brain. As a teenager, I did, for a bit," he says.
"After some kind of outbursts in my teenage life in school, I had some professional assessment. At the end of which I was sent home with, you know, 'We're not worried about you'.
"But they should have been!" Bono laughs.
"What I would say too is what I have noticed with friends is that stuff that you had happen to you when you were a kid, you can ignore in your 20s. But in your 30s it starts to make itself present in a little way. It is like burying a bomb. If you don't deal with it in your 40s, it will deal with you in your 50s," says Bono, who turned 55 last Sunday. "I am seeing this everywhere."
How is Bono now?
"I have dealt with it through this process."
The red wine is kicking in now and we are sharing a bowl of French fries. I decide to see how deep I can go, psychologically, with one of the most famous men in the world.
I ask him would he have become the person he is now had his mother not passed away when he was so young.
"That's the moment I became an artist," he answers. "If I hadn't become an artist, I don't know how I would have turned out."
Did his lyrics become a poultice to the wounds incurred by the death of his mother at 14?
"I filled the hole in so many ways. In my case I was fortunate to fill it with faith, to fill it with Alison, to fill it with Guggi, Gavin. I filled it with Larry, Edge, Adam.
"It is a different way of looking at a wound, isn't it? It is not just a hole in your heart. It is also a hole you can fill with so many wonderful things."
Did his mother's death leave a god-shaped hole in him that he filled with anger?
"It was rage. I still have the rage, but I have worked it through. But in my teenage years it was just rage. Rage in friendship. Rage in music. Rage in Ali. But now I'm dealing with that rage."
Does he feel the stakes are very high for U2 with this tour?
"Yes," he answers and then stops.
I press him as to why he feels that.
"Because though we believe in ourselves and particularly believe in this series of songs," Bono says, "there is always that part of yourself that thinks: 'C'mon. It's been 30 years. Why don't we just fuck off and get out of the way of the next thing?'"
Were he ever tempted to f**k off and get out of the way?
"Oh, yeah. Lots of times. I am, actually, at a point where I am interested to know will these songs land? I know 35m people have been listening to them regularly but does that mean they mean as much to them as other songs?" Bono asks.
"I don't know," he adds, almost haltingly. "So, we'll see.
"By the way, if we don't perform them well, then how do we expect them to land? You know, I've got vocal issues at the moment. There are a few things that could inhibit, but if we get a true performance - and the songs truly don't land - I'm out of here. . ."