MacPhisto: who the devil...?

Of all the stage personas Bono created for the ZooTV Tour, MacPhisto was surely the most sophisticated. Flick through any of the U2 books that are available, or surf around the fansites, and you'll quickly discover that plenty of observers have been inspired to comment on him and try to analyse him. Here I've gathered together some of the best quotes which help to build up a picture of Mr MacPhisto – who he is, how he was conceived, and what he represents.


Undoubtedly the best starting point is Bill Flanagan's wonderful book U2 At The End Of The World, an insider's record of the ZooTV era that's widely referred to among fans as "the U2 Bible". This book features an entire chapter titled "MacPhisto" and goes into great detail about the creation of this intriguing character. It all started during the break between the American 'Outside Broadcast' leg and the European stadium tour in the summer of '93:

The extra-musical aspects of the show will be quite different from last year's tour. Just as Ned and Maurice have updated the on-screen videos to reflect the current confused situation in Europe, Bono is constructing a new character to play onstage during the encores. The Mirrorball Man who closed the 1992 shows was an American TV evangelist/used car salesman/game-show host in a cowboy hat throwing dollars around. There is no sense using that character in Europe. So Bono sets about trying to construct a European equivalent and starts singing 'Desire' in a voice that sounds like an aging British music-hall entertainer, or a faded Shakespearian actor touring the provinces.

Gold shoes Fintan Fitzgerald has been looking for the right costume for this old ham and comes in one day with a hilarious pair of 1970s platform boots, spray-painted glittering gold. Bono starts free-associating. Maybe this old guy is the last rock star, dragging himself around some years in the future, re-creating the joys of that great music of the twentieth century for other senior citizens. But of course, that's not all he is. Bono remembers how knocked out he was by Steven Berkoff's performance of Oscar Wilde's Salome, in which the actor slowed all the speeches down to half-speed. Bono tries talking like Quentin Crisp with his batteries running out and it creates a weird poignancy. 'Oooh. Iii've boughhht sommmme newwww shoesssss. Doooo youuuu like them?' It feels like an old man trying to hold himself together.

But it's Gavin Friday who comes in and supplies the unifying metaphor. He demands to know – all allegory aside – who is this character really representing? Who was the Mirrorball Man really supposed to be? Bono says, 'Well, the devil.'
'Then,' Gavin says, 'he should wear horns.'
Bono thinks that's ridiculous, it's too blatant. But Fintan secures some red horns and when Bono tries them on with whiteface and lipstick and platform shoes and aged British voice, he likes what he sees: he sees Mr MacPhisto – the devil as the last rock star.

Bono pulls in all sorts of orbiting signals to finish creating MacPhisto's character. He takes from a magician he saw in Madrid abrupt, almost comical movements – like a senile karate expert suddenly trying to snap into his old positions. He takes from the devil character in The Black Rider a ringmaster's demeanour and the stiff-shinned walk of someone hiding a cloven hoof. He uses Joel Grey's character in Cabaret as a touchstone for the decadence from which European fascism bloomed. MacPhisto is Satan as a cross between Elvis, Sinatra and a 30s Berlin cabaret star. He is, of course, also Goethe's Mephistopheles, that proto-European symbol of great art and temptation. Like Bloom in Nighttown (or for that matter Eve in the garden) Goethe's Dr Faust risked his immortal soul for knowledge. That's a trade-off that fascinates U2.

The Fly and Mr MacPhisto (photo © Kevin Davies) Bono discusses his ZooTV alter-egos in the U2 By U2 autobiography, starting with his primary character 'The Fly'. He was the smug, hedonistic rock star cliché, clad in tight black vinyl and impenetrable bug-eyed shades which hid all trace of Bono's sincere image from the '80s. Speaking about the tour and the recording of the Zooropa album in between shows, Bono explains how MacPhisto evolved from his predecessors:

It was a thrilling, very creative time. We were lost to our work and our art and life all seemed to blur into one. The plastic pants were becoming harder and harder to get off after the show. I'd started out trying to parody a rock star and discover what it felt like. By now I was dangerously starting to enjoy it. But there was another interesting development for the Zooropa leg of the tour. It was time to put the Mirror Ball Man in mothballs. We wanted a more Eurocentric character, more decadent, more old world, rather than the brash Yankee salesman with God on his side. I started to think about what The Fly would be like when he's old and fat and playing Las Vegas. U2 conjured up the Devil!

U2 manager Paul McGuinness revealed another of MacPhisto's inspirations when he took part in an MSN webchat on 22nd September 1997. Asked which of Bono's stage personas was his favourite, he replied:

I think MacPhisto. MacPhisto who came from lots of different directions -- I don't know if you know the character of Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer -- I think MacPhisto derived a lot from him. I thought MacPhisto was terrific and I definitely miss him.

