Recently, Bono has been worried about how he will be remembered when he dies. “The loss of David Bowie affected me profoundly,” he says. “And Leonard Cohen, who I didn’t know as well as David, but I knew Leonard.” Both singers were given a vibrant sendoff, and the tributes were 99% positive. That won’t happen for Bono.
“At your funeral, nobody talks about what you achieved,” he says a little sadly. “They talk about whether you were funny or not. Were you kind to your kids? So I’m moving away from worrying too much about legacy, as regards U2 or my own work, to be more concerned about what my kids and friends think of me.”
I met Bono in Sao Paulo last month on the terrace of his hotel, the day after another run-through of the band’s classic album, The Joshua Tree, for their sellout 2017 tour. A woman in the crowd passed out. Models posed for selfies. Owen Wilson was there, in bold floral trousers, singing his sad heart out to With or Without You. Four men thumped the night sky whenever U2 played a hit, which was a lot.
When I mention those men to Bono, he asks if I have met Javier Bardem. That’s how his conversation goes, a verbal rush through Who’s Who. Bardem, he explains, is a “champion air drummer”. He name-drops all the time, from “the Macca” to his “quite close friend” Lena Dunham. The photo below was taken by the supermodel Helena Christensen. He has a cluttered phonebook and a cluttered mind, too: answers come, but take an age to arrive. Dressed in head-to-toe black and tinted specs, it’s as if he has been preserved, not as the punk first famous 37 years ago, but as the strutting, do-gooding rock god of the 1990s. He’s like living, breathing taxidermy.
Two weeks after I met Bono, the Paradise Papers bomb dropped. He was named in them for using a “Malta-based firm to invest in a Lithuanian shopping centre”. It was an accusation of tax dodging against the poster boy for the moralizing super-rich.
His spokeswoman insisted there was no wrongdoing, but he was still labeled a hypocrite. I emailed to ask how that felt. “I believe fully in transparency and have no interest in my investments being hidden, in Lithuania, Malta or anywhere else,” he replied. “This investment was in 2006, and my name has been visible to relevant authorities.” He added that he was part of a push in 2013 to give the press access to who owns what, and where. “I didn’t then, and don’t now, want to be complicit in a system that’s got way out of control in terms of its opacity. I think you can be an investor as well as an activist — there is nothing wrong with being a thorn in your own side.”
An attempt at face-saving, then, but this is why Bono’s legacy is far from secure. For non-fans he comes across as a two-faced, sanctimonious chugger. Fans, frankly, don’t care. U2 have played to 2.7m people on this year’s tour, and their popularity and mega-wealth meant that they (and I) fled the Sao Paulo stadium with a police escort, to an upscale hotel they had taken over for their crew and entourage. When we arrived, somehow the bassist Adam Clayton was already pacing the foyer in a flowing kimono.
Bono doesn’t help himself, but you have to admit that his money-raising does good. His (Red) branding exercise, for instance, has produced more than $465m for Aids work in Africa. Some of his tax bill may have been avoided, sure, but with the other hand, he doles out funds to needy causes. It is greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number maths to vex Jeremy Bentham for months.
Yet, however annoying Bono may be, I’ve met enough people desperate to dismiss all his work just because they hated that time an unwanted U2 album turned up on their iTunes. “I pretended in the past that it didn’t hurt my feelings, but it might have,” he says when asked about the public perception of him and his band. “But I don’t think it bothers anyone anymore.”
It is telling, then, that I found Bono frail close up. On stage, he is anything but, yet from the cracks in his voice to the stories etched into his skin, he fills all his 57 years. Our meeting occurred before the Paradise Papers were released, but he already seemed spooked. I was not surprised. There are clues about his state of mind in Songs of Experience, U2’s imminent album, their 14th, which has tracks written for those he cares about most: his wife, Ali; his four children; Jesus. It’s the dark lyrics, full of nods to death, that linger.
“I’ve had a few attempted knockout punches,” Bono admits, quiet as a whisper for much of the interview. A serious bicycle crash in 2014 was widely reported, followed by the deaths of Bowie and Cohen. Were they the said punches?
“No, there’s a few things, but I won’t go into them,” he says, before stopping, thinking, picking up again. He does this a lot. “Everyone has a brush with mortality, and I don’t want to get into the soap-opera aspect, but I went, ‘OK, I may not be indestructible.’” He nods when I suggest it was a wake-up call. “A moment to stop and, in that pause, I thought, ‘I’m going to look at mortality and how it affects the way I see my family, friends and faith.’”
To this end, a striking line in the terrific Lights of Home — “Oh Jesus, if I’m still your friend” — is hard to ignore. Did Bono’s brush with death lead him from God? “My curiosity takes me to dangerous places, and I’ve been nonchalant about that,” he admits. “Partly because of my faith, but then I felt that faith go out of reach. It was last Christmas, and I was surprised. Belief is preposterous, but I have it, and I thought, ‘I’m experiencing fear!’
“It was new, and I realized I don’t want to die. I want to spend more time with my kids. There are songs I want to write, stuff I can be useful for. Then, when I admitted I was afraid, my faith returned.”
U2 have never been a subtle band, nor have they ever claimed to be. The bluster and fury of 1980s hits such as I Will Follow still stand up, though their musical power got patchier after Achtung Baby (1991), with its heavy mood and sonic experimentation. By 2004’s vast-sounding Vertigo, the Dublin foursome had become the biggest band on the planet, but their music had become vaguer, epic filler. Songs of Experience is a strong return. With classic skittering guitar from Edge, it is the simplest they’ve been for years.
