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Old 08-11-2004, 09:21 AM   #1
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Interview: Neil McCormick, Author, Journalist, Aspiring Rock Star*

By Devlin Smith
Contributing Editor

Now that he’s stopped chasing fame with such ferocity, it looks like Neil McCormick’s time in the spotlight has finally arrived. Arts columnist for the Daily Telegraph, McCormick has recently released his first book, “I Was Bono’s Doppelganger” (Penguin Books the story of his lifelong quest for fame and the friendship he has maintained with Bono, and the other members of U2, for more than 25 years. He is also featured on the new “Song Inspired By The Passion of the Christ” soundtrack.

McCormick wanted to be a pop star and spent a good deal of his young-adult life chasing that dream with younger brother, Ivan. His book talks honestly about his years on the track to stardom, revealing how harsh the entertainment business can be with anecdotes that are hilarious and heartbreaking. “I Was Bono’s Doppelganger” is also about growing up and finding your place in the world, two things that McCormick seems to have accomplished well.

Today, McCormick lives in London with his girlfriend Gloria and their three sons, Abner, Kamma and Finn. In addition to his work for the Telegraph he also has a musical project called The Ghost Who Walks and is expecting to release an album in the fall. had the opportunity to pose a few questions to McCormick about his book, U2 and the appeal of fame.

Why did you decide to write this book now?

The story was festering in my brain and I became convinced that if I didn’t get it out I could blow a hole in my cranium. Actually, I wanted to find out if I could write a book and I talked myself into this one for rather prosaic reasons. I have a lot going on in my life and I wasn’t sure if I could find the time and space to write a work of fiction, where you have to sustain a whole world in your head but this was always in my head, I could just dip in and out of my memories. So the practical, lazy man’s answer to that question is I thought I could pull it off without too much pain! But, in retrospect, there was more to it than that. I was asked to write a book about U2 years before and turned it down because I didn’t want to just be hanging on their coat tails. But now, I guess, I have achieved things in my own right and I was in a good mental space to examine my past.

Was reliving your quest for fame at all difficult?

I wrote quite quickly and I enjoyed the experience, so in one sense it was very easy. But in other ways it was hard. Setting out, I resolved to make this more substantial than a mere comic memoir. I wanted to say something about our fame-obsessed era and I wanted to evoke my own psychological journey, and that meant I had to be brutally honest. And brutal turned out to be the appropriate adjective. I was constantly confronted with the flaws of my younger self, the egotism, arrogance and naked ambition. Some of it made me cringe. Some of it made Bono cringe too! But ultimately it was a cathartic experience for both of us, I like to think.

Who is the intended audience for this book? What do you hope they get from reading your life story?

I didn’t really worry too much about who might read the book, which is not to say I didn’t think about the reader. I felt I was addressing a world outside myself and I was very conscious of bringing this unknown audience through the story in a way that would be easy to follow. But I have tried to address universal concerns, so that anyone might respond to it. Obviously it might appeal to U2 fans in particular, music fans in general and probably anyone who has ever been in a band or even dreamed about fame (which, judging by “Pop Idol” and “Big Brother,” seems to be the whole of the Western world these days). But my girlfriend’s mother (one of the few people I can think of who doesn’t actually fit into any of those categories) practically devoured the book. I hope readers will be entertained. I wanted it to be a funny book, with a certain lightness to it.

But there are heavier subjects in there, subplots focussed on ideas that I think people might respond to. I got to essay my theory that rock and film stars have become the archetypes of the modern collective unconscious, replacing gods and saints. There is a big debate about God and matters of the spirit in the book, which are things that have interested me all my life. Philosophically, I concur with John Lennon when he said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, and so I hope I have succeeded in imparting the probably rather obvious wisdom that you should appreciate what you have and not waste your time hankering after what you don’t.

I think there is a rounded portrait of Bono, who is one of the great figures of our times and I have really tried to examine what drives him, the engine of his stardom. And I would like to put a rocket up the backside of the music business, which I feel treats talent in a cavalier fashion. If I wanted readers to come away with one thing, it would be to challenge some of the common assumptions about fame and destiny, in particular the notion that fame is the reward for great talent. All this and jokes too—now there’s a thing!