(Archie Rice, a struggling music hall performer, was played by Laurence Olivier in the 1960 film.)

In a CompuServe webchat on 25th July 1996, journalist and DJ Dave Fanning said that MacPhisto's character owes something to the famous, openly gay actor Micheál MacLíammóir, co-founder of Dublin's Gate Theatre. His IMDb entry describes how he "dressed flamboyantly wearing full make-up at all times", and although he was born in England (as Alfred Willmore), he later fully immersed himself into Irish culture and Gaelicised his name. Bono may be alluding to this in his MacPhisto speeches, where the very English-sounding devil often proudly refers to himself as being Irish.

The book U2 Show by Diana Scrimgeour features input from a number of U2 collaborators. Bono's best friend and former Virgin Prunes frontman Gavin Friday hints that his influence on the MacPhisto persona goes deeper than merely having provided him with his horns:

Mirrorball Man was a character in ZooTV. When Zoo came to Europe, he had the Mirrorball character but it was so American that it wasn't going to work in Europe. He wanted something a little bit more European. It was an awkward time in Europe because you had the beginning of the horror in the former Yugoslavia and the world looked like it was a bit fucked over here. I helped develop MacPhisto, the Devil, in the Zooropa tour pre-production rehearsals in Holland. That was just, 'Whoosh, put horns on your head.' Well, it was a little slower than that. There's an awful lot of MacPhisto in me, you know.
For the visual stuff, there's a committee, if you want to call it that: the band, obviously, and then Willie Williams, Catherine Owens and myself. Catherine was brought in because she was a visual artist, living in America, and knew a lot of independent video-makers. We'd all respond to ideas from the band. For example, Bono works in essences, smells, you know, and he might see something, or say about MacPhisto, 'No, he can't be a cowboy, can't be American, has to be European, has to be darker.' We take it very seriously. We all work very hard.

(In U2 At The End Of The World, Gavin Friday also remarks: "Bill Graham said in 1980 that U2 would eventually turn into the Virgin Prunes. And with MacPhisto it's finally happened. It took thirteen years for Bono to get up the balls to put on lipstick"!)

Wardrobe assistant Fintan Fitzgerald, too, shares his recollections in U2 Show:

Bono thought he needed a character point in the show, and the character was MacPhisto, the Devil, a very theatrical character. It was the first time he had done a character like that. And then we came up with a gold suit and red lamé, a ruffled shirt, the make-up and the Devil horns. Bono really took on the persona and got into character. Personally, I think if he wasn't the great musician he is, he probably would have made a great actor. I think the character himself came from Bono and Gavin Friday. Somewhere along the line they conceived this character, and then Bono asked for a costume for it. There was a big debate about the horns for a long time, whether it was too theatrical, or just too comic. We played around with loads of ideas.

And The Edge tells Bill Flanagan how he felt after witnessing MacPhisto on stage for the first time:

'It was really a bizarre kind of chilling feeling seeing him,' Edge says. 'It was everything we discussed. It was very disturbing, very unreasonable, and nothing to do with entertainment. It was something much heavier. I thought the idea of the horns was over the top, I thought it was spelling it all out, but in fact it really works.'

Don't believe the Devil...

MacPhisto's nightly phone calls, often to controversial politicians with whom the audience would be familiar, were a highly entertaining way of raising potentially sensitive issues. Bono explains in U2 By U2 why it was so effective:

Gavin Friday said to me, 'If you want to make a Devil you should have horns.' I said, 'Yeah, well I'm not wearing horns. I'll look ridiculous.' He said, 'You need proper red horns.' And he got them made up. I put them on and it was the maddest-looking thing but it helped, because when you're dressed as the Devil your conversation is immediately loaded, so if you tell somebody you really like what they're doing, you know it's not a compliment. We used to ring up fascist politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen's office and flatter them live in front of audiences of sixty or seventy thousand. I rang Alessandra Mussolini, the Italian dictator's granddaughter, who was getting into politics, and we'd have seventy thousand people singing, 'I just called to say I love you' on her answer machine. I called the Archbishop of Canterbury and told him I loved what he was doing and that it was great that the Church didn't seem to stand for anything. It was death by cup cake, darling!

MacPhisto (photo © Andrew Murray) The Edge adds:

That character was a great device for saying the opposite of what you meant. It made the point so easily and with real humour. Every town presented a new set of possibilities and options, so there would be a general discussion about what we might do, with a lot of planning between Willie and Bono. One highlight was calling The Minister of Fisheries in Norway, Jan Henry Olsen, to congratulate him on whaling, which was forbidden by the European Union but legal in Norway. He actually took the call and invited Bono to come and have a whale steak with him.

