A book about U2 is quite a hard sell. It’s the same four men who met at school: they still quite like each other, they still sell millions of records and they have a relationship with their fans that lies completely outside the media. The only thing anyone else really has to say about U2 is that they don’t like Bono, the band’s frontman, because he is smug and evangelical. Bono addresses this charge early in his memoir: there is no criticism anyone could make of him that is worse than the criticism he gives himself, up there on stage, every night. On stage he has a devil on his shoulder, he says. But while he may have a devil, he also has faith, and God on his side. Thus insulated, Bono can begin his story. I thought that was pretty clever.
At night, when his wife and four children are sleeping, Bono likes to walk barefoot through the house in Ireland where he has lived for 30 years, stopping in each room, just to feel the room. At these moments he often gives thanks for shelter. I read this book thinking of his dark corridors and imagined one of those ultra-deep-pile white carpets only the very wealthy can have. I saw Bono’s study – an ergonomic leather chair – and Bono in it, writing the book in a loose harem pant; at certain moments, in my mind’s eye, he’d throw himself back, rake two hands through his eternally dark hair and read back his lines to himself aloud: I was born with melodies in my head, and I was looking for a way to hear them in the world.
What is the purpose of a rock-star autobiography? You spend years having powerfully unconscious reactions to their music, then when they write their book, you get to see how they see themselves. Dave Grohl’s father was a political journalist who trained him to tell stories at the dinner table. The Foo Fighters frontman wrote his memoir in anecdote form, and it helped him keep his distance. Bono’s book is 576 pages long and although its subtitle claims it to be “40 Songs, One Story”, it’s not that straightforward: a passage about the time he and his entire family baptised themselves in the River Jordan is followed shortly by six “Reasons to Love Johnny Cash”.
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Though the structure is chronological, the tone is not. There is such power in the narrating voice, such apparent self-knowledge in the all-seeing “I” that swivels back and forth over the years, that there is little sense of a character developing. Why? Because Bono has already made these journeys of self-discovery with his maker. And I’m not saying that facetiously. Any wounds he alludes to are wounds that God, you suspect, has already healed.
Bono, born in 1960 and christened Paul Hewson, is a prodigal son (to his father Bob, a Dublin postal worker) – but he is also Job, and Orpheus. “This is the story of how Eurydice saved Orpheus from his own hell. The story of how Alison Stewart saved me. From myself,” he writes. The same day he formed U2, aged 16 in 1976, Stewart became his girlfriend; in 1982 they were married. Long marriages in pop, rare as they are, have a peculiar quality: I am reminded of the Cure’s Robert Smith and his wife, who met at 14. If a budding punk meets his spouse as a child, he is meeting the other half of himself – not a trophy girlfriend but a mirror spirit who shares his adolescent mind. Given that the adult rock star has much of the teenager in him too, it might be an eternal bond. With Alison Stewart, there came God, too: Bono’s father was Catholic and his mother Protestant (“the ‘Prods’ at that time had the better tunes, and the Catholics had the better stage gear”) but with Ali, he would hang out with a small sect of “first-century” evangelical Christians who met outside McDonald’s in Dublin, also the meeting place of punks.
When the couple arrived in London to seek Bono’s fortune at 17, they put the small matter of their accommodation in the hands of prayer and ended up on the floor of Paddington Station. “Finishing our bacon and eggs, we agreed with each other that Jesus was a kind of anarchist”; Alison “was sure the God she prayed to could breach the distance between what we had and what we didn’t have, in the way of talent and tolls”. Who wouldn’t have been confident enough to pursue the impossible, if they had an Alison Stewart at their side from the age of 16? I know I would.
Bono’s mother died when he was 14, collapsing at the graveside of her own father during his funeral – she was one of three out of five sisters in her family to die of a brain aneurysm. He asks: “Does something inside the child feel that the mother chose to leave?” In a household of three grieving Irishmen (he has a brother) it wasn’t just that Iris Hewson wasn’t spoken of: she was forgotten, Bono says. He wrote a song about her in 2014: “Iris”, which appeared on Songs of Innocence. Pretty much the only thing people remember about that album is that it came free with iTunes and appeared on your computer and phone automatically, inviting comparisons to malware.
