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Friday 15 December 2017

Operation desert storm - have Bono and U2 found what they're looking for?

With U2 touring a 30-year-old album 'The Joshua Tree', Barry Egan lands in America to meet Bono - to find out if the writing is on the wall for his band, or is U2's future brighter than ever?

1987 - U2's The Joshua Tree
1987 - U2's The Joshua Tree
Bono and Ali, and The Edge and Morleigh
Larry Mullen with Ann Acheson
Adam Clayton and Mariana Teixeira
U2 on their latest tour
2017 - U2

AGBH-of-the-liver night on the town with Bono in San Francisco in the summer of 1992. Around midnight in a bar in North Beach, the U2 singer is lost in an epiphanic reverie of the past, of madness long gone. "Rock 'n' roll actually made me feel sane because I felt insane before," he says, pouring himself another glass of red wine. "Like a lot of 16-year-olds I just felt like my head was going to leave my body.

"In America," Bono continued as America whizzed outside the neon-lit windows of the bar near Russian Hill, "people look up to success. And in Ireland they look down on it. And they're both wrong. Dublin to me is a head-butt of reality and that might be part of it..."

I asked Bono does it make him angry that abortion is still illegal 5,000 miles away in our country, Ireland.

"Not angry - embarrassed," Bono answered.

"On the other hand, President Mary Robinson," the dark glasses-clad demi-god went on, 25 years ago now, "is painting this picture of Ireland and it's really important what she's doing. And just as we leave the 20th century it's bringing Ireland into it.

"Meanwhile you have a fence put up around Ireland for fear of a 14-year-old which makes you deeply ashamed," he said, referring to what became known as The X Case involving a girl (named only as X in the courts and the media to protect her identity) who had been raped and became pregnant and had to travel to England for an abortion.

That night in San Fran, I pressed Bono on why the emotion was embarrassment and not anger. "It hasn't turned to anger with me because it hasn't crawled through my door," he answered. "I'm not excusing myself. I'm on tour. My head is filled with songs and these things aren't getting through in a way that would make me angry. There's no defence for it. Should I be angry? Yes."

Cut to two weeks ago and another city in America: sitting backstage in Seattle having his soup before U2's concert, Bono reveals that there is someone at home in Dublin who perhaps might help him release that hitherto pent-up feminist-friendly anger...

"I saw my own daughter with her clenched fist and her Pussy Power hat at a woman's march and I just thought: Great! Great!" says Bono, not naming, however, which of his two daughters it was at the protest - acclaimed actress Eve (Bridge of Spies, This Must Be the Place) or tech guru Jordan, who has her own technology company, Speakable.

"It's women who are really grabbing a hold of the protest and dissent against what's happening now," Bono continues. "It is women who are leading the protest movement. It is the women who are leading the dissent. The women's movement needs to be recognised and saluted for taking this leading role. There is a kind of grass roots movement against the stupidity that is going on," he said in a clear reference to Mr Trump (before adding: "In the party of Lincoln [the Republican party] it's a hostile takeover. Those who voted for Trump are welcome at U2's shows. He isn't.")

Sitting beside Bono, The Edge adds: "The only connect and the only response to what is happening is coming from the women's movement. They have the vision and they're doing important grass-roots work."

Later that night, when Bono walked on stage in Seattle's Century Link Field stadium, all eyes, all 65,000 pairs of them, fell on him. And from that moment on, Bono - ever the stirrer of women and men's souls - was an exercise in stagecraft to the masses. It was a great show.

Continuing the theme he and The Edge had discussed earlier, Bono dedicated Ultraviolet (Light My Way) to "the great women of the world who stood up or sat down for their rights, who insisted, who persisted, who would not be broken, or silenced".

As he said these words, images of the aforementioned Mary Robinson, plus Constance Markievicz, Pussy Riot, Virginia Woolf, Patti Smith, Rosa Parks, Angela Merkel among many others appeared on the gargantuan screens over the stage.

"Government should fear its citizens - not the other way round," Bono said to the vast crowd when the song ended on the opening night of The Joshua Tree Tour in North America.

Earlier at the sound-check, I spotted one of the women in U2's life, The Edge's wife Morleigh Steinberg, looking the quintessential hipster, standing by the sound-desk holding a travel bag, wearing runners and jeans. (She and the U2 guitarist have two children. The Edge has three grown-up daughters from his first marriage to Aislinn O'Sullivan.) Morleigh was also at the U2 show nights previously in Vancouver in Canada.

There was no sign of Ali Hewson or Larry Mullen's wife Ann Acheson at either show. "It's school term," my U2 Deep Throat told me when I asked about the whereabouts of Ali and Ann.