(Cover: Penguin Books)

This book traces your attempts at stardom and U2's journey to the top. Since you've known the band from the very beginning, do you know what characteristic they have that has made them so successful?

Well, looking over pictures of the early days, it wasn’t their fashion sense, that’s for sure. U2 are a fantastic rock group, full of imagination and passion, so you have to take their talent as the bottom line. But there’s a lot of other things that have conspired to make them so successful. Loyalty is one, bands are almost always stronger if they stick together, rather than chopping and changing line up at the first sign of trouble. Like The Beatles, U2 stumbled upon a perfect blend of characters: Bono, the creative engine, driven by his unrequited need for love, a passionate and charismatic soul with immense ambition; Edge, a bit of a musical genius; Larry and Adam, bedrocks of common sense, able to provide a framework for these two immensely gifted individuals. It’s a very balanced unit. But probably the key factor in taking them beyond the parameters of the local scene was their manager, Paul McGuinness. You know, what were the chances that this highly motivated group would get together with probably the one young (and relatively untested) manager in Ireland who had a vision of taking a baby band to America and conquering the world? So there was a lot of luck involved.

Even culturally, if punk rock hadn’t happened, liberating the early band from their rather painful attempts to play cover versions, then maybe U2 would never have even made it out of school. And I think their relationship with God has been really important, because it kept all the vices and temptations that destroy so many rock bands at bay. Life on the road is hard, there are a lot of drugs around, and people get literally wasted, burned up before their time. Relationships fracture through exhaustion. Success and affluence corrupts the early idealism. But because of U2 focus on matters of the spirit, they were always able to keep their eye on the main prize: creating something glorious. But, you know, it could still have gone wrong. “October,” their second album, was a bit of a rushed and ill-conceived affair that did not actually deliver on the promise of their first album and, if that happened to a band today, if sales fell rather than rose, they would be immediately dropped by their record company and never even get a chance to redeem themselves with another record.

In writing this book, did you find any answer or clarity as to why you yourself didn't make it?

Yes and no. No one can plan for stardom, ultimately the public chooses who it wants to pluck from the teeming ranks of wannabes. I think I was too focussed on fame, I might have benefited from relaxing and just making the most of the music. I was pig-headed and naïve at the same time, not the most productive combination. Clearly, reviewing the past, I scared a few people off. And I can see that from the record industry’s point of view, we were a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. We wanted to make pop music with heavy subject matter, and maybe the two don’t blend together so well. Not that I actually believe that. Pop should be broad enough to encompass everything, and the Beatles proved that to be possible. The harsh reality of the music business is that there has to be a near cosmic alignment of talent and circumstance for a band to make it big but I am still a bit baffled as to why we were never even given the chance.

My Irish post punk band, Yeah! Yeah!, weren’t the finished article. The songs were probably much stronger than the performance, we were still learning our craft. But in London, Shook Up! were a truly fantastic band. We had strong songs, a really dynamic sound, a fervent live following, the most glowing reviews you could wish for. I remember Melody Maker magazine, which was then one of the leading British music papers, saying that “40 minutes with Shook Up! is like listening to an embryonic greatest hits album”, which was what it was intended to be. We made every song and every moment count. When you have ticked all the boxes demanded by the recording industry and you still can’t even get an offer of some studio time, then I think there is something wrong with the system. We weren’t rejected by the public. We were rejected by the music industry’s deeply flawed talent seeking procedure. But then, when young bands come to me now, I always tell them to do it for the music and let everything else come from that, because if you go into this business seeking fame, you are only going to get hurt.

Having dealt with fame from so many different angles through your own career as a musician and reporter, and through your friendship with Bono, do you think making it is more a matter of luck, skill, or both?

