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POP MUSIC : It's a Global Thing With U2 : The show includes Satan masks, gold lame suits and an onstage phone call to Sarajevo. Just the usual hijinks from the band that went there and back

September 12, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

LONDON — "Let's see what's on TV tonight," Bono says, pausing on stage at the microphone after finishing an acoustic version of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" during the opening night of U2's four sold-out concerts at historic 72,000-seat Wembley Stadium.

Bono picks up a remote control and points it at a battery of video monitors, some as big as a movie screen, at the rear of the massive stage--just as he had done night after night during the Irish band's U.S. tour last year.

In the U.S. shows, Bono used the remote to trigger images from actual TV broadcasts--home shopping channels, evangelical preachers, news anchors--echoing the concert's theme of a society under siege from media overload.

But on this night, there's a single image on the biggest monitors: three women speaking to the audience from Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, via a special live satellite feed set up by the band. They're talking about the Bosnian killing fields and how they have lost hope of England or any other country stepping in to help them.

It's a stark message, especially in the middle of the energy of a rock show. There is a hush among the fans in the stadium that was the British home of 1985's Live Aid concert.

The moment was a throwback to the grand, dramatic gestures that U2 would have done back in the "The Joshua Tree" days--before the band members began worrying that their reputation as the "conscience of rock" was overshadowing the music and turning them into caricatures of pompous, self-important rockers.

As Bono stood at center stage now at Wembley, the question was whether he would show a flash of the group's old activism or let the moment pass, fearful of renewing all the old criticisms?

The answer was important because U2, as the critical and commercial leader in rock, can greatly influence other bands.

Staring at the video monitors after the women fade from view on the Wembley stage, Bono, 33, answers the question defiantly. In the hush of the stadium, he declares: "Tonight, we should all be ashamed to be European."

Not everyone is pleased with the segment, which was repeated--with different people--throughout the European tour. The words "pompous" and "bombastic" resurfaced in some reviews of the show.

In an interview the day after the concert, Bono is unfazed.

"It's not that our beliefs weren't there last year," he says at the band's hotel. "It's just that we wanted to make statements in different ways. But that doesn't mean we can't ever speak in a more straightforward way . . . even if it is going to renew some of those old charges.

"(U2 drummer) Larry (Mullen) warned me. He said he was uncomfortable with the Sarajevo segment . . . that this is a rock 'n' roll show. He said, 'I don't mind, but you know you're going to get killed for this.' And I knew he was right. But in the end, this is more important than the show."

So what's this about satanism?

Bono--who began portraying the devilish Macphisto, red horns and all, this summer on the European leg of the band's worldwide "Zooropa" tour--has a wry, almost conspiratorial smile on his face at the mention of the latest rumor growing out of his colorful '90s persona.

Not only did U2 move away from uplifting anthems in 1991's "Achtung Baby" and this year's "Zooropa" albums, but Bono also became onstage the anti-Bono: portraying a jaded, egotistical rock star, complete with such cliches as black leather pants and gold lame suits.

"We've heard every rumor since this tour started and that's good because one of the things we wanted to do was turn our image inside out so that no one knows quite what to make of us," he says, comfortable with the topic.

"We felt we were being made a cartoon of--the good guys of rock and so forth--so we decided to make some cartoons of our own and send them out as disinformation."

Many of the old detractors saw humor in Bono's flamboyant stage mannerisms, but some longtime fans were shaken.

They felt Bono was so convincing in the new role that he might, indeed, be caught up in the rock excesses that he supposedly was lampooning--including admiring himself in a full-length mirror and thrusting his crotch back and forth at the video camera on stage in a mock sex act, an image that was relayed to the audience on the giant monitors.

The Satan rumor, however, represented the ultimate irony for the leader of the band long known for asserting its Christian values.

What was fiction in all this role playing?

What was reality?

"Playing the characters started as fun," Bono replies. "People had read reports of egomania and suddenly they were seeing their worst nightmare on stage and they were agog. You have all these rock stars grabbing their crotch, and here I was screwing the entire audience via the camera.

"In being these characters, I was kind of saying, "So what? So even if the rumors about me being out of control are true, what does that mean? Does what you wear or how you act on stage make your music any more or less interesting?"

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