Friday 30 September 2016

The softer side of The Edge - 'the demure yang to Bono's attention-hogging yin'

He's the softly-spoken foil to the attention-seeking Bono. But, as his 'gig' at the Sistine Chapel is confirmed, the U2 guitarist is a miracle worker in his own way.

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Holy show: The Edge at the Vatican last month with (right) Irish Bishop Paul Tighe.
Holy show: The Edge at the Vatican last month with (right) Irish Bishop Paul Tighe.
The Edge and Bono perform at Croke Park in 1987 as part of The Joshua Tree tour

The Rolling Stone reporter dispatched to dank, dowdy Dublin in January 1988 was in for a surprise. He was in Ireland to interview the guitarist from one of the biggest bands on the planet. But instead of the standard swaggering rock god, he was shocked to meet a shy young man intensely ill at ease in the spotlight.

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"As a security guard looks on, U2's Edge rolls down his car window and obliges a few fans with autographs," Rolling Stone would write of the musician's arrival at Windmill Lane studios in a battered Volkswagen Beetle.

"Then another fan, in his 'mid to late' twenties, approaches and asks for money to get home. Edge gives him seven pounds, then realises it's time to move on."

"It's kind of hard to deal with," Edge would confess once he'd reached the comforting isolation of Windmill Lane's inner vault. "I find it a little embarrassing."

Twenty eight years later, U2 have confirmed many times over their standing as the most commercially significant band of their generation. Yet The Edge, architect of the ethereal guitar shimmer at the heart of their sound, remains as elusive as ever - an enigma in plain sight.

This was made clear at the weekend as the musician otherwise known as 54-year-old David Evans became the first rock artist to perform at the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Visiting the Vatican in his capacity as campaigner for research into regenerative medicine, he sang Leonard Cohen's 'If It Be Your Will' and U2's 'Walk On', 'Yahweh' and 'Ordinary Love'.

Afterwards, he would describe the venue as "the most beautiful parish hall in the world".

Had this been Bono - attention-hogging yin to Edge's demure yang - it is easy to picture the derisive headlines generated by the concert. The singer's ego would be likened to God's, his puffed-up stage persona compared unfavourably to Pope Francis's humble deportment.

In contrast, Edge's four-song set under Michelangelo's famous mural was heralded as a dignified gesture from an artist who has gone about his business with admirable self-effacement.

"As kids, Bono was the exact opposite of me. I was a very quiet kid in school," The Edge told Rolling Stone in 1988.

"He's more at home in the public eye. It's kind of hard for the rest of us, Larry [Mullen, U2 drummer] and me in particular, because we're not naturally gregarious."

In his position as anti-Bono, The Edge has demonstrated it is possible to bestride the globe as a rock star even as you retain your privacy and dignity (his nickname, after all, sprang from his preference for observing unobtrusively from the sideline).

Impressively, he has done this while, in his own low-key way, being every bit an effective a campaigner for social justice as the U2 frontman.

The guitarist was in Rome as a board-member of the Angiogenesis Foundation, a cancer research group. It is a subject close to his heart as one of his daughters was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2007 while his father died from the cancer just last month. Edge's drama-free approach - no photo-ops with presidents or prime ministers for him - has arguably made him all the more influential a proselytiser for causes in which he believes.

Even in the biggest bands, the guitarist is typically a foil to the lead singer. In U2, the balance of power between frontman and axe-wielder is more complicated. Several of the group's enduring hits originated with The Edge. He came up with the title to and chorus of 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' - U2's most successful stab at populist spirituality.

And he essentially wrote 'Sunday Bloody Sunday', the one U2 song capable of inducing shivers among agnostics. The chorus had popped into his head when Bono was on holidays and Edge was watching a news report of the Troubles in the North. By the time the singer returned, The Edge had sketched out the bones of the track.

"Bono was away on holiday - I think it was his honeymoon," he would later recall. "And I wrote the music and hit on a lyric idea and presented it to the guys when they got back. Belfast is only about 50 miles up the road from Dublin, and I'd read about it in the newspapers and seen it on TV. But going there was a bit of an education."

Those who have met him attest to The Edge's modesty and lack of superstar aura (he remains happily married to his second wife, American dance instructor Morleigh Steinberg and has five kids, three from his first marriage). He doesn't appreciate special treatment and is said to be delighted when finding himself in the company of those dimly aware of U2. His dearest wish, by every account, is to be treated simply as another punter.

Put that down to intense self-awareness, a quality that has ensured U2's longevity even as Bono invited ridicule through his second career as pet rock star of world leaders. After 1985's Live Aid copper-fastened U2 as the pre-eminent rock crusaders of their generation, it was The Edge who quietly advocated scaling back on the sloganeering. Associate with too many high-profile charity gigs and the mystique that is a crucial part of any rock band's armoury risked being whittled away.

"Being the Batman and Robin of rock and roll has its disadvantages. We realised in the last couple of months that you can't continue to be involved in charity events," he said, circa the release of 1987's The Joshua Tree.

"What we are, first and foremost, is a rock and roll band. If we forget that, people are going to stop listening. So at the moment, my feeling is that I don't really want to do any charity shows for the moment. I think it would devalue anything else we've done."

Tellingly, The Edge was never particularly comfortable in his skin as U2 were coming up. Firstly, rock god-hood was not a job he was keen on. Moreover, born in England to Welsh parents, his relationship with Irishness was complex. "Being Protestant and being English - or Welsh, in fact - in what is ostensibly a Catholic country, it felt a bit strange at times. There were times when I really did feel like a bit of a freak, and I spent a few years where I was pretty quiet. I didn't go out an awful lot. Those are the years when I listened to the most music."

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