Age of Innocence: U2′s Dublin Beginnings
Bono is talking to Joey Ramone.
Over late night drinks in New York some years ago, he tells Joey a story from U2’s past. The teenage four piece, still in school in Dublin, are dreaming big and pulling stunts. They hear about some big, important film director coming to their school looking for extras to appear in a film adaptation of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man.
At this stage U2 were only a covers band, still learning to play their instruments. But they go up the big, important film man and say they want to show him how good their songs are and maybe, if he liked them, he’d get them on to a local TV program. U2 played two Ramones covers.
The man was impressed. “Did you write these songs?” he asks.
“Yes!” replies Bono. U2 got on TV.
Joey Ramone listens intently to this story. When Bono is finished Ramone just stares at him and says, “Who’s James Joyce?”
It’s September 9, 2014.
The Irish super group have just had eleven songs from their new album, Songs of Innocence, go out free to 500 million iTunes users. It’s been almost 40 years since U2 ripped off the Ramones, and today they’re paying tribute.
On stage, Bono is not that different from the hyper-active 16-year-old bouncing off the walls of a Dublin school, and willing to do anything to get his band a break. His hair is shorter, waistline slightly wider, the clothes a bit more fitted. But the passion and performance that so enraptured (conned) a film director in 1976 is doing a similar job for the great and good of Silicon Valley in Cupertino, California today.
Grabbing the mike so hard his knuckles whiten, his face furrowed in concentration, Bono sings, “I woke up at the moment, when the miracle occurred; heard a song that made some sense out of the world. Everything I ever lost now has been returned. It’s the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.”
The song is called “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” It is about what happened on the night of September 24, 1977 in a state cinema on the north side of Dublin. For the second time, U2 cheated on the Ramones. Flat broke and without tickets, the young Irishmen turned up outside the Dublin venue, an hours walk away from home, where the Ramones were playing. They had come to sneak in, but it was an act of pilgrimage for the four fledgling band members nonetheless. A neighbor of Bono’s had taken the trouble to actually pay for a ticket. A plan was hatched: at a pre-arranged time the neighbor would go to a fire exit inside the theater, open it and let the U2 quartet in.
Open this weird, magical box scribbled ‘U2 & the Ramones’ on it, and more tangled webs come spilling out. As Joey Ramone lay terminally ill in a New York hospital in 2001, the last song he asked to be played was U2’s “In A Little While.”
In the Green Room in Cupertino, after singing about the miracle of his mentor on the stage moments earlier, he takes up the story.
“There really was never any hope for U2. And that was down to me,” he says. “When I was 16, 17 – I knew I was never going to make it as a punk rock singer or even a rock music singer because I had I girl’s voice. I still think that I sing like Siouxsie from The Banshees on the first two U2 albums. But I found my voice through Joey Ramone at that gig in Dublin. I stood there and heard him singing. He sang a bit like a girl too. It was all going to be OK after all. That was my way in.”
To take one step forward with this new album, Bono had to take two steps back. First back to his childhood home in Cedarwood Road on the north side of Dublin, and second to the two gigs he saw as a teenager that made U2 less of a dream and more a work in progress.
“The Ramones and The Clash gigs in Dublin – about 12 months apart,” he remembers. “I got my voice from Joey Ramone and U2 became U2 because of the Clash show. Everything changed that night U2 saw The Clash. I remember sitting in my box room of a bedroom in Cedarwood Road the next day and staring out the window. Everything became very clear to me in that moment: the world is more malleable than you think.”
Such was the shock and awe of rock ‘n’ roll those two nights in Dublin.
Some 40 years down the line, in the intervening period, U2 became one of the best selling rock bands of all time – not to mention running the highest-grossing tour in history. Bono is either grinning broadly or outright cackling with laughter when he recalls the band’s early days.
“The thing is that there were better bands than us in Dublin back then – bands who looked better, played better, wrote better songs but what we got from the Ramones and The Clash was that you could just pick up a mic and say something through your music. We just did it there a few moments ago by playing ‘The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).’ It’s still the only reason U2 exists today,” he says.
Bono can talk you under a table – he’s someone who could talk his way out of a firing squad – and today in California he’s found his rhythm early on. He picks up on the ‘there are much better bands than U2′ theme – a fact he’s lived with for the last 40 years.
“People saying it took so many years for Songs of Innocence to come out and it was over for us and all of that … the honest truth here is that I wish that U2 were a better band. I wish we were a more talented band. I have to go through excruciating humility these days when I set about writing a song.”
Whatever abuse has been thrown at Bono and U2 over the years – and there has been volumes of it – Bono has always thought worse stuff about himself.
He told me a few years ago, “Every time I hear a U2 song on the radio I wince. Do you want to know what my most humiliating U2 moment is? It’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name.’ When I wrote those lyrics I was sleeping in a tent in northern Ethiopia [in 1985] and I scratched down some thoughts and they were, ‘I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.’ I thought they were fairly inane but when we recorded the song in the studio, those words just stayed on the song. Now I have to sing them for the rest of my life. And it’s U2’s most successful live song!”
Just as they began writing this new album three years ago, Bono told me, “If we don’t come up with a very good reason to make a new album, we should just fuck off.”
