Dublin's U2 May Be the Only Band Whose Sound Says Let's Get Physical—and Spiritual Too
04/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
Survival," U2's charismatic vocalist Paul "Bono" Hewson would say later, "was the theme of the evening." That was clear from the moment the Irish rock group finished its first song before an overwrought crowd of 20,000 at Phoenix's outdoor Compton Terrace. Taken aback by the ominous churning of the audience, Bono turned away and instead of calmly handing his guitar to a technician, hurled it in a high arc halfway across the stage so the technician nearly had to dive to catch it. The area down front was a cauldron of faces—people wild-eyed, bobbing, waving banners, so crushed that simply craning one's neck could trigger a jostling chain reaction.
After a futile plea to the crowd to step backward ("These are all very good people"), Bono put one of his cherished notions to the test. "Rock can do what the politicians can't—bring people together, even if only for 90 minutes," he often says. As guitarist Dave "The Edge" Evans scrambled to change instruments, Bono called for an extra rendition of the band's stirring elegy for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Pride (In the Name of Love), which normally climaxes the set. The mood softened, but individual fans began leaping onstage, trying to embrace Bono, who defused these assaults by gently returning their desperate gestures.
Yet finally even he could not turn the other cheek. Among "a few troublemakers" down front, he spotted one youth viciously elbowing and shoving people. Bono saw him punch someone in the face. Waved up to the stage by the singer, the boy grinned, expecting to be embraced. But Bono was outraged. "I saw what you did," he shouted, motioning in the guards. "You get out of here. I don't ever want to see you at one of our concerts again."
The night took its toll. The next day Bono was hoarse and disappointed. "When the energy of the crowd is so brutal," he whispered, "the spirit of the music flees and all you're left with is crashing drums and clanging guitars."
With most rock bands that's all you get. But U2 is that rare powerhouse group that serves a higher vision of human harmony and spiritual peace. Not by accident did they troop to divided Belfast in 1983 to launch their galvanizing pacifist anthem Sunday Bloody Sunday. And as the final encore on their current tour they enlist their swaying throngs to sing the soothing refrain of "40", whose lullabye melody quotes from the first three verses of Psalm 40: "I waited patiently for the Lord, and He inclined...and heard my cry."
U2's unpreachy idealism is couched in one of the '80s' most distinctive sounds—what Edge calls the band's "tapestry effect." While drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton supply the rhythmic bedrock, Bono soars passionately through melodies that suggest a Celtic antiquity and an apocalyptic fervor. Edge hangs the shimmering sound curtains, chiming chords and jagged accents that have brought the 23 year old acclaim as one of the most innovative guitarists of the decade. Critical pets often die in the record stores, but among U2's five discs are a gold live LP and two platinum studio albums—1983's galvanizing War and the group's latest and most progressive effort, The Unforgettable Fire, named for an exhibition of paintings by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
The son of a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, Bono "never had religion shoved down my throat." But he was shaken by the lashing anger it instilled in his friends. When he was 14, his mother died suddenly. At first Bono threw himself into the mindless warring of the local gangs. "I was such a bastard," he admits. Then drugs claimed the lives of some of his most vivacious pals. And he saw his father, a hardworking postal investigator and amateur painter, abandon a canvas when Bono's mother died. He never picked up his brushes again, losing himself in his job. Bono was developing a sense of urgency about life and its contradictions. He was not alone.
In the years after Larry Mullen formed the band at Dublin's Mount Temple Comprehensive School in 1978, the lads toured the war-torn North, realizing, as Edge recalls, how "very little real bigotry" there was in the South. After U2 signed with Island Records in 1980 and toured America, people would throw money onstage and shout pro-IRA slogans. Says Edge, "The assumption was that anyone Irish had to be a Republican."
Bono's symbol became a white flag. He carried one precariously to the top of a spidery light tower at the US Festival in 1983. Later he left the stage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and emerged on the balcony, where he got into a scuffle and plummeted into the waiting arms of fans below. Summoned to a wee-hour "firing squad," he was told by the band, "One, you're going to kill yourself. Two, you're going to kill the group." He realized they were right.
"I always thought passion was like a clenched fist," Bono says. "But when I relaxed, it flowed in a fuller way. I've learned that if I'm close to the music, and the audience is close to the music, we are close to each other. It doesn't depend on physical proximity."
Yet Bono, 24, still loves "to see a city before I sleep in it." Fame hinders his ability to wander till dawn with fans, but he still hops out of limos to sign autographs at hotels and arena gates. "It's not that they need it," he explains. "I need it. I can't look at the audience as a mass. It disturbs me. I have to look for individuals."
