"U2 is not a punk band, but there's this kind of violence present in our music."
The Observer Profile: Pro Bono
September 26, 2004
He's as big a campaigner for the poor and hungry as he is a rock star, but what really singles him out is that when he speaks, as he will at this week's Labour Party conference, world leaders listen
Bill Cllinton likes to tell a story about the first time the world's biggest rock star visited the White House. "I'll never forget one day, during my administration, (Treasury) Secretary (Lawrence) Summers comes into my office and says, 'You know, some guy came to just see me in jeans and a T-shirt, and he just had one name, but he sure is smart. Do you know anything about him'?"
These days, Lawrence Summers holds court at Harvard, and remains one of America's foremost economists. Having served his time with Clinton, he is now, ironically, an unofficial adviser to the scruffy guy in the jeans and T-shirt, who still has has only one name. He is called Bono, and there is not one person on Capitol Hill who does not now know who he is, or what he is attempting to do.
According to President George W. Bush, whom, one suspects, is less enamoured of the cult of rock celebrity than his wayward predecessor, "Bono has a willingness to lead, to achieve what his heart tells him, and that is nobody -- nobody -- should be living in poverty and hopelessness." To this end, Bono is now a global figurehead for the campaign to rid Africa of AIDS, and free the continent from debt. Even the extreme right of the Republican Party have been swayed by Bono's charisma and integrity. "You can see the halo over his head," said Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a man not given to irony or overstatement.
In rock 'n' roll terms, that halo once meant that Bono, and his group U2, were initially greeted by a degree of suspicion by the critical cognoscenti, who prefer their icons to be tarnished or, better still, dead. But 25 years on, Bono has broken the rules, not just of rock 'n' roll, but of modern celebrity, being neither a dabbler in good causes, nor simply a famous fund raiser, but by becoming an effective and dedicated long-term campaigner, and one whose knowledge of the minutiae of the global economy and debt relief has astonished many politicians.
"I refused to meet him at first," admitted former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who alongside Colin Powell and, even more surprisingly, right winger Jesse Helms, is now one of Bono's many sympathetic Republican contacts. "I thought he was just some pop star who wanted to use me." Their scheduled half-hour session overran by an hour. "He's a serious person," O'Neill said. "He cares deeply about these issues, and you know what? He knows a lot about them."
In the past few years, Bono has met and won over two American Presidents, as well as the Pope, President Putin, multi-millionaire George Soros and U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan. According to Oxfam's Adrian Lovett, who helped form Jubilee 2000, the Bono-driven debt relief campaign that preceded Data (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), "the decisive moment on debt was June 1999 at the G8 Summit in Cologne where an extra Ł50 billion was promised. It wasn't all down to Bono, of course, but it would never have happened without him."
Bono will make history again this week when he follows Nelson Mandela and Clinton in addressing the Labour Party conference on Wednesday. The subject once again will be Africa, and more specifically the three issues that currently dog the continent's destiny: AIDS, unpayable debts, and unfair trade. Issues that Bono has made his own, and that he, more than any other global icon, including Mandela, has brought to world attention in recent years.
"I believe that Bono has used his celebrity status for more good than anyone who has ever used their celebrity for any cause," says Jim Leach, the moderate Republican congressman for Iowa. "He has, in effect, tackled the biggest issue of our time, which is not war, but disease control: 20 million people have died of AIDS in Africa, 40-60m are affected...he has used his position to rivet the world's attention to this pandemic. That has taken real dedication and a commitment of the kind we are not used to expecting from even the most concerned celebrities."
At a time, then, when we seem mesmerised by the empty lives of the rich and famous, Bono seems single-handedly to have grasped the idea that fame can be a means to a bigger, more morally honourable, end, his undimmed idealism now tempered by a very real and hard-earned understanding of global economics and the politics of aid.
"He has effectively become an extremely successful political operator," attests Lucy Matthew, one of the cofounders of DATA, the organisation for which he is both main player and figurehead. "Bono has a big heart but he also has political acumen. This is a guy who can hold his own among the big players. It's a 24-hour-a-day job, and somehow he still finds time to be a rock singer."
