(Dublin, Ireland) — It’s raining downtown, but that doesn’t discourage shoppers along Grafton Street, one of the city’s busiest commercial areas. Dubliners appear so used to the rain that most of them don’t even carry umbrellas. Quips one merchant, “If you let the rain bother you here, you’ll live your life indoors.”
The shoppers are streaming in and out of major department stores, like Brown Thomas and Switzer’s, and small antique shops. Turn any corner and you’ll find one of the dozens of famed pubs, each with a history and a roomful of people ready to tell you about everything from the uprising of 1916 to the day President Kennedy came here. “It was like a visit by the Pope,” one man said.
Two of the busiest stores this day are Golden Discs and HMV Records. U2, the Irish rock group that is rapidly becoming the most popular and acclaimed band of the ’80s, has just released a new album, “The Joshua Tree,” and it’s selling at a pace that suggests phenomenal.
Paul Buxton, assistant manager at HMV, said that the shop sold almost 400 copies of the LP the first day and that the initial order of 1,000 would be gone by the end of the week. In a normal week at HMV, a hot item sells 50 to 100 copies, he said.
“It’s not just that they’re Irish,” said HMV customer Patrick Fitzgerald, 22. “If they were just another band having all this success, there would be excitement, but nothing like this.
“I used to think that songwriters just sit down and make up things in songs, but you can feel Dublin in songs like ‘Bad’ . . . (and) ‘Running to Stand Still.’ Bono sings about the Seven Towers . . . that’s a real (public housing project) out near Ballymun where he grew up.”
Said one clerk to the other: “You’ve got to understand . . . U2 isn’t just a popular band here. It is like a national celebration. In England and America, rock fans are used to having (home-grown) bands become successful — but that’s not the case here. U2 is a matter of tremendous pride.”
Rehearsal is over for the night and Bono Hewson is on his way to join two other members of U2 at the neighborhood pub. But first he wants to show a visitor his favorite part of this old capital city: the Grand Canal locks.
Like the rehearsal hall, the locks are in a decaying and mostly deserted part of Dublin — a neighborhood of stone-arched alleys and brick streets. It’s near the River Liffey, which splits the city into the working-class north and the more fashionable south.
“This is the same canal that many of the great Irish poets wrote their best works by,” says the 26-year-old Hewson, turning up the collar of his black leather jacket to shut out the cold damp. “But that was up in the (stylish) part of town, what they call the Lazy Acre, the Bohemian center of Dublin.
“This is Irish Town, a forgotten place. They are trying to tear it down and put up new buildings. But, to me, it is the heart of Dublin in the way that O’Connell Street, with its burger joints and its one-armed-bandit casinos, could never be.”
The Grand Canal is off the beaten path, so it’s ignored by tour books, but Hewson finds inspiration here and escape from the pressures of the recording studio. He identifies with the area because he thinks of his band, too, as an outsider in a pop world caught up in trendiness and adherence to what he calls the mythic alliance of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
These final days before the start of an 18-month world tour were supposed to be a time of celebration. Reports had been trickling back about how shows in the U.S. were instant sellouts. (The band will be at the San Diego Sports Arena on Monday and Tuesday before beginning a five-night stand Friday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena).
In England, the new album entered the charts at No. 1, outselling the nearest rival by more than 3 to 1. Demand was so high that one store in central London opened its doors at midnight on that Monday morning — the first moment the album could be sold legally. More than 1,000 fans — including Elvis Costello — were in line.
However, Hewson and the other three members of U2 were unsettled about the possible effects of this enormous escalation of popularity. Rock ‘n’ roll went through a catharsis in the early ’70s after so many earlier rock heroes either destroyed themselves or lost control of their art.
Bruce Springsteen helped reintroduce the term hero to rock, and he made it possible for fans to put their faith in a rock star again. U2, after years of underdog status, is now going to be tested — to see whether it can maintain its ideals and art in the face of enormous acceptance.
U2 has tried to isolate itself from the pressures — and temptations — of the pop world by living and recording in Dublin rather than follow the parade of other Irish stars (from Van Morrison to Bob Geldof) who have moved to America or England.
“Things are moving fast,” Hewson explains, heading back to the car for the ride to the pub. “It’s like a brush fire at the moment. Dublin is our anchor, I suppose. You get so high sometimes when you are on stage and you need to come down, and you really do that in Dublin.
“The people here don’t allow you to act like a rock star. It’s a reminder of how important our family and friends are, how very much we need them to keep us from being swallowed up in the pop world. . . . I want to hold on to who I am.”
Not since Springsteen has the rock world used the words “integrity” and “respect” so freely in connection with a band. Besides an uplifting, guitar-brightened instrumental approach, U2’s appeal is based on its inspiring themes that frequently express the band’s Christian spiritual sensibilities.