The guitarist again mentions that particular phone call in an interview with Danny Eccleston for Q magazine, admitting that the crowd's reaction wasn't quite what they had been aiming for:

"The whaling minister was interesting," recalls The Edge today, "because we realised during the course of the conversation that probably about 75 per cent of the audience agreed with him. That was hubris, I think – the one time when we felt the joke backfired on us."

When interviewed on the radio towards the end of the European tour, Edge told Dave Fanning that the recipients of MacPhisto's phone calls were often chosen not long in advance:

We tend to make that decision on the day, and sometimes minutes before we go on stage. You're drawing on, in some ways the prejudices or partisan feelings of the audience, you know, you're becoming a kind of foil for the audience's feelings.

In an exclusive video message for the UK television show Naked City, broadcast on 6th August 1993, MacPhisto paraphrased a line from Brendan Kennelly's epic poem The Book of Judas (which also inspired the U2 song Until The End Of The World): "'To serve the age, one must betray it'... or something like that." In a 2004 speech, Bono would remark that this line "never leaves my mind", explaining: "To me, betraying the age means exposing its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths. Every age has its massive moral blind spots." As examples he listed slavery, segregation, and the problems of AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa. It is therefore implied that MacPhisto was "betraying the age" by drawing attention to political corruption, neo-Nazism and so on.
The same video featured another quotation delivered while in character: "Après moi, le déluge" ("After me, the flood"), attributed to King Louis XV of France or his lover Madame de Pompadour. Presumably, failing to care about the long-term consequences of one's actions was a good way to win the devil's ironic approval.

MacPhisto also allowed Bono the chance to be a little outrageous, which is something he had a lot of fun with. In an interview in Verona on 3rd July 1993, he told Carter Alan:

I get to camp it up a bit, I get to say things I could never say myself. I get to ring the Pope!  I get to ring Helmut Kohl, Swiss bankers to ask them about Nazi gold they have stored in their banks. He's a mischievous character and I'm enjoying it!  But, he's still in development.

The 10th May show in Rotterdam featured MacPhisto's first lengthy telephone conversation from the stage, and this quote from U2 Live by Pimm Jal de la Parra sums up what a thrilling challenge it was:

The MacPhisto act forces Bono to stretch his imagination to extremes and he obviously enjoys it immensely. "I don't know where this thing is taking me," he tells Gavin Martin of New Musical Express after the show. "What happened tonight you couldn't plan. It was exciting but scary at the same time."

One of the most nerve-wracking shows would take place at Berlin's Nazi-built Olympic Stadium, where U2 worried about some of the video imagery hitting too close to home (and perhaps even being perceived as an endorsement of those dark times). Edge spoke to Bill Flanagan in U2 At The End Of The World about how he felt it went:

Edge says, 'That was a good show. It was a tough one. To face down the ghosts in that place. Did you hear the evil in Bono's voice when he called Kohl? I'm baaack!' Edge shakes his head. [...]
'With this show there's a lot of risk, especially for Bono who's out there a lot of the time living or dying based on what he can drag out of himself that night. MacPhisto is an example. There's a certain amount of it that he's worked out, but he's got to work with the audience and bring it to life every evening without a script, and that's hard.'

Luckily, MacPhisto had the best band in the world on hand to offer him moral support. The sense of teamwork comes across nicely in another paragraph from U2 At The End Of The World, describing rehearsals for the Pacific leg of the tour:

When U2 plays 'Crashed Car' Bono suddenly slinks across the room to the mike stand in hobble-legged MacPhisto character. In his street clothes, it looks pretty silly, but I notice that Edge is moving the same way, lurching and weaving, as if to give Bono encouragement and make sure he doesn't feel like he's out there alone. It is the sort of tiny gesture of solidarity you almost never see in rock bands, where the players like to maintain their cool while the lead singer makes a prat of himself. It's subtly generous, and typical of U2.

Media Darling

ZooTV, and MacPhisto in particular, certainly caught the world's attention and there are wonderful descriptions to be found in books and magazines everywhere. Here are just a few that I've come across:

When he accusingly says, "Look what you've done to me," and raises his arms, the crowd see a tarty, tired old rock star, blasé from success, and laugh as Bono's new character is being unveiled. [...]
MacPhisto is the European equivalent of the 'preacher' with the glitter cowboy-hat and exaggerated American accent that Bono played on the Outside Broadcast tour. With MacPhisto, Bono delves into Berlin's decadent cabaret of the Thirties, his bleak facial expressions ranging from devilish grins to tragi-comic sadness.
-- (U2 Live by Pimm Jal de la Parra)

