Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

U2 and Me. Neil McCormick in Interview.

The Bono McCormick describes has broken the rules, not just of rock and roll but of modern celebrity, by becoming an effective and dedicated long-term campaigner with remarkable grasp of the detail of his cause.

Faith has played a part in that development. In the book McCormick talks quite a bit about the group's spirituality and faith in God, and religion seems instrumental in sustaining the group and developing Bono's vision beyond music.

“I think U2's faith is a very positive thing for them: even though at an early stage it verged on the ludicrous, and some of that is explored in the book. They did go to some extremes, which they definitely came back from. But from the start, faith has been crucial for them in focusing them to set high goals. Sex and drugs and rock and roll didn't drive them, well not three of them anyways – and the fourth kind of came along with that! For a young band, going on the road can be very hard. You have a lot of time on your hands, nothing to do, locked in a room or a bus with other bored young men. Drugs and hedonism can be the only way to pass the time, between a few short hours of adrenalin. People go on tours and come back shell-shocked, their relationships fractur
ed, their creative powers drained away. U2 avoided that burnout, they were at the back of the bus communing with God and that focus helped empower them, helped them stay focused and stay together. In has certainly taught me that faith can be a very effective weapon in the human armoury”.

Bono is now the global figurehead for the campaign to rid Africa of AIDS and free the continent from debt. What does McCormick make of his friends' efforts to save the world? What does he think it says about Bono?

“He has done incredible things – used fame as a means to a bigger end. People often say to me, I cannot believe you went to school with Bono. Usually what they mean is; I cannot believe Bono was ever a regular 16 year old! But what I think is – I cannot believe I went to school with a guy who actually has changed the world! His ceaseless campaigning for debt relief has been effective, he has used all his resources to make a difference. He has taken it door to door, won his argument and affected actual, positive change. It is an amazing achievement, and there are very few people in the world that can match it.

In the book I write about a trip to Rome with him, and how we end up in a nightclub – and there we are, surrounded by girls and champagne and cigars – and yet, he is still talking about big things and debating where to go next. He puts so much of himself into it. He is incredibly well informed and gives so much of his energy that he wears himself out, yet is always getting ready for the next battle. I think it is an amazing and heroic thing that he does.”

So do we have a rock star who wants to be Nelson Mandela…a bit like this music journalist who wants to be a rock star??

“No one is satisfied with their lot it seems! But no, no; I really do not think Bono wants to be Nelson Mandela – he likes being a rock star and has found ways of using that in a positive way, to fill up his life and to make a difference. He knows he is in a unique position because of his music. There are things driving Bono, he is a very driven individual, and those things are quite dark forces, emotionally and psychologically. If I were him I would be staying in bed late; but he could not do that.“

And what about Neil McCormick the journalist, does he want to change the world? Media and fame are so closely related, it would seem one could not exist without the other. How does he see his own influence as a journalist?

“As a young man of course I wanted to change the world, all young men do: it is part of their ego! Now I see that I am just a pebble in the lake, who can create the odd ripple. Sometimes that image changes to a drowning man in that same lake; screaming – come on, over here! look here! My thing is to try to show that there is a lot of talent out there, despite everything. I love music; I think it is the art form most responsive to the human condition. I am not changing the world, but I think I have helped certain talents come through. A critic has nothing like the power of the record companies, you are a lone voice. The music business is fucked up, corrupt, badly run but, at the heart of it, it has a lot of talent, which gives us something. I think I have made some positive contributions, and that is as much as I can do.

You know, the book has forced me to really think about criticism, and the role of critics. Being on the receiving end again gives pause for thought. Some of it is so vicious: I don't like to think about it. A lot of music criticism is atrocious, it is all about taking people down and it seems fair game to say anything about the people behind the music. My theory is that everyone tries to do their best – nobody goes out and says I am going to do my worst today. Sometimes it is not good enough, but we have to remember there are people behind the creative endeavour and they deserve to be treated with respect. I think a lot of critics, like a lot of journalists, forget that there are real people involved at all. It is a very negative, destructive thing and the level of judgment is so poor. When it comes to being a good music journalist, I think my experience of being in a band, of writing music is a bonus. I know I am not very objective, but I understand what the musicians are going through and I think I can spot when they are sincere.“

McCormick never stopped writing music and playing the guitar, but for years he only did so in the privacy of his own home. However, for his 40th birthday, he decided to celebrate by bringing together “a motley crew of musical contemporaries to perform in the local pub”. This in turn “reminded me of the pleasures of performing music for its own sake”, and turned in to a regular, informal happening which finally gave him the impetus to think about recording again. The result is an album which will be out in September.

“The name on the album is The ghost that walks – and the album itself is called Mortal Coil. I was going to do it anonymously as I was a bit unsure about this business of a critic making a record, and I was just making music again, quietly, for fun. But the response to the music was so good, and then I had a song included on Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ album. My song appears between Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen, two of my all-time heroes! – and that gave me a resurgence of confidence. “

Why the ghost who walks?

“It has to do with the idea of somebody coming back to life. Writing music is a big part of me. I have a poetic identity that comes through in songs and some people really get them.“

Old dreams obviously die hard. Describing this new twist in his musical career in the book, McCormick tells us things are different this time – “he'd be quite happy being a minor poet ”. Hours after making that statement however, he is telling his partner “this is only the beginning. I want to make a masterpiece – This could be the start of something big, babe. It could change our lives”.

Self-deprecating as this story is, despite his protestations, it is hard to believe that McCormick does not still harbour a sense that he really is destined to have a hit record. He says he is not concerned with fame the way he was – “my life is very full now” – and the main thing for him is to continue to make music.

“ I want to make an album and then I don't really care what happens: I would like it to be out there in the ether where people can listen to it and respond to it, or not. And I want to continue doing it. My hope is that when I am seventy you will find me down the pub with a banjo.”

I am sure that is true; but I do think he would also love me to be accompanied by a television camera when I drop in. Looking for the legendary Neil McCormick.

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