The cover art for 'Surrender' includes a black and white, close-up photo of Bono as a younger man
Our reviewer hopes for a second volume

Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story (Hutchinson Heinemann) by Bono

All rock’n’roll memoirs are the telling of a miracle. If a musician has succeeded to the point that anybody believes their memoir worth publishing, they have triumphed over the colossal odds that stand against any bunch of earnest, spotty youths, feeling their way around instruments they can barely play, ever amounting to anything much.

The story related by U2 frontman Bono in Surrender, as its author understands, is remarkable even by that measure. The chances of Dublin teenagers gathering to make a racket in a suburban kitchen in 1976 becoming, within a decade or so, the biggest rock band in the world were virtually nil.

Surrender is a series of recollections and digressions attached to 40 songs from U2’s catalogue. Though the book is more or less chronological, each chapter feels self-contained: a sketch, a parable, a confession and/or a funny story. Over the course of a long and extraordinary career, Bono has amassed a wealth of anecdotage. He relates his material with the instinctive skill of a born yarn-spinner, and an air of self-deprecating befuddlement that any of this somehow happened. There were, of course, any number of reasons why it shouldn’t have.

But it did. So, Mikhail Gorbachev pitches up on his Dublin doorstep clutching an enormous teddy bear. George W. Bush gives him something of a wigging in the Oval Office. He gets repeatedly out-drunk by Frank Sinatra. He relates his encounters with the elites of entertainment, politics, tech, media and finance with deftly turned character portraits. Rupert Murdoch is “a sophisticated thinker, camouflaged by colloquialisms; Australian”, Nelson Mandela is “a wellspring of joy that defied the weight he carried”, Johnny Cash “the heavyweight champion of every room he entered except the one that contained June Carter”.

There is an echo in the latter aperçu of another key theme of Surrender. It is a book about women, although not in the way that memoirs by male rock stars often are. Specifically, it is to a large extent a book about two women. One is Iris Hewson, Bono’s mother, who died suddenly when Bono was 14: a recurring motif of Surrender, as it is of U2’s catalogue, is Bono grappling with the uncomfortable thought that this tragedy might somehow have catalysed his success. The other is Ali Hewson, Bono’s wife: the pair met at school, and married in their early 20s. Bono still sounds like a man touchingly terrified of what might have become of him otherwise.

Surrender is not merely a great memoir by the usually lackadaisical standards of rock’n’roll autobiography. It’s a great book about music and politics, family and friendship, pride and ambition, and doesn’t wear thin even at nearly 600 pages. Indeed, there are sufficient omissions – and certainly enough U2 songs – to warrant a second volume.

As someone present at both extraordinary occasions, I was surprised to find little reference to U2’s show at Koševo Stadium in Sarajevo in 1997, 18 months after the lifting of the siege of the city, or their three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2001, six weeks after 9/11 – events at which U2’s rare gift for channelling a moment triumphed in difficult, volatile circumstances which most bands of their stature might have preferred not to confront.

Some of the most interesting stretches of Surrender are those that reflect on the conundrums and contradictions which arise when one attempts to apply the idealism of rock’n’roll to the realities of politics. In both realms, Bono talks about the search for the “top-line melody”, the irresistible riff that lodges an idea, a sentiment, a mood in people’s heads, and sends them away humming it whether they really want to or not.

To a degree confounding its title, Surrender serves as a brisk primer in the art of getting stuff actually done. It turns out to necessitate much the same boneheaded determination and unwillingness to shut up that drive a teenager aboard the boat-train from Dublin to London to spend days schlepping from indifferent promoter to baffled journalist with a demo tape. Though U2’s songs have not been short on utopian sloganeering, especially early on, their singer evolved into a pragmatic and effective advocate, and Surrender is also the story of a political education, as instructed by many of the most influential figures of our time.

I did once ask Bono if he entertained any ambitions of political office himself, and suggested that Ireland’s largely ceremonial presidency might be suitable; he replied that he wouldn’t want to move to a smaller house. Like many of his insights into the absurdity and opportunity of an unlikely life as a mega-celebrity, it’s funny because it’s true.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2023 edition. Subscribe here for access to the full magazine.