Imagine U2's Bono without a voice. Not only is he one of rock's most passionate singers, he's also one of the most impassioned conversationalists in all of popular music. But there he was, onstage in Sarajevo, the Irish man who adopted the stage moniker Bono Vox -- for good voice -- and he couldn't sing.
"I had a chest infection," Bono recalled of the Sept. 23 concert he'd pledged to perform during a post-Bosnian War visit. "We were trying to play that show for four years and when I got there I had no voice. But because of that, it seemed like the city had a stronger voice. Even though it wasn't their language, their native tongue, they sang all the words of the songs. They really took the concert away from us. It was the only concert on the tour where no one mentioned the production, no one mentioned the giant lemon."
Ah, yes, the giant lemon. Some critics -- and even fans -- have called it a metaphor for U2's mammoth Pop Mart tour, with its oversized video screen and other accoutrements, including a Golden Arch that owes as much to St. Louis as it does to McDonalds. Few of the U.S. concerts sold out.
"I think we were sucker-punched at the start of this tour," Bono said of the reaction to Pop Mart, which opened in Las Vegas in April. "I think we did it to ourselves. We thought because there was so much discussion about the biggest tour, the biggest lemon, the biggest this, the biggest that, way in advance of the tour, we thought we'd have some fun with that. Maybe we shouldn't have. The reason people come to see us in the end is to hear our songs.
"Rock 'n' roll concerts, there's much more subtle things going on than the obvious. People are screaming more for themselves than they are for us because their lives are bound up in the songs. Songs have a way of getting under your skin in a way that movies don't. It certainly affects me that way. We've always had a strong and deep-rooted connection with our people. So strong and deep-rooted that we feel we can be very flip on the surface. And maybe this time around people got confused by that."
Bono was speaking from Greece, just four days after the Sarajevo show. He got his voice back thanks to a doctor in Crete. He had only one more concert -- Tel Aviv, Israel -- on the European segment of the tour and then it was back to Ireland for two weeks with his children before returning to North America and a concert Wednesday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
In Europe, the tour turned around for U2, arguably rock's biggest band of the past 15 years.
"Europe has really gone for it in a very big way," said a sunny Bono during a wide-ranging 45-minute conversation ("It's hard for me to be concise on any subject," he said). "We've played certainly the most extraordinary shows in my life. Last week we played to 150,000 people in Italy. I think it's the biggest draw for any paying gig for one act -- not a festival or free concert. That was just extraordinary. Even things like Wembley Stadium -- the London audience can be very cruel. They just lost it, and so did we. We had a bumpy start with the first month on Pop Mart. Right now, I can say it's the greatest show on earth. It may not be in a few months, and it may not have been a few months ago."
The concept of the Pop Mart show, Bono said, is that of Pop Art -- accepting being an artist in the commercial world. "I don't think it's 'smart' art. Some people thought it's an ironic festival. I thought it much more open. To me, it was like a sci-fi gospel event. Vivid and kind of full color, whereas a lot of rock was brown. I think it's honest in a way that a lot of white rock 'n' roll is not. We're drawing from black music in its funk and its fun. I think it has the soul of the band at its core, even if the surface is shiny and mirror-balled."
Prepared for domes
The Metrodome will be the first U.S. stop on this leg of the tour, after two concerts at Skydome in Toronto. Most of the shows on this trek will be in domed stadiums, and Bono is prepared. U2 is using a mono sound system, with the music being mixed by Howie B, the DJ who helped produce the current "Pop" album.
"In stadiums, stereo doesn't make that much sense," Bono said. "A stereo depends on a sweet spot. We've taken up Phil Spector's throwdown [wall-of-sound concept], and we're having some amazing sound at the concerts."
"Pop," which was touted as the album to save the stagnant recording industry when it was released in March, has not turned out to be a blockbuster -- at least in the United States. In fact, this month "Pop" fell off Billboard's Top 200 chart, having sold fewer than 2 million copies in the States but another 5 million in other countries. By comparison, U2's "Zooropa" in '93 sold 7 million worldwide, 1991's "Achtung Baby" did 10 million and 1987's Grammy-winning "Joshua Tree" topped 15 million. Typically, half of the U2's album sales used to come in the States.
"When I hear that this album is going to save the music business, my gut reaction is not to brag. It's a hype -- overkill -- and it turns a lot of people off," Bono said. "It is a very challenging record. It's distilling a lot of disparate sounds and ideas that are normally in separate camps onto one record. It could end up being the duckbilled platypus of pop or the horse with the long neck. I'm very proud of it. It was our best-reviewed record; there was a lot of acclaim for it. I think it's a brave record. But in order to get it out on time, we didn't polish the singles. That's why I don't think it's as big a selling record. But to be honest with you, we knew that when we put it out."
A Beatle disses U2
Having spent 21 years in U2, Bono (born Paul Hewson) now finds that self-respect motivates him -- "the desire not to drop the ball like so many of the bands I admired did at certain points in their career. The desire to have a different arc or contour in our creative lives. If we were writers or filmmakers, at 35, 36 or 37, we'd just be getting into something. At music, at 37, a lot of people are dropping the ball and taking up golf or whatever they do. Because we had success early -- in our mid-20s -- I think it's the least important thing to us. What's much more important to us is self-respect.
"I have a lot of respect for what we've done this year. I think this band tried to break down some of the barriers that exist in the U.S. and Europe between the different musics. In the U.S. you have this apartheid between black music and white music. Every tribe has its own wave-band. It's time to break that down. The next century is not going to be about that. People's record collections are getting nicely mixed up now. I think 'Pop' reflects that."
Not everyone admires what U2 has done. George Harrison, the Beatles' lead guitarist, ripped U2, Oasis and Spice Girls in an interview with the French publication Le Figaro in late August. He called them "rubbish," and added that "Bono and his band are so egocentric. It's horrible. . . . the more you shout, the higher you jump, the bigger your hat, the more people listen to your music. . . . Will U2 be remembered in 30 years? And the Spice Girls? I doubt it."
How does Bono react to that?
"I hear there's two Georges: One very mystic and one very un-mystic and a bit grim," Bono said with a chuckle. "I guess Grim George was missing being in the Beatles. I'll sing 'My Sweet Lord' for you when we get to Minneapolis. It works beautifully over the end chords of 'She Moves in Mysterious Ways.' 'Something She Moves in Mysterious Ways' I should call it. But bless him. I'd still carry his suitcase. He wrote some great songs.
"I heard a story once about a virtuoso guitar player who shall remain nameless. He was playing 'My Guitar Gently Weeps' at a festival stage with George. He was going into this mad solo and banging it up to 11 [on a volume control that only goes to 10] and going off. George sidled up to him and just went, 'It says gently weeps.' I always liked him for that."