In the book that journalist Bill Flanagan wrote after embedding with the Irish rock band U2 during their most fertile creative period, 1995’s “U2 at the End of the World,” Flanagan told a joke about why James Joyce had to leave Ireland to write “Ulysses”: Because if he’d stayed he would’ve talked it.
I found myself recalling this fragment of a book I read a quarter-century ago as I made my way through Bono’s “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” the fascinatingly (and occasionally maddeningly) discursive memoir of the lightning-rod U2 frontman, a 62-year-old rock star almost as infamous for his talking as he is famous for his singing. The man with the perpetually sunglassed face and soaring voice is also, as you probably know, an agitator who has devoted at least as many of his 21st-century hours to AIDS, debt relief and anti-poverty campaigning as he has to music.
That successful second career is a reason someone who isn’t a rabid U2 fan might find value in his book. Celebrity do-gooders will and should be greeted with skepticism, but it’s tough to name another who has so successfully advanced from thrilling but largely ineffectual public condemnations of social ills to doing the tedious, unsexy, year-over-year, administration-over-administration work of building relationships with people who hold the levers of power. Even when, especially when, those people are George W. Bush or Rupert Murdoch.
“You don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing you do agree on is important enough,” Bono writes, a lesson he got from one of his singer/agitator mentors, Harry Belafonte. Love the guy, hate him or just wish he would shut up — familiar emotions even to a U2 fan as wearily devout as your humble reviewer — you can’t say his activism is of the lapel-pin variety.
He’s been annoying people, not always for honorable reasons, at least since he leaped into the audience during U2’s set at Live Aid in 1985. And once he learned that the fortune raised by that star-packed charity concert was barely enough to cover the weekly interest its African-nation beneficiaries were paying to their Western debtors, he changed his strategy. His self-deprecating (really!) account of how he and his partners, over the course of a two-year lobbying effort, got the 43rd president to ask Congress for a historic $15 billion commitment to fight AIDS in Africa — and how he abstained from criticizing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq in the bargain — makes up two of the book’s most compelling chapters. (In a moment when it appeared the Bush administration wouldn’t deliver, George Soros accused Bono of having “sold out for a plate of lentils.”)
But that’s not what most readers will be here for. Nor will they expect, or find, much “Hammer of the Gods”-style debauchery in the remembrances of a guy who’s been in a band with the same three dudes for 45 years and married to his high school sweetheart for 40; both relationships he reflects upon with candor and humility. Like the memoirs of his pals Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, “Surrender” is more introspective than salacious or score-settling, and proof that the tunesmith who wrote it also speaks fluent prose.
A lot of it is also familiar, the author having shared many of its anecdotes — the same phrases, even — in concert introductions to songs like “Iris,” about the mother who died suddenly when he was 14, and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” about the father who died slowly when Bono was 41. His story about falling asleep with a whiskey in his lap at Frank Sinatra’s house and fearing he’d peed his pants in front of the Chairman is a road-tested staple of his set list. But have you heard the one about how Bono wandered off while he and his wife were drinking with Barack and Michelle at the White House, and the president found him passed out in the Lincoln bedroom? I hadn’t.
There were already plenty of tiles in the U2 mosaic: The documentary “From the Sky Down” retold their origin story while looking back on the difficult birth of their pivotal 1991 album, “Achtung Baby.” The 2015 Innocence + Experience Tour — a roadshow built around the “Songs of Innocence” album that had materialized unbidden on your iPhone the prior September, a digital intrusion for which Bono takes sole responsibility, by the way, absolving even his accomplices/bandmates and Apple chief executive Tim Cook — had a lot of overt autobiographical narrative, too. Then there are the four longform Rolling Stone interviews Bono sat for circa 1987-2017. This is not a man who has ever been reticent when it comes to talking about himself.
Paradoxically, a 560-page memoir is a safe space in which at last no one can accuse him of long-windedness. Or at least, he doesn’t have to feel the eyes of U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. boring into the back of his skull as the timekeeper sets down his drumsticks, having realized that the singer he recruited for his band in 1976 has once again embarked upon another rambling song introduction.
Well, what about those songs? Any fan who knows U2’s catalogue will recognize that the 40 tunes that supply titles for the book’s 40 chapters are not sequenced chronologically. That’s because the tale those chapters tell is not a linear one. Beginning with an account of a critical heart operation Bono underwent in 2016, the book bobs and weaves among subjects and eras, guided by thematic links more than by temporal signposts.
The dexterity with which Bono pivots from the mysteries of songwriting to dissertations on, for example, what he learned when Mikhail Gorbachev came to his house in Dublin for Sunday dinner, is variable. There’s more than a hint of the literary ambition you might expect from a man who once co-wrote a song with Salman Rushdie. Bono knows his way around a joke, and he is well aware of his unfortunate habit of turning an earnest discussion of almost any subject that isn’t music into a TED Talk.
That doesn’t mean he can always stop himself from doing it or that he even tries. It does mean the book is a representational self-portrait, not an aspirational one. Bono isn’t consciously describing himself when he talks about “putting the messy in messianic,” but he could be. The phrase is glib, but still pretty good. Whoever thought of it should try being a songwriter.
Chris Klimek works for Smithsonian magazine and is co-host of the podcast “A Degree Absolute!”
40 Songs, One Story
Knopf. 576 pp. $34
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