Dave Stewart the interviewer, formerly Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, looks strangely out of place in his new role. While seemingly a genial sort, he has to be the last name on anyone’s short list to host an interview program. In truth, I would say that he would not even make the margins of the long list. Stewart is so unassuming he seems like a guest who stumbled in late to his own party and has to be reminded that he is the host. He asks questions almost apologetically, seemingly much more concerned about how long the drinks are taking. Any indiscreet thoughts or opinions are saved for the snarkier afterparty.
But there is an upside to this featherweight downside. As a musician himself, with much experience in the pop-music industry, Stewart can hold an actual conversation with his guests not so much as a slick TV host but as a real colleague. So, in between the usual circle jerk of mutual appreciation, we get to hear a discussion of the craft behind songwriting and the personal politics required to keep a band together for more than three decades. Because this band is U2, it’s also about the politics of politics as well.
Bono and the Edge: Off the Record is the pilot episode of a new HBO series that begins in January in which Stewart basically plays James Lipton in a kind of Inside the Rockstar’s Studio chat show. Comparisons to VH1’s Storytellers are apt, but this also has a bit of the insider’s vibe that the old Playboy Penthouse and the later Playboy After Dark had, where Hugh Hefner walked around his bachelor pad, talking to celebrity friends in a much more informal way. Hef smoked his pipe and often stammered his way through the questions, but this only made the conversation seem more real and uncensored. As Hef explained, his show was really just “a sophisticated weekly get together of the people that we dig and the people who dig us.”
Stewart is missing more than the smoking jacket here but he does capture some of Hef’s casual informality as well as his lack of talk show host polish. The best moments in the hour are when Stewart forgets the whole studio-audience talk show format and just engages in a private conversation with his guests. But whether or not you will “dig” this program still depends on how much you like the Rock “legends” invited.
Bono and the Edge are here as they always are, speaking for the four-man collective that is U2. Apparently, like the Marx Brothers, Larry Mullen Harpo Jr. and Adam Clayton Zeppo are to be seen and not heard. Their talents are, though, much appreciated by the frontmen and praised repeatedly for saving or making song after song. A long apology perhaps for the freezing-cold-Berlin recording of Achtung Baby where a drum machine and synth bass briefly made the pair feel like a horse drawn carriage.
Stewart leads them through the standard-interview format beginning with the early days in Dublin. The two men give a series of oft-told anecdotes about their beginnings when Paul Hewson and Dave Evans needed cooler names and better hairstyles. For fans of U2, nothing really new is revealed here. These two are old hands at turning out the well-received story. It’s only about midway through that Stewart suddenly switches gears, surprising everyone by opening a small briefcase and pulling out a series of album covers to inspire Rorschach responses from the pair. The Clash, Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Bowie, Van Morrison, the Beatles and Sinatra all elicit hyperbolic reveries from Bono, even inspiring him to sing an a capella version of the song they wrote for the Chairman of the Board himself. The Ramones are apparently, “the reason we exist,” while Sgt. Pepper gets a nod of obvious honor and then is followed up by Bono’s provocative afterthought, “I think we have them on the run.”
Now I’ve always liked Bono. Even though I know Bono likes Bono more than me. He’s been able to wear arrogance less like an albatross and more like an Olympic medal. It seems that there’s never been a separation between Bono the musician, Bono the activist and Bono the man. The Edge, who clearly knows Bono better than me, tells Stewart that he doesn’t see how one thing Bono does is contrary to anything else. It all feeds into each other: Songs about politics, lunches with George W., and food for Darfur all come full circle in the recording studio. All extensions of what it means to be someone who felt comfortable labeling himself “Bono Vox.” He sits here in his superstar sunglasses and tries to be as down to earth as someone in his orbit can be. Extended monologues in which laser-like clarity descends into the maddeningly ambiguous are contrasted with the odd moment of self-deprecation: Bono feels that “Bad” has some bad, unfinished lyrics and that, in the ’80s, he may have underestimated the oppression of communism.
The Edge is clearly where Bono’s ego meets its match in modesty. Indeed, I think that modesty is why U2 is still going strong after 30 years. There’s no Lennon-McCartney battle for the Beatle kingdom here. The Edge, Clayton and Mullen Jr. seem quite comfortable letting Bono take center stage as long as he doesn’t forget they exist to make some music.
If there’s one key feature of this interview, it’s in how forthcoming the Edge is in talking about himself and the band. He gives very strong opinions on the importance of politics in music since the ’60s, on Brian Eno’s influence on their artistic development, and how much his trademark Stratocaster guitar riffs are inspired by—and are often a reaction to—his bandmates’ contributions. Whether it’s the laid back interrogation of Stewart or the influence of the Margaritas on hand, it’s been rare to hear so much from this often mysterious and soft-spoken man.
It’s really too early to tell if this show has anything more to offer than its predecessors. Inside the Actor’s Studio and Storytellers both manage to provide the most minimal content within the space of an hour. When the weekly episodes begin in January, Stewart will hopefully quit the Mutual Admiration Society and take full advantage of the subscription nature of HBO. An hour of musicians trying to get at the root of what makes their music unique would be a really worthwhile program. In this context, Stewart makes for an excellent choice as host. As long as he can keep his guests talking “shop” and stop them from selling the store, Off the Record just might fulfill its promise.