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From the Archives: On the Outside with The Edge

U2’s guitarist opens up about guitar athletics, Tom Verlaine, and ‘The Joshua Tree’

James Henke Aug 08, 2016
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The Edge of U2 performs in Australia. Bob King/Redferns

The Edge of U2 performs in Australia. Photo: Bob King/Redferns

Nestled among warehouses in the drab Dublin dockside, Windmill Lane Studios would, under normal circumstances, hardly qualify as a tourist attraction. Since the ascension of U2 to the highest levels of rock stardom, however, the scene outside Windmill Lane has changed dramatically. The building, which functions as a sort of command center for the group’s activities, has been covered with graffiti ”“ “Italy Loves U2”; “Edge, I Think You’re Brill”; “Dear U2, I’ve Been Here ’40’ Times and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For'” ”“ while dozens of faithful fans patiently stand watch along the street, hoping to catch at least a glimpse of rock’s reigning heroes.

On one particularly rainy, windswept day in mid-January, their perseverance pays off when U2’s guitarist, the Edge, arrives in his 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. As a security guard looks on, Edge rolls down his car window and obliges a few fans with autographs. Then another fan, in his ‘mid to late’ twenties, approaches and asks for money to get home. Edge gives him seven pounds, then realizes it’s time to move on. “It’s kind of hard to deal with,” he says of the adulation. “I find it a little embarrassing.”

Though Bono is the more public face of U2, Edge ”“ whose nickname resulted in part from his tendency to observe things from the sidelines ”“ has quietly played a key role in the band’s journey to the top. His minimal, echo-laden style of guitar playing has virtually defined the group’s sound and spawned a legion of imitators. He is also responsible for writing the lion’s share of the group’s music, as well as contributing a few key lyric ideas.

Born Dave Evans in East London in 1961, Edge moved to Dublin with his family when he was a year old. Settling in the middle-class suburb of Malahide, the Evanses, Protestants of Welsh heritage, felt a little like outsiders in largely Roman Catholic Ireland. That sense of not quite fitting in led Edge to music ”“ he took up guitar when he was nine ”“ and when U2 was formed in late 1978, he finally found a focus for his energy. “It became an obsession pretty quickly,” he recalls. “We all realized that we really liked doing it. We loved playing together and writing songs together.”

And that feeling is now stronger than ever, Edge insists. “I’ve found out recently that I really want to be in this group,” he says. “I don’t want to write screenplays or soundtracks or do anything else. I want to write songs, and I want to record them, and I want to go on the road with those songs.”

Before embarking on another road trip, though, U2 has to complete work on its feature-length concert movie, which was filmed during last year’s American tour, as well as an accompanying soundtrack double album, which will feature four or five previously unreleased studio tracks. Those projects will take Edge to London and the United States, away from his wife of four years, Aislinn O’Sullivan, and their two daughters, Hollie, 3, and Arran, 2.

“Keeping a marriage going can be kind of hard, and you gotta work at it,” Edge says. “But I think it’s so much more true of anybody in a band, because being in a band is almost like being married anyway. I’m so close to the other three guys in this group that sometimes it feels like a marriage.”

Over the course of two days, Edge elaborated on that second marriage in interview sessions at the group’s offices and in a nearby pub. “It’s only in later life that the lure of the pint of Guinness has really drawn us into the pubs,” he says, adding that, especially on the road, “a few drinks can really put things in perspective.”

When the band was starting out, did you ever imagine that U2 would become this successful?
Well, I don’t know if I ever really thought about it too hard. You know, this year’s been a dangerous year for U2 in some ways. We’re now a household name, like Skippy peanut butter or Baileys Irish Cream, and I suppose that makes us public property in a way that we weren’t before. And that’s a bit weird, because we’re getting so much mass-media attention. We’ve seen the beginning of the U2 myth, and that can become difficult. Like, for instance, Bono’s personality is now so caricatured that I worry whether he’ll be allowed to develop as a lyricist the way I know he can.

What’s the greatest danger U2 faces?
Going cold. Because there are too many distractions now. I spend most of my time trying to avoid distractions.

What kinds of distractions?
All sorts of things. Financial things. Once you have money, it has to be taken care of. As much as you try and forget about it and let someone else deal with it, there are times when it just has to be faced up to. I think it was Eno who said that possessions are a way of turning money into problems. And so I’ve tried to cut down on anything like that.

My lifestyle, and that of the rest of the band, is pretty straightforward. I don’t want to get fat. I don’t want to get lazy. Money can bring great freedom, because it means you can travel, you can go into the studio whenever you want. You can pretty much do whatever idea comes into your head. But a lot of groups have not survived financial success. So there’s a potential problem.

