-by Denise Sullivan
When U2 set out to record Achtung Baby in 1990, the experience was shaping into what could’ve been a last gasp for the band and its singer.
“Recording at Hansa in Berlin with Brian Eno was an invitation to hubris,” writes Bono in his recently published memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story.
As a producer, Eno had famously used the studio to leave an imprint on classic albums by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. But what U2 was trying to achieve was unclear: The Berlin Wall had recently fallen and the open city was a mystery to the Irishmen who arrived to the sessions unprepared. The recording process took a year to find its focus and complete, and U2 wasn’t getting any younger. Stage veterans by age 30 and at odds with each other, younger grunge and Brit Pop bands were having their days on the charts and in the hearts of fans. Alternative rock ’n’ roll and the world around U2 had moved on.
“We had a breakdown in trust at Hansa and it started to become wearing. We were one but, well, you know the rest,” writes Bono, referring to his lyric, we’re one, but we’re not the same, and the song that pulled them from the ledge.
“Achtung Baby had a difficult birth,” claims Bono, and yes we know the rest: The song “One” and the album remain high bars in U2’s discography. This year, in celebration of 30 plus years of Achtung Baby and the return to live performance, the band is slated to play the album in its entirety during a fall residency at the MSG Sphere at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, with one caveat: Founding drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. will be absent.
“I don’t ever want to be at war with Larry Mullen, but I don’t ever want to go to war without him,” writes Bono.
It was Mullen who in 1976 pinned a notice to the bulletin board at school: “Drummer seeks musicians to form a band.” Then one day after classes, Paul Hewson, Dave Evans and Adam Clayton joined the drummer in his family kitchen. U2 has played only once without its founding member-- in 1978 when Mulllen suffered a foot injury. This time he faces a surgery for injuries sustained in part by working as a touring drummer for 40 plus years with U2.
Back in 1991, the time Achtung Baby grabbed the attention of anyone within earshot of a radio or television, I was not paying attention to U2-- at all. But I had done my time: In the ‘80s, I’d devoted myself to every San Francisco performance they gave, beginning with the first shows-- three times in ‘81 alone. The college station I music directed was among the first to play the Boy album as a UK import and in those years, before MTV and the Internet, new bands were popularized by spins on the radio, on jukeboxes and in clubs. Word got out through friends, fanzines and if a band was really really special, they might see some newspaper or magazine coverage. College radio stations played an important role in delivering new music to listeners and occasionally when the bands emerged from the underground, they returned that favor.
“Most of the big radio stations wanted to interview them, but U2 wanted to support the college radio stations that first played their music,” remembers Chester Simpson. As one of San Francisco’s top line rock ‘n’ roll photographers, he got the call to document U2’s first trip to a city. I have trouble remembering the day at all. I can’t tell you exactly why I chose to skip school and work at the station where I spent the entirety of my college years. It’s only now that I think I was as ambivalent about U2 then as I am now. My records and interviews with Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Boomtown Rats, and the Psychedelic Furs held a much more important place on my personal playlist. Plus there was a whole new American underground scene developing and my allegiance and attention were turning toward bands like the Go-Go’s, the Plimsouls, X and R.E.M. But I made it to the club that night because, well, nothing could keep me away from the club. As I remember they played “I Will Follow” twice.
During U2’s earliest shows in San Francisco, a ritual developed: Bono would lift a child from the crowd onto the stage and prop her on his shoulders. The girl’s name was Megan and I was acquainted with her family; they ran the Psychedelic Shop on Market Street, a remnant of the hippie days and an essential stop on our ‘80s routes as one of the few places in town that sold rock ’n’ roll badges. I haven’t seen Megan or her family for years but she appears at about the forty minute mark in U2’s live set from California Hall, just two months after their first San Francisco appearance at the Old Waldorf.
The band gave small nightclub performances with stadium energy. Their gestures-- well at least one member’s-– were at once big and grand, generous and self-indulgent, a harbinger of a future self. These were also the things I came to love and not so much love about Bono. For a long time I didn’t recognize double-playing “I Will Follow,” lifting a child to the stage, tearing up Ireland’s tricolor and reducing it to a white flag of surrender were not only party tricks, they were a response to audience demand. In passage over passage in Surrender, the singer knows this about himself-- he is a showman and a humble servant. The two extremes come packed with the character traits that make him a frontman. I think I would have rejected him and the band had I not felt like what my generation needed was a rock star of our own- not Bob Dylan or Patti Smith, the Ramones, or the Clash but boys and girls-- just like us-- who seemed capable of making something happen, of getting something done in the face of a new age of nihilism. The earnest young men of U2 seemed like contenders-- a “nice bunch of Christian boys,” as photographer Simpson characterized them.
