Thursday, October 3, 2013

5 Questions with John D. Luerssen, author of U2 FAQ



How'd the book come about?
I have been following U2 for nearly 30 years. From about 1981 to 1987, they were one of my favorite bands alongside groups like The Clash, The Replacements, R.E.M. Elvis Costello, The Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen. I kind of lost interest around the time of Rattle & Hum a bit but Achtung Baby rekindled my fascination. I also loved 'All That You Can't Leave Behind'. Anyway, I had written a book on Weezer called 'Rivers Edge' a few years ago for ECW Press that got a lot of attention and in the years since I've kept busy writing about music for Spinner and magazines like American Songwriter.

Somehow Robert Rodriguez -- who launched the FAQ series for Backbeat with The Fab Four FAQ and Fab Four FAQ 2.0 -- sought me out and asked if I would be interested in contributing to the series. I came up with a short list of bands like Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen and U2 was at the top of the list. I drafted a quick proposal and they asked me to write it but the deadline was a little tight. This was in December 2009. I turned in the first complete draft on April 1st. I tweaked it a little into the summer and it went to press in late September. We made it out for the back half of 2010 which was the plan. It was adventurous but I'm thrilled with how it turned out.

What's the most interesting fact about U2 most people don't know?
Bono and The Edge almost walked away from it all.

Most people may not remember that U2's Christianity was a key driver in the group at the outset. Bono, The Edge and Larry plus some friends and members of their crew were involved in a Dublin based Bible group ran by a guy named Chris Rowe called The Shalom. The band's bassist, Adam Clayton, was the lone dissenter and resident partier at the time who hung with the group because he loved rock & roll and the camaraderie of his mates. But after U2 first cracked the U.S. with Boy and went home to work on the October album in the summer of 1981, The Edge and Bono -- who had become local stars in Dublin and Ireland in general by now -- were feeling pressure by The Shalom's leaders to give up playing rock & roll. Mind you, they rarely drank, never did drugs nor hook up with groupies -- all of which was  pretty unorthodox for popular bands at the time. The point is that they never embraced the lifestyle.

Soon enough, Larry Mullen started to think The Shalom was off base trying to tell them what to do and he left the group -- which by now had set up a camp with tents and communal living which Bono and Edge were trying to help to finance, even though they still had little money. Anyway, one afternoon The Edge had been swayed by the pressure and told Bono that he's quitting the band. He's dedicating his life to Christ. And Bono tells Edge he's quitting U2 with him.

So they go to break the news to Paul McGuinness, who has just booked another North American tour. McGuinness can't believe what he's hearing. He tells them to go away for a few hours and think about the decision some more and when they return he guilts them into staying with the group because they have all these commitments to their crew, record label, booking agency, etc. Once they are out on the road, headlining East Coast venues they resume life as normal and never look back. By early 1982 they were opening for The J. Geils Band.

What makes U2 such a special band?
They may have come from other mothers but Bono, Adam, Larry and Edge are a band of brothers. They all know each other's weaknesses and strengths and cumulatively they make some of the greatest music in the world. Bono may seem like an ego maniac to some, but its only these three others -- plus manager Paul McGuinness -- who can bring him down to size. And sometimes, with a band as big as U2 -- that's exactly what's required. Name another band that has had the same founding membership for 35 years. It's very hard to do.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about them from this book?
For me, I think the neatest revellation actually comes in the Forward, which John Griffith, formerly of the Red Rockers, wrote for me. He talks about being out on the Unforgettable Fire tour opening for U2 in 1985, as their popularity was cresting in advance of Live Aid. For some reason, the Red Rockers' own tour manager went off the rails and took off with their gear and clothes and basically left them high and dry. Bono got word of it and the band donated four thousand bucks -- a lot of money in 1985 -- so that they could carry on and finish the tour with some dignity. I thought that said a lot about who they were then and who they became. From their commitments to Amnesty International and Greenpeace to Bono's commitments to absolving third world debt and trying to get AIDS medicines to Africans, they may have become the biggest band in the world, but they also are the biggest band in the world with a conscience.

What's next for you?
I am currently at work on a Springsteen FAQ for Backbeat which I'm super excited about. As a New Jersey native weaned on Bruce, I can't think of a greater honor. I think that's coming out in 2012. I'm also launching my own series of Rock & Roll Quote Books this year. Between all that, my day job, my wife and kids and my constant tinkering on and obsessing over a 9 year old Volvo convertible, I'm hoping to still have time left over to paint my house this year. Seriously.


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