U2 is private about its faith. "People try to examine our beliefs to get a line on our music," says Edge. "But going the other way around is better. Music is a far better medium to explain something as personal and intangible as that. I have absolutely no interest in the political or doctrinal side of Christianity. In fact that aspect terrifies me." As Bono puts it, "I'm not a very religious person. Religion has torn my country in two."
Like Bono, Larry grew up in the rugged heart of Dublin, where he suffered two early emotional traumas about which he does not speak publicly. Before his band mates had even met him, he lost a younger sister, and after the four became friends, his mother was fatally struck by a truck. In his early teens he realized he was "a very aggressive person, in a positive sense. I liked to hit things. Playing drums was the only thing I could do."
Larry, 23, has a lithe, catlike build, and when he talks to a relative stranger, he smiles shyly and stretches self consciously. You get the idea that his dark glasses, biker clothes and wariness are meant to conceal the sweet and ingenuous personality beneath the mask. Though Edge calls his friend "your archetypal teenage motorbike fanatic," the truth is Larry still lives at home. "Now that I can afford to buy any drums I want," Larry says, "I get them for free." He shakes his head in wonder. "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer."
Edge, the son of Welsh parents, and Adam, the son of English parents, grew up in the gentler suburbs of Dublin. Edge's father, a self-employed lighting and heating engineer, was "a very individual person who never had to toe the corporate line," says Edge, who got his moniker from Bono. "My mother was most important in backing what I did with music." The family made a pact: If within a year after Edge's high school graduation the band didn't land a record contract, Edge would start college. Dutifully, Edge enrolled in college in January 1980. Three months later the Island deal bailed him out.
U2 signed a lucrative extension of its Island contract last year, giving the band financial security. Though Bono writes the lyrics and improvises most of the melodies, songwriting income is split four ways. "It's a sacrifice for Bono," Adam says, "but a band can't hold together as long as U2 has if everyone doesn't feel valued."
For all their unusual seriousness, the four don't take themselves any more seriously now than they did when they were flailing away hopelessly at tunes by the Beatles, David Bowie and Roxy Music. When a woman at their Phoenix hotel asked Bono, "Aren't you somebody famous?" he replied, "Yes, you've seen me in Vegas." Then, black locks flying, he proceeded to shake his hips and do an uncanny imitation of Tom Jones crooning, "It's not unusual to be loved by anyone..."
A few hours before the Phoenix show, Marion Smyth, the band's makeup and costume person, was walking by the pool when Adam asked, "Marion, what am I wearing tonight?" To no one's surprise, Marion answered, "Black." Abhorring what Bono calls "pop colors," U2 in concert slides along the gray scale. Offstage Adam will wear turquoise shirts. Shading his eyes, Adam looked up and asked, "What particular color of black?"
"Black black," said Marion.
Adam nodded and smiled. "A very nice shade indeed," he said.
To Bono, Adam, 25, is the band's own Noel Coward. His exploits as a youth were notorious—wearing a dress or long fur coats to school, or racing through corriders naked. Expulsion usually followed in short order. Bono recounts a time when Adam shinned up a tree outside the headmaster's window to eavesdrop on his fate. Just when his teacher was insisting that young Clayton could, after all, be redeemed, Adam tumbled out of the tree.
Sitting by the hotel pool in a broad-striped silver-and-gray dressing gown, Adam spoke in his own defense. "I wasn't prepared for the establishment to write me off just because I didn't fit into their academic concept," he said, puffing on an uptilted cigarette. "Any of my escapades, to my mind, contained an awful lot of nerve and humor." After family rows, he crashed many a night on the couch in Bono's house. As U2 took off, however, tensions eased, and he has come to see his parents in a new light.
"To be fair," he said, stroking his mustache with his fingertips, "they were never apprehensive about me for their own dignity or ego. The terrible thing about being a parent is that parents are just waiting for the moment when the child takes responsibility for his own life. Then they have the night off, so to speak. We all have the same loves and fears and depressions, and the problem is, maybe we just don't share them enough."
He paused to sip some grapefruit juice. "It's like this band," he added. "I think a large part of what the audience feels is that we do communicate our normalness."
The next day, in L.A., Bono's voice was still sore. But the spirit of the music did not flee. Someone tossed a white bouquet and Bono distributed the flowers. White banners flew, one bearing King's portrait and the words "We Shall Not Forget." At the end the crowd kept singing the simple refrain from "40" after the musicians had left the stage and didn't stop until the lights came on and the PA system drowned them out.
A couple of days earlier Bono had said, "I couldn't walk onstage if I thought, 'It's only rock 'n' roll, a shot in the arm to get you through the night.' Maybe it is a shot in the arm, but I like to think it's still running through people's veins the next week, just a tiny bit." In a song called Rejoice he wrote, "I can't change the world/ But I can change the world in me/ If I rejoice." That night it seemed to apply to a whole arena full of people.