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Book review: Bono’s new ‘wemoir’
Bono’s new ‘wemoir’ is tited ‘Surrender’, a faith-trope with manifestations in U2’s Christian past. Or perhaps an unconscious instruction to the world to surrender to . . . Bono’s omnipotent mates?
Debts of a Salesman
I read this book for the answer to one question, which went something like this: Why does Bono allow himself to fall into bad company and in doing so risk selling out the soul and source of the music he has otherwise served so well?
There is a line in Surrender: 40 songs, one story, where U2’s frontman says: ‘I’ve always seen myself as a kind of salesman — selling songs, selling ideas, selling the band, and on my best day selling, well, hope.’
Selling hope? Hope against what? is a question that springs to mind. And what of the hopes of his native country to become whole and upright in the world, now facing (again) the prospect of slavery and unfreedom, this time along with the rest of the former Free World, which was mostly unaffected and indifferent when Ireland went through its last — I mean here ‘previous’ — Passion?
Back in the 1990s, a couple of years after U2 released Achtung Baby, I wrote a book called Race of Angels, which may be recognised as a phrase from Frantz Fanon. It was about Ireland and music and in particular the music of U2 and how it might have originated in the particular cultural circumstances of late 20th century Ireland, after the history it followed and the free underground rivers it burst from. The book included a weird attempt to understand U2 in the context of Irish culture going back to the Gaelic poets of the Middle Ages, presenting the story of U2 as emblematic of a nation trying to jump-start its own imagination after 800 years of foreign occupation, followed by 55 years of stagnation. When the band exploded into the stratosphere with The Joshua Tree in 1987, their native country began to think of them rather as a random accident, a freak of postmodern cultural short-circuiting: U2, it was decided by their countrymen, had become ‘the biggest rock band in the world’ in spite of being Irish (the conventional idea at that time: ‘Wha’? They’re from Ireland?’ — and this chiefly in Ireland.) The idea at the core of Race of Angels was: What if U2 have become the world’s biggest band in the 1980s and beyond precisely because they emerged from a particular moment in Irish cultural history — what might be called the torpor of post-colonial exhaustion and defeatism?
The book was actually Bono’s idea, based on my line of questioning in our interviews. He put it to me in a taxi in the early Winter of 1992, on the way to his brother’s restaurant in the centre of Dublin after we had met to conduct an interview for a series of programmes I was preparing for BBC Radio 4 — about Ireland and its dreams and dilemmas, called Wide Awake in Ireland. Excited by my questions that day, he said: ‘You have to write a book about all this stuff!’ I said I would, and he said he would help, and he did. But, although he liked the book, it became subject to one of those odd series of ‘things going bump in the night’ that often happens in contexts where corporate watchfulness obtains. The book was, as I say, weird, in that it engaged in a speculative, almost fantastical journey of imagining the possible source in Irish culture from which U2’s music had emerged. It got ‘mixed’ reviews, mostly because the kind of people who write about rock ’n’ roll in Ireland are the kind of people they are. Some of the reviews were ecstatic, but most were uncomprehending and begrudging. When he first read the book, Bono wrote me a postcard describing that he had read it in bed with a dose of the flu: When he got to the part where I talked about the ironic diabolism of Achtung Baby as being like ‘the laughter of angels’ — which Milan Kundera had written was never real laughter, but ‘an attempt to drown out the devil’s laughter’ — he had ‘fallen out of bed’ with a shout of ‘That’s it!’ I got another note from a leading Irish philosopher of the time, name of Richard Kearney — then best pals with Bono — who described the book as ‘an extraordinary voyage of thinking, feeling and writing’. But Race of Angels nonetheless died on the vine, as a result of some kind of decision by U2 corporate not to bless it. The moment of its publication (1994) might, in retrospect, be identified as the ‘moment just before takeoff’ of the new Celtic Tiger Ireland, and in the wider world the approach-run to Peak Global. Race of Angels was an unapologetically particularising book — both concerning Ireland and concerning U2, in seeking to answer that question: What if U2’s worldwide success is not, after all, a strange quirk of fate that occurred in spite of their Irishness, but because of it?
At another level, my ‘U2 book’ was about how a country that had suffered under colonialism and could read its codes might be the best instrument for detecting and overcoming the next wave of colonialism, which I had identified as . . . corporatism. I used U2 as a central motif in the story, to show how different strands of culture might transmute and adapt themselves to new forms and idioms. The depiction and description of the band in the book now reads as the direct antithesis of what U2 subsequently became. Maybe it was naive to begin with: It's unlikely that any artist could survive in the world in the recent period while going against the impulses of top-down imposed change.
