My wanderings with u2
Published 12/09/2010 | 05:00
What I am about to say may lead to my needing to join a state witness-protection programme. It certainly will cancel out any hope I have of competing with Bono to become President of Ireland. But I'll say it anyway: I hated U2 from the start. No, let me get this right, lest I be sued by me! I hated U2 at the start.
Why? Well, back in the late Seventies, I had a stall in Dublin's Dandelion Market, where I sold photos I'd taken of rock stars such as the Boomtown Rats and Thin Lizzy, right? But every time those four little brats -- who, ironically, and tellingly enough, once called themselves The Hype -- played a gig in the Dandelion, my sales figures dipped to near zero. Obviously, some kids preferred to pay 50p to see U2 play rather than to buy one of my fabulous photos. I bet they regret that now.
Worse still, one of my real reasons for being in the Dandelion was to try to pick up, or to be picked up by, girls, so I really was pissed off by the fact that they all seemed to disappear as soon as the band's singer -- some eejit who named himself after a hearing aid, "Bono Vox" -- started wailing. Indeed, I was so angry and dumb or petty and petulant that I never once crossed the courtyard to watch U2 play. Don't even think of saying, "Imagine if you'd photographed one of the gigs!"
Anyway, you can imagine my horror five years later -- a period I'd spent, incidentally, listening mostly to classical music, from Bach to Schoenberg, and conning myself into thinking I could become a poet -- when I began to write for Hot Press and discovered those same brats were now deified beyond belief by most of my peers. It really was a case of "Christ, can no one rid me of these pests, U2!"
More seriously, given that my first "gig" as a "rock critic" had been to review Scott Walker's truly ground-breaking album, Climate of Hunter, this was bound to make me see U2's records up until that point -- LPs such as War, and, their latest at the time, The Unforgettable Fire -- as little more than kid's stuff by comparison.
Likewise, even though I loved those early epic songs that remain U2 classics, such as Pride (in the Name of Love), and Sunday Bloody Sunday, overall, too much of their music, Bono's lyrics, and, at worst, sometimes even his gratingly egotistical "stentorian bellowing", as it was once called, struck me as all "sound and fury/signifying nothing" to quote Shakespeare. So, no, I didn't join that giant U2 fan club called Ireland at the time.
But then, in 1987, they released the magnificent album, The Joshua Tree, with at least one track, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, which instantly became an anthem of mine, and I rather rapidly reversed many of my criticisms of the band and dutifully devoured more than the required amount of humble pie.
Even so, my detestation of the deification of rock stars -- which stemmed largely from the fact that, as a boy, I myself had practically deified Elvis Presley and was deeply disillusioned to learn, the day he died, that he'd been "a junkie" -- still made me joke at one point, to Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press, "This magazine is little more than a U2 newsletter, and every time Bono farts you call it art!" Then, no doubt sounding as gratingly egotistical as Bono's voice sometimes sounded to me, I added, "Am I the only journalist here who isn't lost up the collective arses of U2?"
All of which would explain why, for the first six years of my career, I refused to write about, and wanted nothing to do with, The Hype, sorry, U2. In fact, despite being, arguably, one of the most prominent music critics in Ireland at that point, doing a weekly music interview for The Irish Times, bi-weekly reviews for The Arts Show on RTE Radio One, and senior interviewer for Hot Press, I wasn't even on U2's mailing list! Meaning no free CDs, T-shirts, press junkets to Las Vegas and so on. Stupid me, some might have said, and some days I might have agreed!
But then came Achtung Baby, which, in fact, was the album that almost made me tell both Stokes and Dave Fanning, who seemed to share the role of rotating President of the U2 Appreciation Society, "You guys are right, U2 are rock gods!" Almost. But not quite. Indeed, when I'd read Fanning's predictably incandescent review of the album -- on a page of The Irish Times that also included me describing as a "particularly aggressive marketing strategy" the band's decision to make its single, The Fly, available for only three weeks -- I'd dismissed it by thinking, "Well, what the hell else would you expect from Dave?"
However, then, when I actually heard Achtung Baby, I realised that Fanning got it right in so many ways. Nowhere better than when he said, albeit clumsily, "Many of the songs on the album must indicate that Bono has taken on a self-revelatory, troubled tone." These were the very resonances that hooked me from the start.
Particularly in terms of truly timeless songs such as One, which Wayne Studer in his book, Rock On the Wild Side, would later suggest was "written from the perspective of a young gay man with Aids talking to his father", an angle I tuned into from the beginning, minus that Aids reference, admittedly. Or, So Cruel, which Bono says he wrote for Roy Orbison but sings -- with a voice that is devoid of all poses -- and sounds to me more like my old hero, Scott Walker. Or Love Is Blindness, where the Edge's guitar lines are a prayer that gives perfect form to the sexual/spiritual hunger that sits at the soul of Achtung Baby. Maybe even the soul of U2. In other words, Achtung Baby remains the group's unrivalled masterpiece.
