We were 25 pubescent 13-year old boys in music class stuck to the straight-backed plastic chairs by our sticky sweat following a raucous hour of physical education at the parochial school we attended. We’d have a lecture on music theory, sing some corny songs, and there was sure to be one smart alec among us who’d probably get reprimanded for an unfiltered comment, maybe even get sent to the head master’s office. None of us wanted to be there.
Our teacher had a wickedly appropriate name for a music instructor, Mrs. Funck, but there were no James Brown or Parliament vibes in our lessons. We were in a Christian school that generally frowned on “secular” music. We did sacred choral tradition, American folk tunes and spirituals, and an occasional “saccharine” contemporary Christian song thrown in to spice things up; think “Friends,” by Michael W. Smith. That day, though, was to be different.
Frau Funck had older sons who pushed her to expand her listening horizons. She wanted to acquaint us with two albums by a little-known band out of Dublin, Ireland called U2 whom her boys had introduced to her. We heard “I Will Follow” from their debut album, “Boy,” and then “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from their encore album, “War,” along with the song “40,” the band’s take on a beloved poem from the Psalter.
I assumed that was Mrs. Funck’s best rationalization for playing us these tunes. I fondly remember her favorable analysis of the music of U2 and its message and the way that she held a group of squirrely boys in rapt attention with a unique lecture and listening session. Suffice it to say, no one went to the principal’s office that day!
U2’s music would accompany the 25 of us in one measure or another for the remainder of our formative adolescent years and into our twenties and thirties. Like the Beatles and Stones were for a prior generation, U2 would become a central playlist for the subsequent decades of life for many suburban kids on the cusp of maturity in the 1980s.
Leadman, Bono, Paul Hewson’s earnest quest for meaning in music and life would inspire those of us who desired a generous and nuanced faith that asked tough questions and sought just and compassionate answers. Because of that, I was intrigued to see that Bono had written a new memoir called Surrender that was released by Alfred A. Knopf Publishers in late 2022. What might I learn from the frontman, the band and its music that first entered my world in 1984?
A good memoir does more than chronicle the day-to-day, year-to-year, decade-to-decade whereabouts and movements of its author, it plumbs the depths of the author’s soul, reveals his idiosyncrasies, failures, fears, demons, and drive. It exposes his humanity and humility. Surrender does just that.
Bono’s memoir is organized around 40 songs; 40 stories. In each chapter, he uses the lyrics of a particular tune to reflect on his life, his family, his faith, his music, his misgivings, and his activism. The songs are not chronologically laid out, but their individual themes are used to reflect on the calendar of his life.
For example, the third chapter features a 2014 song called “Iris (Hold Me Close)” which is Bono’s tender tribute to his mother whom he lost to a stroke when he was 14. The chapter opens, “Imagine a fifty-five-year-old man singing to his mother in front of twenty thousand people every night.” The lyrics of the song reveal, “The star that gives us light has been gone a while…the ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am.” This chapter takes us back to the year of his mother’s death and its indelible mark on his life from that day forward. Bono remarks,
I have very few memories of my mother, Iris. Neither does my brother, Norman. The simple explanation is that in our house, when she died, she was never spoken of again. I fear it was worse than that. That we rarely thought of her again. We were three Irish males, and we avoided the pain that we knew would come from thinking and speaking about her.
The book is divided into three sections in a kind of narrative arc, beginning, middle, end. The first section which contains 17 songs reflects on Bono’s quote that headlines the section, “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.”
What becomes clear in this section and throughout the book is that the memoir’s title, Surrender, is a fitting description of Bono’s process of relinquishing certain controls and outcomes, particularly the anger that seethes within him that no doubt received an undue amount of fuel from the death of his dear mother.
The second section, containing 10 songs, begins with a quote that seems to contradict the header of the opening section, “I can change the world, but I can’t change the world in me.” Here Bono humbly recognizes who he is and his motivations. He is a showman at heart (an operatic singer) who finds himself on a global stage with the opportunity to make a difference for the plight of the world’s poor and he performs spectacularly, engaging with the Jubilee 2000 which called for western nations to cancel the debt of developing nations by the year 2000.
In this period of his life he finds himself a frequent visitor to the White House, given an audience with Pope John Paul II at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, and a burgeoning student of economics, energy, government, and global policy.
The third and final section, containing the remaining 13 of 40 songs, is a movement back to the beginning of the band, Dublin, family, purpose, and meaning. It’s lead quote,
We started out from here as four fairly innocent boys from the Northside. Tonight we return as men daring to believe that at the far end of experience with some wisdom and good company, it might just be possible to recover that innocence
It is in this section that Bono reflects upon his relationship with his “Da,” Bob Hewson, the tenor whom he desperately tried to emulate in the best way a baritone can, with great strain. He shares his father’s death, his own brush with mortality due to a stressed and stretched aorta, which he had alluded to in the first pages of the memoir and above all, he expresses his gratitude for his wife Ali, his family, his band, and the journey.
This memoir has something for everyone. For music fans who enjoy a behind the scene tour of how the music is made, Bono’s memoir will not disappoint. The creative process, the producers, collaborations, hobnobbing with pop music royalty, and fights and foibles of artistic genius are on full display.
For the non fanboys, and those less gobsmacked by the music, there is a genuine revelation of the struggles and strains of life that we all experience. There is something of the family drama in Bono’s story that can resonate with the everyman. Above all, the spiritual and sublime, mystical and mysterious, the numinous and divine are scattered throughout.
As he ends his story of surrender with a whole heart beating loudly he finishes the time with the lyrics of “40,”
I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay. I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song. You set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm. Many will see, many will see and hear. How long to sing this song? How long, how long, how long how long to sing this song?
While one might fault the duration of Bono’s reflection, a total of 557 pages, as falling into the overly “long sermon” category, it is winsomely written. Even long sermons, like full lives, often have multiple gems to discover if we are willing to listen. One may do well to take the 40 sermonettes/vignettes one song at a time because there is much to be gleaned.
To counter Bono’s lyrical quest in the 1987 album “Joshua Tree,” I do believe that in the span of his telling and the length of his journey thus far that he has indeed, “found what he is looking for.”
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
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