Friday 22 March 2019

Barry Egan and Bono: I'm going to sit right down and write you a letter

It's the wild heart of Tornado Alley - but Barry Egan flew to Oklahoma last week to meet Bono, Edge and Adam for the start of the new U2 world tour

Opening night of U2's eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour in Tulsa. PIC Danny North
Opening night of U2's eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour in Tulsa. PIC Danny North
U2's opening night on their eXPERIENCE and iNNOCENCE tour in Tulsa
Barry chats with the Edge

Last Tuesday, 11pm: The Tavern restaurant at 201 North Main Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma. An elegant woman hands me an envelope.

Inside it - on a crisp white headed notepaper with the words Temple Hill imprinted across the top - is a beautifully hand-written note.

The signature is an eccentrically scribbled "B" with a large self-portrait drawn beneath it. The person has drawn themselves with a big hat, and a big nose to match.

The note reads:


Was hoping to get out for a wee tipple but I'm still here putting the show up as it were... Ah show-business… Ah show people... Oh, stepladders... oh platform shoes... 24 hours till we break in to the heart of America or are kept outsiders...

See you shortly.. .

I said shortly.

At 4pm the next day the letter writer is up onstage at the BOK Centre, an ice hockey stadium, in rehearsals for the opening night of his band's eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE World tour. Bono (for it is he) has been in rehearsals here in this giant cold arena since Saturday and must be starting to feel like the Phanthom who stalked the Paris Opera House dressed in a top hat and cape. Wearing an old black denim jacket and jeans, Bono and the rest of U2 run through versions of Until the End of the World and I Will Follow.

The face may be older, but Bono's feet are as light as ever. He gets down off the stage to explain that rehearsals had gone "shite" and it is only now getting there and how this new show is part "psychoanalysis", part rock show. He talks a mile a minute. He says that the show is the story of his life and Adam's and Edge's and Larry's but there is an emphasis on him because it is he who is singing the songs.

The explanation over, Bono goes back onstage to continue to get the songs ship-shape for curtain up. Five hours later the letter writer is finally up onstage in front of 19,000 people - singing about the death of his mother when he was 14-years-of-age. He tells the crowd that he has memories of her - watching her swim in the ocean, chief among them - before launching into Iris (Hold Me Close).

'Hold me close

The darkness just lets us see

Who we are

I've got your life inside of me

Iris, Iris...'

On the giant screen over his head the home movie of Iris and husband Bob Hewson's wedding day is played (and then a home movie of Bono as a young boy running around on the beach). Bono explained that he only had fond recollections of Iris. Back in 2014, Bono was also a bit preoccupied with his mother Iris, and he reworked the lyrics to Iris after being profoundly moved by the letter the late Isil hostage James Foley sent to his family through another Isil prisoner.

"I realised," Bono said, "that we will all be remembered by the least profound moments. The simplest moments. In the letter he says to his brother, 'I remember playing werewolf in the dark with you'.

"If I make a swift exit, stage left," Bono added four years ago, "my family and friends won't be thinking about debt cancellation or fighting for HIV/AIDS medication, or U2 being on the cover of Rolling Stone, or 50 million people hearing Songs of Innocence. They might remember some stupid face I made at breakfast. And that's what I remember of my mother. Like being buried in the sand up to my head, or her saying, 'You'll be the death of me'."

Back in The Tavern on Tulsa's North Main Street on Tuesday night, The Edge is discussing the life of his beloved late mother, Gwenda. I had heard that she was effectively U2's first roadie - driving her young son and his young pals all over Dublin...

"My parents were from Wales" The Edge says of Gwenda and Garvin, "so she was a classic Welsh lady with a great sense of humour, She was a very nurturing sort of character. We were like 16, 17 and obviously couldn't drive, so we would plead and she would bring us to our rehearsals sometimes and occasionally to little gigs that we had. Even the odd time when we were putting up illegal posters she would drive the getaway car!" he laughs. "She was game. She was great, and a great supporter."

And his father?

"Garvin was a fantastic man," The Edge says of his father who is also no longer with us. "They were both very encouraging. Music was always in the house. But I think also it was the idea that when your 16-year-old says, 'I want to be in a rock 'n' roll band', most parents would freak out and go, 'No way! Go and get a job in the bank!' And they didn't say that to me," The Edge says of his father who was an engineer. "My father listened to everything from opera to Frank Sinatra to Leonard Cohen. Everything!

