Bono can rule the undivided attention of a sold out stadium. He can command hearts. When he works a much smaller room, say in the White House, Downing Street, or The Vatican, he is dextrous as well as charismatic. He rules that room with those who rule the world. When he put his sunglasses on the Pope that picture became iconic because of his glasses, not the Pope.
How did he do it? The short answer is he’s clever and relentless, can relate to anybody. But why does he do it? His father told him never to have dreams because he didn’t want him to be disappointed, which encouraged him to dream even bigger, but that’s only part of the long answer.
Contrariness, caring deeply, egomania, ridiculousness, it’s all in there. There’s never been a rock star who wielded so much power. There’s no one in power that doesn’t take his call. During the writing of this piece, there’s no one in power who doesn’t return my call within 24 hours. Not many people say no to Bono, whether it’s Blair, Clinton, Bush or beyond.
And at the same time, there’s no shortage of Bono jokes. Quite a few of them begin, ‘What’s the difference between Bono and God?’ ‘Bono thinks he’s God, but God doesn’t think he’s Bono,’ sort of thing. But Bono will tell the joke before the joke’s on him. People take Bono seriously, but does Bono take himself seriously? Only sometimes.
October 2008. The Women’s Conference. Long Beach, California. I have seen Bono shrink a stadium, make it intimate. But only as a singer in a rock band. When he gives his speech here it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s like being in a very small room with him. He gives great speech.
He follows Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem, where women roared with emotional approval. But he can follow that, he can top that. “My name is Bono and I’m a travelling salesman. I come from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother’s side. Sometimes I come to your door as a rock star selling melodies. Sometimes I come to your doors as an activist selling ideas of debt forgiveness.” He knows his audience. He flatters and cajoles. He says, “Africa is our neighbour, right down the lane, when that continent burns we smell the smoke. It stings our eyes, it sears our conscience, but maybe not as much as it should. We accept it, men especially. A lot of men have developed an ability to live with this absurdity. Most women haven’t.” And then he goes on to say that the America the world needs is the America he’s always loved. Everyone is swept up.
Tony Blair told me later, “I’ve done speeches with him and there’s absolutely no doubt if he’d not been at the top of his profession he’d certainly be at the top of mine.”
When he talks about Africa, even if you’ve heard him say the same thing before, it stings you new. He talks about when he first went to Africa and a child was dying in his arms and he talks about the look in that child’s eye of innocence and no blame. He says that that’s when he became that thing he despises most, a rock star with a cause.
Then he talks about how 20 cents can provide life saving drugs and how you can do this by buying a Red T-shirt. It was a 40 minute speech, but it felt paced, like a rock concert. No boundaries, everyone part of the same beat and emotion.
Backstage, there’s Maria Shriver, the conference founder, scion of the Kennedy clan and married to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. She looks big-haired, well put together. A purple Alaia suit skims her, accessorised with pink rosary beads that signal quirky, heartfelt. I told her she looked gorgeous. She looked at me blankly, somehow insulted, demeaned. Looked at Bono with this who is this woman you brought here look. Bono refused to acknowledge the moment. Bono doesn’t waste energy on negativity, even small stuff. He moves on.
On stage he’d called Shriver a lioness, a term I see he likes to use for powerful women. Later on that’s what he called Nancy Pelosi and it seemed to make her purr.
December 2008: Olympic Studios, Barnes, London. A few days before the album No Line On The Horizon is finished. The studios are about to close down for good, so there’s a real deadline, intensity. I’m sitting next to Bono in the canteen. He’s eating spicy spaghetti. I’m eating chicken. He’s wearing a soft grey cashmere flicked with little metal bits. Hard and soft, I observe. “Yes, that’s me,” he says; he likes a metaphor, he likes to sum up who he is. He likes to be known.
I once told him once he wears his inside on his out. “You did, didn’t you.” He remembers that. He has the memory of an elephant for stupid minutiae and life saving facts. He remembers the first time I met him that we talked about his mother. She died when he was 14. Yet you’d think he was much younger because he seems to remember very little about her. He remembers her chasing him with a cane and laughing. He wasn’t afraid because she was laughing. He remembers his dad at the top of the stairs doing some DIY with an electric drill. The drill was screaming. It was going to drill him to death. He remembers his mother laughing her head off. Laughter and danger got mixed up in his head.
Bono has always loved to embrace a contradiction, in his life, and his lyrics are always mixing God and sex, poverty and romance. He himself is a contradiction; supersensitive but a bulldozer, relentless when he wants something. He is sometimes self conscious, but he never seems to have any fear. He markets mercy but he never whinges. He is self mocking rather than self pitying. Sometimes saintly, never a monk. Being a rock star and an Africa activist couldn’t be more different. The rock star bathes in excess, the activist campaigns to end poverty.
