You've got to stay on your toes to keep up with Bono. In an era when fame is often portrayed more as a burden than a privilege, the 40-year-old Irish superstar cuts a refreshingly fearless figure, unwilling to let little things like mobs of hysterical fans, swarms of paparazzi or over-protective bodyguards impinge on his personal freedom. Indeed, you get the impression that for U2's charismatic frontman, fame is a kind of magic key that can unlock almost any door, from the palace of the Pope to a seedy transsexual dive bar.
The last time we met up was September 1999 in Rome, where Bono led a delegation from the Jubilee 2000 charity to meet Pope John Paul II and help secure Vatican support for a bold initiative to write off Third World debt.
After a long day talking economics and politics with the world's media, we wound up at a street-side restaurant after midnight, with Bono resisting all attempts to persuade him to get some sleep prior to a 6am flight to Washington. 'Sleep is for economists!' he mischievously announced, striding boldly into the middle of the road and holding up a hand to the oncoming cars.
Of course, had it been you or me, we'd have probably just got run over by an irate motorist, but Bono's fame brought the traffic to a complete standstill. Before his local minders had realised what was going on, we were squeezing into the back of a car full of transsexual clubbers. As Bono says, 'I've always seen passing cars as opportunity at the wheel.'
Twenty minutes later, we were seated at a small table in a packed nightclub between beautiful people of indeterminate gender, drinking complimentary champagne and vodka while a scantily clad babe tried to attract Bono's attention by dancing on the table. 'Remind me, what's this rock star thing all about?' Bono mused aloud, puffing on a giant cigar. 'Ah yes. Screaming girls. Fashionable clothes. People playing guitars. Got it!'
If only life were that simple. Bono may be determined not to let his conscience get in the way of having a good time, yet one senses that for him and his colleagues in U2, rock stardom is a complicated business in which the freedom that success has brought them is counterbalanced by responsibility.
Their political activism and commitment to good causes (notably Amnesty International and Greenpeace) have been a constant feature of a career spanning the final two turbulent decades of the last century. But while U2's idealism has never been in doubt, their singer's consuming involvement with Jubilee 2000 has become an increasingly contentious issue within the band, the demands on Bono's time effectively delaying the completion of their new album. Originally scheduled for autumn 1999, All That You Can't Leave Behind is finally released next week.
'It's only a year late,' shrugs Bono, with a comically sheepish grin. Double parking his vintage Mercedes outside the Clarence hotel in Dublin, he hands the car keys to a doorman and secures us a quiet corner of the bar. 'I have some influence here,' he declares. Well, he should. U2 own the hotel. Looking trim, healthy and considerably less weary than when last I saw him, Bono is in ebullient form, clearly relishing his return to the rock frontline. 'I feel like I've been wearing a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase,' he says. 'Now I've found my voice again, and it's an amazing feeling.'
When Bono speaks of finding his voice, he means it both figuratively and literally. For while he was out talking himself hoarse on behalf of the Third World, he was also avoiding confronting his own worst demons in the recording booth. Few outside his closest circle will have been aware, but the man regularly acclaimed as one of the world's greatest rock singers has been concerned about his voice for several years, beset by constant throat problems and a nagging feeling he could no longer hit the heights of yore. 'I've never really felt like a singer,' he admits, displaying uncharacteristic vulnerability. 'It was always difficult for me to hear my voice on the radio. It felt tight, constricted.
At least I always had it live. But I was having a lot of difficulty on the last tour. Everyone was saying it was my lifestyle, on the phone all the time, never going to bed, smoking, drinking too much, so I was making changes but I was just not able to really get there.'
To read the rest of Neil McCormick's article fronm the UK's Daily Telegraph Magazine, visit Electronic Telegraph