Joy Makes a Return
The ‘90s were rough on great rock ‘n’ roll bands. In the U.S. alone, most of the decade’s premier groups self-destructed (Nirvana), split apart in frustration (Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine) or lost so much commercial impact that they were relegated to the sidelines (Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails).
This left the field so barren by the end of the decade that there were renewed choruses of “rock is dead.” Lots of rock groups, from the relentlessly dark Korn to the dumbed-down and smirking Limp Bizkit, still sold millions of albums, but these bands seemed to be simply living off the energy and imagination of earlier generations.
The death knell for outstanding ‘90s bands was so steady that you wondered, at the start of 2000, whether even a veteran group as respected as U2 could compete in the marketplace.
The Irish quartet not only answered the concerns with a knockout of an album in “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” but its success--10 million in worldwide sales plus three Grammys for “Beautiful Day,” one of the album’s tracks--also helped restore confidence in the future of rock ‘n’ roll.
Before joining the band in a Monte Carlo studio this month to test some musical ideas for a new album, singer Bono, 41, reflected in Los Angeles on the public’s renewed hunger for uplifting rock ‘n’ roll as well as the band’s response to the Sept. 11 tragedy.
Question: How concerned were you about being able to still compete in the pop and rock worlds of 2000? It has been disheartening in recent years to see so many great bands fall out of favor.
Answer: We knew the tunes were there and we felt there was a hunger again for something joyful, something that lifts your spirits in a real way, and I think rock ‘n’ roll is best able to do that. I would say hip-hop is making more adventurous records than rock bands, but when you are working off machines or a digital base, it’s hard to take people to a transcendent place live the way rock ‘n’ roll can do on some nights.
Q: Do you think the age of anger in rock and rap is beginning to wear out?
A: Anger is simple. Any artist knows he can do it with a black brush. That’s what rock is at the moment. It’s an easy thing to do: painting in black. Joy is something else. It’s much harder to create because you are dealing with something much deeper and much more emotional. It’s a connection with the audience that borders on faith, believing in something together.
I think people were looking for that spirit before Sept. 11, but it has been intensified since then. People don’t just want attitude in music anymore. They want something more genuine because something in the world has changed. I think young people want that as much as anyone else. On the first leg of the tour, I noticed that the audience was mostly our regular fans. But on the second leg, the audience has been a lot younger.
Q: Why do you think Sept. 11 has intensified the desire for something new in music?
A: Real violence now is just a blunder away for everybody. A whole core of a city can be taken out by a suitcase filled with some dirty nuclear bomb. That makes the sort of suburban angst that has been such a big part of rock lately seem like something pretty small--the guy who is saying, “I’m so angry with the world that I’m going to hurt myself.” It’s enough to make you laugh. The stakes are much higher now.
Q: Weren’t you worried that you might look out of place when you took the new music to the TV shows that cater to the Britney Spears and ‘N Sync and Limp Bizkit audiences? You could be seen as desperate.
A: That wasn’t the only thing. We don’t have a great history of doing well on TV shows, which is why we didn’t do it for years. We were so bad at it that our records would go down the charts in England when we went on “Top of the Pops” in the early days of the band. But we worked at it because we had faith in the music.
I think a lot of rock bands lost track of the importance of selling the music. Hip-hop on many levels pulled the rug from under rock because they were willing to promote their records. They were willing to go on TV and “TRL.” Rock groups were too cool to do that. If you believe in what you’ve just written, you ought to be willing to take it door-to-door, if that’s what it takes.
Q: What is the price of devoting a year or more to a tour? We’re seeing a lot of veteran acts, including Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M., start to slow down for various reasons. Isn’t it hard being away from your family for so long?
A: My family is really elastic about these things. They come on the road when they are missing me. Ali [his wife] brings the kids out and she teaches them. I don’t think adventure is ever the enemy of relationships. The bigger threat is boredom and routine.
Q: But do you see a time when you simply lose the hunger for making music? You guys have been so successful for so long, isn’t there a period when you have enough sales and enough money and you walk away--like Garth Brooks is doing now.
A: It depends on your motivation and your goals. If the pursuit of cash or of some sort of success was all you were about, we would have given up 10 years ago. To be honest, we don’t have a choice. I wake up with a melody in my head in the morning and I have to write it down. I don’t have to write it down because I think we need another song for a record. I write it down because I’m excited by the idea of making music.
