On Bono and Surrender

Bonovox of O'Connell Street

On Bono and Surrender
photo by Jason Brice | U2gigs.com

As you may be aware, Bono’s written an autobiography: Surrender: 40 Songs, 1 Story. It is over 500 pages long. I bought it on sale around Christmas in a deal that also got me the Dylan book. I read Bono first because, “This’ll be a quick read,” I told myself. I just finished the book on Tuesday. Of this week.

It’s not that I”m a slow reader. It’s that it is so incredibly dense that I couldn’t get through more than one chapter at a time. This was going to be my ‘read before sleep’ book and I couldn’t because I needed to take notes inline and more important, I needed to think about each chapter. So I moved it to morning read. That made it hard to work right afterwards. This is all because I feel like I need to defend why it took me so long to read this fucken book. Sorry.

It’s title, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, was probably a very good idea somewhere along the line but if you think that each chapter is going to be neat and tidy and so clear why each chapter gets the song that it does… try again. But honestly, it’s irrelevant. But if you, like me. are going to go into this book being mindful to keep each chapter’s song in the back of your mind -- don’t! Don’t, because it doesn’t matter. Surrender is a collection of thoughts that some brilliant person or persons helped Bono edit into the form of a narrative. A friend who went to the LA book promotion event told me that B. apparently told them that you didn’t need to read the book in order at all, and I wish I had known that because that would have been a much preferred way for me to really enjoy it. And it would have meant that I could have not spent the first week reading the book with my jaw on the floor for him throwing Shalom, the Christian sect/fellowship 3 of the 4 U2s belonged to in the very early days, under the bus, which was kind of a distraction.

Now I have to back up. I am not a crazy U2 fan but I have always loved them and appreciated them. I think I didn’t go totally nuts because at that point in my life I probably said something like, “Ugh, I’m not ever going to be a huge fan for any other band ever again” and yet this turned out not to be true. (I am large, I contain etc.) I did a lot of things that really diehard fans did do but I drew the line because you could already see the the fans were really, truly bonkers on some level that I was just not interested in. But, as anyone who has read the U2 list I did for Vulture, obviously I have paid very close attention, and one of the things we all knew back in the day (when women who liked to have sex with musicians complained that it was slim pickings at a U2 backstage) or even in the 90s (when there were separate mailing lists and message boards for xtian followers of the band who wanted a place to discuss that particular aspect of U2). I had exactly one person I could text these thoughts to out of the blue (sorry, Bex) because it was something that was once often discussed and hasn’t been in years.

Even with all of that I will tell you that I am borderline the audience for this particular book as it is written because it is so intricate and you have to care and you have to have some idea of what he is referring to. Not from the vague concept of the audience for “U2 guy writes a book” which is as many people as watch Oprah, but this very chewy, meaty, inside baseball/sausage making detail that I personally find riveting. Soccer moms who rock out to “Beautiful Day” do not care about this. The former frat boys who would bring an Irish flag to every show are not going to read this either. They might buy it, but I don’t know how those people are going to get past the first few chapters. They’re only going to get it if someone buys it as a present for them because if they pick this up at Barnes & Noble or their local independent bookstore, they will put it down and walk away. This is a hard book to read, and the audiobook is 20 hours long! It’s not like you’re saving time. (I have been very disappointed by all of the artist-reads-autobiog that I have bought so I am not running to do this. I will probably try to get it from the library.)

I like Bono. I like the idea of Bono. I have always liked the clumsy inelegant unironic overly earnest Irish kid who wants you to think he is cool and is always worried that you will stop thinking he is cool and then you’re going to see what a giant dork he is. But we’re all giant dorks; cool people do not like U2, and by that I mean hipsters, because Lou Reed liked U2 and that is literally the only endorsement you ever need in “cool” area. Really doesn’t matter who else signs up! We got Lou.

As I have gotten older, l have stopped wondering why we get things like all those people in the Chelsea Hotel at the same time. Intellectually I get why all the same people ended up at CBGB’s, because the scene was 80 people who all knew each other and either worked at the same places or shopped at the same places everyone worked at. There was still some kind of magic involved. It was not coincidence, there’s no such thing as coincidence and coincidence is you getting off the subway at the same door your sister is waiting to get on. Coincidence is not Patti Smith running into Robert Mapplethorpe because he had rented the apartment her friends had lived in. That is fucking magic. It is just is. There is no rational explanation. That is the same explanation that had Bono and Guggi living on the same block of the same street in Dublin and that same cosmology is how Bono met Adam and the Edge because Larry put up a sign looking to start a band the very same week that he met his wife. It’s still insane to read about and think about that convergence of energy. It’s a little bit of the same ‘this city is small and the kids who don’t fit in are going to get sent to Mount Temple Comprehensive” but again. Magic.

