One Voice, Many Paths
Bono requires little introduction. As the lead singer and songwriter of U2, and to a lesser extent as a political campaigner, he has been a fixture on the world stage since the early 1980s. In Ireland, where everyone has a Bono story, the musician occupies a place in the national consciousness matched by few, if any, other public figures. Surprisingly, then, the appearance of Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story marks the first occasion that he has presented his autobiography in depth and solely on his own terms. Surrender is a substantial book of over 500 pages. Unfolding in a broadly chronological structure, it is divided into forty chapters and three larger ‘parts’. With each chapter bearing the title of a U2 track, the contents pages resemble a greatest hits compilation. The slick packaging is a reminder of how the rock memoir functions as the album did in the pre-streaming, pre-iTunes era. It is now a standard offering in the rock star’s catalogue, a product that lends itself well to the music industry’s business model. Bono has already embarked on an international promotional ‘tour’ of the book, including an intimate one-man show at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, in November.
To the book itself, then. Part I spans Bono’s early years to the late 1980s, concluding with remarks on the mixed reception of the band’s album Rattle and Hum and reminiscences about the impending birth of his first child. Part II concentrates on the 1990s, with Bono dwelling on the challenges his band faced in that decade – from bassist Adam Clayton’s addiction problems to existential angst about new artistic explorations. Their dance-oriented reinvention on the 1997 Pop album was, as their frontman describes it, ‘the sound of a balloon bursting. Pop.’ It was also during the late 1990s that the rock star reinvented himself as an antipoverty activist whose campaigns brought him to the Oval Office in the US. Part III, continuing into the present century, is the most personal and introspective, although it also deals with the musician’s public, professional life.
Bono’s multifaceted identity generates a wealth of narrative material. He is, simultaneously, a rock star with a stable personal life, a person of deep religious faith, a globally famous artist, an ambitious political activist, and astute businessman. As such, this diffuse material requires a strong authorial voice to maintain coherence and sustain interest. Mostly, Bono manages that. Part of how he succeeds is through the twin focus on trajectories that originated during his teenage years at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Clontarf, Dublin: his romantic relationship with Ali Hewson (to whom the memoir is dedicated) and his career with U2. Both his marriage and the band have endured for over forty years now. When the narrative veers off these tracks, it becomes less engaging. Discussing, for instance, the Drop the Debt campaign meetings in Washington D.C., Bono name-drops various IMF officials, congressmen and economists. He recalls thinking, ‘I’m already a long way from my home base.’ It’s an admission that the reader might already have sensed, given how these passages tend towards dry accounts of events rather than immersing the reader in the heat of a moment.
Personal and professional
The opening pages plunge the reader into the drama of Bono’s recent heart surgery, which he remembers as an out-of-body experience, ‘looking down on myself from above’. Starting with that remark on the first page, a thread of wry self-awareness permeates the book. Such self-reflection is central to its appeal. Given that much of the material covered in Surrender is already familiar to U2 fans, it is reasonable to assume that the author’s perspective on events is the main draw for readers. On this count, Bono rarely disappoints – he is often self-deprecating and disarmingly honest about everything from questionable career decisions to personal matters. On the former, he recalls proceeding with the PopMart tour in 1997–98 despite the band being under-rehearsed: ‘everyone turns up for our big opening night, and we can’t quite play our new songs. It’s a kind of humiliation. And that’s just the start of it.’ Regarding his private relationship with Ali, he is just as frank: ‘Were there days when both of us might resent the obligations our marriage makes of each other? Sure, but neither of us would want to live outside each other’s love as expressed through this old-fashioned but still functional construct called marriage.’
The early part of the book concentrates on the band’s formative years and the Dublin music scene in the late 1970, before tracking their efforts to secure a record deal and win over audiences in the UK, and moving on to their studio work with collaborators such as the producer Brian Eno. While the potted history of the band reveals little in the way of new information, it is interesting to read the lead singer’s later perspective on it: to his ears, the debut album Boy still sounds ‘singular and distinctive’ despite his ‘unfinished’, sketch-like lyrics. In parallel to the band’s development, Bono was also learning to cope with personal trauma he suffered in adolescence.