At the Warfield Theatre and at show after show at the San Francisco Civic, they came, and they played, building their audience. They did the same in cities across the world. Our local bands Romeo Void, Wire Train and the Red Rockers often opened shows for them, here and on the road. The one and only time I met Bono was backstage at the Cow Palace: he accidentally knocked a cup of coffee out of my hand and onto my precious new wave outfit then bungled things further by waving me off with what I thought was a very patronizing, “God bless.” My interest in the band officially waning, I may or may not have attended the next year to hear the songs from The Joshua Tree-- I honestly don’t remember-- though I was persuaded to make it out to the free show at Justin Herman Plaza where Bono spray-painted “Rock ’N’ Roll Stops Traffic” on a work of public art (captured in the 1988 documentary/concert film, Rattle and Hum); I think concert promoter Bill Graham fixed it so Bono didn’t have to pay a fine or appear in court. And with that, I was out. U2 had grown way beyond the scope of the kind of art and music I was interested in; they were part of the rock establishment. And if his 500 page exploration into these times and more is to be believed, no one was more conscious or confused by the dichotomy of four punks making it as big as they did as Bono. This was part of the crisis that preceded and coincided with the band’s ‘90s creation of their magnum opus.
Tim Logothetis was not yet born when Achtung Baby made its debut in the year of Nirvana. Over time, the professional DJ and artist developed a passing interest in the atmospherics of The Joshua Tree and the single, “Vertigo,” but more pertinent to this story: He is the only person I know to have listened to the podcast, U Talkin’ U2 To Me? (as well as it’s follow up R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me?) in its entirety. He agreed to listen to Achtung Baby and share his impressions.
“While there were moments I enjoyed, Bono’s vocal instincts as well as some of the melodic choices of the band made it difficult for me to appreciate this record. It sounds fantastic, particularly the drums, bass, and the more atmospheric guitar parts that I understand The Edge is known for. Sometimes the rhythm guitar gets an overly bright treatment that gives it a dated sound, but that doesn’t dominate the record. The bigger issue is… difficult to articulate and not limited to this U2 record, but their output generally: The vocals give this sensation in particular but the melodic movements of the compositions do as well. It’s a kind of insincere, saccharine, safe quality that is there even when it’s clear the band is trying to achieve another effect entirely.”
I know exactly what he means.
“There’s a performativity and a tonal sensibility U2 brings-- I guess most often described as ‘cheesy’-- that makes it difficult to appreciate their often impressive sonics. It’s unfortunate that Bono’s public persona amplifies this perception, as do choices like naming oneself ‘The Edge.’”
When looking to get lost in ‘90s sounds, Logothetis prefers the dramatic tension of the Smashing Pumpkins who ride similar ropes of sincerity and danger (while I could live happily never hearing the sound of Billy Corgan’s voice again).
Around the time the millennium was closing in or sometime shortly after it made its anticlimactic entrance, a reputable editor identified a new growth industry in the publishing trade and approached me to write an authorized “spiritual biography”-- of Bono.
Perhaps because I had just written an obscure but fairly well-received oral history of R.E.M., or was perceived as some kind of generational authority, or at the very least tenacious enough to get the job done, it was a serious proposition entailing lunches and meetings and social engagements and I was entertaining the idea. But then, as now, I struggled to reconcile the spiritual lyricism and charitably generous side of a superstar with his investments: In properties-- hotels, restaurants and climate controlled wine cellars in multiple residences across the globe so as to avoid taxation. This was not the gospel of rock ’n’ roll as I understood it and in the end, I was mercifully ghosted by U2’s management and eventually by the editor and publisher (who ironically specialize in wellness and inspirational literature).
Officially saved the trouble of exploring the regions of the heart and mind the singer had not begun to reconcile on his own time, I once again turned my jaundiced eyes away from the record industry, the publishing industry and U2 and got on with my life. That is until a “Beautiful Day” arrived.
Falling in love again, with life, with U2 and with my true love and soul partner, my soundtrack for 2001 became All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And when I wore out its grooves, I worked backward and found what I’d missed in the ‘90s, which brings me to Achtung Baby-- my favorite album and little secret. Here I was, listening to an uncool band, 10 years out of time, and loving it. How cool was that? Not very.
Twenty years later, I am reading with most interest the drama that turns on Achtung Baby as well as the material that concerns Bono’s tussle with faith and his ultimate reliance on it. Turns out, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story is a proper spiritual memoir-- or as Bono calls it a “wemoir” of a self-described “actualist”-- the book some of us have been waiting for. Clearly in no need of a co-writer, the angels on his shoulders did the first draft and a higher authority finished the job. At the book’s center is a point of view rooted in Scripture and other great works of literature.
“I am in awe of the poetic power of the scriptures,” he writes, “how you can’t approach the subject of God without metaphor.”
