U2 interview: Group therapy

November 07, 2004
By Chrissy Iley
For 25 years, U2 have been through personal loss, drugs, alcohol, and rows on a titanic scale, even by the standards of the rock business. And yet they are still together. In a rare interview, Bono and the rest of Ireland's awesome foursome reveal how their closeness has enabled them to survive

We are on the Côte d'Azur, at one of those restaurants on the beach, on a balmy summer evening — in all senses of the word. Bono, 44, holds court with a man who would like to build a cathedral for all faiths. U2's drummer Larry Mullen, 43, is tucking into tempura and chips enthusiastically. He's stuck beside a woman who has close links to Tony Blair. Sometimes he despairs of Bono's appetite for the political arena; sometimes they argue about it. Mostly, Bono makes it work out.

You wonder all the time how he manages to straddle between the rock stadium and the politician's ear.What's clear now is that the band of 25 years has survived a thousand tantrums or more and several heart-breaking dramas because of the love and respect they all have for each other. It's a very elegant co-dependency.

Adam Clayton, 44, the bass player, is not with us tonight — partly because he lives on the wrong side of Nice and doesn't like to drive in the dark after the laser operation he had on his eyes. And partly, I suspect, because he doesn't torture himself by being around alcoholic beverages.

He was so nearly lost to addiction some years ago that he is now careful in the other extreme.

Each member of U2 is a little of an outsider — either because their mothers were lost to them at a young age, as with Bono and Larry, or because, in Adam's case, he was lost to boarding schools. He'd grown up in East Africa. When he arrived in Ireland he felt bad, because although he was the only one in the class who spoke Swahili, he couldn't speak Gaelic. The Edge, 43, the guitarist, had a different kind of displacement. He was born in Wales, moved to Ireland and was cursed by not sounding like he fitted. He's careful now to have an accent that reveals little because of that sense of alienation.

The girlfriend of Ash's lead singer is talking to Bono about clubs in Dublin. He's looking a little distracted, as he's trying to earwig on the Edge's conversation. "What are you talking about Wales for?" he keeps on. Later on he tells me it's his performer's ear: he can hear everything that is going on in the room. More likely he heard his name being mentioned. The Edge was saying how Bono is different from other people, because other people get in a pattern of thinking and he never thinks there are any parameters. That's why he thinks there's nothing wrong with phoning George Bush.

Some Brazilian rhythms are playing. It's past midnight and the restaurant is shutting. It's a short walk along the beach to the twin villas in which the Edge and Bono live, separated only by two swimming pools. People find it odd that they actually live next door to one another. There's not even a fence between them. The problem with the walk across the beach is that it is a stone beach, not a speck of sand in sight, and I am wearing stiletto-heeled mules. Bono offers to carry me. I opt for bare feet. It's painful. I'm almost yelping. Then Bono offers me his shoes. They are Japanese-inspired flip-flops, and a godsend. Now he is in pain, but he doesn't yelp: he says it's like an intense reflexology.

When we get back to his place he puts on U2's new CD, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Bono sings, karaoke-style, along with it. One track begins with the line "Take my shoes", which he sings directly into my ear.

The Edge is looking solemn and worried. "Look at him," says Bono. "He's going through all those mixes, assessing it all in his head."

Bono sings the line "I know that we don't talk but can you hear me when I siiiiing". It's a weird cry that vibrates into the night after the already-vibrating note from Bono's voice on the album. "I am hitting a note a man of my age shouldn't
be hitting," he says. "I don't know what's happened to me. I have a different voice. Where did that come from?"

One theory is that How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is about dismantling the life and death in 2001 of his father, Bob Hewson, who was a big-time opera fan and a perfect tenor. Since he's gone, Bono walks in a different way; maybe it's his father's walk — maybe he swallowed him. "Or maybe something just lifted," he says, "like a very strange weight, and I am more at ease with myself. And this is as easy as I'll ever get, and this is pretty good. He is the atomic bomb in question and it is his era, the cold-war era, and we had a bit of a cold war, myself and him. When he died, I had no idea what would happen. I did start behaving a little odd, took on more and more projects. Looking back, now I've finally managed to say goodbye, I think that I did do some mad stuff. I got a letter from a friend of mine that said, '1) Don't leave your job, 2) your wife, 3) take large sums of money out of the bank.' I wasn't doing any of that, but what he was saying was, when fathers die, sons do mad stuff. I thought
I was ready for it."

