Bono is a hypocritical arch-capitalist who has perpetuated poverty and inequality in Africa instead of alleviating it. Bono is not a big-hearted humanitarian battling valiantly for the downtrodden, but is instead an ambassador for imperial exploitation. Thus runs the principal charge from Harry Browne in his new book The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Instead of improving things for a “world of savage injustice”, Bono has, according to the book’s blurb, “helped make it worse”. It’s a serious allegation requiring serious evidence.
As a U2 fan, it’s an intriguingly challenging book to read. Bono has got the closest any celebrity has got to being a hero for me. I thought I already knew all about his alleged flaws. Living in an area of London where uber-credible underground indie bands rule and U2 are considered anti-music, exposed to the British media’s pervasive cynicism about U2, and occasionally sneaking a peak at the I Still Hate Bono and His Fucking Face page on Facebook, I believed I was reasonably familiar with most of the criticisms of Bono. Yet I was surprised by Browne’s slant on many aspects of Bono’s life and career. Browne attempts to demolish practically everything that Bono has ever touched by placing dynamite at the base.
In the introduction, Browne says with mischievous understatement, “I don’t pretend to be a neutral arbiter”. This book is not an impartial biography. It’s an unrelenting hatchet job. Everything in Bono’s career as a musician, businessman and activist is battered by Browne’s wrecking ball. This bias is highlighted just five pages in. Bono is quoted as saying, “There’s 200,000 Africans who now owe their lives to America.” Instead of trying to verify the accuracy of this massive claim, Browne instead wants to change what Bono said. It is, Browne continues, “impossible to resist the invitation to substitute the word ‘America’ with the word ‘me’”. This is astonishing. Bono has just claimed that two hundred thousand (!) people are now alive because of George W Bush’s policies, and Browne is more interested in putting different words into Bono’s mouth. This shows where Browne’s priorities lie.
So where to start with this demolition? If you’re gonna chop down the Bono tree, start at the roots, because it’s not completely about the singer; Bono didn’t climb to the summit alone. U2 collectively come in for a lot of flak, Paul McGuinness gets a fair bit, Edge and Larry less so; Adam escapes completely unscathed.
Browne claims in the introduction that “this book … doesn’t question the basis of Bono’s success” but he later denigrates much of U2’s output. He also says that the book “considers Bono largely as a political operator, rather than a cultural producer”. Yet there are numerous detailed critiques and snidey comments about the culture Bono produces.
Their early singles had no “musical range, lyrical wit, political sensibility”. The band sound “callow”. The Dandelion Market gigs were “rotten”. “A series of ‘London Spies’ had previously found the band ‘gauche and formless’.” What was it that people heard in “this mediocre band”? U2 play a “reportedly dismal” version of My Hometown in Croke Park. And it goes on.
Browne opens with a pedantic argument considering whether U2 are “real” northside Dubs – “northside” in Dublin meaning working-class. He denies that Ireland in the 1970s was a poor country whose government was overly influenced by the Catholic Church, trying to suggest it wasn’t such a cultural backwater because, get this, people with a TV aerial could pick up British pirate radio! And of course some of the British punk bands even made it to Dublin for gigs. Browne is falling into his own notions of what Ireland was like in the 1970s, exaggerating its progressiveness. Of course, the one advantage U2 have over Browne in this regard is that they were actually there at that time. The question here is: are U2’s first-hand recollections of the 70s more or less skewered than Browne’s second-hand recollections? (According to Browne’s bio in the book, he was born in Italy, raised in the US and has lived in Ireland since the middle of the eighties.)
Browne denies his own aims. “This discussion of origin-mythmaking,” he writes, “is not simply meant to suggest that Bono and his band are somehow inauthentic … It is meant to disentangle the facts of Bono’s life from his rhetoric.” I do like that phrase. “Disentangling the facts from his rhetoric” is as fancy a way of introducing a discussion of someone’s inauthenticity as you may find. This florid phrase would, of course, also cover lying, but that would be too crudely unsubtle.
Browne concedes that “much of the ridicule of Bono is dumb and misguided,” but is still happy to revel in such infantile playground jibes. The Archbishop of Ireland pronounced Bono’s name as “Mr Bone-o”! LOL! Bono is a “poxbottle”! LOL! Sinead O’Connor called Bono “Bozo”! LOL! This is all done, apparently, so Dublin’s graffiti artists don’t feel left out.
Some of the critique spills over into Bono’s personal life; only his father’s death and his children are left out. So, for example, the true implication for the young Bono of his parents’ mixed marriage is scrutinised. Ali Hewson is criticised at points, for her public statements and for her work with Edun. “There is rarely anything sexy about U2,” writes Browne, the middle-aged man commenting upon the allure of four middle-aged men. But he feels free to comment upon Ali, who has “beauty, which isn’t her fault,” looking glamorous in a promotional photo for Louis Vuitton where she shows “a shadow of cleavage”.
Reading The Frontman, Browne’s personal politics seep through unremittingly. If pushed, I’d guess he’s somewhere on the militant left. He claims the nationalists in Northern Ireland were threatened with “ethnic cleansing” and insinuates the IRA’s campaign of terrorism was a valid response. When Bono praises George W Bush for saving millions of lives in Africa, Browne mentions the Iraqis whose death Bush is responsible for. When Bono is in Israel, Browne questions if Bono considered the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. When Bono meets the Queen, he receives “a bauble signifying association with the rape of continents”. One of Bono’s colleagues in the Jubilee 2000 campaign is “a posh Londoner”. Bono “is representative of a class that has long since made peace with imperialism in all its forms and facets.”