I also think being taken too seriously is a problem. It seems that no matter what we do, people place this huge weight of importance on it. Importance out of the realm of music, whether it’s political importance or something cultural or whatever. I think that can be bad.

I assume that’s what you were talking about when you referred to “the U2 myth.” In the past year you’ve suddenly become “the spokesmen for a generation.”
[Laughs] Well, it gets tough, you know, running Amnesty International, organizing summits between superpowers. It gets pretty exhausting. I sometimes feel sorry for Bono, because he seems to get the worst of that. But we try and not let it affect us, because we’d probably be inclined to do something really stupid in order to prove that we’re just like ninety percent of the musicians in other bands.

But ninety percent of the musicians in other bands don’t wind up on the cover of ‘Time.’ What was that like?
[Laughs] I was king for a week, I suppose. I don’t know, it felt good. What I liked about it was not just that it was U2, but that music was there that week. That felt good. You know, it’s nice for rock & roll to cause a stir from time to time.

You complain about being taken too seriously, but U2 certainly cultivated a more serious image than most bands. Everything from the songs to the interviews to Anton Corbijn’s black-and-white photographs made it clear that this was a “serious” band.
I just never liked my smile. That was the problem. [Laughs] I mean, we just write songs. That’s what we do. And the idea of being a leader is just so horrible. That’s the last thing we ever wanted to be. But I love Anton’s shots. They’re kind of European. He gave us a sense of being European.

It’s funny, but when you leave where you are, you get a perspective on it. When we first started touring Britain and Europe, we started seeing how Irish we were. Suddenly, Ireland became big in our songs. When we first toured America, we sensed our Europeanness. Now, with The Joshua Tree, I suppose we sensed the charm of America, the writers and the music.

How has your perception of America changed over the past seven years?
I like it a lot more. I didn’t like it much when I first went there. We were really just passing through, and we didn’t get the full picture. I left with only a superficial sense of what America was about, and that superficial level really didn’t interest me. During the second couple of tours. I purposely avoided things like the radio and TV because I thought they were bad. But on the last couple of tours we’ve seen what I call the hidden side of America, the side that’s not obvious if you’re only in town for one night.

What have you found there?
Well, for instance, music that never gets played on the radio, that never gets exposed to any extent ”” blues and country music. And American writers, like Raymond Carver, and some Indian writers. Also the openness. American people are very open. In most big cities in Europe people are aloof, very unfriendly. It’s not an Irish thing, but you find it in London and Paris. I don’t find that in America, and in that way it’s more like Ireland.

What do you think of the state of America now, politically, culturally?
Well, it scares me. It scares me a lot, this kind of “let’s forget the Sixties” mentality, the new fascism, the new conservatism. But America’s always been the best and worst rolled into one, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how it goes in the next couple of years.

I’m a little fearful, but it’s as bad in Europe. It’s as bad in England, as far as I can see. I think in years to come, people will look back at the Sixties as a very peculiar era. We think of it as the way people should be. But if you think about the years that went before and the years that have come after, it’s the Sixties that are weird, not the Seventies, not the Eighties.

Many of U2’s songs, like “Bullet the Blue Sky,” convey less-than-favorable impressions of America and its policies. Yet, in concert, it sometimes seems that your fans don’t have a clue as to what you’re trying to say.
It would be great to think that people understood what we were talking about, but the fact is that probably about half of them do ”“ or less. The rest pick some of it up, or none of it. I think we have a pretty good balance. Some people come to shows because we’re a great rock & roll band. And some people come to the shows because everyone else is going. And some people come because they understand exactly where we’re coming from and they agree.

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But rock & roll to me is communication. I don’t just mean communication of ideas, but communication of feelings. The bands I was into when I was younger were the ones where you’d listen and get a feeling about the person, whether it was John Lennon or Marvin Gaye or Patti Smith or Lou Reed. That’s the most important thing in rock & roll. It’s not necessarily that your idea is great, but that it’s your idea. That’s why when we write songs, we don’t sit down and say, ‘Let’s write a song about this because this is an important issue now.’ We write a song because we feel we have something to say.

People always ask us if we think our songs can really change anything. And I always say that’s not why we wrote the songs. We didn’t write them so they would change the situation. I think it would be too much to expect that. But they might make people think for a second, in the same way that we stop and think.

