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Bono Honoured As 2003 MusiCares Person of the Year

U2 singer to be feted in New York

GRAMMY Magazine, February 20, 2003
By: Edna Gunderson

 

U2 frontman Bono will be honored as the 2003 MusiCares Person of the Year at a special tribute dinner, concert and silent auction on Feb. 21 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City. As Person Of The Year, Bono is being recognized for his accomplishments as a musician and a humanitarian.

The Recording Academy established MusiCares in 1989 in an effort to focus the resources and attention of the music industry on human service issues that directly impact the health and welfare of the music community. Proceeds from the annual Person of the Year tribute provide essential support for MusiCares' Financial Assistance Program that ensures music people have a compassionate place to turn to in times of financial, medical and personal hardships. More information about MusiCares may be found on page in the MusiCares section of GRAMMY.com.

Bono's selection as the 2003 MusiCares Person of the Year pays tribute to a man whose twin passions for rock and relief are rewriting the rules in both realms. Bono and his band mates in U2 stormed the music scene with post-punk ferocity, a contagious devotion to rock ideals and unwavering principles that weathered pop's endless parade of follies and foibles.

The Irish quartet has sold more than 100 million albums globally since releasing Boy in 1980. A hoard of 14 GRAMMYs spans 14 years, from Album of the Year for The Joshua Tree in 1987 to Record of the Year for "Walk On" in 2001.

Mindful of rock's firepower in revolution, Bono marshaled the skills that served him on stage - zeal, charm, audacity and bravado -- and declared war on apathy. In a culture where celebrity volunteerism sometimes stops at photo ops and autographed memorabilia, Bono refused to serve merely as the mascot for debt cancellation or the poster boy for AIDS charities. He climbed into the trenches.

He knocked on doors for the International Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt Campaign, a worldwide effort to persuade rich nations to forgive the debts of impoverished Third World countries. He co-founded DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa) in hopes of halting an epidemic and nurturing an embattled continent.

Bono did not take the red-carpet route circumventing the thickets of politics and bureaucracy. Nor did he preach to the converted. Rather, he converted the preachiest of conservative forces aligned against foreign aid and social change. He persuaded President George W. Bush to increase foreign aid spending by $5 billion. Right-wing senator Jesse Helms reversed his stand on AIDS funding after going a few rounds with Bono, who also massaged a new sensibility into former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill during a trip to Africa.

Shrewd and persistent, Bono proved himself more than a counterculture prop in summits with Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, Billy Graham, Bill Gates, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and even the Pope, who gamely tried on the rocker's oversized shades. Fully committed to two consuming pursuits, Bono has managed to keep both flames going without burning colleagues in either camp.

"It keeps him off the streets," U2's guitarist, the Edge, says of Bono's cause-related quests, which tend to feed the band's music rather than deplete it. "And it's where his heart is. From 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' there's always been an element of political protest in the band's music. Bono's activism is completely consistent with that. And the ideas he's dedicated to are worthy of support."

Aware that detractors see Messianic signals in his roles as rocker and crusader, Bono cringes at any notions of pop-culture canonization and brushes aside mention of his placement on the short list of 2002 Nobel Peace Prize candidates. During a brief retreat at home in Dublin, where he lives with his wife and four children, Bono did agree to share his thoughts while he stared from his conservatory window at the faint lights of a nearby seaside town.

Does your humanitarian drive have roots in your religious upbringing, your family, your youth? What motivated you?

I'd say megalomania. It might start with that.

You can satisfy that impulse just by being a rock star.

Noooo, that's just invading Poland. (Laughs) There's the rest of the world! I think I want to change the world, and I want to have fun. I don't know anyone who doesn't, by the way. Those two instincts shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Sometimes when you succeed in one area of your life, like music, you think you can apply that same momentum to other things. I suppose that's what I thought. Everything is analogous, in a way. The music industry is not that difficult to figure out. It's not rocket science. Neither is economics, as it turns out. And neither is an understanding of what is wrong with the body politic at the moment. I think it's clear we're at a real impasse.

