Bono’s memoir came up in Church. “The problem with Bono,” I suggested, “is that having written a book about him I know more about him than he knows. When I met him I kind of finished his sentences”. “Ah”, replied Alison, “you know the facts but do you know the feelings.”
I laughed and the next day opened Surrender; 40 Songs. One Story where under the chapter headings of 40 U2 songs Bono takes us through his entire life, in a beautifully written poetic prose. It realise magnificently written. Bono might have an even better flair for prose than song lyrics.
The title had me concerned. I feared a cheap explanation of a clatter of songs. I am delighted to confess how wrong I was. This is broad and deep and high in the memories of a life. In the end the songs give chapter headings, little hangers for Bono to set up his journey, pilgrimage he calls it. Though a general chronological trajectory he does shift back and forward, subject rather than dateline dominated.
Paul Hewson, as Bono was born, has lived quite the life. He is born into an ordinary family in a very ordinary street in Dublin. He loses his mother as a teenager at his grandfather’s funeral. Then, at a cross denominational school in Dublin he meets his future wife. The same week, in the same place, he joins a band. He later becomes friends with super models, American and Russian Presidents, tackles cancelling the debts of African countries, the AIDS pandemic and stands between national and unionist politicians in winning a Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland. He also finds himself pushing his family under a restaurant table during a terrorist attack in Nice just weeks after U2 were rehearsing in another part of Paris during the 2015 Paris attacks.
That is all happening around the fact that that band that he joined as teenager became the biggest rock band on earth making iconic records for four decades and changing the face of what is expected from a live rock show.
Of course I knew all of these facts but my friend Alison was right. I didn’t know the feelings and from the opening pages I was surprised by how Bono wears his heart on his sleeve. Surrender begins with Bono on an operating table in Mount Sinai Hospital in 2016 as a surgeon pulls his chest apart to fix an eccentric heart. It’s raw.
On it goes. Of course I knew the facts of his mother’s death and his struggles living in 10 Cedarwood Road with his father and brother Norman but the depth of his heartache. I also knew about his dependence of Ali his wife but their early kisses at bus stops; his emotional lack of parental loss getting balanced by the woman who has been his rock.
As well as his heart, Bono lets us into his soul. That might be what has most kept my interest in U2 down all these years. The book is peppered with testimony, Bible stories and quotations. He ends a chapter with a verse from St. Paul. In the middle of a discussion about capitalism he quotes Jesus. He cannot not!
Two stories gave me the feeling of Bono’s depth of faith. In the first he tells us of having voice problems and anxiety is likely the cause. He does something he has never done. He goes to a hypnotist who asks him to imagine a room of happy and safe memories. When asked to open a drawer and pick out the best memory Bono finds himself walking by a river with his best friend. “Who?” asks the hypnotist. “Jesus”, Bono answers.
In the other Bono entire family are by the River Jordan and go for a swim. Bono writes - “The symbol of baptism is about submerging into your death in order to emerge into new life, a powerful poetry, and I’m a fortunate man to have a family of foolish pilgrims who will follow me into this symbolism.”
Bono’s early faith was nurtured in the Shalom fellowship, one of so many house groups that popped up at the time of a charismatic movement that swept the world in the late 70s. It was full of spiritual energy but lacked in wise leadership.
There was no shortage of naivety. I smiled at the story where Bono takes Ali to London and has no money, expecting God to supply. The same naivety though almost costs us U2, all those records and all Bono’s phenomenal justice campaigning.
Initially seeing U2 as a missional arm to the youth Shalom turned on the band and suggested rock music wasn’t a healthy place for young believers.
Under such influence, Edge left the band. Telling their manager Paul McGinness of their decision he played along to their piety and asked if God would be happy for his followers to not fulfil contracts. The break up was off. A vocation survived and a vocation is what Bono believes he has.
It is frightening to surmise the amount of things that the world would have missed had they listened to their pastor in Shalom and given up music. Pastors… be careful.
It might be as a result of the Shalom experience that has Bono questioning institutional Christianity. He seems to prefer sitting alone in Churches than being part of communities with Creeds and leaders who might lead badly.
He doesn’t hold back. He writes about how, “at times religion can be the biggest obstacle in your path” and how Christianity seems to have become “the enemy of the radical Jesus”. He also mentions “The Bible belt and its unchristian undertow leaving welts on the bare bottoms of unbelievers.” I did say poetic!
I read someone suggesting that this is the best ever rock memoir. I half agree. It is a fascinating diving deep into the feelings of being in a rock band’s rise to the top. There might not be a book that better expresses how bands begin and develop. It gives great insight into the democracy of U2. Bono shares lessons learned in the music business and how import their manager Paul McGinness was. As to how music comes together in a. Studio or on a stage it is very good.
However, if the reader is looking for what the cliché states as Sex and Drugs and Rock ’n Roll then they will be very disappointed. This is a book about one man’s relationships with A Girl, God and a Rock N Roll Band… and how through those relationships that have each lasted almost 50 years he has found romantic companionship, musical comradeship and spiritual meaning; salvation in every corner of his brokenness. This is a testimony of the feelings of all of these.