Only 14 months ago, U2 reapplied for the job of world's best rock band, writes Edna Gunderson in an in-depth interview for USA Today.
The Dublin quartet nailed that position with All That You Can't Leave Behind, landed a big promotion with three Grammys for single Beautiful Day and got a raise with the Elevation 2001 Tour.
Pink slips? Red ink? Try gold mine. After topping charts in 32 countries, 10th album All That has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, 3.1 million domestically. The record-breaking tour, which ended Sunday in Miami, grossed an estimated $160 million, half of that in U.S. receipts.
In a downsizing industry, U2's upswing contradicts rock doomsayers and confounds even the band members. Bono recalls pre-release jitters and characterizes last year's cocky championship bid as a tease.
''A singer throws firecrackers,'' he says. ''I was joking and having fun with it, but it was also a way of saying, 'We're back, watch this space.' ''
Keep watching. Concert documentary Elevation 2001: Live From Boston, available on DVD and video, arrives today, as does America: A Tribute to Heroes, the keepsake from the all-star telethon seen by 100 million viewers onSept. 21. U2's Walk On is among 21 performances captured on Heroes, out in video, DVD and a two-CD set. U2 is likely due another profile boost when Grammy nominations are announced Jan. 3. And the band will perform live at the Super Bowl Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
'I feel that while U2 is not at the center of pop, we're on the outskirts, and those at the center can at least see us,' says Bono, 41, as he sips coffee on the terrace of a hotel suite overlooking the vast L.A. basin. 'I think we've gate-crashed the party. We're in it, and we're not ready to leave. Our challenge now is to write songs that you can't ignore. In some ways, success is a lot easier to achieve than relevance. Being 40, we have to come up with extra reasons for people to put us on the radio.'
Not that U2 is headed for the oldies circuit. On the second leg of its U.S. tour, half the audience consisted of fans under 25, more in sync with the new Kite and Elevation than classics I Will Follow and New Year's Day.
Disdaining the hypocrisy of a business that champions free expression yet consigns veterans to the dinosaur pen, Bono argues that artistry, not age, should be the barometer of relevance.
'The generation-gap notion of the '60s is really retarded. That was revenge by a teen revolution following the '50s. It's bogus. Make a crap album and, yes, you should be put down. A crap album is a death sentence and a bullet in the head.'
While U2 has yet to hang itself creatively or commercially, the band was shaken by the lukewarm critical reaction to 1997's techno-enhanced Pop and subsequent irony-rich stadium tour. The album sold 7 million copies. Popmart, the year's top-grossing U.S. tour, sold 4 million tickets around the globe.
'That's a failure?' Bono wonders aloud. 'In Europe, Popmart was seen as an absolutely groundbreaking pop-art milestone. Here, it was seen as a flop. I don't like our musical experiments being seen as indulgent. They are the reason we're here. They give you new life. Curiosity and stretching out are crucial to any writer's life.'
But Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. retreated from the fringes to make All That, an unclouded distillation of the band's post-punk passion. The soul-stirring collection topped many 2000 year-end lists and is expected to score a nod in the Grammy's album-of-the-year category.
While the album doesn't specifically address Bono's pet causes, he sees a parallel in his commitment to Jubilee 2000 and the growing movement to ease Third World debt.
'Jubilee was based on the scriptural idea of the right to begin again,' he says. 'I wrote about redemption, not in the economic sense, but in the spiritual sense. So in some sense, we're in tandem. For U2, this album was about beginning again. We asked for that chance, and we got away with it.'
Bono flatly declares 2001 the band's greatest year despite two staggering setbacks: the terror attacks and the death of his father in August. While touring in Europe, Bono flew home almost nightly to be with his hospitalized dad.
'He was a tough old bird who hid his heart with a wicked wit,' Bono says. 'I lay beside him for the last few weeks of his life, waiting for him to say something true to me. But it was all humor and then despair. His last words were, 'Are you all (expletive) mad!', which was just classic. When he died, I realized he was truly free. He had said, 'I want to go home; this is a prison.' I think he was talking about his own physical self.'
Reflecting on his upbringing, Bono jokes, 'I'm like the Boy Named Sue, that Johnny Cash song.
'My father was an impeccable tenor, and the house was filled with opera. All he regretted was that he didn't play the piano, yet he never had a piano in the house for me. He never encouraged me to pick up on the dreams he cast away. He's probably the root of all my rage and certainly the root of my frustration as a musician.'
Father and son made peace, and Bono soon fled to Venice with his grief and his 2-year-old son. That tranquil escape was shattered by the Sept. 11 atrocities. He was dazed and outraged despite a lifelong familiarity with terrorism. (At 13, he visited a coffee shop before school and left 30 minutes before it was demolished by a bomb.) U.S. pledges for tolerance and a measured response to strikes by Muslim extremists impressed Bono, a globe-trotting activist well versed in international conflicts.
'America played a game of patience and was not as jingoistic as the rest of the world wanted it to be,'' he says. ''There were a few people who wanted to blow everyone else to bits, which is exactly what Osama bin Laden hoped for. Surely his real enemy is not America. His real aspiration is to claim Islam from the moderates, to establish religion as totalitarianism. The coalition deprived him of that.'
When the band resumed its U.S. tour in early October, the set list, especially such current songs as Walk On, New York and Peace on Earth, resonated with a new emotional thrust. Slight tweaks reflected the times: during One, names of the Sept. 11 victims scrolled across a giant video screen.
Fans struggling to make sense of a fear epidemic found what they were looking for in U2's powerfully staged catharsis.
'It was like our record came out nine months too early,' Bono says.
The suicide-themed Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of surged on radio after the terrorist attacks, but listeners also found comfort in U2's upbeat songs of hope and defiance.
'I think it's the joy and even some of the anger interwoven in those songs that people are also responding to,' says Bono, who coincidentally adds vocals to Joy on Mick Jagger's current album.
'You can't surrender to melancholy; that's too easy. Joy is a subject I go on and on about. It's one of the only emotions you can't contrive. It's impossible. Despair and anger are easier to convey. Joy is right next to happiness, which is not so interesting, and sentimentality. Great rock 'n' roll, the raw stuff, is pure joy. It's that sense of being alive, of being grateful for your pulse.'
Gratitude and an abiding sense of wonder keep this self-confessed self-indulgent rock star grounded.
More at www.usatoday.com