The extent to which Bono's recent commitment to campaigning has impinged on his other calling as leader of the world's biggest rock group can be measured by the fact that U2's last album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, was delivered late to the record company. Likewise their new album, the intriguingly titled How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, set for release next month. What hasn't suffered is U2's popularity and earning power: their last record sold 11m copies, making it their second biggest release after 1987's The Joshua Tree.
When they re-signed to Island Records in the early Nineties, manager Paul McGuinness, often referred to as the fifth member of U2, negotiated a then unprecedented deal giving the group ownership of their own publishing. That alone makes them them one of richest rock groups on the planet. And, while few other rock bands of their generation have even survived into the new millennium, U2 have continued to make challenging music, reinventing themselves more than once, most notably with the extraordinary state-of-the-art visuals of the Zoo TV live tour in 1992. In short, U2 have remained the benchmark for global rock success for almost three decades -- an eternity in pop terms.
From the beginning, though, U2 were different, out of step with the prevailing pop-cultural trends. For a start, they were definably and recognisably Irish, both in the unbridled emotionalism of their songs and, initially at least, their utter lack of cool. Interestingly, their trajectory from rock wannabes to global icons has directly reflected Ireland's transformation from a parochialism to a modern European state. The four band members met at Dublin's progressive Mount Temple school, and, from the off, Paul Hewson (Bono), a child of a Protestant mother and a Roman Catholic father, was the group's natural and charismatic leader. Though born in the white heat of the immediate post-punk explosion of the late Seventies, U2's music had a soaring, idealistic undertow that flew in the face of post-punk nihilism. Crucially, it was also ideally suited to the stadium venues that defined Eighties rock. U2's first defining moment in Europe was their performance at Live Aid, organised by Bono's long-term friend and associate, Bob Geldof, with whom he still campaigns.
Bono married young to his teenage sweetheart, Ali Stewart, now herself a seasoned campaigner on behalf of the victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Together they visited Ethiopia a few months after Live Aid, staying for six months to work in an orphanage, an experience that informed Bono's subsequent commitment to debt relief in Africa. Their marriage has lasted for more than 20 years, and has produced four children, Eve, Jordan, Elijah and John, their names a testament to the broad-based Christian spirituality of their father. For a while, just as the group were poised on for global success following the release of their acclaimed third album, War, in 1983, it seemed as if that same spirituality was incompatible with a rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Both Bono and lead guitarist Dave "the Edge" Evans were intent on leaving the group until McGuinness persuaded them otherwise. That same faith, though seldom articulated outside their songs, remains Bono's creative and moral raison d'ętre, and may be the defining element in why he is the biggest rock star on the planet and, perversely, why rock alone cannot contain him.
Already, those in the know are calling the new album U2's masterpiece. It is a highly charged affair, full of guitar-driven songs about big emotional, rather than political, issues, and foreshadowed by the death of Bono's father, Robert Hewson, in 2001. The title song, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," is actually an ode to his late father, who was a strong and forceful presence in his son's life. "I should have called it How to Dismantle the Atomic Bob," he quipped recently.
Thus, Bono's big adventure continues apace both in music that continues to resonate and fascinate, and in an extracurricular life that, if anything, is even more remarkable. "I don't say this lightly," says Congressman Leach, "but I think Bono is the only celebrity who should seriously be considered for the Nobel Prize for his humanitarianism. He has a depth of vision that is rare in these times, but he also possesses what I call the common man appeal. He's neither left or right, he cuts through all that to get to the core of things. He's the real deal." How long Bono can juggle two interlocking, but demanding, careers as a global pop icon and a global campaigner is anyone's guess, but, as yet, there are no signs that the incredible energy and commitment he brings to both shows any sign of letting up. On Wednesday, at the Labour Party conference, he faces one of the hardest and, ironically, smallest audiences of his performing career, but there is little doubt that he will steal the show from the likes of Blair and Brown, who would kill for one ounce of his charisma. "U2 is about the impossible," Bono once remarked, "Politics is about the art of the possible. I'm resigned to that now." We'll see.
AKA: Paul David Hewson DOB: 10 May, 1960 (Ballymun, Dublin) Family: Married Alison Stewart in 1982 (two daughters, two sons) Interests: Rock 'n' roll, activist, screenwriting, orating, amateur acting, friend of Bob Geldof
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2004.