It's 11pm, Rotterdam, Sunday, May 9. Time to meet Mister MacPhisto, Bono's brand new creation appearing for the first time anywhere. MacPhisto was growing in the U2 show for years, lurking in the shadows, waiting to make his mark. That becomes obvious later. First, you have to wonder what is this apparition in his platform heels, preening, self-satisfied smile and creepy cracked voice. In his gold lamé suit, slicked-back pony tail, red devil horns and white facepack.
A decrepit cabaret lovely stinking of decay and narcissism? Quentin Crisp on acid? The Man Who Got The Blues Then Sold His Soul To The Devil? The Last Rock Star?
Is Zoo stadium rock's last gasp or a chance to seize the future? Whatever, right now, for tonight, it's coming to a close, rounding off its visual barrage of apocalyptic explosions, space flights, totalitarian frenzy. Situationist slogans, burning crosses and swastikas. All warped and wondrous, mangled and bloody, an abundance of sensory overload, shock tactics, spiritual longing and bleeding heart anguish. What more could there be?
Just MacPhisto; the mickey-taking finale with an undertow of pathos. The alter-ego for Bono and every other bloated rock star. Every poor lost showbiz, fame-addicted entertainer in his dotage. Over the next three nights, he'll begin to make his presence felt. It's a learning process for the guitar player to hear Mister MacP sing 'With Or Without You'. The voice raddled, at the end of its tether, sinking into the helpless mire of 'Love Is Blindness'.
"It puts a new spin on those songs when he performs them that way. You think, 'That's what it's about'," says The Edge after the show.
But MacPhisto also likes a joke. First off, he comes to the lip of the stage, arms outstretched, declaring, "I have a vision. A Eurovision. You're a vision. You're a vision." He repeats the crap pun and savours it like it was one of those witty bumper sticker slogans he used to collect back in the glory days, when his band were riding high in the Zoo.
MacPhisto is a jolt after the cartoon antics of Bono's previous incarnations. The Man With The White Flag. The Man In The Desert. The Fly. The Mirror Ball Man. He thinks the universe revolves around him. He's doling it out, telling the audience "I love you all". Telling them about the old days, how he started it all, did it all, knew them all.
Thunderbolts wrench the night air and rumble throughout the stadium bowl. The lightning flashes and electrical charges highlight his preposterous display, clumping along on his oversize platforms making the old moves, the jerks, falling limp like a broken marionette. Elvis on his last time round. Some bloke dying on the end of the pier show. The sky opens in a way that suggests God is out to drown him.

-- ('Dandy's Inferno', article by Gavin Martin, NME, 22nd May 1993)

A 20 metre long causeway stretches from the Zooropa stage, into an 80,000 strong crowd of screaming U2 fans. Bono stands at the end of the causeway, dressed in a gold lamé suit and a small pair of furry red devil's horns. His face is painted white, with bright red lipstick. He looks like the bastard child of Satan and Dr Frank N Furter, a sparkling vision of comic carnal desire dubbed MacPhisto. He addresses the audience in a high-pitched, camp whine; "You've made me very famous, and I thank you."
-- ('Paris Is Burning', article by Rob Johnson, Juice magazine)

Then the band reappear with Bono in the guise of his new alter-ego MacPhisto. He's a sad creation – a show business casualty who you imagine spends his time in a seaside boarding house, reliving his days in repertory theatre, fingering yellowed local press notices. He wears a lamé suit, multi-storey platforms and a little pair of red horns to sing 'Desire'. You know the type. The Italians aren't sure what to make of this pitiful pan-sticked creature who speaks like Quentin Crisp on recreational drugs.
-- ('I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night', article by Adrian Deevoy, Q magazine, 1st September 1993)

The final Zoo TV leap – into total parody – features another Bono alter-ego, MacPhisto, who operates way out in some camp cabaret zone that is the polar extreme to the perceived image of Bono, the crusading rock singer. MacPhisto has pancake make-up, horns and a gold lamé suit. He sings "Desire" with a thespian lisp, like a luvvie Elvis exhumed. Here, Bono seems to be saying, is the final irrefutable evidence to back up the Zoo TV "philosophy" that EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT U2 IS WRONG.
-- ('Bono: The Devil in U2', article by Sean O'Hagan, Arena magazine, Winter 93/94)

MacPhisto (photo © Roger Hutchings)

As it happened, there was very little risk of Zooropa '93 proving to be a stale rehash of Zoo TV. For one thing, Bono had now introduced a third alter-ego, a demonic figure called MacPhisto, who would dominate the tour.
As MacPhisto, Bono appeared on stage dressed in a gold suit, worn over a lurid red shirt, with gold, glittering platform boots. His face, often split in a devilish, leering grin, was caked with white make-up, against which blood-red lipstick and heavy black eyeliner made a startling contrast. Bono's jet-black short hair was ruthlessly slicked back, and he had sprouted a pair of red stubby horns.
Bono called this new creation a 'sad, bad finale', explaining that he (MacPhisto) was weary and confused.
Described variously as malevolent, seedy and manic, only the character's tragic demeanour saved MacPhisto from looking frankly foolish. Yet this alter-ego baffled and provoked commentators who, clearly undeterred from having tried to analyse the Fly and the Mirrorball Man, now strove to find an intellectual fix on MacPhisto.
-- (Bono: The Biography by Laura Jackson)