Some people make it with very little talent and a whole lot of luck (but they never last very long). Some very talented people don’t make it at all, because (to quote a phrase) they were shit out of luck. To make it in any worthwhile sense you have to have a lot of talent and a whole lot of luck. I wonder about some absolutely exceptional talents, like say Bob Dylan. Maybe the sheer force of his genius was undeniable. Maybe. But I know exceptional records by people you have probably never heard of. There was a group called Doll By Doll in England in the late-‘70s, who made an album called Gypsy Blood which is the great-lost British classic, nobody seems to know this band but they were phenomenal. The singer and main writer, Jackie Leven, is still going, on a very small scale, yet he is working at an incredibly high artistic level. He is easily as talented as any of the legendary figures British music has produced, and his tiny audience is very loyal to him, but somehow events never conspired to put him in the eye of the general public.

Bono wrote the introduction to this book. Were you nervous to present this idea to him? What was his reaction? Did he ask for any editorial privileges?

Bono has often said that I should write a book, although I don’t think a book about him was what he had in mind. I wasn’t at all nervous to present the idea to him because it was such a good idea, I knew he would love it. But, out of respect, I did run it past him before going ahead. I had the title and first few pages, which I read out to him over the phone. Or, at least, I tried to read it to him. I only actually got as far as the first line, “I always knew I would be famous” when I was cut short by the sound of guffawing down the line. I have to say, the laughter went on for so long I actually got a bit pissed off. “It’s not that funny,” I protested. “I could have been famous!” He loved the idea. He did ask for me to run his quotes past him but only so that he could make sure they rang true. But in the end he said I captured him better than anyone had before. When we sat down to go through his notes, he had only pencilled in a couple of tiny changes in the first couple of chapters. He said he just got carried away reading the book and forgot to make notes!

You have some funny and embarrassing stories about yourself and your friends in the book. Was there anything you refused to include? Did Edge mind that you outed his teenage self as a "sloppy kisser"?

There was something I left out actually but I’m not going to tell you now, since that would defeat the whole point of my earlier discretion. It is nothing sinister, just some schoolboy stuff that, in the cold light of adulthood, is a touch embarrassing. I will tell you that we all went on a trip for the Mount Temple choir, and Edge, me and another pupil, Stephen Balcombe, shared a room. I will leave the rest up to your imaginations! But you have to remember, we were teenage boys off the leash of parental control! Anyway, Edge should be pleased that the only thing I mentioned was his sloppy kissing, I have more!

Who was the person you were most anxious about showing the book to?

My girlfriend, Gloria, We’ve been together over 15 years but there were things about me she didn’t know and I didn’t know how she would take it. But she loved it.

The book begins with you dispelling the long-standing rumor that you were originally a part of U2, verifying that it was your younger brother who was there at the start. How do you think that mix-up started? Did your brother ever mind that you got the credit for being an original member of the band?

That story came about through bad research by Eamon Dunphy when he wrote “The Unforgettable Fire,” which I think is an atrocious book, full of fundamental errors that betray the fact that Eamon knows nothing about music. However, he was the band’s choice to write it, so maybe some of the blame rests with them. Eamon had the gall to thank me in the credits, saying “I never met Neil McCormick but I picked his brains all the same.” You know, I’m not that hard to find, a simple phone call would have disabused him of a few of his false notions.

I guess the name McCormick came up in conversation with the band and he knew I had been around the scene and just assumed it was me. And, to be completely honest, as much as I moan about it, it has served me quite well, I got a book out of it! But my brother Ivan is not so happy, it’s something that is part of his life, his moment in rock history, and it was rather carelessly handed to his big brother. Bono called me once to say he was in Val D’isere, a little skiing village in the Alps in France, and everywhere he went he would hear about this guy who used to be in U2, some guy who played the piano and ran a bar in the mountains. He thought it was just a ridiculous local legend, until someone mentioned the name Ivan McCormick, and Bono just had to laugh and admit it was true.

Today you have a successful newspaper column, have just published this book and may be releasing an album. Has this notoriety satisfied the desire for fame you had since childhood?

