‘Where craft ends and spirit begins’
“It’s one of the most banal couplets I’ve ever heard,” Bono says sheepishly about the words he wrote for one of U2’s best-known songs. “ ‘I want to run, I want to hide ... ' That’s not very interesting, but you know what? People don’t hear the couplets when we play the song.
“They hear something else in the music. They hear a band talking about a special place, a better place, and asking if the audience wants to go there with them.”
Bono, who writes most of U2’s lyrics, is keenly aware that the music’s power often comes less from his pen than from the sweeping sonic foundation built by the band.
“Feelings are stronger than ideas or words in a song,” he says, pacing the floor of his Central Park West apartment, offering a contrarian view of pop songwriting.
“You can have 1,000 ideas, but unless you capture an emotion, it’s an essay. I’m always writing speeches or articles for causes I believe in. That’s probably what I would have done if I wasn’t in music, but that’s not songwriting.”
The comments are surprising from a man who devotes so much of his time to ideas -- from the spiritually tinged themes that underlie many U2 songs to his high-profile crusade to get wealthy nations to forgive Third World debt.
“Songwriting comes from a different place,” he continues. “Music is the language of the spirit. I think ideas and words are our excuse as songwriters to allow our heart or our spirit to run free. That’s when magic happens.”
It happens so often for U2 that the group has come closer to matching the quality and mass appeal of the Beatles over the last 25 years than any other band.
This is pop music at its most ambitious -- personal and independent enough to satisfy discerning listeners, yet open and accessible enough to pack stadiums. Though the group has experimented with electronica and other contemporary sounds, the essence of U2 is classic rock ‘n’ roll.
You won’t find lots of humor or party toss-offs in U2. The Irish quartet’s flurry of Top 40 hits, including “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “One,” mostly are soaring anthems built around the same message of brotherhood that characterized the Beatles’ later years. Yet U2 arrives at songs in a much different way.
John Lennon or Paul McCartney usually came up with songs and then taught them to George Harrison and Ringo Starr. But U2 collaborates to a degree that is rare -- a process that depends on the singular chemistry of the four musicians.
Bono and guitarist the Edge bring ideas into the studio -- a title, the trace of a melody or a catchy riff -- then bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen join in the actual construction of the songs. The grueling give and take sometimes stretches for weeks as the musicians toss ideas back and forth, equal partners in the search for an emotion that seems fresh and deeply rooted.
When the marathon sessions are going well, Mullen says, the rehearsal studio feels like a playground. When they’re going badly, it feels like a boxing ring.
“We’re tough guys,” Clayton says. “We know we’ll get there eventually. A lot of it is perspiration. You just have to put in the hours and do your time.” The Edge is fond of repeating the band’s private joke that it’s “songwriting by accident.”
“It’s more like Miles Davis than the Beatles in a way,” Bono says as he keeps pacing the hardwood floor of the sun-filled living room, whose minimalist furnishings reflect little of the flash of the typical rock star lifestyle.
Only after the band finds that powerful emotion, be it blissful or melancholy, does he begin applying lyrics. Sometimes he’ll draw phrases or lines from the notebook he carries with him, even when he’s on holiday or meeting with world leaders such as President Clinton and Pope John Paul II. Occasionally, he’ll work from a finished lyric he’s brought into the studio.
Mostly, he tries to capture the spontaneous feeling the music inspires in him -- a creative strategy he learned listening to Lennon’s first two solo albums, “Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine.”
“He showed that the best way to unlock yourself as a writer was to simply tell the truth,” Bono says, settling on the couch, while his wife, Ali, and 13-year-old daughter, Eve, have breakfast nearby. “When you’ve got a song to write or a blank page, just describe what is on your mind -- not what you’d like to be on your mind. If you feel you have nothing to say, your first line then is ‘I have nothing to say.’ ”
A language all his own
Bono’s improvisation in the studio often starts with him just muttering sounds that seem to fit the flow of the music being created -- “Bono-eze,” his bandmates call it.
“When Bono starts going through his Bono-eze, it can change what we’re playing and take the song in a different direction,” Mullen says. “If he’s doing something very intense, it might not even be what he’s saying, but the way he’s behaving, the way he’s throwing the microphone around. The energy and intensity helps shape the song.”
Gradually, Bono begins changing sounds into words and lines, trying to articulate the feelings the music stirs in him, instinctively drawing upon a storehouse of experiences and beliefs.
Though he didn’t go past high school, he’s an avid reader and loves spending evenings talking to everyone from poets to politicians. All of this feeds his writing, invariably giving U2’s music a level of substance that is rare among bestselling pop acts.
In one of the band’s earliest songs, “Rejoice,” he outlined his personal goal, which reflects the group’s strong Christian spirituality: “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.”