Bono had invented a new character to replace Mirrorball Man. MacPhisto wore red horns, white makeup and a gold suit. He was Satan as played by a queeny thesp and nightly he would phone church leaders and politicians and congratulate them on the marvellous – that is, nefarious – job they were doing. These included the Archbishop Of Canterbury, Helmut Kohl, Nazi banker Benedict Hentsch, the Pope, Alessandra Mussolini, Dutch right-winger Hans Janmaat, Bernard Tapie, John Selwyn Gummer and pro-whaling Norwegian minister Jan Henry Olsen.
-- ('SUPERFLY', article by Danny Eccleston, Q Special Edition: 50 Years Of Rock 'n' Roll)

When Bono declared, "It's no big deal... we just have to go away and dream it all up again," he prepared both fans and media for the mind-boggling onslaught to come. If the resulting Zoo TV tour (complete with Video Confessional Booth and airborne Trabants) threw up as many questions as answers – not least where on earth Bono had conjured up the idea for Mirrorball Man (a quasi-TV evangelist dressed in Baco-foil) and The Fly (a leather-clad archetypal rock god), then Mr MacPhisto surely prompted the most raised eyebrows.
Cast somewhere between Mario Lanza and Quentin Crisp, MacPhisto would hijack the band's '93 Zooropa performances to ring public figures on a silver payphone. Brave, occasionally hilarious [...], MacPhisto was proof yet again of U2's – and specifically Bono's – willingness to take a risk in order to make a point.

-- ('What Makes U2 Tick: Playing Live', article by Paul Moody, Uncut Legends #3 presents U2)

In the era of grunge and hip-hop, MacPhisto was a ridiculous character who had knocked back a few too many martinis, smoked a few too many cigarettes, and seen too much of the dark underbelly of life. He was extremely jaded, but still captivated by, and in love with the rock and roll lifestyle.
-- ('Mr. MacPhisto, Angel or Devil?', article by Kimberly Egolf,

In the colour picture of him on the sofa you look at the eyes and you see someone completely lost. And MacPhisto is a character in pain and fucked up but not deliberately wicked, as far as I can tell. But that is definitely a shadow. And for Bono to adopt that role, which shines with doubt and fear, as opposed to The Mirrorball Man, who shines with light, was amazing to witness.
-- (B.P. Fallon in 'Postcards From The Edge', article by Joe Jackson, Hot Press, 5th October 1994)

The Zooropa baby sang a tearful bit of opera before MacPhisto swaggered out for Desire. He was bold and confident, dressed in a glittery gold suit with matching platform shoes, a set of small red horns on his head. His face had been whitened and his eyes were bleary and red. "What an evening, what a show, what a city, what a Zooropa!" he said, his voice halfway between John Gielgud and Bella Lugosi. He was creepy, sad, demented, funny, scary, and pathetic all at once. But very pleased with himself. "Look what you've done to me," he said with a ponderously thick English accent. "You've made me famous and I thank you." [...]
Ultra Violet was followed by a quite demented With Or Without You, both charged with exaggerated facial expressions and some half-mad sidelong glances.
-- (A Grand Madness: Ten Years On The Road With U2 by Dianne Ebertt Beeaff)

With Desire, that aging caricatured devil-of-a-rock-star alter ego bursts in from the dark side; the sad, desperate, beguiling, scary, pained, exuberant, creepy, demented, comical, pathetic, unstable, roguish, frightened, larger-than-life thing he's allowed himself to become. 'Look what you've done to me,' he intones. (Devils always pass the blame.) 'You've made me famous and I thank you.' In splendid glittering platform shoes, pale face, sunken red-rimmed eyes, a smear of rouge-red lipstick, and slicked-back ink-black hair, MacPhisto gives Desire his best swagger, his best strut, his best façade, his best affectation, his best performance – his best shoes. 'Honey I'm home,' he leers. 'What a show! What a theatre! My Zooropa!' And he swells up ready to demonstrate his power and importance with some 'random' phone call. 'When you're famous everybody gives you their phone number,' he pontificates.
-- (A Grand Madness: Ten Years On The Road With U2 by Dianne Ebertt Beeaff)

In 1990, when we made that record, the idea of applying humour to U2 seemed intriguingly sacrilegious. So we did it as a piece of humorous sacrilege. But it's funny – if we'd done it three or four years later it wouldn't have seemed humorously sacrilegious. By that time Bono had done MacPhisto and shown his humorous and ironic side, ha ha! No, I thought that show was great – it was the first time I'd ever seen U2 and the MacPhisto bit was brilliant.
-- (Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys on their disco medley of 'Where The Streets Have No Name' and 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You', Uncut magazine, November 2004)

