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A botched hatchet job on Bono

Irish Independent, June 09, 2013
By: Brendan O'Connor

 

THERE are many shock revelations about the rock star and global activist Bono in Harry Browne's new book The Frontman – Bono (In the name of power). Among other things, Browne sensationally alleges that Bono is a capitalist, that he has a large ego, playing, for example, to the cameras at Live Aid.

Browne also slams Bono for his opposition to illegal file sharing and his support of the iTunes method of selling music, implying that Bono actually wants to be paid for his music. Browne claims further that U2 were, in fact, a mediocre band when they started out and one of the main reasons they did well was all down to the charm and stagecraft of the singer. Apart from charm and stage presence, all Bono contributed to early U2 was banal lyrics and what was "then still a fairly ordinary voice".

Browne also makes the outrageous suggestion that U2 were a few months late in coming to punk. "In fact", he says, "U2 played covers of songs by middle-of-the-road chart acts such as Peter Frampton, The Eagles and The Moody Blues well into 1977, many months after The Sex Pistols had released Anarchy in the UK." Other accusations include the fact that "Bono and the band had successfully used their Irishness as a calling card in the US" – and we know how that guarantees megstardom; just ask all the other Irish bands who have conquered America trading off being Irish.

U2 are also more middle class than they let on, according to Browne. When Bono says the band is from the northside of Dublin, according to Browne, he may be geographically correct but "Northside and Southside are states of mind as much as states of geography", and Bono and the boys are not truly Northside.

For example, Browne admits that we do not know if the word "Northside" carried a capital N in Bono's mind's eye when he drawled it outside the Lincoln Memorial, at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert. But if we assume that Bono had a capital N in his head when he described the band as four lads from the Northside, and he meant the state of mind, then Bono is guilty of myth-making about his band as well. But if he meant northside the place, small n, well then that's OK. We need to ask Bono. Let's hope he remembers whether he had a capital letter in his mind's eye. These are the kind of knots Harry Browne ties himself into in order to do a hatchet job on Bono.

It renders this book an exhausting diatribe that all too often picks holes in a petty manner, mainly, it seems from reading it, because Browne found it difficult to get the proper juice on Bono.

In the absence of the real juice, we get bizarre supposition. For example, when Bono edited the UK Independent the words 'Genesis 1:27' appeared on the cover. The verse in question is "God created man in his own image, in the image of God ... ".

Browne actually infers from this that because journalists apparently are likely to refer to the editor as God, Bono was "at least auditioning" for the role of God.

The thing is that Harry didn't have to be so petty to get at Bono. He didn't have to twist himself in such knots. As Browne acknowledges himself, it's easy to write a book excoriating Bono. And such a book should be easy to read too. But Harry makes heavy weather of it. If he had stuck to the two big areas where legitimate, important questions might be asked, and researched and analysed them properly, and brought some new insights to them, he could have written a great book.

The first of these is the fact that U2 moved a big part of their operation to Holland when the artists' tax exemption was changed in Ireland. Secondly, there is the controversy that surrounds Bono's activism on debt relief and Aids in Africa, the kind of people Bono broke bread with to achieve his aims, and all the questions that surround the very complex area of how best to help Africa.

A thorough teasing out of the issues in both of these areas would have made for a fascinating book.

But even on these issues Browne fails to answer the most fundamental questions. He says at the outset that he refuses to accept the benign notion proffered by many that Bono "means well" with his activism, yet he fails to provide any other real motivation.

But the main problem is that, long before we get to these issues, we have to sit through Browne's petty sifting through various aspects of Bono's history and personality to show how it is all wrong. So much so that Browne has very little credibility left by the time he hits the big issues.

When Browne does get to the big issues, he doesn't have any new light to shed on them. He admits that it is difficult to understand how U2's money works given the network of interrelated companies they operate. He gives a few examples of these companies and the movement of money between them, and then admits defeat. To the untrained eye, he says, the detail is baffling and thin on the ground. So maybe then someone with a trained eye should have written this book.

Instead, Browne tries another tack – which is to say that U2's involvement in the Clarence Hotel and the proposed U2 tower being developed by the Dublin Docklands Authority (DDDA) meant that Bono and co "were just another set of jumped up property speculators, more of the well-connected bubble blowers who cost the country so dear".

Except it appears U2 cost the country nothing in this regard. Not only does Browne not show how U2's property development cost the country anything, he is actually forced to admit on the same page that U2 themselves wrote off millions in loans to Clarence Hotel-related companies. Their involvement in the U2 tower, which was to involve them selling their studios to the DDDA in return for the top of the tower, also cost them money, according to Browne. Though there is, it has to be said, a funny anecdote here about how Bono, speaking about the project at the time, talked about how Dublin in the past was defaced and vandalised through corruption, but how the DDDA knew what they were doing and their plan constituted the best thing for the city. Knowing what we now know about the DDDA, it just shows that even God is fallible.