Intriguingly, I was at the opening night of U2's US tour in Miami in late March, 2001 when Bono dedicated In A Little While to his wife who was in the audience and heavily pregnant. Born on May 21 in Mount Carmel, 16-year-old John (and his 17-year-old bro Elijah) at school in Dublin are the very good reasons why Ali - the beautiful Irish activist whom Bono married in Raheny in August 1982 - missed the start of U2's world tour recently.

Larry's partner of 30 years Ann - they met in their first year in Mount Temple Comprehensive School - was also at home in Howth with their teenage children, Ava and Ezra. (They also have a grown-up son Aron Elvis, named after Larry's hero). Adam Clayton's wife Mariana Teixeira De Carvalho was at the San Francisco show two nights later.

Walking into the cavernous VIP area in a long coat straight out of The Great Gatsby, Mr Clayton sits down and laughs that he doesn't remember the 1980s - this is a tongue-in-cheek joke at his own expense, at his alcoholism (he has been sober for well over two decades.)

The blond bassist, who was briefly engaged to supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1993, (and is very happily married now to the aforesaid Brazilian art director Mariana, with whom he jumped the broom in Dublin in September, 2013) has possibly the driest sense of humour in the band.

When I asked him would he miss it, if U2 ever stopped, he smiled and out of his labyrinthine, complex mind says: "Would I miss it? It's not that you bump into people now that tell you, 'You're a f**king eejit' [laughs] - you actually bump into people who tell you how you changed their lives'," Adam says.

"And that is something that is kind of an amazing experience that you would miss. That is a gift that someone who you have never met before gives you."

Adam might not be able to remember an entire decade - the 1980s - but one of his co-workers in U2 can remember an incident in 1986 very well.

"I had a fight with [then U2 manager] Paul McGuinness going into Croke Park," Bono laughs. "And we couldn't get the sound right. And I was going after him going, 'This kind of place, man, are we expected to make music here, in this concrete mess?'

"And Paul just said: 'But you asked me, you personally asked me to play here!''' Bono says exploding in laughter.

His band are, of course, returning to the same venue on July 22 for a sold-out show when The Joshua Tree Tour rolls into Dublin in less than two months. "It's a thrill doing this, but how long can it last?" Bono added rhetorically. (Bono said to me revealingly after the Miami show in 2001 apropos the dangers of such a big band like U2 being so many 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."

"I think I could live without it," Bono said in Seattle two weeks ago in reference to this huge thing called U2. "But we don't really have a choice. What else am I qualified to do?" he laughs. "You write songs to write yourself well. The songs have always answered questions for me."

With the Songs Of Experience album effectively shelved because it was written long before Donald Trump became Prez, the songs Bono writes next for the band he formed in 1976 Mount Temple Comprehensive School with his school pals Larry et al is more than crucial for the future, even existence, of U2.

When the follow-up to Songs Of Innocence, U2's last album from 2014, eventually comes out (hopefully later this year), its creative and commercial success will determine where U2 go as recording artists.

To some, The Joshua Tree Tour is a backward step, a cheesy greatest hits package, a journey down an artistic cul-de-sac when they have lots of new music in the can (consider this: the tour's massive commercial success hopefully doesn't mean that U2's next big live global outing will be The Rattle And Hum 2019 World Tour.)

Clearly, Bono doesn't see his band touring an album - however great and classic an album - that they recorded 30 years ago as remotely retrograde.

"If you look back to what we were singing in 1987," he says going on to quote the lyrics to In God's Country: 'Desert sky/Dream beneath a desert sky/The rivers run but soon run dry/We need new dreams tonight'. "It is just the strangest thing to me, because those Joshua Tree songs now sound like they were written for this very moment. This is the way I feel now.

"If there is an original idea out there, we sure could use it. We really do need new dreams tonight," Bono says adding that he had a realisation from playing The Joshua Tree live, "these songs don't belong to us any more", he says meaning U2.

"They belong to the people who went through stuff when they heard the songs first. People are in their own thing now when they hear these songs again. It's as if we are the smallest part of this, of The Joshua Tree." (There is an early Mormon fable that settlers referred to the Joshua tree as "the praying plant" and believed its holy branches showed the Old Testament prophet Joshua the way to The Promised Land.)

Almost wistfully - and Bono normally doesn't do wistful - the messianic U2 godhead then reflected: "From my early teens, I've been moving, sleeping on Gavin Friday's couch etc. I think being in a band was just a replacement for the family I didn't think I had. Then wanderlust came along. And I thought, wherever we go, wherever we are - that's where it is. And only recently I realised that I had a home and it is Dublin.

"I came home after the Paris show and I was walking through the house - and I often do walk through the house and I look in and see the kids when they are asleep - and I thought to myself: 'I really like being at home'. So that makes it harder to leave home."

Bono and the rest of U2 will be home on July 22 when they play Croke Park

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