You've channeled so much of your energy toward Africa. Why do you see it as this generation's defining crisis?

About 2.5 million Africans are going to die next year because they can't get access to drugs that we take for granted in America and Europe. If that is acceptable then I think our age will be deemed irrelevant by history. Civilization becomes too strong a word if you can live comfortably with those kind of fatalities. I don't think you have to be that clever and smart to work that out. It's just absolutely clear. What annoys me the most is stupidity. People are dying for the most stupid of all reasons: money.

How do you persuade the public that a calamity on that scale is fixable? Many people would feel overwhelmed and helpless against a tragedy that widespread.

It's so doable. If the political will is there, we can afford it, believe or not. Anyone who says we can't is telling lies. But people get beaten down, and people don't believe the world is as malleable as it turns out to be. People are more powerful than we think. The United States, where I look for leadership at times like this, is enjoying unparalleled economic, military, technological and cultural power. When President Kennedy said in the early '60s, "We're going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade," he knew it wasn't going to be easy. It wasn't even on everybody's mind. He wasn't checking the pulse. It was about leadership. Right now democracy is at a crisis point. You can't have the benefits of globalization without some of the responsibilities.

And what happens if the West fails to act?

If we miss this opportunity to do what we do best, which is deliver the technology and pharmaceuticals to people in need, suddenly this great culture will get ugly. It will start to look like Pompeii or the fall of Rome. I can't get over it. We were standing on the runway at JFK sending off 6 million shoe boxes from children around the world to AIDS orphans and AIDS-suffering children in Africa. People were saying it would be the last Christmas for a lot of these children. And I just thought, "Why, by the way? Why?" These kids don't have leukemia. These children have AIDS. We have drugs. They don't have to die. My mind is bent trying to get my head around it.

How do you respond to people who say the cost of treating the African AIDS crisis is too high?

It doesn't have to be. I'm not against the pharmaceutical companies making profits. They need to make profits to research and develop. But remember when CDs first came out and we'd see pictures of people in space suits in glass fridges carrying these high tech tablets? We were being taught that we're going to have to put our hands deep in our pockets and pull out $15. Now we know they cost 25 cents apiece.

You've said that celebrity is currency in this mission. Yet you've gone beyond simply raising awareness and reaching people of influence. How did your role evolve to include negotiating?

I ended up in a place of arbiting and deal-making through default. It was my job to make the United States aware of the Jubilee 2000 movement that was so big in Europe. I found it difficult because you can't make a movement. You grow one. You can't buy it, but you can build it. And we didn't have time. I called on people for help, and my friend Bobby Shriver helped me start working the back roads of influence. Arnold Schwarzenegger, [Shriver's] brother-in-law, introduced me to his Republican friends - like John Kasich, who fought very hard for us and made the whole thing bipartisan. I started to meet economists and got to know the argument, because I realized the work would be done at the table, not on the street.

The table doesn't quite have the mystique or excitement of the street, which is the usual forum for rock and roll rebels.

And I do good placard! I prefer it. It looks better. It's much more glamorous for a rock and roll star to be on the barricades with a handkerchief over his nose throwing stink bombs than it is to be in a bowler hat with a briefcase. But we didn't have time.

As MusiCares Person of the Year, you join some stellar company -- Paul Simon, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt. How do you feel about MusiCares honoring you for both your music and philanthropy?

MusiCares [does] such great things, it was impossible for me to turn them down. It is an excruciating experience to be given an award for one's humanitarianism because it seems to suggest that other people don't have it, which is never true. I always reckon that I just do what other people would do if they had the time and money.

Are you concerned about the cynics who cast a jaded eye at superstar do-gooders?

We should start with the projectile vomit factor and how to prevent it. Is that possible? I expect that cynicism to be thrown at me. I'm always available for mud pies, rocks and small assault weapons.

So you'd be more comfortable getting a GRAMMY than the Nobel Peace Prize?

