So, that headline is bollocks, of course, but at least it’s not a blatant lie, like some of the trollop recently dished out to try and make you, dear reader, click on a link or buy a newspaper. It’s also true in spirit (well, not the streaming part), since I was one of five journalists invited to dine with U2 and I haven’t written about them anywhere else (except here, and here) and, besides, I’m going to tell you all what meeting “the biggest band in the world” is really like.
This article by Evan Milton was first published in Mahala.co.za on 18 February 2011.
It’s weird being an “established” music journalist. When friends, colleagues and strangers learned I had met U2 in the flesh, they fell into pretty much one of two camps. The “Is Bono the prat his public image suggests he is” school of thought, and the “Oh! My! God! I! Can’t! Believe! It! I! Hate! You!” camp which, as it transpired, includes more of the hyper-cool and worldly-wise Mahala readers than you might imagine. Both these camps are, naturally, comprised of the very same people I’ve spent the last two decades targeting music features at, generally trying to convince them to see particular bands and, whether by omission or occasional commission, gently hinting at what to avoid. Now, because of four rockers who won an Irish ‘Battle of The Bands’ in 1978 in Limerick are in town, this selfsame swathe who usually eschew live music in favour of movies or rugby or braais or DJs or karaoke are suddenly interested in the music journalist’s opinion?
Cutting to the chase: No, I don’t think Bono is a prat. Admittedly, I didn’t go in for the kill with the question that a friend suggested for the opener: “Ask Adam Clayton why Bono’s such a cock. Or, you might want to be strategic. First ask him why The Edge is a cock. Don’t tell me that a guy who’s happy to stick with his own name hasn’t deep down thought, all these years, that only a cock calls himself The Edge”. Which, you’ll have to concede, would be one way to get a response from a global megastar band. The stock-standard answer I’ve settled on – and, believe me, the veneer of having sat in the same room as Dublin’s most famous stretches far and wide, and most everyone wants to know something about it – is as follows. The question, good people, is not whether Bono and U2 are big-headed, because they’re not. Rather, they just are really, really big – 150 million official CDs and 22 Grammys big – and they happen to have heads.
We interrupt this article for a Mahala Public Service Announcement (P.S.A.)
The battle-hardened Mahala reader will have surmised by now that, while not being sycophantic, this article is unlikely to blossom into a piece of stilleto-sharp U2-bashing. Such an assumption would be correct, and those readers might wish, at this point, to spare themselves further exertion and simply scroll to the bottom of the page and let rip. I could probably write a shredding article about dinner with U2, I suppose, if I tried, but I don’t really see the point. I got a chance to experience something millions of fans won’t – actually meeting their heroes – and I figure the most useful angle is to try and convey what that was like, rather than prove any other point. This stance was further clarified by the friend who mailed me the “Ask Adam” gem of an opening question. About an hour after the U2 dinner was done, the phone rang, and it was him. “C’mon, dude,” he said, “What were they like?”
End of P.S.A.
When Adam Clayton enthuses about Amadou & Mariam and thinking out loud how great it would be to collaborate with them, the cynical response is to ask why U2 doesn’t do something just like that, rather than make another new album that will probably sound like a continuation of No Line On The Horizon. But the whip-crack question comes with a realisation, which is that most of South Africa wouldn’t even know who the Mali-born, “Songlines” winning blind couple are if the U2 machine hadn’t booked them as the warm-up act. They’ve played in South Africa quite regularly over the years, most recently as part of the FIFA World Cup Kick Off Celebration. Plus, any global artist that could appoint almost anyone as a support act, but decides to mash up Bamako blues with the Springbok Nude Girls, gets a few bonus points from me.
Also, it’s refreshing to see how Larry Mullen, The Edge, Bono and Adam Clayton get on with one another. Obviously, at a press dinner they’re going to be somewhat on point, to be fair, it’s not like they’re struggling to get their name out there, or that they need articles from the Saffa press to tell people they’re in town for a couple of gigs. It turns out that Edge has had some trouble shaking a throat niggle, and so he took some cough medicine on the flight over from New York.