“You have to watch the lurgy of progressive rock,” Bono smiles, as he cites Carole King’s Tapestry and sings one of his new songs to me as if it were a piano ballad on that album. The band’s current sound, then, is upbeat, but often Bono sounds lost. Depressingly, at one point, he sings: “The end is here.”
It’s not just his personal apocalypse he’s addressing after all; and in tackling the recent liberal apocalypse, his bluntness is really in your face. Take The Blackout, a military stomp with the line “Democracy is flat on its back”, followed by: “Is this an extinction event?” It’s as subtle as burning an effigy of Trump. This summer, a U2 show in St Louis was cancelled due to race riots. How does Bono, a part-time New Yorker, feel the country that gripped him as a child in Dublin changed in 2016?
“People have been acting like something died,” he says. “It is grief. The death of innocence. And my angle is, ‘Good!’ Now you can start. Because we lived with this idea that things would get fairer. Women’s rights. Gay rights. It was just happening. Then it stopped.”
Was it complacency? “Yes,” he says emphatically. “People believed in spiritual evolution by its own hand, but there’s no evidence for this.”
In February, in his second job as a philanthropist, Bono was criticised for a photo op with the vice-president Mike Pence. It didn’t help that he praised the politician for “hitting the ground running”, even if Bono insists he meant that day, after a night flight, not the new administration’s activities in general. Either way, the meeting was odd. Pence’s push for a “global gag” cuts aid to the very women in poverty that Bono’s Poverty Is Sexist campaign seeks to help. Why on earth meet him?
“Mike Pence is a person I believe we can work with,” Bono says. “I may not agree with him, but I believe him when he speaks. I have sympathy for idealists — what you and I might think of as narrow-minded ideological fundamentalists like Pence. If you can widen the aperture of that idealism, they’re capable of being passionate about, say, the environment or poor people. And liberals have got to be careful of that awful dismissiveness of people who have thoroughly conservative views.”
A meeting with Trump, though, isn’t on the cards. “I can’t meet with him because he doesn’t tell the truth. I have good friends in the Republican Party… It’s going to end in tears, and people will be embarrassed that the Oval Office was turned into the WWF.” (He means the wrestlers, not the animal-savers.)
Like Forrest Gump with gumption, Bono has met most of the important politicians of his era. Some strong relationships will remain so. About Aung San Suu Kyi, though — for whom U2 wrote a song — he told me: “Until I speak to her, I don’t want to vocalise too much [about the Rohingya crisis].” He was hoping to phone her and come back to me with his summation of her stance, but she didn’t accept his request for a call, which led to a band statement about blown minds and broken hearts. When he talks about her, though, or America, or his dashed hopes after the Arab Spring, it is clear that much he fought for is collapsing around him.
He mentions a quote from the activist Wael Ghonim: “The power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power.” It is beautiful, he says. His voice trembles. “Turned out not to be true.”
The next day, in Edge’s room, U2’s second most famous man is wearing his regulation hat and strumming an electric guitar in front of the TV. It’s a portable studio. Sprightly and sturdy, has he been worried about Bono of late?
“Yeah,” he says solemnly. “When your friend goes through trauma that could’ve been fatal, of course you’re concerned. Clearly, we’re at an age where we have to think about our wellbeing, because when you see so many people — not much older — just dying, it’s like, OK…” He pauses. “You start to put on the safety belts for the first time.”
About Songs of Experience, Edge says “simplicity is where music is at” now, and offers Rihanna’s sparse Anti album as inspiration. “It’s tight,” he says of their new record. “There’s no half-baked ideas.” He’s right: the tunes are much more probity than prog. Which is why the lyrics lend themselves to close scrutiny. One song, You’re the Best Thing About Me, about Ali, Bono’s wife since 1982, has a pained coda of “Why am I walking away?”.
That’s going to cause headlines! Is he prepared? “I am,” the singer says. “But I never wanted to do Ali the disservice of a sentimental song, so I wrote a midlife crisis one instead. It is a portrait of an idiot.” He goes on to explain that he had a nightmare in which he left his family. “I woke and was in tears. I went to the kitchen and got, ‘Ah, poor pet. And you left, did you?’ I’m mocked quite a lot at home.”
Bono, I have to admit, is sweet when he talks about home, maybe because nobody punctures pomposity like loved ones. That is where, in his daughters, Eve and Jordan, he sees hope for the world. “Get out of the f****** way!” he growls approvingly of a united fight he sees in women now, with recent marches and movements. “It’s the most important shift, the rising tide to lift all boats — women.”
As a sign of shifting attitudes, Ireland is set to hold a referendum on abortion. “My daughters are swinging from the rafters,” he says about the vote, planned for next year. “But telling women what to do with their bodies is unacceptable, and I think Irish people know that.” Will he make his voice heard nearer the time? “I don’t know,” he says. “They may not want my placard up there. ‘It’s OK, Bono. We’ve got this one!’”
He laughs. He is way more knowing than critics and satirists give him credit for. Back on U2’s debut album, Boy, Bono sang: “I felt the world could go far/If they listened/To what I said.” I guess he’s been arrogant since he was 20. He finds this funny, saying the line is “lovely, wistful humour — that’s one of the greatest debut albums… that we ever did”. He smiles, thinking back to that prophetic boast of a line. “Yeah,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “How are we doing on that project?”
The terrace has filled with well-wishers. Some try to give Bono a basket of milk products made by oppressed Brazilian women, while a fan with a U2 tattoo really wants him to see her arm. These people will cry when he dies, but what will his wider legacy be? The arena-filling star who aided the world’s ill and poor, or being “that hypocrite” who told people how to behave? A divisive act for divided times.
Source: Jonathan Dean / thetimes.co.uk