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When Paul Hewson was 11, his parents sent him to a Dublin grammar school that happened to have an outstanding boys’ choir. Paul, who later took the nickname Bono, loved singing. His father had a beautiful voice, and Paul thought he might have some of his dad’s talent. But when the principal asked him if he wanted to join the choir, his mom jumped in before he could answer. “Not at all,” she said. “Paul has no interest in singing.”
Bono’s new book, Surrender, is packed with funny, poignant moments like this. Even though I’m a big fan of U2, and Bono and I have become friends over the years—Paul Allen connected us in the early 2000s—a lot of those stories were new to me. I went into this book knowing almost nothing about his anger at his father, the band’s near-breakups, and his discovery that his cousin was actually his half-brother. I didn’t even know that he grew up with a Protestant mom and Catholic dad.
I loved Surrender. You get to observe the band in the process of creating some of their most iconic songs. The book is filled with clever, self-deprecating lines like “Just how effective can a singer with anger issues be in the cause of nonviolence?” And you’ll learn a lot about the challenges he dealt with in his campaigns for debt relief and HIV treatment in Africa. (The Gates Foundation is a major supporter of ONE, the nonprofit that Bono helped start.)
In this passage, he explains how a boy from the suburbs of Dublin became a global phenomenon: “There are only a few routes to making a grandstanding stadium singer out of a small child. You can tell them they’re amazing, that the world needs to hear their voice, that they must not hide their ‘genius under a bushel.’ Or you can just plain ignore them. That might be more effective. The lack of interest of my father, a tenor, in his son’s voice is not easy to explain, but it might have been crucial.” (It also helped that he has, as he later learned from a doctor, freakishly large lung capacity.)
Bono’s loyalty to his bandmates, and their loyalty to him, is pretty incredible. My favorite illustration from the book takes place at a concert in Arizona, when the band was urging the then-governor to uphold the national MLK Day holiday in his state. U2’s security team picked up a credible threat to Bono’s life if the band played their Martin Luther King tribute “Pride (In the Name of Love).” “It wasn’t just melodrama,” he writes, “when I closed my eyes and sort of half kneeled to disguise the fact that I was fearful to sing the rest of the words.” When Bono opened his eyes, he saw that bassist Adam Clayton had moved in front of him to shield him like a Secret Service agent. Fortunately, the threat never materialized.
There’s another factor that explains the band’s tight bonds: They share the same values. All four of them are passionate about fighting poverty and inequity in the world, and they’re also aligned on maintaining their integrity as artists. I learned this the hard way. When Microsoft wanted to license U2’s song “Beautiful Day” for an ad campaign, I joined a call in an attempt to persuade the band to go for the deal. They simply weren’t interested. I admired their commitment.
While Bono never got lost in drugs or alcohol, he acknowledges that stardom gave him a big ego. He also says that he had a “need to be needed.” His key to survival was embracing the concept of spiritual surrender, as the title of the book suggests. He eventually came to see that he’d never fill his emotional needs by playing for huge crowds or being a global advocate. His faith in a higher power helped him a lot. So did his wife, Ali. He writes that when his mom died during his childhood, his home “stopped being a home; it was just a house.” Ali and their four children gave him a home once again.
Bono writes that his surrender is still incomplete. He’s not going to retire anytime soon, which is great news and not just for U2 fans. After the past few years, the field of global health—one of his chief causes—needs an injection of energy and passion. Bono’s unique gifts are perfectly suited to that mission.