I was a most unlikely person to be writing the book, since U2 and I had fallen out badly just a few years before, in 1986, when they agreed to be the headline act in a massive benefit concert for the unemployed, in a Dublin at the time laid low by recession and government indebtedness. It was called Self-Aid, a riff off the success of Live-Aid, which had happened globally the year before. I was Editor of In Dublin magazine at the time, and we went big on our opposition to the concert, which we argued was uncomfortably in tune with the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which sought to shift responsibility for unemployment from the state to the individual casualty. The project rolled out as a kind of mini-mass formation, built around a phoney attempt at ‘philanthropic rock’ by certain people in the national broadcaster, RTÉ, seeking to jump on the Geldof bandwagon. U2 got caught up in it because they didn't think it through. We ran a hard-hitting cover story headlined 'Rock Against the People: The Great Self-Aid Farce’, over a photo of Bono. The criticism obviously cut deep. During U2's luminous performance of Bad that evening (available on YouTube), a clearly incensed Bono ranted about people ‘crawling out of the woodwork on to the pages of cheap Dublin magazines’. My former magazine, Hot Press, later called it 'the blackest and most ferocious set of their entire career.' At the time, I thought Bono and the other band members were just plain crazy with rage on account of being criticised in their own city. I think they certainly felt they were unfairly singled out — validly, up to a point, although they were, after all, U2, and they were the headline act. I subsequently apologised to them for some over-the-top elements in my editorial, which they seemed to accept. The mood in Ireland was extremely strange at that moment — something of a microscopic harbinger of the Time of Covid — with most people utterly enraged at In Dublin and me, and most media, including Hot Press, spinning against us. I suspect that U2 understood that most of what we said was true and justified, but were caught up in their own and other people’s anger at the party being pooped. Strangely, although everyone has since quietly either forgotten about it all or come around to the In Dublin position, there has never been a significant revisitation of the issue. The ‘fund’ which was supposed to have been initiated to help unemployed people from the proceeds just seemed to drop through the floorboards. Most of those who were involved, if they were honest today, would see the episode as an embarrassing cringe-fest, but in truth it has been written out of history.
Anyway, Bono and I later buried the hatchet, when I interviewed him for the Irish Times and the BBC programme, and he granted me practically unlimited interview time when I was working on the book, as did Edge and Adam Clayton. Larry Mullen withheld forgiveness, and he and I have never since exchanged a word. Bono told me Larry just didn’t like randomers writing books about the band.
The area of Dublin where U2 grew up was a wasteland built in the mid-20th century as a stab at creating American-style high-density housing estates, flagships of the new, industrialised, urbanised, blue-collar prosperity which was supposed to rescue Ireland from its frugal, bucolic ‘nightmare’. In other words, U2 were born out of the dereliction and displacement characteristic of Irish delusions concerning modernity. Until the 1950s, Finglas, less than a mile from where Bono grew up, had been a tiny country village. Some of the residents had henhouses and potato patches. Within a decade, it would be a concrete sprawl, populated by a mix of blow-ins from the country and migrants pushed out from the inner city, living in a hotchpotch of Corporation lets, ‘purchased houses’, and, as the centrepiece, the Ballymun Flats, seven highrise towers named after the seven signatories of the Proclamation of Ireland’s founding revolution in 1916. The U2/Virgin Prunes collective, trading as Lypton Village, struck me as a boyish attempt to create a Big Bang of cultural activity to vivify this nascent experimental community they found themselves in, drawing on whatever scraps and signals they picked up on the breeze from Memphis.
Finglas is named after a river – An Fionn Glas, meaning ‘clear stream’ — called for a local holy well that had been a minor site of pilgrimage in the 19th century. A local essayist of the time, June Considine, remembered growing up in that area and seeing the fields of cattle ringed with hawthorn gradually supplanted by shopping centres and high-density housing. ‘The rivers,’ she wrote, ‘have been buried under glass-domed shopping centres. They run silently now, neatly channelled under rows of suburban houses. A streamlined dual-carriageway, hot with the pulse of traffic, cuts a swathe through the memories of my childhood.’ Once, she recalled, the buried river rebelled against the indignity of its interment, and burst up through the floorboards of somebody’s living room.
U2 represented a similar kind of resurrection. Their attempts to escape the dehumanising blandness of their early environment fashioned the fount of their energy and creativity, spawning a music that was really a folk music in a modern idiom rather than an amplified soundtrack for the modern world it tended to be taken for. U2 had drawn from their background a capacity to feel the flagging pulse of a modern alienated humanity and went looking for sounds to give it a beat and a melody and bring it back to health. Their first album, Boy, was like a record made on the Moon by a bunch of space-travelling troubadours who had heard music only from a great distance, in the quiet of the night — as though an attempt to jump-start a culture with just the hope of a spark to go on.
The Joshua Tree, released in 1987, was U2’s encomium to American blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Five years later, the band produced an entirely different kind of album, this time intensely European, steeped in the influence of Kraftwerk and Bowie, and produced by Brian Eno. If The Joshua Tree was a hymn to the roots of the music that had offered them salvation, Achtung Baby was U2’s great roar of exultation at discovering their own roots in their own place and time, a return to the stratosphere whence they’d come, this time knowingly to the cutting edge of the medium. Achtung Baby is arguably the album in which European pop music — as the discreet entity we rarely hear talked about — reaches the zenith of self-knowledge and possibility, an album that draws on and draws together the inchoate, unscripted and underestimated elements of Europe’s neglected pop past. In the songs on that album and the stage show assembled for the subsequent Zoo TV tour, Bono posed as McPhisto, a Faustian creation that seems to mock the band’s own earnest past and flirt with the ironic insinuation of a nihilistic wink, and even a touch of mock diabolism.
