Our sister publication The Irish Voice celebrates its 25th anniversary this month and senior editor Debbie McGoldrick interviewed Ireland’s most famous citizen for the occasion.
How to describe Bono? Let us count the many ways.
A rock star with his three best mates in U2, the world’s most successful and popular band. A writer of unforgettable lyrics. A showman who commands a stage as large as a football field, but still manages to closely connect with the tens of thousands of adoring fans in the audience.
A devoted husband and father. A globe-trotting, deeply committed humanitarian. A Broadway star.
An intensely proud Irishman who’s ready, willing and able to fly the flag for his country.
It’s easy to think that Bono (52) has already conquered the world, and yet in so many respects he seems to only be getting started.
“Never take anything for granted,” the U2 front man told the Irish Voice during a recent, wide-ranging interview in New York.
It’s the first time that Bono has been interviewed in the pages of the Irish Voice. He’s a fan of the paper – “of course!” he says – and was happy to chat about anything and everything to mark our 25th anniversary.
“I’m really honored to be a part of this important voice, the Irish Voice, in this city, and I’m really glad I’m in New York celebrating that and doing the interview with you,” Bono said.
He’s the real deal, Bono. Warm, personable and thoughtful with his words, he’s lived a big life that he never dared to imagine while growing up as Paul Hewson in fairly ordinary circumstances in Dublin, the second son of a Catholic father and Protestant mother.
Though he’s one of the world’s most recognizable stars, with a countless number of fans and millions in the bank, thanks to U2’s success and his other financial interests, Bono’s not one for a celebrity existence drenched in gross excess.
You won’t see him stumbling out of nightclubs in the middle of the night and fighting with waiting paparazzi. And no one would think to question his utter devotion to his wife of nearly 30 years, Ali, and their four children.
Bono has skillfully used his fame, and all the attention that comes with it, to his advantage – or, more precisely, to promote his deeply held passion, advocating on behalf of the millions of Africans who are poor, sick and starving, trapped in a rich world that doesn’t seem to notice.
You’re a photographer looking for a shot of Bono? No problem – you’ll catch him at any number of events hosted by the advocacy groups he’s involved with, such as Product RED and ONE.
You want to talk to Bono about debt reduction for the African continent, or the ongoing AIDS crisis there and how citizens of the world can make a real difference? He wouldn’t be hard to nab on his way to some prominent politician’s office somewhere in the world, where he’ll spend time painstakingly outlining the steps that governments must take to eliminate poverty and disease.
Bono is the first to admit that nothing would be possible without his band mates – guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen.
To many Bono is the “leader” of U2 – not surprising, given his high profile – but when it comes time to make music he’s just one of four guys who still strive to climb to the next level, and are still determined to be not just good, but great.
During our interview Bono talked about many different things. But it’s appropriate to start with what U2 fans across the planet love him for most – the music.
What does Bono think when he looks back at himself back in the eighties? U2 could do no wrong, making classic albums like War and The Joshua Tree, and churning out hit after hit like “With Or Without You,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Still, Bono has a slight beef.
“Well, as I was explaining on The Late Late Show (Bono was a guest on the Irish chat show on June 1 to mark its 50th anniversary), I have an erase button on the mullet hairdo,” he laughs.
“Many lay claim to the mullet. I’m trying to think of the guy who invented it.”
Though Bono may cringe at his old hairdo, everything else about U2’s rise can be looked back upon with pride. They’ve come a long way from four guys messing around with guitars and cover songs after school to one of the most important and influential bands in the world.
“Megalomania started at a very early age,” Bono jokes.
“But really, we had no reason for confidence because we were a fairly shambolic garage band, but we had a certain sound even when we were out of tune.
“And I think that gave us the sort of courage to pour our lives into it. It’s been amazing. It’s been a hell of a ride.”
U2 came together as teens back in 1978 while attending Mount Temple Comprehensive school in Dublin. Bono’s wife Ali, the former Alison Stewart, was also a student at the time; they began dating the same month as U2 formed.
Bands come and bands go; they fight and break up, and often they never make up. But U2 is different.
The relationships between the four members can naturally be testy at times, especially when they’re creating new music, but at its core U2 is glued together by an abiding respect and admiration. Simply put, Bono loves these guys, and clearly the feeling is mutual.
How have they managed to stay together longer than many marriages?
“Well, I don’t know who said it, maybe it was Neil Young, but to really, really know someone you need to know their memory,” Bono said.
“It helps if you know their memory, that’s for sure, and if you know the things that bond them. These are very deep relationships because we don’t just know where each other has come from, but we’ve also seen each other take shape and form.”