Hard and soft Bono lives in two different worlds. A creative, artistic world that’s driven with strong passions, but where life and death is rarely an issue. He exposes himself to two completely different standards of judgement. Artistically he doesn’t want to fail. It matters to him. He wants to move you. He is painfully self critical. When U2 first started off he would ask how many people were at the gig, and if it was 400 and the venue held 450 he would worry about the 50 that didn’t come. He’s still like that, although the tickets for the venues are now holding tens of thousands. Yet he can walk into a room on Capitol Hill knowing what he’s asking for is likely to be shot down, knowing it’s a for sure rejection. In a global recession people in the First World are worried about how to pay their bills, not pay attention to Africa. The man who pursues success so relentlessly has somehow rewired himself to accept failure as part of his course.
Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, who is often referred to as the band’s fifth member, agrees. “He is a bundle of contradictions, a spoilt rotten rich rock star who became successful from his own talent. He didn’t trick anyone. He enjoys life to the full, but he does a lot of good. I think he has difficulties – one day he’ll win a Grammy for album of the year, and the next he’s described as a terrible hypocrite, a force for bad. Yet the organisations that support his activism are sophisticated. ONE is extremely successful. Red is extremely successful. (Red is his organisation set up so that big brands – Gap, Armani, Apple – give up to 40 per cent of their profit directly to The Global Fund). To date it has raised $130 million.”
Red is to raise consciousness and cash. ONE is to bring about political change. Cofounded as DATA with Bobby Shriver of the Kennedy clan, and recently merged, ONE has a base in Washington DC, London, Berlin and Abuja.
Earlier that day Bono had a ONE meeting in London, Soho office which video conferenced their office in DC. They talked of plans for 2010. They talked about a World Cup campaign for mosquito nets and putting kids in school. They talked about what’s going to happen when Obama has to make tough decisions and makes himself unpopular. Could they still count on him? What Republicans should they now work on? How to encourage Cameron on side? How Sarkozy has let them down by not paying what he had promised. Bono says Carla is going to make Sarkozy change, he says he’ll have to call her and say I know who you’re sleeping with. “Obama is already beyond a rock star,” Bono said. Bush needed to be validated by a rock star. He needed help to look cool.
Back at the studio there’s mounting concern about getting the album finished. A board has got red and blue and green writing with triangles and circles, codes of what’s done and what’s not done.
“This album is all about surrender,” Bono says. “Spiritual surrender, sexual surrender. Quite difficult, don’t you think.” I’m not sure if he was expecting an answer.
He takes me into the part of the studio where he’s laying down his vocal and he sings. His voice reaches out right out. I’m sure this is not the first time he’s sung to seduce. He seduces religious leaders like Bush and Blair by giving Bibles, but singing is his other way in. He does it on stage and on record every time. It’s very easy for him to move people’s emotions. It must be addictive. He just can’t stop wanting to do that.
Early January, 2009. Dublin. It’s the last day of Christmas. Christmas lights are still outside Bono’s house, half an hour out of Dublin. It looks over a bay. It’s a big old Georgian house, wood floors, rose and crimson velvet, cosy. A picture of a nun in the hallway. Lots of pictures. Downstairs is a swirling picture painted by Frank Sinatra and a picture of Bono with half a mouth. “Shall we go for a walk? Shall I show you around,” says Bono. But it’s dark, and it’s freezing.
Down some steps we get to another building called The Folly, a Victorian addition. Ali is having a meeting with some Edun people downstairs. Upstairs is an Edwardian bed, the guest room. White crisp linen that many luminaries have slept in. On the balcony he points out The Edge’s house and Neil Jordan’s house. In the guest bathroom everyone who has stayed their has left their mark. Graffiti and scribbles from film directors, actors, writers. Bill Clinton has written ‘A+B=C’. I wondered if it meant Ali+Bono=Clinton. Later on Clinton told me that it didn’t. “It means if you make enough effort and you face the facts you can change things. There is an inherent equation to the application of effort to evidence. It was both affirming and a kind of tongue in cheek putting down the earnestness with which we ply our trade.”
Bono is very good at impersonating the people he meets. His Clinton and Blair and Javier Bardem are extremely funny in their execution. His Bush is less good. Perhaps he has to like you to be you. Not that he says he doesn’t like Bush. In fact he says his sense of humour surprised him. Bush was certainly good to him. He increased America’s foreign budget to help Africans fight poverty diseases from around $2bn when he came in, to about $8bn today, and it’s going further up.
His seduction of the American Right began in part with Jesse Helms, the then head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms was ringleader for the religious Republican right and was said to believe AIDS as God’s retribution. It was a major turning point that Bono convinced him that it was a responsibility of human kind to treat AIDS sufferers in Africa.
President Clinton says, “I was impressed. He converted Jesse Helms and that was something I could never have done. I think Jesse found it fascinating that a man from a radically different culture would court him, and he was disarmed by the same thing that disarms everybody who doesn’t know anything about Bono. Bono knew more about the subject than Jesse did and he made an argument why it was in America’s interest that you could relate to whether you were a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat – it was conditional debt relief. They have to spend the money on health care, education or development so that those countries would be better for America and they would produce no terrorists. They would be part of a cooperative that would not throw America into conflicts down the road.