Can you ever be ready for death? "Well, he'd been ill for a long time [with cancer and Parkinson's disease] and I would go and visit him in hospital, take the night watch." He was on tour for the final stages of his father's life, but would fly back to the hospital. "I didn't know that grief affects you in surprising ways.

I didn't know that two years later, when you're walking down the street, there's tears going down your face and you don't know why."

Bono has much to say to everybody — George Bush, Tony Blair, swing voters, peacekeepers, warmongers and the rock'n'roll world — but he didn't have much to say to his dad. "We didn't talk. I don't think I spent enough time with him, and it's always awkward with Irish males, what you talk about." Most of the time he drew him lying there. "I drew all the equipment. I found it fascinating, with all those wires and tubes.

"I didn't have the wherewithal to deal with things: my brother did all the heroic stuff, organising everything, the medical stuff. I was just drawing to try and figure it out rather than twitching and looking away. That's when I wrote Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own. He wasn't an easy man to help, and I sang it at his funeral. It sounded like the Righteous Brothers, something from a very different age. What will the young people make of it?" he laughs.

He wonders where the drawings are. Perhaps they are upstairs. He will show them to me later. He says: "I have recently had to let go of grief and thank God for the gift my father gave me, even if I turned out like a Johnny Cash song. His whole thing was, 'Don't dream, because dreams end in disappointment.' And that's it, right there. That's when the megalomania started." He waves his finger as if he is his father, and bursts out laughing, as in that moment he knows he is the biggest rock star in the world because he wanted to be.

The next morning, everyone has a hangover. Bono has a nonspecific angst. Could be because the photographer Greg Williams is prowling in the gardens with a few hundred kilos of sugar. He is shooting an ad campaign for Oxfam, with Bono photographed underneath a sugar mountain. But life for U2 isn't always a cosy sugar cocoon. After the initial struggle, they used to worry if they were too biblical to be cool. Then it was simply, were they too sated? The period around the albums Achtung Baby and Pop, in the 1990s, was their most turbulent and arid. That was when Adam went off the rails with drugs and other excesses. And when Larry, after three years of touring, ended up in Japan and was so removed from the idea of home, he tried to persuade the Edge it was a good idea to motorcycle across America for six months.

Bono refers to Adam and Larry as the rock police. He says that Adam has an ear equivalent to a third eye. And Larry has an amazing instinct. Everything in Mullen world is black and white: there is never any grey. He is the stroppiest and the most straightforward, and the most handsome. I first met Larry earlier on in the summer, in my first visit to the south of France.

The day I arrived, the just-finished, not-fully-completed CD had been stolen from a photo session. The real French police enjoyed questioning all of U2, and the record company was in a panic. But Mullen seemed laid-back. "What can you do?" he shrugged. And when he shrugged, his arms, special drummer's arms, rippled very nicely. In daylight he has an orange-bronze shimmer. I've seen him referred to before as Dorian Gray — he looks at least 15 years younger than he is. He says his father is in his eighties and looks 62. I wonder is he most like his father, then, or his mother? He says sadly he never found out how his mother would age. "She passed away in 1978.

"When I joined the band, it was like running away to the circus. My memory of early U2 is really hit and miss. Nobody was there to pick up the pieces. I was trying to do it myself. Impossible." He was just 17, and U2 became his replacement family. "Yes, my sister got married and the family unit was broken. Every Irish son is closest to their mother. She thought I'd make a priest one day. She'd be very disappointed." But now you're giving out a different kind of communion. "That's right." Do you think you were running away from loss all your life? "There may be some truth in that. There's a sense of running because you don't want to go through that loss again."

It becomes apparent that the reason U2 are still together is that they need each other more than other bands. Bono thinks Larry is the dad of the U2 family, because he's so good at making decisions. Mullen thinks he's the spoilt child. "Bono's the mum. No doubt. He's larger than life and he'll take on anything." Mullen doesn't schmooze. He's very direct and heartfelt. He says: "We don't fight, but we all have strong personalities. But in the end we want the same thing. You know, we're very competitive: we want to be on the radio, have big singles. We don't want to be thought of as a veteran band. We like the fact that people mention Coldplay as our contemporaries."

Why are the four of you still together? "There's nowhere else to go. What kind of a band goes on holiday to the same place? What kind of families just mix?" We are sitting under a canopy on Bono's terrace by the pool, and several naked children, possibly belonging to the Edge, run squealing by. "We are a tight family, with all the pluses and disadvantages of that. But we don't have an ego problem in the band. We all are involved in the process. We all struggle together.