“I remember a really bad U2 moment when we first went into the studio in Berlin to begin recording Achtung Baby,” he says. “Things were bad, very bad. On a scale of one to ten we were at a nine for breaking up. I think the situation we are in now [about to start Songs of Innocence] is actually worse for us than it was in Berlin.”
People hear what they want to hear with Bono: the strutting rock ‘n’ roll megastar in his shades, the savior of the universe, the healer of all global ills. But take away the backdrop of 80,000 screaming fans, the glossy front cover features and having the world’s most important political leaders on speed-dial on his phone, and he’s still that self-loathing Dublin teenager, lying to film directors, cheating into gigs, worrying himself sick that his ‘girl’s voice’ is hurting the band.
Listen to him today in Cupertino, singing live on stage about Joey Ramone, and hear his confession: “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred, I get so many things I don’t deserve.”
There’s a very good reason the band played this song today – their first live gig since the 360 Degree tour, which ran 110 dates between 2009 and 2011.
Most every line in the song is laden with autobiographical detail that is deeply personal to the singer. He sings that when he “heard a song that made some sense out of the world, everything I ever lost now has been returned.”
“What I’m about to tell you now is something really strange and weird for me,” he says in the Green Room afterwards. “We are here today in the beautiful Californian sunshine to present our new album which is all about my family, what happened to me as a teenager and the very early days of U2. I have just now realized that my mother died 40 years ago today. My mother died when she was at her father’s funeral. I was only 14.”
The shocking impact of losing his mother bleeds its way painfully into one of the albums standout tracks – “Iris (Hold Me Close).” Iris was his mother’s name. “I have very few memories of my mother,” he says, “but all of them are in the song ‘Iris.’”
He stands up for emphasis and, unaccompanied, begins singing lines from the song: “’Iris standing in the hall, she tells me I can do it all’. Then I sing this typical mother to son line which has her saying to me, ‘You’ll be the death of me.’ But it wasn’t me. I wasn’t the death of her.”
Bono thinks the mother is vital to understanding the dynamics of rock musicians. “The mother is so, so important in rock music. Show me a great singer and I’ll show you someone who lost their mother early on – Paul McCartney, John Lennon. Listen to Lennon singing about his mother, listen to Eminem singing about his mother. I had rage and grief for my mother. I channelled those emotions into music. And I still do.”
Outside it’s America, but inside this windowless room Bono is set adrift on memory’s bliss, back on the Dublin streets of his youth.
Here’s something you never imagined writing about Bono: he’s obsessed with Cherry Blossom trees. “When I was growing up on Cedarwood Road in Dublin, our neighbors had this most beautiful cherry blossom tree. It just seemed to me to be the most luxurious thing,” he says. On the song, “Cedarwood Road,” he sings, “That cherry blossom tree was a gateway to the sun.”
“But bad things happened also,” Bono says.
“What I found going back to those days is a lot of shit got dragged up. There’s a song on the album called ‘Raised by Wolves.’ Every Friday growing up as a teenager I would leave school and take the bus into the city center to go in and browse in a certain record shop. But on one particular Friday I had cycled to school so I didn’t take the bus into the record shop after. At 5.30pm on that particular Friday, when I always would have been in that record shop, the worst atrocity of the Troubles [the ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998] took place just around the corner from that record shop when 33 people were killed by a car bomb.”
By going back to his past on this album, Bono is trying to make sense of U2’s present and future.
“Jimmy Iovine [ex-U2 producer] said something to me that was hard to hear. He said, “Bono, you’re a long way from where you live.” I know exactly what he was saying about me when he used that line. It was really embarrassing for me to hear that. That’s really why we went back to the Dublin of where it all began for us. To ask ourselves now, ‘Why did we start doing this in the first place? What does this still mean to us?’”
It’s time to wrap it up.
A weight has been lifted off his shoulders today by getting the much-delayed new album out, but as always with Bono, there’s a twist in the tale. “It took so long because it wasn’t one album we were recording, it was two,” he says. “There’s a ‘sister’ album to Songs of Innocence called Songs of Experience which will be out very soon. I know I’ve said that before – but it will be.”
The next big U2 world tour, he confirms, will begin “next April”  and “will be fresh and different.” He’s been through the A-Z of emotions during our talk – relief, happiness, pride, grief, remorse and his own emotional fragility – but the passion is back and he’s up for the fight again. He evokes a line by Irish writer Samuel Beckett, which goes, “Perhaps my best years are gone – but I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now.”
As always, he has the last word: “We’re back, we’re happy. There’s a second new album ready to go and a tour starting soon. You see, being in U2 is like being in the priesthood. There’s only one way out – and that’s in a coffin.”
Brian Boyd is a feature writer for the Irish Times who pens the weekly music column The Ticket. His work has appeared in many international newspapers and magazines. In broadcasting he contributes to the BBC, RTE, Today FM, Newstalk and many other radio stations in and outside of Ireland. He’s been served tea by Morrissey, he’s had lunch cooked for him by Bono, and he’s sung karaoke with Eminem. He wants to be Paul Simonon when he grows up.
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