“Are you singing any of your songs on the show,” asks a journo.
“Not if he sounds like that, he’s not,” mutters Bono. It becomes a running joke throughout the interview after Edge has a glass of wine. He’ll say something and Bono will stage mime, point at him and mouth the words, “Truth serum…” Or Edge will be reflecting about the impact of Patti Smith’s “Horses” and Adam Clayton will grin and stage whisper, “It’s the cough medicine…”
Not rip-roaring comedy, but it’s nice to see how U2 don’t take themselves all that seriously. Or, perhaps, because they take what they do very, very seriously, they are able to be light-hearted about who they are as people within that massive machine. The journalistas mention songs from back in the U2 oeuvre and the band seems genuine when they say thanks that people went back and listened to them. “Do you really enjoy that old stuff? says Bono. “I listen to it and I think that I sound like a girl.”
Hair today, hair tomorrow
Everyone laughs, and then someone mentions the hairstyles. Bono plays out looking hurt, and says, “You know how to hurt a guy.”
Edge pipes up with something more serious, about how a lot of U2′s music has been about a search for identity.
“We weren’t ever part of a scene,” he says, “Because there was no scene. There was a post-punk reaction that sprung up all over the world [in the late 1970s]. Within Ireland, there was a definite kind of second wave, but we didn’t want to be a punk band…”
“We didn’t like the spitting,” chirps Adam Clayton.
Edge eases on, and I want the cynics to pay attention here, because what he said surprised me, and hammered home a point about the band’s influence on the direction of popular music over the last three decades. And, again, that’s whether you like their tunes or not. “Throughout our career, we felt ourselves to not quite be part of the mainstream, we were always looking for a more interesting place to be. Joshua Tree, for example, came out in the middle of the materialist 80s. At the height of Madonna, you had us doing this ascetic desert experience – we couldn’t have been less in sync.”
“Zoo TV came out when rock ‘n roll had turned to grunge,” says Bono, taking up the thread. “Everyone was dressing in plaid shirts and you had us in black and wearing latex and getting out of spaceships.” Someone says something about not being shoegazers, and Bono says, “Definitely not shoegazers! But there were definitely some unforgivable hairstyles. “If I meet someone in a pub and they’re really going at me about how much they can’t stand U2,” he says, comfortably back in the limelight of the storytelling, then I’ll say, “Is this about the music, or is this about the mullet? Because if this is about the mullet, man, then I’m with you. I fully understand your rage.”
But are they prats?
And, thus, U2: nice enough people, friendlier than the few other gazillionnaires that I’ve met. They say “please” and their “thank you” and, for all that you or I might hate or love the music, they seem to have a genuine love for the stuff they’re making, and a true dedication to pushing the boundaries of their particular brand of mainstream as they do so. There is one facet, though, where the critic might point out a certain “pratness”, and it’s this: Bono – more so than any of the others – is a bit of a name-dropper.
He mentions, at one point, that he asked Bill Gates about music since Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft with Gates, was such an avowed Jimi Hendrix fan. Did Gates have any similar kind of a musical passion – did he listen to Hendrix too? Apparently, Bill Gates looked at Bono and said, “What do you think? I had no choice! We were working in a tiny room and Paul played it all the time.”
This, after mentioning conversations with Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Danger Mouse, and more. Is this, perhaps, the proof of the prat? With the question comes a grudging wisdom: it is hard to imagine that “my dinner with U2″ won’t be standard cocktail banter for at least the next few weeks. The music journalist, a name-dropper, just like Bono. Except, of course, that Bono has cellphone numbers and email addresses for Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Bob Dylan, Danger Mouse….
U2 play the Cape Town Stadium tonight but, if you’re even half interested in the band, you knew that anyway. Plus, there probably aren’t any tickets left. For anyone who’s going, and is serious about it, get some tips from the real heroes here.
*All images © Penny Stein Promotions.