I like GRAMMYs! More, please, more, more, more. It's a difficult issue. People refer to your "charitable work." As it says in the Scriptures, if your left arm knows what your right arm is doing, it is not charity. Anything people do publicly is not charity. You might be promoting an idea or yourself or both at once. But in the end, I guess you can't look at the motives. That's the position I take, anyway. I don't care what reasons people are doing things as long as they're doing things.

You, along with Ashley Judd, Chris Tucker and Lance Armstrong, just completed a Heart of America tour by bus to push for AIDS relief. How did Midwesterners respond to celebrities with a political agenda?

The first thing I'd say at the truck stop or the town hall or the college or the church I was speaking at is: On this trip, I'm not a rock star with a cause. I've been one before, and I'll be one again, but this is an emergency, because 6,500 people are dying of AIDS in Africa every day, and they don't have to. I understand the cynicism attached to "rock star with a cause." I mean, I wince, and I am one. This is different. I'm in there going, "Can somebody shout FIRE here?" The siren of a rock and roll band is helpful in this case. We're in the business of noise. We can stir things up.

Is the possibility of charity fatigue demoralizing?

If people have lost their compassion, they've lost their humanity, and I don't believe that's happening. People change the channel because they feel impotent and unable to affect change. So what's the point in reminding yourself of what you're not doing? Our message is exactly the opposite. You really can change things. And by the way, we're not asking for your money. We think you've given already. We're asking you to give the president of the United States and the prime minister of England your permission to spend your money saving these lives.

And how is this cause more urgent than, say, community problems with crime or poverty?

We're talking about a holocaust and the same kind of questions you'd be asked if you were a German living at the beginning of the Third Reich. When Jews were being loaded on trains, how did you let that happen? This is like setting dogs on black people in the South in the '50s. How did you let that happen? History has a way of making ideas that once were acceptable ridiculous. I think of the '80s. What was acceptable has been made ridiculous by history -- the mullets, the shoulder pads, the silk tour jackets with radio station numbers on the back. But Live Aid didn't become ridiculous. Musicians stepped into a void left by politics and just said no.

Live Aid left an indelible impact on what's become known as cause rock, but some players never got past the marquee. In that same year, you and your wife did volunteer work in Ethiopia. How did that experience fuel your activism?

An enormous amount. It brought us in touch with the awe-inspiring beauty of that continent, the strength of the spirit of Africans and an idea of the obstacles in their way, some of which has to be said are their own doing. They replaced the colonial bullying and slave trade with their own despotism a little too quickly. But some of their problems are structural, and we in the West are part of very corrupt relationships -- debt-servicing and holding children to ransom for the deaths of their great-great-great-great-grandparents, trumpeting free trade while not letting them put their products on our shelves. You can't fix every problem, but the ones you can, you must.

You co-founded DATA to address some of those issues. How much progress has been made?

Not enough. We've got some very smart people at DATA. Bill Gates is remarkable. He's doing more than any single person has ever done. For him, it's not just a salving of a conscience. He has become as involved in the minutiae and the small print of these problems as I'm sure he was at Microsoft. DATA is at the beginning of a steep incline. What we've got to do is glue together the different factions into a real movement. I want to get back to my day job. I think I'm much better at being in a band than I am in this. I keep waiting for people here to discover that I'm actually Irish and to throw me out of the country. I can't believe I'm getting away with this.

Explain your love affair with America.

I'm fan and critic. I love the fact that it's not just a country; it's an idea, an idea that's supposed to be contagious. Right now, the United States can not afford to be a subcontinent behaving like an island. If you read, as I have recently, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the lines written on the Statue of Liberty, you realize what a great idea this country is and what a great tragedy it would be if the country moved away from its essence.

Turning a conservative icon like Jesse Helms around on the issues of debt relief and AIDS funding requires considerable tact. Did growing up with a Protestant father and Catholic mother help you hone these diplomatic skills?

Ours was a house full of arguments. It was Meet the Press every morning, particularly on Sundays. There were bloody battles, and the biggest were always fought Christmas Day. Then, of course, just being in a real band is a lesson in diplomacy. You're living in each other's pockets. You have to know when to have that row or not. Or else you'll destroy the thing you've all been working on.