As punk had laid waste to the idea of the big, spectacular rock show having any relevance to the modern world, so U2 would reinvent the genre as a richly ironic, politicized statement about the way we live now. Loosely, ZooTV and PopMart could be said to articulate statements about the postmodern world – describing that world back to itself as a perilous pleasuredome of seemingly infinite images and information, the accelerated accumulation of which might seem to threaten our perceptions, free will and fundamental human feelings. In this much, the U2 show is about acting out a passion play of good versus evil in a very blatant way. Why else might Bono, during ZooTV, achieve such a bravura performance as the Devil – played, incidentally, not as a swaggeringly satanic Mick Jagger, sinewy in black, but rather as a sentimental old impresario, virtually exhausted by the suffering he has given to the world. Occurring towards the end of the concert, Bono's extraordinary performance as the satanic creator of mass media comprises one of the most sophisticated theatrical statements to be made by a rock show.
-- (article by writer Michael Bracewell, in U2 Show by Diana Scrimgeour)

For the Zooropa shows Bono abandoned the American Mirror Ball Man and replaced him with MacPhisto, a white-faced Satan with horns on his head and cabaret patter on his tongue. If The Fly was Elvis in his comeback glory, MacPhisto was the man behind the curtain, an old tempter who was most dangerous because he seemed harmless. He was as European as Goethe, Milton, or thirties Berlin. If the American Mirror Ball Man represented greed and garishness, MacPhisto personified decadence and ennui. In his defense it must be said that when the chips were down he rocked like a bastard.
-- (article by Bill Flanagan, Super and Uber Deluxe editions of Achtung Baby 20th anniversary release)

Let's explore some of MacPhisto's influences in more detail...

The Black Rider

In late January 1993, Bono and The Edge were invited to perform at the Festival Against Racism, an anti-fascist gathering at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, Germany. In another passage from U2 By U2, Edge explains how the festival would later provide inspiration for their new creation:

We saw a performance of The Black Rider, which was a musical play by Robert Wilson, William Burroughs and Tom Waits. It was based on a German folk story about making deals with the Devil, who was a Mephistolean character called Pegleg. So when Bono started thinking about another character, we thought of the Devil. We thought about what he might look like, how he might act. Bono made a speech at the conference saying, 'Mock the Devil and he will flee from thee. Fear of the Devil leads to Devil worship.'

The Black Rider Bill Flanagan also mentions The Black Rider in U2 At The End Of The World, and from his description of the play, it's easy to see where they got the idea for MacPhisto:

Also there is [...] director Robert Wilson, who is in Hamburg staging a new version of The Black Rider with book by William Burroughs and songs by Tom Waits.
Bono goes to see
The Black Rider, also at the Thalia, and for all the effort of following the German translations of American writers, the creepiness of the supernatural German folktale comes across. In the story a young man must pass a marksmanship test in order to marry the head forester's daughter. The devil offers to help the kid out by giving him magic bullets guaranteed to hit anything he aims at – except for one bullet which will hit the devil's secret target. The young man makes the deal, and the devil's bullet kills his fiancée (what black heart decided Burroughs should adapt this story?). Actor Dominique Horwitz plays the devil – called Pegleg – as a grinning, cloven-hoofed smoothie, more like a German cabaret performer than a traditional Mephisto. The show ends with Pegleg alone on stage in a tuxedo, singing Waits' sentimental 'The Last Rose of Summer' like a nightclub entertainer.

A Madman in Madrid

If you've ever watched MacPhisto on video, you'll have noticed the sweeping arm gestures and bizarre posturing that make him look like some kind of insane flamenco dancer. And indeed, the home of flamenco is where this particular trait originated. Edge reveals in U2 By U2 how a strange encounter in a Spanish nightclub provided them with the template for MacPhisto's trademark exaggerated movements:

Another inspiration was a character we had observed in Madrid. Madrid is one of the few places where it feels normal being on the road because most people stay up later than you and are partying far harder than you. We ended up one night in this noisy dance club in the wee small hours, watching this guy walking through. He was probably in his early sixties and impeccably dressed, a dapper Spanish gentleman wandering about a House club, ignoring everybody but kind of waving in the air at an imaginary audience. It was quite extraordinary. I don't know whether he was on some weird psychotropic drugs or whether he was just an eccentric or a mime artist but we watched him for a good twenty minutes and it really gave us so much material.