They’ve had their moments, Bono admits, “but in general people return to their basic values, and we share a lot of basic values.”
U2 has an incredible catalog of work that was built to last. Generations from now won’t remember a flash in the pan like Miley Cyrus, but U2, like the Beatles and Rolling Stones now, has surely earned its historical place.
Bono, though, isn’t completely sure of that.
“Well, you never know,” he says. “You hope that might be true, that if you can be really relevant in the moment, in the time that you’re in, that perhaps it give you a type of quality. But I don’t know because you can’t tell.
“I mean, there have been surprises over the years. In the 1970s, the music that people thought would be timeless for the period, a lot of it sounds like rubbish now. And the kind of music that we thought would be shallow and uninteresting and a bit bland has turned out to be incredible.
“Look at Abba. That’s like folk music now. I love Abba. And I like disco music. I like all that stuff. Some of my friends look at me like I’m from outer space when I try to explain to them the genius of the Bee Gees.”
When asked about the current state of pop music, Bono feels there’s a place for everyone.
“I think that the world needs all music, and if you’ve got a great song on the radio your day is just better for it,” he says. “We need pop music. It’s a big thing in the world.
“Rock radio plays us, and every so often we’re on pop radio. We love to be on pop radio. Because, you know, when you’re walking down the street or getting out of a taxi and you hear songs coming out of a boutique or whatever, you can just feel the pulse of a city.
“I remember when Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ was everywhere in New York, coming out of every possible place. It was the pulse of Manhattan. There are moments when that happens, and those are great moments.”
U2 is hardly through with making more of their own moments. Bono talks excitedly about recent studio work and a fruitful collaboration with Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, half of the former duo Gnarls Barkley with Cee-Lo Green.
“You know, there might be life in the old dog yet!” Bono says.
“We’ve hit a vein. We’re working with this special soul, Brian Burton. He listens in a very different way.”The sound, Bono says, is hardly old school U2.
“There are things that have always been in our music but maybe not being accentuated. It’s really very, very different. It’s shocking how different it is.”Edge, Bono says, is on fire. “He’s unbelievable when he works. I feel very sorry for his family,” Bono laughs. Larry and Adam are also pumped.
“There’s a bass line coming up that you literally cannot believe. It’s just unbelievable. So yeah, it’s exciting.”But Bono isn’t putting a timeline on when the music will be finished, or even if it will see the light of day. If the band isn’t completely thrilled with the end result it will go nowhere.
“We can still spoil it, and you know, I could be wrong,” Bono says. “And if so then people will not hear from us because there would be no reason for us to be around.
“There’s no sense of entitlement with these men. They are absolutely, you know, as honest right now as they were when making our first album, Boy.
“They don’t expect there to be an audience for us every time we go and put an album out. We have to dig down very deep.”
THERE’S the music, and then there’s Bono the activist and humanitarian. His advocacy work is hardly a hobby or a break from the day job. Highlighting the dreadfulness of life in Africa for so many is very much his life’s passion. His African awakening has unfolded in many parts. There’s Bono the hands-on activist, visiting camps and orphanages and schools to see first hand what’s unfolding on the ground.
Then there’s Bono the political lobbyist, meeting leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations and urging them to do the right thing, to look at the African nightmare – poverty, AIDS, war -- not as something happening on another remote continent, but as a human atrocity that should never be allowed to occur in a world as wealthy as the one we live in. U2 has given Bono a platform to inform and educate millions of people who would otherwise never comprehend the ongoing African tragedy.
“I’m sure it’s insufferable to have me on my soapbox so I try not to take it out unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Bono said.
“It can be a bit of a bull’s wreck for a rock and roll singer. A rock and roll singer is about taking people to the other side, it’s about getting them to the next level, it’s about transporting them. It’s about all that stuff. “
And so, U2 has been at times weighted down by a lot of moral baggage – and those are my words – and I feel the band has been very patient with me about it. But the truth of it is that they share those same convictions.“You know, the first rule of a rock and roll band is not to be dull. And I think U2 is interesting. It’s certainly the most interesting band on the planet because there are so many dimensions to it.
“It’s interested in politics, matched by an interest in theology, and matched by an interest in commerce, matched by an interest in the things that change the world.
“It’s about the zeitgeist. And I hope that makes it fun for our fans. Some people look at me like, ‘What, you’re a singer in a band and you’re interested in technology? What’s that about?’“Or, ‘You’re a singer in a band and you have the time to lobby lawmakers in capital cities? What’s that about?“But that’s who I am. And that’s kind of who we are as a band.”
Bono’s activism – and that of many others, he’s quick to point out – is making a difference. But there’s a long way to go.“I look back . . . it’s years since the debt cancellation movement, Jubilee 2000. There are over 46 million children going to school who otherwise wouldn’t be,” he says.
“It’s been us, and working with others in a movement that we were a part of that brought that home. We were very educated by that experience and uplifted by it. Fighting for access to antiretroviral pills for people with AIDS who couldn’t afford it. That’s amazing. “And it’s all, by the way, part of who we are as a band. And I hope it adds to the music, and not takes away from it.
“We’re still a rock and roll band. We still want to make a lot of noise. We’re still a bunch of messers. There’s a lot of mischief in the band.”PRESIDENT Obama has impressed Bono. They’ve met on several occasions – U2 played at the ceremonies leading up to Obama’s inauguration in 2008 – but Bono doesn’t endorse political candidates per se. If they’ve got solid track records when it comes to African debt relief, and if they’re committed to spending money for things like AIDS prevention and poverty elimination, then Bono is on board no matter the political affiliation.
He worked well with President George W. Bush and counts a number of U.S. Democratic and Republican politicians as allies.President Obama has made a commitment to lift Africans out of poverty, Bono said. “And it’s interesting that his approach is in partnerships.
Lots of countries in Africa have ideas on how to get their agriculture more efficient, how to help farmers, so he has a very interesting angle on that.
“The U.S. should be proud, extremely proud. You’ve led the world in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and it’s really a monumental achievement – 6.6 million people are alive thanks in large part to American investments and leadership.”
Is Bono keeping an eye on the race for the White House this fall?“Well, it’s interesting".
The ONE campaign (the movement Bono co-founded to fight poverty and disease) is probably the only thing that the two sides of the aisle agree on,” he says.Bono speaks about meeting a bi-partisan group of senators in Ghana earlier this year who visited the African nation to see exactly how U.S. funds were being used.“These are tough senators. Senator Lindsey Graham, tough guy, asking hard questions about where taxpayer money was going to be spent. And that’s great. The conviction that he could come with, that he had been fighting for these people,”
Bono says.“Then we have had Democrats like Senator Patrick Lahey leading the charge for years. They’ve all been fighting to save lives. And it’s a small percentage of the overall budget. People think it’s like 10%, but really it’s less than 1%.“So America can be very proud of that. And Ireland, by the way, on hunger Ireland has been at the top. (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny has retained his commitment, and the Labor Party has retained its commitment.”
Bono has met Obama’s Republican challenger for the White House, Mitt Romney. “Yes, we’ve met. He was very interested in what we are doing, and he understood the sort of dimension of the United States involvement with the developing world,”
Bono says. “On a security level, on a commercial level, Africa will be nearly twice the population of China by 2050. Which is the future really.”Whoever wins the White House may – or may not – finally tackle the country’s immigration problems, particularly as they relate to the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish in the U.S.“Indeed,” Bono said. “And I might say, where would America be without the Irish?”
HIS fellow countrymen and women are enduring rough times thanks to the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. Bono is a citizen of the world in many ways, but at the end of the day there’s no place like home, and he’s determined to do his part to help Ireland move forward.“Irish people are incredible,” Bono offers. “You know, we live on a small rock in the North Atlantic, where the weather is shite. But the people are brilliant!”
Bono talks up Ireland and its attributes at any opportunity. He spoke at the Global Economic Forum hosted by the Irish government last year, and though he readily admits that as a wealthy rock star he can’t truly feel people’s pain, he’s more than willing to try and help solve their problems.“We can attract investment and create jobs”.
Bono says.“We’re smart. We’ve got a very educated work force. Creativity is our strong suit. Creating something out of nothing. We’ve got creativity in everything – business, technology. “There was a company recently founded by Irish students during the middle of the recession. They won a Microsoft competition, a worldwide competition. They created a little app that when you give your kids the car, you can tell what speed they are going at. It’s genius.”Bono compares the current Irish downturn to the depressed 1970s, when people were leaving in droves and hopelessness abounded.
This time, he says, it’s different.“I remember when things were really rough in the 1970s,” he says. “You know, I can’t imagine what people are going through in Ireland now. How could I hope to understand the difficulties of being made unemployed in my position?
“But I will say this – in comparison to the ‘70s, when there was a lot of melancholy about, this generation of Irish is much more defiant. There is a time for anger, but there’s also a time to be smart and strategic, and I think that’s where Irish people are at right now. And I’m amazed at that. Because they have a reason to be really mad. We’ve had a private sector problem that’s become a public sector solution.