U2 has always expressed its political stands on stage and off. But your solo forays into the political fray take you away from the band. How difficult is it to juggle these two callings?

It has been problematic. It has pushed the band's patience, but they are supporting me, not just in terms of the time off, but financially at times. And they take the heat. This is really unhip stuff. We're taking a big risk by saying, "Let's reach out to the churches and corporate America, let's not posture, let's not play good guys and bad guys." There are too many lives hanging in the balance. If we don't get a result here, if we really don't get this [campaign] off the ground, people are going to say that I was had. And they might be right. So I'm taking a big risk, and I just hope it doesn't look bad on the band.

Looking back at U2's odyssey -- an amazingly strong rise in the '80s, an equally robust but radically different course in the '90s -- how do you account for the band's stability and durability in such a fickle and volatile business?

Curiosity, I think. Also, an idea that music and friendship are kind of sacraments. Maybe that's over the top, but maybe not. And the sense that we got coming out of punk rock of not turning into monsters through laziness. The gift is not enough. It's what you make with it. And we've always had a sense that we have to justify this life we've been given. It's like there's a deal in place, where we get to not worry about paying the bills or where our kids go to school and in return we mustn't, one, bend over, and two, think that turning up is enough. Every album has to justify our existence. It's some weird freaked-out Irish Catholic guilt meets punk rock.

On the eve of releasing All That You Can't Leave Behind, at the 43rd GRAMMYs, you gave notice that U2 was reapplying for the job of biggest rock band in the world. Few would argue that U2 owns that title, but throwing down the gauntlet was a tad reckless, wouldn't you say?

I knew it would take some outrageous remarks to draw attention to us. I am the singer, so I know how to find the spotlight, and that was a way of saying, "Don't miss what we do, even if you're watching to see us fail."

All That, the magnet for seven GRAMMY awards, including back-to-back wins for Record of the Year, is a hard act to follow. How is the next U2 album shaping up?

I just came from the studio today, and it's ridiculous what's going on. Edge is just on fire; he's making the most extraordinary things come out of his guitar. It's astonishing. We came up with a tune today called "Lead Me In The Way I Should Go," which could be a big song. Another one, provisionally titled "Full Metal Jacket," is pure chrome. I'm very excited about what we're doing, and I don't think we're facing that difficult second album syndrome.

Which means you could be making another stroll to the GRAMMY podium in 2004. Is it still gratifying to get that kind of acknowledgement from your peers?

Very. Whereas the GRAMMYs don't often reward the most innovative or challenging music, in our case, they do! (Laughs). I love it best when rock and roll crosses the road and rubs up against hip-hop and country. I like radio stations like that. I like MTV for that reason. And that's what the GRAMMYs is. It's not in its own ghetto.

All That You Can't Leave Behind came out before Sept. 11, 2001, but took on extraordinary resonance after the terror attacks, especially in the context of the Elevation Tour. How did you finesse the delicate dance between tragedy and entertainment?

I often feel we may have Tourette's Syndrome. The thing you're not supposed to do is the very thing we'll do. A lot of people cancelled their tours after Sept. 11. We came in. I wanted to put the names [on an overhead screen] of those who lost their lives to make the point that they were people, not statistics. People said, you can't do this. And I was convinced that we must do this. Our music is church to me; where else are we going to talk about these things?

Audiences were clearly touched by the Sept. 11 references and the show's healing tone. Was the band similarly affected?

We were all very moved to be a small part of that [recovery process]. God was in the room. For once, I don't mean me.

You've said that being relevant is harder than being successful. How does U2 hang on to relevance?

By trying, by failing. We're nothing if not fearless. We work well in an atmosphere of chaos. The moment you know too much about what you're doing, you're in trouble. The bankruptcy we played with in the Zoo TV tour is something I'm most proud of. The knowledge that we could lose everything kept us awake. I'm reminded of that Van Morrison lyric: "Didn't I come to bring you a sense of wonder." I do think we still have a sense of wonder and awe.

© GRAMMY Magazine, 2003.

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