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Bona fide Bono

When you read memoirs written by politicians, media stars, business moguls or sporting heroes, you know that you are being told only what the writer wants you to hear. It is easy to hide embarrassing episodes or less attractive aspects of character either by omission or by selective retelling. (Gerry Adams could run masterclasses in this.) Bono chose a different route: opening himself through a series of conversations with a trusted journalist—not interviews in the conventional sense, but more like two old friends switching off from their daily lives and sitting down to easy introspection over a mellowing wine.

The result is quite enthralling. As in any conversation between friends, some of the result is trivial and mundane, but the overall effect is deeply touching. I was going to use the word profound, but even a reviewer is conscious that the person in question is frontman for an extravagantly successful, decibel-loving pop band, wealthy beyond imagining, one of the half-dozen most recognised people on the planet. People like that are not supposed to do profound.

Yet, again and again, the reader is pulled up short as the words demand to be re-read. Take an example. As a young man, Bono was part of a group—sect would be too strong a word—involved in close study of the Bible. He is asked how he can square the bellicose God of the Old Testament with his ideas on peace and love. It is worth quoting his reply in full:

There is nothing hippie about my picture of Christ. The Gospels paint a picture of a very demanding, sometimes divisive love, but love it is. I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery.

The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that’s why they are so relatable. But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend. With Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.

If our Sunday sermons were like that, we might fill a few more pews.

And here is a little gem for every Head of School’s farewell to a graduating class: ‘Some people die at 17 and put their funeral off until they’re 77.’

For those who have been in a monastery for the past 20 years, it may be useful to fill in a few details on Paul Hewson aka Bono. Now in his mid-40s, he was raised in Dublin’s northside, Roddy Doyle territory, a mixture of high-rise madness and struggling working class. At 12, he played chess at international level.
His father, a lapsed Catholic, would read the Sunday papers in his car while he and his mother attended a Protestant service. She died when he was 14, leaving him with predictable confusion and revolt. He attended a small Protestant primary school which he remembers with affection, as he does Mount Temple Comprehensive, where he met the three others who would form U2. The first person to champion their early efforts outside of Dublin was the French music writer Michka Assayas and it is that early friendship that forms the background to these conversations.

Assayas is no doting Boswell, no uncritical Sancho Panza; the success of the book owes a great deal to his gentle probing and occasionally forceful questioning. Perhaps persistent is a better word. He is not so much looking for answers as seeking insights, and 30 years of dealing with journalists must have given his subject some instinctive duck-and-weave reactions that needed to be overcome. 

At Davos earlier this year, while demonstrators fumed at what they saw as selling out, Bono was part of World Economic Forum discussions on poverty. With his trademark tinted wrap-around sunglasses, he brought much more than celebrity to a debate on the role of the rich G8 countries in helping Africa;
he impressed the hard-headed business moguls and government bureaucrats by his deep knowledge and familiarity with the problems when he joined a panel consisting of Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Thabo Mbeki and President Obasanjo of Nigeria.

He is co-founder of DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) and will sup with the devil to push his cause. He agrees that he is not a cheap date, and the kinds of numbers he quotes on debt relief, AIDS initiatives, economic development and the fight against corruption are in billions of dollars. ‘Celebrity is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘It is silly, but it is a kind of currency, and you have to spend it wisely.’ And what drives him? ‘“Love
thy neighbour” is not advice. It’s a command.’

Meanwhile, he is a songwriter and performer who takes inspiration from the other members of his group. ‘The blessing of weakness is that it forces you into friendships,’ he says, explaining their closeness. Not many groups last as long as U2, continually reinventing themselves, providing their followers with memorable performances and new musical experiences. ‘This is how we worship God, even though we don’t write religious songs, because we didn’t feel God needs the advertising.’

And he is involved in a number of businesses. We are not talking here of Dublin’s Clarence Hotel which he and The Edge bought in their early days, but multinational groups at the forefront of the music industry. There are also companies involved in the fast-food business and in clothing. In the early days, U2 chose to take lower royalties in return for retaining ownership of all their own copyright and master tapes. It is hard to imagine that they will ever be on the breadline.

There are memorable cameo scenes that stick in the mind: George Bush good-naturedly banging on his oval office desk in an attempt to get a word in edgeways, Gorbachev calling in unannounced on a Sunday afternoon with a present for one of the kids, Bono swapping his sunnies for rosary beads from the Pope, his visits to El Salvador and Ethiopia. But my favourite is a talk he had with his father over a quiet Sunday drink in a pub. At this time he was famous, successful, wealthy, creative; the old man with a passion for opera and a fine singing voice had given his life to civil-service drudgery. ‘There’s one thing I envy about you,’ he said to his son. ‘I don’t envy anything else. You do seem to have a relationship with God.’

In his life, Bono has turned music and performance on its head. He has thrown away the book called Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll, in favour of concern for others on a global scale and deep internal life. The son telling his father about faith is as poignant as any. Perhaps a rock star can do profound.  

Bono on Bono. Conversations with Michka Assayas, Hodder & Stoughton, 2005. ISBN 0 340 83276 2 , RRP $49.95

Frank O’Shea is a Canberra writer and educator.



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