Surrender: A Conversation with Bono
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Hey. It's Rachel with a question. Everybody remembers their first big concert. Mine was REO Speedwagon, and I will defend that experience till I die, but what about the first concert that really moved you, made you see things in a different way? For me, it was U2. It was the summer of 2005, the Vertigo tour. There they were, Bono on the mic, The Edge on guitar, Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums. The crowd starts singing along with "In The Name Of Love," and then Bono elevates the moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BONO: Sing for Dr. King. For Dr. King's dream, the dream where everyone is created equal under the eyes of God, everyone.
MARTIN: I left that show so inspired that I actually wrote an email to everyone I knew with the title Do, Act, Be about how all of us have just one life, and we've got to use it well. Sentimental, earnest, a tad bit preachy, yeah. But all that can be used to describe U2, and Bono doesn't apologize for any of it.
BONO: My life is focused on a definition of love that I seem to have just sort of written into me, which is that love is the realizing of another's potential, realizing your own but another's potential. And the squandering of potential is the thing that infuriates me more than anything else.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
U2: (Singing) In the name of love...
MARTIN: Today on UP FIRST Sunday, a deeply intimate conversation with the frontman for U2 about his new memoir. It's called "Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story." And just a heads up - Bono is Bono, and he uses the full range of the English vocabulary, including some colorful language.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So you're right through here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here.
BONO: These people look like fun.
BONO: These people look fun. What's your name?
KATHERINE: I'm Katherine (ph).
MARTIN: I've interviewed a lot of famous people over the years, but I will confess to you that when I met Bono, I was nervous.
BONO: Shall I sit here?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.
MARTIN: Yes. Hello, sir. I'm Rachel.
BONO: Oh. Your Rachelness (ph). How are you?
MARTIN: It's so nice to meet you. I'm well.
BONO: Really good to see you.
MARTIN: We settle into our chairs at our studio in New York. Bono's wearing those rose-colored glasses he always does. Yes, it's a look, but it's also because of a longtime issue with his vision that I didn't know. I happened to be wearing this necklace, a big owl hanging from a pendant. And just when Bono and I are catching our vibe and getting into the conversation, my producer comes in to tell me to take it off because it's rattling the mic. It's a whole thing.
BONO: Oh, you're messing with Rachel's vibe here.
MARTIN: I know. My being. I love that owl (laughter).
BONO: She's living her life. She's expressing herself through fashion.
MARTIN: He's already performing. And after the kind of life that Bono has led, it's a natural default setting. The man is good at reading a room and giving the audience what they're looking for. He has done it in all kinds of settings his whole life.
BONO: You know in a talk show, you've got to be funny.
BONO: At a university, you've got to be, you know, more learned and more serious. And I just wanted to be all the different selves I had. I put my multipersonality disorder to work for this...
BONO: ...Rachel, is what I'm saying.
MARTIN: I want to hear more of that later.
BONO: I want to hear more from all of you.
MARTIN: (Laughter) All your persons.
MARTIN: All different versions of Bono - the angsty teenager from Dublin who lost his mother at 14, the audacious lead singer of U2, the father, the husband, the activist. All of them show up in his new memoir. But there's also a lot in the book about Bono's faith, and that's where I wanted to focus our conversation. So we got started.
By way of shaping the rest of our conversation, I'm going to ask a specific question that's not nearly probably as easy to answer. What was the most consequential decision you've ever made?
BONO: When I asked Alison Stewart, as she was known then - I think asking her out was the most important thing. I would say that first surrender. I mean, I'm 15 or 16. What do I know of unconditional love? But - I may not know what it is, but I know what it isn't, so when I find it, it connects me spiritually, as well as personally, and that happens to be the same week as I join U2. So this was a very big week.
MARTIN: Wait. It was the same week?
BONO: Yep. That's the very first U2 rehearsal, the day I asked Ali out on here.
MARTIN: We have to just say out loud, for people who don't know, you are still married to Alison.
BONO: Yeah. Yeah. I'm still married, and I wonder if sometimes we do have what we need around us that's there. I certainly felt and have continually felt that the people I need are right there, and...