"I would like to be in a band that still makes great albums, and I like the idea that I might take on a new challenge of doing some acting. I like the idea of going to it late. But the band is all I've ever wanted, and I get paid for it. I don't want to sound smug, but I've got the best job in the world. Different things come into play now that we've all got families. We don't have the freedom we once had." Mullen has an eight-year-old son, a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old boy. Bono has two daughters and two sons. Edge has four daughters and a son. So even rock'n'roll must revolve around school holidays.

Sometimes it seems Adam Clayton has always been an outsider, even within the band. But in the world of U2, extremes always meet. In many ways he is the driving force. It was he who, out of "blind faith and undeniable ignorance", said "We are going to be bigger than the Beatles" when they'd only played a couple of gigs and were at their wildest and most disparate. We meet in a rooftop cafe in Nice. He orders a double espresso even though he has recently given up caffeine. That's just who he is. Worried about revealing too much, but anxious I get to the core of him.

He has a very unlined face, but eyes that are much older. No longer the peroxide blond, he has arrived armed with designer shopping bags. He's in search of the perfect T-shirt. He says this album "was a very different experience. It wasn't like we were running around crazy with no sleep". The time of Clayton throwing down his bass guitar and telling Bono, "You play it, then!" and storming off to some drug-fuelled heaven or hell is long gone. Has something happened to make you more harmonious? "We all turned 40 in the last two or three years, and that does make a change. You can look back at how well the band has done and what a great band it is," he says, fidgeting. The waitress forgot his coffee order and he's already feeling guilty about the double espresso. He says he felt he needed an altered state for the interview.

The coffee arrives. He seems calmed. "Not many people get to 25 years in a marriage or business partnership. We've come up with a few stinkers of bad decisions. We've survived them, and survival is how you deal with your bad decisions as much as it is with your good ones."

What was your biggest stinker? "The one I'm most uncomfortable about is how we went off on one with the Pop album. We focused so much on going out on tour and designing the stage show, which was amazing, that we forgot to finish the record." Was that when you lost your way? "No, I was fine then — that came much earlier."

The much earlier period was the engagement to Naomi Campbell. You know, rock star needs supermodel. I always feel it was a shame they met when he was off the rails. But the real Clayton is nurturing and polite, super-sensitive, and in many ways they were good together. The affair made him the celebrity he's always tried not to be, although I point out there was that time for the art work of Achtung Baby where he appeared naked to show the girls exactly what a supermodel gets. "Yes, but people still didn't recognise my face. I have always been a little shy of the camera." So obviously the way you deal with that is to appear naked? He laughs at his own contradictions, a lot more comfortable in his own skin these days. He breaks the chocolate that you get with the coffee into four pieces and enjoys each miniature bite. Very controlled.

Each of the four knows each other's strengths, weaknesses and extremes very well. "We are not hugely intimate with each other, yet there is tremendous tolerance, room and understanding and love. There is intimacy, but a lot of the time it is a work situation and then everyone goes back to their families. It's more adult." In all of your families there are some elements missing that you found in each other? "Yes, we are our own survival mechanism."

Clayton is different from the others, who still like a bit of a party. He is the loner. "I don't go out very much, but I'm comfortable with that. When I was in party mode, I was out every night. Now I'm happy to watch the news, listen to music." Most of the time, he lives between Dublin and London, where his girlfriend works. "There was a time when I wasn't comfortable in England. But now I have a more positive approach to life. I used to feel gauche, as if I came from the provinces."

Clayton has always felt he's been coming from somewhere else. When he was a child, his father worked for East African Airways, and they moved out to Kenya. Then it was Dublin. Then it was boarding school and Singapore for school holidays. "I still get jittery going to a new place. I don't like to lose control of the environment. I get twitchy. Sometimes I just feel abandoned, for want of a better word."

What he has finally opened up to is frighteningly sensitive. "There is work to be done with some of my issues, but most days I move freely in the world and feel comfortable with it. What I've learnt about coming into recovery is about acknowledging sensitivity and turning it down a little bit, but that doesn't mean to say I can't feel exhilarated.

Each U2 member is exhilarating to be with in different ways. Later that day, I was due to meet the Edge, but he was suffering. It had been his CD that was stolen and he had been interrogated by the police and wasn't up to being interrogated by me. The next time I saw him was two months later on the beach, in the restaurant, behind a bottle of rosé. His eyes are small but intense. He was born David Evans from Welsh parents in Barking, east London, and moved to Ireland with his family when he was one. He speaks very softly but precisely. And for a person named the Edge by Bono because of the sharpness of his mind and features, he is hugely gentle. A puzzling force, usually wrapped in a tight-knit hat, even in the summer. When we met to talk again, it was the morning after. Even with a hangover, his mind loves detail.