Unlike many great songwriters, he doesn’t spend much time editing his words. He even declares that “craft and taste can be the enemy of songwriting” because they encourage you to follow certain rules, rather than simply following your emotions -- not that he doesn’t sometimes wish he had gone back over the lyrics.
Take “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the 1987 vision of a world free of religious and racial divide.
The song, from the Grammy-winning “The Joshua Tree” album, is an adrenaline rush of guitar, bass and drums whose galloping rhythm and graceful images convey the sense of the open road and journey so well that it’s no wonder a car manufacturer has offered millions to use it in a commercial.
I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I want to reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name.
When a sheet of paper with the lyrics is handed to him, Bono smiles. He may dismiss that opening couplet, but he can’t deny the power unleashed every time the band plays the song.
“We can be in the middle of the worst gig in our lives, but when we go into that song, everything changes,” he says. “The audience is on its feet, singing along with every word. It’s like God suddenly walks through the room. It’s the point where craft ends and spirit begins. How else do you explain it?”
Moving with the music
When a band’s body of work includes such elegant songs as “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Running to Stand Still” and “With or Without You,” you know Bono is drawing an awfully fine line when he says the songwriting craft isn’t important.
Believe it, U2 employs plenty of craft. Their strength is that they don’t rely on it. One reason veteran songwriters, including such great craftsmen as McCartney, sometimes get into trouble is that they start settling for craft. They’ll put a song on an album just because it has a strong melody or a clever line.
U2 holds itself to stricter standards.
That was apparent as the band put final touches on the “Pop” album on a winter afternoon in 1996. With the deadline just a week away, everything was open to change.
That evening, Bono wanted to tinker with a few words in one song. Sitting in a chair in the control room in Dublin, where the band writes and records most of its songs, he sang the new line as an instrumental track played.
He looked around the room for a reaction. Clayton and Mullen both thought he needed to put more feeling in the vocal, so he tried it again. This time he delivered the lines with such passion that he stood up and moved with the music.
Given Bono’s confidence on stage, it was revealing to see how vulnerable he was, waiting for his bandmates’ verdict. A bit nervously, he suggested he might need to change a couple of more words. No, no, they said, the words and vocal were fine. He looked relieved.
In the months of making an album, the other musicians are frequently challenged the same way Bono was during that session. They thrive on their collective, organic way of building songs.
“At various times, we’ve tried to stick to conventional songwriting,” says Mullen from Dublin. “But after a few months we see it’s not working. We need to dismantle the ideas and start again.”
Adds the Edge: “My worst nightmare is sounding ‘professional.’ I think we work best when we keep moving into the unknown.”
Working by instinct
U2’s unorthodox songwriting style was born out of necessity.
When the band members came together in high school, they weren’t good enough at their instruments to play convincing versions of the hits of the day. To hide their inexperience, they came up with their own songs.
“From fairly early on, it became clear to us that we had no idea about songwriting technique,” the Edge says. “Our way into songwriting was to dream it up. We’d try to imagine how others might do the song, the Clash or Lennon or the Jam. Instinct was everything for us, and it really still is.”
Along with Bono’s absorbing vocals, the Edge’s guitar lines became the band’s first distinctive feature.
“I like a nice ringing sound on guitar, and on most of my chords I find two strings and make them ring the same note, so it’s almost like a 12-string sound,” he said years ago. “So for E, I might play a B, E, E and B.”
Because he didn’t like the sound of the low strings on his Gibson Explorer guitar, Edge concentrated on the upper strings, giving the music engaging trebly overtones. It was the bright, clarion cry of his guitar that injected a rich, irresistible quality in “I Will Follow,” the centerpiece of the group’s debut album, 1980’s “Boy.”
The lyrics of the song, with their “I was lost, but I am found” imagery, are commonplace on the printed page, but they soar in the energy and youthful optimism of the track.
The band members didn’t even think of themselves as songwriters until the third album, 1983’s “War.”
Before starting that project, Edge, the group’s most accomplished musician, spent three weeks trying to put together some musical ideas so they wouldn’t be starting strictly from scratch in the rehearsal hall. Two of the ideas led to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day,” songs that lifted the band to new creative heights.
“My job is to find an image that sort of evokes the music,” Bono says, “and it was easy with ‘New Year’s Day.’ The piano notes on the song were icy, and Adam’s bass line told you it’s outdoors, not indoors.”
As he stood in the studio on the day in 1982 that U2 was finalizing “New Year’s Day,” Bono had a mental picture of Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity leader, standing in the snow on New Year’s Day, leading a workers strike. It resonated with him.