MARTIN: It also does require some wisdom to be able to see not just the good around you in these people but then to work to keep them around you for so long.
MARTIN: To not jeopardize the relationships.
BONO: And if you don't have that wisdom, find people who have it.
BONO: So I've found - I would say Ali had more wisdom than I. I would say, you know, in the band, there's collective wisdom there, as well as individual.
MARTIN: And for Bono, wisdom comes when you test your ideas with people with whom you disagree. And he disagreed a lot with his dad. It was hard after Bono's mom died. And he, his dad, and his older brother, Norman, weren't able to talk to each other about their grief. And fights about little things became big things, as can happen when people are hurt and defensive. And when Bono made it clear he wanted to pursue this dream of making it big in music, his dad was less than supportive.
MARTIN: Did he appreciate your musicality? Did he think you had a good voice?
BONO: In the end - yeah, in the end and medium term. I'd say he was coming around. I was going to call the book "The Baritone Who Thinks He's A Tenor" because that's what my dad used to say. You are a baritone who thinks he's a tenor. And it's very accurate of me as a personality, I think.
MARTIN: What does that mean, that it captures something about your personality?
BONO: I punch over my weight. Just - I'm only interested in punching over my weight. I'm always picking fights with people I shouldn't, you know? You know, as a kid, that was - that's who I am. I think my father would say it was above your station, might be a little bit. Whenever somebody says that, I get all Irish on them. And, you know, rock 'n' roll, where I come from, is rooted in defiance.
MARTIN: I loved that moment in the book where you talk about the moments right after he died. He suffered from cancer and - well, you tell it. Your voice changed after he died.
BONO: This is a very unscientific theory I have, Rachel. It's a kind of folksy idea, really, that when someone you love leaves you, you know, there might be a kind of gift in - you know, in their passing, like a living will and testament for you or something. And I think I might have become the tenor. My voice certainly changed. But that also had something to do with - and this is not a unique phenomenon. When a loved one is missing from your life, as, you know, the manifestation - as a physical manifestation - their essence becomes kind of strong.
And I had to put a few things right with my father. So I had this moment where I apologized to him. And I went to a little chapel, and I apologized to my father for not being there for him, really, at times. It must have been difficult when my mother died, and I was just your teenage nightmare. And my brother was doing the best he could. And he was doing - we were all doing the best we could. And he had some other things that were going on that were really tearing at him. And I just felt an incredible, you know, release in that moment. And my voice opens up. And there's a physiological reason for that, too, because if you are more relaxed as a person...
BONO: ...Your voice does open up.
BONO: And I'm singing in a way that I - in the last few years, I've been singing in ways that I could never have imagined that I could sing 'cause I never thought of myself as a singer, really, up until relatively recently.
MARTIN: You also wrote that your dad said near the end of his life that the most interesting thing about you was your spirituality, was your religion.
BONO: My faith, yeah.
MARTIN: Your faith.
BONO: He was brilliant. He had faith, and he lost it. You know, just - and people do just when you need it. You know, he was dying. And I write in the book about going in to see him, and I was reading him bits of Scripture, and he was kind of giving me the hairy eyeball. It was a little bit of, oh, knock it off, will you? You know, and I was so sad for him that he didn't have that because he had always said to me things like, you know, this stuff - this God stuff, the two-way conversation thing...
MARTIN: The prayer thing?
BONO: Yeah. He was like, I don't experience that. But you shouldn't give that up. And - 'cause it's the most interesting thing about you, he'd say said. It was, again, a classic Bob Hewson.
MARTIN: I mean, was that sort of a slight to you? I mean...
BONO: Yeah, but he was...
MARTIN: ...You're this musician.
BONO: And now you're picking it up. His compliments would arrive either with a tickle or a boxing glove. You know, and I remember when we were recording U2's first album, he's like, you know, what are you doing? And I said, I've just been recording the album in a recording studio. And he's like, you've been doing that for weeks. And I said, yeah, it's three weeks. This is the last week. And he says, how long is an album? And I said, well, about 40-odd minutes. God, you get it right. Get it right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL FOLLOW")
U2: (Singing) A boy tries hard to be a man. His mother takes him by his hand. If he stops to think, he starts to cry. Oh, why? If you walk away, walk away, I walk away, walk away. I will follow. If you walk away, walk away, I walk away, walk away. I will follow.
