Bono interview: ‘I have spent my life looking for the blessing of father figures’

In an exclusive interview about his upcoming memoir, the U2 frontman talks about the loss of his mother, his long marriage to Ali, the brother he didn’t know he had, and U2′s complex relationship with Ireland

Bono appears at our table, passing through a buzzing Dublin restaurant at lunchtime to a booth reserved by a window for coffee and deep conversation.

There is no fuss and not much notice from other diners. It is a scene of indifference, except for one woman who approaches to compliment him on his recent meeting with students at his alma mater, Mount Temple Comprehensive, the north Dublin school where U2 was formed.

At home, the band’s frontman – dressed in rock-statesman black with his lion’s mane red hair and signature coloured glasses – likes it this way: largely unnoticed in the background.

“I like that Ireland has a more horizontal relationship with U2,” he says.

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This is one of the reasons Bono and Ali Hewson, his wife of 40 years, live in Dublin with their family and chose to raise their children here.

“I am very distrustful of vertical relationships – hence my marriage, hence being in a band. I don’t want to have a boss. I don’t want to be a boss,” he says.

I am not sure it is helpful for Ireland to have an unusual relationship with success, but it’s kind of helpful for bringing up a family

The singer is sitting down for the second of two long interviews with The Irish Times, one a Zoom call from New York and the other an in-person face-to-face in Charlotte Quay restaurant, a short walk from the old Windmill Lane Studios where U2 recorded some of their biggest albums. This is home territory.

He is here to talk about his memoir – Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story – the story of his life and music, his family and friendships, told through 40 U2 songs, each a chapter.

Bono admits he has been “sh**ting a brick” in advance of publication of his first book next month, but he intends to approach the coming weeks like a travelling salesman, following in a line of many on his mother’s side of his family. This is new ground, however. Before, he would sell songs, albums or concerts, or ideas as an activist.

“Now, I am a bookseller,” he says.

He accepts the book may not land well with some at home. The “horizontal relationship” also comes from being cut down to size from time to time, and the singer is very conscious of Ireland’s fickle relationship with him and the band.

“It might be healthier the way it is. I am not sure it is healthier for the begrudgers. I am not sure it is helpful for Ireland to have an unusual relationship with success, but it’s kind of helpful for bringing up a family,” he says.

Fame, at times, does not sit easily, even at home. Bono recalls with some humour his youngest son John asking him on the school run: “Would you mind dropping me off at the corner?” The school the four Hewson children attended, Dalkey School Project, was “like a Mount Temple for primary” and “very right on”; it was “just not impressed in the best possible way”, says Bono.

In U2′s early days, he used to take it as “the greatest compliment” that the band would “annoy the face off people”, he says. Little has changed in more than four decades: he is still fine if people are annoyed seeing the same face and hearing the same voice after all these years.

“I think I might quite like the ‘I’ve had enough of U2; it is the same players on the same team as it was in the 80s; it doesn’t matter if they are bringing home the silver’,” he says.

He is at peace with the sick-of-the-sight-of-them view some have.

“And f**king now we have the f**king ME-moir!” he says, mimicking an imaginary Dublin street critic mouthing off about the arrival of his “buuuk (what I wrote me-self)”.

The book pulls back the curtain on what transformed an “unexceptional baked-bean boy from Cedarwood Road” into a globe-trotting rockstar; what turned Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen jnr into U2; and what makes the lead singer tick still.

I wrote the book to explain myself to myself and to my family, to my friends and to describe what I have done with my life and [my] family, what I have done with their lives because they ‘permissioned’ me to be away from home and from them

The book is deeply personal, searingly honest and at times laugh-out-loud funny. It reads like an anatomical lesson; he cuts himself open for all to peer inside.

“Anatomical is a good word because it’s not confessional,” he says.

“It is much more the anatomy of a songwriter and a singer and a hooligan and a pilgrim and a husband and a father and all that.”

He sees the book as “a cross-sectional” look at himself as both artist and activist, showing how he “jumped the barricade” in his political campaigning against HIV/Aids and poverty, and contrasting the “dull life of an activist” with “the more exciting” life of the rock star.

“I wrote the book to explain myself to myself and to my family, to my friends and to describe what I have done with my life and [my] family, what I have done with their lives because they ‘permissioned’ me to be away from home and from them,” he says.

