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Host Rachel Martin sits down with the lead singer of U2 to talk about his new memoir, Surrender: 40 songs, One Story. Bono says his faith has been at the center of everything he's done. His 40 year marriage, the relationships with his band members, his activism and his music.
Hey, it's Rachel with a question.
Everybody remembers their first big concert.
Mine was Ario Speedwagon, and I will defend that experience till I die.
But what about the first concert that really moved you?
Made you see things in a different way.
For me, it was you too.
It was the summer of 2005, the Vertigo Tour.
There they were, Bono and the Mic, the Edge on Guitar, Adam Clayton on bass, and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums.
The crowd starts singing along within the name of love and then Bono elevates the moment.
Sing for Dr. King.
For Dr. King's dream.
The dream where everyone is created equal under the eyes of God.
I love that show so inspired that I actually wrote an email to everyone I knew with the title, Do, Act, Be, about how all of us have just one life and we've got to use it well.
Sentimental, earnest, a tad bit preachy, yeah.
But all that can be used to describe you too.
And Bono doesn't apologize for any of it.
My life is focused on a definition of love that I seem to have just sort of written into me, which is that love is the realizing of another's potential.
Realizing of your own, but another's potential.
And the squandering of potential is a thing that infuriates me more than anything else.
Today on Up for Sunday, a deeply intimate conversation with the front man for you too about his new memoir.
It's called Surrender, 40 Songs, One Story.
And just a heads up, Bono is Bono.
And he uses the full range of the English vocabulary, including some colorful language.
So you're right through here.
These people look like fun.
These people look fun.
What's your name?
I've interviewed a lot of famous people over the years.
But I will confess to you that when I met Bono, I was nervous.
Shall I sit here?
Can I have a serve?
It's nice to see you too.
I'm really good to see you.
We settle into our chairs at our studio in New York.
Bono's wearing those rose colored glasses.
He always does.
Yes, it's a look, but it's also because of a long time issue with his vision that I didn't know.
I happen to be wearing this necklace, a big owl hanging from a pendant.
And just when Bono and I are catching our vibe and getting into the conversation, my producer comes in to tell me to take it off because it's rattling the mic.
It's a whole thing.
You're messing with Rachel's vibe here.
I know, I'm playing.
I love that owl.
She's living her life.
She's expressing herself.
He's already performing.
And after the kind of life that Bono has led, it's a natural default setting.
The man is good at reading a room and giving the audience what they're looking for.
He has done it in all kinds of settings his whole life.
You know in a talk show, you gotta be funny.
At a university, you've gotta be more learned and more serious.
And I just wanted to be all the different selves I had.
And I put my multi-personality disorder to work for this.
Rachel is what I'm saying.
I wanna hear more of that later.
I wanna hear more from all of you.
All your persons.
All different versions of Bono.
The angsty teenager from Dublin who lost his mother at 14.
The audacious lead singer of U2.
The father, the husband, the activist.
All of them show up in his new memoir.
But there's also a lot in the book about Bono's faith.
And that's where I wanted to focus our conversation.
So we got started.
By way of shaping the rest of our conversation, I'm gonna ask a specific question that's not nearly probably as easy to answer.
What was the most consequential decision you've ever made?
When I asked Alison Stewart as she was known, then I think asking her out was the most important thing.
I would say that first surrender.
I mean, I'm 15 or 16.
What do I know of unconditional love?
But I may not know what it is, but I know what it isn't.
So when I find it, it connects me spiritually as well as personally.
And that happens to be the same week as I join you two.
So this was a very big week.
It was the same week?
Yep, that's the very first U2 rehearsal.
The date I asked Ali out on here.
We have to just say out loud for people who don't know.
You are still married to Alison.
Yeah, yeah, I'm still married.
And I wonder if sometimes we do have what we need around us that's there.
I certainly felt and have continually felt that the people I need are right there.
It also does require some wisdom to be able to see not just the good around you and these people, but then to work to keep them around you for so long.
To not jeopardize the relationships.
Don't have that wisdom, find people who have it.
So I've found, I would say Ali had more wisdom than I.
I would say, you know, in the band, there's collective wisdom there as well as individual.
And for Bono, wisdom comes when you test your ideas with people with whom you disagree.
And he disagreed a lot with his dad.
It was hard after Bono's mom died.
And he, his dad, and his older brother Norman weren't able to talk to each other about their grief and fights about little things became big things as can happen when people are hurt and defensive.
And when Bono made it clear, he wanted to pursue this dream of making it big in music.
His dad was less than supportive.
