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Bono's new memoir 'Surrender' details his long career in music and activism
Amna Nawaz: Fourteen studio albums, 170 million records sold, 22 Grammys, more than any other band, and legendary live shows and global tours, the only band in history with number one albums on the Billboard 200 in four consecutive decades, starting in the 1980s.
By any measure, U2 is one of the world's biggest bands, and their lead singer, Bono, one of music's biggest stars. He's telling his own story in a new memoir, and recently sat down with Jeffrey Brown to talk about it, part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: U2, one of the greatest and most enduring of all rock bands.
Bono, its lead singer, now looking back at how it all began and what made it work.
Bono, Musician: Megalomania started at a early age.
Bono: I have — in U2, we just — we knew we had something. We didn't — it just wasn't very musical.
My friend used to say about a band, he would say, they have everything but it.
Jeffrey Brown: But it.
Bono: But it.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Bono: Yes. He would, they look good, they have got everything but it.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.
Bono: U2 only had it.
Jeffrey Brown: Whatever it is U2, Bono, guitar player The Edge, born David Evans, bassist Adam Clayton, drummer Larry Mullen, has had it for more than 40 years.
And Bono has not only been the front man for the band, but long ago developed a different kind of voice as a leading activist lobbying world leaders to do more to advance global health and development.
Bono: You know, this — people have come from — to help us from all over.
Jeffrey Brown: We met recently in New York at his organization RED, which focuses on fighting AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
In his new memoir, "Surrender," he writes of it all, beginning with a young boy born Paul David Hewson in Dublin who didn't get much encouragement to think big.
Bono: It's an Irish thing, I suppose, growing up in the '70s. My father, his kind of view on life was, don't dream, actually.
Jeffrey Brown: Don't dream?
Bono: Sort of, to dream is to be disappointed, because he was very, very capable. He was really talented.
And he was like, just get yourself through, get a job. He worked in the post office. It's funny the things that are locked inside people. And my whole life is pledged to the idea really of trying to unlock potential.
The squandering of human potential is the thing I grew up fighting against, one of the things I grew up fighting against.
Jeffrey Brown: Perhaps the most personal and painful part of the book, the sudden death of his mother, Iris, from a brain aneurysm when Bono was 14. He describes himself, his older brother, Norman, and their father as three lost souls pretending they could just move on.
"In our house, when she died," he writes, "she was never spoken of again. My fear was worse than, that we rarely thought of her again."
That's a painful last line.
Bono: Yes. Yes. Some of this stuff was hard to write.
But the book was partly about finding those memories. Well, the emptiness is there to be filled, isn't it? It's the void. My own family was — my father and my brother Norman, we're all Irish males screaming at each other and the television set, and kind of facing off and squaring off with each other.
It was — the home just became a house. And my whole life would be really the pursuit of home and the alternate families to get.
Jeffrey Brown: A lucky man, he found those families in one place, his school. He met Ali Stewart, now his wife of 40 years, when he was 13. And the members of U2 were classmates who got together as teenagers.
That was quite a school.
Bono: Rock, rock, rock and roll high school. Ramones sang that.
Jeffrey Brown: In his book, Bono cites punk bands like the Ramones, as well as legendary singer, performer and actor David Bowie as leading influences.
And he describes the work that went into finding his own voice and style.
Bono: I wasn't a great rock 'n' roll singer. I'm still not really. I can sing, but rock 'n' roll is a kind of — like, the barking dog, the great rock 'n' roll singers, like Mick Jagger or whatever, you know.
Jeffrey Brown: So what are you?
Bono: It's a feminine sound in a way. It's not that macho — it's not a shouting at you thing. I am shouting at you, but my voice isn't.
Jeffrey Brown: The band's first album, "Boy," in 1980 was a critical success, and they were well on their way.
But there was always another thread to the U2 story. Three of the members, Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen, were and are deeply spiritual, Christians without attachment to organized religion.
You can hear it everywhere in the songs, which in some cases Bono refers to as akin to biblical Psalms.
Bono: Yes, my life is very influenced by Judeo-Christian and this idea that, if there's a force of love and logic behind the universe — and I believe there is — that it is — it may be absurd that this force of love and — might be interested in the detail of our lives, but I choose to believe that.
And I can't live up to it, unfortunately. That's the big problem. But I meet it in so many places. I meet it in both music, painting that takes me to that. I suppose the word is awe. But the Americans have ruined that word.
Bono: Awesome. No.
Jeffrey Brown: I'm sorry.
Bono: It's like, no. Actually, it's a great word, awesome. But I like awe.
Jeffrey Brown: Bono describes one moment, though, where the need for higher purpose almost derailed the band, until their manager brought them back to earth.
Bono: We go…
Bono: And we say, we want to cancel the next tour and the next hour.
And he's an extraordinary man, Paul McGuinness, the Winston Churchill of rock. And he goes: "So, let me get this right. You have been talking to God, have you?"
And I'm like — the three of us are like: "Well, sort of, yes, yes."
"And he wants you to be — to not do this tour and that kind of thing?"
"So, how is God with legal contracts? I mean, because I have signed on your behalf."
Bono: And we were like, oh, yes, you wouldn't want to break a legal contract.
Jeffrey Brown: No contracts were broken.
Instead, the band found a way forward, and Bono found a way to mix the music with a high-profile, high-stakes social activism that brought him to different kinds of world stages.
We will explore that in part two of our talk with Bono.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.
Amna Nawaz: You can tune in tomorrow for part two of Jeff's conversation with Bono.
And online right now, you can watch Bono read an excerpt from his new memoir. That's on our Instagram account.