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In 1984 I wrote a hostile (to both music and words) review of U2’s Unforgettable Fire. Some weeks later, I found myself dragooned (by a force too absurd to mention) into a late afternoon conversation with Bono. It wasn’t an interview. He wanted to talk one-on-one about why I’d written such a negative estimation of the record.
I arrived bemused, only to become more so when I was sent to the hotel’s penthouse. I knew this hotel, the Who made it their New York headquarters (Keith Moon got the suites about to be remodeled to save on demolition costs). I’d interviewed some other famous rockers in their rooms there, too. But I had never been to the penthouse. Yet here sat a young Irish star, who’d never had a top ten album or a top 20 single in the States.
We had a conversation, not that either of us listened too much. I asked Bono if he knew why I’d brought him a copy of my book about Elvis. He didn’t. “Because, if you read it, you’ll know pretty much exactly what I think about Elvis,” I said. “But I’ve listened to that song, ‘Elvis Presley and America,’ a dozen times and I still can’t figure out what you’re trying to say.” He didn’t have anything much to add. Or subtract.
This is the part that’s hardest to believe: For roughly the next ten years, every time I ran into Bono, he tried to re-engage me about that review. Once, backstage at Madison Square Garden, he walked the circumference of a small knot of people that included Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel, in order to pursue Moby Reviewer. It was dumbfounding.
But after reading Harry Browne’s The Front Man: Bono (In the Name of Power), I think I understand. I had said no. The review called him out as at worst a fraud or at least an incompetent. Face to face, it may never have happened again in the last three decades.
The Front Man is about a boy who never grew up or faced facts. Through very careful accretion of detail it left me feeling that Bono resembled no entertainment or arts figure nearly as much as that other sad, sheltered boy, George W. Bush. In fact, what surprised me most about my reaction to the book was how my response changed as I read. At first, the prose seemed too reserved, too cautious, incapable of capturing the outrageousness of Bono, one part talent to nine parts hubris. But as the pages turned, what engrossed me was another portrait: Bono as that little boy in man’s boots, surrounded by forces he fathoms no more than a five-year-old fathoms the perils of the sea. In the end, Harry Browne’s Bono is not so much a huckster as a sucker; not a con man so much as a victim of the world’s greatest con artists; not an egomaniac but someone so insecure he has found ways to be shielded from almost all harsh realities (well, at least his own). If this were a movie, you might be able to measure the price paid just by the way he looks at himself in the mirror.
Most less than adulatory writing about Bono, including my own, is a blend of anger, contempt, condescension and frustration. The Front Man recognizes all these instincts, but keeps them under tight command. For instance, Browne allows himself to be angrier (in tone) at Bono’s wife, Ali, whose business machinations are real but comparatively trivial, than at Bono, himself. There’s kind of a shadow behind such moments, as if we’re meant to glean that the
book’s protagonist can’t be judged like other men, not because he is extraordinarily gifted or brave or empathetic, but because he’s so lost, frightened and pathetic. Bono may be the personification of all that’s evil about contemporary celebrity culture and all that’s worse than bankrupt about liberal capitalism (and liberal capitalists) but there’s also a real person in there, and he’s spent most of a lifetime making himself what history must surely judge—perhaps not with as much restraint as the author—as a fool.
Does this make Harry Browne’s Bono less easy to despise? Probably but it also makes him easier to understand. Here, Bono becomes less the many-sided symbolic figure and more a fallible (sometimes likable, sometimes detestable) human. Think of the former Paul Hewson as the first self-created one dimensional man (all front, no back). Browne’s dug past the PR and the rhetoric and found…a Mad Men cliché for our times.
But that’s not why you need to read The Front Man. You do need to. Not because you want to better understand Bono, let alone empathize with his plight, but because what topples is not only Bono’s stature but the excuses his chosen trade, liberal philanthropic paternalism, makes for itself. Langston Hughes wrote that the animal that should be chosen to represent liberals is not a donkey or an elephant but an ostrich. This book could be subtitled Bono (With His Head in the Sand).
