Larry Mullen Jr: Stage And Studio
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HOT PRESS // September 1986

Amid rumors and press reports that his career could be at an end, Larry Mullen reveals the truth about the extent of an injury to his hand that is becoming a common problem for rock drummers.

When the news first broke, it had a desperate ring of finality.  Larry Mullen of U2 was in hospital in New York.  There he would be operated on, for a mystery injury to his hand.  If the operation wasn't successful, Larry would never drum again.

We're all behind you," DJ Marty Whelan of Radio 2, in Dublin, assured the U2 drummer in faraway Manhattan, "Hope you get well soon."  And thus a snippet in the Daily Mirror had been elevated to the status of hard fact.  The Evening Herald and the Irish Independent followed with stories confirming that Larry was indeed in hospital in New York and that his career was on the line.

The information was announced again on Radio 2 and U2 fans all over the country were thrown into a state of shock.

The idea of U2 without Larry just doesn't seem feasible.  For one thing, U2 as a band are more than the sum of all individual parts.  Besides, Larry ranks alongside Bono as the fans' favourite.  A sex symbol of unusual potency, he's always been the target for a significant proportion of the band's female fan mail.  And yet here were the national media, announcing that his ability to carry on drumming was dependent on an operation to cure a mystery ailment.

The first U2 fan to alert Hot Press to the story was in tears.  It was unbelievable - but it had to be true.  They'd said it on the radio.

Like Hot Press, the U2 office had been inundated with calls throughout the morning after Marty Whelan's first announcement.  They were baffled about the momentum the story had built.  "No, it's not true," a spokesperson told Hot Press.  "Yes, he does have a problem with his hand.  And it's not going to impinge on his career."

So Larry was not, even as we spoke, undergoing emergency surgery in New York?  Far from it, Larry was in rain-soaked Dublin, carrying with his essential business of working on U2's follow-up to The Unforgettable Fire.

"The band are currently rehearsing and Larry is playing drums.  He can play drums.  He is playing drums and he will be playing drums," the spokesperson added definitively.

With the level of disinformation which had already been spread, they were anxious to clarify matters firmly and definitely.

By the second day when Ireland's largest-selling daily, The Irish Independent, followed The Herald into print confirming the story, Larry Mullen had decided to talk to Hot Press, to get the story straight once and for all.

"I'm surprised at the people in the Independent and Herald 'cos I know those guys," he commented.  "I expected more from them.  But just running the story without checking it is descending to the tabloid rags in Britain.  The Daily Mirror piece is full of shit."

As ever the truth is a good deal more complex than the tabloids would allow.  To begin with, however, Larry does have a problem with his left hand.

"The hand has been a bit sore for a while but the first time I became aware that there was a problem in San Francisco during our America our.  That was less than a year ago.  I suddenly realised that I wasn't going to be able to play the gig that night - I was in too much pain.  So I was whisked off to hospital immediately and the doctor there told me to take the next two weeks off."

With a highly pressurised touring schedule to be completed, that kind of complete rest wasn't on the cards.  A compromise was reached, with the hand being put into a sophisticated plaster which could be removed for the duration of the gigs.  A course of serious pain-killers was prescribed to take Larry to the end of the tour.

"I was freaked out," Larry admits.  "My hands are my livelihood - a serious problem with them could affect me very badly."

A number of cortozone injections having failed to cure the ailment, Larry talked to Max Weinberg of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band about it.  As someone who's suffered badly with a similar problem, Weinberg was categorical in his advice.

"He's had eight operations on each finger in his hand.  He's had a problem for years and he hadn't taken care of his hands - he was in serious pain.  So he said to me, 'Don't be a martyr.'  Having seen the damage that had be done in his case, I was aware of the need to take care of my hands."

Returning from the American tour, the lengthy process of looking for a solution was undertaken in earnest.  "The problem is that nobody can identify what's the cause.  Something causes the tendons in the hand to swell - if you're using part of your body wrongly or if you push it too hard, this kind of thing can develop.  But there are a lot of different opinions as to what exactly is the root cause."

Larry has seen top surgeons in the States, Europe and Britain.  The ailment has puzzled even John Varian, whom Larry describes as "the head of British hand surgeons."  Along with other specialists Varian has recommended surgery to explore the hand, to identify what might be causing the swelling.

The idea doesn't appeal to Larry Mullen, who admits that he's trying to avoid an operation.  "I've been seeing doctors in Ireland and one of them found this anti-inflammatory tablet which helped enormously.  It's not a steroid and it's not a drug.  I don't know how it works but it reduces the swelling and there's less of a problem now.  It's a question of knowing how far I can push my hand and then taking care of it, bathing it in cold water and resting it as much as possible."

In the long run it's possible that Larry might have to submit to the logic of surgery but for the moment he's happy that the injury is under control.  In achieving that, he's set a headline which other musicians can follow.  A lot of drummers in particular have problems with their hands and play regardless, crucifying themselves as they pound the skins.  By the time they wake up to the fact that the problem is serious, it's often too late.

"That's why Max Weinberg asked me to talk about my injury.  A new hospital has opened in New York to deal with injuries to hands and he's lecturing there.  He rang me to ask me to do an interview with Musician magazine, to launch the campaign to make drummers aware of the need to take care of their hands. That must be where The Daily Mirror got their initial information."

Only to distort it, as they have done with a number of spurious stories about U2 in recent months.  "They had one about me with a copy of the bible in my hand, preaching on the 19A," Bono told Hot Press.  As they also carried a full page piece, including a large picture, about Bono's 'gasometer-like' home.

"We're a most unlikely band for that kind of attention," Bono added, "but they seem intent on pursuing us.  They seem to have gotten tired of the Duran Durans and so on.  It's something we'll have to be careful of."

The inevitable conclusion is a familiar one: don't believe what you read in the British tabloid press.  It's something Marty Whelan might note.  Because, happily, for the moment the news on Larry's hand is that there is no need to panic.  "We're recording the new album at the moment and I'm having very few problems with my hand," he confirmed.

Exactly when the finished work will hit the streets remains to be seen but enthusiasm is running high in the U2 camp.  Both The Edge and Bono have separately expressed the kind of excitement about the work-in-progress which suggests that something very special is on the cards.

"We're hoping to finish recording the album by the end of the year," Bono revealed.  "There may be a single out before Christmas or it might just be into the New Year."  But the last year's work is certainly rapidly coming to maturation...

U2 fans won't have to wait with baited breath for very much longer.