Bono’s Dublin: ‘A long way from where I live’

When U2 struggled with their new album they sought inspiration in 1970s Dublin, a place of hidden violence, home to a new-wave music scene and a group of friends who were not yet U2. ‘A lot of sh*t got dragged up,’ says Bono

Bono leans in to my face so our noses are almost touching, and he sings, unaccompanied, "Life begins with the first glance, the first kiss at the first dance, all of us are wondering why we're here, in the Crystal Ballroom underneath the chandelier . . . We are the ghosts of love and we haunt this place, in the ballroom of crystal lights, everyone is here with me tonight, everyone but you." It is sean-nós in shades.

"I need to tell you something really weird about this song," he says. "It's called The Crystal Ballroom, which used to be the name of McGonagles in South Anne Street [now knocked down]. A whole generation of Dubliners would go to the Crystal Ballroom for dances, and many couples first met there. My mother and father used to dance together in the Crystal Ballroom, so that song I just sang you, which hasn't been released yet, is me imagining I'm on the stage of McGonagles with this new band I'm in called U2 – and we did play a lot of our important early gigs there. And I look out into the audience and I see my mother and father dancing romantically together to U2 on the stage."

Bono takes a deep breath and, speaking slowly, says, “I have just realised that my mother died 40 years ago yesterday, and here we are today playing our new album about Dublin, which is about my family and what happened to me as a teenager.

“My mother died when she was at her father’s funeral. She had a cerebral aneurysm. I was only 14. And in this song I am singing, “Everyone is here tonight, everyone but you.” And it’s me wanting to see my mother dance again in the Crystal Ballroom and for her to see what happened to her son.”


All about my mother

We are in a windowless room at Apple's headquarters in Silicon Valley, in the California town of Cupertino. U2 have just helped launch a range of Apple products, and it has been announced that their new album, Songs of Innocence, is being given to iTunes customers.

The Edge is here too. He flicks through his phone, finds The Crystal Ballroom and presses play. There is silence in the room as it plays. After a long pause a clearly upset Bono whispers, "Her spirit was with us today."

This new U2 album could be read as Bono's All About My Mother. The song Iris (Hold Me Close) – Iris is his mother's name – finds him singing about her untimely death. "The ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am . . . Hold me close and don't let me go . . . I've got your life inside of me . . . We're meeting up again."

Standing up and walking around the room, he highlights a lyric in the song. “I sing this verse which has ‘Iris standing in the hall, she tells me I can do it all,’ and then there’s a typical mother’s line when she says to me, ‘You’ll be the death of me.’ But it wasn’t me. I wasn’t the death of her. I was not the death of her.”

“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. There’s Paul McCartney, there’s John Lennon. Look at Bob Geldof and what happened to his mother.

"In hip hop, by contrast, it's all about the father – being abandoned by the father and being brought up by a single mother. But for me it's all about the mother. I had rage and grief for my mother. I still have rage and grief for my mother. I channelled those emotions in music, and I still do. I have very few memories of my mother, but all of them are in the song Iris."

Bono’s mother saw him sing on stage only once, before U2, but Bono has said that if he could relive just one moment in his life he would go back to singing in front of his mother for the first time.

As a 14-year-old, Bono – then just plain Paul Hewson – had strained relationships with his brother, Norman (eight years his senior), and his father, growing up on Cedarwood Road, in Glasnevin, in north Dublin, after his mother’s death.

With no mother, Bono would find himself knocking on the doors of his neighbours: the Rowens at lunchtime, the Hanveys at teatime. Derek Rowen would become the artist Guggi. Fionán Hanvey would become the musician Gavin Friday, of the Virgin Prunes.

In the new song Cedarwood Road Bono talks about the cherry blossom tree in the Rowens' garden. "I was looking for a soul that's real. Then I ran into you, and that cherry blossom tree was a gateway to the sun." In the Dublin suburbs of the 1970s, Bono says, the cherry blossom tree "seemed to be the most luxurious thing".

The Edge then pitches in, talking in some detail about Dublin City Council’s policy on cherry blossom trees. How he knows this I can’t imagine.

Finglas, Cabra, the SFX

Songs of Innocence sees U2 trying to reconnect with the teenage kicks of late-1970s Dublin and its new-wave musical scene, which centred around McGonagles, the Dandelion Market and odd forays to the SFX or out to the Top Hat, in Dún Laoghaire.

“It’s us trying to figure out why we wanted to be in a band in the first place, the relationships around the band and our first journeys – geographically, spiritually and sexually. It was tough and it took years. Put it this way: a lot of sh*t got dragged up,” says Bono.

With songs about Finglas, going to see the Ramones play at the Cabra Grand and taking the bus into College Green to see The Clash play at Trinity College, this album seems decades apart from their last one. And in a way it is.

When Bono talked to The Irish Times around the release of No Line on the Horizon, in 2009, he took this reporter into the study of his Dalkey home, opened the windows and showed off his view of the Irish Sea, a vista in which no line was visible on the horizon – that day anyway. Ireland's recession was going from bad to brutal, and a multimillionaire rock star was calling an album after the sumptuous view he enjoyed every day.

But the image that went around the world this week from the Cupertino launch party was very different: a paper-clad vinyl album done up to mimic the look of the band's first release, in 1979, the U2 Three EP.

The Dublin bombings

In 2009 Bono showed me art work Frank Sinatra had presented to him; today he is talking about Superquinn in Finglas (the first place he was asked for his autograph, after the band's first Late Late Show appearance), about U2's early support-slot date with The Stranglers at the Top Hat ("They treated us like sh*t, so we stole all their wine and swore to ourselves that when our time came we would treat everyone with respect") and about taking the bus to Marlborough Street to browse in the Golden Discs shop there.

This experience makes its way into the new song Raised By Wolves, a sort of Sunday Bloody Sunday for the Dublin bombings of 1974. "The bombs were set to go off at the same time on a Friday evening, at 5.30pm," he says. "At that time on Fridays in 1974 I would have been at the Golden Discs shop in Marlborough Street, just around the corner from where the bombs exploded. But that day I had cycled to school so didn't get the bus into town afterwards as usual."

But this is no nostalgia-tinted album. Bono also recalls the violence and the incessant beatings handed out to members of U2 and their friends in the Virgin Prunes. “I’m not really talking about the Black Catholics here so much as how we just attracted violence for the way we looked and bands we liked,” he says. “Gavin Friday used to get his head kicked in regularly. But then Gavin’s always had a stupid, big head.

“Then I went a bit further and remembered all the violence meted out to women by their husbands, the beatings children experienced from their fathers and how, at that time particularly, priests were sexually abusing young children.”

And there was musical self-loathing. When Bono was 17 or 18 he believed he had no hope of being in a band. “That was because I sang like a girl. I was never going to make it as a punk-rock singer or a rock-music singer with my girl’s voice,” he says. “But I found my voice through Joey Ramone, hearing his singing at a gig in Dublin. Joey has a sort of girl’s voice as well when he sang – and that was my way in.”

Earlier in the morning, at the Apple launch, they had played the new song The Miracle (of Joey Ramone), which transported the tech heads in Cupertino, whether they knew it or not, to the Cabra Grand.

‘I wish we were a better band’

The self-loathing is still there. “The honest truth here is that I wish we were a better band. I wish we were a more talented band. The reason why this new album didn’t happen for us for so many years is because of this,” Bono says.

The Edge teases it out. “As a band we were always either power or noise. But now U2 have so many grey areas. It’s no longer power, which is good, or noise, which is bad. You’ve got to know when it’s not happening with us, and the most destructive thing here is to almost get it right.”

“It’s also the excruciating humility I have to go through these days,” says Bono. “The fact that I think we are incapable of greatness. And Jimmy Iovine, a former U2 album producer, said something hard to me. He said, ‘You’re a long way from where you live.’ And that hurt. I live in Dalkey but I’m from Cedarwood Road, and I know what he was saying about me when he used that line. It was really embarrassing for me to hear that. And that is precisely why this album is Dublin-centric.”

Albums, money and tours: Bono on . . . 
The second album Bono says a sister album to Songs of Innocence, called Songs of Experience, will be released soon. "Over the next while we will be collaborating with Apple on some cool stuff, and Songs of Experience should be ready soon enough. I know I've said that before."

The bottom line Contrary to reports that U2 gave Songs of Innocence to Apple to distribute free, Bono confirms the band did receive money for the transaction. "We were paid," he says. "I don't believe in free music. Music is a sacrament."

The tour "We don't have a firm start date for the next U2 tour, but it will be next year," says Bono. "We need good ideas to go back out there live. Expect something new, something fresh."