Fintan O’Toole: Bono at 60 – Why is Ireland so ambivalent about its most famous son?

There is no denying that a sense of the preposterous drifts around Bono like dry ice. But the interesting question is: so what? Photograph: Chad Batka/New York Times
BONO TURNS 60 on Sunday. MAYBE IT’S TIME TO ASK WHAT IT IS THAT HAS MADE HIM THE MOST FAMOUS IRISHMAN OF THE PAST CENTURY

After he had become a superstar, Bono tried to impress his father by introducing him to Julia Roberts in a nightclub. Bob Hewson muttered to his son: “Pretty woman? My arse!” Bono recalled in a 2005 book of interviews by the French journalist and music critic Mishka Assayas that Bob applied the same determination to be unimpressed to his own offspring: “He took the Dublin position of ‘My son, the fucking idiot.’”

The Dublin position has never entirely changed. Bono may be the first Irish person since Bernard Shaw to have become a truly global celebrity. For millions of people around the world, he is the face of Irish creativity and compassion. Yet at home there is always that familiar muttering: “Rock god? World saviour? My arse!”

In ancient Rome, a conquering general parading in triumph would employ a slave to walk beside him and whisper in his ear, “Remember you are mortal.” That is one expense Bono has been spared. Remember? Could he ever forget?

Whatever part of the brain makes us cringe at ourselves is missing. Who else would make up new words to Blowin’ in the Wind while singing with Bob Dylan in Slane?

Bono has made it to 60. But it is sometimes hard not to feel that he would be more loved in Ireland if he had done the decent rock star thing and died young, like Phil Lynott or Rory Gallagher or his friend Michael Hutchence. If he had expired in a bath in a Paris hotel, say in 1992, after the release of U2’s masterpiece Achtung Baby, there would be at least one statue of him in Dublin and a Bono Bridge spanning the Liffey.

As it is, even when The Irish Times recently reported that Bono had put a lot of time and money into helping the State source life-saving personal protective equipment for health workers, a large part of the reaction was: “Who the hell does he think he is? Jesus?”

And yes of course he brought it on himself. “A rock star,” he told Assayas, “is someone with a hole in his heart almost the size of his ego.” Both are of galactic proportions. Whatever part of the brain makes us cringe at ourselves is missing. Who else would make up new words to Blowin’ in the Wind while singing with Bob Dylan in Slane or to Schubert’s Ave Maria when singing with Luciano Pavarotti in Modena? Who else, asked what he would say to The Beatles, could reply in all seriousness: “Your songs have extraordinary melodies that are beyond compare, but our songs have a kind of weight that yours don’t. Gravity, you could call it . . .” It is not hard to imagine John Lennon calling it something else.

Can Bono Save The World? So asked Time magazine in March 2002. Photograph: AP Photo/TIME
Our saviour? Bono on the cover of Time magazine in March 2002. Photograph: AP Photo/TIME

It is hard to live down (let alone live up to) the 2002 cover of Time magazine that featured Bono with the American flag draped across his shoulders like a superhero cape and the caption: “Can Bono Save the World?” At the time, the satirical magazine the Onion listed some of the things Bono was going to do to save the world, among them “Defeating Bruce Springsteen in epic, five-hour earnest-off”; “Shouldering the burdens of a post-Sept 11 world/Buying another pair of blue-tinted wrap-around shades”; “Revealing that The Edge will betray him three times before cock crows”; and “Thinking about writing songs about deliverance and redemption; also maybe one about transcendence.”

There is no denying that a sense of the preposterous drifts around Bono like dry ice. But the interesting question is: so what? Put “preposterous” in a sentence with “front man of massive stadium rock band that has sold 175 million records” and it becomes a tautology. Is Mick Jagger not preposterous? Is Lady Gaga modest? If Elton John sat in jeans and jumper at his grand piano, would he fill stadiums and sell records? Bono exists in an economy whose currency is hyperinflation, a culture whose language is exaggeration, a logic whose reason is absurdity. And he has shown a sometimes brilliant capacity to play knowingly with these ludicrous projections of the ego.