Bono also discussed this individual on the Canadian TV special U2 Does Much in May 2001, after being shown the Lemon video and apparently laughing at MacPhisto's actions:

"You know, that character, MacPhisto, was... we discovered him in a club in Barcelona. It was like a Monday night, and we were out... actually it was Madrid, in Spain. And people go out very, very late, and they eat very late, and I don't know how they work the next day, but I mean, seems like everyone in Madrid is like, out at night. Anyway, there was-- HE, this character, was in the club, with a plastic bag of his belongings, a gold suit, and kind of... make-up – I think he worked in the theatre there, he was some pantomime character. And myself and Edge kind of followed him round the whole night, and sort of took him home, and became him."

The Elvis-Devil

Elvis Presley (photo © Ed Bonja) Bono has been quoted a number of times as saying that MacPhisto is like The Fly when taken "to his logical conclusion", an echo of the overweight and deteriorating Elvis Presley in his later Vegas years. As he put it in U2 Faraway So Close by B.P. Fallon, "MacPhisto came out of this Fly Goes To Vegas and he's still there fifty years later." There's an even more vivid description in U2 By U2:

For this character, MacPhisto, we came up with a sort of old English Devil, a pop star long past his prime returning regularly from seasons on The Strip in Vegas and regaling anyone who would listen to him at cocktail hour with stories from the good old, bad old days. There was a certain pathos to him.

Another quote from Bono calls the character "a book-end to the funny and fucked-up swagger of The Fly". But this tribute to the original rock legend isn't all just morbid humour – Bono is a huge fan of Elvis, and he managed to incorporate some of his greatest qualities into MacPhisto, too. In the 2002 TV special Elvis Lives, footage from the ZooTV Sydney concert was blended in with clips of Elvis himself, to demonstrate the parallels between the two figures. Bono explained on the programme:

"I had this character called MacPhisto, which was, er, the Devil as a... lounge singer. I mean, his... the spectre of Elvis was everywhere, and I sang, actually, I sang 'I Can't Help Falling In Love With You'. And I tried to get some of that erotic power going, that he had in the music."

Can't Help Falling In Love was a particular highlight of the set, and probably Bono's most impressive vocal performance of all time, reaching impossibly high notes that would send a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened cynic. He describes that moment to Bill Flanagan in U2 At The End Of The World:

'From the introduction of MacPhisto on, it's all cabaret,' Bono says. 'MacPhisto is The Fly down the line. When he goes into falsetto on "Can't Help Falling In Love", it's the little boy inside the corrupt man breaking through for a moment. Just like in that awful tape of fat Elvis slurring that song, there's a moment when he sings a bit of it right, and you hear Elvis' spirit coming through. That's what I'm shooting for.'

Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp Perhaps the clearest inspiration for MacPhisto's character was the flamboyant English eccentric Quentin Crisp, who had also been the subject of Sting's hit song Englishman In New York. A celebrated raconteur who continued to tour his popular one-man show until his death at the age of 90, Crisp was known for his outlandishly effeminate appearance and acerbic wit (often described as a 20th century Oscar Wilde). Many of MacPhisto's traits, from his camp demeanour to his distinctive slow and raspy voice, can be recognised in Mr Crisp. Wikipedia even recounts how Crisp allowed his phone number to be listed in public directories and "saw it as his duty to converse with anyone who called him", as well as happily accepting dinner invitations "from almost anyone" and regaling his hosts with amusing stories... sound familiar at all? It's no wonder Bono's well-spoken, ageing English devil was described by some as "Quentin Crisp on acid"!

In his book U2 Faraway So Close, B.P. Fallon takes the credit for (unwittingly) introducing this particular influence, after telling Bono about an unreleased John Lennon track he wanted him to hear:

In Hamburg, you make up a tape of 'Serve Yourself' that on the cassette leads into a conversation you recorded in New York with the magnificent Quentin Crisp. "In America, everyone who isn't shooooting at you is your friend!" Quentin apostulates, all majestic eye shadow and rhetorical oratory. A flower in the hedgerow of the world and younger than yesterday, this treasurable 85 year old English eccentric. Mr Crisp Bono, he's in his white dressing gown again. You know that if you leave the room the tape you've just spent hours compiling will go unheard, will be thrown aside as he scrambles into another day. So you make him listen to it, Bono's mouth hanging at John Lennon's rage and wrath, our chum Mr Peace'n'Love exploding in bad vibes at his son Sean, telling him to get back into the bedroom, that when he was a kid it wasn't so damn bloody easy. "Wow, I'm glad to know that he could get that freaked out..." Bono says as Quentin Crisp begins saying "My name is Quentin Crisp and I used to be English..." and leading on to "Sex is the last refuge of the miserable..."
A year later, Bono is telling you how his MacPhisto character is based partly on your Quentin tape, partly on Gavin Friday, partly on Steven Berkoff, Albert Finney, Tom Waits... partly on a lot of people... and he casts his hands in the air, giving a warped benediction like the Queen Mother at Ascot. "You know what I'm talking about, don't you darling?" Bono smooches.