Iris – by all accounts a jolly woman – had ignored her son’s interest in singing, for reasons he never quite understood. At grammar school, he became convinced that his Spanish teacher was crossing out his homework without even having read it – so he got his own back by lobbing dog shit into her lunchbox, and was expelled. “I was afraid deep down that I was average,” he writes. “I didn’t realise that my whole life would be pitted against the concept that anyone is average. ‘No man need be a mediocrity if he accepts himself as God made him’ is how the poet Patrick Kavanagh put it.”
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Bob Dylan had dinner with Bono in the late 1980s and was overwhelmed by the man’s drive, later writing in his memoir Chronicles, “If Bono had come to America in the early part of the [20th] century he would have been a cop.” In the late 1970s, Bono turned up to the offices of Record Mirror and Sounds magazine, told reception that he had appointments with his favourite writers and handed them a demo tape of U2 songs, saying, “I’ll see you in an hour.” He stole John Peel’s number and hounded him at home: “I was the David to this Goliath of the radio waves.”
Bono was a big fan of the rock papers, and it is touching to hear his own attempts at music writing here and there: “The Edge played his plaintive arpeggiation in the rain and Larry rat-a-tat-tatted.”
What did I learn about U2? That the bass player, Adam Clayton, ate scraps of food from room service trays left outside people’s hotel rooms – that this continued when he was a millionaire and is possibly still happening today. That Larry Mullen, the drummer, is “the band’s bodyguard”. And that the guitarist, the Edge, says of people who don’t like U2: “They’re just not trying hard enough.” Bill Bailey once did a routine demonstrating the Edge’s distinctive, polyphonous guitar style – halfway though he turned his effects pedal off and was found to be playing the melody of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” underneath.
Bono wrote the 1983 protest song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” because he has “a perverse tic when I’m told not to do or say something”. A run-of-the-mill nationalist, in his own words, he released it after the death of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands: the band tried to promote a narrative of non-violence on their US tours in an attempt to “dry up IRA cashflow”. Irishness was being “taken hostage” by the republican movement, Bono says. But U2 are not loved in their home country. When a Guardian reporter went to find out why, one Dublin local blamed Bono’s shades (“He never takes off those glasses”) and another told him they’re not popular “because they did well”.
Bono describes a night out in the Fair City with Prince, when the latter exited a night club suddenly by jumping from one table to another, and out the door. This was during the period when Prince went around with the word “Slave” written on his face – because “I do not own my own master tapes,” he explained to Bono’s wife: “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you. Therefore I am a slave.” In a strange episode of stilted dialogue, Bono apparently replied that he had never felt like a slave to the record industry, because his manager, Paul McGuinness, negotiated for the band to retain their master recordings and copyright in exchange for lower royalty rights. Prince bounced out soon after that – specifically, after Bono asked him how much it cost to run his studio, Paisley Park.
Bono is unashamed of his interest in money, and has made more than a billion dollars in Facebook shares. Like many 15-year-olds he read Animal Farm, and he later came to wonder, in middle age, whether he was a pig or a farmer. Art does not exist on a higher plane than business, he writes: “Some of the most self-absorbed people I have met are artists (I’m one of them…), and some of the most selfless have been business leaders” – which is why he and his wife looked to Bill and Melissa Gates for funding when founding their One Campaign, an NGO fighting poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Capitalism needs reimagining. A reboot,” he says – and I wondered: would you say something so basic if you were not sincere? The main criticism of Bono is he gets involved in causes no one wants him to be involved in. But no one’s surprised when the Church does charity work in sub-Saharan Africa – and Bono is basically the Church. The “scriptures”, he writes, are “a plumb line to gauge how crooked the wall of my ego has become”.
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story
Hutchinson Heinemann, 576pp, £25
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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak