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Colm Tóibín on Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story by Bono: Heartbreak and lust for life, love and music

U2 singer’s memoir is introspective, raw, self-deprecating and oddly earnest

Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story
Author: Bono
ISBN-13: 978-1529151787
Publisher: Hutchinson Heinemann
Guideline Price: £25

In an astonishing moment early in his memoir, Bono is describing the creation of a song. U2, by now, has its third rehearsal room — the first was the music room at Mount Temple school, the second Edge’s tiny garden shed — “which is a small cottage backing on to a graveyard in north Co Dublin. The graveyard my mother was buried in.” After much friction and banter, “in this ego-filled and ego-less moment a song that will be called I Will Follow is forming”.

Bono describes the mechanics of the composition almost as a way of keeping more pressing thoughts at bay: “Edge goes to the lower drone (a singing E and D string, fretting on the second and third strings to make the chords E over D followed by D added ninth).” When he is asked by his colleagues what the song is about, Bono tells them that it is “a suicide note ... It’s about some kid who wants to find his mother, and even if she’s in the grave he’ll follow her there.”

Then he writes: “What no one in that rehearsal room, including me, had thought about was Iris Hewson resting under the ground not a hundred yards from where we were playing. In all the time we rehearsed there, I never thought about it or even once visited her grave. My mother was dead. Literally, but also emotionally, to me.”

Then there is a paragraph break. And then a three-word paragraph: “So I thought.”


After the death of Bono’s mother, when he was 14, his father and his older brother barely mentioned her; they lived as though her death had not happened.

“Self-denial is a remarkable psychological trick,” he writes, “sometimes necessary, I guess. The truth is that the enduring appeal of that song is not as nihilistic as a suicide note. In its sound or its state of mind it’s a song about a mother’s love.”

The loss of his mother goes through Bono’s book as an undercurrent. Towards the end, he writes: “Heartbreak is a subject I return to again and again.” And some pages later he sees if he can analyse what this early loss has meant for him.

“Family has always been at the centre of who I am. I have attempted several surrogates since Iris passed. Families I found to join ... or founded to join. It started in my teens ... and it continued at school, Mount Temple, when I joined U2, this family I found in Larry’s kitchen in 1976. I found another one around the same time, when I was 16 and Ali’s father and mother let me into their family knowing I really needed one. Later, after all our success, maybe I was looking for it again in the world of activism and politics. Looking to be needed.”

Surrender is, especially in the first half, introspective, raw, self-deprecating, oddly earnest, almost self-accusing. The scores Bono settles are against himself. Others he describes with affection and accuracy, without falling into saccharine tones. For example: “Edge is minimalist by nature. I am not. I am not minimalist. Edge has a poker face. I do not.” Or: “Larry was a good-looking teen who didn’t like to be stared at by girls or guys.” Or, on Adam Clayton: “Rare is a man so at home in his own body, equally celebrating or mocking all bodily functions, and particularly delighted with his own penis.”

On Paul McGuinness as manager in the early days: “I am now ready to accept that the reason Paul McGuinness had taken such a long time purchasing our own van was that Paul did not want to drive one. Driving a van was not why Paul wanted to manage a rock band. For Paul even sitting in a van seemed a stretch too far, and far too far from a stretch limo.”

But he goes back again and again to the meaning of loss. “Until we deal with our most traumatic traumas,” he writes, “there’s a part of us that stays at the age at which we encountered them. For a long time that has kept me at fourteen, when I hit puberty and Iris died.”

What is strange, and what makes much of this book so exciting and interesting, is that the sadness is overwhelmed by a desperate, frenzied desire to use life more richly since it has proved to be so fragile. Sadness is replaced here by an extraordinary and breathless zeal for friendship but also for love.

And also, of course, for music.

Bono is careful not to try to explain the songs too easily or glibly. He leaves much to mystery and resorts often to self-doubt. Bad, for example, came at a time when the band, working with Brian Eno, wanted to do something different.