There’s a strong sense of social consciousness in such songs as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (a disheartened reflection on the violence in Northern Ireland) and “Pride” (an anthem of faith in the power of love and in a single man’s resolve).
Sample lines from the former song:
And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won?
The trenches dug within our hearts
And mother’s children, brothers, sisters torn apart.
In Dublin, young people see in U2’s success a sign of hope in a country where prospects are bleak.
Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press, a local pop journal, said U2’s breakthrough has led to the formation of dozens of young bands. Record company scouts from England and the U.S. used to be virtually unheard of here, but now they are frequent visitors.
However, concert promoter Jim Aiken believes U2’s influence here goes deeper than music. The band has “restored spirit to a nation that has lost much of its spirit.”
Eamonn Dunphy, a sportswriter who is doing a book on U2, underscores U2’s sociological importance here.
“This is one of the first times anyone has shared their success with Ireland,” he said. “People have left Ireland for the stimulation, for the money, whatever. . . . Not just rock musicians, but everyone . . . Beckett, Shaw, Wilde . . . even all the great racehorses were shipped off — yes, even horses get out of Ireland.”
“Hey, Bono,” says a teen-ager noticing Hewson stepping from his vintage British auto (a lumpy 1961 Humber) in front of the pub. “I heard the (new) album at a friend’s. Sounds good.”
Hewson shakes the boy’s hand, then goes into the pub. Onstage, Hewson is a charismatic figure who moves about with almost evangelical zeal. Offstage, he is somewhat shy. He seems embarrassed when fans come up to him for an autograph.
“I enjoy being on stage and writing songs, but all the other things . . . I don’t think I even look right for the role of ‘pop star.’ My hands are much more like the hands of a bricklayer or a boxer. My shape is like. . . . The truth is, I have always felt a bit like a square peg in a round hole.
“It’s the same with U2. I think there was a certain uptightness to the first three albums. . . . At one time, I thought you had to have all the answers if you were going to write a song, so it was embarrassing to make a record that was filled with doubts and questions.
“Then, I began to see that many of the artists who inspired me — Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Van Morrison, Al Green, Marvin Gaye — had similar feelings of awkwardness and spiritual confusion. I realize now it’s OK to say you still haven’t found what you’re searching for.”
Though there are frequent biblical references in U2 songs, Hewson — whose father was Catholic and whose mother was Protestant — doesn’t like to talk about his own religious feelings. “We don’t want to be the band that talks about God . . . ,” he once explained. “If there is anything in what we have to say, it will be seen in our lives, in our music and in our performance.”
At the same time, he has said he is disturbed by certain aspects of religion: “I go to America and I turn on my television set and I start sweating profusely because those guys have turned faith into an industry. It’s appalling. It’s ugly — the guy’s hand is virtually coming out of the television set.”
The pub is crowded with men who are relaxing after work. Some are junior executives in business suits, others factory hands in bulky, surplus-store jackets.
A gold U2 album hangs on the wall behind the bar and two men at the bar say hello as Hewson heads for a rear table, where he joins U2 guitarist Dave Evans (known as the Edge), bassist Adam Clayton and manager Paul McGuinness.
Hewson orders a bottle of Guinness, the dark stout that ranks as the national drink (“the wine of Ireland,” it’s called), and becomes engaged in a discussion of the upcoming tour.
Eamonn Dunphy, the sportswriter, sees the “normalcy” of U2’s life in Dublin as important in helping the group maintain perspective.
Only two people approach the foursome during the half-hour visit. One is a businessman from America who had staked out the pub to get an autograph for his daughter. The other is a pub regular in one of the bulky jackets. His request? “Got a match, mates?”
There’s a piece of history on almost every main street in Dublin, a city of nearly a million on the Irish Sea. Among the main tourist spots: St. Patrick’s Cathedral (where Jonathan Swift, author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” is buried) and the General Post Office (which served as headquarters for the rebel forces in the Easter Rising of 1916 that marked a dramatic turning point in Ireland’s quest for independence from England).
Even U2’s rehearsal hall — Boland’s Mill — has a colorful background. The massive old structure by the River Liffey was the last rebel stronghold to fall during the 1916 uprising.
The other band members — including drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — are already waiting as Hewson enters the large, nondescript room with windows in the ceiling. They are behind schedule and waste no time getting to work.
Hewson, wearing a denim shirt and jeans with the cuffs rolled up, doesn’t move about with the energy he shows onstage, but even here he sings with considerable passion. Many fans assume he makes the band’s decisions. But U2, far more than most groups, operates as a unit. Hewson writes the words, but the band is a democracy. In fact, it started out as the Larry Mullen Band.
