In a startling moment early in his memoir, Bono describes creating a song. U2 now has its third rehearsal room – the first was the Mount Temple School Music Room, the second was the small garden shed at Edge – “which is a small cottage backing onto a graveyard in North Dublin. The cemetery where my mother was buried After much friction and banter, “in this ego-filled and egoless moment, a song that will be called I Will Follow is formed.”
Bono describes the mechanics of composition almost as a way to keep the more pressing thoughts at bay: “Edge goes to the lower hum (a singing E and D string, playing the second and third strings to make the E chords on D followed by D added ninth).When his colleagues ask him what the song is about, Bono tells them that it’s “a suicide note…It’s about a kid who wants to find his mother, and even if she is in the grave he will follow her there.”
Then he wrote, “What no one in that rehearsal room, including me, had thought of was Iris Hewson resting under the ground less than a hundred yards from where we were playing. During all the time we rehearsed there, I never thought about it or even visited his grave. My mother was dead. Literally, but also emotionally, for me.
Then there is a paragraph break. And then a three-word paragraph: “So I thought.”
After Bono’s mother died when he was 14, his father and older brother barely mentioned her; they lived as if his death had not happened.
“Self-denial is a remarkable psychological trick,” he wrote, “sometimes necessary, I guess. The truth is, the enduring appeal of this song isn’t as nihilistic as a suicide note. In its sound or her state of mind is a song about a mother’s love.
The loss of his mother runs through Bono’s book like an undercurrent. Towards the end, he writes, “Grief is a subject I come back to again and again.” And a few pages later, he sees if he can analyze what that early loss meant to him.
“Family has always been at the center of who I am. I have tried several surrogate mothers since Iris passed away. Families that I found to join… or founded to join. It started when I was a teenager… and it continued in school, Mount Temple, when I joined U2, this family that I found in Larry’s kitchen in 1976. I found another around the same time when I was 16 and Ali’s mom and dad let me into their family knowing I really needed it. Later, after all our successes, maybe I was looking for him again in the world of activism and politics. You seek to be needed.
Surrender is, especially in the first half, introspective, raw, self-deprecating, oddly serious, almost self-accusatory. The scores Bono settles are against himself. Others he describes with affection and accuracy, without falling into sweet tones. For example: “Edge is minimalist in nature. I’m not. I am not a minimalist. Edge has a straight face. No.” Or: “Larry was a handsome teenager who didn’t like being stared at by girls or boys.” Or, on Adam Clayton: “Rare is a man so comfortable in his own body, celebrating or equally mocking all bodily functions, and especially delighted with his own penis.”
On Paul McGuinness as a manager in the early days: “I’m now willing to accept that the reason Paul McGuinness took so long to buy our own van was that Paul didn’t want to drive one. Driving a van wasn’t the reason Paul wanted to lead a rock band. For Paul, even sitting in a van seemed a little too far, and far too far from a stretch limo.
But he returns again and again to the meaning of loss. “Until we process our most traumatic traumas,” he writes, “there is a part of us that remains at the age we encountered them. For a long time, that kept me at fourteen, when I hit puberty and Iris died.
What is strange, and what makes much of this book so thrilling and interesting, is that sadness is overwhelmed by a desperate, frantic desire to use life more richly because it has proven so fragile. Sadness is replaced here by an extraordinary and breathless zeal for friendship but also for love.
And also, of course, for the music.
Bono is careful not to try to explain the songs too easily or casually. He leaves a lot of mystery and often resorts to self-doubt. Bad, for example, came at a time when the band, which was working with Brian Eno, wanted to do something different.
“We were looking for 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 liked the sound of unfinished songs. Luckily, for people who think Bad is one of our best times, Brian pulled it off. And though I’m left each night to fill in the gaps of these most unwritten lyrics, I see what music to the mouth, summoning, singing of the tongue it is.
Song One, Bono writes, came not just from a letter he received from the Dalai Lama, but because there were “two dropped chord sequences that Edge found for a figure-eight section in Mysterious Ways. When he brought them together, it became an invitation to sing a whole new song.
Bono then “improvised a lyric about a son telling his religious father he was gay. About a lover who was discovered finding sex outside of a sexless marriage… Part of his drama is that he begins in the middle of an argument.
Although Bono imbues his narrative with his Christian faith and although his tendency is to connect, he can also draw sharp distinctions. “I was, and still am, he writes, wary of the idea of unity. I don’t buy into the homogeneity of human experience. I don’t think we are 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 friends how much he values them, and to let his wife and children know how much not he loves them.
Alison Stewart, whom Bono first met when she was sixteen, remains elusive in the book. It’s 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 couldn’t contain it but at least captured some of its dark beauty and our bittersweet duality”. But what he wrote, at a time when pop was ‘kind of a dirty word’, was, in his own words, ‘an ugly pop song’ which the band dropped 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 doesn’t work… 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 heat press. It turned out that Dylan knew all six verses of The Auld Triangle and mentioned various Irish singers, including the McPeake family. Bono had never heard of the McPeakes. “Van said they were from the north of Ireland, which might explain why I, as a southerner, had missed them.”
Dylan wondered how Bono didn’t know this music. “It’s essential for the world, not to mention Ireland.” Bono’s answer is fascinating and will be of interest to anyone of his generation working as an artist in Ireland: “I don’t know, it seems like our band is from outer space, from the suburbs of a capital whose traditions are not the ours, a place of pain that holds no interest for us; we are trying to start over.
Bono is careful to point out how hard he is to bear. (“That’s what I do,” he wrote, “I get carried away. And that’s the me you wouldn’t want to be in a band with.”) U2 together. He quotes Paul McGuinness approvingly: “It would be stupid to be good at art and bad at art.
He remains both restless and inflexible. Inflexible on the highlights, especially when the live act works its magic on a huge stadium: “I like stadiums for a simple reason: the bettors on the stands see the stage. I love the big round roar of the crowd in these concrete crucibles unlike the open field, where the sound of a singing crowd wafts through the night.
Unforgettable Fire: The U2 Story by Eamon Dunphy, published in the early 1990s, tells the story not only of the band and manager, but also of their parents and their origins in Dublin. It’s a skillfully drawn portrait of the world that made them, a definitive version of their early years.
Is that right? by Bob Geldof is an earlier, south-side version of the story Bono told, including the early loss of a mother and then some kind of personal redemption through music, fame and high-profile activism. “The truth, writes Bono, is that Bob Geldof opened the door and I entered.”
The engagements by Roddy Doyle tells the story of a failed band, a band that played different music than U2. But there are some interesting connections between the world Doyle describes and Bono’s world, including the feeling of living in a culture that demanded starting from scratch, and the spirit and sense of camaraderie.