Did he appreciate your musicality?
Did he think you had a good voice?
In the end, yeah, in the end, and medium term, I'd say he was coming around.
I was gonna call the book, The Baritone Who Thinks He's a Tenor, because that's what my dad used to say.
You are a baritone who thinks he's a tenor.
And it's very accurate of me as a personality, I think.
What does that mean that it captures something about your personality?
I punch over my weight.
I'm only interested in punching over my weight.
I'm always picking fights with people I shouldn't.
You know, you know, as a kid, that was who I am.
I think my father would say it's above your station.
Might be a little bit.
Whenever someone says that, I get all Irish on them.
And you know, rock and roll, where I come from, is rooted in defiance.
I loved that moment in the book where you talk about the moments right after he died.
He suffered from cancer.
And will you tell it, your voice changed after he died?
This is a very unscientific theory I have, Rachel.
It's a kind of folksy idea, really, that when someone you love leaves you, you know, there might be a kind of gift in their past.
Like a living will in testament for you or something.
And I think I might have become the tenor.
My voice certainly changed.
But that also had something to do with, and this is not a unique phenomenon.
When a loved one is missing from your life, as you know, in a manifestation, as physical manifestation, their essence becomes kind of strong.
And I had to put a few things right with my father.
So I had this moment where I apologized to him, and I went to a little chapel, and I apologized to my father for not being there for him, really, at times.
It must have been difficult when my mother died, and I was just your teenage nightmare, and my brother was doing the best he could.
He was doing the, people at Mirold were doing the best we could, and he had some other things that were going on that were really tearing at him.
And I just felt an incredible release in that moment.
And my voice opens up, and there's a physiological reason for that too, because if you are more relaxed as a person, your voice does open up.
And I'm singing in a way that I, in the last few years I've been singing in ways I could never, I've imagined I could sing, because I never thought of myself as a singer, really, up until relatively recently.
You also wrote that your dad said, near the end of his life, that the most interesting thing about you was your spirituality, was your religion.
My faith, yeah.
He was brilliant.
He had faith, and he lost it, you know, and people do, just when you need it.
You know, he was dying, and I write in the book about going in to see him, and I was reading him bits of scripture, and he was kind of giving me the hairy eyeball.
It was a little bit, oh, you knock it off.
And I was so sad for him that he didn't have that, because he had always said to me things like, you know, this stuff, this God stuff, the two-way conversation thing.
The prayer thing?
Yeah, he was like, I don't experience that, but you shouldn't give that up.
And because it's the most interesting thing about you, he'd say.
It was, again, a classic Bob Heeson.
I mean, was that sort of a slight to you?
I mean, yeah, but he was, he was a musician.
And now you're picking it up.
His compliments would arrive, either with a tickle or a boxing glove, you know.
And I remember when I'm recording you two's first album, he's like, you know, what are you doing?
And I said, I've just been recording the album in a recording studio, and he's like, you've been doing that for weeks.
And I said, yeah, it's three weeks.
This is the last week.
And he says, how long is an album?
And I'd say it was about 40, I remember, and he's like, come on, you get it right.
Get it right.
You write in the book on your religion, as you're talking about your faith.
If I was in a cafe right now, and someone said, stand up, if you're ready to give your life to Jesus, I'd be the first to my feet.
I operate around, let's call it, a Judeo-Christian sort of set of principles.
And I have a friend, a metaphysician, brilliant mind, academic, who's an atheist, who says to me, when I have these conversations, look, if there is a force of love and logic, as you think there is behind the universe, there's some extraordinary poetic genius that would express itself, that vast force, in the child born in shit and straw.
And that's what I believe.
But maybe that's all I believe.
Love God, and love your neighbor, as you love yourself.
Now, a lot of people drop off that last one, the respect for who you are, yourself.
But there it is.
And, you know, it's not that complicated.
Did your band share your not religious fervor, religious seems like the wrong word.
But your focus, your preoccupation with faith.
They still do.
At first, Adam was just like, oh, man.
You know, he's like, he had just won the In-Life, which was just four strings are better than six.
He's a bass player, just wants to be in, like, the badass rock and roll band.
And like, oh, my God, he won't write songs about girls.
He's writing songs, oh, God.
But he stood by me, you know, and stood by us in our devotion.
You know, I mean, could you imagine Ireland in the 70s?
It's a civil war, all but a civil war.
The country's dividing along sectarian lines.
You know, my father was very suspicious of religion, because he married, he was a Catholic and married Protestant.
And this was like, whoa, we don't do religion in our house for obvious reasons.