If that sounds like you, and you either want to or believe in magic, and you like Bono, you will very much enjoy his book. Especially if you skip around and don’t read it like a rock journalist on assignment. But if you are looking for a really good history about U2, this is not that book. You can only get history out of this book if you already know what the history is, because you have your own framework on which you can hang the events he’s talking about without introduction or excessive explanation. This doesn’t bother me because excessive explanation takes me out of the flow, and this book is only enjoyable if you can just throw yourself into the rapidly moving river that is Bono talking about his life.

Surrender is successful when you are able to just kind of roll along at his pace, and when you’re able to trust that this Irishman is going to close all of the loops he’s opened in the preceding pages. There were more than a few moments I was not sure at all how he was going to get there in this chapter or that I thought it was stretching things a bit to try to make it fit. But I also love that this is not a highly polished celebrity biography in any way shape or form.

It’s so interesting to read about another lead singer talking about “the need to be loved at scale: and “To have all these people every night screaming your name to feel normal is of course a little pathetic.” Springsteen acknowledges the needs but is less self-deprecating than our Friend from Dublin, which is interesting because Bruce has been to therapy? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make this a comparison but it would be interesting, and when I read that I thought about what that meant generationally and the comparison (yes and no) between the fathers, how Bono was replacing his mother and trying to prove something to his father, Bruce was indebted to his mother – like he sings in “The Wish,” If pa's eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true/You couldn't stop me from looking but you kept me from crawling through.” – but was also trying to prove something to his father– I’M STOPPING I’M STOPPING

I know you’re not going to believe me unless you already believe it, but Bono is, for real, an artist and a poet and a shaman, not in the Jim Morrison way but in the way of the kind of people who can get up and perform and raise energy - they’re not the only person on the stage doing that work, but they’re driving the car -- it’s not just that he’s “talented,” Coldplay are “talented,” it’s that there is something else, the kind of thing that transforms a regular human into one who creates art that we remember. I need you to drop all of your wisecracks about THIS IS NOT A REBEL SONG or being on your iPod without permission, I need you to believe me that this person is worth paying attention to not because he’s Famous famous but because he is a literal gift.

That is what took me so long to get through this book, these moments you couldn’t put the book down because he’d said something so profound or so beautiful or so unexpected that you need to go back and re-read it and do that thing where you read it, and then you pause, put the book down, maybe you make a little ‘huh’ or ‘hmm’ or ‘wow’ but then you’ll read it again, and maybe a little further back, but you’ll prop your chin on your hand and decide you were done reading for the day, because it made you think. Or you finish the chapter with that satisfying feeling of accomplishment and completion because it was deep in a way you didn’t expect. I can’t give you specific examples where that happened for me because everyone’s experience is going to be different and also because I am allowed to keep something for myself. I was not at all expecting to be as moved by this book as I was.

Surrender is also a loud and lengthy ode to his wife, Alison Stewart, about whom he writes only briefly -- he mentions in the acknowledgements that his children had given him permission to write about them and “I believe that Ali will at some point.” But what he does do here is document and enumerate at great and detailed length of how she has allowed him to be him, how much he both sees and appreciates everything, how much he values the way they have moved forward together. It’s a story of its own to be with someone your whole life especially if you met them in your teens and really haven’t been apart.

You are buffeted, I believe, through this intricate and lengthy narrative by the fact that if he is talking about something he is deep inside it about it and not every story -- in fact, a great many stories -- are how Bono fucked something up or almost did or was completely wrong about something. I do not really want to read about his close personal friendship with Condi Rice and he has almost, ALMOST, convinced me with parts of this book that he was right about that or his cozying up to W -- I definitely cringed during the Condi parts, was literally wincing -- and yes I understand that this is his memory or the parts of his memories that serve his purpose -- most people who are writing about themselves are just going to make themselves look good all the time or they would at least not make themselves look bad. I’m sure there are mistakes or errors or fuck ups he does not cover here. I’m just saying that I thought it was more balanced as both a book about “St. Bono” or a book about a random superstar would be.

I’m really not done with this book. I caved and bought a ticket to the second leg of readings he’s doing at the Beacon in NYC this coming spring. So I will stop this here. This isn’t a review of the book, it’s really a description designed to help you decide whether you want to read it or not. Buy this book if you’ve ever been seriously Bono-curious, or if you were once and could be again. I just don’t know who this book is for outside of that, and that only matters conceptually I guess, the fact that I am still trained by capitalism (and also as someone who hopes to write more books about rock and roll) to think about audience or marketability.

Last thing: Bono, the Gramercy Park Hotel is known for a lot of things, but it is not notable for its proximity to Hell’s Kitchen, which is four avenue blocks and 30-something streets northwest from Gramercy Park, as the crow flies.