"I want my work to be both trashy and precious at the same time."
The world's biggest rock star is also Africa's biggest advocate. But Bono knows he has to make the case for aid with his head, not his heart
February 23, 2002
Bono is an egomaniac. He knows this and frequently apologizes for it. When he disobeys the instructions of his manager, he scolds himself -- "Naughty pop star" -- which allows him to comment on the ridiculousness of pop stardom while reminding himself that he is indeed a pop star. He would be a megalomaniac if his preoccupation with power were delusional, but it's not. Less than a month ago, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, he sat on a dais with Bill Gates and discussed ways to save a continent; two days later he sang for a TV audience of 130 million at the Super Bowl half-time show. Not a bad week. Can you blame the guy for being a little full of himself?
With the merest twitch of his head, Bono can command the undivided attention of a sold-out stadium. But when he works a smaller room, his charisma acclimatizes itself; he turns smooth, dexterous. Late one night, during the forum in New York City, a dozen officials from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Episcopal Church, MTV and DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade for Africa) gathered for a strategy session in the back room of a Manhattan restaurant. The group was brainstorming on ways to convince Americans that saving Africa from financial ruin is in America's best interest. As is frequently the case with debate on Africa, the discussion eventually sagged into weary frustration. By midnight, the air had leaked out of the room and, with it, any glimmer of productivity.
Then U2's singer Bono strolled in.
Wearing a black leather jacket, his trademark blue-tinted shades and a roguish smile, he glided around the table, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Like Superman turning into Clark Kent, the earnest political operative took over. Before the shy types could mumble about a brief previous encounter, he set them at ease, reciting their names and the circumstances of their last meeting: "Of course! The forum in Boston!" With his glad-handing complete, Bono -- founder, spokesman and chief benefactor of DATA, a nonprofit, debt-relief advocacy group -- sat down at the edge of the table and, at 1 a.m., recounted the details of his early-morning session with 30 G.O.P. Congressmen. "I am not willing to give up on the Republicans," he said of his efforts to convert the Congressmen on debt relief and increased aid to Africa. "They're tough, but they're willing to listen."
With the energy in the room reignited, Bono the rock god disappeared. As the ideas flowed, he nodded along quietly, just another wonk occasionally spitting out acronyms. This lasted for the better part of an hour until Trevor Neilson, director of special projects for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, complained, "Look, we have to give away, by IRS law, $1.2 billion a year."
"Trevor," said Bono, reinflating himself to pop-star proportions to better deliver his punch line, "we can help."
U2 is up for eight Grammy awards this week for All That You Can't Leave Behind. The album and the band's live concerts -- still the best in rock -- became cultural touchstones following Sept. 11. U2 has, with a few bumps along the way, managed the nearly unprecedented feat of being musically -- and politically -- relevant for 22 years. Yet as big a rock star as Bono is -- and he has no rival -- he has grown even larger over the past three years, molding himself into a shrewd, dedicated political advocate, transforming himself into the most secular of saints, becoming a worldwide symbol of rock 'n' roll activism. Part poet, part pol, he has taken his cause -- solving the financial and health crisis in Africa -- and helped put it onto the agenda of the world's most powerful people.
"I refused to meet him at first," says Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who last year joined Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, Jean Chretien, George Soros, Jesse Helms and Colin Powell on Bono's all-star chat list. "I thought he was just some pop star who wanted to use me." After their scheduled half-hour session went 90 minutes, O'Neill changed his mind. "He's a serious person. He cares deeply about these issues, and you know what? He knows a lot about them."
Rock stars tend to cast themselves as emotional savants, folks who feel the plight of vanishing rain forests and anguished Tibetans more acutely than the rest of humanity. Bono's involvement with Africa began in typical celebrity-dilettante fashion. In 1984, U2 took part in Band Aid and Live Aid, Bob Geldof's Ethiopian famine-relief efforts. While many of Live Aid's participants played their sets and moved on to the next cause, Bono and his wife Alison Stewart decided to find out just how bad the African famine was. They traveled to Wello, Ethiopia, and spent six weeks working at an orphanage. "You'd wake up in the morning, and mist would be lifting," Bono recalls. "You'd walk out of your tent, and you'd count bodies of dead and abandoned children. Or worse, the father of a child would walk up to you and try to give you his living child and say, 'You take it, because if this is your child, it won't die.' "
The experience remained with him through 1999, when he joined the Jubilee 2000 movement. Citing the Book of Leviticus ("Ye shall hallow the fiftieth year...and ye shall return every man unto his possessions"), Jubilee 2000's aim was to get the U.S. and other wealthy nations, as well as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to erase the public debt of 52 of the world's poorest countries, most of them in Africa. By wiping $350 billion from their books, these countries would be free to spend money on health care and education, rather than pay down the principal on loans floated by corrupt and sometimes long-gone governments. "We have squeezed these countries to the point where their health systems are absolutely unable to function," says Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard economist who negotiated a debt-relief package for Bolivia in 1986. "Education systems are broken down, and there's a lot of death associated with the collapse of public health and the lack of access to medicine. I don't think any American wants that."