“And Bono is the genuine article, a real person. And he also pointed out that debt relief would work from a budgetary point of view, and that was back when I was there and made them run a balanced budget…” A pause. I laugh. Clinton’s always ready for a dig. “He got people to take him seriously because he did his homework.”
It’s hard to keep making an impact when there is a worldwide epidemic of celebrity charity fatigue. Celebrities manipulate. They do something shameful or vicious and undo it by lending their face or their millions to a cause. To make a real impact you have to be better than that, and you have to be convincing. Your cause has to need you more than you need it. Clinton says, “The thing is, he keeps on coming. His heart and his mind are engaged.”
Clinton has a lullaby voice. It’s warm and real, and you see how the two of them connect. He sees a lot of Bono, they have worked together on getting cheap AIDS medicine to Africa as well as on debt relief and boosting trade and investment to the region.
Clinton would have been a good rock star. He tells me he once had a three octave singing range and when he was 16 played the saxophone ten hours a day until his lips split. But he decided that if he wasn’t going to be better than John Coltrane he would go into politics.
Just because Bono could be one of the world’s greatest rock stars, it didn’t stop him going into activism, wanting to make a difference. He’s always wanted to make a difference. It started with condoms. In the 1970s contraception was illegal in Ireland. And there he was doing benefit gigs for the Legalise Contraception campaign. Virgin Records had to pay a fine for selling condoms, which he paid. Not because Richard Branson couldn’t afford it, but because he was making a stand.
Clinton says, “We care about the same things and we are fascinated endlessly by people and their stories. He lives in the stories, not just the statistics and the numbers and the policies, and so do I.”
Clinton is full of stories. He says that he’s happy to tell stories all night with Bono. “Bono has a peculiar gift of mind and emotion and has a grace and power about the way he does it that is quite a thing to behold. There is no question that the way his mind works and his powers of persuasion have been decisively important. They were in the debt relief fight and they were in getting the G8 to double aid to Africa.
“And he has done all of this without sacrificing his responsibilities to U2. But if the rest of the band weren’t on board with this and willing to adjust schedules and all the things you have to do to do both things, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Bono and I are sitting in his study. Lots of books, tea, home made biscuits. It’s an intimate room. It’s a happy house that’s properly lived in. You wonder why Bono would want to leave it at all. In many ways I think he doesn’t. That’s just more of the conflict.
“Contradiction is just the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head. I am a family man, I am a loyal if unreliable friend, I am a rock star. If I go out I sometimes set fire to myself and others. I am an earnest activist, a reflective and a religious-ish person. The right to be ridiculous is something to hold dear and never too far away.”
The view from the window, sky and sea, is what inspired the title No Line On The Horizon. The album took 4 years to make. It suffered delays. Why did it take so long? Is it because he’s doing too much for too many and been stretched too thin.
“The whole idea of an album is in jeopardy, it is an outmoded notion. And we wanted to see if we could have ten or eleven really great songs, it turned out to be harder than we imagined. I would say we worked twice as hard to get there, and that either means we’re half as good or it took just twice as much concentration.”
The last album How To Dismantle An Atom Bomb sold 9 million. Was he finding that success hard to live up to? “It could be that, that over achieving personality.” Is it because he doesn’t like to fail? “I’m sure I have failed at things. The two things I haven’t failed in are the ones that mean the most to me, that’s my music and my family. Activism is all about failure. You think about the people who didn’t get the medicine.”
If your record goes to number one, that’s a definitive result, you can see it. If you are tackling global poverty you’re never going to finish with it. Perhaps that’s why he keeps on going. But what if the songs stop coming? What if it becomes too hard to swap the part of the brain that writes speeches for the part that writes lyrics?
“If I’m honest this is the first album where I thought that might be true. Certainly the last two albums were very easy for me. I’m not saying they were perfect. If I’m excited about what’s happening in one room I’ll generally bring it to the next.”
The danger is if your politics inform your passions you could end up with some pretty boring songs. “There’s a book called Conciliance (by Edward Wilson) that I read once. The author made up the word. It’s a theory that he developed that all disciplines meet at some point and wrap around each other; maths, music, science, cooking. It taught me to separate everything, into top line melody, counterpoint, rhythm and harmony. I learned to do that in every single situation. In economic theory I would be the guy in the room that would find the top line melody because I am a singer. But I also understand the counterpoint is necessary.”
He finds a way in and a way through. His voice on the latest collection of songs speaks in different characters. “I was getting bored with my own point of view and thought I might be able to express more about myself by disappearing into other people.”
There’s a song called Cedars Of Lebanon. It’s the voice of a war correspondent sitting on his hotel balcony. He says that could have been him if he hadn’t been a rock star, because he is attracted to conflict and to danger. Another song, Stand Up Comedy, is about small men with big ideas. “Totally me.”