I was in a documentary about Victoria Beckham that was shown on prime time TV, and the next day I went off about my business. My local greengrocer had seen the programme and was so impressed that he gave me a bunch of bananas for nothing. Then I went to get some photocopies done in the local print shop and the guy behind the counter recognised me from TV and gave me a discount of £2.50. So I thought this fame thing isn’t bad, so far I’ve made £2.50 and a bunch of bananas. Then I went into a local Indian restaurant and the proprietor was looking at me very strangely. “I see you on TV,” he says, knowingly. “Excuse me?” I say, because I find it very difficult to understand his accent. “You are on TV!” he says. And, of course, I modestly admit that this might be the case. “You are a presenter on children’s TV,” he says. As much as I protested that he was making a mistake, he became ever more insistent, saying things like “My son likes you very much.” So now, every time I go in there, he wants to talk about children’s TV. And what makes it worse is that he is an old Indian gentleman with missing teeth and I can barely make out a word he is saying. The consequence, of course, is that although the food is great, I try to avoid the place now. Fame, I have learned rather late in life, is very overrated.

What do you think it is about fame that is so appealing?

It is external validation of the ego. It is proof that you exist. It is the keys to the kingdom. But it is all an illusion. The money’s good, though.

Knowing the true price of fame through your friendship with Bono (such of lack of privacy, demands on time and relationships), if you could go back and change whatever that was that kept your bands from world domination, would you?

Oh yes! Music is my first love and it happens to be something I think I have a real talent for. And I would like to have been able to explore that talent to the full, to have a whole batch of albums behind me by now, to hear the world singing my songs. I am realistic enough to recognise that fame might not have been good for me. I might have been trapped in that selfish, arrogant phase of my 20s, thinking I was God’s gift. But I prefer to think I would have been one of the few for whom fame expands the person rather than narrows them. It is a tremendous validation of your creative self. I think the reason that some famous people actually seem larger than life is because they are liberated from the petty concerns of ordinary existence and able to continually feed their inner self. Some people have managed fame rather well, Bono being one. He has made a real difference in the world. I would like to have had that opportunity but that is not to say I am unhappy with my lot.

As a father, what would your reaction be if your sons told you they wanted to be stars? What advice would you have for them?

Gloria has two sons, Abner and Kamma, who I have raised as my own. They are just entering their 20s now and they are very talented film-makers, working in digital, which is kind of the punk rock of modern visual media. They have just finished work on their second feature, “Shooting Shona” (you can look it up on They remind me a lot of myself at that age. They are very artistically driven but if they are successful then they could also become famous. That is one of the things about fame, for certain creative endeavours fame is the measure of your achievement. I would give them the advice I would give anyone, don’t let it turn your head. Keep focussed on the work, which is what the fame springs from. And always remember that a little humility goes a long way. Treat people well because everybody is of value and fame is not a measure of a person’s worth. But make the most of it, because fame is a privilege and too many famous people treat it like a burden.

In the book, you talk about the bands you started with your brother and the advice Kink Ray Davies gave you about sibling bands never working out. You didn't believe him at the time, has your take on that advice changed?

The Kinks did pretty well, for all their friction. So, for that matter, have Oasis. And I am currently enjoying The Finn Brothers new album, “Everyone is Here.” Siblings have a way of communicating that verges on telepathy and can be incredibly productive but there is a downside which springs from a sense of being trapped within the ever decreasing orbit of your family identity. I think if Ivan and I had been successful, our relationship would have continued to flourish, but because we became so frustrated by our inability to make it past the first hurdle, things became quite poisonous. But, you know, your life in a family is a long one. We had 10 years of miscommunication but things are being rebuilt, and in the long term the bad times will just seem like a blip.

The book talks about your latest musical project The Ghost Who Walks. Can you describe it? Also, what progress has been made on getting a CD released?

I think it is a masterpiece! To have come out with anything less after all this time would have been embarrassing. Fortunately, a few people seem to agree with this assessment, not least Bono, who has been singing its praises. And Mel Gibson included my song “Harm’s Way” on his “Songs Inspired By The Passion of the Christ” album, so I finally made my major label debut sandwiched between Elvis Presley and Leonard Cohen, with Bob Dylan bringing up the rear—good company to be in. If I had really learned my lesson, I would quit now, while I was ahead.