Early years: U2 in the Netherlands in October 1980. Photograph: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns via Getty
Early years: U2 in the Netherlands in October 1980. Photograph: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns via Getty
Breaking America: performing at the US Festival in Devore, California in 1983. Photograph: Images Press/Getty
Breaking America: performing at the US Festival in Devore, California in 1983. Photograph: Images Press/Getty
Live Aid: Bono performing in Wembley stadium in July 1985. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty
Live Aid: Bono performing in Wembley stadium in July 1985. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty
Late Late: live on air with Gay Byrne in March 1987. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty
Late Late: live on air with Gay Byrne in March 1987. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty

So it is not mere preposterousness that evokes hostility. Perhaps the key to understanding the strange ambivalence about Bono lies in a lyric by another brilliant frontman who, unlike Bono, has aged into a twisted malignity. Morrissey sang: “Fame, fame, fatal fame/ It can play hideous tricks on the brain/ But still I’d rather be famous/ Than righteous or holy/ Any day, any day, any day.” The tricks fame has played on Bono are obvious, but nowhere near as hideous as Morrissey’s descent into far-right malevolence. His sin, rather, is to try to be both famous and “righteous or holy”. This generates, especially in his native country, a profound discomfort.

To put it bluntly, no one (other than those close to him) would mind very much if Bono, after U2 passed its creative pinnacle, did nothing much all day except lie around in one of his mansions in Killiney or the south of France or New York snorting coke, downing rare cognac by the neck and sexually exploiting deluded young fans. It is the done thing.

What disturbs the picture is that he has, outrageously, tried to do some good, to make life a bit better for people who have almost nothing. And all the while remaining married to his teenage sweetheart, raising healthy kids, not having to go to rehab and not going around with an entourage.

He is certainly no saint. He is a salesman, a showman, an exhibitionist, an egomaniac – all the standard requirements of his job description

Celebrity and holiness don’t mix well. When you insert fame into righteousness, the fame inflates the righteousness to its own mad dimensions. A sincere attempt to behave benignly is pumped up into “saving the world”. Of course, since Bono cannot save the world, the only thing to do with this overblown notion is to burst it with sharp darts of mockery. Equally, if Bono is not Jesus, he can only be a Pharisee. In the hyped world of celebrity, Bono cannot be like all the other hypocrites who constitute the vast bulk of humanity. He must be the arch-hypocrite.

He is certainly no saint. He is a salesman, a showman, an exhibitionist, an egomaniac – all the standard requirements of his job description. He has the vices of the very rich. Coinciding with the Celtic Tiger years, he became a great accumulator of and dealer in properties. (“I’ve made money buying and selling such places . . . Most of the time it’s not speculation, but I wouldn’t rule that out.”) U2, notoriously, moved the company that collects its royalties to Dutch jurisdiction in 2006, after Ireland put a cap on a previously unlimited tax break on artistic earnings.

Other megastars do the same stuff. But Bono attracts a scorn that is supersized, paradoxically, by his refusal of cynicism. Nobody really cares what The Rolling Stones do with their money or how they avoid taxes (which is actually the same way U2 does). They’re supposed to be bad boys, to float above reality in a fantasy world of sex and drugs and rock and roll. Bono’s problem is that he has tried – and sometimes managed – to be a good boy. Into the fantasy Garden of Eden of rock star self-indulgence he has knowingly introduced the snake of moral judgment. For a lot of people there is a special glee in seeing it bite him. 

Bono is vulnerable to this disdain because he doesn’t have the shield of coolness. He is terminally – but also knowingly – uncool. He is the only rock star who could use the word “gauche” as a positive term, as when he praises “the gauche nature of awe, of worship, the wonderment at the world around you”. Assayas, the French critic who championed U2 when they were playing to crowds numbered in the dozens, recalled that “What I loved about U2’s music is that it had a sort of inspired clumsiness to it . . . They were too unhip for the hip, and, for a while, too challenging for the unhip.”

MacPhisto: alter egos on full display during the Zoo TV era. Photograph: Kevin Davies

The knowing gaucheness, the challenging unhipness, the inspired clumsiness that marked the band out from almost everyone else, became something they could and did play with and subvert in the era of their Zoo TV megatour. But outside the band, Bono clung to it. He did so because he couldn’t – or perhaps more accurately, did not want to – get over two big, naive things.

One was the death, when he was 14, of his mother, who collapsed at her own father’s funeral and never regained full consciousness. He has never made any secret of the fact that the emptiness and abandonment he felt are the source of his creativity, the void he is always trying to fill. Grief is many things, but it is not cool.

