An email from Bono

There are two testaments arching over the narrative of the new memoir by Bono: once the young saint who wanted to be a sinner, now the mature sinner who really wants to be saint. Curiously, as it happens, I know a bit about both of these incarnations from having played a tiny role in the two well-known local performances of his band’s consensus classic, The Joshua Tree, which U2 toured in New Zealand in 1989 and then again as a 30th anniversary package just before Covid.

Ahead of the earlier performance, I had published a, shall we say, dissenting appraisal of The Joshua Tree. Replete with asides about what sounded to me like hoarse pieties and beclotted pretensions set to stupendously familiar chimes.

The piece offered a map of sorts to the recording, journeying as it does through ghostly English mining towns, Death Valley, the Plaza de Mayo, even the Auckland suburb of One Tree Hill. Not forgetting the lyrical spectacle of Hewson, the well-heeled young Dubliner, not yet 30, high on a hill in an undisclosed Central America locale, ridiculously shaking a bony fist at American “fighter planes” buzzing overhead.

All uncharitable, I admit. But so was the response later the same night with Hewson on stage in front of 50,000 fans quoting from portions of the piece to moronic roars of disapproval from some.

What happened that far-off evening isn’t terribly important now. What remains interesting, I think, is what happened 30 years later, after the band arrived back here for their second performance of the same recording in Auckland. And so it came to pass, on the afternoon of that show, I received a startling email from the singer.

It was prefaced with a message from the London offices of U2’s management company, which also represents Damon Albarn and PJ Harvey: “Bono asked me to pass on this note below. Do let us know if by some chance you can make the show.”

Bono wrote, “Dear David, it was a long time ago … 30 years…. but you wrote a disparaging review of the Joshua Tree that I then used as a prop in our LOVE TOWN tour… I can’t remember what I said… I’m sure it was meant to be funny, but wasn’t… apologies….Unlike your review, which was meant to be serious – and it was, even if snotty and youthful in its own way. If you’re around 30 years later to witness that crap album… you will be very welcome tonight. And you don’t have to like it this time around either for all its gospel brightness, it’s a black beauty. Bono.”

Well, bugger me gently.

We were both a lot younger back then, I wrote back, and who was to say I had been in the right the first time around. Why, even one of my sons, Eliot, nowadays thought U2 was the bees’ knees. Unfortunately, all available flights being fully booked (which they were), I couldn’t make the gig.

The day after the New Zealand show, though, he was back in touch again, thoughtfully sending along a clip to me from the concert I missed. The footage was of The Joshua Tree’s feathery signature song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.

A rather snazzy version it was, too, with a Van Morrissonesque spoken riff in the middle about religious abandonment. I watched it with new enjoyment. As I did to the unexpectedly sweet onstage sign-off from the singer: “That’s for Eliot Cohen!”

And, I guess, his old man.

The least startling aspect of his new memoir is something that may yet startle some readers the most. It’s primarily a book about religion

And now we have so much more in a written work hued along similar lines. “The moment of surrender is the moment you choose to lose control of your life,” Hewson offers toward the end of the Bonography, “the split second of powerlessness where you trust that some kind of ‘higher power’ better be in control because you certainly aren’t.” “If I was in a café right now, and someone said, ‘Stand up and if you’re ready to give your life to Jesus,’ I’d be the first to my feet,” Paul David Hewson admits as he looks back over his superstar life and times. “I took Jesus with me everywhere and still do.”

Hewson, better known to the musical troops as Bono, offers plenty of other insights in his sprawling, discursive, occasionally maddening Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story. But the least startling aspect of his new memoir is something that may yet startle some readers the most. It’s primarily a book about religion.

Why should this come as a surprise? Hewson is the face of the band whose earliest hit was evangelically titled “I Will Follow”, followed in fairly short order by the rock ’n’ revival sentiment of the song namechecked in the book title, “Surrender”, which the band used to do on stage with white flags run up poles to flutter in an artificial breeze as Bono all but enjoined the faithless to publicly repent.