There are books everywhere. He likes to read about three at once. Currently there’s one about a tribe of pirates from the Barbary coast who took 130 Irish people from a town in County Cork and sold them as slaves in Algeria. And he’s reading Richard Dawkins’s The Devil’s Chaplain. An edition of Seamus Heaney is never far away, and beside it is the Koran given to him by Tony Blair.
U2’s Larry Mullen Jr does not have much time for Blair. He’s branded him a warmonger. Paul McGuinness says that Larry and Bono are like brothers, so they are bound to have arguments
Says Bono, “That’s why I would never want to be in politics. I would never want to be in that position where you have to make that decision, sending people into battle, knowing there will be fatalities but believing you are saving more lives.
“But because of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, millions of people are alive that would have been dead in other far off places through their interventions in HIV/AIDS.”
Later on Tony Blair would call me from Rwanda. He speaks about Bono with some devotion and certainty. Why did he give him the Koran? “We’d been talking about Islam, so it seemed like an appropriate thing to do.” Was religion the thing that really connected them? “Africa connected us primarily. He is completely sincere in what he says and people in power respect him not because he is nice to them but because he really does understand the complexities of our business. He’s not been a fair weather friend to me. He disagreed with me strongly over Iraq.”
Bono and Blair first met about 14 years ago. “I was the Leader of the Opposition and it was an awards bash. He was receiving an award and for some bizarre reason he spoke in Spanish. He said of me, ‘This guy wants to be Prime Minister. You’ve got to have big cohones to want to have that job’. It was a surprising introduction. But since that time he is one the people I like most and respect most in the world.”
Even if I have a theory that rock stars and politicians are interchangeable and the reason that Clinton and Blair are enthraled by him is that they want to be him, Bono doesn’t want to be them. Yet he has made them love him. He has made Bush do things that seemed totally out of character. When he’s told someone’s going to be difficult, he refuses to see it that way. He talks about it coming from a punk rock foundation. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play your instruments, do it anyway. He worries, “Maybe this is a dangerous trait because if you have some skills in one discipline you think they can be applied to others.” It’s hard to know when self belief and passion become arrogance. But arrogance has no charm and Bono has a ton of it.
Ali comes in with a glass of white wine for me and red wine for him, remembering that the last time she saw me that’s what I was drinking. Ali has pale skin, big dark eyes, black hair, is fond of wearing black. She is the kind of woman who amazed President Clinton when she turned up at a gala dinner that was held for him in Dublin when Trinity named an American studies programme after him because of his contribution to the Irish peace process. It was a day after she had given birth to John, their youngest son.
Clinton said, “You would never have believed she had g given birth just the day before.” She’s always struck me as being strong, but with a naughty streak. Bono says, “People always think of her as so graceful and elegant and butter wouldn’t melt up in her mouth. How did she end up with him? I happen to know she’s messy and fun. I don’t trust people that have no joy. I go back to music and people that have joy. Miles Davis’s Blue may not be joy for a lot of people, but for me it’s a sexy place to be in. This house has had a lot of laughs for sure. Probably more than the missus would like, but at the same time she’s got more mischief in her than people think.”
We talk some more about how darkness can be a sexy place, but how his favourite combination is “rage and joy.” We talk about self consciousness. “Some people put me on the defensive and self consciousness of course makes an ugly face. As soon as you put a camera on someone, if they’re self conscious it makes them ugly. I know it’s happened to me. The human face changes just by the act of putting a camera in front of it. I had to learn that – I wasn’t necessarily built for rock and roll. There’s a certain narcissism that every writer must have. But there’s another kind which a performer has and I’m not sure I have the second one. I have to work up to professional vanity. Just right now I’m having to be a rock star again. I had to do a photo shoot the other day. I took off my glasses, but I put on black mad eye make-up. It was like I needed a bit of a mask to step into being rock star again because I felt a bit of a charlatan, a bit of a part-time rock star. Speak to me in a few months and the problem will be trying to put rock star back in the box.” I used to think he wore dark glasses to hide some kind of inspirational fire behind his eyes, now I think that he needs them as a barrier.
I’m not sure if he dreads the idea of a full-on stadium tour. “Yes, I suppose leaving here, leaving this house, leaving these five people who I love so much, and the safety of the place. It’s like a cave.”
Do you feel more fearful about stepping outside your cave these days? “It happens every time really. It’s always been like this. You wouldn’t be a performer if you weren’t insecure. There’s always that feeling, will the crowds turn up?”
Fear and desire are never far away from each other with him. “We’d like to do another album very quickly. We’d like it to have more of this intimacy because this one has real intimacy.”
Do you think you used to be more afraid of intimacy? “Maybe… I suppose the thing about this album is it has a spectrum of emotions, from swagger and defiance to brokenness and playfulness and self heckling.” He’s probably more comfortable in the self heckling. He’d rather be the one that’s putting himself down, it gives him a sense of control.