It is big music, big songs with complex lyrics and juicy melodies. I think anyone who likes U2’s records would like my album, not because it is musically similar but because it has that kind of widescreen imagination and emotional commitment. It spans a vast musical terrain: gospel, hard rock, country, pop, hip hop, rock ’n’ roll and some real tear-jerking ballads. I had the idea that it should sound like you were lost in a record store, listening to all your favourite music at the same time. Unfortunately and shockingly, despite it having a number of high profile admirers (including Sting and Elton John) and being connected to the most successful film of the year, the state of the music business today has made it very difficult to actually get the damn thing in the shops. The problem is that I am a 43-year-old journalist and not a hungry young wannabe pop star. So after all the abortive incidents outlined in the book, I am now about to release it in the UK on my own imprint, Bipolar, through Vital. It should be in shops in September and hopefully you will be able to buy it online too, possibly through Amazon. Updated information can be accessed on and there should be some downloadable tracks there too. I’m not looking for the fame and fortune that motivated me when I was young, and the music is probably better for it. I just needed to get this stuff out of me or it was going to turn cancerous. I’d like to be in a position to put out an album every couple of years, and perhaps a book every alternate year, and keep up my column too, because having a place to sound off in print on a weekly basis is a real pleasure.

You named the book "I Was Bono's Doppelganger." If that's who you were, who are you now?

The title is a conceit. Yes, I was haunted by the success of Bono but I had other dimensions to my life too and as I have got older and more mature, they have come to the fore. “I yam who I yam,” as Popeye would say. I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. But I got a very nice e-mail from someone who read an advance copy of my book asking if they could be my doppelganger.

Is there anything else about this book you would like to share with our readers?

Elton John phoned me up to say it was one of the best books he had ever read about pop music, which was nice. And U2 liked it so much, they asked me to oversee their autobiography, “U2 By U2,” which I am working on now. And for anyone who is really interested, there were some bits excised purely for reasons of space and flow, including an amusing story about what happened when Larry played drums (unrehearsed I might add) for my band The Modulators. So, by way of an exclusive for your readers, here is that missing paragraph in full:

The only problem arose during “Revolution.” We had faithfully mastered the Beatles version which, despite being essentially a 12 bar blues, was by some distance the most complex song we had learned and we could just about manage its chug-a-lug pace. It started, however, with a double speed guitar riff, which Larry picked up on and suddenly we were hurtling through the whole song at punk rock velocity: “Yousayyouwannarevolutionwe-ellalrightweallwannachangetheworld …” The veins bulged on John’s right forearm and his eyes looked like they were going to pop out of his head but Ivan was always a very cool presence on stage, he concentrated on his guitar parts and we just about got through, ending with a clattering drum roll to cover everybody’s mistakes. We all looked at each other and grinned. Maybe we’d play it that way every time.

Many thanks to Neil McCormick and Jane Opoku at Penguin for their help with this article.

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Old 08-11-2004, 10:01 AM   #2
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Devlin -

This is a WONDERFUL article about a TRULY EXCELLENT man!

Neil McCormick has been a terrific writer and music "critic" for many years now, but it has been his unique perspective of growing up watching the emergence of U2 to the top of the music industry that is the most unique aspect of Mr. McCormick.

He has shown TREMENDOUS humor and humility watching one of his best friends, Bono, reach the heights of fame and fortune, only to see his own hopes and dreams of the same slowly fade away.

Neil McCormick, in facing reality with a sense of doomed exhiliration ( ) gives us not only a glimpse into his own heart and soul, with all its dark clouds and silver linings, but helps us to BETTER COME TO TERMS WITH OUR OWN HEARTS AND SOULS and the demons/angels that lie within each one of us.

As I said before -
I wish Neil McCormick MANY MORE years of bittersweet friendship with U2, especially Bono.

May you learn, Mr. McCormick, all the lessons from them that Life has been so kind to you to provide you with!

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Old 08-11-2004, 11:53 AM   #3
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edge a sloppy kisser ha ha! i can't wait to read this book- excellent work, Devlin!
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Old 08-11-2004, 09:28 PM   #4
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That´s a very nice interview. I´m looking forward to get that book.

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Old 08-27-2004, 07:37 AM   #5
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totally impressed. awesome interview Devlin! Sounds like a really good book..
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