BY CHAUNCE HAYDEN
Let’s talk about your health and that infamous bike crash in Central Park.
Well, I mean, I don’t want to. It’s just a thing that… people have these extinction events in their lives; it could be psychological or it could be physical. And, yes, it was physical for me, but I think I have spared myself all that soap opera. Especially with this kind of celebrity obsession with the minutiae of peoples’ lives – I have got out of that. I want to speak about the issue in a way that lets people fill in the blanks of what they have been through, you know?
In 2000, you had a throat-cancer scare, right?
No, it was a check for it. One of the specialists wanted to biopsy, which would have risked my vocal cords – and it turned out OK.
And then there was the bike accident.
There is comic tragedy with a bike accident in Central Park – it is not exactly James Dean. But the thing that shook me was that I didn’t remember it. That was the amnesia; I have no idea how it happened. That left me a little uneasy, but the other
stuff has just finally nailed me. It was like, “Can you take a hint?”
You are making an album and then all of a sudden you had to deal with your health issue. How did it affect the album and your vision of it?
Well, strangely enough, mortality was going to be a subject anyway just because it is a subject not often covered. And you can’t write Songs of Experience without writing about that. And I’ve had a couple of these shocks to the system, let’s call them, in my
life. Like my bike accident or my back injury. So it was always going to be the subject. I just didn’t want to be such an expert in it.
I met this poet named Brendan Kennelly. I have known him for years; he is an unbelievable poet. And he said, “Bono, if you want to get to the place where the writing lives, imagine you’re dead.” There is no ego, there is no vanity, no worrying about who you will offend. That is great advice. I just didn’t want to have to find out outside of a mental excursion. I didn’t want to find out the hard way.
So how did the idea of mortality come into play?
Gavin Friday, one of my friends from Cedarwood Road [in Dublin], has written one of my favorite songs. It is called “The Last Song I’ll Ever Sing,” about this character in Dublin, back when we were growing up, called the Diceman, who died at 42, five
years after he was diagnosed with HIV. I realized only recently that “Love Is All We Have Left” is my attempt to write that song.
That sounds like an appraisal of you yourself. Are you insecure?
Performers are very insecure people. Gavin Friday, his line to me years and years ago was “Insecurity is your best security for
a performer.” A performer needs to know what is going on in the room and feel the room, and you don’t feel the room if you are
normal, if you’re whole. If you have any great sense of self, you wouldn’t be that vulnerable to either the opinions of others
or the love and the applause and the approval of others.
Do you feel like you lucked out looking back at your bike accident and cancer scare?
Lucked out? I am the fucking luckiest man on Earth. I didn’t think that I had a fear of a fast exit. I thought it would be inconvenient ’cause I have a few albums to make and kids to see grow up and this beautiful woman and my friends
and all of that. But I was not that guy. And then suddenly you are that guy. And you think, “I don’t want to leave here.
There’s so much more to do.” And I’m blessed. Grace and some really clever people got me through, and my faith is
On “Lights of Home,” you write, “I shouldn’t be here because I should be dead. I can see the lights in front of me. I believe my best days are ahead, I can see lights in front of me. Oh, Jesus, if I’m still your friend, what the hell, what the hell you got for me?”
There is a Bob Dylan reference in that song; I’ll just tell you ’cause I know you love Bob. It goes, “Hey, now, do you know my name? Where I’m going? If I can’t get an answer in your eyes, I see it, the lights of home.” At least in my head, the reference is to one of my favorite Dylan songs, “Señor Señor.” In that song, he meets an angel and he, like, goes on this ride with him. I have always imagined it is the angel of death.
What about the song “Ordinary Love”?
That’s nonromanticized love. The love that people make, the deals that people make to stay together. What Yeats calls “cold passion.” I love the idea that great relationships have a lower temperature.
And so in the ecology of this, where do you fit?
We gave away our last album; or rather, Apple gave it away. And very generously, I believe. But the album before
that, No Line on the Horizon, was very adult, not of the demographic that are interested in streaming. So we are
just going into this now. We haven’t really started yet.