Mullen started playing drums in his early teens and thought it would be fun to try be in a rock group. So, he put a note on the bulletin board at Mount Temple Comprehensive School — one of the first coed, nondenominational schools in Dublin.
Eight students responded to the note, including Hewson, Evans and Clayton. Mullen never declared that these three would be his bandmates; they were simply the only ones who didn’t lose interest. As the foursome got better, they talked the school into letting them use the music room to rehearse.
By 1978, the group had made a name around Dublin. They won a talent contest, got written up in the Hot Press and found a manager (Paul McGuinness) who believed in them enough to go into debt to keep the band afloat until it secured a record contract in 1980. One key decision in those days was to stay in Dublin rather than follow the bands who joined the London rock scene.
Explains Mullen: “We hated the idea of moving away and becoming part of some sort of circus. . . . The fact that we remained an Irish band gave us a whole lot of scope and served as a commitment. We weren’t part of any rock movement. We never had to fit into anything.”
McGuinness — an effusive man in his mid-30s who favors business suits rather than the casual clothes of most rock managers — had managed another band briefly in Dublin, but lost interest in the music business when the punk movement came along. He was working as a film technician when he first saw U2.
“They were still very raw, but some of the elements were very exciting,” he says, dropping by the rehearsal hall. “I thought they could be the biggest band in the world, but we had such a hard time getting a record contract that I became embarrassed. I felt I was letting them down.
“It got to be so bad that one time we did interest a junior (talent scout) in the band, but when he brought his boss from London to see us, the guy not only didn’t sign the band. He fired the (scout).”
The band ended up signing with Island Records, but it was no blue-ribbon deal. By the time the first album was finished, however, enthusiasm at the label had greatly increased. The word was out: This could be the band.
U2’s 1980 debut album, “Boy,” was a frequently invigorating look at youthful awakening. The lyrics were occasionally vague, but there was a sense of genuine emotion in Hewson’s singing. The band’s arrangements were also engaging: a mixture of the vitality of ’60s groups like the Who with the starker, trance-like guitar textures of such contemporary groups as Public Image and Television.
The band was even more commanding live, asserting much of the celebration, purpose and inspirational qualities of Springsteen’s concerts. Rather than turn its back to the audience in the manner of many British exports at the time, U2 reached out to its audience with the embracing spirit — though not the aggression — of the early punk movement. Even the band’s name suggests a connection with the audience — as if telling the fans: “you too” are involved.
While the group built a loyal following through tours and subsequent albums, it didn’t break through to massive, Top 10 acceptance in both Europe and the United States until the release last month of its fifth album, “The Joshua Tree.”
One of the most majestic and heartfelt LPs in years, it offers a series of tales about reaching for ideals while battling against moments of doubt and despair. Several of the tunes, including “In God’s Country” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” reflect on America — and often quite critically.
“I am obsessed with America . . . both sides of it . . . the dream as well as the nightmare,” Hewson explains after the rehearsal.
“And there is no doubt that America has become a nightmare for a lot of people, especially in Central America. America is wreaking havoc on the lives of peasant farmers, ordinary people. Yet I don’t say that out of hate, but out of real respect for the people who live in that country. I am a fan. Irish people feel a connection to America. To them, it’s the Promised Land.”
But U2 also continues to attack the “myths” of rock in the new album. “Running To Stand Still” deplores the destructiveness of drug abuse.
About the song, Hewson says, “There may have been some sort of romantic notion 15 or 20 years ago about sticking a needle into your veins, but that myth should be well-exposed by now. There were a lot of junkies out there who couldn’t afford to get their blood changed and died in beds where the smell of their (urine) is so strong it would choke you.”
Eamonn Dunphy, who has spent 18 months researching a book on the group, turns his car on to Cedarwood Street in the suburb of Ballymun, about 10 minutes from downtown Dublin. It’s just before noon and mothers are out pushing baby carriages; several people are also out working on their lawns. The neighborhood, with its neat rows of identical two-story brick
houses, is reminiscent of the ones in Liverpool where the Beatles grew up. If someone needed a song for a documentary on Ballymun, “Penny Lane” would fit just fine.
Dunphy stops the car in front of the house where Hewson’s family lived.
“Larry lived just a few miles away in a similar neighborhood,” he says. “Adam and Edge lived in a more middle-class area. This is lower middle class or upper working class . . . minor civil servants, which Bono’s dad was, and skilled tradesman.”
Dunphy, a former professional soccer player, doesn’t know much about rock music. His interest in the band is more the influences that shaped their lives, the way they relate to Dublin and their growth as artists.
“U2 is a classic case of Anglo-Irish,” Dunphy explains, getting back into the car and heading to the Seven Towers area described in one of U2’s new songs. “Edge was born in Wales and Adam’s parents are both English. All the greatest things in this country are a mixture of the two cultures and religions, Catholic/Protestant, the wild Celtic and the stern proper English. Bono and Larry are the real Irish connection.”
