20 Hours with Bono
Don’t buy the book "Surrender." Instead, listen to a friend.
If you decide to buy Bono’s autobiography “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” I don’t recommend you read it. There’s only one way to experience this work of art, and that’s to listen to it.
I spent 20 hours listening to Surrender, not all at once, but broken up into commute-sized bites, with an occasional lunch thrown in, and at least one nap (I had to listen to that part again). This is no average autobiography. It’s not above average, or even superb. It simply defies the category altogether. Kind of like Bono. To say Paul David Hewson has lived a charmed life would be the equivalent of calling Surrender a narrated book by a singer about himself.
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Bono’s life, so far, has been one of the most extraordinary since the likes of Winston Churchill or Mahatma Gandhi. I’m not comparing a rock and roll singer to those giants in the sense of raw accomplishment, but in the sense of having lived three, or four, or a dozen, lives in one lifetime, all with significance, and all having the presence of something rare and wonderful. The soul of a poet, the open heart, the sharp eye, and the sharper tongue, driven to the task at hand, building but never quitting. Not knowing what it is to quit—that defines these individuals who walk as easily among us regular folk as they do with artists, technicians, and kings.
From 10 Cedarwood Road in Dublin, Bono took me round the world, through his eyes as the first time he experienced it. Among other places, we visited London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Nice, Sydney, Berlin, Austin, the Vatican, Washington D.C., Bethlehem, the Jordan River, Kiev, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, mountains, deserts, oceans, beaches, and all the flyover bits in between. They weren’t just stories, they were experiences, luscious colors, volcanic rage, helpless sadness, human forces of nature clashing and then embracing, and, above all, the never-ending search for God.
I was treated to countless meals, long nights of rehearsals in kitchens, bedrooms, sheds, castles, and dens of espionage; sullen bouts of teenage angst, extended periods of Bacchanalia; the sight of hopeless silver skies hanging low over the wails of parents whose starving children die in silence, walking with presidents and politicians in the gilded halls of power; accessorizing with the Pope, learning capitalism from the scions of business; and music, musicians, fame, family, sprinkled with a few moments of sheer terror.
All 20 hours I spent with Bono, none of it felt like listening to a book.
Bono doesn’t just read the book to you. He whispers it in your ear; he serenades; he croons; he mimics; he chats as if you were sitting at his favorite pub drinking a Guinness together. Then there’s the music, and the sound effects, and the singing. He does all the voices: his Bill Clinton is passable, his Bill Gates less so.
I was honestly shocked at the relationships Bono built over the past 40 years, and more shocked at the ones he never left behind. The husband of a girl he met when he was 13, and bandmates with the friends he met at 14, he still counts all of them as his most precious possessions—they possess him and he defends them ferociously. He taught music and the music business: There was Bob Geldof, of course, and Paul McGuinness, their longtime manager (until he wasn’t, a turn of phrase Bono was fond of using), and Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite, their first radio DJ Dave Fanning, Michael Rapino (CEO of Live Nation), and a whole cast of strong men and much stronger women.
The others, not just casual acquaintances, but close, include the strangest of bedfellows. Bono hung out with the more tender side of Steve Jobs, and still has a relationship with Tim Cook (but never got that free Apple stock). He answered an unexpected call on his cell from his friend Bill Gates who was with his other friend Warren Buffet—a $38 billion dollar phone call. He partied with presidential candidate Bill Clinton in a hotel room, and met later with him in the Oval Office. He dined with the Obamas in the White House residence, and was woken by the president from an unauthorized nap on Lincoln’s bed. He rode in The Beast with George W. Bush, and is still friends with Condoleeza Rice. Luciano Pavarotti railroaded all of U2 into a charity event they had all declined by showing up in Dublin with a camera crew.
Bono is a liberal, but he’s an honest liberal. He loves America and the idea of America, having been all over this land, but he doesn’t understand our proclivities toward self-harm. His take on our gun culture, is to compare it to Ireland’s drinking culture—in that “we don’t have a problem,” but we do. His reaction to the election of Donald Trump was “nausea.”
Being a multiple Grammy-winning artist in a massive hit band has its perks. How many singer/songwriters have written a song specifically for Johnny Cash, and had Cash agree to sing it? How many have collaborated and toured with B.B. King? But being in U2 was not about the glamor. “I find the top-line melody,” Bono told me at the beginning of our meeting. The band was always there, but it was never the only band—there was a whole alphabet of activism, and a Forrest Gump world of celebrities and moments.