A few years ago he met Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Ivor Novello Awards. He does a good impersonation of Lloyd Webber saying that for so many years he’d had musicals all to himself. “I went and met him one night and he was very generous and said I think other people should have a go at this. So I mentioned it to Edge and he said I will be in. The first musical we had in mind was Faust set in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra as the man who does the deal with the devil.”
He first met Frank in 1987, and they became friends. He recalls a moment with Frank at dinner where he pointed to the colour of a bright sky blue napkin and Frank said that he remembered when his eyes used to be that colour. He said it without nostalgia or self pity.
The Frank musical didn’t work out. They had another idea for a Rasputin musical. “I asked Pavarotti if he would sing in it, although he was the wrong shape for Rasputin, but he had the right eyebrows. And then Marvel came up with an idea, would you like to write a musical around Spider Man? Julie Taymor is directing it. And it hurts me to say this, but she is tougher than we are in terms of her art. She is a master story teller. I met her on Across The Universe.” I don’t tell him but Across The Universe is the only film in my life that I’ve ever walked out on. It was Beatles songs set to a nonsensical non-story. Bono is enthusiastic though. It’s set to open on Broadway in November.
What would his super power be if he could choose one. He puzzles. Maybe he wants to fly or have X-ray vision, see inside people, make people do things? “I can do all that already.” He laughs.
He tells me he’s never had a journalist in his home before. I tell him that I’m flattered and he makes small of it. We go to eat dinner joined by Ali and the two directors of Edun, all childhood friends that know and trust each other. We eat chicken, vegetables, but no potatoes. Then cheese, chutney, and fancy crackers. Bono is at the head of the table, very much the performer now. A brilliant mimic, he treats us to his repertoire but disappears early for a conference call with LA leaving the rest of us drinking.
I spoke to The Edge who is in New York working on Spider-Man songs. “I’ve never written a waltz before,” he says, feeling pleased to have risen to a challenge.” How does it affect him, Bono not being there much of the time? “It works pretty well. Ideas come to him quickly. In a funny way it might work better for us to have him coming and going. If you are working on a project for a long time you probably struggle with it because I’m the guy working most closely with the music, initially on my own. So what I really love is being able to hear it through Bono’s ears.”
The Edge and Bono are that close. It’s not a problem for him to hear through his ears. In France they live in a house next door to one another and in Dublin they can see each other’s houses. They choose to spend time together, even though they get to spend less time together now.
“He always relishes coming back, which is another good thing. U2 gave Bono the opportunity and a platform, so in many ways Bono’s work is just an extension of the band. Our life informs our music. It’s a natural development. The interest in civil rights was there from the beginning. We don’t necessarily agree on every single aspect of his work. For instance when he did his photograph with George Bush I was set against it because photographs speak so loudly. There was some disquiet from U2 fans, but ultimately I think what he did turned out to be right.” Would you say your relationship with him has changed? “No. We are very close. He is my best friend.?
Adam Clayton doesn’t worry that Bono’s campaigning could ever jeopardise U2. “It’s hard to see into the future, but there’s no reason why Bono’s activism would mean he would give up the band. I think he couldn’t campaign without the band. It’s much less of a proposition for him to be a campaigner without the weight of the band behind him. His writing is very much informed by what he learns in the political arena. It’s not enough for him to watch the News at Ten on a daily basis and form his views from that.” Has it changed the dynamic though? “I think he would always find things to occupy himself. Back in the days when we were loading gear into the back of a Transit van and everyone was pulling together, he would always be off finding somebody to talk to rather than unload the van, and I don’t think it’s really changed.
January 2009. I meet with Jamie Drummond, cofounder of ONE. He has a clear eyed intelligence. “The crisis that is enfolding in the financial world is not dissimilar to the crisis of poverty or climate change. It had to get worse and worse and worse. It seems it is in no one’s interest to take it seriously until it feels like it is almost too late. Wouldn’t be great if human nature were better at anticipating crises. At least on extreme poverty, we hope groups like ONE can help encourage the public to get ahead of the crisis”
Doesn’t the world financial crisis seriously affect all arguments for fighting extreme poverty? Listening to Drummond, he switches it all around to make it make sense. “If Africans were wealthier they could buy our products. With more wealth, people have fewer kids, which can mean amongst other things lower carbon emissions. There will be fewer immigration problems and that is something southern Europe is really worried about. So at a time where simple moral value based arguments might not resonate, these are the hard headed arguments that get through to people.”
DATA – Debt, Aid, Trade, Africa – was the original organisation, it did just advocacy. It helped give birth to both Red and ONE. Red to take care of the private sector and raising money to fight AIDS and ONE to persuade the public to get money and better out of governments to beat poverty, especially in Africa.