Browne throws around other property innuendo, noting that U2 were involved with Paddy McKillen and Derek Quinlan in the Clarence, something U2 have never made a secret of, even thanking their property developer friends on album liner notes. Browne also notes that Anglo financed some of the Clarence's dealings. But he comes up with nothing concrete about their property misadventures other than the rather lame "but it knocked them off the moral high ground".

Throw a load of innuendo around but actually prove nothing is a common tactic in this book. For example (RED), one of Bono's aid projects whereby various brands from Armani to Apple branded products (RED) and gave donations from the proceeds, is criticised for only making $200m in its first six years. There is vague innuendo about the fact that there are offices in two cities and 22 staff, who Browne "assumes" get "competitive salaries". Two hundred million dollars is better than nothing, it has to be said, and we all know charities with more than 22 people on the payroll who raise much less than 30 million dollars a year. The best innuendo about (RED) has to be this one though: "Bono has never been remunerated for his (RED) work, it seems." It seems? Meaning he hasn't?

The real problem Browne has with (RED) of course is that it was driven by consumption and capitalism. Often in this book you get the impression that Browne's real problem with things is that they offend his radical politics.

Indeed, one of the central problems he has with U2, you suspect, is something that he deals with early on in the book. Bono was too critical of the IRA, or, in Browne's words: "In keeping with the now established consensus of most of their class in the republic, they probably believed the Provisional IRA to be thugs and murderers whose campaign of violence must somehow be stopped. . . It would have been unwise in the Ireland of the 1980s and early 1990s for U2 to adopt anything other than this. . . studied pseudo-neutrality that was essentially an endorsement of the political status quo". Probably believing the IRA to be murderers and believing their campaign of violence should be stopped is just not good enough in Browne's book.

In fact, all too often, this book is not actually critical of Bono, it is critical of what Bono is not, what he should be. Browne, in many ways, hasn't a huge problem with what Bono does but he has a massive problem with what Bono should be doing; what Browne thinks Bono should be doing. For example, in summing up the book, Browne berates Bono for not getting involved in the Shell to Sea movement, and for not doing more for the plight of immigrants in Ireland. So having berated Bono for the activism he does do, Browne then berates for the activism he doesn't do.

By picking two causes, Bono should clearly be involved in all causes in Browne's mind.

When dealing with Bono's activism internationally, Browne again berates Bono at every turn for not being what Browne wants him to be, which is essentially a hard-left revolutionary activist working to overthrow the status quo. Because Bono is not this, he has let Browne down, and thus, this book. Bono has acknowledged many times that he has danced with the devil in order to get what he wants in terms of debt relief and money to fight Aids in Africa. His bandmates have made their feelings known on the matter too. But Bono has stuck with it. As Browne quotes him as saying: "It's much more glamorous to be on the barricades with a handkerchief over your nose than to have a bowler and a briefcase and go to work, but that's the way to get work done. It's uncool. It's incredibly unhip, but it's the way to get it done."

In other words Bono has chosen to work from within the status quo, even if he is vaguely uncomfortable with that. He has achieved a lot, as even Browne will acknowledge: a certain amount of debt relief and lots of money for Aids relief, including billions from George W Bush. Browne does not accept this and indeed thinks that Bono has merely purified some of the worst war criminals of our time by associating with them and by associating them with things like debt relief.

There is an interesting argument to be had here, about who used who, and there is an interesting discussion around our good-deed attitude to Africa and "colonial rescue narratives". But Browne is not the man to do it. He is too weak on the facts and the insight, and he is too consumed with his agendas and prejudices and his ideas of what he thinks Bono should be. Browne offers nothing here that we haven't read before, and much of what he says is backed up by flimsy supposition and quantum leaps. For example, he pretty much infers from one interview with one guy that Bono doesn't give any money to charity.

Bono and the world he moves in are interesting and complex. Love him or hate him he is one of the best-known Irish people ever and has a fascinating life full of fascinating people. That he has stayed sane at all, and that he manages to lead a relatively normal life in many ways is incredible. The world of international politics he moves in is a world where good men and bad men compromise, where people are not always what they seem. Bono has always seemed to acknowledge the ridiculousness of that world and of his place in it and of the ego that got him there. He has never denied that his approach, like Geldof's in its day, is pragmatic rather than revolutionary.

Some real insight into it all that could have made for a great book. But, instead, Browne's book is a diatribe that does Bono a huge favour. Because you finish this book mainly thinking that some of what Bono has done may be imperfect but what the f**k has Browne ever done?

(c) Independent, 2013.

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