Though Bono knew the basics of debt relief, he consulted with Sachs when he began his unofficial tenure as a Jubilee ambassador. "He gave a call and said he'd like to meet and talk about foreign debts," says Sachs. "And he said to bring a conservative colleague with me, because he wanted to hear the other side." Armed with his quick grad-school tutorial on debt relief, Bono began using his fame to lobby politicians, even those who may not have known exactly who he was. "I'll never forget one day during my Administration," says former President Bill Clinton, "[Treasury] Secretary [Lawrence] Summers comes in to my office and says, 'You know, some guy just came in to see me in jeans and a T-shirt, and he just had one name, but he sure was smart. Do you know anything about him?' "
Last year Jubilee 2000 was renamed Drop the Debt, and Bono stayed on as the group's most persuasive and high-profile spokesman. He founded DATA, which he hopes to officially launch in mid-March, as a vehicle to expand his African agenda to include short-term economic aid, lowered trade embargoes and money to fight aids, in return for democracy, accountability and transparency in governments across that continent. "I know how absurd it is to have a rock star talk about the World Health Organization or debt relief or HIV/AIDS in Africa," Bono says. But he also knows that no one else with his kind of access to media and money has taken on the job. In an effort to keep the discussion serious and avoid the appearance of being just another rocker against bad things, he refrains from treating Africa as an emotional issue. "We don't argue compassion," he says. His argument is pragmatic, not preachy. "We put it in the most crass terms possible; we argue it as a financial and security issue for America...There are potentially another 10 Afghanistans in Africa, and it is cheaper by a factor of 100 to prevent the fires from happening than to put them out."
The DATA Agenda is loosely modeled on the Marshall Plan, which provided Europeans with foreign assistance, debt cancellation and trade incentives to rebuild their economies after World War II, so that they could act as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. When Bono met with Colin Powell in January 2001, he brought a gift, a signed note from George C. Marshall, another military man turned Secretary of State. The rock star turns lyrical when talking about the Marshall Plan: "You still find people my parents' age in Europe who talk about the Marshall Plan. That was where Europe felt the grace of America, in a way more than just stepping in with its military might." Bono wants his vision for Africa to be as effective and as enduring for future generations as the Marshall Plan was for earlier ones. "Can we do something that people will be proud of in generations?" he asks.
At 1:30 a.m., exactly five hours after his bravura Super Bowl show, Bono is exercising the rock star's fundamental right to be ridiculous. At a celebratory post-game dinner in the French Quarter with his band mates, the U2 management team and actress Ashley Judd (an old friend), he throws back some red wine, tells a few stories about Frank Sinatra, leaves a rambling cell-phone message for Judd's husband gently informing him that his wife has been kidnapped by a rock band, and then sneaks off to the bathroom for a cigarette. (Bono thinks the rest of U2 doesn't know he smokes; they know.) After 15 minutes, guitarist the Edge, who adopts a kind, paternalistic role toward his childhood friend and band mate, glances toward the bathroom and says nervously, "Bono's allergic to red wine." Sure enough, Bono has passed out on the bathroom floor. U2's deputy manager, Sheila Roche, is unconcerned and continues sipping her drink. "He's probably just taking a nap. He's an excellent napper," she says.
A few minutes later, Bono emerges rumpled but renewed. As he exits the restaurant and makes his way through the mob on Bourbon Street, he throws his hands in the air and screams to no one in particular, "No, I will not do the snake dance for you!"
Bono is in full rock-star mode, and he has good reason to savor the moment. U2 nearly called it quits a few years ago. After putting out Pop, the first dud of their 10-album career, in 1997, the band members -- all in their 40s, all with relationships, side interests and more money than they could ever spend -- had to decide whether there was a compelling reason to continue being a band. "Why are you still around?" asks the Edge rhetorically. "You know, you made some great records. But why are you still making records? Part of what we decided is that we had a sense or belief that we can still make the album of the year."
On All That You Can't Leave Behind, which has received eight Grammy nominations, including one for Album of the Year -- U2 dispensed with the drum loops and DJs it had toyed with on Pop and got back to the hard business of writing big, straightforward songs. Lyrically, Bono was struggling with his father's terminal illness (his father Bob Hewson died of cancer last year), but specificity can be the plague of pop. Songs like "One," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Stay (Faraway, So Close)" and "Walk On" from All That You Can't Leave Behind achieve the impossible -- becoming meaningful to millions of people -- precisely because they are beautifully vague. "Bono did something recently that he probably shouldn't have done," says drummer Larry Mullen Jr. "He did a book as a favor for a friend of his in Ireland that 'explained' all the lyrics. I think that was a mistake because one of the most valuable things about his lyrics is that you can adapt them to any particular situation."
