Bono’s memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, is every bit as verbose, overblown and ridiculous as the rock star writing the story. I found it tolerable — even entertaining – for two reasons. One, I’m a fan. And, two, having followed Bono (religiously?) for decades, I can say this account is at least honest. Bono knows he’s a world-class arsehole. He just can’t help himself.
The book is organized into chapters named after individual U2 songs that more or less chart the development of A) the author and B) the band. This is a nice if somewhat handy mechanism, connecting Bono’s life story with the group that made him rich, famous, and, yes, relevant.
In a way, Bono’s been writing his autobiography for years now, in the lyrics to his songs. I’ve long considered such albums as “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” as Bono’s diaries, they are that personal and somewhat haphazardly penned. Indeed, U2 as a group has been looking back — turning inward – on the last few albums. “Songs of Innocence” (the infamous 2014 Apple giveaway) and “Songs of Experience” are biographical works detailing the childhoods of not just Bono but all four bandmates. U2 has seemingly rejected the outward-looking, third-person narratives written for such albums as 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon,” which didn’t sell as well as the band would have liked.
Hence, Bono kind of repeats himself, or at least falls back on catchwords and phrases I’ve heard attributed to him before. Still, he’s a hell of a writer, and the genuine humor in this book caught me off guard. He writes movingly and interestingly of his relationship with his cantankerous father, Bob, whose death in 2001 marked a turning point for the singer’s life, songwriting and career. (U2 visited the subject on quite a few songs, including “Kite” and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”). But, by far the most important relationship in the book is the one between Bono (who used to be known as Paul Hewson) and his mother, Iris, who died when the budding singer was just 14. Bono devotes a few chapters to Iris, paying beautiful testimony to the relationship that was cut short. To say that her death (and filmed image) influenced Bono is putting it mildly. A surprising number of U2 songs are, in fact, about mother and son (not least of which are “Lemon” and, obviously, “Iris (Hold Me Close).”
The other important figure in Surrender is Bono’s wife, Ali, to whom the book is dedicated. The author has described his memoir as a love letter of sorts to his wife, and she is indeed portrayed as a remarkably strong and independent woman. All of this material is incredibly heartfelt, as one would expect of the singer of “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
Not only his faith, but that of (most of) his bandmates, forms another vital subject. If I read him right, I’d say that Bono finds organized religion (namely, Christianity) a bit of a pain in the ass, preferring instead to steer by his own Bible-based sense of right and wrong. That might be oversimplifying what is, for the author, clearly a complex topic.
Bono also traces the birth and development of U2; there are plenty of details about how the band formed, grew, played its version of post-punk rock across Europe, hired Paul McGuiness as its manager, and eventually took over America with “The Joshua Tree.” It is a gripping read for anyone interested not just in U2 but the music business overall.
The book takes an in-depth look at the making of “Achtung, Baby,” the paradigm-shifting album from 1991. But Bono’s most fascinating passages have to do with U2’s biggest disappointments, including 1997’s “Pop” album. (“No Line on the Horizon” gets scant mention, as does “Rattle & Hum,” unfair exclusions, Bono!) He makes it clear that he won’t say much about U2’s controversial tax decisions, giving the topic maybe a paragraph. He gives more attention to the 2014 Apple debacle, maybe the best page and a half in the book. “Mea culpa,” he writes, which is Bono’s way of saying “sorry, not sorry” for dropping “Songs of Innocence” in all the iTunes accounts (including mine!) in the world. Likening the stunt as leaving his bottle of milk in all the fridges in town, Bono suggests that he’s not nearly as sorry about it as his detractors would like. But he couldn’t just ignore it.
He also devotes several chapters to his philanthropic work, which he catches a lot of crap over. Bono the world-saver, the white savior, is on full display here, and it’s an unapologetic Bono who details his adventures in the halls of Congress and elsewhere. The name-dropping is fast and furious, but frankly, aside from a few passages, I couldn’t have cared less. (I will say that Bono, despite all the shit he takes from critics, probably acts out of his heart on the behalf of the world’s poorest countries, and did pull off some major accomplishments in the early-2000s, but these chapters aren’t as much fun to read as some of the others. Sorry, B.)
He omits a few things, including his near-fatal bicycle crash that resulted in major surgery and his (alleged) inability to play the guitar (not that Bono was ever considered a guitarist!). And, he glosses over his infamous Live Aid “leap,” barely addressing the concert at all. He does, however, write about the “blackout” event that almost cost him his life – a blister on his aorta that required last-minute, open-heart surgery. And, one can read about the terror attack in Paris in 2015 that forced U2 to cancel a planned concert, as well the band’s subsequent friendship with Eagles of Death Metal. Bono’s knowledge of the impact of terrorism is direct, honest, and undeniably sincere.
Bono acknowledges that he is a ridiculous human being given the ridiculous trappings of a rock star. I might have wanted him to tone down the Bono-ese in a few passages – and yes, Bono, we know, YOU’RE IRISH! But for the most part, I can find little to gripe about here. There’s no doubt he’ll write another book, and he should, because he is a good writer. What that subject could be, I can’t begin to guess. (Oh, and I bet Surrender is a blast to hear him read as an audiobook!)