“And that’s just unfair, but you know, there’s a sort of sophisticated thinking. The country is being kicked, but it hasn’t lost its dignity or its self-confidence.
“Let’s face it – our island, whatever you say about it, we’re having more fun. There’s more craic on our wee island than anywhere else in the euro zone!”
BONO and Edge stepped out of their comfort zone some years back. Their new goal? Write the music for an epic Broadway show unlike anything ever seen or heard before.They dreamed big with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. With a script by Julie Taymor, a Tony Award winner who brought The Lion King to life on Broadway, lots of technical wizardry and millions in backing from confident producers, Spider-Man certainly seemed like it had all the ingredients necessary for success. But the show was plagued with serious problems when it debuted in November of 2010. Malfunctioning sets led to serious cast injuries, and Taymor was raked through the coals by gleeful pundits contemptuous of her script and her alleged behind-the-scenes diva antics.
Critics hated the show, ridiculed all of its canceled openings (Spider-Man played 182 preview performances before it officially opened last June, the most previews of any Broadway show in history), and slated Bono and Edge for supposedly creating music that simply wasn’t up to Broadway’s lofty standards.
In short, Spider-Man became a late night TV punchline that would soon close and become Broadway’s most expensive ever flop at $70 million and counting – or so the story went.But something happened on the way to the bitter ending that so many joyful critics predicted – even wanted. The ticket-buying public didn’t give a damn about what they thought and went on to make Spider-Man a big commercial hit.
The show celebrates its one-year anniversary on June 14. It consistently grosses well over $1 million at the box office each week and broke a record the last week of 2011 when it earned nearly $3 million, beating an old mark set by Wicked. More than one million people have seen Spider-Man, and business shows no sign of slowing down.It’s been a rocky road to Broadway success, Bono readily admits.
Taymor was fired from the production before its opening and a lawsuit is still pending. But he’s feeling immensely gratified that the show is still standing strong after taking so many vicious shots.“I’m thrilled with it,” a clearly proud Bono offers.
“The story is still evolving. We’ve got some great ideas to kind of change and grow. If you saw Wicked when it opened to very poor reviews, if you saw it then and you saw it now it’s very changed. “Things change, and that’s what’s so exciting. It’s just a great show.
The great show was always in there. It was just a question of bringing it out. “Some tough decisions had to be made, and you know, we’re nothing if not relentless. We learned a lot from the experience.“I love that part of New York. I love the Broadway community. By the way, they are very active in the fight against AIDS through Broadway Cares, so I want to work with them."
Did Bono survive the critical mauling intact? “It was a bit of a slapping,” he laughs. “You know, we were the new boys. We were always going to get a bit of slap in the back of the head. Some of it was our own doing, and some of it was just people piling on because they wanted to.“It’s amazing how people were like, ‘Get back in your box.’ But it’s always been like that with everything we’ve done.
“You know, it just seems to come with the turf. But as I say, we are relentless and we can take it. It’s probably part of being Irish in addition to being tough.”THE old Irish enemy, England, was on Bono’s radar last month. He traveled to London with Ali to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and was more than happy to take part in a cultural event attended by the Queen.“Well, she is something else,” Bono says.
“Irish people have a historical reason to be wary of the royal family, but in these present times we should be gracious.“You know, she was very gracious and spoke Gaelic and charmed the country when she was in Ireland last year.”Ireland and England, Bono says, have progressed from the bad old says.“I think having (British Prime Minister) David Cameron apologize for what happened in Derry all those years ago, Bloody Sunday, was very important. It’s a different relationship now between Ireland and its neighbor, and I wanted to acknowledge that.
Bono paid tribute to Britain’s monarch, but his forever queen is Ali Hewson. They’ll celebrate 30 years of marriage on August 21 and they’ve got lots to show for it – two sons, two daughters and a rock solid partnership that defies the usual celebrity marital traumas. Ali shares Bono’s passion for the African continent and social justice. She’s deeply involved in EDUN, a fashion brand that she and Bono founded that aims to increase trade with Africa – many of the lines are made by locals there, and the couple wants to showcase their quality and craftsmanship in the hopes that other fashion houses will take notice.
At home Ali is famous for her work with the Chernobyl Children’s Project, which works with youngsters affected by the catastrophic 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Proceeds from the U2 song “Sweetest Thing,” which Bono penned for his wife, went directly to the project.“She’s unbelievable,” Bono says. “There’s no such thing as a mother who’s not working, but having all the responsibility of bringing the kids up, she’s done it with a lot of grace. “And she’s still great fun to be with. She’s my best mate.”