In the beginning, three of the U2 foursome had been born-again Christians, unabashedly proclaiming their faith with songs like Gloria, Tomorrow and 40. It ought not have worked, but it did. Nobody was as acutely aware of the contradictory elements at play in seeking to play rock music in the name of Jesus. ‘Christian rock’ had, to say the least, a bad image, but Adam Clayton at the time remained outside the pious prayer group presented by the other three — the band’s Dionysian token, providing a certain insurance.
After their third album, War, the Christian element became more sublimated, and remained so. With Achtung Baby, they went ‘ironic’, adapting the Berlin industrial harmonic clangour developed by Bowie and Eno for Low and Heroes, and Iggy Pop’s masterpieces The Idiot and Lust for Life. U2’s ironic self-reinvention was an enormous success, with many of their most vehement critics hailing the new ‘secular’ U2 and celebrating that they had put all that Christian guff behind them. In truth they had merely dressed it up in hipper clothes.
In that period, they had adopted, in addition to the Faustian imagery of 'ironic' quasi-nihilism — intended, they emphasised, to conceal their true intent — U2 also had, as part of their stage show, a video presentation that led with the slogan, 'Everything You Know Is Wrong’, one they might usefully have employed again in 2020 going on 2023.
U2 seemed at that moment like they might become a truly significant band within the rock ’n’ roll pantheon, a prospect that has drained away over the years. In the beginning they had seemed to be a blurt of innocence out of the ether, non-musicians in search of the means of making sounds they heard in their heads. For quite a time, they succeeded on the straightforward basis of friendship, the unity between them amounting to far more than the sum of their four parts. They made a music that seemed to come, in large part, from outer space, and the remainder from some undiscovered region of the adolescent soul. They got, say, six albums out of that seam, before the signs of disintegration crept into the music in the mid-1990s.
There is a telling section in Surrrender where Bono talks about this juncture in graphic terms, though without acknowledging its ultimate significance: that it derived from a lack of the courage necessary to break with the formula and risk being less popular, losing their place at the top of the Champions League. The official line is that they drew things together again — and, indeed, the commercial facts would seem to bear this out. But, really and truly, creatively speaking, it came to an end with Achtung Baby, and the rest was mostly a losing attempt to recreate the magic that had been there before. Everything else was either self-parody or cannibalisation, and none of it would have drawn the world’s attention if they had not earlier written songs like Gloria and A Day Without Me.
Next, U2 entered an experimental phase that threw up numerous distinct possibilities. Pop, their 1995 album, was too diverse to be a popular hit, though it contained some of their finest work, and possibly their best song, the Psalmsesque Blueshymn Wake Up Dead Man, a blast of rage at God in the hope He might show Himself in His own defence — or, perhaps, as Bono writes in Surrender, a blast of rage against himself. Perhaps it was the lukewarn response to that album that caused U2 to steer back into the mainstream in search of the essence of whatever it was that had worked for them in the first place. Panic set in, leading to U2’s creative descent into self-pastiche, while commercially they surged forward in leaps and bounds. In the end, all you could say is that they settled for less than they promised. Having become themselves by remaining aloof from rock’s narcotics and narcissism, they gradually settled deeper into the embrace of the vacuity they had eschewed. More and more, their public stances seemed to be about attitude — being Cool — and staying on top of the league. Gradually, heartbreakingly, they went native, nestling deeper and deeper into the Cultural Marxist groupthink that afflicted, in its Western, consumerist exile, the music that had emerged from the slave plantations of the American South.
So, no Beatles, Stones or Velvets they. No scale of achievement there comparable to Dylan, Bowie, or even Springsteen or Neil Young — not really. Nearly 30 years ago, Bono told me of his greatest fear for U2, which I placed as a Coda at the end of my book, and which I now, with no pleasure, have to observe has been realised:
‘A hundred years now looking for the horse with the long neck. They have the giraffe, they have the horse. But they don’t have the horse with the long neck. What they say is that there are efficient stops along the way of evolution. Basically that there is a horse out there with a long neck, but there wasn’t enough of them for the chances of leaving behind a fossil. And that’s what I’m worried about. We don’t want to be that horse with the long neck.’
Perhaps, in the end, U2’s contribution is that, for a time, indeed for several generations of the Western young, they provided a passionate counter-backbeat to the leaden time-signatures of nihilistic vacuousness emanating from such as the Stones and their imitators. No mean achievement, but not quite what seemed to be promised from an indeterminate moment not long after the beginning.
I sometimes find myself shocked, listening to Bono’s public statements about Ireland — at the extent to which he appears to be a stranger to virtually any part of the country he grew up in other than the small corner of northside Dublin, where he spent his childhood. In one passage in the book, he describes, without irony, himself at a meeting to discuss the benefits (or otherwise) of international aid, volunteering Ireland as an example of a country that benefited from such an intervention, citing as evidence EU subventions. He appears to give no thought to the degree to which Ireland lost its autonomy and vast tranches of its resources when it signed up to join not the ‘European Union’, but a harmless-sounding entity called the ‘European Common Market’, in 1972. The EU never provided Ireland with aid, only with structural and cohesion funding, for which Ireland exchanged its sovereignty, its culture, its autonomy and its very soul. Bono takes literally also the modern mythologies of Irish ‘prosperity’ and ‘progressivism’, perhaps because he has some suspicion that these alleged phenomena, being more or less coincident with U2’s rise to superstardom, are somehow part of the same story. And this is emblematic of a soft globalist view he clings to almost unawares, one that ultimately leads us back to colonialism. For all his eccentricism and undeniable artistic uniqueness, he is bizarrely conventional —even establishment — in his worldly positions.