The book is a warm tribute to his wife Ali whom he met at age 12 at Mount Temple and with whom he has four children: activist and entrepreneur Jordan (33), actor Eve (31), Elijah (23), lead singer and guitarist of rock band Inhaler, and rugby player John (21). The book explores the “grand madness” of their marriage and the pressures she experienced from having to share a husband with three men and a global fanbase.

“Ali covered for me at home. It is a love letter to her, but I want my children to know what I was doing with myself. I got to spend a lot more time with my kids than most because when I am home, I am really home. When we were away because U2 had such good fortune, we could bring our children with us. So I don’t feel they lost as much as they could have, but they lost some of me and that is why I wrote the book,” says Bono.

He attributes the strength of their four-decade marriage to a mix of “friendship and romantic love”. As a couple, they had passion but also friendship that was “slowly evolving”, he says. At times they would each seek a more modest life to “spend more time growing with each other”.

“But I wasn’t as modest, and I definitely failed to appreciate how much my life as an artist and an activist were being covered by my partner and though when I was home I was really at home, there were times when I was home and I wasn’t. I was somewhere else in my head. And that nearly drove Ali away. But the two of us have, at different times, had our love tested, and the sense that one will get the other home overpowers all other desires,” he says.

For a man who has conquered so much but who can also divide opinion, publishing such a personal account raises a question: why put so much of himself out there and risk further incoming strife? He admits he has had to adopt defensive positions in the past.

“I put my fists up too quickly, and to be defensive is not attractive. There is a pugilist in there on every issue, but it is just because I am expecting the blows,” he says.

Bono concedes there is “a bit of rope-a-dope” about publishing this personal a book, and admits he is having to drop his guard and accept a certain vulnerability.

He recalls a straight-talking conversation with a sage Scottish friend:

“He said: ‘Now, you do know, Bono, that there are people out there who don’t like you.’”

“And I said: ‘Yep.’

“And he said: ‘You do know with this book that you have made it very easy for them to hurt you.’

“And I said: ‘Yep.’

“And he said: ‘Well if you are fine with that, you are okay.’

“And I am,” says Bono.

The book starts with a near-end. He reveals for the first time the full extent of the health scare he suffered in 2016 but kept private: a blister on his aorta that is about to burst, and heart surgery in a New York hospital. It was one of several health setbacks in recent years.

“I have had a few hints. I had the divine elbow a few times. This was the big wake-up call. I have gone in search of a simpler life but I haven’t really surrendered to the consequences of that yet,” he says.

The wound that was opened up by my mother’s passing so quickly ... became this hole, this void, that I filled with music

But it is an earlier event that shaped Bono most: the sudden death of his mother Iris when he was 14. In the wake of her death, his house stopped being a home and became a house of three males who shouted at each other. He, his late father Bob Hewson and older brother Norman never spoke of her again. That loss, he acknowledges, fired some creative sparks.

“These things that shape us are huge gifts in the end. At least they were to me because the wound that was opened up by my mother’s passing so quickly ... became this hole, this void, that I filled with music. Though the family seemed to disappear in that moment, I started finding other families: Ali’s family, the band, alternative families. In that sense, I am an easy read. You can see what happened,” he says.

Bono says his mother’s loss subconsciously fuelled U2′s early songwriting highs. I Will Follow, from the band’s debut album Boy, was the “suicide note” of a boy who seeks his mother and is willing to follow her, even into the grave. The song was written in an old cottage, where the band were rehearsing, near her grave.

Iris is 100 yards over the wall of the rehearsal room. I have never visited her grave

“Iris is 100 yards over the wall of the rehearsal room. I have never visited her grave. I am talking about her now in this song because the memories are all there. You have to trawl for them. If you don’t, they are somewhere else and they can cause trouble,” he says.

Long-running tensions between Bono and his father are well captured in a single, cutting put-down uttered by Bob, an opera lover, to his son, whose career rested on the power of his voice: “You’re a baritone who thinks he’s tenor.”

“I was going to call the book that, and it is such a perfect description of me. It is accurate as well as a really fun diss,” says Bono.

Fatherly compliments were rare in the Hewson family. Did Bob ever tell him he was proud of him and all his success? “He did, he did,” Bono says, softly. “Some of the humour here from him is mischief.”