He’s also intrigued by the way the four members of the band interact.
“They all contribute in essential ways,” he says. “What Adam brings to it — or at least certainly brought to it in its early stages — was confidence. Adam believed more than anybody that they were going to be the greatest band in the world.
“Larry is in many ways the group’s conscience. He’s very down to earth, doesn’t like pretensions, a hard worker. If there are a bunch of fans outside, everyone tends to go out and speak to them, but Larry will often be the first to do it. His father is a civil servant. Bono’s and Larry’s mothers both died when they were young.
“Edge is highly intelligent, very modest and an outstanding musician. He was always the quiet one. That’s why his name is Edge — he always seemed on the edge of things. But also the name (Evans) means edge — as in smart. He probably had the most comfortable upbringing, a real happy, regular kid on the street.
“Bono brings ambition and vision and an animal drive to the band. He’s got that animal thing that so many great performers have . . . Presley, Sinatra. Bono’s childhood was not happy because he was the same way as a kid as he is now. He was looking to express himself and he had a hard time.”
It’s easy to find the band’s studio/headquarters, and fans have been known to wait outside for hours. The fans often pass the time by writing messages or drawing pictures on the wall outside the studio property. The wall is repainted periodically so there is space for new markings.
The fans also have little trouble picking up news of parties. So there are several fans hanging around outside Boland’s Mill the night of Clayton’s 27th birthday party. A few of them even manage to sneak inside.
Shortly after 2 a.m., the four members of U2 step on a tiny stage on the ground floor of Boland’s Mill. A country music band has been entertaining the 300 guests, but U2 is going to play a number — well, technically, it’s the Dalton Brothers. That’s the band’s alter ego on nights it wants to play some country or other non-U2 music. The choice this night is Curtis Mayfield’s gospel-tinged “People Get Ready” — a song U2 is also using on the U.S. tour.
Hewson’s voice has a gentle, prayerful edge and there’s a hush among the crowd. The atmosphere is suddenly sentimental. Many of these people have known the band for years and they sense the group is at a crucial point.
Across the room, Hot Press editor Niall Stokes reflects on changes in the band over the last seven years. “One thing is that Bono has become far more political,” he says. “There was a time when a discussion of politics would have seemed irrelevant to him. He was more interested in spiritual issues. Now, they have become more political and the new album is an awareness of that.”
At the news shop on Grafton Street the next morning, Eddie Robinson, 19, picks up the latest copy of Hot Press — the one with U2 on the cover. He collects everything he can find about the band and puts it in a scrapbook. He used to always envy teen-agers in London, New York or Los Angeles because they got to see great bands develop.
“Who ever imagined it would happen here?” he asked. “I know people who saw them when they started out in a little club around the corner. They were still in school then . . . younger than me.”
However, not every rock fan here is buying “Joshua Tree.”
At the HMV store, five teen-agers — whose dyed black hair and matching black overcoats suggested an attachment with the trendy British pop scene — watched with amusement as fans lined up to tell a visiting reporter about U2. They were younger than the others in the store and apparently tired of growing up hearing nothing but praise of “Dublin’s own U2” — as one of the teen-agers put it.
“They used to be OK, I guess,” said James Meagan, 16. “But they’ve gotten too commercial. A lot of people here like the band just because it’s from Ireland. To me, their music all sounds alike. . . . And besides, they’re always on tour in America.”
Hewson laughs when told about the remarks. “That’s the way it goes. Seven years ago, we were the Young Turks and now we’re becoming the boring old (fools).”
That afternoon, Edge is sitting in the living room of his rented house with his wife, Aisling, and their two young daughters. (He and Hewson are the only married members of the band.) Like the others, Edge lives relatively simply for a rock star. The house would be about the level of that owned by a junior executive and his car is equally modest — a Volvo.
He reminisces about the early days, the odds against four guys meeting at school and sticking together all these years and eventually enjoying this success.
Like Bono with the Grand Canal locks, he seems to draw comfort and strength from his Dublin surroundings. He looks through his picture window at the calming Irish Sea and thinks about a tour that would keep him away from here for most of the next 18 months.
“Ireland really is like a haven for us, a shelter from the storm,” Edge says. “It’s somewhere you can feel like the same person you always were. That’s a reassuring feeling. The band’s success hasn’t meant that our lives have been turned upside down and made into something that we never wanted to be . . . some (empty) star trip. I’d like to think that we’d never have to worry about ever changing, but we’ve all seen what success on a big scale can do to people. That may be as important a challenge as the music itself, because if you do lose your way as people, your music loses something, too.”
LA Times/Robert Hilburn
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