MARTIN: You write in the book, on your religion, as you're talking about your faith, if I was in a cafe right now and someone said stand up if you're ready to give your life to Jesus, I'd be the first to my feet.
BONO: Yeah. I operate around - let's call it a Judeo-Christian sort of set of principles. And I have a friend - a metaphysician, brilliant mind, academic - who's an atheist, who says to me when I have these conversations, look, if there is a force of love and logic as you think there is behind the universe, there's some extraordinary poetic genius that it would express itself - that vast force - in the child born in shit and straw. And that's what I believe. But maybe that's all I believe. Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. And a lot of people drop off that last one, the respect for who you are yourself. But there it is, and, you know, it's not that complicated.
MARTIN: Did your band share your - not religious fervor; religious seems like the wrong word - but your focus, your preoccupation with faith?
BONO: They still do. At first, Adam was just like, oh, man. You know, he's like - he had just one thing in life, which is just four strings are better than six. He's a bass player, just wants to be in, like, the badass rock 'n' roll band. And like, oh, my God. He won't write songs about girls. He's writing songs - oh, God. But he stood by me - you know? - and stood by us in our devotion. You know, I mean, can you imagine Ireland in the '70s? It's a civil war - all but a civil war. The country's dividing along sectarian lines. You know, my father was very suspicious of religion because he married - he was a Catholic who married Protestant, and so it was like, whoa, we don't do religion in our house for obvious reasons.
MARTIN: And let me just underscore the obvious reasons here. For about 30 years, from the late 1960s to the late '90s, Ireland was in a low-level civil war. The country was divided over politics and religion. A lot of Catholics and Protestants reviled one another. They didn't let their kids play with each other, let alone marry. Each side claimed to be fighting in the name of God. This was the Ireland Bono and the rest of the band grew up in.
BONO: I was very suspicious and still am a little suspicious of religious people. I mean, religion is often a club that people use to beat someone else over the head with. And we learned that - I learned at a very early age in Ireland.
MARTIN: You write that a lot of U2's music, though, is grounded in the feeling, the emotion, even the structure of a hymn.
BONO: Yeah. Edge's family were Welsh. And if you've never heard crowds singing at a Welsh-Irish rugby match, the stadium filled with song, and they sing these huge hymns. And the Welsh sing, as a crowd, really, really well. You know, (singing) bread of heaven, bread of heaven. Guide me to (inaudible). We'll support you ever more.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Feed me till I want no more.
BONO: And it's in him. It's in Edge, those fifths. And that's the feeling we've been looking for in our music. Yes, like, we want punk rock. We want it to be brutal. We want it to be tough-minded. We want it to have big tunes. But the ecstatic music is sort of part of who we are.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR")
U2: (Singing) I have run. I have crawled. I have scaled these city walls.
MARTIN: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" - you say explicitly in that song, there's some kind of root of that.
BONO: Yeah, that's a gospel song. It's a psalm, if you want.
MARTIN: What's a sam (ph)?
BONO: Sorry, did I not pronounce that right? Psalm.
MARTIN: It's a psalm.
BONO: Is that how you say it, Rachel? Oh, you're so posh.
MARTIN: I don't know. I'm from Idaho. I don't know if that's my particular dialect. The psalm.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR")
U2: (Singing) But I still haven't found what I'm looking for. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.
MARTIN: After the break, why Bono says he's a bad Christian and the trade-offs of ambition. I promise it's worth coming back for.
Welcome back to UP FIRST Sunday. OK. Where was I? Right. I was busy being mortified that I had just shamed Bono about how he pronounces the word psalm, like the psalms in the Bible. But Bono didn't miss a beat. Instead, he used the moment to wax on about the poetic structure of Bible verses...
BONO: The interesting thing about Hebrew is that in the psalms, ideas rhyme, not just, you know, vowels or consonants.
MARTIN: ...With a quick pivot to American beat poets...
BONO: Getting to know Allen Ginsberg - "Kaddish," "Howl" - Jack Kerouac, you know, Steinbeck, you know...