The band members had gone through some problems, and they weren’t sure they wanted to continue together. Their spiritual values seemed at odds with the rock lifestyle, but they finally realized they could use the music to share their beliefs. So it felt like the band too was beginning again.
Against a gentle musical backdrop, Bono pieced together a message about starting over and solidarity, a message of innocence and hope.
With “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the other key song on the “War” album, the idea for the song as well as the title and basic chords came from the Edge. The melody and a sort of militaristic, Clash-like frame were added in the studio.
“The idea was to contrast Bloody Sunday, where 13 peaceful Irish protesters were killed by British paratroopers, with an Easter Sunday,” Bono says. “I had started to discover the principle of nonviolence at the time, and there’s also a piece of that in there.”
The song’s opening lines:
I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away
How long, how long must we sing this song?
By the time “War” was released, U2 was being widely hailed as the best young rock band in years. Yet their songwriting was still in question. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” were good starts. But where was their “Let It Be”?
They found it the next year.
Blues and prayers
A salute to the nonviolence doctrine of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was the group’s first Top 40 U.S. single. In it, the craft and spirit came together.
U2 was working by then with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who encouraged the band to adopt even grander, more atmospheric musical textures.
In “Pride,” the music felt as majestic as cathedral bells as Bono sang these lines:
Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
The band’s masterpiece -- and the first pure rock album to win a best album Grammy since the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” -- was just months away.
U2 had become fascinated with America on the tours that preceded “The Joshua Tree” album.
Where early musical influences included Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and a lot of punk and post-punk outfits, from the Clash and Sex Pistols to Television and Patti Smith, the time in the U.S. led them to explore the rootsy blues and country sounds that had contributed so much to the birth of rock.
Bono read his way through tours, devouring the works of such American novelists, playwrights and poets as Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Charles Bukowski, Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg, among hundreds. It all helped him become more intimate and immediate as a writer. And the Scriptures were, as they’d been from the beginning, a constant source of inspiration.
The fruits of the band’s exploration came together in “The Joshua Tree,” whose “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” picked up a Grammy nomination for record of the year.
Like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Looking For” was epic rock, built around Edge’s exhilarating guitar and the march-like feel of Mullen’s drumming and the seductive push of Clayton’s bass notes. In movie terms, it was in every way a widescreen, Technicolor affair.
Bono’s lyrics outlined the tale of search for satisfaction and salvation:
I have run I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
Only to be with you
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
“I was always interested in the character of David in the Bible because he was such a screw-up. It’s a great amusement to me that the people God chose to use in the Scriptures were all liars, cheaters, adulterers, murderers,” Bono says. “I don’t know which of the activities I was involved in at the time, but I certainly related to David,” he adds with a laugh. “I was writing my psalm.”
What intrigued him was what he felt was a link between the Psalms and the blues, which he had just discovered.
“In the Psalms, David questions God, ‘Where are you when I need you?’ Blues has this sort of honesty that gospel music doesn’t have. Gospel music is the stuff of faith. It tells you about where you are going. The blues tells you where you are. God is much more interested in the blues because you get that honesty.”
The album sold 20 million copies around the world.
Rather than repeat the anthem-ish nature of “The Joshua Tree” and 1988’s “Rattle and Hum,” U2 went in the early ‘90s to Berlin, where they spent agonizing months updating their sound with darker, more electronic elements.
“We were really at a low ebb,” the Edge recalls. “Everyone was in grumpy humor. People were harboring serious misgivings about what was going down, and the mood was getting more and more negative.”
Yet the process yielded another landmark album, “Achtung Baby,” that signaled a new direction, one in which the lyrics and music took on edgier and less predictable dimensions.
Bono says he felt his vocabulary as a singer had been limited because only certain words and tones worked with his tenor vocals. But in Berlin, he learned he could expand his expressive range by lowering his voice through the use of such devices as distortion pedals.
“It gives you new language,” he says, joking about how Tom Waits can go so many places in his songs with his growly voice. “The tone of your voice dictates the lyrics. Who’d know that?”
The album delivered a signature U2 song, the ballad “One,” whose history dramatizes to him the gap between what’s expressed in words and what is conveyed through the music. Though Bono thinks of it as a bitter statement, the music is so healing, audiences find it comforting.
“It amazes me when people tell me they played it at their wedding or for comfort at a funeral,” Bono says. “I go to myself, ‘Are you crazy? It’s about breaking up.’ ”
While he sometimes wishes the band’s songwriting process gave him more time to write the lyrics, he still thinks the system comes up with the best songs.
“When I look at our first 10 years, I just hear unfinished work, lyrics we never finished because we ran out of studio time,” he says of his contributions. “I hear ‘Bad,’ and see what’s not there. I just see a list of failures.”
