James Joyce had to leave Ireland to write “Ulysses” because if he had stayed, he would have talked it, according to a joke in the 1995 book “U2 at the End of the World,” which writer Bill Flanagan wrote after spending time with the Irish rock band U2 during their most prolific creative era.
As I read Bono’s “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” the fascinatingly (and occasionally maddeningly) discursive memoir of the lightning-rod U2 frontman, a 62-year-old rock star almost as infamous for his talking as he is famous for his singing, I found myself remembering this passage from a book I read a quarter-century ago. You undoubtedly already know that the man with the sunglass-wearing visage and soaring voice is also an activist who has committed at least as much time to AIDS, debt relief, and anti-poverty campaigns as he has to music.
Someone who isn’t a die-hard fan of U2 can nevertheless find value in his book because of his successful second career. Celebrity philanthropists will and should be met with scepticism, but it’s difficult to think of another who has made the transition from exhilarating but largely ineffective public condemnations of social ills to doing the laborious, unsexy, year-over-year, administration-over-administration work of forging connections with those who control the levers of power. Even when, or especially when, such individuals are Rupert Murdoch or George W. Bush.
One of his singer/agitator teachers, Harry Belafonte, taught Bono that you don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing you do agree on is significant enough. Bono draws this lesson from Belafonte. You can’t say his activism is of the lapel-pin sort, whether you love the man, detest him, or just wish he would stop up—familiar sentiments even to a U2 fan as wearily committed as your humble reviewer.
Since Bono jumped into the crowd during U2’s performance at Live Aid in 1985, he has been irking people, but not always for noble causes. He adjusted his approach after realising that the sum generated by that celebrity-studded charity event was hardly enough to meet the monthly interest its African-nation recipients were required to pay to their Western creditors. Two of the book’s most interesting chapters are his self-deprecating (really!) account of how he and his partners, over the course of a two-year lobbying campaign, persuaded the 43rd president to ask Congress for a historic $15 billion commitment to fight AIDS in Africa — and how he avoided criticising the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq in the process.
However, the majority of readers won’t be here for that. They won’t anticipate or find any “Hammer of the Gods”-style debauchery in the memories of a man who has been married to his high school sweetheart for 40 years and has played in a band with the same three guys for 45 years. He remembers both of these relationships with honesty and humility. “Surrender” is proof that the tunesmith who penned it also speaks fluent English and is more contemplative than scandalous or score-settling, much like the autobiographies of his friends Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen.
Many of its anecdotes—even the same phrases—have been used by the author in performance introductions for songs like “Iris,” which is about his mother’s abrupt death when he was 14, and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” which is about Bono’s father’s lingering death when he was 41. A tried-and-true component of his set list is his tale of dozing off with a whiskey on his lap at Frank Sinatra’s house and worrying that he had pooped in front of the Chairman. But have you heard the story about Bono leaving the White House while he and his wife were having drinks with Barack and Michelle? he was discovered unconscious in the Lincoln bedroom by the president. Not me.
The U2 mosaic already has a large number of tiles: While reflecting on the challenging birth of their seminal 1991 album, “Achtung Baby,” the documentary “From the Sky Down” recalled their genesis tale. The “Songs of Innocence” album had appeared unexpectedly on your iPhone the previous September; Bono, by the way, takes sole responsibility for this digital intrusion, absolving even his accomplices/bandmates and Apple CEO Tim Cook. The 2015 Innocence + Experience Tour was built around this album and featured a lot of overt autobiographical narrative. Then there are the four in-depth Rolling Stone interviews that Bono participated in between 1987 and 2017. When it comes to talking about himself, this man has never been shy.
The U2 mosaic has a large number of tiles already: In “From the Sky Down,” a documentary about their history, the band’s influential 1991 album “Achtung Baby” and its challenging birth were both revisited. The 2015 Innocence + Experience Tour, which was centred around the “Songs of Innocence” album that had appeared unexpectedly on your iPhone in September and for which Bono alone bears responsibility, absolving even his bandmates and Apple CEO Tim Cook, also featured a lot of overt autobiographical narrative. In addition, between 1987 and 2017, Bono participated in four in-depth interviews for Rolling Stone. This is not a man who has ever been shy about discussing himself.
What about those tunes, then? The 40 songs that serve as the titles for the book’s 40 chapters are not arranged in chronological order, as any fan who is familiar with U2’s discography would know. This is due to the non-linear nature of the story those chapters tell. The book jumps about between topics and eras, led more by thematic connections than by time signposts, and begins with a description of a crucial heart procedure Bono underwent in 2016.
The skill with which Bono transitions from expositions on the mysteries of songwriting to dissertations about, for instance, what he discovered when Mikhail Gorbachev visited him for Sunday dinner in Dublin, is varied. The literary ambition you might anticipate from a man who once co-wrote a song with Salman Rushdie is more than just a glimmer. Bono is a jokester who is also conscious of his regrettable propensity to convert a sincere discussion of practically any topic other than music into a TED Talk.
That doesn’t imply he makes an effort to do so or that he can always stop himself from doing it. It does imply that the book is a realistic self-portrait rather than an idealistic one. When Bono talks about “putting the messy in messianic,” he may or may not be referring to himself. Although glib, the expression is nevertheless rather nice. Whoever came up with that should consider becoming a songwriter.