This may have something to do with the lack of situatedness of a rock ’n’ roll star, who tends to be someone who lives everywhere rather than somewhere, a Beautiful Nomad who, as the TV ad for Pullman Hotels used to have it: ‘No frontiers, no borders, no limits. You are the Beautiful Nomads. And our world is your playground.’
We are, all of us now, seduced by this idea: Life is elsewhere. It is a lie which is part of the lie of liberalism: You can espouse a political identity in which you valourise the poor and the beleaguered, and yet fly over their homes without a thought, knowing that your life is more important.
The Beautiful Nomad is free of roots, binds and ties. He lives noplace in particular. Everyplace is his oyster. He owes no debt to any locus or culture, certainly noplace small and intimate where ties and binds might be compulsory, and every dilution a potential threat. He eschews specificity and particularism. He is of the whole world. He is ‘educated to freedom’, yet seems to take it for granted. He condescends towards those left behind while he flies away, but does not share their situation or beliefs. He objectifies them, or, in that awful new phrase of the ideologues who support all this: he ‘others’ them.
Our culture, such as it now is, teaches us — and, worse, our children — that the circumstances of the poor are there to be exploited as badges of identity, sources of ‘virtue credits’. We should, it seems, pity those who remain in their villages and communities, and by becoming their ideological champions we acquire the right to indulge ourselves in other forms of exploitative and destructive cultural practice. We do not have to like them or be like them. We can repudiate the way they live and yet ordain ourselves their protectors. We can attend marches in support of African refugees while our lifestyles are otherwise devoted to doing the things which result in their displacement. We can demand that other people take responsibility for the lives of those so displaced, while we get on the next plane and take off on the next nomadic adventure.
This Pullman’s advert is an everyday example of the way our thinking is being moulded by processes and phenomena we take for granted. Our very sense of who we are, where we are, our situation in the world, is being rattled and loosened even while we doze in front of the TV. To say nothing of what the same phenomena and processes are doing to our children and their sense of where they are and how their lives are likely to unfold.
About 30 years ago, I gifted Bono a copy of The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s classic work about colonialism. He had not come across Fanon before. I intended and hoped he would read it as a parable of Ireland, but clearly, if he read it at all, it seems to have been purely and literally in its African context, which was fair enough too, in as far as it went. But his continued lack of understanding of his own country’s true condition and situation, arising from the same kind of circumstances as Fanon outlines, has caused him to misread the experiences of other peoples also, and in turn caused him to stray into very bad company indeed.
There are those who see all kinds of nefarious possibilities in what Bono calls his ‘antipoverty actualism’ — among these issues the sought-expiation of guilt arising from his own fabulous enrichment on the back of U2’s mixture of genius and luck. There may be something in the guilt thing — many of us suffer from it on a far less substantial evidential basis — but I do not think it is a the most significant aspect. Far more critical, I believe, has been a searching for meaning — a seeking for a way of transcending the inherent difficulty that rock ’n’ roll success has a habit of breaking through the possibilities for materialist meaning, to rapidly arrive at the brink of the abyss. The stories of a thousand dead stars, from Elvis down, tells us that this pitch of living has the capacity to demolish the desire that generates hope, so even survival can require some kind of diversion to stave off the ennui that flows from having (almost) everything. For this reason, I have long thought of Bono’s philanthropic work as a way of maintaining his swing so he can keep on driving the ball over the horizon.
Over the past three decades, since he involved himself in this ‘antipoverty actualism’, he has taken a great deal of flak for his ‘politicising of pop’, and the accompanying alleged attitude of cultural noblesse oblige towards the Third World and its people. Whether poverty campaigning of this kind achieves anything lasting for its presumed beneficiaries is just one among a raft of complex — irresolvable — conundrums that arise. I take the view that, in these matters, doing something is better than doing nothing, no matter how futile the exercise may appear. I accept — know — that, on occasion, aid can do actual harm, but this risk is generally offset by the reality that harm is happening anyway.
My main gripe with Bono’s work in this context is not its intentionality or even its outcomes — if any — but the collateral effects of the kinds of alliances it has drawn him into. This has been an element of the torrent of venom-cannon that’s rained upon him in the context of his work with organisations like Jubilee 2000, DATA, ONE and (RED), since he entered into these areas, reaching its apogee in the presidency of George W. Bush, when he came under attack for the shortness of his spoon in supping with the great bête noire of early 2000s liberalism in his campaign to raise funds to fight AIDS in Africa. In many respects, I find something admirable in his willingness to risk personal obloquy to do the job he has set himself, and in Surrender there is a gripping account of his negotiations with Condoleezza Rice, out of which he encountered the disfavour of no less a spectre than George Soros by standing with Bush on the basis of a verbal promise from Rice that the president would come through in the end, which he duly did.