In trying to understand their relationship, Bono turns to the zany musings of friend and Dublin film director Jim Sheridan, a man he describes as “a psychological genius”. Bono impersonates Sheridan like a Sean O’Casey character, showing off his wicked mimicry skills. Sheridan sees the operatic Bob-versus-Bono battle as “patricide”, says Bono, passing off Sheridan’s gravelly accent: he takes the thing Bob wanted to do – to sing – stealing his voice, while “son blames father for the loss of mother and the end of his home life”.

The opera took a late twist when, in 2000, Bono learned that his cousin was, in fact, his brother: Scott Rankin, the former stockbroker’s analyst-turned-State official. Bob had an affair with his sister-in-law, Bono’s aunt Barbara, when the singer’s mother was still alive. Iris never knew.

The disclosure came after Bob was diagnosed with cancer a year before his death in 2001. One of the most dramatic episodes in the book is when Bono confronts his father about whether he truly loved his mother.

It is also startling that Bono instinctively knew the revelation about a half-brother before it landed. “The truth is with Scott we felt like brothers long before we knew we were. I love Scott and his mother Barbara. I must have known that something was up and I must have held my father responsible for kind of making my mother unhappy in the way kids just pick up things,” he says.

Bono thinks that maybe his father is the reason he remains worried about whether people are listening to U2.

“There is a part of me as a performer that is annoyed when we are playing Croke Park and a single person decides to take a piss during this song,” he says, referring to any song. It’s not just megalomania, but “hypersensitivity” around whether people are paying attention, he says, and he believes this must go back to Bob.

“I just longed for the attention of my father, and I have some lovely memories; it wasn’t all combative. Music was the thing that soothed his aching heart. It sounds like a line from a country song. But it’s actually opera I am talking about. That is why he was attracted to the opera, because he was one, and I suppose he had the voice and this is how he gave it to me. It is never the route you expect,” he says.

I didn’t put any photographs of any famous people in the book. I don’t want it to be a celebrity memoir

Father figures are a running theme in Bono’s book, which features several encounters with music royalty: challenging Bob Dylan to a game of chess at Slane Castle; David Bowie wandering around the Dockers pub on the Dublin quays in an electric-blue suit; or Paul McCartney driving Bono around Liverpool and pointing out the newsagent’s where he had his “first real conversation” with another musician named John Lennon over a shared bar of chocolate.

Bono says he was “very careful about my famous friends”, and struggled with the idea of including them in the book.

“I didn’t put any photographs of any famous people in the book. I don’t want it to be a celebrity memoir. I would rather be famous and not be a celebrity if that were possible. In some geographies that is easier than others,” he says.

In the end, he cast aside his “intellectual vanity”, as he felt the people he met such as Dylan, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra or Luciano Pavarotti had influenced him because they were “luminous minds”.

“I have spent my life, in so many ways, looking for the blessing of father figures,” he says, though he admits he could never imagine Sinatra ever giving him a hug. “He did better than that – he poured me a drink,” he says of a memorable, drunken encounter with the legendary crooner.

“I just thought that if they – and the pursuit of them – shaped my life, I have to put them in the book. What is it about older males that I would seek out their company, not just their songs? Of course, it’s easy to read now,” he says, in another nod to Bob.

Nothing makes sense about U2 and our relationship with Ireland. We were and still are a social experiment

Another relationship, U2′s complex one with Ireland, is explored in a chapter hung on Sunday Bloody Sunday, their most political song.

“Nothing makes sense about U2 and our relationship with Ireland. We were and still are a social experiment,” Bono says. “It is like Edge’s line – he can be very, very dry – ‘if people don’t like U2, they are just not trying hard enough’.”

The band is the makings of a joke, as Bono sees it: “An Englishman, a Welshman and two Irish men go into a bar and one of the Irishmen is a Protestant and one of them is a Catholic, and even the one that is a Protestant is also a Catholic – it’s just not what you would expect.”

I thought it was kind of interesting that we didn’t fit into the normal cliche of what an Irish band or Irish artist should look like

Like all good jokes, he sees a serious undercurrent beneath. He believes U2 could have emerged only from a school like Mount Temple, itself a social experiment in his view.

