I found myself recalling this fragment from a book I read a quarter of a century ago as I skimmed through Bono’s “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” the fascinating (and sometimes infuriating) discursive memoir from lightning rod frontman U2, a 62-year-old rock star almost as infamous for his speech as he is his singing. The man with the perpetually sunglasses-faced and soaring voice is also, as you probably know, an agitator who has devoted at least as many of his 21st century hours to AIDS, debt relief and the fight against poverty than to music.
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This successful second career is one reason why someone who isn’t a rabid U2 fan might find value in his book. Famous benefactors will and should be met with skepticism, but it’s hard to name another who has gone so successfully from thrilling but largely ineffectual public condemnations of social ills to doing the tedious, unsexy, year after year. administration over- administrative work of establishing relationships with those who hold the levers of power. Even when, above all when, these people are George W. Bush or Rupert Murdoch.
“You don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing you agree on is important enough,” Bono writes, a lesson he learned from one of his singing mentors/ agitators, Harry Belafonte. Love the guy, hate him, or just wish he were quiet – familiar emotions even for such a passionately devout U2 fan as your humble critic – you can’t say his activism is of the pin variety.
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He’s been annoying people, not always for honorable reasons, at least ever since he jumped into the audience during U2’s set at Live Aid in 1985. And once he learned that the fortune raised by that gig charity event filled with stars was barely enough to cover the weekly interest his beneficiaries from African nations were paying their Western debtors, he changed his strategy. His self-deprecating (really!) account of how he and his partners, during a two-year lobbying effort, led the 43rd president to ask Congress for a historic $15 billion pledge to fight AIDS in Africa – and how he refrained from criticizing the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – constitute two of the book’s most compelling chapters. (At a time when it appeared the Bush administration would break its promises, George Soros accused Bono of “selling for a plate of lentils.”)
But that’s not what most readers will be here for. Nor will they expect or find much “Hammer of the Gods” style debauchery in the memories of a guy who’s been in a band with the same three dudes for 45 years and is married to his girlfriend from high school since 40; on these two relationships, he reflects with frankness and humility. Like the memoirs of his pals Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, “Surrender” is more introspective than salacious or settling scores, and proof that the speaker who wrote it is also fluent in prose.
Much of it is also familiar, with the author having shared many of his anecdotes – the same lines, even – in concert introductions to songs like “Iris”, about the mother who died suddenly at the age of 14, and “Sometimes you can”. t Make It on Your Own,” about the father who died slowly when Bono was 41. His story of falling asleep with a whiskey in his lap at Frank Sinatra’s and fearing he peed his pants in front of the president is a road-tested must-have on his set list. But have you heard of how Bono wandered off while he and his wife were drinking with Barack and Michelle at the White House, and the President found him passed out in Lincoln’s room? I did not have.
There were already plenty of tiles in the U2 mosaic: the documentary ‘From the Sky Down’ told their origin story while looking back at the difficult birth of their pivotal 1991 album, ‘Achtung Baby’. The 2015 Innocence + Experience Tour – a roadshow built around the “Songs of Innocence” album that had spontaneously materialized on your iPhone the previous September, a digital intrusion for which Bono takes full responsibility, incidentally, absolves even his accomplices/bandmates and Apple CEO Tim Cook also had plenty of overt autobiographical accounts. Then there are the four long Rolling Stone interviews that Bono sat for circa 1987-2017. He is not a man who has never been reluctant to talk about himself.
Paradoxically, a memoir of 560 pages is a safe space in which finally no one can accuse him of prolixity. Or at least he doesn’t have to feel U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s eyes piercing the back of his skull as the timekeeper puts down his drumsticks, after realizing that the singer he recruited for his band in 1976 once again embarked on another rambling song introduction.
Well, what about those songs? Any fan familiar with U2’s catalog will recognize that the 40 tracks that provide the titles for the book’s 40 chapters are not chronologically sequenced. This is because the story told by these chapters is not linear. Beginning with the account of a critical heart operation Bono underwent in 2016, the book veers between topics and eras, guided by thematic connections more than temporal cues.
The dexterity with which Bono moves from songwriting mysteries to dissertations on, say, what he learned when Mikhail Gorbachev came to his Dublin home for Sunday dinner, is variable. There’s more than a hint of the literary ambition you might expect from a man who once co-wrote a song with Salman Rushdie. Bono knows how to get around a joke, and he’s well aware of his annoying habit of starting a serious discussion on almost any subject that is not music in a TED Talk.
That doesn’t mean he can always stop himself from doing it or even try. This means that the book is a figurative self-portrait, not an aspiration. Bono doesn’t consciously describe himself when he talks about “putting the messy in messianic,” but it could be. The phrase is flippant, but still pretty good. Whoever thought of it should try to be a songwriter.
Chris Klimek works for the Smithsonian magazine and co-hosts the podcast “A Degree Absolute!”
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