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"I can cry when I'm singing, literally. I can get very, very into it."

-- Bono

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Raised By Bob

@U2, June 17, 2018
By: Tim Neufeld

 

June 17, 2018, Dublin.

As I write this, sitting just a few miles from Bono’s old home on Cedarwood Road, Father’s Day has already started in the early morning hours of Ireland. It’s got me thinking about what it means to be a father (missing my own boys who are home back in California), and reflecting on how impossibly difficult life after Iris must have been in the Hewson home. When Bono’s mother died, everything changed. In U2 By U2, Bono recalls: 

My mother died and then there were just three men living on their own in a house. That is all it was then, it ceased being a home. It was just a house, with three men killing each other slowly, not knowing what to do with our sense of loss and just taking it out on each other.

The loss of Iris must have been unimaginably painful for Bob, Bono’s father. They had loved each other through difficult circumstances. Considered indecent and immoral, their interdenominational marriage — not even legal in some places of Ireland — defied the accepted norms of a segregated Dublin, a city that was deeply divided by religion. But the division didn’t rattle Bob. Years later, on Sundays, he would drop off Iris and their two sons at the Protestant congregation, drive over to the Catholic Church for Mass, then return to pick up the rest of his family.

That sectarianism, in an odd way, had a positive effect on Bono. In 2005, reflecting on his mother and father’s marriage, he told Michka Assayas: “They saw the absurdity of the fuss made over their union. … One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God.” This tolerance is something that shows up loud and clear in every recent U2 concert.

Bob and Iris had a loving relationship. It was in the Crystal Ballroom, a Dublin dance hall later renamed McGonagles, that they met. Bono told Brian Boyd in a 2015 interview:

My mother and father used to dance together in the Crystal Ballroom, so that song [“The Crystal Ballroom”] … is me imagining I’m on the stage of McGonagles with this new band I’m in called U2 — and we did play a lot of our important early gigs there. And I look out into the audience and I see my mother and father dancing romantically together to U2 on the stage.

Bob’s unwavering love for Iris, as well as his religious open-mindedness, was a nurturing example for Bono, fostering values that remain evident today.

But life at 10 Cedarwood Road was rough after Iris was gone. Bob ran the house with military precision, assigning tasks to the sons that would have normally been done by his wife. Arguments and fights were common when the three broken hearts of father and sons collided. The conflict between Bono and his brother Norman was especially intense. One day during a particularly big scuffle, Bono threw a knife at Norman. He recalled the event with Assayas:

It stuck into the door: boing… And he looked down at it, and I looked at it. And I realized: I didn’t mean to, but I could have killed him. And I think both of us wept, and both of us admitted that we were just angry at each other because we didn’t know how to grieve.

The Hewson men argued. Lots. Bob was a strong disciplinarian and never wanted his sons to question his authority. But Bono has said that he provoked most of the unpleasantness; he was a real “pain in the arse.” He would sneak out to punk rock concerts, stay out late, then climb up a two-story drain pipe to evade detection back home. “After my mother died,” Bono told Assayas, “I think I tortured my brother and my father.”

The father-son contention persisted until Bob’s death. Bono describes his last days with Bob in Fathers+Sons:

I was lying on a mattress in Beaumont Hospital beside his bed, having flown home after a U2 show in London. My father woke up in the middle of the night, anxious and whispering. His Parkinson’s disease had taken some of his beautiful tenor away. The whispers were percussive, animated. I called the nurse and we both leaned in to try and make out what he was saying. Through the strained rasping, loud and clear, burst “F*** off!” Then, “I want to go home. I need to go home.” And he did.

Not long after Bob’s death, on an Easter Sunday in a little village in France, Bono had a moment of reconciliation with his father. He told Assayas:

An emotional volcano had gone off . … I just got down on my knees, and I let go of whatever anger I had against my father. And I thanked God for him being my father, and for the gifts that I have been given through him. And I let go of that. I wept, and I felt rid of it.

In a Best Buy promotional note included with customers’pre-order purchases for How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, Bono let fans know that the album was also about his quest for peace with his father, declaring that it could also be called “How to dismantle an atomic Bob.” Bono reflected, “His demise set me off on a journey, a rampage, a desperate hunt to find out who I was.” Listeners can hear hints of his rage in “Volcano” (“Volcano / You don’t wanna, you don’t wanna know / Volcano / Something in you wants to blow”), and his haunting pursuit of identity in “Invisible” (“I finally found my real name / I won’t be me when you see me again / No, I won’t be my father’s son”). 

In “Kite,” a song he sang at his father’s funeral, it sounds like a son trying to prove himself to his father: “I’m a man, I’m not a child / I’m a man who sees the shadow behind your eyes.” And in “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” another song he sang at the funeral as well as a tune he dedicated to Bob on the Vertigo tour, the conflict surfaces again: “Well, hey now, still got to let you know / A house doesn't make a home, don't leave me here alone.”

Bono’s father had to carry away the wife he dearly loved from the graveside of her own father. What must that do to a man? A son? A family? In “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” the frontman offers what I think might be a bit of commentary on the conflicted relationship, singing, “There is a silence that comes to a house where no one can sleep” and “When I was all messed up and I heard opera in my head / Your love was a light bulb hanging over my bed.” But, amazingly, the grief turned to gratitude in later years. Reporting on Bob’s funeral, The Irish Timeswrote, “He [Bono] dedicated the song 'Kite' to [Bob] and told the thousands of fans: ‘I want to thank my old man, my father, for giving me this voice.’” 

Bono came to terms with the conflict by finding solace and healing in music. That’s not so different from his father, who would fill the house with opera, waving knitting needles in the air as he conducted an imaginary ensemble. Sometimes it takes a lifetime for a son to find his own name. Sometimes it takes the pain of loss to find the joy of release. Sometimes a child and father fight before learning neither of them can make it on their own.

In Fathers+Sons, Bono recalled sitting in the hospital and drawing pictures of Bob while he slept as a way “to meditate on what a special, talented man I had been given for a father.” He continued, “All my creativity comes from him.” Bono had found a relationship in death that hadn’t seemed possible in life. His Bob had been dismantled. 

Illustration by Kelly Eddington

(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2018



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