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Bono is in full rock-star mode, and he has good reason to savor the moment. U2 nearly called it quits a few years ago. After putting out Pop, the first dud of their 10-album career, in 1997, the band members--all in their 40s, all with relationships, side interests and more money than they could ever spend--had to decide whether there was a compelling reason to continue being a band. "Why are you still around?" asks the Edge rhetorically. "You know, you made some great records. But why are you still making records? Part of what we decided is that we had a sense or belief that we can still make the album of the year."

On All That You Can't Leave Behind, which has received eight Grammy nominations, including one for Album of the Year--U2 dispensed with the drum loops and DJs it had toyed with on Pop and got back to the hard business of writing big, straightforward songs. Lyrically, Bono was struggling with his father's terminal illness (his father Bob Hewson died of cancer last year), but specificity can be the plague of pop. Songs like One, Where the Streets Have No Name, Stay (Faraway, So Close) and Walk On from All That You Can't Leave Behind achieve the impossible--becoming meaningful to millions of people--precisely because they are beautifully vague. "Bono did something recently that he probably shouldn't have done," says drummer Larry Mullen Jr. "He did a book as a favor for a friend of his in Ireland that 'explained' all the lyrics. I think that was a mistake because one of the most valuable things about his lyrics is that you can adapt them to any particular situation."

It turns out that millions of listeners adapted All That You Can't Leave Behind to cope with the trauma of Sept. 11. After the lead single, Beautiful Day, won three awards at last year's Grammys--prompting Bono to declare immodestly, "[We're] reapplying for the job. What job? The best band in the world job"--the album slowly sank on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, bottoming out at 108 in August 2001. But in the months after 9/11, as people looked for comfort, escape or both, the album picked up momentum, rising as high as 25 after the Super Bowl, in its 67th week of release. The album is not prescient, just elastic. On Walk On, the album's best track, Bono sings, "I know it aches/ And your heart it breaks/ And you can only take so much/ Walk on." And on Peace on Earth, he mourns, "Sick of sorrow/ I'm sick of the pain/ I'm sick of hearing again and again/ That there's gonna be peace on Earth."

U2's Elevation tour, which played in excess of 100 sold-out nights to more than 2 million people in 2001, also took on a completely different feel after Sept. 11. "There was anger, rage, patriotism, sadness," says Mullen Jr. "Everything became frighteningly extreme." In recognition of the tragedy, U2 began projecting the names of fallen members of the New York City police and fire departments and the victims of the four fatal flights on screens and arena walls while they played One. "I have to say I wasn't sure about it at first," says bassist Adam Clayton. "It seemed like we were really pushing a button. But Bono is a pretty unique individual, and he's got great judgment. He's able to perform open-heart surgery and zap people with a bit of brain surgery at the same time."

U2 incorporated the names into their half-time set at the Super Bowl (projecting them during the songs MLK and Where the Streets Have No Name). It was not a political statement, just an emotional one. By design, it said nothing in particular and yet somehow conveyed something profound. It was exactly the kind of soaring, impossible moment Bono believes U2 exists to achieve. Wandering around New Orleans after the game, Bono relived each of the set's 11 minutes in something close to real time. "I hope it played well on television, because it felt--ah!--it felt just amazing."

The buzz of impossible moments is what rock stars live for, but it's impractical for a political advocate. Two weeks after the Super Bowl performance, Bono is in Los Angeles to accept a $100,000 donation from the Entertainment Industry Foundation for DATA. He calls a meeting on the porch of his suite at the Chateau Marmont with Michael Stipe, Quincy Jones, Bobby Shriver (the record-producing and fund-raising son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver) and Jamie Drummond, DATA's director. It's a new-ideas meeting, and Bono hopes to tap some of the music industry's sharpest philanthropic minds to raise public awareness for DATA's core issues. "Don't send money. You already have," announces Stipe, trying out copy for a debt-relief mass-mailing postcard. The room loves it.

While Stipe scribbles away, Jones wonders aloud which part of the DATA Agenda--dropping the debt, making trade rules more advantageous for poor countries or getting more funding for AIDS drugs and health care--Bono wants the world to focus on. "I think you've got too many issues. That's how we blew it before," says Jones, who raised money for famine relief in 1985 as part of USA for Africa. "Americans don't know about f___ing Philadelphia, let alone Africa. Trade is some very sophisticated politics. You have to particularize the drama for them. You've got to have a melody line."

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