"Bono is steamed.
It's not every day that I answer my cell phone and hear the lead singer of U2 expressing serious disagreement with something I've written, but that day has arrived.
"You've offended us," he says as I weave up Lake Shore Drive during evening rush hour, trying not to crash into a concrete barrier while I reach for my notebook. "There's a dark cloud over us and we need to talk."
Bono: 'We need to talk'
U2's frontman sits down with Greg Kot to 'clear the air' about negative reviews, the band's direction and the role of rock 'n' roll
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published May 22, 2005
I've covered the band for 15 years, interviewed Bono a half-dozen times and attended virtually every one of U2's Chicago concerts since the Irish quartet first played at Park West in 1981. Along with R.E.M., U2 is the most important mainstream rock band of my generation, a band that set a new standard for how an arena rock concert could feel and what it could communicate. In the '90s, Bono, guitarist The Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton gave their well-honed approach a twist on such adventurous albums as "Achtung Baby" (1991), "Zooropa" (1993), the "Passengers: Original Soundtracks I" side project (1995) and "Pop" (1997).
But "Pop" bombed commercially by U2 standards, and the band seemed to lose its nerve. It made two consecutive albums, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (2000) and "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (2004), that retreated from the innovations of the '90s and settled for a retro '80s sound. In February, the Tribune published an article in which I chastised the band for a series of dubious artistic and business decisions. It was prompted by a flood of irate e-mails from fans who had paid $40 to join U2's fan club in order to gain access to pre-sale tickets for the band's North American tour. The sale was a public-relations disaster. Some fan-club members reported they couldn't even get tickets, or paid nearly $200 for third-balcony seats, while scalpers were selling tickets on eBay for more than $600. It was the latest in a series of missteps that prompted me to question whether this once-vital band was turning into the Rolling Stones, more of a corporation focused on perpetuating itself than a creative force.
There was the ubiquitous television ad (for which they were not paid) in which "Vertigo," the first single from "Atomic Bomb," was turned into a commercial for Apple's portable music device, the iPod. There were the unusually conservative albums, evidence that the band had run out of ideas or the will to challenge itself and its audience. There was the live appearance at the Super Bowl halftime in February 2002, the type of marketing opportunity that presented even the most idealistic brand of rock as just another product.
It was these criticisms that prompted Bono's Lake Shore Drive call. A day after that conversation, I attended the first concert in U2's four-night sold-out run at the United Center. My review focused on the tired set list. U2 played some new songs early in the two-hour performance, but instead of building a case for the new album and possibly redeeming it, the quartet reserved all the big-bang moments for its greatest hits, songs that had been in the set list for a decade or more. They sounded more than ever like the bands they once arose to replace, the dinosaur acts of the '60s.
All of this is part of what should be the relationship among the artist, the critic and even the audience, which at the United Center was wildly cheering (as they always do) every note. Critics, on the other hand, are not cheerleaders. They are paid to honestly and passionately react to what the artist does -- for better or worse. When it's the latter, audiences are often more vocal in their defense than the artists. But Bono was different.
After the review appeared in the Tribune, Bono invited me to attend another show. Later, he would acknowledge that my review of the first concert wasn't off base. "We weren't at our best," he said. When I attended the final show of the four-night stand, the song deck had been shuffled, and the band grew more daring. A new song that wasn't in the first night's set, "Original of the Species," was a highlight. It's a soul ballad with a melody so suggestive that it compelled me to go back and hear what I had missed the first time on the "Atomic Bomb" album. If not a return to the old boldness, the performance certainly made me aware of something that I had missed about the album several months before: the classic beauty of some of the less-immediate songs.
The next morning, Bono and I met at a corner table in a swanky restaurant overlooking Michigan Avenue. "Stick 'em up," he rasped as he approached from behind, finger on an imaginary trigger pressing into my left kidney. It was 9 a.m., and the previous night's concert had left the unshaven singer a touch hoarse. But he was in a spry mood and claimed to do all his best work before noon. "I sometimes wish we could play our concerts right after I wake up," he said, peering out from behind his tinted wraparound glasses after ordering a breakfast of poached eggs and toast. The ire in his voice of the previous week had softened to a contentious but melodious brogue.
"Larry [Mullen, the band's drummer] is going to kill me for doing this," Bono said. "But I want this on the record. Some of what is going around as a result of your article is not just unhelpful to our group and our relationship to our audience, but just really problematic for what in the broad sense you might call rock music. The things you think are wrong with it, and the things that I think are wrong with rock music, are polar opposite. Your vision of rock and mine are 180 degrees apart. And that's why I need to talk to you."
A portion of that 90-minute conversation, edited for length, clarity and language, follows.
This links to the entire transcript: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/chi-050521bono-transcript,1,7123090.story
All I can say is - Way to Go Bono!