Bono: Surrender, 40 Songs, One Story (book review)

Bono, much like Bruce Springsteen, can sell a ton of records and tour stadiums around the world, but is maligned by many for his views and activities. Is he just another rich, liberal rockstar whose solution is to throw other people’s money at countries that can’t solve their own problems? Bono is certainly an activist and unapologetic about the causes he supports. You’ll have make up your own mind about Bono and his motivation. After reading his book, I didn’t see Bono in a different light, just a clearer one.

Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story is Bono’s life as told through a group of songs. Interestingly, he has embarked on a book and concert tour where he talks about his life and performs some new versions of U2 songs.

Bono on book tour.

“But the moments that lingered were when Bono turned actor, with no more than two chairs as his set – as he recreated the regular pub conversations with his father, with Bono playing both parts: the needy son and his inexpressive Da, stubbornly refusing to be impressed by his boy’s galloping, world-conquering success.” – from The Guardian’s review of Bono’s book tour appearance.

Surrender is really the melding together of two stories. First is Bono’s music career, the second is his humanitarian efforts. Both are extensive, and cover large sections of this 557 page book, but I feel he shorted both, especially his work with U2, and collaborations with others. He focuses little time on the actual music on the later the U2 albums. Bono praises his bandmates and their musical talents, but the book skims over much that fans are probably looking for in these many pages.

I mentioned the mixed feelings about Bono; he is a rich, outspoken rockstar who is a social activist and political critic, and mixes with celebrities and world leaders. He’s been criticized for moving assets to the Netherlands which has a lower tax rate, and other business dealings that to some, conflict with his feelings about greed an abundance. Are his views in step with a world divided over climate change, immigration, charitable efforts and human rights? At age 62, Paul David Henson is somewhat the dinosaur that his neo-punk rock band sought to be an alternative to at the end of the 1970s.

Bono quickly impressed the music world as more than just the lead singer of a rock band. He was thoughtful, insightful, intelligent and used his fame and voice to speak to the world. U2 was at the forefront of not only headlining massive benefit concerts, but could encourage voting and getting involved in meaningful causes. And, U2 was a darling of MTV, selling millions of albums and quickly rising from clubs to theaters to arenas to stadiums. He traces the band’s origin from Dublin teenagers, kids who dreamed of success like any other band, but had a unique sound and a skilled manager that understood them. “In our Dublin it felt as if there were no present, let alone past or future. Growing up in Ireland it felt as if the future was always somewhere else.”

Bono writes that U2 initially followed the punk rock playbook, but they weren’t punk rockers. From a tough, raw, high energy sound, U2 saw beyond the horizon and had too much creativity and talent to be stuck in an ill-fitting musical label. To their benefit, U2 found forward-thinking, risk-taking producers to shape and expand their sound. Steve Lillywhite helmed the first three albums, then Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois took over for the albums that would make the band superstars. Bono credits Eno/Lanois for pushing their musical boundaries far beyond the “primary colors” into a palette of rich textures. Bono brought a thinking man’s, worldly language to his lyrics, less Johnny Rotten and more Bob Dylan. For a teenage kid with limited experience outside of Dublin, Bono could write of loss (his mother’s death), repression and war (conflict in Northern Ireland) and love (his life mate Ali). U2 as a band were searchers of faith, peace, humanity.

Bono’s trip to Central America in the mid 1980s played a large influence in his evolving views on geopolitics and growing opposition to American foreign policy. This one event would reverberate in his consciousness and art going forward. Live Aid, the effort to raise both interest in, and money for famine relief in Africa, was a U2 supported project. Bono makes this point several times that music, “is a lifeline in times of turbulence.”

Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa (DATA) is an organization co-founded by Bono. It was an umbrella for his efforts for Africa relief. What drew Bono to social causes and international politics? Bono never directly answers that, but his consciousness was impacted as he traveled and observed the world, and questioned why there was such disparity in world economies, social justice and human rights, climatic conditions, and the lasting effects of colonialism. I believe it was his faith and his compassion for those born into limited opportunities, and for the world his children would inherit. A bleeding heart? Yes. A do-gooder as one American Congressman called him.

In addition to debt relief for poor, struggling countries, his other projects including assistance to the children of Chernobyl, anti-nuclear protests, AIDS medications, and famine relief. Bono made a special connection with Africa, it would draw him back repeatedly, and “lift me out of myself, and teach me so much.” Bono writes that 38 percent of adults in one African country were AIDS positive. In the early 2000s, Bono’s involvement with the Jubilee 2000 effort led to $100 billion in debt cancellation for the poorest countries, which Bono writes, allowed fifty million children to attend school who wouldn’t otherwise.

“Fame is currency,” Bono soon realized. It opened door to world leaders and celebrities, gained headlines, shamed those who deserved it, and raised ten of millions of dollars. Bono recounts meeting with, and enlisting the help of, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Pope John Paul II, Rupert Murdoch, Condolezza Rice and others on initiatives to empower the poorest nations and save lives of the most vulnerable people. Even those who did not share his politics seemed open to talking with and often finding common ground. Mikhail Gorbachev, Harry Belafonte, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett and many others provided counsel to Bono as he worked his initiatives and networked with influencers and those who had carved paths of leadership.

One of Bono’s most interesting stories was getting money during the George W. Bush administration for AIDS medications to go to Africa. It was a tough fight, with criticism stinging Bono from both conservatives and liberals. In the end, Bush delivered $18 billion for Africa.

Another of his recollections involved the terrorist November 2015 Paris attacks on various musical and sports venues. Bono and his wife were in Paris at the time, and one attack happened near them, forcing them to seek cover in a nearby café. That event brought home images of the past conflict in his own Ireland, and the realization that terror could happen at other concert venues, like a U2 concert.

Religion, but more specifically faith, is another theme running through Bono’s book. Bono quotes from the Bible and knows his Biblical history, but he’s weary of how religious has been repurposed and weaponized (my words) for hate, control and greed. Bono makes a distinction between being religious and being a person of faith.

“Christianity seemed to have become the enemy of the radical Jesus of Nazareth. Was there any evidence Jesus even wanted a church?” Bono asks.

Bono never claims perfection or even wisdom, in fact, he comes off as damn fortunate to have accomplished what he has. Part of this humility can be traced to his wife of over 40 years, Ali. One might think that Bono’s head puffs up to zeppelin size as he sings to stadiums of fans or meets with world leaders. That’s big stuff; I’d be dancing on the ceiling like Lionel Richie. Bono’s brain seems to be constantly engaged, thinking of what to accomplish next. He does have rockstar like dreams like many of us, but the difference is he makes it happen.


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