Q: You could just write and record the songs without spending a year on the road.
A: But there is the feeling that once you have the songs, you want people to hear them. You don’t want them to just sit in a closet. Take the R.E.M. album. “Reveal” has some truly beautiful songs on it, but they didn’t get out there and fight for it, so people make the mistake of thinking they didn’t believe in it.
Q: You also had the strain of your father’s illness and death last fall. How did you deal with that and keep performing?
A: It has always been a very complicated relationship because he was always such a tough old bird. A very sarcastic, cynical man.
Q: Did he enjoy your success?
A: He did. He just didn’t tell me about it. He was a guy with a beautiful tenor voice and a brilliant student, but who was taken out of school by his mother when he was 14 to help support the family. His biggest regret was that he didn’t play the piano to complement his singing.
Yet he wouldn’t make sure his children had the chance to study piano. When I was a kid, even before I was tall enough to see the keys, I would stand at my grandmother’s piano and play a tune. You would have had to be blind not to see I had an interest in music and piano.
Before his death, thankfully, we got a little bit closer. I would come off stage every night and fly home. My ears would still be ringing from the crowd as I sat beside him. I made lots of drawings of him and I read to him a lot. Some poetry and a new translation of the Bible by Eugene H. Peterson.
Q: What about the events of Sept. 11? A lot of bands canceled their tours. Did you consider that?
A: If it taught us anything, it’s the idea that the world has never been as interdependent as it is now. You can have the mightiest military in the world with a missile-defense shield, and you still cannot protect your country from a terrorist who has access to the Internet as to how to put together devastating weapons. I think that we all knew this, but it has hit home hard. You can’t be an island of prosperity in a sea of despair.
Q: Did you feel you had to say something in the shows to specifically address the events of Sept. 11?
A: No, I think what people wanted from U2 at that point in time was just to come to town. I don’t think they needed any pronouncements or statements, though it’s hard to shut me up. [Laughs.] I actually just think we voted with our feet. People had canceled tours. We put one on. That was our statement.
Q: What was it like when you went onstage at Madison Square Garden soon after the attacks?
A: I had never heard a sound like it in my life. It felt like it must have when the Beatles played Shea Stadium. Then I realized the screams were not for us. They were for each other. It was a real moment in the city, a night of people saying, “We’re still here and we’re going to keep going.” I didn’t need to say anything.
Q: But you did flash names of the victims on the monitors during “One.” How did that idea come up?
A: We had been advised against running the names. Some people thought it would be too painful for the audience, but people had been calling the TV stations in New York and asking them to quit using round numbers when describing the missing. People wanted them to cite every number in respect for the missing. “These are people,” was the idea, “they’re not statistics.”
So when we ran the names, it felt like that in the audience. People were pointing to people they knew and loved. It was amazing being onstage and seeing tears rolling down people’s faces.
The one thing I did want to do was thank people for their support of the campaign for wealthy nations to forgive the billions of dollars in debt that faces some of the world’s poorest countries. I think there is a link between [that problem] and a lot of the things going on in the world. Even militarists recognize this is a war you can’t win by ammunition alone, and that part of the roots of the present crisis are the abject poverty of so many who feel so left out. When there is no hope, you become easy prey to terrorists.
There is an incredible energy in this country right now. It’s inspirational. But I think it’s important to realize that we can go further than just the pursuit of justice. We can actually use this energy to pursue in concrete and in real ways a fairer, more inclusive world.
Q: Does coming from Ireland, where there is a history of violence and terrorism, give you any added perspective on what has happened here?
A: There’s a song on the album called “Peace on Earth” that talks about that, but I didn’t want to do it in the show because there is such a bitterness to it. It vents a certain anger about how the killing just keeps going on. But someone at one of the shows held up this big banner that quoted one of the lines, “Their lives are bigger than any big idea,” and I think that has struck a chord.
Q: Did you have any brushes with terrorism yourself while growing up?
A: There is a coffee shop in the center of Dublin that I used to go past every day on my way home because I had to take two buses to get to school. One day, an hour after I went past it, I learned the street with the coffee shop had been blown to bits. There was carnage everywhere. So, yes, there is a very deep sense of “There but for the grace of God” that I carry around. After Sept. 11, there is a piece of that idea in all of us.
Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at email@example.com