“We were after the soulful intensity of Van Morrison and the street poetry of Lou Reed. Unfortunately, the poetry was not so eloquent. Unfortunately, the song was never finished. Unfortunately for the lyricist, Brian Eno loved the sound of unfinished songs. Fortunately, for people who think Bad is one of our finest moments, Brian had his way. And though I’m left every night filling in the gaps of this most unwritten lyric, I see how it is mouth music, invocation, tongue singing.”

The song One, Bono writes, came not only from a letter he received from the Dalai Lama, but because there were “two discarded chord sequences that Edge came up with for a middle-eight breakdown section in Mysterious Ways. When he put them together, it became an invitation to sing a brand new song.”

Bono then “improvised a lyric about a son telling his religious father he was gay. About a lover who had been discovered finding sex outside a sexless marriage ... Part of its drama is that it starts in the middle of an argument.”

Although Bono infuses his narrative with his Christian faith and although his tendency is to connect, he can also make sharp distinctions. “I was, and still am,” he writes, “suspicious of the idea of oneness. I don’t buy into the homogeneity of the human experience. I don’t think we’re all one.”

Surrender is, in its own generous way, a book written by an Irishman to tell his mother how much he misses her, to tell his mates how much he rates them, and to let his wife and children know how much he loves them.

Alison Stewart, whom Bono first met when he was sixteen, remains elusive in the book. It is clear that Bono is still trying to figure her out. “I had to accept,” he writes, “that she could never be known. There was something unfathomable about her. She was a mystery.”

One of the songs he wrote to explore this mystery was With or Without You. It is, he writes, “a song that could not contain her but at least captured some of her dark beauty and our bittersweet duality”. But what he wrote, in a time when pop was “a kind of swear word”, was, in his words, “an ugly pop song” that the band abandoned until it was rescued by their friend Gavin Friday, who asked: “What’s wrong with pop music?” And who insisted that “the only reason it’s not working ... is that it peaks too early ... It’s an arrangement problem ... not a song problem.”

In 1984, when Bob Dylan played Slane, Bono interviewed him and Van Morrison for Hot Press. Dylan, it turned out, knew all six verses of The Auld Triangle and made mention of various Irish singers, including the McPeake Family. Bono had never heard of the McPeakes. “Van said they came from the north of Ireland, which might explain why I, as a southerner, had missed them.”

Dylan wondered how Bono did not know this music. “This is essential for the world, let alone Ireland.” Bono’s reply is fascinating and will interest anyone of his generation working as an artist in Ireland: “I dunno, it feels like our band comes from outer space, from the suburb of a capital whose traditions are not ours, a place of pain which holds no interest for us; we’re attempting to start again.”

Bono is careful to make clear how hard he is to put up with. (”This is what I do,” he writes, “I get carried away. And this is the me you wouldn’t want to be in a band with.”) But it was not simply his own neediness or his doggedness that kept U2 together. He quotes Paul McGuinness approvingly: “It would be stupid to be good at art and bad at the business of art.”

He remains both restless and unyielding. Unyielding about the high points, especially when the live act worked its magic on a vast stadium: “I love stadiums for a simple reason: the punters on the terraces can see the stage. I love the big, round roar of the crowd in these concrete crucibles in contrast to the open field, where the sound of a crowd singing floats away into the night.”

Related reading

Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2 by Eamon Dunphy, published in the early 1990s, tells the story not only of the band and manager, but of their parents and their backgrounds in Dublin. It is a sharply drawn portrait of the world that made them, a definitive version of their early years.

Is That It? by Bob Geldof is an earlier, south-side version of the story Bono tells, including the early loss of a mother and then a sort of personal redemption through music and fame and high-level activism. “The truth is,” Bono writes, “that Bob Geldof opened the door and I walked through.”

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle tells a story about a band that failed, a band that played different music to that of U2. But there are interesting connections between the world Doyle describes and Bono’s world, not least the sense of living in a culture that demanded that you start from scratch, and also the wit and sense of camaraderie.