Bono's Surrender: Pilgrim (Part I)



Bono’s Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story is an entertaining, thought-provoking, and insightful tale of one of the most impactful rock stars of his era. In a series of blog posts, I’ll review four dimensions of Bono’s life story as a pilgrim, leader, Christ follower, and meaning-driven person.

Bono is a Rock pilgrim on a journey. His life story reflects gritty faith, rooted in Ireland but oriented to the world, an admirer of the US but loyal to home. Interestingly, he never has gone off the deep end, as Elton John advertises that he did. The drunken debauchery and drug use that leads to the edge of the cliff, but not quite over, for other rock stars doesn’t seem to have happened to Bono. Surrender, an autobiography of sorts, is unique as the man himself.

One thing with songwriters is that they are great wordsmiths—they can craft a phrase to capture the essence of a moment or occasion. Bono’s book is clearly written by him rather than a ghostwriter, with a very distinct and colloquial style. The book is subtitled, “40 Songs, One Story.” This is roughly true. There are some overarching themes in the book, but the songs are merely a general backdrop for further discussion, rather than a detailed analysis of the writing process.

Bono does a lot of self-reflection throughout the book. For example, why does he not only enjoy performing but seemingly needs to be on stage? He recognizes that his performances are a reflection of his desire for love and approval, filling a void that was created by the passing of his mother, Iris, when he was 14.

He talks of the temptations of success. He muses that he really should have taken advantage of being a rock star, but he only did so intermittently. Overall, he has made decisions to remain grounded. He is still more comfortable at his local Dublin pub where the more famous he becomes, the more ordinary he is treated. He wanted his four kids to grow up in Dublin, rather than in Los Angeles, New York, or London. He’s a citizen of the world, but loyal to the Emerald Isle.

He is very self-deprecating and quite self-aware. He acknowledges that he has been accused of having a “messiah complex” and an unbridled ego. He softens those blows through his constant self-deprecation. One example: he says he joined U2 before he knew how to sing. That’s a problem for a Rock star. Then people would ask sardonically, “why is he always shouting?” He says that eventually, he learned how to sing.

He marvels at his unlikely success. He met his bandmates at age 14 in the high school they attended. That same week he asked out his future wife. As Bono notes, “I still pinch myself that that week in 1976, the week I’d joined the band that as to become U2, was also the week that I formally asked Alison Stewart to go out with me.” [65] One key theme in Surrender is his relationship with his wife, Ali, of over 40 years. She is the person that balances and fulfills him and makes his life complete.

He is clear that he is fortunate to have been given fame and that it is a currency to spend wisely. Simply being a rock star is not good enough for him. He is meaning-driven and goes far beyond simply lending his name to worthy causes. He has briefed himself on key issues (such as debt, poverty, and health crises in developing countries).

At the core, he is driven by the desire to make a difference. What about other rock stars? Some are drivers of things, but many are participants jumping on another’s bandwagon. Bono is in a category of one. He has been directly proactive in key causes, such as the “Jubilee 2000” and “Project (RED).”

Bono hasn’t fit the rock star mold right from the outset of U2. As he comically notes, “What emerges from pictures of our wedding day is a portrait of two people who couldn’t be further from the rock ‘n’ roll culture that was bringing them celebrity.” [154] Bono was 22 (going on 18, he says) and Ali was 21.

He states, “Family has always been at the center of who I am.” [525] Not that it’s been easy. “Bob [his dad] thought that to dream was to be disappointed, and he didn’t want that for me.” [38] Later on, he notes, “[Bob] was determined to conceal his pride at our [U2’s] success…” [131] Bono could receive the adulation of millions, but not the praise of one of the few who mattered most.

His Christian faith is front and centre and is woven throughout the book. He is candid about his beliefs, going to church and church camps growing up, and his experience with a Christian group called “Shalom.” Throughout the book, he cites various passages and references C.S. Lewis, Tony Campolo, the Apostle Paul, and the prophet Elijah.

He didn’t forsake his past to become who he is known as. He could understand his past and use it as a platform to succeed in a new role. This is different than Elton John’s quote in his biopic, “you need to kill the person you were, to become the person you were meant to be.” Not Bono.

The book only drags when he gets into the weeds concerning his activism. He recounts conversations and meetings with various officials on various initiatives from AIDS to poverty. Chapter 38 seems like the best conclusion; Chapters 39 and 40 are interesting but not a fitting ending to a great story.

The picture that emerges from Surrender is of a flawed character, who experienced incredible success against all odds, leveraged his celebrity for positive impact, made an effort to be a Christ follower in hostile territory, and pursued his call. John Bunyan’s version of a Rock Pilgrim.