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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Brendan O'Connor

Calls from a dying Steve Jobs and whiskey with Gorbachev – you might think you know Bono, but his new memoir proves you really don't

Bono circa 1984. Picture by Aaron Rapoport/Getty

They say everyone has a Bono story. Not surprisingly, it turns out Bono has loads of them. Bono is also the only one with the Bono story.

They say as well that everyone has a book in them. So Bono, being a nice bunch of guys, probably has a bunch of books in him. For now, he has put them all into one: Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story.

If a good book is just a good read, then a great book — a special book — is one that alters you slightly, that shifts how you see things for a while, that stays with you. Surrender does that.

As you read it, it swirls around you. It conjures up not just this extraordinary life, lived so close to the action of the last quarter of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st, but also a man, sitting on his own, reckoning with that life.

And afterwards, bits of it haunt you, and you might give a little random laugh to yourself too as you recall some incident.

If you’re a fan, who has followed U2 down the years and read all the Bono interviews, you might wonder if you need to read this memoir. You might feel you know him well enough by now. But it turns out you don’t really know him.

Bono, his elder brother Norman, and his dad Bob at home in Glasnevin

Will you know him after you read Surrender? Well, you’ll know him better. It’s Bono Unplugged — to a point.

It feels, in one way, like Bono’s been explaining himself all his life. It feels too, from his day job as arguably the greatest white soul singer in the world, that we know the intimacies of Bono’s own soul.

But reading Surrender, you realise that a lot of the time, he was putting on a show, making a show of himself.

And the showman, Bono seems to be increasingly thinking, is not to be trusted. At one point in the book, he quotes himself, in The Fly, “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/All kill their inspiration, and sing about the grief.”

But then, he points out, “in pursuit of truth we are capable of more untruth than most”. So Bono doesn’t give it all away in this book. He doesn’t over-explain, he doesn’t ruin the mystique.

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But we get perhaps the greater truth, of how he sees his life, what has mattered to him in it, a kind of the essence of Bono — but not, thankfully, the whole thing. He is a reliable narrator in as much as any of us can know our own story.

Now, don’t panic. He has great Bono stories. Some of them you’ve already heard in the promo outings for the book. (This being Bono, there’s even a live tour to go with the book.)

So you know by now the big reveal: that Bono’s cousin is in fact his half-brother, or maybe just his brother. His cousin Scott Rankin is Bono’s father’s son as well as his auntie Barbara’s son. It seems as if this has been a happy story for all involved.

Bono and Ali shopping in NY in the early Eighties

But it is in the lesser revelations that some people will revel. And the cast of characters.

Naturally, Bono’s got a great cast of characters. They’re all there, angels and devils and the ones in between. From Roger Ailes to Warren Buffet, via Gorby, Bill Clinton, George ‘Dubya’ Bush, Bob Dylan and, of course, the premier rock guitarist of the modern era Edge, and Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr — pound for pound the best rhythm section in popular music.

And of course Obama is there: Bono, in a very Irish moment, at the White House, quietly leaving the table after wine and pizza to head off and crash out, eventually discovered in Lincoln’s bedroom.

It’s an allergy thing by the way. Bono needs antihistamines with his wine.

Another weird fact: He also hates cooking or ordering food.

Steve Jobs appears, when he was dying himself, ringing up Bono because he’s concerned about Bono: “Personally, you’re not looking after yourself. Politically, you need to think harder about whose company you’re keeping. And you’ve put on weight.”

Bono’s open house on Sundays sounds like a great place to be.

When Bowie came to stay one Sunday night, his “better-self manager” Coco warned that he could be odd during the night, and that if he sleepwalked into Bono and Ali’s room in the middle of the night and stood at the end of their bed, they should just tell him to go back to bed, and he usually did.

An early picture of U2, when they weren't even big in Dublin

Ali kept an eye open all night. She had to close the Thin White Duke’s bedroom door a few times, but as far as we know, he didn’t make it to the end of Bono’s bed. Bowie had arrived in Dublin while the band were working on Achtung Baby.

He was “reassuringly reassuring” about most of the songs, but told them The Fly needed work.

And then there was the Sunday that Gorby showed up. And they’re sitting around the table and they’re drinking whiskey and asking him the big questions. And then a little girl enters the room on her prosthetic legs: Anna, Ali’s god-daughter, originally from Belarus, now from Cork. She was born with severe physical disabilities after Chernobyl.

With Anna on his knee, Gorbachev explains to the company that it was Chernobyl that finally spurred him to realise that the USSR needed a new path, one that included rapprochement with the West.

Another political icon who makes an appearance is Gerry Adams. Bono reckons that Adams using the word “stinks” about him in a Hot Press interview “sent a tacit signal to hard-core Republicans that I was, and there’s no other word for it, a piece of shit”.

Bono goes on to say that for those who were pissed off that U2’s opposition to paramilitarism was damaging IRA fundraising in the US, Adams’s comment “was a vexed signal for sympathisers to kick U2 off their national perch”.

U2 were advised to increase their security after this, though the Special Branch predicted that Ali was the more likely target.

Bono and Barack in 2006, three years before he became president

Bono has good U2 stories too. There’s the time when U2 were offered $23m for Where The Streets Have No Name to be used in a car commercial.

Bono admits they agonised. He believes that to this day, whenever they play that song live, it’s as if God walks through the room. But it was a lot of money they could give to a good cause.

But their friend and sometime mentor the legendary music business figure Jimmy Iovine pointed out that, “You can take the deal. But you just have to prepare for that moment when you say ‘God walks through the room’, being known instead as ‘Oh, they’re playing that car ad’.”

It happens that the best U2 stories are the ones where U2 are nearly falling apart, sometimes because the Edge thinks it’s not God’s will for them to be a band, and sometimes because Bono is pushing everyone too hard to find something new, to push the envelope again.

This tendency perhaps reaches its zenith, or nadir, around the Pop album, which Bono still feels is unfinished, and the Popmart tour, which he found, initially, and this is his word: “humiliating”.

​But the real revelations are between the cracks, the little things that preceded the big things, or that happened in between the official story.

The boy who found school hard, not sure even now if it was dyslexia. You’ve heard before how Bono, his dad Bob and his brother Norman never talked about his mother Iris after she died. In fact, he says now, they never thought about her either.

The man, who writes now about “Success as an outworking of dysfunction, an excuse for obsessive compulsive tendencies. Success should come with a health warning — for the workaholic and for those around him”.

The man who challenges himself now to “overcome myself, to renew myself. I’m not sure I can make it. I doubt myself.”

The man who saved the world, who is “drawn to the extreme challenge”, but who sees, as he gets older, “the danger in the desperate desire to get out of my depth”.

And of course, where he gets his answer is still Jesus. He’s flirted with the charismatic movement, liberation theology, he even brings the kids on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But he never really found a church that suited him, and he tells his kids to beware of religion.

But if he didn’t find a church, he did find the home he was looking for, and that is mostly with Ali. She hovers throughout the book. He comes back to her again and again.

“Every day that we give to each other adds weight and weightlessness, gravity and grace,” he says, admitting that when he gets serious like this, she gets fidgety.

Reading this book, which flits between serious and weightless. She probably got fidgety at times. But the beauty of it is that there are so many Bono stories to tell. And just when you’ve had enough of the serious Bono, another one comes along, firing you off in another direction.

And you just might find, as with a great show, or a great U2 album, that you walk away retuned slightly, maybe opened up a bit, maybe reflecting on your own life a bit.

And that’s maybe the curse and the gift of the showman.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on November 1

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