It always seemed that U2 was determined to become a big group. When I interviewed Bono in 1980, he told me, “I do feel that we are meant to be one of the great groups,” and he compared the band to the Beatles, the Stones and the Who.
Well, Adam [Clayton] and Bono used to say that a lot ”” and I used to believe them. We assumed it, in a weird way, and I don’t know why. We assumed that we would achieve commercial success, and we never had any kind of problem in going out and working for success, going for it. And therefore that really wasn’t a big issue. What was more important was achieving musical success, and we’re still trying to get that. I mean, we’re getting closer with each record.

Though Bono writes the bulk of the band’s lyrics, I understand that it was your idea to write a song about the strife in Northern Ireland, which turned out to be “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
Yeah, Bono was away on holiday ”“ I think it was his honeymoon. And I wrote the music and hit on a lyric idea and presented it to the guys when they got back.

Belfast is only about fifty miles up the road from Dublin, and I’d read about it in the newspapers and seen it on TV. But going there was a bit of an education. What was incredible was that the people of Belfast had the most incredible warmth and friendliness and sense of humor ”” and there was this thing going on that was just tearing the whole community apart.

And “Sunday Bloody Sunday” ”” I can’t remember exactly what incident sparked it off, but I just remember sitting in this little house I had on the sea, just bashing out this music, and it just came to me, that this should be about Northern Ireland. And I wrote down a few lines, and Bono instantly improved on them when he came back.

How often do you come up with ideas for lyrics?
Not that often. I might give Bono a title, like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” And that’ll light a spark, and he’ll write a song about it.

You and Bono seem like exact opposites ”” he’s loud and outgoing, while you’re quieter and more reserved.
Generally speaking, that’s true. He’s more at home in the public eye. It’s kind of hard for the rest of us, Larry [Mullen] and me, in particular, because we’re not naturally gregarious.

As kids, Bono was the exact opposite of me. I was a very quiet kid in school. I think we shared a sense of humor, though, and when the band came together, it was kind of natural that we would get on.

What was your childhood like?
Being Protestant and being English ”” or Welsh, in fact ”” in what is ostensibly a Catholic country, it felt a bit strange at times. There were times when I really did feel like a bit of a freak, and I spent a few years where I was pretty quiet. I didn’t go out an awful lot. Those are the years when I listened to the most music.

When was that?
I suppose between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. That was when albums like Horses, by Patti Smith, came out. There were some good records around that time ”” Lou Reed, Bowie, the first Talking Heads records. Nobody else was really listening to those records, but they really meant a lot to me. I always remember that when someone who’s sort of fifteen or sixteen comes up to me and talks about our records. I remember how I felt about records at that age.

Have there ever been any periods when you’ve had second thoughts about U2 or about being in a rock & roll band?
Yeah. I lost sight of what it was all about for a period. I think when a band goes on the road, unless the band is very strong, things get a bit cloudy. And that happened with us. We had to figure out who we were musically and what we were doing and where we were going. And once we had that all together, then we were fine. But for a while there, I really wasn’t sure what we were up to and whether I wanted to be a part of it all.

It was kind of just after the October album, coming up to writing the War album. We’d come off the road, the album had done reasonably well, we’d done an awful lot of hard work, and we kind of had to just take stock of what was going on. I thought it was pretty healthy, actually, and I think that without that, I would be in serious trouble at this stage.

In his recent book ‘Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2,’ Eamon Dunphy spends a lot of time discussing a crisis the band went through a little earlier than that, when you were making the ‘October’ album. He suggests that you, Larry and Bono struggled with the question of whether it was possible to reconcile your Christian beliefs with the more decadent lifestyle that has come to be associated with rock & roll.
Well, the book deals with it in a very simplistic way. It’s something that’s so complicated that I really feel quite inadequate to explain it fully. The October album was kind of our statement in that area. Maybe we’re a little clearer now about what we want to be, whereas that album was probably a search. It was us trying to find out what we were doing and where we were going. And now we just want to be a great rock & roll band. And everything else is personal in a way. But it’s still there, unspoken, in the music. And it should be there in the way we do things and what we are as a band.

Have you been able to come to terms with what rock & roll represents in many people’s minds ”“ the sort of “sex and drugs and rock & roll” image?
My feelings are a whole series of contradictions, and I certainly haven’t been able to reconcile them. I just know that when I pick up that guitar and Bono starts to sing, I feel good about it. And that’s as far as I think it needs to be justified. I’m not pretending that I’ve got it all sorted out. I don’t think I ever will. But this band’s special, and that’s all I need to know.

