This review of Bono’s book, ‘Surrender’, first appeared in The Irish Examiner newspaper on 3 December, 2022. We’re pleased to be able to re-produce Colm’s piece here.
BONO ‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ [Hutchinson Heinemann]
‘Surrender’ opens with Bono on a gurney in an up-market American medical facility in 2016, eye-balling the physician who’s about to crack open his chest. ‘I have an eccentric heart’, the singer writes wryly, one he spends the guts of a fine, meaty autobiography trying to define. Busy with detail and as rich with candid testimony as it is with relentless name-dropping, ‘Surrender’ is an unpacking of that heart from inside a travelling salesman’s suitcase.
For over forty years, Bono has taken the lead role in a long-running reality series out of which, from unsuspecting origins on Dublin’s northside, his band emerged to became one of the biggest and most compelling in popular music history. Yet much of what exists by way of biography or critical assessment has, with rare exception, been either overly partisan, vindictive or spectacularly wide of the mark. Now in his 60s, and with U2 stuck in the critical sidings, Bono is setting the records straight with a fluency that’s been absent from his band’s output for twenty years.
A detailed diary, confessional, songbook, travelogue and political manifesto, ‘Surrender’ is built around the critical un-boxing of forty U2 songs spanning the band’s long career. But Bono aside, its the singer’s wife, Ali, who effectively dominates the book and he writes about her here as adoringly as he’s long done in song. ‘Rather than falling in love’, he recalls of his honeymoon at the age of 22, ‘we were climbing up toward it’. With that in mind, one can also read ‘Surrender’ as a long apologia to his wife – and also his family, bandmates, friends and fans – for years of absence and an over-abundance of hubris.
He writes especially beautifully, and with a seasoned novelist’s brio, about his parents, and there are many passages devoted to his mother, Iris, who died when Bono was fourteen, and his father,Bob. The Dalai Lama says you can only begin a real meditation on life with a meditation on death’, he claims and, to this end, both his mother – ‘a mechanic of the heart’ – and father cast considerable, complicated shadows on much of his life and work.
‘Surrender’ rolls out a stellar support cast from the off. Mikhail Gorbachev fetches up unannounced in Killiney one morning expecting to be watered and fed. One chapter ends with the singer being woken by Barack Obama in a bedroom at the White House, the next begins with him being driven around Liverpool by Paul McCartney and correcting pop music’s greatest living songwriter on aspects of the Beatles’ history. Little wonder, then, that one of the criticisms most frequently levelled at Bono is that he never really got over the wonder of himself. It’s a point that’s certainly not lost on him and he references it repeatedly, and with no little humour and self-deprecation.
He makes allusions also to the difficulties he’s had managing his anger, much of which he seems to have directed, or is still directing, at himself. But even at that, ‘Surrender’ settles no old scores: there’s a charity to the story-telling instead, even when Bono ventures into the book’s darker valleys. And there are several, almost all of which are rooted in the strain put on personal relationships by the form and procedure of rock ‘n’ roll. Even in the chapters that deal with Adam Clayton – one of U2’s founding members – Bono eschews the lurid in favour of the florid. These sections are very carefully wrapped.
Concluding that the band was never ‘really taken in by the entire three-part cliché’ of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’, ‘Surrender’ avoids what can often be the constipated paremeters of rock music biography. Clayton’s issues with drink and drugs clearly brought U2 to a complicated fork in the road but there’s a commendable softness in how Bono wraps an arm around his best man here – as the band did at the time – when he might have reached for the s[ch]tick instead.
He’s far more direct when it comes to the not insignificant matter of U2’s relevance, another recurring theme. As life goes on, children grow older, Presidents change and societies evolve, Bono – like all great artists – wonders if he too has developed at quite the same pace or to the same extent ? A point put to Bono by the actor, Cillian Murphy in a Dublin nightclub, that clearly startles him. It’s all well and good sharing ‘some early mixes of new U2 songs’ with Barack Obama, but if U2 don’t have relevance, doesn’t that really defeat it’s primary purpose ?
Indeed U2’s determination to re-invent itself in the age of new media saw the band split with it’s long-time manager, the formidable Paul McGuinness, who Bono compares at one point to Winston Churchill. The closing sections that deal [very briefly] with the band’s decision to move one of its companies out of Ireland in 2006 in order to avoid paying tax, McGuinness’s departure and the ill-fated decision to drop the 2014 U2 album, ‘Songs Of Innocence’ onto all Apple iPhones, are ‘Surrender’’s least convincing.
Far more cogent are the passages in which Bono falls from the bed where commerce sleeps with creativity. Not only does the chapter about the band’s 1997 album, ‘Pop’, suggest a difficulty in writing songs – an issue that, to this writer, has dogged U2 for years – but Bono also claims that the record was still-born. And that it only saw the light of day in order to facilitate an elaborate live tour that had been booked around it.
Away from the concert stage, meanwhile, the singer continues to re-align his compass. In a late chapter on African aid, he claims that Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave him a priceless gift: ‘he taught me to listen’. And to listen enough to be able to properly manage his gob and the big foot he often manages to insert into it. He deals perceptively with the role of the ‘White Messiah’ and the creation of ‘poverty porn’ in the global South and asks difficult questions of himself in respect of his relentless campaigning and activism. Much of which, one might conclude, has come at a premium.
During the mid-1980s, Ireland’s biggest export properties were beef, porter, young people and U2, to the point where the band became as much of a state agency into which citizens believed they had a personal investment as it was a jobbing rock group. Even now, Bono is expected to be all things to all people all of the time: a victim of his own ubiquitousness. Not everyone has a Bono story but everyone has a view on him, however crudely formed: ‘Loved and loathed … the price of popularity in Ireland’, he writes.
By getting in under the bonnet, ‘Surrender’ puts flesh on the many half-cocked theories, myths, caricatures and lies that have long pock-marked the telling of Bono’s story. Often as over-wordy as it is overly-worthy, it’s still a mighty, beautifully-written book that, at its most basic, smartly explains the music away. Beyond that, in its many layers, it’s a big book of big, difficult questions that, to Bono’s credit, he at least asks of himself. If not always conclusively answers.