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Mysterious Days

“The job of art is to chase away ugliness,” Bono says as he twists the ignition key of his Maserati Quattroporte. “So let’s start with the roads. Cars are so ugly. America is supposedly the country that brought us the love of the automobile, yet they haven’t produced a beautiful car in decades. Americans used to make feminine cars with a sense of humor, but now it’s all SUVs. The Germans kind of picked up the slack for a while, but the Italians ultimately were the ones that took them on. But the Italians pick such arrogant names. Do you know what quattroporte means? Four-door. It means four-door.” Bono laughs, and I pretend to understand why this is funny. I’m not sure why an expository word like quattroporte would seem pretentious, but I certainly can’t disagree with his core argument: This is not an ugly car.

With its sleek, soft lines, this is, in fact, the nicest automobile I’ve ever touched. I’ve never even had dreams about cars like this. Sitting in the passenger seat is like being inside a spaceship.

He’s about to drive me back to Dublin’s Clarence Hotel, which Bono co-owns with guitarist the Edge and a local businessman (and where Bono plans to have supper with an 88-year-old Irish painter, Louis le Brocquy). I have just spent the last two hours interviewing Bono about How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2’s 11th studio album. Our conversation (conducted on the ground floor of the band’s headquarters and recording studio) touched on myriad points, some about music but most about politics and celebrity and the meaning of freedom. However, there is only one question about U2 that actually matters, and I’m still trying to figure it out while this four-door Maserati backs out of the garage: Is Bono for real, or is Bono full of shit?

We begin driving away from the studio, a faceless two-story building nestled along the canal in Dublin’s most relentlessly industrial neighborhood. Suddenly, Bono-who is wearing sunglasses despite the darkness-spots four teenagers on a bench, huddled next to some U2 graffiti and bundled in sweaters (it’s 50 degrees outside, but it feels colder). I will soon learn that two of the girls are from Belgium, one girl is from Austria, and one guy is Irish. They have been sitting there for seven hours, hoping to see anything that vaguely resembles achtung. “I’m going to talk to these kids,” Bono says as he stops the Maserati and jumps out. I can see him signing autographs in the rearview mirror. This strikes me as quaint, and I begin jotting down the event in my notebook. But then Bono opens the trunk and throws the teenagers’ bags inside. Suddenly, there are four pale kids climbing into the backseat. I guess we’re lucky this is a Quattroporte.

“We’re gonna give these kids a ride,” says Bono. I look over my right shoulder at the girl from Austria, and I witness someone’s mind being blown out of her skull; I can almost see her brains and blood splattered across the rear window. The car takes off. Bono drives recklessly, accelerating and braking at random. “Do you want to hear the new album?” he asks the glassy-eyed teenagers. This is more than a month before How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb will be released. They say, “Yes.” Bono punches up track four, “Love and Peace or Else.” He hits play, and it’s loud; it sounds like someone dropping the throttle on a Harrier Jump Jet. Bono starts singing along, harmonizing with himself. He’s playing air drums while he drives. The music changes, and he exclaims, “This is the Gary Glitter part!” The music changes again. “This is the Brian Wilson moment!” The teenagers aren’t even talking. They’re just kind of looking at each other, almost like they’re afraid this is some Celtic version of Punk’d.

One of the kids asks to hear “Miracle Drug,” which makes Bono nervous. An early version of the album was stolen in July, and he is worried that it may have been leaked to the Internet. But he plays the track anyway, still singing along, and he turns the volume even higher when we get to the lyrics, “Freedom has a scent / Like the top of a newborn baby’s head.” He calls these two lines the best on the album. This behavior is incredibly charming, a little embarrassing, and amazingly weird. We eventually get to the hotel, and Bono drives up on the sidewalk. He unloads the kids’ bags, and they walk away like zombies. The two of us amble into the Clarence and shake hands in the lobby, and then Bono disappears into the restaurant to meet the elderly painter I’ve never heard of. And I find myself thinking, “Did this really just happen? Am I supposed to believe he does this kind of thing all the time, even when he doesn’t have a reporter in the front seat of his car? And does that even matter? Was that car ride the greatest moment in those four kids’ lives? Was this whole thing a specific performance, or is Bono’s entire life a performance? And if your entire life is a performance, does that make everything you do inherently authentic? Is this guy for real, or is this guy full of shit?”

Which is kind of how our conversation had started two hours ago.

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