Have you gone through any other rough periods, when you’ve questioned what you’re doing?
No. For a while, I wanted to be this sort of Renaissance man in the group, doing soundtracks and producing other people and that kind of thing. But I tell you, being a great rock & roll band is not easy, and I’ve realized that if we want to be a great rock & roll group, there’s little time for anything else, really.

What’s the hardest thing about it?
Being brilliant. [Laughs] That’s a bitch! No, seriously, though, there are very few brilliant rock & roll bands around. There have been a handful since rock & roll was invented. There are a lot of really average groups out there who get away with it. But that never would be good enough for us.

So you consider U2 to be a brilliant rock band?
Well, I think The Joshua Tree is a brilliant album. But it’s not brilliant enough for me. I’m very proud of that record, though. It’s the closest we’ve come to what we wanted to do. The Unforgettable Fire was a very mixed record, a lot of experiments. But with The Joshua Tree we really set out to write songs and work with the song as a sort of limitation. And now I don’t feel nearly as much need to innovate as I would have earlier on. I feel more at home with the idea of working within classic areas.

But doesn’t the magnitude of your success pose a problem for the band creatively? Now people expect a certain “U2 sound” or a specific “Edge sound.”
That makes us immediately want to change it. Instantly. When we recorded the War album, even at that stage we were trying to kill this idea of the U2 sound. I don’t mind having a characteristic style of playing, but the idea that this is a band with a sort of formula sound really appalls me. So The Joshua Tree had a lot of songs that were really very untypical, and that will continue, probably more so, on the next few records.

What about your guitar playing? There certainly seem to be a lot of Edge imitators out there these days.
Well, you’re always going to get that, and it’s flattering in a way. But I think anyone who tries to sound like me has already missed the point, really. What I’m interested in is what new guitar players sound like. It’s great to hear somebody coming out with something new. Like Johnny Marr ”” I thought that was an interesting thing he was doing with the Smiths. That high-life-y quality was something I hadn’t heard before. I always thought the guy with Magazine [John McGeoch] was good. Again, it was something different.

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I’m not a fan of the million-miles-per-second guitar player. That’s more a form of athletics than anything else. It’s not really about music . . . . Peter Buck from R.E.M. is also good. Good in that nothing he ever does really bowls you over ”“ until you’ve heard it about twenty times. I think that’s a sign of music that really has longevity, when it grows on you like that. I like R.E.M. Maybe it needs a few more records to be brilliant, but it’s great now.

What guitarists did you listen to as a kid? Did you like people likeEric Clapton?
I was probably a bit young for him. My brother had a couple of Creamalbums, but I really missed Clapton. I missed most of those guys. I mean, I would have been eight when Woodstock happened. So it kind of went by me. But I’ve been playing guitar for some time now. I got my first guitar when I was about nine years old. It took me five years to learn how to tune it. [Laughs] But it was easy from there on.

Was that the guitar your mother bought you?
It was the one before that. The one my mother bought me I learnt how to tune. The one I had before that was like this little Spanish guitar. It looked good. That was part of it. I mean, I liked guitars at that stage. I stopped looking at them for a while. But I’ve started to notice how amazing they look again.

That’s one of the things that attracted me to rock & roll. Initially, there’s that feeling of potential, of power, when you strap on an electric guitar. And then you learn that what it’s really about is controlling that power. I mean, the guitar has been a big part of rock & roll. I just can’t imagine Elvis holding a violin!

How did you develop your style of playing?
I can’t really pick out influences. It’s very hard. I used to mention Tom Verlaine a lot. I like him ”” I mean, Marquee Moon was a great album ”“ but I think what I took from Verlaine was not really his style but the fact that he did something no one else had done. And I liked that; I thought that was valuable. I mean, I knew more what I didn’t want to sound like than what I wanted to sound like early on, when we first formed the group.

In some ways that’s why my playing is so minimal. Play as few notes as you can, but find those notes that do the most work. It became a whole way of working. If I could play one note for a whole song, I would. “I Will Follow” is almost that.

How did you start using the different effects, like echo?
Oh, yeah ”” the discovery of the echo unit. When we first started writing songs, I started working with what I later found out to be very Irish musical ideas, like using open strings, alternating those with fretted strings to produce drone type of things. And then when we went in to do some demos, I thought it might be neat if I got hold of an echo unit. Actually, it was Bono’s idea for me to go and get it.

So I borrowed some money from a friend and got this really cheap Memory Man echo unit. We wrote “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” and then “A Day Without Me,” and it just became an integral part of my guitar parts. It was really an enhancement originally, but I quite naturally got into using it as part of the guitar itself.