It turns out that millions of listeners adapted All That You Can't Leave Behind to cope with the trauma of Sept. 11. After the lead single, "Beautiful Day," won three awards at last year's Grammys -- prompting Bono to declare immodestly, "[We're] reapplying for the job. What job? The best band in the world job" -- the album slowly sank on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, bottoming out at 108 in August 2001. But in the months after 9/11, as people looked for comfort, escape or both, the album picked up momentum, rising as high as 25 after the Super Bowl, in its 67th week of release. The album is not prescient, just elastic. On "Walk On," the album's best track, Bono sings, "I know it aches/And your heart it breaks/And you can only take so much/Walk on." And on "Peace on Earth," he mourns, "Sick of sorrow/I'm sick of the pain/I'm sick of hearing again and again/That there's gonna be peace on Earth."
U2's Elevation tour, which played in excess of 100 sold-out nights to more than 2 million people in 2001, also took on a completely different feel after Sept. 11. "There was anger, rage, patriotism, sadness," says Mullen. "Everything became frighteningly extreme." In recognition of the tragedy, U2 began projecting the names of fallen members of the New York City police and fire departments and the victims of the four fatal flights on screens and arena walls while they played "One." "I have to say I wasn't sure about it at first," says bassist Adam Clayton. "It seemed like we were really pushing a button. But Bono is a pretty unique individual, and he's got great judgment. He's able to perform open-heart surgery and zap people with a bit of brain surgery at the same time."
U2 incorporated the names into their half-time set at the Super Bowl (projecting them during the songs "MLK" and "Where the Streets Have No Name"). It was not a political statement, just an emotional one. By design, it said nothing in particular and yet somehow conveyed something profound. It was exactly the kind of soaring, impossible moment Bono believes U2 exists to achieve. Wandering around New Orleans after the game, Bono relived each of the set's 11 minutes in something close to real time. "I hope it played well on television, because it felt -- ah! -- it felt just amazing."
The buzz of impossible moments is what rock stars live for, but it's impractical for a political advocate. Two weeks after the Super Bowl performance, Bono is in Los Angeles to accept a $100,000 donation from the Entertainment Industry Foundation for DATA. He calls a meeting on the porch of his suite at the Chateau Marmont with Michael Stipe, Quincy Jones, Bobby Shriver (the record-producing and fund-raising son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver) and Jamie Drummond, DATA's director. It's a new-ideas meeting, and Bono hopes to tap some of the music industry's sharpest philanthropic minds to raise public awareness for DATA's core issues. "Don't send money. You already have," announces Stipe, trying out copy for a debt-relief mass-mailing postcard. The room loves it.
While Stipe scribbles away, Jones wonders aloud which part of the DATA Agenda -- dropping the debt, making trade rules more advantageous for poor countries or getting more funding for AIDS drugs and health care -- Bono wants the world to focus on. "I think you've got too many issues. That's how we blew it before," says Jones, who raised money for famine relief in 1985 as part of USA for Africa. "Americans don't know about f___ing Philadelphia, let alone Africa. Trade is some very sophisticated politics. You have to particularize the drama for them. You've got to have a melody line."
Bono's not so sure.
The meeting breaks up when Bono leaves for a photo shoot. Driving across Los Angeles, he discusses Jones' notion of a melody line. "What we're all on about is: Africa. Seventy percent of the problem of HIV/AIDS is in Africa. We're talking about the continent bursting into flames while we stand around with watering cans. That's our one idea. But the closer you get to the policymakers, you need specificity, and you need to know what you're talking about. I'd go in and talk about debt relief, debt relief, debt relief, and people would say, 'But that's only part of the picture here.' "
At 41, Bono says, he has given up on music as a political force. He believes his work negotiating in political back rooms is more vital and effective than singing in sold-out stadiums. "Poetry makes nothing happen," the poet W.H. Auden once wrote, and Bono wistfully agrees. "I'm tired of dreaming. I'm into doing at the moment. It's, like, let's only have goals that we can go after. U2 is about the impossible. Politics is the art of the possible. They're very different, and I'm resigned to that now. Music's the thing that stopped me from falling asleep in the comfort of my freedom. I learned about South America from listening to the Clash. I learned about Situationism from the Sex Pistols. But that's a long way from budget caps and dealing with a Congress that is suspicious of aid because it has been so misused."
Music does make a difference in one way; it sways people emotionally. But for Bono that is no longer enough: "When you sing, you make people vulnerable to change in their lives. You make yourself vulnerable to change in your life. But in the end, you've got to become the change you want to see in the world. I'm actually not a very good example of that -- I'm too selfish, and the right to be ridiculous is something I hold too dear -- but still, I know it's true."
With reporting by Benjamin Nugent/New York
© Time, Inc., 2002. All rights reserved.