And herein lies, for me, the actual rub. My deeper sense of the problem with Public Bono is his flirtations with certain eminently nameable individuals on whose miens, let us say, the epigraph of the opening section of this book — two lines from the song Rejoice, off U2’s second album, October, in 1982: ‘I can’t change the world/But I can change the world in me’ — would have little purchase. I have in mind the aforementioned Mr Soros, but also Bill Gates and, more recently, Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, a profoundly anti-democratic body at which Bono has been spotted hobnobbing a great deal, of recent times (perhaps, indeed, the most sinister organisation on the face of Planet Earth right now.)
Soros is best known for his decades of sticking his nose, and that of his organisation, the Open Society Foundation, into the business of countries that are none of his beeswax. Gates’s penchant is for sticking needles into the arms and butts of others, in the name of health, but with results that have to date delivered far more demonstrable harm than any measurable good. Since the early 2000s, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been funding the distribution of vaccines and drugs to vulnerable populations in Africa and India. In 2010, it funded experimental malaria and meningitis vaccine trials across Africa, and HPV vaccine programs in India. Under the camouflage of ‘saving lives’, these vaccine rollouts have served as large scale clinical trials of untested or unapproved drugs in countries where drug rollouts meet with minimal regulation. All these programmess resulted in numerous deaths and injuries, with multiple accounts of coercive vaccinations and an absence of informed consent. In May 2020, a petition was published bearing half a million signatures and calling on the White House to investigate the Gates Foundation. The petition accused the Foundation of ‘medical malpractice’ for ‘intentionally sterilising Kenyan children through the use of a hidden HCG antigen in tetanus vaccines’. The petition also quoted Bill Gates talking about his interest in ‘reducing population growth’ by means of vaccination. Since then, Gates has focussed his attentions on the once free and democratic West, taking the lead in pushing a range of experimental Covid-19 vaccines that, for the past two years, have been causing unprecedented levels of death and injury, not just among the elderly but among fit, healthy young people, including many top athletes. A conservative calculation puts the death toll at close to 10,000 for Ireland alone. Excess deaths averaging at 16-17 per cent in Europe and America are occurring overwhelmingly among the ‘vaccinated’ — i.e. those poisoned with an experimental mRNA concoction that turns healthy human bodies into self-destroying instruments. Human fertility is down in all Western countries, in some places to the tune of roughly 70 per cent.
That this escalating genocide has been ignored by the mainstream media is just one of its many shocking aspects. The data, muddied by fact-checkers and ignored by journalists, morphs and merges so that no one can pin them down in a definitive manner and place them on a central noticeboard. Hence, Bill Gates is able to continue influencing public policy in a manner that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths — 200,000+ excess deaths in Europe alone in the past 12 months, a majority being of young, healthy people — while Bono affords him a free pass from the wrath of the rock ’n’ roll conscience. Two years after all this mayhem and cruelty was unleashed on the world, Gates declared that they had misread the virus from the beginning and, really, it was no worse than a quotidian influenza that killed the very old and unwell, but generally posed no danger to the general population. Exactly as dissenters had said from the beginning, only to be silenced by media bought and paid for by . . . The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Nevertheless, Bill continued to insist, ‘Normalcy only returns when we’ve largely vaccinated the entire world.’
Bono appears to know or think nothing of any of this, nor even to harbour the obvious questions, like: Why would you need to vaccinate the entire world with a non-vaccine that, according to its manufacturers, is unfit for purpose? He appears to take for granted that, when Bill acts like he’s bestowing some massively philanthropic benefit on the world, then that must be what’s happening.
His book has but a handful of references to the ‘pandemic’, but all of them accept at face-value everything the globalised lockstep has ordained. U2, like all but a handful of rebels among the rock ’n’ roll fraternity (Van Morrison, Morrissey, Ian Brown, Eric Clapton, John Lydon, then you’re struggling) kowtowed to the greatest rights-and-freedom steal in modern history.
Of his relationship with such as Gates and Soros, Bono writes: ‘I've sometimes looked around the table at some high-minded do with such exceptional people and wondered how this unexceptional baked-bean-boy from Cedarwood Road, the one who got through his school years on a diet of cornflakes and Cadbury's Smash — and through band rehearsals pinching sandwiches from Edge and Larry — ended up in this kind of company.’
It’s a good question, though perhaps not in the way he means it. I know what those creeps are doing hanging around with Bono, but why is Bono belittling himself by hanging around with them? It is absolutely unconscionable that he does not know what he is doing: U2 has managed itself with extraordinary shrewdness for four and a half decades, an average working life. But the measure of Bono’s interest in these men’s affections seems to relate to their wealth, just as the measure of U2’s artistic trajectory has been the imperative of staying on top of the heap. In both instances, the motivation appears to be fundamentally materialist, and the putative good that might flow from either fount does not cancel the risk that money may continue to lie at the root of all evil.