I tend to use effects that don’t change the tone of the guitar. I don’t like phasing or flanging or anything like that. I like echo. I like reverb. And Eno’s been a big help in adding new sorts of treatments to my repertoire. I really think that the use of treatments and effects is one reason why U2 works so well outdoors and in these big arenas. The sound just seems to resonate through these big arenas. We’ve never had any problem making our music work in a big space. In fact, I think I feel more at home in a big space than I do in a small club or theater now.

U2 played quite a few stadiums on the last leg of its U.S. tour. How did you feel about that?
It was a difficult decision for us, because we’ve always tried to create a feeling of intimacy in any show. People said we couldn’t do it in arenas, and I really believe we did. When it came to stadiums, we really had to make the move, because if we didn’t, it meant playing twenty nights in an arena, which we just couldn’t face. Bruce Springsteen seems to be able to do that and retain his sanity, but any more than about six shows in one town and we start going totally wacky. It becomes like a job.

There were times when I felt that we really succeeded spectacularly at the stadiums and times when I really felt disappointed. I remember one great show, in Olympic Stadium in Montreal. It was great. That’s when I thought, “Hey, this can work.”

But what about the fans? Do you really think someone at the back of a 60,000-seat stadium is feeling “intimate”?
With U2, it’s the music that makes the atmosphere. There’s no laser show, no special effects. And we always make sure that the sound is as good at the back end as it is right down in front. If we succeed or fail, it’s definitely down to our own ability to communicate the music. All I can say is that some of those shows have worked really well, so it’s not impossible, just kind of difficult.

Mark Knopfler recently said that any decision to play stadiums really comes down to money. You can make X million dollars by playing stadiums as opposed to only y million by playing arenas ”” that in the end it really has little to do with how many fans will be able to see you.
There’s no doubt that if you do exclusively stadium shows, you make a lot of money if they sell out. But what we did was a mixture of stadium shows and arena shows, which is the most uneconomic thing you can do. We didn’t feel confident enough to play only stadiums, but we also didn’t feel that we wanted to spend six or seven months just touring the United States. I don’t know what we’ll do next tour. I think we could take on the stadiums. But I also feel that we’ve proven that we can do it, and we don’t have to go any further.

In fact, two terrific stadium appearances ”“ at Live Aid, in 1985, and at the final Amnesty International show, in New Jersey in 1986 ”“ played a big role in establishing U2 as a major-league band. Do you sometimes worry that U2 has gotten too closely identified with those types of benefit shows?
Well, being the Batman and Robin of rock & roll has its disadvantages. I think we realized in the last couple of months that you can’t continue to the involved in charity events. What we are, first and foremost, is a rock & roll band. If we forget that, people are going to stop listening. So at the moment my feeling is that I don’t really want to do any charity shows for the moment. I think it would devalue anything else we’ve done.

As far as being responsible, I feel no need to be anything other than what we are. I don’t feel we need to be in some way virtuous or whatever. When you reach the stage we’re at, you have to learn to say no a lot more. I mean, we could do charity events solidly for the next ten years. But I don’t think it would really do any good.

What about Amnesty International?
That’s the one charity we really feel we can support, because its aims are so basic. You know, who can argue about human rights? It’s fundamental.

In the last year it seems U2 has done everything in the book ”“ had a Number One album and single, graduated to playing stadiums, and now a book, a movie and a live album are planned for 1988. What can you do for an encore?
Break up [laughs].

But seriously, how do you avoid the traps that have destroyed almost every other rock band?
By still being in love with music. I think a lot of groups that fell by the wayside just got distracted. At the moment we’re so into where the band is going and what the band can do musically that the other things have really had little effect on us. It’s really like we’ve let it wash over us without messing us up. And also because there are four of us in this group, we’re all in the same position.

It must be hard being, say, Bruce or Bob Dylan. Because it’s just you. There’s no one else you can check with and see how they’re feeling or who can keep an eye on you when you’re going through a rough period. With us, when we get into the limousine and there’s the four of us, it’s a good feeling. There are just those four people ”” but it makes it a lot easier to handle, no matter what happens.

I think we’re more committed to being a great group now than we ever were. For years we were insecure about our playing, about how good a band we were. But I’ve no doubt anymore. We’re a lot less insecure. But there are still a lot of musical goals that we haven’t achieved. I’m personally very excited about what’s going to happen in the next three years.

So what’s left for U2 to do?
I think we’re about to reinvent rock & roll. That’s our challenge.

This story is from the March 10th, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.

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