Bono's 1987 death threat alive

The year Arizona was consumed with controversy over Gov. Evan Mecham’s decision to cancel a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. was also the year that the Irish band U2 played four concerts here.And dealt with death threats, according to the band. According to the oft-told tale, lead singer Bono would be shot while performing the group’s ode to King, “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

 The band’s memory of this 1987 incident has appeared in various books, in magazines and in Bono’s induction speech when the band entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

However, those involved with the band’s concerts here do not remember such threats happening in Arizona, as is recounted in some versions of the story. 

“Honestly, I don’t recall,” said Barry Fey, the promoter who handled both the April shows at Arizona State University’s basketball arena and the December shows at the university’s football stadium.

Through the years, the death-threat story has changed locations. In most versions, it takes place in Tempe. In one version, it takes place in Los Angeles. And others are less specific, saying it was somewhere in the southern United States.

But crucial elements of the story have remained constant - particularly that the shooting would occur during “Pride.” And Bono’s recollection that bassist Adam Clayton stood in front of him as he sang the song, as if he were a bodyguard.

“Something strange happened toward the end of the Joshua Tree tour,” Bono said in an interview collected in the oral history “U2 by U2,” released in 2006. “We had campaigned for Martin Luther King Day in Tempe, Arizona, where the tour opened back in April. There was a governor there called Mecham who was holding out against it, and we had got involved in local politics there and took a stand. We went back to Tempe at the end of the tour, in December, to play the Sun Devil Stadium.

“I was getting death threats throughout the tour… . This character was a racist offended by our work, he thought we were messing in other people’s business and taking sides with the Black man. One night the FBI said: ‘Look, it’s quite serious. He says he has a ticket. He said he’s armed.’… So we played the show, the FBI were around, everyone was a little unnerved. You just didn’t know, could he be in the building?”

Bono said, in the book, that he was singing the third verse of “Pride,” the song that was supposed to trigger the shooting. “I just closed my eyes and sang,” he said. “And when I opened my eyes, Adam was standing in front of me.”

Neither Tempe police nor Arizona State University police could find a report about the incident. The Phoenix office of the FBI also came up empty. Special Agent Manual Johnson, the FBI’s spokesman, said he was at those shows as a fan but could not locate any report of a threat.

Fey, the now-retired concert promoter who lives in Denver, said he did not recall ordering extra security for any of the four Tempe shows as a result of a threat.

Fey did know how the band felt about Arizona’s controversy. Before the April shows, he took the stage to read a brief statement on behalf of the band. A review in The Phoenix Gazette said the statement called Mecham’s decision “an embarrassment.”

Fey said the crowd reacted with cheers both nights.

“I did expect Bono to say something (about the controversy),” he said. “I did not expect to be his spokesman.”

Fey said the band became aware of Mecham and the King controversy during four days of rehearsal before the April shows, which began its tour in support of the album “The Joshua Tree.”

The band returned in December for two shows at Sun Devil Stadium, concerts filmed for its movie “Rattle and Hum.” In an interview with The Arizona Republic before those shows, Clayton said the band wouldn’t be addressing the still-unsettled King holiday issue.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “This is not a political event. It’s a concert. When we were there the first time, we made our point.”

Fans have played guessing games on Web sites, trying to pinpoint where the threat story took place. In some versions of the story, Bono said it happened on the second night of back-to-back shows in the same city. That, coupled with the detail that it took place in a southern U.S. city, helps narrow the possibilities.

A listing of concert dates on the band’s Web site shows the band played two nights in Los Angeles on that leg of the tour. The FBI office in that city did not return messages seeking comment. The band also played two nights in Denver, but Fey was the promoter for those shows as well, and didn’t recall a threat.

Fey said he thinks Bono sincerely believed his life was in danger when he took the stage, whether it was in Tempe or another city. If the story did take place in Tempe, it’s possible someone relayed a warning to the singer but did not share it with Fey, he said.

“He’s not one to lie,” Fey said.

Still, authorities haven’t found what they looked for: hard evidence of a threat against the band in Arizona.