He is also correct if he means that such high-wire involvements are very far from the territory or remit of rock ’n’ roll, implying that his role in this regard is separate from his U2 day-job. Bono, it should be remembered also, has never been confrontational or ornery in his activism. He is not the kind of rock spokesman who squares up to authority and reads the riot act. Unlike, say, Morrissey, or John Lydon, or even Bob Geldof, he generally tends to oppose phenomena — Third World debt, world poverty, AIDS, arms trading — rather than the implicated personalities. His approach has been to persuade the wealthy and powerful to do the decent thing, rather than shaking their trees and calling them out by name. This has endeared him to certain individuals, who saw his street cachet as a useful instrument in their own endeavours, which had a tendency to be contaminated by self-evidently self-serving agendas. The cred of having a premier rock star on your team was not to be sneezed at, as figures like Soros, Schwab and Gates rapidly realised. The problem is that Bono appears to take such figures entirely as they present themselves — perhaps as men overburdened with wealth looking for a useful purpose on which to dispose of some of it. He may, too, take concepts like ‘foundation’ from their mouths a little too literally: as organisations started primarily as a way of doing good works, as opposed to ‘doing’ the taxman. He appears to have paid insufficient attention to the actual nature of their endeavours, or the trails of disgruntlement they have so often left behind them.
This is lethal to the true spirit of the music, because it incurs debts that are smoothed over in politeness but nevertheless as repayable as a Mafia ‘back-scratch’ obligation. The moment of payback may arise at any moment, and cannot be elided.
Among the dark sides of this is that it puts the followers of the band as much in hock to these gangsters as it does Bono or his fellow U2 members. Often, it seems that, in the discounting of political unpopularity in courting some political Untouchable to achieve some worthy or even noble objective, actual wrongdoing can be placed in the same category as unpopularity, and similarly discounted or bypassed. Strangely, too, Bono nominates the same enemies as do those he calls his friends, seeming almost instinctively to take the interests of unlikely bedfellows as his own. Among those few figures who attract the wrath of Bono are Russians in general and Putin in particular, Trump, populists and arms peddlers. Those who avoid it are NATO, the Clintons, Volodymyr Zelensky, the DNC, the EU, the UN, the WTO, the WHO, the G7, the G20 and the Party of DAVOS.
Perhaps it’s inevitable: just as politicians, once elected, receive the knock on the door after which they begin to behave entirely in contradiction of every word they said to get elected, rock bands, once commercially established, attract friendly overtures from the powerful and power-broking, after which they may be observed to grow away from the paths that have led them to become beloved in the first place.
‘Never trust a righteous man who looks like one,’ Bono once advised me. And yet, he treats the Spaghetti Western of reality as though it were self-evident that the Bad Guy is the chap with the strange orange hair and the invisible droopy moustache, who laughs a little too much in a manner that feels unsettling.
In 2017, he told the audience at a Joshua Tree 30th birthday gig in Seattle:
‘People who voted for Trump are welcome here, but he’s not.’
The reason he proffered was that he was ‘furious’ with Trump for cutting federal funding for HIV research. What he didn’t at the time seem to know was that Trump was diverting outlay on AIDS from international to domestic use, in an attempt to tackle an escalating American epidemic of HIV infections.
Bono elaborated: ‘Bill Gates will be here tonight. He will tell you “But that doesn’t work, guys. He can’t level it off because people will die!”’.
Bill said that? People would die? Oh, my! Bill cares.
This is the deep puzzle about Bono: that, for all his undoubted wisdom in so many areas, he seems to see politics in the manner of a teenager, unquestioningly latching on to fads and trends, acting as a kind of walking echo service for the New York Times, immersing himself in faraway problems while taking the up-close scenarios at face value. His heart is in the right place, for sure, but his head is led astray by a strange affliction in a man who claims not to care for money: an attraction to people who are richer than he is, and more powerful than almost anybody, but not in a noticeably good way. His positions are therefore all too predictable, and lead him into foreseeable embarrassments, such as his cringe-inducing visit, with Edge, to Ukraine in May of this year, when the duo put on a ‘freedom show’ in the Kiev metro, as though in the middle of a blitzkrieg, with Bono slurping all over the appalling Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a proven embezzler, drug addict and collector of actual Nazi soldiers.
A ‘poem’, written by Bono in a St, Patrick’s Day endorsement of Zelensky, and read out by Nancy Pelosi during the annual Friends of Ireland Luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., goes:
Oh St. Patrick, he drove out the snakes, with his prayers,
but that’s not all it takes.
For this smoke symbolizes the evil that arises and hides in your heart as it breaks.
And the evil risen from the darkness that lives in some men,
but in sorrow and fear,
that’s when saints can appear,
to drive out those old snakes once again and a struggle for us to be free from this psycho in this human family,
Ireland’s sorrow and pain is now the Ukraine,
and St. Patrick’s name is now Zelensky.
On Ukraine, as Roger Waters has observed, Bono manifests no evidence of having read himself into an issue he’s latched on to in a manner that fits snugly with the designs of the Svengalis he’s gotten himself mixed up with. Surrender has a single-sentence mention of Ukraine, which follows as a total non sequitur on a rumination on the inability of power to prevail against ‘the power of the people’ and the probability that all the money in the world, all the influence, ‘including all the rich, fancy folk like me’ will come to nothing.