Last night, Bono was worried that you wanted to rerecord the entire album. "Yes. Listening to it made me want to rerecord everything. If you get it right, the song just sounds better. If you get it wrong, it makes the song sound different in a really bad way. Ten per cent of working in the studio is inspiration; 90% is a very analytical, painstaking process for us. And that's the science part of my brain."

The Edge was almost lost to science. He promised his parents that if the band hadn't made it in his year off after school, he would start his natural-sciences course. He actually began it, sleeping on the U2 manager Paul McGuinness's floor, but he never bought the textbooks. "I didn't want to waste my parents' money, but felt I owed it to them to do what they wanted."

The Edge is a person who assumes responsibility for everything. Bono's passion and political fervour have perhaps been hardest on him. But the reward is perhaps that the album sounds more like an Edge album than a Bono album. Any other person might have been deeply frustrated by Bono's absences to go and hang out with Bush and Blair and continue his work in Africa while they were recording. The Edge took it in his stride. "We've grown up being a political band. We never saw a need to separate religion and politics from everything we write about and care about. We have always been well aware that steaming in on any issue was liable to get us into trouble, or just come off as uncool. My own real fear was that Bono was going to lead us into doing things that were desperately uncool and we would regret. But even though I have winced on his behalf, I've had more times when I've just been so proud of him and blown away with the success of what he's done. Who would know that someone who stopped his formal education at 16, and had been writing songs and touring the world as a singer, can get stuck into the body politic and be listened to on the highest levels?"

We break for lunch of salad with couscous, salmon and chicken. Larry says Bono "will have lunch with the devil himself if it gets him what he needs. During the recording of the album, Bono was away a lot and it ended up having zero effect on the quality of the work. It just seemed he's a lot more active. He was able to speak to the Pope and record a lyric at the same time".

Back by the pool with the Edge, we admire the blissful view and the bizarre fact that he and Bono have two houses side by side. The Edge also has a house in Malibu, because his wife, Morleigh, is native to LA. "And the kids love it because their cousins are there." He thinks one day he may buy a boat. Ultimately, though, "Possessions are a way of turning money into problems. I don't have a big car collection. I don't have anything that I'd miss if it got stolen. I bought this house because it was about timing. I was going through a low point because I was just separating from my first wife, Aislinn, and things were tough and this was laying down new beginnings of another sort."

He met Morleigh when they were doing the Zoo TV tour in 1992. She's a dancer and came to help with the choreography. It was a slow burn. "We had known each other but were not very close for a while. Then a little spark happened." Last night in our drunken conversation, Bono had said that you know if you really love somebody if you can be yourself with them. Edge agrees: "Yes, I can be myself." From the slow, precise way he says that, you know it wasn't always the case. In relationships, do you prefer to be the person that is most loved or most loving? "I started out being the one who was most loving. Now, hopefully, it's more 50-50. There's a certain ego in that there's a control in being the one who's the most loving. To surrender and say 'I am going to be loved' requires a certain humility. The paradox is, it's generous to be loved." All of U2 love a bit of a paradox.

Suddenly there's a change of atmosphere, an adrenaline rush. Larry and Edge disperse and Bono tells me: "Tony Blair's just asked me to do an address at the conference." I tell him I don't think he should do that. He looks bemused and tells me that Mandela and Clinton had done this same spot for an international speaker. I tell him that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose, and why would he want to align himself with a party that is now alienating so many people? He says: "I am happy to stand alongside him and say I believe in him. I think he's one of the greatest leaders the UK has ever had. He has done extraordinary things for his country. There has to be applause. So far, it's my job to give him applause for what he's done, even though I didn't agree with the war. He believed in it, and isn't it extraordinary for a British prime minister to do something that was unpopular with the British people and his own cabinet and his Labour base? I believe that he is sincere... But sincerely wrong."

He's on a roll. I point out that he's very useful to politicians who want to get the swing vote that they believe rocks with the 18-to-30 CD-buying public. Would he do an address for President Bush at a Republican convention? "Not so close to an election, but I've been in photographs with Bush after he made a commitment to the biggest increase in Aids assistance for many years. I am not a cheap date, but it's my job to turn up for the photograph if they're ready to cut the ribbon."