Joel Grey as the MC Joel Grey

If MacPhisto's speech patterns were inspired by Quentin Crisp, then his look and presence owe a lot to Joel Grey's Oscar-winning performance in the film Cabaret, set in 1930s Berlin. Grey plays the super-creepy Master of Ceremonies at the nightclub where Liza Minnelli's character works, and he only ever appears in his bizarre stage persona, all lipstick and eyeshadow with slicked-back dark hair. MacPhisto shares not only his androgynous appearance, but also his crazed facial expressions, showmanship, decadence, and a mysterious air of knowing many things...

The Screwtape Letters

Some fans just didn't get MacPhisto at all, thinking U2 had abandoned their faith and turned to devil worship. One such misunderstanding is described by Bill Flanagan in U2 At The End Of The World. He explains that "Among themselves U2 refer to no smoking/no drinking/no dancing Christians as 'Squeakies'", and goes on to recount what happened when MacPhisto came face to face with one disapproving believer:

Cardiff is a hotbed of evangelical enthusiasm. When U2 arrived there last summer on their way to London they knew they'd be facing stiff judgement. Every night at the end of the concert, during the instrumental coda to 'Love Is Blindness', Bono brings a woman up onto the B-stage to waltz with him while the band plays out the song. Although it looks elegiac in the dim blue light, he is often whispering orders ('Shut up, calm down, listen to the music, listen to the music') in the ears of hysterical partners and holding them steady to keep them from leaping up and down, tearing off a souvenir, or waving to their buddies. Well, in Cardiff he reached out to a woman who, while they slow-danced, was giving him the twice-born third degree about this MacPhisto nonsense. 'What are you doing?' she demanded while wiping the MacPhisto makeup off his face. 'What are you doing?'
Bono understood he had solicited a squeaky. 'It's Ecclesiastes,' he whispered while waltzing her around romantically for the crowd. She didn't buy it, she was angry. 'Did you ever read
The Screwtape Letters?' Bono asked her. She said she had. The Screwtape Letters by the Christian writer C.S. Lewis pretends to be a series of instructions from a senior devil to a young demon-in-training about how to corrupt mortals. Lewis described his devil this way: 'Screwtape's outlook is like a photographic negative; his whites are our blacks and whatever he welcomes we ought to dread.' While waltzing with the angry evangelical Bono invoked Screwtape and told her, 'That's what this is.'
'Oh.' She thought about it and then nodded, put her arm on his shoulder, and gave in to the dance.

Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters is a thought-provoking read, both funny and fiendishly clever, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys MacPhisto's own dry humour. Much like him, Uncle Screwtape is old and wise and a very bad influence (not to mention prone to the odd temper tantrum). The follow-up Screwtape Proposes A Toast is also well worth a read.

Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me video A copy of The Screwtape Letters can be seen in the animated video for Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me, released in 1995, during a metaphorical sequence about the genesis of MacPhisto.

Perhaps foreseeing the way his own work could be misinterpreted, C.S. Lewis included a couple of pertinent quotes on the book's opening page: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn" [Martin Luther], and "The devil ... the prowde spirite ... cannot endure to be mocked" [Thomas More]. A 1994 article on the Queen's University Belfast website, by Tony Bowden and Jennifer Stewart, points out how Bono was employing the same technique:

Bono's 'Satan' persona, MacPhisto, has probably raised more Christian hackles than anything else U2 have ever done, with most Christians failing to understand what Bono is up to. In an interview with a prominent Irish paper earlier this year Bono commented that the whole concept of the MacPhisto character was one of mockery – taking his idea from the adage 'mock the devil and he will flee from you'. Such irony and tongue-in-cheek humour is common throughout the work of the band and is a very effective way of bringing people to think about the good and evil in the world. Bono mocks to make his point – and this point is transferred to thousands of people with an effectiveness that preachers can only dream about.

Carter Alan asked in an interview whether the band worried that "people might believe that U2 is selling out to this, that the Mirror Ball Man or MacPhisto is what U2 has become?" Edge responded, "It's a character. I suppose in the context of the show, of course there's a possibility that people won't understand it, but I think it would be very weird for them to make the mental jump that Bono thinks he is the devil! That would be outrageous."

As you can see, many different people and ideas helped to shape Mr MacPhisto, and investigating some of those influences can certainly foster a deeper appreciation of him. I should point out, though, that MacPhisto is far greater than the sum of his parts. He is very much his own character, not merely a jumbled collection of other people's quirks, and no amount of written analysis can substitute for seeing and hearing him personally!

Perhaps the best quote of all comes from none other than U2's own bass player Adam Clayton, who said of Mr MacPhisto: "I don't know whether Bono thought him up. I think he's been around for a long time. I just think Bono likes to wear his clothes."

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