"My parents were both choral singers. So I was steeped in it from a young age. There was always something going on musically. Going back to Wales as a kid we would go to see choral performances near Swansea It was unbelievable. We would go into the chapel and everyone would start singing. It would be perfect, four part harmonies... everyone, en masse, singing at the top of their voices. The hairs on the back of your neck would stand up."

The hairs on the back of some people's necks stood up when our Leo extended the invite to Trump to come to Dublin. Should he have?

"The President of the United States and there are protocols," The Edge says. "There is a basic level of politeness you have to follow. So it transcends in some ways the partisan issues. Our take on the President is pretty well known. It doesn't necessarily reflect our attitude to the more conservative people of the United States. A lot of them, I have a lot of time for and I could see eye to eye with them on a lot of things. It is not about that. Bono has famously worked successfully with a lot of Republican politicians so it is not really a case of us against them. I think he (Leo) is doing the right thing as he sees it. You can't really argue with that."

The Edge says he met a certain Joe Dolan on a couple of occasions down through the years. "He was a lovely man, a gentleman," says The Edge who is something of an old school gent himself. As for showbands, The Edge says U2 played a couple of ballrooms once upon a time but they were never really "plugged into showbands".

"We played The Garden of Eden in Tullamore, a famous ballroom. Our the first album hadn't even come out but I think we had a deal at the time we did our show. It was very early on in U2, and you can imagine how Bono responded when the whole audience ignored us and just danced!" The Edge laughs though Bono wasn't laughing at the time. "The ballroom was effectively the weekly hook-up joint. And why not?" chortles The Edge. "But it did his [Bono's] head in. They were all dancing away but they weren't looking at the stage at all!"

The Edge's wife Morleigh is one of the artistic directors on this tour. What is it like working with the missus?

"We met at work so it is fine," he laughs. On the subject of domesticity, I ask Adam Clayton, who recently had a baby girl with his wife Mariana Teixeira De Carvalho, does he change nappies? "I do, actually," he replies.

"I quite like all that stuff. Everyone said to me, 'it goes quickly so make sure you engage'. So I have engaged, particularly when I'm home. I really value that time. I really would like to take a break and spend some time with our baby. I'm in London a lot."

Last November Noel Gallagher revealed to the Sunday Independent that he lives on the same street as the U2 bassist - five doors up from him, in fact. "Adam came to my house recently," Noel said, "and our cat Boots came walking in. Adam went: 'So, that's your cat?' I asked him, 'How do you know that cat?' He said, 'That cat is always at my f***ing house!'"

"I wouldn't have a cat," Adam laughs. "Noel's cat always comes round looking for food. I don't think they feed him. He's a very cool cat. Looks like a stern leopard!"

Onstage at the BOK Centre the following night, Adam looks like an unreconstructed rock star. To his left Bono bounds about onstage like a dad-dancing Elvis Presley in his 1968 NBC comeback special. He is also channeling the messianic energy of Moses in the Old Testament. When he walked on stage, at 8pm on Wednesday in Tulsa all eyes - all 19,000 pairs of them - fell on him. And from that moment on, the Dubliner held this part of Middle America in the palm of his hand. "Oh Jesus if I'm still your friend.../ What the hell you got for me?" he sings on Lights Of Home. Old fans stand beside teenagers and sing along to the same songs like I Will Follow ("I was on the outside when you said/ You said you needed me..."), Pride (In The Name Of Love) and some of the new ones like The Blackout and Love Is All We Have Left.

You are never born too late for U2. It doesn't take any great leap of imagination to fall under U2's spell live. Bono possesses - and cannot lose - a power in his voice that gives the words a meaning beyond the singing of rock songs in an ice hockey stadium. U2 - who formed in 1976 - are not merely together over 40 years. Throughout that time they have kept many things (friendship, unity, loyalty, even money) that other big bands have lost - thereby splitting up - along the way.

Bono's (I'd imagine) struggle between his religious faith that runs through the best U2 songs and his secular side that involves massive wealth, tax shelters and the like is one for him to wrestle with in his private moments. Only Bono alone can tell whether it is a contradiction. Maybe it is the so-called contradictions deep within Bono that make him the artist, the genius, the man, that he is.

I wouldn't write him off just yet. Or ever.