Still, he wouldn’t change anything about the way U2 works. For all his personal frustrations and the band’s uncertain moments, they all know they’ve found a way to connect with audiences.
Eno, one of pop’s most sophisticated observers, is struck by the group’s commitment to one another and the music.
“They really are a group, the only real group I’ve ever met,” he once said. “They realize that intuitively, and there is a great loyalty, perhaps because they realize that none of them would have been a musician without the others ... I can’t imagine what kind of bands they would have ended up in.”
The rule on rules
Bono and his family live most of the year in Dublin, but he enjoys the energy of New York.
Even though he’s been visiting the city for two decades, he still takes delight in pointing out some of the landmarks as he sits in the passenger seat of a van headed to a meeting on easing world hunger. As the driver navigates through traffic, Bono shoves the new U2 album into the CD player and pounds his fist on the dashboard as the music blasts through the speakers. There’s a driving, rock ‘n’ roll vitality to the music, which is due this fall; a freshness that you hardly expect from bands in their third decade.
But U2 has been able to remain both current and relevant. They get airplay on college and alt-rock radio stations and find their “Beautiful Day” at John Kerry campaign rallies.
As the vocal starts, he sings along. But it’s so noisy in the car you can’t really make out the words. Bono’s expression, however, tells you he’s very proud of this album. He suddenly stops singing and begins chuckling as he turns down the volume. “Did you hear that last verse? ... You never write a verse like that. That was definitely improvised. But there are other lines in the song I wrote ahead of time.”
When the songs are finished, Bono looks at the disc.
“Lou Reed is a friend and I once asked if he had advice for a young poet, and, in his usual cryptic way, he summed it up, ‘Break rhyme occasionally.’ ”
Bono laughs as the van pulls to a stop.
“You know, songwriting really is a mysterious process ... because we’re asking people to expose themselves. It’s like open heart surgery in some way. You’re looking for real, raw emotions, and you don’t find that by sticking to the rules.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Five songs for the ages
While the epic nature of U2’s musical landscape is what first catches the ear, it’s also the compelling themes that make the songs stick with us.
1."Where the Streets Have No Name"/"I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” 1987. It’s a bit of a cheat to list two songs, but the tunes from “The Joshua Tree” have always seemed to be closely connected expressions of spiritual search.
2."One” 1991. Rock is often best when it is rowdy and irreverent, but the heart of U2’s music is its gracefulness. Even in moments as melancholy as this, there is an overriding touch of eloquence. Key lines: “You ask me to enter/ But then you make me crawl/ And I can’t be holding on/ To what you got/ When all you got is hurt.”
3."Bad” 1984. Its themes may be dark, but U2 refuses to surrender to pessimism or despair. That’s why this sober tale about heroin addiction also serves as a warm rallying cry.
4."Running to Stand Still” 1987. Not only do the words capture the way drugs can disorient people so that they feel they are running while remaining motionless, but the stark, funereal tone of the music is a perfect match.
5."Peace on Earth” 2000. This may be the darkest Christmas song ever written. After a terrorist bombing in Northern Ireland, Bono expressed the heartache and rage of a parent who can’t be comforted by more promises of hope. “Sick of sorrow/ Sick of pain/ Sick of hearing again and again/ That there’s going to be/ Peace on Earth.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Five albums for the library
These albums, all released by Island, offer an absorbing chronicle of U2’s artistry and growth.
1."Boy” 1980. This album feels very much like the start of a journey, which it was for young men just out of their teens. The tunes capture marvelously the optimism and uncertainties one feels at that age. Highlight: “I Will Follow.”
2."The Unforgettable Fire” 1984. The “War” album in 1983 signaled the maturation of U2 as artists, but this CD was the real creative breakthrough. Highlight: “Bad.”
3."The Joshua Tree” 1987. The band’s first masterpiece, a work of profound elegance and mystery and faith. Highlight: “Where the Streets Have No Name"/"I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
4."Rattle and Hum” 1988. This will likely be a controversial choice because even some U2 fans thought the band’s ego got in the way in this companion piece to the band’s concert movie. But the mix of U2’s imagination and the band’s celebration of American roots music in this two-disc package is gloriously personal and daring. Highlight: “Love Rescue Me,” which was co-written by Bob Dylan.
5."Achtung Baby” 1991. The band changes gears in every way but one: The music still feels heartfelt and compelling, yet also more risk-taking and edgy. Highlight: “One.”
On the Web: For a multimedia presentation featuring music and images from U2’s career, with comments by Robert Hilburn, go to calendarlive.com/songwriters.
Next: Joni Mitchell, a poet of the personal, who defined, then dumped, the confessional impulse in pop.
Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org.