By ROBERT HILBURN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
HOLLYWOOD -- "Look, I'm sick of Bono and I am Bono," the leader of U2 said playfully about how he's always in the news, either for his music or his social activism.
Given his nonstop schedule, it was no surprise to learn on the way to an interview with him in West Hollywood last week that Bono was running 20 minutes late. It's a wonder he wasn't running days late.
As part of his crusade to combat Third World poverty, Bono has met with government leaders, industry titans and religious figures, including the late Pope John Paul II, who gave him a rosary during their visit.
"I'm not sure if it's Catholic guilt or what, but I genuinely believe that second only to personal redemption, the most important thing in the Scriptures -- 2,103 passages in all -- refers to taking care of the world's poor," Bono said when he finally arrived for lunch on the patio of a Sunset Boulevard hotel.
"Each generation has to ask itself what it wants to be remembered for. Previous generations have ushered in civil rights in America, gotten rid of apartheid in South Africa and brought down the Iron Curtain.
"I think this generation can bring that kind of energy and conviction to problems in Africa. There are 6,000 people a day dying there just because we can't get them drugs that are available in the West. If we don't do something to change that, we are going to look in history like barbarians."
For a time in the late '80s, Bono's high-profile crusading posed a threat to the band because music fans were tired of pontificating rock stars. They could have simply tuned out U2.
Against considerable odds, the 44-year-old singer-songwriter's continuing commitment to social issues and the excellence of U2's music have won over those who once mocked him as "Saint Bono."
The revelation of U2's new tour, which on Tuesday began a two-night, sold-out stand at Los Angeles' Staples Center, is that the activism has given the music more relevance and power.
"Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "One" are no longer just lovely, inspiring songs. Played in a row during the tour opener last Monday in San Diego, the songs took on even greater force because all the publicity over Bono's commitment makes the issues concrete. That gives the music context and depth.
"When we started getting behind social causes, Paul (McGuinness), our manager, warned us there might be a backlash of sorts," Bono said over a lunch of salad and coffee. "He said, 'Musicians are supposed to describe the problems of the world, not fix them.'
"And that is the way it's supposed to be. But we have a unique power in this ridiculous thing called celebrity, and our job isn't finished when we write songs that grow out of concerns."
The singer's "job" now includes co-founding DATA -- Debts, AIDS, Trade in Africa, a nonprofit organization to combat poverty and disease -- which he wants to become the "NRA for the world's poor."
"We don't want to just go around with our caps in our hands and say, 'Please can you give?' " he said. "We want to organize -- churches, school groups, individuals -- so we can confront political leaders to face these concerns."
Bono, whose real name is Paul Hewson, and the band also have lent the title of their song "One" to a coalition of social activists. For such efforts, Bono was nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. The Los Angeles Times even suggested in an editorial this year that he was the best choice to head the World Bank.
The Irishman said his own consciousness wasn't raised by any religious or political discovery, but through the music of one of his rock 'n' roll heroes, John Lennon. "I was 13, I suppose, and I became enthralled with his dream," Bono said, referring to songs such as "Imagine."
By the time Bono got into a band, however, he was all too aware of how easy it was to become a cliche as a rock activist. "There was this whole school of 'rock against bad things,' " he said, ignoring the repeated stares of fellow diners. "Everyone has his pet cause, and I have lots of things I'd like to see changed. But I realized what's happening in Africa isn't a cause, it's an emergency."
In the '70s, Lennon argued repeatedly that the issues of world peace and brotherhood weren't just hippie dreams, but genuine possibilities if only people committed themselves to change. In "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)," he stressed, "War is over / Over if you want it."
Still, Lennon surely would have been amazed and thrilled by how far Bono has taken that inspiration.
U2 has aligned itself with social causes before, including touring in the '80s on behalf of Amnesty International. Yet U2's social side has never been showcased as dramatically as on this tour.
To make sure that nothing interferes with the message of the music, the band has eliminated the elaborate video screens and other flashy staging devices employed on post-"Zoo TV" treks.
Midway through the concert, the band shifted from the private looks at faith and family that dominate its new album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," to a wider social canvas. In one especially thoughtful sequence, U2 turned to a series of older songs, including "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Running to Stand Still," to explore issues on a worldwide agenda.
Although Bono takes the lead onstage and off in pursuing social themes, it wouldn't be possible without the encouragement and support of the band, which includes the Edge on guitar, Larry Mullen Jr. on drums and Adam Clayton on bass.
In a separate interview, the Edge said the band was nervous opening night in San Diego that the concert might be tipped too strongly toward social commentary.
"There was a great sense of relief after that show, both the way the songs worked together and the response of the audience," he said Saturday.
"I felt especially good for Bono because, as the front man and the one heading up the political work, he is the one who is the most vulnerable to attack if it went wrong. But I instantly felt, 'Wow, this is working.' It felt like everything was right in sync."
On the same point, Bono said, "I do feel it has all come together. When we talk about Dr. King's dream in 'Pride,' everyone knows what dream we are talking about and how fulfilling it was one of the great moments in American history.
"What we are saying now is, 'Guess what . . . that dream, that goal of liberating people is still here. It has just moved location.' That's why it's so important to turn our energy toward what is going on in Africa."