I especially love, for reasons I wouldn't want to overstate, Bono's opening line from the song, Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses -- "You're dangerous because you're honest." So, with that lyric line as my guiding light, let's move on to U2's next album, which was, by comparison, I must honestly say, relative crap, overall.
Unfortunately, that album, Zooropa, also happened to be the U2 album I helped introduce to the world. I may even have helped one of its tracks come about. How so? You see, back in 1990, the first time I interviewed one of my life-long heroes, Johnny Cash, we talked about his religious beliefs and touched on the subject of U2's spiritual leanings. So, after my next interview with the man, in 1993, I said, in The Irish Times, "It would make complete sense for Cash and Bono to record together." Then, backstage during the Dublin gig of the Cash tour that followed, Cash told me, "We did record a track together today, though I don't know if it will ever be released, or even what it's called!"
Now, fast-forward a few months, and I'm being offered an interview with Bono! More than that, it's a "world exclusive about their new album", an offer that, of course, prompts me to joke, "So, the little fuckers think they can win me over with a world exclusive, do they?" But I also am not totally stupid, and realised that to say, "No, thanks, not interested", to the editor in question, would have seemed, to him, like me hearing a burning bush say, "Moses wants to give you the first reading of the Ten Commandments, you on for it?" and replying, "Nah, I'd rather stay down here and play with the golden calf!" So I agreed to interview Moses, sorry, Bono.
But you know what's even more embarrassing? Here, I have to admit that from the moment we met, he impressed me deeply. The interview took place in The Factory, where U2 were mixing their as-yet-untitled album and Bono, soon to be 33 -- "the same age Jesus was crucified!" he tellingly reminded me at one point -- and looking both tired and wired at the same time, gave me a handshake that was firm, and a glance I recognised, if only because it was one I often used at the start of interviews, and seemed to say, "Let's get down to business". So, we did.
Better still, after telling me that U2 had made most of their latest music "in an improvisatory mode", Bono suggested we "do the interview the same way, like a jazz rap" and, delighted by this creative challenge, I tossed to one side my list of prepared questions and replied, "Why not?" Then, feeding off each other for no less than two and a half hours, we proceeded to improvise, even though all he'd originally planned to do was "play a few tracks, and split after an hour".
I also was, as they say, blown away by -- and, again, I identified with -- Bono's craving to connect, communicate core truths. And he, in turn, inexplicably, couldn't believe how interested I was "in the creative process", as if I wouldn't be! More to the point, while we were discussing that Cash track, he made a comment that, as I said in the article, seemed to "cryptically refer to my passion for Presley, Sun [Records] and maybe my scepticism in relation to the deification of U2". Bono told me, "It's a long way from Memphis, but it's the same mud!" and I understood.
However, much of what Bono and I talked about that day was that kind of rock-fan speak, and would be of little interest to the broad-based readership of this newspaper. Even so, the guy also gave me more than a few insights into his psyche. Such as, after I asked if he "agrees with the strand of post-modernism which suggests that art in the 20th century must reflect a world that has abandoned the concept of a unifying force like God," that was "atomised for most people, as with Picasso's art, post-Guernica," and he replied:
"No, because to me, the state of flux, which dominates modern times, is a good place to be. And although the concept of God, for me, personally, hasn't been atomised, and I have a faith, I am not attempting to clearly define it at this point."
"But you did at one point define your faith in a fundamental, if not fundamentalist, Christian sense, didn't you?"
"You go through phases in your attempt to work out what it is you believe. And there was a period back in the early Eighties where we lived a much more ascetic life [Bono laughs self-consciously] and got a great grounding in the fundamentals of what Christianity could be. It wasn't the Christianity that I loosely grew up around, particularly Catholic or Protestant, it was more the cutting edge of Christianity, and I'm glad I have that base. But I remember McGuinness saying to me, back then, 'Look, I'm not sure I share your faith, but I know one thing. I know it is the most important question to you, and that as an artist, writer, it is something you are going to have to address whatever way you see fit. And if you do, I know you'll get a lot of stick, but go for it.' And we did so. And did get a lot of stick."
Indeed. U2's religious beliefs, however coded they may have become of late, probably remain the single most defining feature of their art. This brings us to that classic Memphis/Liffey gospel track they and Johnny Cash recorded, which closes Zooropa. Cash may have told me he didn't know what it was going to be called, but his manager, Lou Robin, referred to the song as The Wanderer. And so, when Bono said its title was Johnny Cash On The Moon, then added that he'd like to call it The Pilgrim, and asked me, "But you tell me what you think," I did, gladly.