He’s also hung out with Frank Sinatra, played bed and breakfast for David Bowie, lunched with Bob Dylan, and let Prince have the last word and the extravagant exit. (All but the immortal Dylan have now passed into memory.) It’s not bragging to hear these stories as Bono bounces through serious issues like debt forgiveness for the world’s poorest countries, combatting sub-Saharan AIDS, the Irish “troubles,” and the 1990s war in Bosnia. A lifelong learner, “I learn by doing,” Bono said.
The best part of my 20 hours with Bono was to hear him talk of love. Love for his mother Iris, who he lost at 14, and for years never spoke of her. U2 would practice yards from her grave and not once did Bono think to visit. It wasn’t hate, or indifference. The pain, the conflict between Bono and his “dah,” Bob his father, the struggle for three men to survive his growing up in rough Dublin, his burning awe and attraction to Allie, his girl, and his desire to be what he wasn’t and do what he hadn’t yet done took his mind far from grief, but the grief was always there. The love was always there. God was always there, though pulling Bono to the most difficult places in the world. And placing in his warrior heart a weaponized mission to help.
Bono wonders aloud why there’s poverty in a world with so much excess? Then he answers from the perch of experience: simple words like governance, transparency, integrity. Not sexy words, but serious words. Where is God? We hope he’s with the rich, comfortable, the mega-churches, even the Bible-thumpers and steely-eyed evangelists. But we know God is with the destitute, the sick, hopeless, poor children. We know he walks with the lepers of this world, waiting for one to turn and thank Him. Bono reminds me over and over that Jesus spoke many more times—and the Bible records many more verses—about how to treat the poor than who is doing what with their pants. It’s not that there’s a deconstructed concept of sin in Bono’s faith, but he feels that he should spend as much time where Jesus did, and as little time with his nose in other people’s personal business—they can have their own reckoning with redemption.
And that faith runs deep through Surrender. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” is Hebrews 12: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” The race doesn’t end. We don’t find it. Jesus is standing just beyond this veil and we can’t stop running to find what we’re seeking. This is Bono’s message.
I think Bono was picked by God, like the prophet Jeremiah, to do what he does. The son of a Catholic dad and a Protestant mom in the most-Catholic part of Ireland, Dublin, Bono received a progressive, non-sectarian education at Temple Hill (he still calls his home Temple Hill), and graduated, swept into the Dublin revival, a charismatic, spirit-filled fellowship called Shalom. “I have spoke with the tongue of angels, I have held the hand of a devil. It was warm in the night, I was cold as a stone,” goes the lyrics. I believe every word. Bono carries it with him like the rosary he received from Pope John Paul II—his own personal prayer beads.
U2 might just be one of the greatest forces for evangelism in the world. Not because they’re particularly religious in the sense of “let’s have church.” But a U2 concert transforms the arena into a cathedral, and God walks into their midst. Surrender has 40 chapters, and that’s appropriate. The band’s tradition is to end their concerts with the song “40,” leaving the stage as the crowd continues to sing “How long to sing this song? How long to sing this song?” Many know they’re singing Psalm 40, Bono’s “life verse,” but many have no idea they’ve been singing scripture for a big part of the night in so many of his songs.
As I pulled in to the school parking lot to hear my son’s band concert Wednesday night, the traffic had been horrible. I was on chapter 37 when I left work. I thought I might be late to hear his band play. But, as Bono said (paraphasing), go and God will have you in the right place, to meet the right people; to confirm that, as I parked, he ended Chapter 40 with the last word. In the book credits, normally a dry reading of copyrights and names, the band performed “40.”
Sometimes I feel sad ending a really good book. This one brought a melancholy, but the kind when an old friend leaves with a “farewell” but not “goodbye.” I had spent a lot of drive time and a few lunches (and a nap) with Bono, but I know I’ll see him again, like a good friend. And it will be like no time has passed. Honestly, I think if I played the whole book again, Bono would tell completely different stories, and I’d hear it again for the first time.
Don’t buy the book Surrender. Instead, listen to a friend. It’s the only way to really hear Bono.
Great review. Thanks!
A beautiful and simply brilliant read. Thank you for that Steve.