He's looking a lot more wiry than the last time I saw him. He says that he was shaking off his Elvis period. There's nothing decadent, druggy, fat or Elvis-like about him. Even the shades are off, and the eyes are that extraordinary, piercing pale blue. They are at the same time ice and heat. He talks with clarity, in words that bypass cliché or pragmatism. It's a kind of passionate naivety.

It doesn't surprise me he played Tony Blair's guitar. "I had to play it, because I wanted to check the tuning. I heard he played guitar every day, so I wanted to see if that was true. And it gives me some faith that I picked up the prime minister of England's guitar and it was in tune: he does play it."

He also believes that under Blair's leadership and Gordon's — each mention of Blair's leadership comes with "and Gordon's" — thousands of Africans will live rather than die. More people than those who have unacceptably lost their lives in the war.

Enough about Blair. Would you believe Bono moves on to say how impressed he is with Condoleezza Rice? "I have to say George Bush really did deliver on his promise to getting more help for Aids in Africa. I was told it would be unachievable, but it was not. And I have to say I found him very funny. There I am, sitting in his car next to him in his motorcade, chatting and thinking I could be arguing for the rest of my life with him on lots of subjects. So I just looked at the most powerful man in the free world as he waved at the crowd, and I said, 'So you are pretty popular round here?' and he goes, 'It wasn't always so. See, when I first came here, people used to wave at me with one finger.'"

Is that the Pope's rosary round your neck? "It wore out, so Ali [his wife] had this one made up exactly the same. You see, Bob Geldof did a deal with the Pope: he knew it would wear out; he asked for two. I didn't think, but Bob did."

We laugh about that for a while, and he remembers that his feet hurt. Of course they do: they walked hundreds of yards over pointy stones. He rubs them a little and the mood has changed, as it often does so quickly.

If the record is about faith and fear, it's because Bono is. Love and desire constantly inhabit him. "It's great when they combine. But sometimes they are very different, love and desire. Love, sex, fear and faith, and all the things that keep us here in the mysterious distance between a man and a woman."

Just when you think you're having a conversation, you're having a song lyric. "My favourite relationships are always where there is that distance. The desire to occupy a person, and know their every broom closet, overpowers your sense of respect for who they are or that they have a life outside of yours."

People have wondered over the years just how and what has been accepted with Mr and Mrs Bono Hewson. Ali is a childhood sweetheart. She has the thickest of thick black hair in a bob. I met her briefly on my first trip out. Friendly, kind of sophisticated, but accessible. Slim but curvy. A pin-up. They have had their ups and downs over the years, and she deserves to be a saint to have put up with him for so long.

For the first time, they are going to work together on a project. "It's a clothing line which will be made using fair trade and the developing world. We are lining up with a designer called Rogan, who's brilliant, and he's not an arsehole and he wants to work with us."

Christophe, Bono's Basque housekeeper-cum-chef, brings us glasses of wine, even though Bono says he is allergic to it, it makes him fall asleep. Sleep is something he hasn't time for: he rarely sleeps more than four hours a night.

He asks me if I agree with Freud that sex is the centre of life. He thinks it's just close to the centre. "It's an extraordinary thing to relegate this subject to something that's prurient or humourless or deeply earnest and dull. Look how it is used to sell products."

Do you think that romance is more interesting than sex?

"I think sex without romance is... is..." Dull? "No, it's just not on my radar." Really? "I can't say it hasn't been. You know, there are times when you've got to if you've been in a long-term relationship, so I wouldn't lie. Actually, I might."

Sex and death, love and desire all weave their ways into the melodies that haunt him. "If you meditate on life you start with death, and when somebody's not there for you, there's a sense of abandonment." It is this very abandonment that has created his need to bond with the world.

Afternoon is blending into evening now. It seems as if we could have this conversation infinitely. He says: "You can exorcise your demons or you can exercise them. I don't know what I've discovered about myself from analysis. The thing to watch for is navel-gazing — and I do have a very nice one — but most of what I've learnt about myself you discover in other people."

There's a song lyric that talks about being loved too much. "No, you can't love too much. You can't out-give God." He pauses. "But you should try, I think. That's where I'd like to spend the rest of my life."

It's almost time for me to leave, but he's concerned that I think his life is too much of a bubble where nobody disagrees with him. "It's not just warm and fuzzy, it's gritty. Working with U2 can be just one big row. Part of the sexiness is the friction. Rock-star disease is where you are in the company of people who agree with you all the time — although, personally, I might love a bit of that."

At some other point, he quips that he needs to be told he's loved at least a dozen times each day. And he probably is, one way or another.

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