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Bono discusses his autobiography in an interview at the Washington National Cathedral on Dec. 5, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Finney/ Getty Images)
Twenty years ago, Bono, famed lead singer of U2, came to Washington, DC, to appeal to the United States for investment in a transformational AIDS initiative aimed at saving lives in Africa.
During this time, Bono met with many Washington political figures including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush, who ultimately championed the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in response to Bono’s lobbying. It’s credited with saving at least 20 million lives in Africa through the funding of AIDS treatments.
On Monday, Bono visited DC again with slightly more personal and lower stakes — to chat about his life as reflected in his recent autobiography.
On Dec. 5, Bono appeared at the Washington National Cathedral on a book tour in support of his memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, published by Penguin Random House on Nov. 1. It was actually an event pinned to the appearance of U2 at the Kennedy Center on the previous night as recipients of The Kennedy Center Honors in a program that will air on CBS on Dec. 28.
In a state chat with Cathedral Canon Historian Jon Meacham, Bono recalled his visit to official, federal, Washington 20 years ago, noting that even some in his own camp were distrustful of his appeals to a conservative administration. Bono, however, said he trusted Secretary Rice and also came to trust former President Bush and their commitment to funding PEPFAR although they could not act as quickly as he requested.
Bono describes these experiences in Surrender, which jumps around various parts of his life in 40 chapters named for U2 songs. In the book, Bono attributes his motivations for performing and for International development advocacy to his strong religious bearing. While not associated with a specific Christian denomination, Bono has always had a strong Anglican presence in his life, and the Washington National Cathedral, as an Episcopalian institution, is part of the Anglican Communion.
Much of Bono’s memoir serves as a catharsis for the Irish singer, who grew up in the shadow of the Dublin Airport. He lost his mother at the young age of 14, and lived under difficult circumstances with his taciturn father and generous older brother until he broke out as a famous musician early in his career.
Despite a fraught relationship, Bono’s father — Brendan Robert Hewson — remained a big presence in his life until the father’s death in 2001. The passing of Bono’s mother, Iris, in 1974 left a big gulf in their lives, and Bono consistently references a number on U2’s 2014 album Songs of Innocence as a touchstone for processing his grief. That song, “Iris (Hold Me Close)”, served as a starting point for Bono truly looking inside of himself as to how the loss of his mother impacted him and his family so early in his life, and in many ways lead him to write Surrender.
Stream “Iris (Hold Me Close)” by U2 on YouTube:
Surrender is by no means a dour affair, however. I’ve listened to the audiobook version, and Bono’s lively delivery and penchant for breaking out into a tune enlivens his recollections tremendously and makes the book very engaging. Time and again, Bono returns to the topic of his faith, which provides him with deep solace and strong moral bearings. Bono’s certainty and his personal courage bring him alive as a friend to the reader — a person you may well admire for his ability to learn from any situation and to apply those learnings to his personal travails.
In a humorous and definitely unscripted moment at the National Cathedral, Bono relayed a story as to how his wife Ali Hewson recently turned him onto AC/DC. After a chat with her, he was truly struck by the lyrics to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” and he was very much moved by the song’s invocation of a journey where “My friends are gonna be there too.” Bono was so inspired to share the precise wording of the lyrics that he prompted Jon Meacham to Google them on his phone.
For Bono, the lyric invoked a spirit of community — of brotherhood — and even of family. And Bono’s book is the tale of being born into one family and forging another with his U2 bandmates and additional friends, including members of fellow Irish rock group the Virgin Prunes. It is a tale well worth your time, and you may come away from the experience with a newfound kinship with a global rockstar.