Drummond, who is 38, worked for Christian Aid in the mid-nineties in Ethiopia, increasingly aware that Live Aid had made very little difference, all the money that had come to Ethiopia from Live Aid was only servicing the debt run up by the immoral dictatorship.
It was Drummond who helped promote the idea called Jubilee 2000, which set about giving Africa a new start by cancelling billions of dollars of debt. He didn’t know Bono but tried to enlist his support as a way to help sell his idea to the White House. When an Irish voice came on the phone he thought it was a friend playing a joke, but Bono is prone to just picking up the phone to people when they least expect it.
Drummond recalls, “We got involved in the first place because of a grassroots jubilee movement for global justice, and specifically because the great moral leaders of our time, Mandela and Tutu, asked that Bono and others who had supported the anti-apartheid campaign, get back involved in the campaign for justice and against poverty. We’ve been working for them and that mandate ever since. Tutu’s our international patron and Bono is in regular contact with Grace Machel and Mandela.
“When we negotiated the Millennium Challenge Account – giving more money to countries that were democracies, fighting corruption, with no linkage to the war on terror – we got Bush’s support. I think they realised that development could be part of winning the war on terror. By the end of 2002 after negotiations had happened at the Monterey summit, President Bush appeared in a photo with Bono.”
It was a picture that took negotiation and positioning. It’s one thing to appear in a picture with Clinton when there was no war and they are like minded individuals. But in the picture that aligned himself to Bush, Bono risked alienating many people. It is not just Larry Mullen Jr who has no respect for warmongers. To appear with Bono played to Bush’s advantage. It put him in a position as a compassionate conservative when the rest of his agenda was not compassionate. Although at this time Bush was popular he was certainly not popular with the left or centre, and giving aid to Africa is left or centre territory. Bono knows if you want aid you can’t pick sides, but yet you have to make everyone feel you are on the same side.
When Bush first announced $15 billion was being given to well-governed poor countries for the Millennium Challenge, Bono agreed to be in the picture with him. “People were saying how could you be in a picture with this person and we said, ‘But it gets us billions of dollars for poor people in Africa, it’s a price worth paying’. It was billions of dollars. He’s not a cheap date. This opened the door to more. The AIDS initiative helped Africans put 3 million people on life saving drugs. This stuff is effective and in part it flowed from tough decisions like hanging out with President Bush.”
How do you think he won over Bush to get this money? Was it charisma, was it charm? “If he had just charm but he didn’t have a credible grounding in policy it would only get him so far. It’s charm, passion, credibility together. It’s often the case that a prime minister or president doesn’t read the briefing before meeting with a rock star because they don’t expect to be challenged on policy details. Our goal is to get them to read the briefings on our issue in the first place. Then they start to own the issue, and Bono is reminding people why they got into politics in the first place. With most politicians there is an idealistic kernel, a seed, that sets you on your way, Bono goes back to that original DNA that is in every politician, that wants to do good, and he nurtures it with a few facts and a bit of charm, and a feeling like if you team with this guy you can make a disproportionate difference.”
Why do you feel people feel so connected to him? “It’s an amazing talent, and it’s an understanding of the opportunity that you can make a difference. You can try and change the world. It’s an exciting obligation and a pretty powerful potent thing. But it would be unsuccessful if he didn’t make it fun. I find this grim do-gooding portrayal of him quite irritating because he is a fun loving character, a very good mimic, and is quite happy to get salty mouthed, and he notices things that you haven’t noticed about yourself.”
Not only is it more of a challenge to get money for Africa in a world financial crisis, when you’ve spent eight years targeting Republicans, suddenly they are out of power and you have to make new friends with Democrats. Of course you can’t pick sides, but you can also lose allies. Obama doesn’t need extra charisma or a photo with a rock star, he has everything that a rock star has already.
Says Drummond, “It would have been easy to imagine that Obama was finally our dream candidate, let’s just support him all the way. But that wouldn’t do him any favours and for our issues to get through we need the support of the Republicans and of everyone and we need never stop working both sides. In that sense he has taken celebrity advocacy to a new level.”
Partly because he never stops and partly because of his belief if you really want a big thing to happen why bother with a medium sized thing. If you can call the President of the United States, why not.
March 2009. We are in Nancy Pelosi’s office, a symphony of peach and beige, as is the woman herself. She is glowing, tangibly excited to be with Bono. As Speaker of the House of Representatives she has invited chairs of various caucuses, special campaigning interest groups within the party, to sit with her to discuss the aid budget and how to defend it. She introduces him. “The one good thing President Bush did was to increase the aid budget for Africa. That was the only good thing he did and you were the transformer, you persuaded him to do that.”
There follows a sometimes tense discussion going on about a proposed $4 billion cut to Obama’s aid budget. It’s a powerful group of about twelve that includes people who write the laws that govern foreign policy and people who write the cheques. Jan Schakowsky ,influential Democrat from Illinois gets a buzz on her Blackberry, it’s a campaign email from the ONE organisation urging her to restore the cuts, a complete coincidence. Bono sees it as a sign, not a mystic sign, evidence that THE organisation is absolutely connected.
