Bono is sitting on a couch in his New York apartment, drinking tea (decaf) and talking about this big occasion in a life that has been filled with them. It is Nov. 1, publication day for his memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story.
“I’m excited, I’m terrified,” he says in a video call.
Really? Can publishing a book terrify Bono – lead singer of U2, a four-decades-old band with hit records, Grammy Awards, fame, acclaim and money?
“It’s vulnerability on a whole other scale than songwriting,” he says. With songwriting, people “love you or loathe you” based on what are essentially sketches, he explains. Writing a book is “a whole other level of vulnerability. But I think when people think you’re a kind of big-cheese, big-shot, full-of-yourself rock star, which I am” – he laughs here – “I think it’s important to show that there is a shadow self that also exists.”
Bono – born Paul Hewson in Dublin in 1960 – has been up since the wee hours. Pub day means media interviews. Plans for the afternoon include an early lunch with a glass of wine, followed by a siesta.
The glass of wine will strike anyone who reads Surrender as an interesting choice. As he reveals, he has an allergy that causes him to fall asleep after drinking the stuff, at inopportune times and locations. For instance, in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, where he was awoken by his wife, Ali, and U.S. President Barack Obama.
Surrender is full of rock-star tales such as this one. It is also introspective, self-deprecating and funny.
He started writing the book in Vancouver in 2015, he explains in our interview, as the band was preparing to launch its Innocence + Experience tour here.
“I’m staring into a mirror in the bathroom adjacent to a dressing room under an ice hockey arena in Vancouver, Canada,” he writes in the memoir. He can hear the crowd through the walls. He feels nauseous. Nerves.
But the roar of the fans as the band heads toward the arena “turns this mouse into a lion,” he writes. Nearly 20,000 people are singing the band’s lyrics. “In my mind I am 17, walking from my house … on the way to rehearsals with these men all those years ago, when they were boys too.”
This was how Bono had planned to open his book, at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
But then life got in the way – or, rather, near-death: trouble with his aorta in 2016, requiring open-heart surgery. And that is where he chose to begin his story, at what could have been the end. “The symbolism was just too much for an Irish fellow to pass up on,” he says.
Bono, 62, is well now – and grateful. “I had that brush with mortality – it was more than a brush, it was nearly a knock-out punch – and I’ve decided waking up is really great,” he says on our Zoom call to discuss the book.
Not ghost-written, the book is evocative; you can almost hear Bono speak the words. Each chapter of Surrender is named for a song that acts as a thematic touchstone.
Even for a superfan (ahem), Surrender offers up a lot of detail. The only time his mother, Iris, heard her son sing publicly was when he played Pharoah in a youth production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. She died suddenly when Bono was 14.
The band almost broke up while making their second album, October; guitarist Edge couldn’t reconcile his music career with the Christian faith that was so important to him (and to Bono, and to drummer Larry Mullen Jr.). Bono wrote songs for War during his honeymoon in the same room in Jamaica where Sting wrote Every Breath You Take. Bono finds it excruciating to watch U2′s arguably career-making performance at Live Aid – because of that mullet he was sporting back in 1985.
Bono writes in depth about his advocacy work – in particular fighting for AIDS medication and debt relief for developing nations. Coming of age in Ireland, he was surrounded by sectarian politics, sometimes violent, which affected his worldview – and his music. Then in 1985, he and Ali took a seminal trip to Ethiopia, volunteering at an orphanage and food station. “We will never be the same again,” he writes.
For Band Aid’s 1984 Ethiopia fundraiser Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Bob Geldof assigned Bono the one line Bono did not want to sing. “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you.” He sang it anyway.
Bono’s approach to his work in Africa has evolved. In Surrender, he addresses what he calls “White Messiah Syndrome,” acknowledging the arrogance of not involving people who actually live in the parts of the world he is trying to help. He quotes a Senegalese proverb, “If you want to cut a man’s hair, be sure he is in the room.”
During the interview, he praises Canada for the aid it has provided, for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, in particular. “The moral force of Canada is still so strong,” he says.
He reveals how when he and Edge were in Ukraine last May at the invitation of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, they encountered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team, including Chrystia Freeland. (”We bumped into Canada,” is how Bono puts it.)
And in Kyiv, with Zelenskyy in the room, Bono urged Trudeau to continue funding international causes – despite pressing domestic concerns. “This is the moment where we need to show the world what freedom looks like,” Bono recalls telling Trudeau.
I ask Bono if his advocacy work has become more difficult as the world becomes more polarized. He found common ground years ago with U.S. President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but things have changed. (In the book, he is critical of “King Trump” and his “reign of compulsive lies.”)
He answers by expressing concern about populism, and saying we are in a crucial moment.
“We need to do better at telling our story, the story of freedom and what freedom can accomplish. … Because there are clearly countries looking to decide: do they look our way, do they look to the west, or do they look to the east, to China, to Russia? … It’s essential that they make their mind up in our direction,” he says.
“We do not want these kleptocrats creating another Cold War, another set of Cold War alliances. This we would regret. This would be seen in 100 years as one of the greatest geopolitical mistakes ever. And I’m glad to see that your Prime Minister … it seems like the whole country of Canada … agrees with that point. I don’t know if you agree on everything else, but you seem to agree on that point.”
While there’s little mention of Canadian politics in the book, it does offer some CanCon. Canadian musician Daniel Lanois (who produced, with Brian Eno, several U2 albums, including The Joshua Tree) is described as allowing U2 “to develop a level of musicality that we would never have found without him.”
Bono mentions a Montreal concert where he invited 100 people onto a stage built for four. “I get carried away,” he writes.
When my computer crashes mid-interview – not at all stressful – he makes jokes about being my boss, referring to his 2010 stint guest-editing, along with Bob Geldof, an issue of The Globe and Mail.
With his full life (he and Ali have four grown children), he wrote Surrender in the early mornings. “I have the opposite to rock ‘n’ roll hours. It’s really embarrassing. I’m getting up when Edge is going to bed. And I have three or four hours of lucidity. And it’s downhill from there,” he says.
“I will say that I think it changed me,” he adds, of writing the book. After spending all that time alone with his thoughts, he’s less social now. “Not anti-social, but nearly.”
When I ask how he remembered so many details, he answers simply, “I wrote in order to remember.” His mother, his father – who died in 2001. The very good life he has had thanks to twists of fate, hard work, talent and an alchemy where band and audience can disappear into each other. Without the audience, he writes, the songs feel incomplete.
“Worlds have come crashing around the ears of more talented people than me, but since success first arrived for this band in the late 1980s, freedom has been our story and the story of our families,” he writes in Surrender. “We owe a lot of that to you, whoever you are, reading this book.”
Bono’s Stories of Surrender Book Tour will be at Meridian Hall in Toronto Nov 6.