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I just got done reading a book that I honestly didn’t expect to like as much as I did. I picked it up on a whim because I had a gift card and the hardcover was only 5 bucks on the bargain table at Barnes & Noble. The book is called “Bono” and is a series of interviews by Mischka Assayas with, you guessed it, Bono: celebrity humanitarian, friend of world leaders, religious mystic, hedonist, equal parts stump preacher and traveling salesman, and of course the mercurial frontman for arguably the biggest rock band in the world: U2. That Bono is one of the more intriguing personalities in the worlds he inhabits of politics, entertainment, and spirituality is an understatement, and I expected this book to interesting, but I didn’t expect it to enthrall me the way it did.
My reading discipline right now is that I read a book that I ought to read, usually of a theological nature, as part of my devotion time in the mornings, and then at night before bed I read a book that is less demanding – usually a novel, a book that I want to read before going to sleep. “Bono” was going to be my junk food read, and the first night I cracked it open I couldn’t put it down, staying up ‘til the early morning hours. It was clear that my devotional reading times were going to take a hit. I was having trouble sleeping (we were away from home) so I would take a sleep aid and the countdown would begin: I knew I had 20 minutes before I would be sleepy. But through bleary eyes I fended off sleep to read “just one more chapter”.
Admittedly, I’ve been a U2 fan since high school and have had a man-crush on Bono ever since. But even if you’re not a fan, I think there is much to tickle the mind in this book. He’s lived a remarkable life and could be a case study of passion. It’s set up like an ongoing interview, where Assayas asks a question and Bono responds, back and forth, as we eavesdrop on a conversation about music, faith, politics, humanitarianism, and other big ideas (like the kind of landscape artist bassist Adam Clayton would be if he hadn’t ended up in a rock band.) Assayas clearly disagrees and challenges Bono on his humanitarian idealism and his belief in God among other things, which makes for a livelier and more interesting conversation than if he’d succumbed to hero worship and fawning. At first I found Assayas’ contrariness annoying, but in the end was grateful for the conversation it produced. The only thing I wondered is where the conversation would have gone if Assayas was more religiously minded – how much deeper would it have gone?
Still, of particular interest to me was the way Bono speaks often and explicitly about his faith – seeming to almost be looking for opportunities to talk about this part of his life. I remember first seeing the U2 album “Boy” in a Christian record store in Sioux Falls, South Dakota when I was a kid and being intrigued. I passed over it at the time opting instead for Amy Grant’s “Age To Age” album because I thought she was prettier, but as I got older I was more and more taken by this Irish band whose album I would find in our local Christian bookstore but who I would also hear on the radio and on my favorite T.V. shows like “21 Jump Street” and “Miami Vice”. These guys were apparently Christian, but they were cool, too, and listening to U2 gave my burgeoning sense of Christian identity some much desired street cred. U2’s music became a sort of handshake between me and my Christian friends. They belonged to us. And of course, that’s what almost ruined everything.
In the late 80’s and the 90’s most Christians I knew felt betrayed by U2 as the sincerity of their faith came into question and became a source of ongoing debate for the next 15 years. Some are still suspicious. Bono got sexier, could be spotted smoking, drinking, dressed in drag, and cussing like a sailor. It was confusing to young believers who had never been equipped to understand much beyond the black and white accoutrements of an over-simplified Christian worldview.
But deep down I never lost faith. I still bought U2 albums and pored over the lyrics looking for clues. My searches were rewarded in songs like One, Until The End of The World, The Wanderer, and Wake Up Dead Man, just to name a few. These songs were soul-searing confessions and a yearning for grace with a capital G. With the release of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” it appeared that the burning spirituality that had seemed to lie dormant for some was once again U2’s calling card.
Had they ever lost faith? Or were they just trying to avoid being ghetto-ized by the evangelical subculture who wanted to make them the poster children of hip Christianity?
“Bono” addresses this and offers an explanation for some of their antics in the 90’s. One of the things that I was reminded of was that though U2 is one of the most successful rock bands in the world, they’ve always defied convention. “Joshua Tree”, though one of the most successful records of the 80’s, doesn’t sound like a conventional 80’s record. They were rock stars that were always playing against type, and as Bono describes it, that’s what the 90’s were about. U2 was earnest and unpretentious when the musical zeitgeist of the 80’s was all about glam and fashion (think Culture Club & Duran Duran). But when alternative rock music went mainstream with Nirvanna, Pearl Jam, and others in the 90’s, that’s when U2 went glam and got sexy. What was more countercultural than doing a disco album in the 90’s? Bono maintains that the heart of U2 never changed, they were just looking for new ways to challenge the conventions of their time, to mock the rock star myth.
These were the kinds of insights I expected from this book, and while it was all very interesting, it turned out to be the least compelling part of the book. It was rather his stories of growing up with a stern father, his married life of more than 25 years to one woman, the stories of his times in Africa and San Salvador that would lead to his advocacy for the world’s poor, his Christian philosophizing, and his relationships with some of most influential people of our times that made for long nights where I couldn’t put the book down. I loved reading how important it his to him to get the blessing of older men. He never misses the opportunity to ask for it, kneeling before men like Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela, and Pope John Paul to ask for their blessing.
He shared remarkable stories like the one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent unexpected visit to his house for dinner one night, stuffed animals in hand as gifts for Bono’s children. (Over dinner, Bono asked Gorbachev if he believed in God, Gorbachev’s answer was no, but he believed in the universe). Of great value to me also were the insights into Bono’s creative process. For years he’s managed to write songs both accessible and artistic and it stirred my own creative juices to hear how he approaches his craft.
One of the other things that really made an impression was how from the very start U2 understood what they were doing as worship. There is much talk now of Christian artists wanting to break out of the evangelical “ghetto” that stifles so much good creativity. But long before this was a common conversation, these scrappy Irish kids who could barely play their instruments were instinctively blazing a trail around the ghetto, setting the borders on fire, on their way to becoming in maybe the most important sense a truly “Christian” rock band.
This was meant to be a short review (my reviews here are always too long), but I keep finding aspects of the book that seem worthy to mention. I’m going to practice some self-discipline now and say that you’ll just have to read the book.
U2 is genuinely a seminal band who have inspired many imitators but no equals. Reading this book gives gives you a peek into the life of a truly passionate, intelligent, big spirited (if not big headed) artist who has the appearance of fearlessness and whose megalomania is bewilderingly matched only by a profound humility.
Thank God I’m done with this book so now I can get some sleep at night and return to my less “flashier” devotional studies.