‘Even the tanks rolling over the people of Ukraine,’ he concludes, ‘they will be rolled over.’
It is important to remember that, although they sailed for a while under the Jolly Roger of Punk, U2 were never rebels. On the contrary, they were respectable middle-class boys who just wanted to be rock stars and did not seek to cause any trouble for anyone, least of all the establishment or ‘the system’.
Rock ’n’ roll as agitprop has never seemed all that attractive, and has rarely produced great musical outcomes. Art is gratuitousness, beauty for beauty’s sake, a sign of Something Beyond. The point is not to make statements but to create something that exists as a witness to life. What matters is the artist’s existence, gaze and repose, not his attitude, which is merely the grain of grit on which the pearl forms. U2, in fairness, has produced more than the averaged-size handful of pearls.
But this also implies an interest in freedom, as the non-negotiable bedrock of all creativity. Political freedom amounts, simply, to the right to be let alone, or to be left alone with life’s mysteriousness, which is not a political proposition but an existential event. This, above all, is what has come under threat in the past 33 months, to the soundtrack of a total silence from Bono and U2.
Bono’s preparedness to get into the sack with some strange bedfellows can, up to a point, be extended a pragmatism licence in as far as it may have had a prospect of helping in the doing of some actual good. But, regardless of the good it may have achieved, (and this is contentious) we have to ask questions when the balance shifts to doing harm in another part of the forest. At this stage, people like Gates and Soros are getting far more out of their relationship with Bono than they ever put in — all of which was tax-deductible anyway. Now they have him as a human celebrity-shield to hold up when someone looks crooked at them: ‘He likes us,’ they seem to say with a cheesy grin. ‘We have his mobile number!’
This may or may not matter to each or any U2 fan. Youth, under the attrition of tech and Big Tech, has latterly been drained of all passion and empathy, so, judging by social media, one might gather that only ersatz emotions and responses survive. The rock ‘n’ roll consciousness retains nothing but self-consciousness. Once a Trojan horse laden with magical understandings, the music has shrivelled to mere repository of harmlessly harmonising dangs and twangs, ambient noises for the lifestyles of generations who consume them like Kool-Aid. And the conditions that prevent the ‘youth of today’ from creating their own artforms and content render the young amenable also to acquiescence in establishment and corporate manipulation, and recruitable as evangelists of tyrannical impositions. There is a serious risk of Bono becoming the Patron Saint of this process.
Rock ‘n’ roll was essentially an alternative way of hearing life’s promises. It delivered not thoughts but something thought-provoking that was beyond thinking, not messages of hope but hope itself. In this sense, Bono is bang-on in describing himself as a ‘salesman’ of hope. But rock ’n’ roll was also, and above all, about remaining outside the herd, remaining totally oneself, especially when it came to resisting tyranny. The rock ‘n’ roll spirit was neither primarily ideological nor big-P political, but an existential refusal, born of the surprise of the rock n’ roll encounter, which instantly inoculated against the acquiescent or banal. The rebellion was as much image as sensibility, attitude as conviction, repudiating all forms of authority from parental to divine, and asserting the vindication of human desire in its most immediate forms as the defining ethic of the age. The energy of those early moments later energised a decade, the Sixties — especially 1968 and its repudiation of the political assumptions of the time. Sam Phillips later said that, until Elvis walked in the door, he hadn’t known what he was looking for. He just knew it would be something uniquely new, something that didn’t fit, didn’t make any sense of or reflect life in America as it then was; something that made everything a little bit irrelevant, created confusion, didn’t allow people to feel safe in ways they’d grown used to.
There is a school of thought that holds all this was orchestrated for malign purposes by the progenitors of Gates and Schwab, but that is something for another article, or maybe another ill-fated book. But U2 came to this party with what seemed to be something new: a pure heart of innocence bordering on naïveté. And maybe that, ultimately, is the problem here.
Rock ‘n’ roll was but sporadically left-wing. Born in the plantations of America’s deep south, its seed emerged from the hollering of brother to brother up along the chain-gang. Steeped in Mississippi mud, the Blues merged with negro spiritual singing and Country — this the offspring of Irish folk songs, far-travelled in the hearts of emigrants fleeing genocidal famine at home — to beget what emerged in Sam Phillips’ kitchen. But rock ’n’ roll was at its best when it managed to eschew ideology or preaching, and U2 and Bono came to realise this and thus may have sought to outsource some of the do-goodery in Bono’s ‘actualism’.
Perhaps the only time the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll manifested itself in a political context was in the former Czechoslovakia of the 1970s, when the reigning Communist regime was rocked to its foundations by the music and influence of a rock ‘n’ roll band, albeit in a strangely unClashlike way. In an episode that has some echoes in the emerging ‘New Normal’ of the former Free World, a Prague-based rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, was jailed for ‘coarse indecencies’ and ‘creating a public nuisance’. The disquiet generated in the artistic community led to the establishment of the revolutionary movement, Charter 77, which paved the way for the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
But the Plastics never set out to be symbols of resistance. Their music, free-form jazz and chaotic interpretations of western pop songs, expressed not social rebellion but existential curiosity. No placard-wavers, they said simply, musically: ‘We don't care, leave us alone!’ What the Communists found provocative was the way they looked and dressed, their languid shows of indifference to the social and political order. And this, the regime intuited, was more to be feared than someone seeking to argue with Communism. The great anti-Communist dissident, Vaclav Havel, in explaining the influence the Plastics’ music had on him and his contemporaries, spoke about its magic, sadness and longing for salvation, and said that the band’s trial and imprisonment represented ‘an attack on life itself’. Leaving the trial of the band in Prague after their conviction, he said: ‘From now on, being careful seems so petty’.
