Mick Clifford: Uncool or not, Bono is worth listening to

U2 frontman can be a pain in the neck but the world would be a poorer place without him
Mick Clifford: Uncool or not, Bono is worth listening to

Bono, The Edge, and Antytila frontman Taras Topolia with Ukrainian serviceman during a performance in a Kyiv subway station on Sunday, May 8. Bono's activism has helped untold numbers rise out of poverty but he's been subjected to a lot of criticism too. Picture: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

The week was shaping up to be another grim one until word dropped about Bono. He’s writing a memoir. The news referenced “U2 frontman Bono” as if there’s more than one Bono and you might get them mixed up.

When I heard the news that a memoir was on the way — it’s going to be called Surrender — the first thing that came into my head was Lola. 

Is he going to tell all about Lola and his trousers? Will this opus really peel back the layers of his character to give the true picture of the man behind the shades?

The prospect of a memoir from Bono is genuinely exciting. Not because it’s going to be a celebrity waffling about how he conquered the world with three chords and the truth — which he probably will do also — but because he is a person of substance.

There, I said it. Bono has something to say. He is worth listening to. There is more to him than a rich man squirrelling his money offshore to minimise his tax bill. 

He is more than the sum of parts of a band that lashes out stadium anthems. He can be a pain in the neck when he channels his inner southern Baptist preacher, but the world would be a poorer place without him.

Such talk is dangerous in today’s milieu of binary choices on everything. For there is, and not just on this island, a certain orthodoxy that has Bono down as a complete pox, as they say in his native Dublin, or simply a langer in Cork, where he first found his voice. 

To dispute such a searing analysis of a man’s character and his life’s work is to expose oneself to the danger of being called an even bigger langer. This was brought home in a social media post last Sunday. 

That was the day when it emerged that Bono and his confederate, The Edge, had flown to Kyiv, on invitation, to perform a few songs in the war effort. The pair of them gave the impromptu concert in an underground rail station in a city that is still awaiting further attacks from Putin’s bombers.

The pictures beamed out suggest it was well appreciated and deserving of commendation. Bono was in his habitual persona, wearing the clothes of a medium sent in to make people feel better about themselves. (It should be noted that the comedian Dave McSavage, who is about as rock ‘n roll as they come, also went to Ukraine in recent weeks to do his thing. He wasn’t invited, but he will be invited back).

Anyway, there was our man, just two days shy of his 62nd birthday, his band’s peak 30 years in the distant past, and he is still out there, grabbing the world’s attention, still getting stuff off his chest.

Inevitably, some of the reaction was less than generous, but the writer and actor Mark O’Halloran probably summed up the feelings of many in a tweet. “This may get me cancelled but…I think it’s good that Bono went to Ukraine. As in it was a good thing to do. And correct. That’s all I have to say on the matter.”

Therein was a begrudging acceptance that He-Who-Must-Be-Slagged had done something worthy of praise, the value of which couldn’t be disputed and had to be noted, even if the acknowledgement came at a high cost of opprobrium. Not all the good stuff he has done has gone unpunished.

His activism in the developing world has helped untold numbers survive and even rise out of abject poverty, but even here he has had his critics.

The Frontman, a book by Irish journalist Harry Browne, cast Bono as some class of an ogre, with “his paternalistic and often bullying advocacy of neoliberal solutions in Africa”. Celebrity philanthropy, the book asserted, comes in many guises, “but no single figure better encapsulates its delusions, pretensions, and wrongheadedness than U2’s iconic frontman Bono — a fact neither sunglasses nor leather pants can hide”.

So he used his money and celebrity to try to make a difference to those with the least, but he didn’t commit to reshaping the world in the image of Karl Marx? Goddamn rock stars and their notions.

The big stick used to beat Bono was his band’s decision to relocate some of their operation to the Netherlands in 2006 when tax exemption rules changed in this country. This was, as far as the received wisdom had it, hypocrisy on wheels from a man telling the rest of us we had an obligation to help the poorest on the planet. 

Sure, it wasn’t a good look, and some of the public explanations he proffered for the move were weak. But is he any different from his peers in wealth? And does that one exercise really sum up his character and contribution to the world?

Bob Dylan doesn’t think so. Here’s Mr Dylan riffing on the Finglas man in his own memoir, Chronicles: “Spending time with Bono was like eating dinner on a train, feels like you’re moving, going somewhere. Bono’s got the soul of an ancient poet and you have to be careful around him.”

Personally, I’d take Dylan’s word on anything apart from economics or who is going to win the All-Ireland Football Championship. Even Bono’s harshest critics would have to admit that he has some redeeming features.

He doesn’t take himself, and certainly not his status, too seriously. Crucially for somebody in a line of work that is supposed to wear cool as a judge wears a gown, he has never been afraid to be completely uncool.

All of which brings us to Lola, and a court case which I covered back in 2005. U2 were suing former stylist Lola Cashman for misappropriating a few bits and bobs from the band when she was fired. These included a Stetson hat and a pair of Bono’s trousers. 

Nowhere is a rock star more exposed than in a court of law attempting to retrieve his trousers from a stylist. During Bono’s evidence, an issue over trouser sizes and fluctuating weight was addressed by Lola’s barrister.

“You may have put on a little bit of weight [at some point],” the lawyer ventured, his tenor delicate in deference to where he was going. Bono paused, and a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “It happened to Elvis,” he said.

Only he could get away with that. Self-confidence wrapped in self-deprecation, well aware that he’s no Elvis, but sure, isn’t he doing alright at the same time, his name up there in lights, a glint in his eye, and all he wants is his trousers returned.

The book should be good, but don’t worry — if he lays it on too thick, I’ll let you know.

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