North Beach, San Francisco, 1992

Over pizza and wine in a diner, Bono is singing to me and Gavin Friday, a song he's just finished for Frank Sinatra: "Two shots of happy, one shot of sad," Bono croons, "You think I'm a good man, but I know I'm bad…"

Song over, Bono opens up a book of poems by Charles Bukowski and starts to read aloud. Tonight in San Fran, Bono is, to quote from a poem by Bukowski, "a hell-fish in the night, swimming upward, sideways down".

Vancouver, May, 2015

We're sharing a bowl of tacos in an upscale restaurant on the night before U2's North American tour opens. Bono is also sharing how he became the artist he is today - when his mother passed away when he was a teenager.

"That's the moment I became an artist," Bono says sipping his wine. "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 he incurred when Iris was taken from him at 14? "I filled the hole in so many different ways. In my case I was fortunate to fill it with faith, to fill it with Alison [Ali], to fill it with Guggi, with Gavin, I filled with Larry, Edge, Adam.

"It's 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."

Lillie's nightclub, Dublin, August, 1997

"You've got 16 missed calls on your phone from your boss," my girlfriend wakes me up at 9am to inform me in our home by the sea in Howth, Co Dublin.

I jump out of the bed like a lunatic. It is the first and only time I have ever missed an interview - I was supposed to interview glamour model turned British national institution, Jordan, over breakfast in the Westbury at 9am - and it is all Bono's fault.

The night before I had gone to Lillie's on Grafton Street with a friend and the first person we meet is Bono. He pours drink into us. He doesn't need much encouragement. A four-hour conversation ensues about punk, art and life and all the bits in between as well as Bono's personal criteria of spiritual longing.

Guggi joins in at various intervals of Bono pausing for breath in between spiels. It is 4am by the time Bono stops talking and we stop drinking. It is 5am by the time I get to bed.

I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Jordan for standing her up. And my liver for all the drink that night.

Madison Square Garden, New York, March, 1992

Backstage, Liam Neeson and his girlfriend Brooke Shields tell me how much they enjoy the concert. There is much to enjoy. It is awesome. So awesome in fact that after the show Bono not only invites me and my girlfriend to a party downtown, he also arranges a car to take us there.

Between the jigs and the reels, we end up taking the wrong car and manage to 'borrow' U2 manager Paul McGuinness's limo.

It was only when me and my girlfriend popped our heads out of the car to wave at the limo behind us that glorious night did we recognise the man waving back: Bono.

Miami, March, 2001

The opening night of U2's world tour in Florida. Beautiful to hear the parched emotion of Bono's voice on One. The most bruisingly brilliant song he's ever written: "You say one love/ One life/When it's one need in the night/ One love/ We get to share it," he sang, as me and 25,000 others (including Andrea Corr, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Liz Hurley) sang along.

And beautiful to bask in the Sunshine State heat as Bono dedicated In A Little While to his, then heavily pregnant, wife Ali, who was in the audience. ("It was her birthday yesterday," Bono told me earlier, explaining how they had spent the day on the beach.) And then Bono sang like the happiest man alive: "That girl, that girl, she's mine..."

The show was back-to-basics for U2. Dressed down in T-shirts and jeans, Bono et al began by playing Elevation with the house lights still on.

The Elevation Tour was possibly as far as you could get from the billion watt techno theatricality of Pop Mart and Zoo TV (flying Trabants, banks of TV screens, giant bitter lemons, devils, live telephone calls to the Vatican) as was possible...

After the show Bono told me about the dangers of a such a big band like U2 being 23 years in the business: "If you're a romantic, you burn out. People want you to die on the cross when you're 33... or they ask for their money back."

Afterwards, it was more a case of Show Me The Moet! than The Money at the U2 soiree in the basement of the gargantuan concert hall.

Naomi Campbell was limping. She had crashed her golf cart into a palm tree in the Pink Sands Hotel in the Bahamas during a modelling assignment.

John Rocha was waving his hands about like Kermit the Frog as he talked to Bono and Naomi.

The Corrs - who supported U2 on the American leg of this tour - were just as animated. Some of U2 had put notices up on the door of the Corrs' dressing room to warn about the dangers of Mad Cow's Disease in Dundalk. Andrea thought it was hilarious.

The party is just as hilarious. Amid innumerable models of varying degrees of superness (Christy Turlington, Iman, Naomi, et al) dashing hither 'n' thither from VIP room to VIP room, each of which required a different laminate in which to secure entry, Christy Turlington was jumping about to Mysterious Ways on a ghetto blaster. She was entranced.

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