The subtitle references another celebrated tune, “40”, which of course modifies the words of the biblical psalm of the same name. U2 closed their first-ever local show with it back in 1984 in Wellington, as they have hundreds of concerts since.

One could press many other musical examples into service. This the Irish-born author with the blue-tinted sunglasses frequently does at some length in the course of this 557-page work. But don’t hold the prolixity against him. In opting for the Jericho Road rather than the Yellow Brick one, Surrender neatly swerves around what might otherwise have been an insurmountable content issue.

The 62-year-old Hewson, after all, fronts a hugely successful band with three other guys whom he first met at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin. The lads remain the best of mates. He met his current and only wife, Ali, the dark-eyed one he wrote “With Or Without You” for, around the same time. He and his band sell zillions of records. They are as devoted to their fans as their fans are to them. They trouser tons of loot. Some of their tunes are insanely catchy. Many are not.

And, er, that’s pretty much it. Fashioning an epic memoir out of any of this would be a hard sell.

True, Hewson has over the years met many famous people — Zelensky! Gorby! George W Bush! — but most of the associated yarns he has have long since become shop-worn through stage patter and media interludes.

Although, yeah, there’s still quite a few of those in the new book, too.

Ah, but religion. And why not? For all the heavy-handed scriptural metaphors to be found in the U2 back-catalogue, it has been the love that dare not speak its name in rock circles during much of the 46 years the act has been in business.

Up to a point, the urge to keep mum about this kind of stuff used to be understandable. Rock musicians are edgy, or so the thinking goes; nothing could be less edgy (except perhaps the Edge on an edgeless night) than biblical exposition put to music or, worse, freelance sermonising.

In fact, in my observation, most rock musicians have always been as edgy as the Reader’s Digest. More to the point, though, we’re nowadays living in manifestly religious times, whether in the global bump and grind of the three great monotheistic faiths or the crypto-religious certainties of the horrible woke mob. The thinking person’s artist with absolutely nothing to say about any of this — or nothing to say beyond issuing boneless ecumenical platitudes — is the one who is starting to look rather odd.

And Hewson is Irish, for God’s sake, born and raised in an interdenominational household while tremulously growing up during the sectarian time of the Troubles. Perhaps there are Irish folk who haven’t been electrified by religion, for better or for ill, but I haven’t met many of them.

And what the hell else should somebody who does care about the subject not be pummelling it in a memoir, whether in meditating on the creeds that tumble through his land like the river Liffey, the sectarian depravity unleashed by the Troubles or his own dark night of the soul after his mother dropped dead at her own father funeral when he was still a kid?

Occasionally, however, Hewson’s ambition exceeds his grasp Especially when he tries too hard to cut a rock and roll ethos out of liturgical cloth.

As for instance when he writes about how New Testament verses first spurred his lyric writing. A beloved passage first espied by him as a teen was the one from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which this book includes in full: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

“Great lyrics,” Hewson says of the memory. “Nick Cave must have been reading them, too. Maybe Shane MacGowan. Certainly, the old guard, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, knew their King James goth.”

King James goth, eh? Maybe true of Dylan, the wondering Jew who in the 1970s abruptly converted to Christianity (and then just as hastily converted back again). But is there a solitary King James allusion to be found in any of Leonard Cohen’s songs? Cohen’s formative exposure to the faith was through a nanny who sometimes took him to the Catholic mass, which of course at the time was celebrated in Latin and exclusively drew on the version of the Bible translated from the same language and definitely not the Greek-based KJV. She was Irish, too, come to think of it.

You’d think Hewson would know all this. You’d also think Hewson would know that the Pauline words he precisely quotes are not “King James goth” at all but plucked from the English Standard Version. Neither Bob Dylan nor Leonard Cohen — certainly not Nick Cave — would ever be so clunky as to declaim from that markedly inferior translation.

On the other hand, Hewson proves adept in the new book at dividing his own life for the theological telling.

Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story by Bono (Hutchinson Heinemann, $55) is available in bookstores nationwide.

David Cohen is a Wellington writer and the author of seven books, most recently as editor of The RNZ Cookbook (Massey University Press).

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