U2 on the India-Born Concept That Can Help With Today's 'Politics of Fear'

Ross Stewart


The final concert of the celebrated global U2: The Joshua Tree Tour will, in a certain respect, be a beginning, as it marks U2's first-ever performance in India. And even if it's not by design, there's a little bit of kismet in the fact that 1987's The Joshua Tree, their album-length meditation on the spiritual mythos of America, will open them up to a subcontinent that gave birth to several major world religions. Or to look at it another way, as the Irish rockers close the book on an album steeped in their perception of the world leader in democracy, they're opening themselves up to life inside the world's largest democracy when they play Mumbai's DY Patil Stadium on Dec. 15 (the show is produced by Live Nation Global Touring and brought to India by BookMyShow).

Bono and The Edge recently stopped by Electric Lady Studios in New York City, where they recorded much of 2014's Songs of Innocence and 2017's Songs of Experience. In between speaking with various Indian media outlets and Bono vamping bits of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" on an obliging organ, the duo spoke to Billboard about what took them so long to finally play there and why the Indian concept of ahimsa (respect for all living things and nonviolence) is something to keep in mind as we face Brexit and what Edge calls "the global political malaise."

There have been online rumors for about ten years regarding U2 coming to India – where there a few times that came close, and if so, what fell through?

The Edge: These tours get booked, and it's a complex series of decisions based on logistics and financing and all the rest. This is the first time there's been a serious, concerted definite plan to come to India. Before it was just an inquiry, but this time, it's happening.

Do you feel any sort of spiritual connection to India?

The Edge: For me, I'm curious. If you think about the ancient history of India, so many important religions started there. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism…

Bono: Loads of isms! Ahimsa, that's the word for nonviolence [in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism] -- it's a beautiful word. There's something in the chaos in that country: It's really ancient traditions and it's also ultra-modern. The future of democracy is being played out there in some ways. Europe is quite staid, America is founded on that concept, and in India it's very much about, "Can it survive at that scale with the pressures going on?" With so many different ethnic groups that all obviously should be respected. Pluralism and democracy are less stable, dependable there than elsewhere in the world. Of course, we all have a stake on it surviving as a democracy.

The Edge: It's amazing this stability that has been achieved with the largest democracy on the planet. It's really something.

Your tour is an intense production, and India is geographical challenge. Did you ever think about doing a stripped-down show in India, or was it always 'we need the full experience'?

Bono: You're getting under the hood now, but that's actually the truth. We could've come to India many years ago with a stripped-down show. But we felt that if we are going to go, we want India to see us as we are everywhere else. We kept thinking, "well, the next tour we'll figure it out," and "the next tour we'll figure it out," and we didn't. It's taken us this long. At one point we were talking about doing an acoustic show at the Taj Mahal. That would be a dream. Just the shapes and the meditation on love that it is; we feel our music is that meditation on love. But not love in the wishy-washy sense -- it's love in action. It's what love actually means in terms of how you treat your next-door neighbor, your partner, the people you disagree with – which in fact is more revealing than the people you agree with. And that was the subject for the Beatles. There's a few groups of the rock era who have made love their subject, but only a few; we're certainly one of them. So that's why the Taj Mahal.

What are you most nervous about or excited about, either for the show or personally?

The Edge: For me it's actually getting to meet our Indian audience and see who they are.

I feel like you must have fans everywhere in the world, including India.

Bono: We've heard tell of it. People will occasionally say, "come and we can get try and get such and such company to pay for it." But we don't do corporate shows. We understand you can make relationships with companies that help keep the ticket price down, but it's getting that to the point where you still have your real audience – we don't play to an audience unless it's real, it has to be real. This time, we have a sense it will be a real audience for us.

Going back to a democracy – are you keeping close eye on Brexit, in terms of the Ireland/Northern Ireland border?

The Edge: Yeah, we are. But we're also aware of the fact that it's happening outside of our sphere of influence. It's a U.K. issue, we're in Ireland. We're very concerned how it will go, the shape it will take, but I think Ireland is in a very good place right now economically and socially. We'll muddle through. But the other thing, the global political malaise we seem to be in of the politics of fear predominating and the reactions to these manipulations of the population through media, particularly social media; There's stuff going on there where we're behind the curve and we need to get on top of that. It's bad enough state agencies using social media as a weapon against other states, but when you have private-owned media conglomerates using their influence for their own selfish gains, engaged in massive campaigns, that's a very disturbing development. I look forward to a time when that's closed down and can't be done anymore. It's just the law of most countries is behind. But also, we have to be much more aware of how we're being played. Individuals have to be aware and those social media companies have to step up as well.

Bono: This invention of India, ahimsa, this is a gift to the world from India and Mahatma Gandhi. It's never been more important in the world. With all the tensions in India, hold tight to that world, ahimsa. Brexit, it's not even a British thing – it's an English thing. It's a development of English nationalism. It's an English nationalist uprising and it's likely to lose Scotland and Northern Ireland. I don't know if Wales will hold on, perhaps, but it's something to be very careful about. The Future of England polls are really worth reading, you realize these English nationalists don't have much time for Northern Ireland or Scotland, and it's come out. I think we just have to be very careful. My father loved Ireland and wanted to get rid of the border in Ireland but he taught me to be very suspicious of people who stirred up nationalism.

How does it compare to what you saw back when the band was forming?

The Edge: Joe Strummer's brother joined the National Front. Part of the Clash's reaction against fascism and his attempt to engage in social and political issues was because he lost his brother, twice – once when he joined the National Front, and then he actually died. That was one of the reasons Joe was so vehemently against that narrow right-wing politics. In Ireland, we actually got into politics in a different way through the influence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, this idea of nonviolent resistance. Which unfortunately had been lost sight of in Northern Ireland. But it was very much an inspiration for us to try to promote that thought at a time when, unfortunately, there was violence everywhere. It was a daily occurrence. There was a bombing going off or an assassination. But that instinct to respond through our work was born during those early days growing up in Ireland during the Troubles.

Bono: We hear stories of Mahatma Gandhi reading Tolstoy, so he was looking at the Christian tradition with some respect also, but he did say the best line I ever heard about Christianity, which is, "I'd become Christian if I ever met one." But Edge, you were going back to a source for us, and that is correct. At age 22 and 23 we were taking our flag, the Irish flag, taking the green [signifying Irish Catholics] and the orange [signifying Irish Protestants] and separating them and holding the white flag [signifying unity between the two]. It was juvenile you might argue but it was poetic -- and I stand by it still.


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