The English journalist, Neal Ascherson, writing about the Plastics phenomenon, observed: ‘There is dissent which wants to substitute one system for another. And there is dissent which simply says: Get off our back, scrap all the guidelines and controls, and humanity will reassert itself.’ By this formulation, contemplating Bono’s activism, one would have to place U2 in Ascherson’s first category: dissent which wants to substitute one system for another, whereas the Morrisseys, Morrisons and Lydons seemed to say, simply: Fuck off! Neither of these approaches is without merit or morals, but the first is more dangerous than the second.
A song is not a placard or a pamphlet, but the fullest enrichment of the human breath. U2’s music ticks all the boxes on the existential front, but Bono’s friendships with dodgy salesmen — not his own salesmanship on behalf of the Wretched of the Earth — is the stone in the shoe that risks hobbling the entire operation.
All this matters to the extent that rock ’n’ roll matters at all. Each of us who have bought a U2 record, paid for a U2 concert ticket, written a positive — or even not-so positive — article (or book) about the band, has a stake in this and therefore a right not to have the banks of our youthful idealism burgled to sustain thievery and tyranny around the world, or even moreso the plundering of our children’s birthright and freedom. There is a reason why so many rock stars stay out of politics: They understand that a musician who forges some kind of special connection with people seeking hope and nourishment acquires thereby a debt that cannot be written off. Bono knows this, and as he said in one of his better interviews for the book: ‘Celebrity reverses God’s order, so if you actually become one you have to balance things out, so you have to reverse this and spend it wisely. ‘
As yet another mate of his, Barack Obama, might say, ‘If you’ve got a hook, a melody, you didn’t make that. Somebody else made that happen.’ The band’s followers are not mere passive consumers or subjects of the vibe, but also actors in that their presence creates the phenomenon which becomes the opportunity for the Svengalis to swoop and commander the vapour of the simmering hopes and idealism for purposes no one had in mind in the queue for the Point Depot in Dublin on New Year’s Eve 1989. George and Bill and Melinda and Klaus were not foremost in our thoughts at that moment, but somehow they have dipped the pockets of that delirious queue to launder their smirking genocidal intentions for long enough to carry them out
These creeps suck credibility, and therefore a sense of innocence, from their association with Bono and the U2 name. Bono is, of course, technically and de facto entitled to dispose of this credibility in whatever way he pleases, but he should, at the same time. bear in mind that the credibility, as much as it derives from his talent and the music this births, belongs also to those who have pinned their trust and their loyalties to him and his three friends, in some cases for more than 40 years. That these are among the people who themselves — to say nothing of their children — stand to become enslaved by the ambitions of such as Soros and Gates is a measure of the weight of responsibility bearing down on Bono’s shoulders. As far as I can tell, he has no sense of this responsibility, or the possible reasons for it. He seems to regard what has happened in the past 33 months as a naturalistic response to some kind of dangerous pathogen, which even his mate Bill now admits it was not. Sometimes it seems as though Bono is as thick as Eamo Tesco.
He needs to pay more attention, to stop listening to the lies of the mainstream media and pay attention to the fringes from which U2 emerged, which, had this happened in the beginning, four decades ago, he would have been doing. He has at least a duty to inform himself properly about the nature of the company he is keeping, and the way some of his creepy mates have purchased most of the world’s former Fourth Estate to peddle their lies and fear of the wrong things in order to push their slimy agendas.
There are those who speculate that Bono has ‘gone over to the dark side’. Call me naïve but I do not believe so. I have carefully watched and listened to some of his interviews about this book and, although on occasion he seems weighed down and unable to summon up much above platitudes (usually because his interlocutor is a jerk), he sometimes sparkles like he did of old.
But what if those who say Bono has gone to the dark side are right? Is this possible? Yes. Others have gone before him. Can we say how or why this happens? Not really. It seems to be a process that takes over the very soul of the person, like the Unspeakable Creeps whom we elected to represent our interests — and those of our children — who now line up to sell us all down the river.
There is a meaning to the title of the book that I cannot avoid: that Bono is telling us we have no choice, that what is coming is coming and it will go easier on us if we just do as we’re told. His mates, he assures us, are decent skins, though he may not know exactly how much say-so they enjoy with the secret unknowns who pull their strings.
I write it down in a spin. I do not want to believe it. And yet, having read this book of 557 pages, I cannot recall having being tripped up in my dismayed searching by a single phrase or sentence that directly reassured me. I know these people Bono reveres are ugly, nasty creatures, and either he does not know it or he knows it and his knowing, for some reason, feels unable to breathe its name. Please, Bono, say it ain’t so.
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