And let me just underscore the obvious reasons here.
For about 30 years, from the late 1960s to the late 90s, Ireland was in a low-level civil war.
The country was divided over politics and religion.
A lot of Catholics and Protestants reviled one another.
They didn't let their kids play with each other, let alone marry.
Each side claimed to be fighting in the name of God.
This was the Ireland, Bono, and the rest of the band grew up in.
I was very suspicious and still am a little suspicious of religious people.
I mean, religion is often a club that people use to beat someone else over the head with.
And we learned that.
I learned that at a very early age in Ireland.
You write that a lot of U2's music, though, is grounded in the feeling, the emotion, even the structure of a hymn.
Yeah, Edge's family were Welsh.
If you've never heard crowds singing at a Welsh-Irish rugby match, the stadium filled with song, and they sing these huge hymns, and the Welsh sing as a crowd really, really well.
And it's in him, it's in Edge, those fifths.
And that's the feeling we've been looking for in our music.
Yes, we want punk rock, we want it to be brutal, we want it to be tough-minded, we want it to have big tunes, but the ecstatic music is sort of part of who we are.
I still haven't found what I'm looking for.
You say explicitly in that song, there's some kind of root of that.
Yeah, that's a gospel song.
It's a Sam, if you wanted to...
What's a Sam?
Sorry, did I not pronounce that right?
It's a Psalm.
Is that how you say it?
I don't know.
Rachel, you're so posh.
I'm from Idaho, I don't know if that's my particular dialect.
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.
After the break, why Bono says he's a bad Christian and the trade-offs of ambition.
I promise it's worth coming back for.
Welcome back to Up for Sunday.
Okay, where was I?
Right, I was busy being mortified that I had just shamed Bono about how he pronounces the word Psalm, like the Psalms in the Bible.
But Bono didn't miss a beat.
Instead, he used the moment to wax on about the poetic structure of Bible verses.
The interesting thing about Hebrew is that in the Psalms, ideas rhyme, not just vowels or consonants.
With a quick pivot to American beat poets.
They're getting to know Alan Ginsberg, Kaddish, Howl, Jack Harowak, Steinbeck.
And mere breaths later, he's telling me how King David from the Bible could shred on the harp and was actually the world's first rock star.
Have you ever seen the statue of David in Italy?
Does that now look like Elvis Teal?
I mean, seriously.
Do you mind this interview going this as a terror?
Because I love the shit.
This is my thing, man.
This is my jam.
Because so- It is a journey, but it's also sort of amazing to watch the ideas running through his head at the same time.
But I'm in control of this interview, right?
So I dutifully bring it back to the book and the music.
I loved the bit where Paul McGuinness, your longtime manager, says to you, the music that you are making, it can't be contained by Europe.
Oh, the Americans will figure it out.
The Americans are going to get you.
They're going to dig what you're doing.
Because it was about the emotion you were putting into it, and somehow that made sense to him that this place, America, was going to connect with it in a way that Europe didn't.
Clever man, Paul McGuinness, our manager for 30 years.
He thought that rock and roll as it came out of the UK was presently obsessed with being cool.
And that wasn't you guys?
Well, you know, not really.
I mean, we went on top of the Pops, just the only TV music show every weekly.
And we're the only band whose song went down the charts.
Golly, golly, the sun is burning black.
Golly, golly, you're beating on my back with a fire.
But what Paul was discerning was that we'd make more sense in America, that my lyrics would make more sense, and that Americans would perhaps understand the duality of what we were doing, the blues and gospel, that tension, you know, that sort of paradoxical essence of YouTube.
Angel in little shoes, salvation in the blues, you never look like a angel.
Yeah, yeah, angel of heart.
You constantly, though, felt the need to reinvent yourself or your music.
Working on a new version of it now.
I can feel as I walk out of here.
Something new is going to happen.
Something new is going to happen.
Did your band always share that drive?
I do have, I've been confessing this recently, but I do have, I know, an annoying gene.
It's an irritant, even to me.
It dates back to punk rock and a sort of almost, there I said, covenant, not contract, with our audience, which is just take whatever you have and just take it to as far as you can take it.
You don't worry about, you know, the filthy looker, you don't worry about where your kids are going on holidays, or where you're going on holidays, or where they're going to school, or all these normal financial worries that are so burdensome for most people.
That's what happens when you become famous and you start to get paid for what you would do for free.
Don't think that being at number one means that you're the best.
You might be the biggest, but don't confuse those two's, biggest and best.
So we've always tried to, been trying to write the best song, trying to make the best album.
Once you know what you're doing, it's over.
So the way we've avoided that is keep changing around what we do.
Like our last couple of albums, they were really song based albums.
We hadn't done that, you know, we became students of songwriting again.
And we said, really you're going to become students of songwriting again?
Haven't you written a few good tunes?
Yeah, but I'd like to write some more.
The way you write some more is you enter areas that you don't understand, you learn.
You can't really sit down for 45 minutes with Bono to talk about his life without getting into his activism.
He has spent decades pushing governments around the world to do more to eradicate global hunger and HIV AIDS, especially in Africa.
Most of that work has happened through his organization, The One Campaign.
And his book is full of stories about meetings with heads of state and lobbying the world's richest people to put money toward these causes.
Bono told me the seeds of that work were planted when you two began touring.
Activism came out of seeing what was going on in the wider world.
I also want to tell you, just being on the road for rock and roll band, waking up in Madrid, waking up in Berlin, waking up in, you know, Memphis, Tennessee.
This was extraordinary to be traveling your country or Europe or Australia.
Blew my mind.
And as the years went on, there were more hit albums and bigger tours and higher goals for The One Campaign.
And he could not see how to scale back.
He didn't want to.
The world was so big, there was so much to do.
So how did you hold those two selves at the same time?
You, who is touring, making music, performing, advocating on behalf of The One Campaign and hunger programs.
And your wife and home and your kids?
Well, yes, the only question.
That's the only question that matters.
And one of the reasons I have written that book, I said something for you right there, is because I wanted to explain to myself and to my family and to my friends what I've been doing, actually in the case of the family, with their life, because they permissioned me to be away.
Ali covered for me with the kids, but the kids knew they participated in those decisions.
And it wasn't just, you know, being off, running away with the circus.
It was other extracurricular activity, mission creep, you could call it.
They understood that it was key values of you two that were being worked out here.
Key values of the band, I mean.
So it wasn't, they would cause tension in the band at times.
It was broadly a reflection of all of our values.
You write that the scriptures, and I'm quoting here, remain a plumb line to gauge how crooked the wall of my ego has become.
Your words, man.
How dare you.
Did I write that?
How crooked is the wall of your ego?
At the moment, it's on MPO here.
I'm just kidding.
I mean, you got a book out.
It's just, you know, it's swelling.
You quote them a lot.
You have even in the course of our interview, what do those words give you when it comes to checking yourself?
I don't, I just, I think it's important though, Rachel, that I don't want to give people an easy label for me.
You know, because if they see me ordering an extra bushmills Irish whiskey and giving it loads in some bar, and then I go, there he is.
There's the pilgrim.
The drinking Christian.
There's the pilgrim.
Yeah, not making much progress, is he?
And the answer to your question is yes, and it's a daily practice, but I'm not very good at it.
So, you know, I just don't, I, you know, I can wear the badge if you want, but I'm not sure I can live up to it.
But isn't that the whole point of it?
Is that no one can, it's, the whole thing is aspirational.
It's about, it's about the process.
I just never want to be putting myself as some kind of moral leader because I just can't live up to it.
But if you ask me a question like that, I have to answer honestly, and yes, I'd be in deep shit if it wasn't for my faith.
You write that there is a risk of always seeking to be filled with the extraordinary.
Are there trade-offs with always pursuing that?
The high of the performance, which you have described as like shamanism to some degree, to stand on those stages and connect with an audience in that way.
Or being at the center of an activism campaign, lobbying the president of the United States, you know, having conversations with world leaders.
The search for the extraordinary is something I have to, I have to own up to.
And I may have to reframe it.
And because why? Because there is a cost to it?
Because it's Everest. You know, you know, if you, it is my drug of choice is doing really difficult things.
And at a certain point in time, it just shut up and listen is kind of where I'm at at the moment.
You, you and me, I just need to be more silent.
And to surrender to my band has been at the core of what I'm trying to do my life, surrender to my wife.
And when I say surrender totally, I do not mean making peace with the world.
I'm not ready to make peace with the world. I'm trying to make peace with myself. I'm trying to make peace with my maker.
But I'm not trying to make peace with the world. The world is a very unfair, deeply unfair place.
And I'm ready to rumble. I'm just keeping my fists up for that one.
The book is called Surrender. 40 Songs, One Story.
Bono, thanks for talking with me. Thank you.
This week's episode of Up for Sunday was produced by Phil Harrell, edited by Rina Advani with help from Jenny Schmidt and Justine Yan.
I'm Rachel Martin. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week.
Until then, have a great rest of your weekend.