Bono and Pelosi work the room together, sparking off one another. Pelosi sending people out to vote. They need to vote but they need to come back. It could have been a very distracted meeting that lacked momentum but it didn’t. It aroused hope, dispersed the grimness of the situation.
The Senate House is stone cold, echoy corridors. We head to Patrick Leahy, Senator for Vermont. Bono says, “This man is like John Wayne.” It’s his birthday. Bono will give him a cup cake since gifts of more than a few dollars have now been banned. Leahy says, “I’ve seen him win over diehard conservatives. A couple of members of our congress have an almost dismissive attitude to AIDS in Africa, yet he gets in touch with them and they get back on the programme. He has walk-in privilege to this office any time. Only Audrey Hepburn, Bono and my grandchildren have had this privilege.”
Leahy first met Bono 20 years ago and they have since worked on various humanitarian issues. “There are millions of people in this world who will never know who you are and will never know your music because they’ll never have the money to buy it. All that they know is that their lives are immeasurably better because of you.” Leahy is twinkly eyed, all passion and heart. No surprise that Bono connected with him.
A connection with Josh Bolten was less obvious, but as Bolten was Bush’s chief of staff, and before that the budget director, it was essential for Bono to find one. When they met 12 years ago, when Bolten was Bush’s campaign director, Bolten had never seen a U2 concert. In a gamekeeper turned poacher sort of way, he is now on the board of ONE.
“Over the years that I have had interaction with Bono you could never say that he was unreasonable in his ask, but he was going to ask you for more than you were reasonably planning. He was always very well calibrated in his ask. Asking us to make a stretch, but not ridiculously.”
Does Bolten think the aid budget that Bush so dramatically increased is in jeopardy? “It may be. It may be rebranded so it has Obama’s stamp on it to attract more Democratic support.” He was there the first time Bush met Bono. “He was wearing a black suit, black shirt, sunglasses, his Washington outfit and he brought with him an Irish bible as a gift. The president was shocked that there was this crazy rock star who is also a person of faith. The president’s faith is exaggerated as a factor in his daily life. His faith was very private, but it’s a deep faith. Bono is also a person of faith, so he wasn’t untrue to himself, he wasn’t faking but he chose the right element of himself to present, so they hit it off.”
Did they have a special bond? “I think it took a while to build a bond. They didn’t agree on everything. They had a negotiation about the announcement of the Millennium Challenge initiative. Bush was announcing a programme and therefore there would be a photograph of Bono with Bush. Bono was reluctant. A lot of people on the left did not like President Bush, so Bono was courageous. Bono is a charming, persuasive man. He’s very good at all this.”
David Lane, the President and CEO of ONE, used to work the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation. Bono and Bobby Shriver approached Gates in 2002 for funding to start DATA. “The idea of Bill Gates funding a lobby and Bono was pretty far out.”
Although they have known each other for several years, and are friendly they are not super close, yet “It’s kind of shocking. He remembers every conversation we’ve ever had.”
April 2009. Bono and I are in a car on the way to Dulles Airport, Washington DC. He’s wearing jeans, a purple shirt, a black tie undone, pink lenses and a grey furry coat. He says he saw dogs in the street, not dissimilar to the coat, taking an interest in him. He smelt expensive and seductive, like a wooden cigar box.
The meetings in Washington have been partly tense, partly euphoric. There is a threat that the billions will be decreased, but Nancy Pelosi thinks she’ll be able to make it alright. Everybody I have talked to has applauded Bono for his knowledge and charm. The common thread is that he remembers everything about them, their birthdays, their children’s birthdays. His brain for detail is exemplary. How come?
“When I was very young I used to play chess and I was good at it. I can learn useless minutiae, but actually I can forget my way home, or I’ve been known after the tour is long over to come downstairs and get in the back of my own car. But I think you remember what’s important to you. I remember asking Seamus Heaney’s wife how did he remember so many other people’s poems and she said, ‘Words are very important to him.'”
I tell him that I have been thinking about his mother and why I find it strange that he can remember so many inane details, so many facts, but almost nothing about his mother. Is that because he has to live in the present? “Maybe, that might be the answer. And that there is only a certain amount of real estate. The brain is no different to the body. A couple of press-ups and a few weights and it can reshape. My curiosity in all these different directions has been a boot camp for my brain. People who I would have thought of as much faster on their feet, you suddenly seem to jog past after these kind of gruelling days. Every meeting is a monkey puzzle.”
Are your memories of losing your mother so painful that if you carried them with you, you think it would slow you down? “Are you suggesting I have baggage?” I tell him I’ve been puzzling about it for weeks. That I feel I know as much about his mother as he does. He laughs, not nervously or self consciously, but tells me in all his memories she’s laughing. “Yes, maybe it is about not wanting to slow down. With U2 we don’t think about an album as soon as we finish it, we’re on to the next thing. We’ve always been like that.”