"I'd go for The Wanderer. Not just because, as you say, Cash comes from a gospel tradition, but also because your lyric contains so many echoes of the spiritual quest he's been on all his life. And, likewise, maybe, the spiritual odyssey of the man, and the band that sang, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
"I guess it does. But I don't want to cut across Dion's vibe. Doesn't he have a song called The Wanderer?"
"Yeah, but he's a born-again Christian, who I interviewed, and my guess is that he'd love to have that quintessential slice of cock-rock subverted by a song with the same name, but [one] that is about a man on a spiritual journey."
"OK, so, maybe I'll call it The Wanderer 2!"
Happily, Bono did call this song, simply, The Wanderer. But what I didn't tell him that day was that its lines "I went out there in search of experience/To taste and touch and to feel as much/As a man can before he repents," almost immediately become my new mantra, if not clarion call. Yet, I did tell Cash.
In fact, what follows is my single favourite memory from any of my meetings with Johnny Cash. A month after that Bono interview, I was in Branson, Missouri, doing country-music interviews, in the company of Shay Healy, Bill Hughes, Cathy O'Connor and Hilary Fennell, who were filming Country Music USA, and when Cash saw me, he said, "Hey, Joe, didn't know you'd be here today, hang on a minute." Then, he went back to his dressing room, returned with an autographed copy of The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 box set, gave it to me, and said privately:
"Thanks for helping me hook up with U2! And for that Bono interview, because when I read that he'd cut out the 'wa-wa-wandering' behind my voice, I sent him a fax saying 'put it back in', and he did! And you were right to say the song should be called The Wanderer. I even liked your reasons for saying that it should be!"
"Well, I've since realised that The Wanderer, and more so, the way you sing it, seems to have given a voice to my own deepest spiritual longing, so, I thank you!"
"And I sensed that spiritual hunger the first time we talked, Joe. So I'm really glad I could be of any help to you, in that way, on your spiritual journey."
I still shiver in disbelief knowing Johnny Cash said this to me. As such, I can't help but reduce to a gesture of cosmic irrelevance, by comparison, even if I do regret the fact that Bono has since told a foreign reporter he wishes he'd called that track The Pilgrim, and is sorry he allowed "some Irish journalist" to convince him to do otherwise. I also suspect that Bono didn't really get what I was saying when, two days after my chat with Cash, he phoned me in Texas, said, "You're a hard man to track down," and I joked, "That's because I'm a wa-wa-wanderer!"
But of course, I appreciated the fact that Bono had taken the time to track me down, thank me for our interview and say he "loved it". He obviously did, because soon afterwards, as if Bono actually was at least a Paddy Moses giving me the key to U2's Promised Land, I ended up interviewing his gorgeous and graceful wife, Ali. Then he told Adam Clayton I was "totally to be trusted", which led to another world-exclusive interview, this time with Clayton's then-fiancee, Naomi Campbell.
Not only that. During a period when U2 were "not supposed to be doing interviews", Bono invited me to his home and gave me an interview for a book I was writing about Elvis, read a first draft, and even recommended a word change for one of my poems. How surreal was that? Having Bono, 'correct' poetry I'd written at 21, and tell me he could "easily relate to" its theme of "not belonging".
Actually, that poem, called If I Can Dream, was my reply to Elvis's song of the same name -- my absolute theme song -- so, during our interview, I asked Bono a question I'd asked many rock stars and had always wanted to ask him. Namely, did Presley's death make him "keep a check on" his own indulgences?
"No. Because I still want for my music, and life, a wholeness that I don't believe Elvis had. I had a conversation with Jerry Lee Lewis many years ago . . . [and] I always felt he was a man who had this driving duality, like the moment [at Sun Records] where he stops the sessions [and says] 'This is the devil's music, I'm not going to make it'. He's either in the church choir, or down the strip, they are two extremes that are not resolvable. These people found it so hard, because of the battering they received from the Bible Belt [but] I've had the experience of an unmolested spiritual growth so I can live in a way these people can't. I understand, I think, a little better, these two urges and how they are a paradox; I'm comfortable to live with -- the spiritual life, sexual life. And so, to answer your question, the only encouragement I get from that is 'don't make that mistake' -- of being driven by this idea that you can't have it all, because you can. And that is, to be whole."
Reading that quote again, in 2010, especially given that Bono now is a man of 50 rather than, a mere, eh, Boy, of 33, I realise maybe I'd like to bring his story up to date, in this sense. However, I can't. Why? Let's just say that around 10 years ago, a few weeks after leaving The Irish Times and joining this newspaper, I lost the keys to U2's Promised Land!
Then again, maybe I should be grateful. If only because this means that the article you now have finished reading never was going to be just the story of one more boring Irish music critic blabbering on about his life-long love affair with U2!
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