Throughout the book, he writes from the heart about his volatile relationship with his father, Bob Hewson. The elder Hewson was left alone to raise Bono and his brother, Norman, following the sudden death of their mother, Iris, when the singer was fourteen. Of Bob, Bono recalls ‘He really was a fine tenor and once told me that I was “a baritone who thinks he’s a tenor.” One of the great put-downs and pretty accurate.’ Elaborating on the hurt and anger each felt, he compares their situation to a tortured opera or ‘melodrama’ where ‘son blames father for the loss of his mother and the ending of his home life.’ One of the most affective aspects of Surrender is the authentic and often tender portrayal of this relationship as it evolved over the years. Bono remembers basking in his father’s understated compliment that he was ‘very professional’ after witnessing him captivate a stadium audience in Houston, Texas, in 1985. By the summer of 2001, the U2 singer was making late-night dashes from European concert venues to the bedside of the terminally ill Bob, arriving at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin and ‘sitting there in silence an hour and a half after the roar of an encore.’ Bono subsequently realised that – to put it bluntly – he ‘never got to apologize for being such a prick – until he was gone.’ The posthumous apology to his father took the form of the song ‘Sometime You Can’t Make It on Your Own’. In passages such as this (chapter 28, ‘Beautiful Day’), with the full printed lyrics, the memoir deftly weaves the author’s personal and professional lives.
In chapters 34 (‘Get Out of Your Own Way’) and 35 (‘Every Breaking Wave’), Bono confronts the criticisms that have been levied at him as an individual and at the band for their recent business practices. The sketch Bono produced to accompany chapter 34 – a vertical arrangement of a dollar sign, treble clef, and euro symbol – is apt. ‘Maybe we went too far when [U2] moved one of our companies to Holland to save tax,’ is as much as he concedes regarding a controversial decision made in 2006. A few pages later, he complains that ‘the worlds of tech and music still fail to fairly reward those countless musicians who are not mega pop stars’ – yet, as we see in the following chapter, he sanctioned giving music away for nothing in 2014. The new U2 album Songs of Innocence was automatically uploaded to the iTunes libraries of Apple’s millions of customers. An immediate backlash led him to regret this decision, one for which he took ‘full responsibility.’
That Bono could pursue such an ill-advised move is symptomatic of the disproportionate power rock stars can exert beyond the music world and how they can muscle into the domains of business and, more problematically, global politics. In chapter 32 (‘Ordinary Love’), the musician acknowledges that his presence on the political stage has not always been constructive. Regarding his attempts to combat poverty and increase Western aid to poorer African countries, he admits: ‘you have to be suspicious of rock stars […] lining up in a photocall with the sick and the dying.’ Plus, ‘another lesson white faces like ours needed to learn was to avoid the kind of framing in which the poor of the world are symbolized by Black faces.’ The chapter’s focus on what he has learned – from his thoughts on ‘white Messiah syndrome’ to the need for ‘partnership rather than patronage’ – reveals the author’s carefully considered position on his long involvement in activist efforts.
Much of the memoir is written in a self-conscious, self-reflective style. In that respect, it is evocative of Bono’s mature artistic voice. On the U2 track ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ (2000) he indulges in a kind of songwriting meta-performance with the lyrics: ‘I’m just trying to find a decent melody / a song that I can sing in my own company.’ There are echoes of this in the book, moments where he writes about the writing process and makes the reader hyper-aware of his commitment to the project. Earnestness is a trademark of Bono’s work, whether he is in creative or campaigning mode, and it’s a quality that resounds as much on the page as on the stage.
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story by Bono is published by Hutchinson. Visit https://surrendermemoir.com.
Published on 13 December 2022
Dr Laura Watson is Associate Professor of Music at Maynooth University.