This fits in with the idea that he can’t stand people who moan. “I can’t stand cranks and whingers. My favourite quality is lack of self pity. I really like people who have none. I know people with just a tiny fragment of difficulty and they spend the rest of their life walking with a limp. And actually I don’t think I’ve had much to overcome in my life, the odd black eye, the odd broken tooth.” What about a broken heart? “Heart… You only know you have a heart when it’s broken. When you are a singer in a band you stick your neck out for a living, you get used to knocks. And I’ve noticed that the spleen and ire of your enemy usually takes them out, not you, so you don’t have to do anything, almost. There is nothing more attractive than energy moving forward. I think our band has it, our movement has it, and it’s exciting to be on that train.”
Does it never make you feel schizophrenic? “I think I’m more and more myself in every situation. On the surface I can be insecure. You wouldn’t be a singer in a band if you didn’t need a chorus of voices to call your name. But deep down I am really not. I feel I am on solid rock. On another level I feel a strong foundation, so you can take an inordinate amount of thumps and I’m not knocked off my feet.”
As an artist he’ll feel criticism sorely, but as an activist if he’s turned away he just keeps on coming back. That’s part of the train. Bono knows how to make it a special ride. Charm is an overwhelming factor, even though he doesn’t acknowledge he has it. “I have got manners. I try and look after people. Maybe it’s insecurity because you’re trying too hard, trying to please people.”
What he has is an ability to connect on a really deep level really quickly.. “If people are open to be connected with that’s the kind of people I want to be with.” Many people feel that strong connection with you. “But I might not feel it back. I’m a man who sees friendship as a kind of sacrament. I take friendship very seriously and as a result I have some extraordinary friends, in the band, in my marriage, in all the spheres that I move in.” Never at any point does he take credit for doing this all on his own. He’s always thanking people loudly. “I have a day job, I do this part-time. There is a huge network from Oxfam to Concern to Civicus and Taso, people like Kumi Naidoo, Wangar Mataai, John Gitongo, who work on these issues in every waking moment. They are the rock stars, I am the fan.”
I wonder does he see Ali as a lioness, he so often references lioness energy as being powerful and dangerous. “Very much so. Our relationship has changed a lot. For a while I thought I was in charge, I was the hunter protector. A few years ago it became clear there was somebody else in charge and I feel like I hold on a lot tighter to her than she does to me, and that slightly bothers me. She is so independent and I sometimes wish she wasn’t.”
Of course you warm to him because he fesses up to his insecurities. His insecurities make his self belief engaging, human. At the airport we say goodbye. I’ve been following him around for so long it feels a sad separation. Everybody who’s lives he moves in feel they have rights over him, that he is their special friend. He may know nothing about this. I wonder could Clinton and Bush, Blair, Obama, the Polish Pope, Frank Sinatra, all feel this connection. The connection is what it’s all about. If you feel you own a piece of him you also feel an obligation to him, to change the world, and that’s how he does it.
Tom Freston, Chairman of The Board for One and on the Board of Red, first met Bono 20 years ago when he was running MTV. He was responsible for seminal television like Beavis and Butthead, South Park, and The Real World on which all future reality shows were to be based. He was fired from Viacom, the parent company, two years ago. “Bono rang me right away. They had started ONE when I was head of Viacom. It made sense that it was something that all the networks, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, VH1 should be involved in. We were always looking for good pro social things to tie in to. He called me the day after I was fired and said this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” This informs my theory Bono doesn’t see negativity.
“He sees the good in everybody. He has a force within himself that’s slightly different from him, bigger than him. He’s aware of it and he can align himself to it to convince people to do things with a sense of urgency. He does this with great poetry, to be able to take this force and somehow make great things come from it. He’s irresistible in a way when he asks people for things. He has a sense of purpose that you can find yourself wanting to align yourself to. He can talk to almost anybody in their own language. He’s friends to the rich and poor. He seems extra human when you see him in action. I know that’s not a proper word, but I don’t know where it all comes from. It’s some spirit, this force in him, maybe even apart from him.”
I have seen this force in action and it is indeed as messianic as Freston describes it, but it’s not saintly. The Washington trip was days that started at 7.30am, maybe 13 meetings a day, then a business dinner. Freston says, “Some nights I’ve seen him be up drinking all night long and the next morning he’ll address 200 freshman representatives with Nancy Pelosi. I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth, but he just lets them have it meeting after meeting.
Like when he calls someone a lioness, that person feels they are a lioness. It’s endearing. But it’s also smart and smart aid seems to be the new buzz word , the kind of aid that’s proven that it works, for instance malarial nets, antiviral drugs, given money to governments who are not corrupt or wasteful. In a recession you want relevant statistics, you want to see results. How Bono does what he does might be mystical, but the results are real.