Do you think that the music you are doing now is more streaming-friendly?
Yeah. It’s so, so interesting, though. We’re back to the Fifties now, where the focus is on songs rather than albums.
U2 make albums, so how do we survive? By making the songs better. And having, I hope, the humility to accept
that we need to rediscover songwriting, which is one reason Edge and I took on Turn Off the Dark, the SpiderMan musical, to get into musical theater, the Rodgers and Hammerstein aspect of songwriting – a lot of the American Songbook came from musicals. We started to get into what you might call formal songwriting.
So there is a bit of an existential divide as to your ambition, which runs as white-hot as ever.
I feel a compulsion to the songs. If you are going to go this far, you have to go all the way. And I don’t know if that
can last forever. But, wow, do we have the songs now. Coming down here in the car, on one station we heard
“You’re the Best Thing About Me.” On another station, called the Wave, I heard “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Quite a ride . . . through
about 30 years.
How do you stay down to earth in your position, especially in an age of over-the-top self-promotion?
There’s a difference between humility and insecurity. I have the insecurity of the performer, as I said earlier. As
a performer, you can feel the room. Even if it’s some sort of get-together, a dinner party or an opening, I can feel
the room – that is insecurity. Humility is different. Humility is a genuine sense of your place in the universe and
understanding that it is OK to play a quiet, supportive role in the lives of others. . . . I’m not there yet. Greatness as a
person comes from not pursuing it. Pretty dull if you’re a performer – the fireworks display is why people are at the
show. I used to think that my insecurity was humility because I don’t throw my weight around, because I try to treat whomever I
meet with respect. But I am not sure if it actually was humility. I think that might have been just good manners.
I still have that thing, that “hellhound on my trail,” whatever that Robert Johnson image is. When I am onstage, I still
meet that other self, that sort of shadow self. I still have some work to do on myself to get to a place that you might
recognize as humility.
You visited George W. Bush in Texas recently. Tell me about that.
I think that on his exit from the Oval Office he was a much humbler man. When I visited him at his ranch,
I found him living very quietly. He hasn’t done a lot of speechifying but does do a lot of painting. I am sure he’s pained
by seeing casualties of recent wars that returned home, and he paints those very people. Laura and his two daughters are very proud of the work America has done in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We worked closely together on that. Condoleezza Rice and
Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, also deserve a lot of credit. It is the largest health intervention in the history of medicine. There’s now roughly 20 million lives saved in a war that had previously cost 35 million lives. If you want to think about it this way, as many as half the people who died in the Second World War were lost to a tiny little virus. It still hasn’t sunk in. There’s a lot of us who worked on this, but I’m not sure we even now fully appreciate the scale of what was accomplished in the
face of such horror, but it should remind people of what’s possible if we can put aside partisanship.
What do you say to people discouraged by this moment? Is there hope after this?
There is. There is. I think the moment just has to be reclaimed. This is surely the bleakest era since Nixon. It surely
undermines the very idea of America, what is going on now. And Republicans know it, Democrats know it – no
one’s coming off well here. We know some who should know better have tried to piggyback the man’s celebrity to get stuff done. They will live to regret it. Before I went out against him in the primaries, I called a lot of Republican friends that I have and said, “I can’t in all conscience be quiet as this hostile takeover of your party and perhaps the country happens.” And I made the quote, and I still stand by it, “America is the greatest idea the world has ever had, and this is potentially the worst idea that has ever
happened to it.”
You have done the Joshua Tree tour, you’ve gotten the new record out, and now you are getting ready to come back for another tour in the spring. What are your thoughts now that the year is over? Any last words of wisdom?
I am holding on to the idea that through wisdom, through experience, you might in some important ways recover
innocence. I want to be playful. I want to be experimental. I want to keep the discipline of songwriting going forward
that I think we had let go for a while. I want to be useful. That is our family prayer, as you know. It is not the most
grandiose prayer. It is just, we are available for work. That is U2’s prayer. We want to be useful, but we want to
change the world. And we want to have fun at the same time. What is wrong with that?