Any lingering questions about the band’s evolving relationship to faith are mostly answered, from the time three out of four identified as Christians untethered to the big Irish churches (Clayton’s journey from atheist to a believer in something beyond himself is also described). Few stones are left unturned, from Bono’s evolving relationship with his self-identified Messiah complex and his compulsion to travel to war, militarized zones and poverty-stricken countries, to his family’s visit to the River Jordan. All the while he’s been asking himself and us to ponder the big ideas: What makes a life? What sustains a person? A family? A marriage? A band? Edging ever closer to answers and the inevitable end, faith is Bono’s constant companion (as is his life partner Ali, her presence throughout the story painting an ideal picture of what it means to be one’s “better half”)
The book is also a paean to a life in show business, to Irishness, and family. Careful in its language so as to include all people, and acutely self-aware of its author’s failures and shortcomings, Surrender is an unapologetic embrace of the full catastrophe and there is much to recommend it: the writing is mostly wonderful (save for a few bad jokes, wonky transitions and awkward sidebars); it’s rich with revelations, storytelling, anecdotes and personal encounters involving Quincy Jones, Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, among others. The scenarios often describe copious amounts of alcohol consumed by the narrator-- no judgment, but noted. Regrets? He has a few, though the ones that stand out are the times he behaved badly in the presence of Prince, President Obama and Frank Sinatra.
Those keen to read about Bono’s dealings with heads of state, presidents and how things played out with the Bushes, AIDS relief and debt in Africa will not be disappointed (I offer no spoilers here). Far less interesting are the stories of the captains of industry, the venture capitalists and tech titans of today with whom Bono is pals . Mostly asides that go nowhere, the characterizations of wealth and power are out-of-sync with 99 percent of the English speaking world and the rest of the planet he’s so intent on rescuing from the wages of colonialism. He makes a half-hearted apology for capitalism.
The billions the band has accumulated, invested and donated to charities are fine and well, though were it not for their longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, it seems pretty clear the boys wouldn’t have made it past the gates of Mount Temple Comprehensive School.
No one, not the band, not their families and friends, not their fans and certainly not I, thought U2 would be here 40 years on (though maybe Bono and McGuinness had their visions). This year U2 will command some of the highest fees ever for a rock band to open a state-of-the art venue in Las Vegas. Initially I was tempted at the prospect of hearing Achtung Baby live, that is until I read the deal’s details– and you know what they say about the details.
Songs of Surrender arrives midway through U2’s fifth decade as a band. A collection of familiar and not so familiar tracks, stripped down to bare essentials, the number 40 is of course a reference to the Bible’s magic number. Forty is the number ascribed to testing, trials and triumphs and a growing awareness that as life goes on, there often develops an increased need for something greater than the self and its will to power. Perhaps that is why in midlife, in the face of adult realities, you will see people of little or no faith explore various modes of worship or a return to the faith of their childhood. The Bible stories of Jesus, Moses, Ezekiel, Noah and more all turn on the number 40. A transformation or a transition to the next phase is what some of us believe we are here preparing for, and while this line of thought might seem like it has very little to do with rock ’n’ roll, in U2’s case it is everything: Their story isn’t a metaphor. Where they are going remains a mystery. Yet Bono is a believer and purveyor of hope for his band-- and for the rest of us.
The book’s final chapters are at once cringey and numinous-- in perfect harmony with its narrator. The writings on faith found me largely willing to forget its shortcomings, but the self-centered lens, a neurosis disguised as introspection, was wearisome The year-long campaign in store to support the book and Songs of Surrender feels like desperation. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Songs of Surrender,chosen by the band for reimagining, is a fair enough undertaking. But Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming With David Letterman, the seven million dollar spot during the Super Bowl advertising the Las Vegas appearances, the to-be-scheduled Vegas appearances themselves, Bono’s upcoming second leg of his book tour (11 nights at the Beacon in New York), Bono recording a spot to promote the Chris Rock Netflix special, Bono here, Bono there, it’s all too much.
The last time I saw U2 will likely be the last time I see U2: In 2001 I returned to the flock for two stops-- one in Southern and the other in Northern California--for the Elevation Tour. The energetic exchange between performer and audience Bono writes about repeatedly in Surrender was real: the heart-shaped stage didn’t hurt vibes-wise. I like to think the band at midlife was at the height of its live performance powers. Certainly having Larry Mullen Jr. at the drum kit makes the memory that much sweeter.
By Bono claiming the band lives and dies by its audience, that a band needs us as much as he thinks we need them, is it possible he simply wants to find out if we’re still here? I have no doubt we are, that U2 and their fans will trip the light fantastic again and again and again-- with or without my or your endorsement. Whether we buy in, believe the hype and go with U2 or with God is immaterial. We are one-- you know the rest.
This post was originally published at TourWorthy.com/ Denise Sullivan has been writing about music for publication since she was a teenager, in zines and newspapers, online and in reference books and liner notes. Author of several books including Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues and R.E.M. Talk about The Passion, she works as an independent arts and culture columnist, a reporter and a writing instructor in San Francisco. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at denisesullivan.com