While “the father thing” moulded him, he says he puts women in his life “on a pedestal”, something Ali pushes back on. “She refuses that with her best line: ‘Don’t look up at me, don’t look down at me, look across at me – that’s where I am.’ She doesn’t want to be on a pedestal.” He extends the analogy to Ireland, saying he puts the country on a pedestal “a little bit too”, evoking her feminine being in mythology as “Cathleen Ní Houlihan and all that”.

“I thought that U2 could be part of helping shape the country, and I thought it was kind of interesting that we didn’t fit into the normal cliche of what an Irish band or Irish artist should look like. I thought it was interesting that it was so diverse,” he says.

He believes the band’s mix of backgrounds and individual theologies does not fit easily into any of Ireland’s tribes.

The fists go up around the criticism of U2′s decision to move one of its companies to the Netherlands to save tax. Bono says in the book that some found it “unpatriotic”. The band “dug our heels in”, he says, but he concedes he can see “our stubborn streak at play”. Still, he argues that if Ireland could brand itself as “tax competitive”, then why couldn’t the band?

“Tax competitiveness is at the heart of Ireland’s industrial policy, and it’s really worked. Is it a bit patronising that artists shouldn’t be able to add and subtract? Or activists? You can have high ideals in your activism and your music, but you have to have a lower IQ when you are in business? I find it a bit patronising,” he says.

One, the non-profit campaign group, and its predecessor DATA (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa), were co-founded by Bono and activist Bobby Shriver, with the objective of eliminating extreme poverty and disease in Africa. They were part of successful efforts to lobby the George W Bush administration and the US Congress in the 2000s to cancel more than $100 billion (€101.5 billion) owed by African countries in international debts.

But he accepts that fighting poverty and disease in the developing world involved close-quarters contacts with divisive political figures – the American “neocons” in the White House, for example – and that this carried a reputational risk for U2.

Punk rockers kick in doors; they don’t hide behind them. However, this is precisely what the U2 singer says he does every September with the One campaign. On the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly, when world leaders descend on New York, he says he and his band of activists “hide behind doors” and nab powerful people as they go between meetings. Bono the activist makes no apologies for this strategy, but concedes it has been costly for the band.

“There was risk and there was cost, and for some people it was too much, for some of our fans. But then something flipped and for a brief time anyway, I think the U2 audience felt: ‘Oh, we are having an effect here through our guy, meaning we are not just talking and shouting our heads off about stuff. We are actually doing something. We are actually part of something’,” he says.

The desire “to get s**t done” for people who don’t have access to corridors of power was the overarching motive behind his activism. Needing to know the arguments against what he was agitating for meant “spending time in the company of the so-called enemy”. This left some of his closest friends with “deep and serious questions about the company I was keeping”.

“There are people with deep convictions who respectfully disagree with this approach. And I respectfully disagree with them. But I get where they are coming from. But they know I am not a poser. They know this is hours and days and weeks and months of work, and they know that I come out with a cheque,” he says.

While the band did not know the process behind the strategy, Bono says they were “loosely supportive but excruciated” by some of his engagements with the enemy.

The four-man U2 team, with cabinets of silverware behind them (170 million records and 22 Grammys), is of course still the same team that formed in 1976, despite the potentially career-ending injuries and addictions and near-break-ups, all well chronicled in Surrender. Bono says the band do not look at it “with anything other than wonder” that they have “stayed together for 10 years, let alone 40”.

“It has been very difficult at times to stay together. There’s always a moment when somebody is about to fall out of the boat and we managed to get them in. But at some point somebody might just say: I just want out, or they are being thrown out of the boat because it’s too hard to deal with them. It would be almost impossible for that to happen because we just go after each other. We never give up on each other,” he says.

The recording of U2 is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. It is almost impossible and most of the recordings feel somewhat flawed to me, certainly my own role in them

He acknowledges that, as men get older, personalities get “a little brittle” and moving around each other is “not as easy”. For Bono, finding new creative highs requires the fists to go up again.

“The real worry is when you stop fighting. That is when you are in trouble. The cost of trying to make those songs or to go there, it has to be gloves off,” he says.

Bono’s persistent, hard-on-himself restlessness to push himself and the band creatively permeates his memoir, and remains strong as ever in person.

“The recording of U2 is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. It is almost impossible and most of the recordings feel somewhat flawed to me, certainly my own role in them,” he says.