MARTIN: ...And mere breaths later, he's telling me how King David from the Bible could shred on the harp and was actually the world's first rock star.
BONO: Have you ever seen the statue of David?
MARTIN: In Italy?
BONO: Does that not look like Elvis to you?
MARTIN: I mean, does it?
BONO: That face. Did you mind this interview going this esoteric? 'Cause I love this shit.
MARTIN: This is my thing, man. This is my jam.
BONO: OK. OK, cool, because...
MARTIN: It is a journey, but it's also sort of amazing to watch the ideas running through his head at the same time. But I'm in control of this interview, right? So I dutifully bring it back to the book and the music.
I loved the bit where Paul McGuinness, your longtime manager, says to you, the music that you are making - it can't be contained by Europe.
BONO: Oh, the Americans will figure you out.
MARTIN: The European - the Americans are going to get you. They're going to dig what you're doing. Because it was about the emotion you were putting into it. And somehow that made sense to him - that this place, America, was going to connect with it in a way that Europe didn't.
BONO: A clever man - Paul McGuinness, our manager for 30 years. He thought that rock 'n' roll as it came out of the U.K. was presently obsessed with being cool. And...
MARTIN: And that wasn't you guys?
BONO: Well, you know, not really. I mean, we went on "Top Of The Pops," which was the only TV music show every - weekly, and we're the only band whose song went down the charts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE")
U2: (Singing) Falling, falling. The sun is burning black. Falling, falling. It's beating on my back with a fire.
BONO: But what Paul was discerning was that we'd make more sense in America, that my lyrics would make more sense, and that Americans would perhaps understand the duality of what we were doing - the blues and gospel - that tension, you know, that sort of paradoxical essence of U2.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGEL OF HARLEM")
U2: (Singing) Angel in devil's shoes. Salvation in the blues. You never looked like an angel. Yeah, yeah, angel of Harlem.
MARTIN: You constantly, though, felt the need to reinvent yourself or your music.
BONO: I'm working on a new version of it now. I can feel as I walk out of here...
MARTIN: Something new is going to happen.
BONO: Something, yeah, is going to happen.
MARTIN: Did your band always share that drive?
BONO: I do have - I've been confessing this recently, but I do have, I know, an annoying gene. It's an irritant, even to me. It dates back to punk rock and a sort of almost, dare I say, covenant - not contract - with our audience, which is just take whatever you have, and just take it to as far as you can take it. You don't worry about, you know, the filthy lucre. You don't worry about where your kids are going on holidays or where you're going on holidays or where they're going to school or all these normal, financial worries that are so burdensome for most people. That's what happens when you become, you know, famous and, you know, you start to get paid for what you would do for free.
Don't think that being at No. 1 means that you're the best. It might be the biggest, but don't confuse those two - biggest and best. So we've always tried to - been trying to write the best song, trying to make the best album. Once you know what you're doing, it's over. It atrophies. So the way we've avoided that is keep changing around what we do. Like, our last couple of albums - they were really song-based albums.
We hadn't done - you know, we became sort of students of songwriting again. And people said, really? You're going to become students of songwriting again? Haven't you written a few good tunes? Yeah, but I'd like to write some more. And the way you write some more is you enter areas that you don't understand and you learn.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE THE BEST THING ABOUT ME")
U2: (Singing) I have everything, but I feel like nothing at all. There's no risky thing for a man who's determined to fall.
MARTIN: You can't really sit down for 45 minutes with Bono to talk about his life without getting into his activism. He has spent decades pushing governments around the world to do more to eradicate global hunger and HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa. Most of that work has happened through his organization, the ONE Campaign. And his book is full of stories about meetings with heads of state and lobbying the world's richest people to put money toward these causes. Bono told me the seeds of that work were planted when U2 began touring.
BONO: That activism came out of seeing what was going on in the wider world. I also want to tell you, just being on the road for a rock ’n’ roll band, waking up in Madrid, waking up in Berlin, waking up in, you know, Memphis, Tenn. This was extraordinary, to be traveling your country or Europe or Australia - blew my mind.