The other is one of the main ways he tried to fill the void – a Christian religious search for meaning. Religion isn’t cool either, at least not if you’re a white European rock star. (Black music and country music have different codes. But whatever else Bono may be, he’s not Aretha Franklin or Bob Marley or Johnny Cash.) The evangelical zealotry that powered the early U2 may have softened and dissipated, but Bono’s big book has always been the Bible. There is a rather simple, obvious and direct motivation for his political activism. But it is not one that is easily recognisable in a secular culture. It is religious faith.

Bono is the child of a “mixed marriage”, his mother Protestant, his father Catholic, but his faith is essentially Bible-based evangelical Protestantism. This is part of what has made him both astonishingly effective as a political operator in the US on the one hand and such an ambivalent figure in Irish Catholic culture on the other.

In the American context, Bono was particularly brilliant at strong-arming conservative Republicans into supporting two very big political actions: hundreds of billions of dollars in debt relief for the world’s poorest countries and ending the scandal that the drugs to treat Aids were not available to most sufferers in the most-afflicted continent, Africa.

Davos man: perhaps the most counterintuitive fact is that Bono’s wooing of politicians is the opposite of egotism. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty
Davos man: perhaps the most counterintuitive fact is that Bono’s wooing of politicians is the opposite of egotism. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty
‘Irish rock star with the Toxic Texan’: Bono with US president George W Bush in March 2002. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty
‘Irish rock star with the Toxic Texan’: Bono with US president George W Bush in March 2002. Photograph: Alex Wong/AFP via Getty
Bono with Barack Obama in 2006, prior to his election as US president. Photograph: Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty
Bono meets Barack: with Senator Obama in 2006, prior to his election as US president. Photograph: Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty
Peacemaker? Bono campaigning with David Trimble and John Hume during the Belfast Agreement referendum in 1998. Photograph: Paul Faith
Peacemaker? Bono campaigning with David Trimble and John Hume during the Belfast Agreement referendum in 1998. Photograph: Paul Faith

Did this save the world? Of course not. But these are real, tangible achievements – not to be sneered at. He could do it because he could make a religious connection. 

While the Right has used Christian evangelicalism to tribalise American politics, Bono (and more broadly U2) have subtly reminded Americans that much of their progressive tradition comes from the same source: Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher, after all. That, too, is a fine thing to have tried to do.

The sense of mission that animates Bono is easily misread as delusions of grandeur – all the more so because it is indeed wrapped up in rock’s innate preposterousness

Perhaps the most counterintuitive fact is that Bono’s wooing of politicians for the causes he has adopted is the opposite of egotism. It is self-abasement, not self-aggrandisement. He pimps himself out – and he knows it. The then US president George W Bush whispered as he and Bono were being photographed together: “There goes a front page somewhere: Irish rock star with the Toxic Texan.” Bono is far too smart not to know that his glamour was helping to detoxify the Texan. He was making a calculated exchange, entirely alert to the moral compromise it involved.

To get things done, he hires out his fame, knowing full well that a nasty senator might trade a vote on aid to Africa for a picture of himself with Bono to impress a young intern. It’s an ugly business. “The moral force,” he told Assayas, “finally, I do believe in the weight of it. But the apparatus is not moral. The route through it is a very cynical one.” Can it not be conceded that there is something brave in knowing how impure and compromising doing good can really be and yet trying to do it anyway?

Sir Bono: with his wife, Ali Hewson, after receiving an honorary knighthood from the British ambassador to Ireland in March 2007. Photograph: ShowBizIreland/Getty
Sir Bono: with his wife, Ali Hewson, after receiving an honorary knighthood from the British ambassador to Ireland in March 2007. Photograph: ShowBizIreland/Getty
Global stars: U2 in concert in Seoul, South Korea in December 2019. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty
Global stars: U2 in concert in Seoul, South Korea in December 2019. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty

But for a Catholic Ireland that was secularising gradually at first and then very rapidly, Bono’s old-time religion is hard to fathom. There is a politically radical, socially activist evangelical tradition in Ireland (much of genuine Irish republicanism comes from it) but it was largely marginalised, especially in the South. The frame of reference within which Bono’s biblical sense of calling might be understood is mostly absent. In that void, the sense of mission that animates him is easily misread as delusions of grandeur – all the more so because it is indeed wrapped up in rock’s innate preposterousness. 

There is also, though, a final irony. When Ireland was deeply Christian, it produced very few religious artists. Over the period in which it shed its religiosity, it happened to produce arguably the most influential Christian artist in the world. Perhaps in this context, his native country is not entirely to be blamed for not knowing what to make of its most famous son.