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DETAILS: October 22, 2001

Unforgettable Fire

The ongoing beatification of Bono

Details, October 22, 2001

By Andrew Essex



Part showman, part soul man, he's been saving the world for a quarter of a century. As U2's Elevation Tour returns to America, the last rock star may have finally found what he's looking for.


SLANE VILLAGE, IN County Meath, Ireland -- a sleepy hamlet about an hour north of Dublin -- is under siege: Eighty thousand people have invaded a hilltop meadow defined by the River Boyne and Slane Castle, a 500-year-old Georgian fortress built by Norman conquerors. In a few days, violence will break out yet again in Belfast, but on this warm August evening, the Irish are astonishingly agreeable. "In this country in particular," says the man for whom so many pilgrims have come, "it's hard to get ten people to agree on anything, let alone 80,000." The hordes are here, of course, for a hometown concert by the band that, along with Guinness and Riverdance, completes the shamrock of contemporary Hiberian export.

Slane is the site of at least two unforgettable fires. Legend has it that on Easter Eve, A.D. 433, St. Patrick lit a huge bonfire upon Slane Hill. By morning, the pagans of Ireland were lining up to be baptized. In 1984, U2 recorded The Unforgettable Fire in the ballroom of Slane Castle. The castle itself, built in 1512, burned down spectacularly in 1991.

Tonight's concert has been sold out for months. The official count says 80,000, but another 20,000 faithful are said to have jumped the fence. Fans have been pouring in since the gates opened at 11 a.m. U2 goes on at 9 p.m. Police boats patrol the River Boyne, which cuts an absurdly picturesque swath behind the a vast stage at the bottom of Slane Hill; gate-crashers won't be coming from that direction. The local roads are jammed; you have to park miles away and walk. The only practical mode of transportation for the talent -- warm-up acts include Coldplay and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the backstage area is now sheltering the likes of Charlize Theron and a good chunk of the Irish Parliament -- is via helicopter. Airborne, Bono surveys the one-tenth of a million people and says, "It's overpowering to see your tribe gathered like that."

Tonight's show is momentous for a variety of reasons. U2 last played here twenty years ago, as an opening act for Thin Lizzy. "We were crap, actually," Bono will later tell the crowd. This evening represents the first time that the group has returned to Ireland since 1997. The momentousness is sharpened by the death, just a week earlier, of Bono's father, Bob Hewson; he'd been suffering for months with cancer. The illness had been kept private for as long as possible, with Bono flying back to Dublin between the band's European gigs. "I was spending the nights sleeping beside him in the hospital room," he says a few days later. "And I'd made my peace." Condolence letters are pouring in from across the globe; one is addressed, "To Bono of U2, touring somewhere."

Bob Hewson was 75. A retired postal worker, he was the only man who in the world who called the singer of U2 Paul. When the band was coming up, Hewson took a lot of flak from his mates about his son's stage name (Bono Vox, bastardized Latin for good voice). Hewson wasn't particularly impressed by his son's celebrity. There's an infamous tale that, hearing Bono heap profanities on an underling, Hewson frowned and said, "Language, Paul."

"He himself had a salty tongue," Bono recalls, shaking his head. "He just didn't like it in me. His last words were actually, 'Are you all fucking mad?' He hadn't said much for a few days, and it woke me up in the middle of the night." Alarmed, the singer called in a nurse. "We put our ears to his mouth. Then he whispered 'Are you all fucking mad?' again. Priceless. I mean, what do you say?"

The occasion of one's orphanhood (Bono's mother died when he was 14) might be considered a fair excuse for postponing a performance. After all, Janet Jackson and Madonna canceled recent arena gigs on account of tender throats. But Bono decided he had to go on. The next night, U2 played Earl's Court in London, and the epic Slane Castle gig followed less than a week later.

"Playing the shows really helped me through this," Bono says. "Those U2 songs, they seem to have a lot of big feelings in them."


OF THE MANY perks that come with being a rock star, the most impressive may be the private plane. At 11:35 on the night of June 12, 2001, a month and a half before Slane Castle, Elevation Air N724CL, U2's customized Boeing 727, sits on the tarmac of Philadelphia International Airport, awaiting clearance for Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. Normally, it's a 50-minute shot, but even U2 aren't impervious to weather. There's some "storm activity" approaching, the captain says, and the jet is grounded until further notice.

About fifteen minutes ago, the band wrapped up the second of two sold-out shows at the First Union Center. In fact, the audience is probably still on its feet, burning up those last dregs of butane. A U2 show tends to attract a heavy celebrity contingent, many of whom flock backstage -- five days later at Madison Square Garden, Chris Rock will chat with Steven Van Zandt while Winona Ryder sits cross-legged on a road case eating a bag of potato chips; Bill and Chelsea Clinton will turn up two days later at the Meadowlands -- but the band itself often ducks the festivities. The four members of U2 -- Bono, drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton and guitarist the Edge -- are masters of a post-concert maneuver called the Runner, in which, assisted by a police escort, several minivans and four Mercedes 5500 sedans (one apiece), they blow out of the venue parking lot before the house lights come up.

The Philly concert (the second of two) will go down as something less than classic. A few minutes before showtime, Bono realized that his voice was shot from overuse. He was a frog prince. Not that that would stop him.

"I was in a lot of trouble early on," he says on the plane, croaking like Miles Davis with a head cold. "I haven't sung that badly in a while." Nevertheless, he managed, as the tour demands, to spend two hours running laps around a 73-foot wide metal stage extension designed to follow the radial lines of a heart. (The heart is actually the inverted McDonald's arch from the 1997 PopMart tour, an earnest slap at the previous spectacle's stage-managed irony.) The show may have had to go on for another reason: That night alone, the band grossed approximately $1.6 million. "Financially, this is an extremely successful tour," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the trade publication that covers the industry. "U2 has sold out just about every seat they put on sale." (As of September, the tour had grossed $69 million domestically. This month, U2 has come back for more; by late November, they're expected to have taken away more than $100 million.)

"The best seats are $45," Bono says of the tour's general-admission charge, defending a price point that goes as high as $130 for loge seats. "If people want to pay $130 so they can sit, that's fine by me. I think we're worth it. We have a long-standing reputation of looking after our fan base and, frankly" -- he enunciates, alluding to the PopMart tour, which was so expensive to produce that the band had to sell out whole football stadiums to be profitable (something it didn't always pull off) -- "burning money on their behalf."

Pan down the aisle of Elevation Air and you'll see security (three huge men eating Philly cheese steaks), a few key technicians, and U2's almost entirely female management team. Technically, there's no first class, but toward the front of the cabin, the mood grows more severe. You'll pass the band's burly manager, Paul McGuinness, Mullen, Clayton and the Edge. Just before the cockpit, Bono slouches behind a table. He looks as if he's seen better days.

"I got some kind of deal," he groans, resting a mug of tea between his stubby plowman's fingers. His hair is damp with sweat. Up close, the face of this 41-year-old father of four looks wan and weathered. Then he laughs at himself. This is Bono's secret weapon: a self-deprecating charm that has enabled him to transcend historic bouts of self-inflicted sanctimony. No one laughs at Bono more easily than Bono.

Onstage tonight, to keep his throat lubricated, he had to baste his vocal chords with a medicinal broth dispensed from a plastic bottle. He'd take a big swig after every song. Early in the set, a cruel-hearted light man turned a megawatt spot on the ailing singer, in mid-gargle. Caught rinsing and spitting in front of 11,000 people, Bono looked up and gestured.

"The guy seemed to think that taking your medication was something exciting," he says, licking his dry lips. "I just thought, Ah, fuck, let's put the magnifying lens on the singer who wants to shoot himself." That lens wound up being the turning point in the show. "It motivated me," Bono says. "Instead of wanting to shoot myself, I wanted to shoot him -- just a little bit."

Bono is disappointed that tonight he couldn't access his falsetto, a range he claims to have only recently mastered. Falsetto is difficult even when you're healthy, he says, "especially for someone as...uneffete as myself."

McGuinness, U2's manager for more than twenty years, lumbers over. He runs a finger across his neck, executioner-style, and gives Bono an are-you-finished look. "Sorry," McGuinness says. "Throat police. Big day tomorrow."

What's going on tomorrow?

"Far too much," Bono says, shaking his head. Another self-deprecating snicker. Then, in direct violation of McGuinness's edict, he keeps talking. "Jesse Helms is throwing a lunch for me," he says, "in the Senate." There's a pause. "Before you jump on me," he continues, "can I just say this? It's as bad for him as it is for me." Sipping his tea, he worries the rosary beads that were given to him by another unlikely ally: the pope. "I'm moved by people who have true convictions," he says, "even if I don't agree with them."

Before he can say any more, U2's lieutenant manager, Sheila Roche, another twenty-year veteran and the unflappable first lady of the organization, walks over and officially stops the interview. She's genuinely concerned that Bono will talk himself into a case of laryngitis. As she walks me toward the rear of the plane, she shakes her head and, with a combination of love and exasperation known best to the parents of gifted children, says: "He...never...shuts...up."


LONG BEFORE BONO broke bread with Jesse Helms, he'd begun a philanthropic odyssey that would put him in the company of, among other incongruous associates, Arnold Schwarzenegger, an economist from Harvard, and some of the country's more unapologetically conservative Republicans.

Bono, as any U2 fan knows, is a longtime devotee of doing good. After a trip to Africa, he and his wife vowed to commit themselves to the distinctly unsexy issue of Third World debt relief: the effort to stop the cycle that consigns poor nations to even greater poverty because they cannot repay existing loans to international financial institutions. Knowing that the American government largely influences the world's purse strings, the Irishman needed a wily insider to untie that bag. In 1998, he called Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the 80-year-old sister of JFK. "She'd come to our shows," Bono says, "and was a big Hibernia-phile." Eunice introduced Bono to her philanthropist son Bobby Shriver, brother of Maria Shriver, wife of...

"I went over the numbers with Bobby," Bono says. "He said, 'This can't be true.' But it is true. For every dollar in government aid to Africa, they owe the West eight. We raised $200 million at Live Aid. In Africa, they spend that every three weeks servicing their debts."

After sending Bono to Harvard's Jeffrey Sachs for a private economics seminar, Shriver called in a favor from his ultra-right brother-in-law. "Arnold called and asked if I'd help a friend," says John Kasich, the former chairman of the House Budget Committee and a 2000 GOP presidential candidate. "He said, 'You probably never heard of him.' I had to laugh." Kasich was indeed familiar with Bono's work. He couldn't resist teasing Schwarzenegger. "Why don't you bring me someone cool, like Radiohead?" he asked.

Kasich met with Bono, and the two hit it off. "He wanted to give something back," Kasich says. "And I was able to open a number of doors." Behind several of these doors occurred some of the oddest meetings in Washington since Nixon shook hands with Elvis. Next for Bono and Shriver was Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah and senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"I'm a little nervous," Bono told Hatch as they sat down. "I usually can't speak unless there are 20,000 people in the room."

Hatch gave Bono the floor for an uninterrupted fifteen-minute pitch on debt relief. When he finished, Hatch said, "This is a good idea. I'm with you." An astounded pause followed. "That hadn't happened before," Shriver says. "Bono was like, 'Really?' At that point I knew we were getting somewhere."

But the meeting was far from over. "You got another minute?" Hatch inquired. He switched on his CD player. "I want to play you one of my songs," the senator said. And so it was that Bono found himself playing A&R man to a U.S. senator who had recorded a few gospel numbers.

"He said my music was beautiful," Hatch says, mimicking an Irish brogue. Like any inspiring musician, Hatch asked for advice. "I told him he'd have to change his name," Bono says, recalling the moment with a dazed grin. Bono suggested Johnny Trapdoor. It was the first thing that came to mind. Hatch liked it.

Bono's march on Washington was all downhill after that.

"The most amazing thing was that he kept coming back," Bobby Shriver says. "He went to one meeting and they were like, 'Nice guy.' He came to a second meeting, and they were like, 'Smart guy.' Then he came to a third meeting and they were like, 'Who is this guy?' By the fourth meeting, they thought, 'We're never gonna get rid of him!' And that has a big influence in Washington. When you keep coming back -- and you know your stuff -- people start paying attention."

On June 13, Jesse Helms gave his fateful lunch. The participants are still recovering from the bizarre juxtaposition of starched Republicans and the black-clad rocker with tinted glasses.

"Jesse actually toasted Bono," says Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host, who happened to be a guest. "He said, 'Six months ago, I didn't know who he was or what he was. And now my office door is open anytime.' It was hysterical." It would not be an understatement to say that the fearsome 79-year-old senator from North Carolina had his heart melted by an Irish rock star with pierced ears. What, exactly, did Bono do? Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, one of two Democrats at the lunch, says that "Bono lives these issues." According to Ingraham, Bono's charm is amplified by the fact that "he actually studies this stuff -- he's not part of the Hollywood bumper-sticker mentality." Helms, who rarely speaks to the press, announced his retirement shortly thereafter.

In July, President Bush called upon all rich nations to give 50 percent of their aid in the form of grants, calling Third World debt "a challenge to our conscience and to complacency." And the rock star, though he wouldn't actually say so, could take partial credit for sharpening a living instance of the phrase "compassionate conservatism." Of course, a cynic might call it expedient for a group of politicians to make nice with a man who regularly moves thousands, but Bono won't hear of it. "I always tell them we don't command a constituency," he says, "but we do represent one."

I ask Bono what he really thought of Hatch's music. "Felt like a hit to me," he says.


ON A HUMID early-September afternoon in New York City, Bono is hunkered down in a soundproof room at Chelsea's Revolution Studios, sharing a microphone with Britney Spears, the ladies of Destiny's Child and the entire 'N Sync cabal. The occasion is a remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," put together by Artists Against AIDS Worldwide and overseen by hip-hop producer Jermaine Dupri; a version from the rock community will soon follow.

The following day, U2 will receive a lifetime-achievement statuette on the MTV Video Music Awards, and Bono will thank the music network "for making the mullet into something more than a regional phenomenon."

The frighteningly prepubescent audience, most of whom are younger than Bono's eldest daughter, appear to have as much love for U2 as they do for 'N Sync. But the award is somewhat diminished by the fact that the band's twelfth album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, despite having sold some 2.8 million copies in the States, has fallen off the Billboard Top 50. Even New Age mewler Enya, who released an album at the same time, is still anchored in the Top 20.

Bono has long been a wealthy man (earlier this year, he bought a $3.4 million apartment on New York's Central Park West), but asked whether chart dominance still matters, he bristles. "I'm into taking care of business," he says. "I wanna make sure they're playing our records on the radio. If you're into cottage industry, don't join a fucking rock band."

Today, Bono's five-foot-seven frame is in the second of the two outfits that appear to constitute his public wardrobe. Instead of the leather jacket with the red sheriff's badge he wears onstage (and on Charlie Rose), he's in the fatigues with camouflage beret (the getup he wore for his June speech at Harvard). This is finished off with maroon sandals and thick gray socks, a look that perhaps no other human being could get away with. And, as always, the sunglasses.

The subject shifts to the commercial importance of rock bands in general -- something of a sore spot. As far as Bono is concerned, it's all a matter of attitude. "Let's start owning up to our ambition," he says of his would-be-colleagues, "because suppressing it is what has hip-hop walking all over white middle-class college kids with guitars. I'm not running with that crowd. Understand? We come from the north side of Dublin. We've more in common with the hip-hop people. We want to win." Bono feels that up-and-coming bands, particularly those of the aggro variety, could work a bit harder. "They're getting the agony," he says. "That's easy. Any first-year art student can. Ectasy is a whole different matter." To his urban colleagues, he's more charitable. "Destiny's Child," he says, "are vying with us to be the best band on the planet."

Back in the studio, Wyclef Jean is laying down a guitar track; the sounds of harmonizing voices fill the air. Everyone is sure this project will galvanize the masses. No one mentions Bono's last musical crusade with Wyclef, the 1999 two-stadiums-in-two-countries, multi-star event called NetAid, which was poorly attended ("nearly three quarters of the stadium was empty," clucked the New York Post) and had people talking about compassion fatigue. Even this marquee ensemble will find that persuading young America to embrace debt relief or AIDS in Africa is an uphill battle, especially in light of the events that would take place a week and a half later. (Proceeds from the song were diverted to the United Way's September 11th Fund.)

Moving amid the boy bandmates and the bootylicious divas, Bono is clearly the biggest fish in the room. The other performers seem slightly in awe of him. Maybe they should be. Besides having sold 100 million records, this is a man who never gave in to the permissible rock clichés: He never left his wife, he never went solo, he's stayed with the same group of guys for more than 15 years. His colleagues find this astounding.

"It's impossible," says Billy Corgan, who ought to know, having recently broken up Smashing Pumpkins. "To keep everyone on the same page, to embrace new things, and to take bigger and bigger challenges, like...world debt." Corgan laughs incredulously. "Impossible."

"He is a superior human being," adds former U2 producer Jimmy Iovine, now chairman of Interscope, the band's record company. "Period. And he's always been like that. I've known this guy since he was 23. I've watched him rise and fall. He gives credit when he rises, and he blames no one when he falls." (This isn't entirely true. Last year saw the release of The Million Dollar Hotel, the critically vilified Wim Wenders film made from Bono's first screenplay, which led to an awkward public bout of finger-pointing between the fledgling scriptwriter and, of all people, Mel Gibson. "Mel's actually very talented," Bono says now. "He's much more of an actor than he is a star." Gibson wouldn't comment.)

And Bono continues to rise. With Mick Jagger squinting out at us from the cover of Modern Maturity, Bono may be the last reliable rock star. His band has lost some chart leverage, but is there any new talent out there you can imagine charming both kids and congressman in twenty years?

Walking back into the studio, Bono asks Dupri to run down the song again. He likes it. It showcases the falsetto that went missing in Philly. The groove kicks in, a little more guitar-heavy than Gaye's original, and Bono starts bobbing his head. "I'm very secure with the fact that I'm not black," he says as his voice begins to soar against the backbeat. "I'm white, pink and rosy. But I've got soul."


© Fairchild Publications, Inc., 2001. All rights reserved.

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