As for the songs, he stands over them, and he is starting to appreciate the old albums more. He looks back on some such as Boy, the debut, and wonders: “Where did that come from?”

What’s next? The band wants to make an “uncompromising, balls-to-the-wall, transcendent rock’n’roll album, with unreasonable guitars, like properly aggressive as the times deserve”, he says. He wants the next album to recreate the band’s live experience in the studio. He wants to start recording by the end of the year, after a 14-city US and European book tour. The Edge, he says, is “as restless as me now”. He believes the band may still have their best album in them, but getting it out might “cost us a lot”.

I like a bit of belligerence in a rock band, and the fact that we won’t go away is part of the fun of it for me

“The question we have got to ask ourselves is: are we ready to pay that cost, and the cost will be in relationships?” he says.

“Are we going to go in there and give it all of our life, because that’s what art demands in the end? And I want the answer to that question to be yes, and I haven’t really figured out what that means for the rest of my life. But that will be the second book.”

If the 62-year-old Bono could say anything to his 14-year-old self, young Paul Hewson, struggling with loss, he says it would be: “Keep going – you’re right. Use your naivety. Use your black and white view of the world, because soon it will be colour, and full-colour bandwidth.”

Bono’s restlessness continues. He is quite happy to keep annoying people, in full colour, with this new book and the promise of more albums.

“U2 shouldn’t make it too easy to be elbowed off the stage ... I like a bit of belligerence in a rock band, and the fact that we won’t go away is part of the fun of it for me.”

Quickfire Bono…

… on the U2 song that saved him:

Every Breaking Wave from 2014 album Songs of Innocence: “It’s like a life ring. You are saying goodbye to a life that you could have had maybe. It is wonderfully uplifting… I think it might be our best song in 20 years.”

… on love and marriage with wife Ali:

“Friendship can outpace even romantic love and in those kinds of friendships sometimes you are not seeing fireworks; there is a kind of low hum of respect, but when you have friendship and romantic love, that is the thing.”

… on family:

“There are no straight families. What’s that John Cleese book, Families and How to Survive Them.”

… on his father Bob:

“He used to get give me a fiver at Christmas or a pair of socks, which is really funny.”

… on U2 bass player Adam Clayton and overcoming addiction:

“Adam had his moment of surrender, to save him from himself and drink and drugs, and he became this very fine, sophisticated person who will be there for you, who will call you if you’re stuck… he is a fine example of how we can turn our life around.”

… on Ali’s first response to a draft of his memoir:

“I had to get permission from the missus. It was amazing. She came back with spellings. Like, what? There was one thing she wanted me to take out that was too private.”

… on The Edge’s view on Bono’s memoir:

“Edge seems to be very sort of just very Edge-like in his comments about it. He likes people to see the singer in his band with more dimension. I says to him: ‘You mean dementia.’”

… on retrospectives:

“We are planning something special for [the 1991 album] Achtung Baby, not a tour but something extraordinary. It is important to do retrospectives for any artist, but not too many. I have just spent a few years in the past and I am very keen to get to the future.”

… on being a singer and reinterpreting old songs in new recordings:

“I never really thought of myself as a singer, so now I do and a song can mean something completely different just by the way you sing it.”

… on bands and money:

“Paul McGuinness [U2′s manager] was always saying that it is money that breaks up bands, not musical differences usually. So we have to pay attention to these things.”

… on activism:

“There is a certain vanity to agitprop which we have to own up to. It can look good on a rock band having certain views and we did talk a little bit about choosing your enemies carefully because they, in a sense, define you.”

… on the Government increasing this year’s overseas aid budget by 17 per cent:

“I am really proud of the country… The UN and every country is cutting their aid budget. Ireland is increasing it. We haven’t forgotten who were by who we are.”

… on religion and the church in Ireland:

“I do read scriptures and I do try to follow a path. I fall off it mostly, but it is okay for people to be angry with the church. It’s okay for people to be angry if they’re believers in a God that can allow an aggressive takeover of the church by a dark patriarchy.”

Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story by Bono will be published on November 1st by Hutchinson Heinemann. You can read an exclusive extract from it here. Bono will appear at the 3Olympia Theatre in Dublin on November 21st as part of the Stories of Surrender book tour

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent