Ego warriors: U2 speak out on rock-star hypocrisy

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Dorian Lynskey,

Over the years, U2 have taken many a kicking. But the band believe they're unjustly maligned for their unique brand of 'stadium activism'

Tuesday night in Amsterdam. Inside the city's ArenA, the colour green floods a giant mosaic of video screens, below which stand the four members of U2, three weeks into their 360 tour. As the band strike up Sunday Bloody Sunday, the screens flash images of protesters on the streets of Tehran alongside lines in Farsi by the Persian poet Rumi. Thus, a song written 26 years ago about political violence in Northern Ireland finds a new and pressing context.

The sequence vividly illustrates U2's unique brand of stadium activism. There's also a tribute to the incarcerated Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during Walk On, and a recorded message from Desmond Tutu for the One campaign, co-founded by Bono to mobilise support for developing country debt relief and HIV/Aids treatment, among other issues. No globally successful rock band has ever foregrounded politics for so many years, let alone stalked the corridors of power to help thrash out deals, which is why representatives from Amnesty and the World Food Programme cross paths with Helena Christensen and Anton Corbijn in the VIP area.

Equally, the sequence demonstrates the limits of U2's approach. The band have always worked on the principle that in the awareness-raising business something, however imperfect, is better than nothing, but Iran-watchers might justifiably argue that an emotive one-minute montage simplifies, even trivialises, a complicated situation. It really depends on how much imperfection you're willing to accept.

For U2's most dogged critics, the answer is: not much. Around the time of Live 8, the travel writer Paul Theroux branded Bono one of the "mythomaniacs - people who wish to convince the world of their worth". After U2 moved part of their business to the Netherlands to reduce their tax burden in 2006, the Daily Mail dubbed the singer "St Bono the Hypocrite". The Irish writer Eamonn McCann recently labelled U2's music "a toxic cloud of fluffy rhetoric, a soundtrack for the terminally self-satisfied".

The subject of such opprobrium sits in his Amsterdam hotel suite, breakfasting on black coffee and cornflakes, and ponders the downside of being the world's most famous rock star activist. "A little information can do a lot of harm," he says, his voice hoarse from the previous night. "A lot of people don't know what I do so they think, 'He's just turning up in photographs with starving Africans or some president or prime minister. We don't like that. Rock stars telling elected officials what to do, and then they run back to their villas in the south of France. Fuck 'em.'" But, he insists, "if you look into it you think, 'This guy works two-and-a-half days a week at this, not being paid for it, and at cost to his band and his family, and doesn't mind taking a kicking.'"

With his hair cropped short, and his body bunched and compact like a fist, Bono resembles a retired boxer, jabbing the air to make his points. When I meet the rest of U2 individually, their body language also speaks volumes. Guitarist the Edge is serenely quiet and still, except when his eyes crinkle slightly in concentration or mirth. Bassist Adam Clayton sprawls louchely on a sofa, with a perpetual air of mild and mysterious amusement. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr leans forward intently, punctuating his responses with an apologetic grimace as if, far from being the man who founded U2, he had simply won a competition to be the drummer in a rock band. "Nothing with U2 really makes sense," he says, eyes widening. "I have no idea how we managed to get to this place."

The history of rock stars who take on politics is somewhat chequered. Bob Dylan repudiated it, John Lennon tied himself in knots over it, and the Clash were crushed by sky-high expectations. U2's activism has somehow endured and flourished. Their political outlook was shaped by being young and Irish in the late 1970s. As a result of temperament as much as circumstance, U2 could neither play with Clash-style guerrilla chic nor take sides.

"People in the south were always revolted by the acts of terrorism and brutality in the north," says Clayton. "But to express it would have been to sympathise with the Brits, so it was complicated. We were part of finding a spiritual dimension to it rather than just standing at the barricades."

In the early 1980s, U2 were racked by sincerity, applying to such baleful issues as the Troubles, apartheid and the threat of nuclear war a spiritual perspective influenced by soul music and Bob Marley. "You can certainly hear that in the recordings," says the Edge. "Some of it's overwrought and way too intense. There was almost a desperation in the performances to make a connection, which didn't help at times. Our lives seemed to depend on it. There was a sense that it could go all the way or it could go nowhere."

Of course, it went all the way, and U2 clung to the principle of accentuating the positive: Pride (In the Name of Love) mutated from an attack on Ronald Reagan into a celebration of Martin Luther King. Nonetheless, they acquired a grimly humourless image: "These are really serious guys from war-torn Ireland and they've got a thing or two to tell you," as Clayton drily puts it. Their 1992 Zoo TV tour introduced a life-saving element of ironic distance, with its crank calls, costumes and media overload. "By that point, we'd figured out that it's sometimes enough to ask the right question," says the Edge. "You don't necessarily have to come up with an answer."

In the last decade, things have got more complicated. U2's formidable manager, Paul McGuinness, used to tell Bono that an artist's job was to describe problems, not to fix them, but since Bono was first approached to join the Jubilee 2000 debt-relief campaign, he has trod the minefield of top-flight hands-on activism. It is an almost oxymoronic role: the rock star diplomat. "Our job is to bring him back to his position as an artist," says the Edge. "Artists don't have to deal in the muddy grey of political reality. They can see things in black and white terms - ideals. There's an aspirational aspect to rock'n'roll, whereas politics is just one compromise after another."

Bono had the additional misfortune of having to twist arms in Washington during a time when the most divisive president in decades was preparing to launch the most divisive war in decades. As the Iraq fiasco deepened, Bono maintained a diplomatic silence, and images of him beside a grinning George Bush (whom Clayton dismissively refers to as "the other fella") returned to haunt him. He is grateful to the film-maker Michael Moore for kind words at the time. "He said, 'Look, this must be very difficult for you, doing what you're doing while the rest of us are mobilising against this war. I want you to know that you don't have to do everything - you just have to do something.' It was a great feeling."

But even with Bush gone, Bono relies on cross-party support for his campaigns. Two weeks ago, he revealed to Jonathan Ross that he had dodged a hug with Bush during a 2006 photo-op, and rightwing bloggers howled in outrage, causing trouble for his campaigning partners. "It's very hard for me to keep quiet about anything," he says, smiling. "I'm more used to putting my foot in my mouth than I am biting my hand." He says he was known "quietly" as an opponent of the war but refuses to demonise its architects. "There are people who will be walking differently for the rest of their lives because of their decision to invade Iraq," he says. "Remember, 9/11's not far behind. They really are nervous about that. And Blair, too. He doesn't want to be Chamberlain - the guy who says everything's going to be fine. They see this darkness on the horizon and they make a really, spectacularly bad decision. I did say to Condi [Rice], 'Think about what happened in Ireland. The British army arrived to protect the Catholic minority but when you're standing on street corners in hard hats and khaki you very quickly become the enemy.' But I wasn't there for that. I had to keep my focus. You're asking, 'Don't you speak up? Don't you get out on the streets?' I gave up that right once I was in a position of voicing the desire to stay alive of millions of people who had no voice."

Mullen, however, admitted his unease, earlier this year, over Bono consorting with "war criminals", a moment of candour that now makes him wince. "My only regret is that I might have made it easier for his critics to throw some more stones at him, which was really not my intention," he sighs. "There's no question of rolling over in my views; it's just looking at the bigger picture. You can argue it up and down but in the end you have to stand up and go, 'This works.'" Again, it comes down to how much imperfection you're willing to accept. "I've always thought the result was worth whatever way he got there," says Clayton. "I don't think being photographed with George Bush or Tony Blair is too high a price to pay."

Bono may be U2's self-appointed flak-catcher but he worries his activism opens his bandmates to criticism. "They're getting part of the kicking because they have me in the band. So I feel for them. I do." An example: nobody gives a damn about, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' accountancy practises, but U2's tax move was roundly slammed as rank hypocrisy.

Bono rubs his temples and sighs. "It's very difficult. The thing I probably regret is not talking about it more but we agreed in the band not to. Which is annoying. What bothered me was it's like you're hiding your money in some tax haven and people think of the Cayman Islands. And you're campaigning for Africa and transparency - of course that looked like hypocrisy. People whom I've annoyed, people who wished us to fail, they finally got what they thought must have been there in the first place. It was a hook to hang me on." He claps his hands forcefully and points. "'We got him!' You could, if you wanted, get ... y'know ... it could get you going. You look at it and say, 'Well what have you done?'" His flash of annoyance passes. "People are just trying to do the best they can. You can't do everything."

At moments like this, you realise that even Bono's famously thick skin has its vulnerable spots. Even as U2 are keenly aware of the contradictions of their position ("To open yourself up to the possibility of change doesn't mean you have to live up to some impossible ideal," says the Edge), they can't help but be caught up in them sometimes, for one man's contradiction is another's hypocrisy. So Bono squares his shoulders and tries at least to be candid. When I ask why his songs refuse to name specific targets, he says: "The villain is usually me. The hypocrisy of the human heart is the number one target. Rarely do we point the finger at anyone other than ourselves."

He knows why some people don't like him. "I can be annoying," he says with a grin. "I have a kind of annoying gene." But he seems understandably tired of the allegation that he's just a messianic blowhard. It's a cliche, he thinks, to attribute what he does to mere ego. "As Delmore Schwartz said, 'Ego is always at the wheel.' It's just with rock stars, it's more obvious. The need to be loved and admired doesn't come from a particularly pretty place. But people tend to do a lot of great things with it. Ego, yes, but the ego that's in everything human beings are capable of. Without ego, things would be so dull."

I mention a line from Cedars of Lebanon, the closing track on U2's latest album, No Line on the Horizon: "Choose your enemies carefully 'cos they will define you." "As an insight into our band, it's the most important line," he says. "It explains pretty much everything. U2 chose more interesting targets than other bands. Your own hypocrisies. Your addictions, but not to the obvious. Your ego." He emits a hoarse chuckle. "I think we made our enemies very interesting."

© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited

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This page contains a single entry by Rita published on August 1, 2009 11:39 PM.

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