The Unforgettable Fire was just sort of a second-rate record by a pretty good but not great rock band, one of maybe a hundred records I reviewed that year. I wasn’t a U2 fan. I was disappointed because I thought the previous album was better. But U2, not its front man was my concern as a critic.
So I didn’t start writing about Bono—not U2, Bono– and talking about him on the radio because he seems charismatic. (Too desperate for attention and adulation for that.) Bono proves a useful tool for understanding the forces around him because his behavior exemplifies the way that liberals, especially neoliberals from Clinton and Blair to Obama, not only played into the hands of reactionaries but vanished every time they got a chance to act like liberals are supposed to act.
Liberals have usually not lived up to their rep. They derive the bulk of their glory by taking credit for the achievements of radicals. The current crop, whose respect for civil liberties is nil and whose attitude toward the suffering is STFU, sets new lows. It is now easier to name a liberal Supreme Court Justice who thinks Roe V. Wade a mistake than to find one who will make any meaningful effort to stop illegal detention, de facto segregation in everything (schools, housing, jobs, the Obama cabinet), or prevent the incarceration, even murder, of political opponents without trial. Liberals claim the entirety of the moral high ground as their turf, but at best, they’re absentee landlords.
Harry Browne reserves his sense of outrage in The Front Man for a rendition of the liberal and neoliberal subversion of human rights. He pays especial attention as that subversion is accomplished under cover of noble goals as articulated by Bono and his guru, the austerity (for others) loving pinhead Jeffrey Sachs, one of the early proponents of TINA (there is no alternative). The TINA doctrine almost literally forms the wool over Bono’s eyes. It boils down to the rich should rule the world, and the richest become the most powerful. The portrait here of how Bono, a man of only marginally inconceivable wealth, has been passed around, mostly without compensation to the suffering or often even himself, resembles a nonfiction Sister Carrie. If I knew how to get my remaining liberal friends to accept evidence-based political journalism, I’d say this book has redemptive power. Alas, there is that ostrich and an abundance of sand, already forming a dune around the person of the former Goldwater volunteer.
The Front Man is, in addition to being an important book about Bono and celebrity, one of the few books about contemporary music that understands issues of colonialism and white privilege, especially in regard to Africa. But Browne doesn’t spend enough time on religion, and in defining the Christian humanism that informed all of Bono’s early work and still empowers his evangelical rhetoric about TINA. This is why Bono is not a unique figure. Actually, he’s a type and the type is not all that new. Consider a paragraph that C.L.R. James wrote in 1950:
“The Christian Humanists have a systematic political economy. They propose decentralized self-governing corporations of private property with every worker in his place. They have a philosophy of history. They believe in the eternal ambiguities of the human situation and the impossibility of ever attaining human freedom on earth. They have a theory of politics. The natural and ideological elite must rule, the masses must not have absolute sovereignty. Since evil and imperfection are eternal, they say, the alternatives are either limited sovereignty or unmitigated authoritarianism.” (From State Capitalism and World Revolution)
Even Browne has given us no better way to account for why Bono misunderstands the meaning of his own successes (there have been some, and not only onstage) and why he cannot recognize his most significant failures, either as a rock star or as a political figure.
Browne also doesn’t talk enough about music, which is especially disappointing because he’s insightful where he does. He was probably prevented by neoliberal copyright laws from quoting many of Bono’s lyrics (a mixed curse in this case) but there are elements of the group’s music, the way it is powered and the way it is manipulated, the sources it draws upon and who it is (and is not) aimed at that merit inclusion in this discussion. So far, no copyright act prevents one from describing and drawing conclusions from guitar licks and drum beats and vocal phrasing. So far.
But that’s not much to complain about. For the activist beginning to confront the obstacles neoliberalism places under all of our footsteps, as well as the rock fan trying to imagine a world without charity records and broadcast benefit concerts, and especially for those who still revere Bono and his many works, The Front Man serves as both an effective cautionary tale and an excellent how-to-book on avoiding the traps of neo-liberalism. On top of that, it offers the tale of a mannish boy who’s genuinely incapable of grasping why some folks just plain don’t like his act.
Maybe Bono himself will read it. It might be painful but even that couldn’t hurt.