MARTIN: And as the years went on, there were more hit albums and bigger tours and higher goals for the ONE Campaign, and he could not see how to scale back. He didn't want to. The world was so big. There was so much to do.
So how did you hold those two selves at the same time - you who is touring, making music, performing, advocating on behalf of the ONE Campaign and hunger programs, and your wife and home and your kids?
BONO: Well, yes, the - yeah, that's the only question. That's the only question that matters. And one of the reasons I have written that book that sits in front of you right there is because I wanted to explain, to myself and to my family and to my friends, what I've been doing - actually, in the case of the family - with their life because they permissioned me to be away. Ali covered for me with the kids, but the kids knew - they participated in those decisions. And it wasn't just, you know, being off - running away with the circus. It was other extracurricular activity - mission creep, you could call it. But they understood that it was key values of U2 that were being worked out here - key values of the band, I mean. So it wasn't - that would cause tension in the band at times. It was broadly a reflection of all of our values.
MARTIN: You write that the Scriptures - and I'm quoting here - "remain a plumb line to gauge how crooked the wall of my ego has become."
BONO: What are you...
MARTIN: Your words, man. Your words.
BONO: How dare you. Did I write that? Come on.
MARTIN: How crooked is the wall of your ego?
BONO: At the moment, it's - you know, on NPR here, I'm just - it's getting...
MARTIN: (Laughter) I mean, you got a book out.
BONO: It's swelling. Watch it. It's just - it's - you know, it's swelling.
MARTIN: You quote them a lot. You have, even in the course of our interview. What do those words give you when it comes to checking yourself?
BONO: I don't - I just - I think it's important, though, Rachel, that I don't want to give people an easy label for me...
BONO: ...You know? Because if they see me ordering an extra Bushmills Irish Whiskey and giving it loads in some bar, and they might go, there he is. There's the pilgrim.
MARTIN: The drinking Christian (laughter).
BONO: There's the pilgrim. And, yeah, not making much progress, is he? And the answer to your question is yes, and it's a daily practice. But I'm not very good at it. So, you know...
MARTIN: Such an honest answer.
BONO: ...I just don't - I mean - I - you know, I can wear the badge if you want, but I'm not sure I can live up to it.
MARTIN: But isn't that the whole point of it is that no one can - it's - the whole thing is aspirational. It's about the process.
BONO: I just never want to be putting myself as some kind of moral leader because I just can't live up to it. But if you ask me a question like that, I have to answer honestly. And, yes, I'd be in deep shit if it wasn't for my faith.
MARTIN: You write that there is a risk of always seeking to be filled with the extraordinary. Are there trade-offs with always pursuing that - the high of the performance - which you have described as, like, shamanism to some degree - to stand on those stages and connect with an audience in that way or being at the center of an activism campaign, lobbying the president of the United States, you know, having conversations with world leaders?
BONO: The search for the extraordinary is something I have to own up to, and I may have to reframe it and...
MARTIN: Because why? Because there is a cost to it?
BONO: Because it's Everest.
BONO: You know, if you - it is my drug of choice is doing really difficult things. And at a certain point in time, it just - just shut up and listen is kind of where I'm at at the moment.
MARTIN: You. You shut up and listen.
BONO: Yeah, me.
BONO: That I just need to be more silent and to surrender to my band - it's been at the core of what I'm trying to do with my life - surrender to my wife. And when I say surrender totally, I do not mean making peace with the world. I'm not ready to make peace with the world. I'm trying to make peace with myself. I'm trying to make peace with my maker. But I am not trying to make peace with the world. The world is a very unfair - deeply unfair place. And I'm ready to rumble. I'm keeping my fists up for that one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH OR WITHOUT YOU")
U2: (Singing) I can't live...
MARTIN: The book is called "Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story." Bono, thanks for talking with me.
BONO: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH OR WITHOUT YOU")
MARTIN: This week's episode of UP FIRST Sunday was produced by Phil Harrell, edited by Reena Advani with help from Jenny Schmidt and Justin Yan. I'm Rachel Martin. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, have a great rest of your weekend.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH OR WITHOUT YOU")
U2: (Singing) With or without you. Oh, I can't live with or without you, with or without you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.