There is a picture of Lenin on Browne’s Twitter page. This, of course, does not imply that Browne is a communist. And this little irrelevant aside is a perfect example of one of Browne’s favourite tactics: write something with an unspoken suggestion, then backtrack and concede that it’s not true. I had the feeling that Browne hoped some of the dirt from these accusations would stick. So, for example, there were rumours in Dublin that Mother Records (the record company U2 founded in the 1980s to nurture new Irish bands) was actually a vehicle to prevent another successful Irish band challenging U2’s hegemony. Browne repeats the old urban myth (a “surely apocryphal story”) about Bono clapping his hands at a gig in Glasgow to indicate how often a child in Africa dies. After U2 got stick for moving their tax dealings to Holland, “the local grapevine suggested … this glee at the reeling-in of Bono’s ego would be enjoyed most, we heard, by the drummer”. Paul McGuinness made a phone call pretending to be someone else to get U2 a gig. Ali Hewson refused to help an acquaintance over allegations of his having IRA connections. Bono is a frontman for genocide. All rumours, and all mentioned by Browne regardless.
Bono’s Ego & Blathering
The vast majority of the detailed analyses of Bono’s perceived wrongdoings come down to two personality traits: Bono has an ego and Bono can talk a load of shite. In fact, the shite-talking can also come under “Bono’s unearthly ego”.
So, for example, Live Aid was really just Bono’s ego stepping out onto the world stage. His confident, powerful performance becomes a selfish, mercenary attempt to boost his own fame. His leap off the stage and dance with the girl was a trite, vacuous gesture. His strut off the stage at the end of Bad was “the crowning insult for the rest of U2”. Browne points out that Bono didn’t mention any African causes during U2’s performance. Did many other artists?
I have no doubt that Bono’s ego draws considerable inflation from the praise he receives for his activism. And you know what, who cares? Really. Big deal. Bono’s vanity on its own, and it’s a frequently recurring issue in the book, is not really an issue if what Bono is actually doing is for the overall good. If ego-stroking motivates him, great. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t be human. If your plumber fixes the leak, who cares if he brags about his amazing work? However, it does seem unfair to not consider that Bono may feel even a smidgen of genuine joy at seeing the lives of others improved – or saved. I don’t believe Bono is all ego. Bono’s ego alone is not worthy of a book. I want to know about where Bono’s ego is doing harm.
A huge proportion of Browne’s evidence against Bono comes from Bono’s own mouth, the Vox pop as it were. Browne knows that Bono frequently waffles, exaggerates, blathers, jokes, talks himself up, talks himself down, forgets details, invents details, mangles details. Bono is not under oath in a court of law giving precise factual descriptions of events. He’s often talking for dramatic, comic or persuasive effect. Bono is not a wholly reliable witness to the events he is describing because he is not trying to describe them objectively, dispassionately. Bono is an amnesiac raconteur, prone to embellishments, omissions, and, yes, revisionism.
Browne quotes a perfect example of this. When U2 played at Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Bono made a short speech during Pride. “Not just an American dream. Also an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream, an Israeli dream, a Palestinian dream.” When Bono is telling the story of this moment later during an interview, he says, “I mentioned that it was also an Irish dream, it was a Mexican dream”. Bono got his globe-trotting dreams mixed up. He’s got a crap memory. He uses an autocue onstage during gigs for songs he’s sung thousands of times.
Browne concedes that Bono “should be judged not on his motivations or intentions … but on the plain reality of his actions”. Yet vast tranches of Browne’s tirades are based on point-by-point critical analyses of Bono’s vainglorious waffling.
For example, Browne chastises Bono for not including Irish folk music when he listed the genres of music U2 didn’t have roots in (no blues, no gospel, no country). However Browne follows this up a page later by revealing that one of the lyrics in Silver and Gold is a line from a Brendan Behan ballad, “so Bono had listened to some Irish music” (placed in parentheses). Bono just hadn’t mentioned the Irish music he had listened to. Browne claims that Bono’s omission of Irish folk music from that list of roots shows “residual contempt for Irish traditional music”. These are strong words. But how can Bono show residual contempt for Irish music when he uses a line from a Brendan Behan ballad? It seems that Browne is giving more weight to Bono’s words than Bono’s actions because it suits his argument. “By their words ye shall know them,” could be Browne’s alternative version of the Bible verse.
Furthermore Browne doesn’t seem to consider that by consistently undermining and challenging what Bono says, Browne is actually undermining his own arguments. If Bono’s testimony is skewed to be self-serving, how can you use that testimony for anything other than showing that Bono’s testimony is skewed to be self-serving? Browne needs to find alternative witnesses to use as evidence for his case against Bono, yet for many of the sections where he chastises Bono he fails to do so. Bono’s unreliable waffling is Browne’s only unreliable evidence.
I was particularly interested in Browne’s take on U2’s relation to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He criticises them for their stance against IRA terrorism. U2 provided “an apolitical uncontroversial form of Irish nationality”. U2 were reflecting a safe, conventional viewpoint, with a “generic deploring of violence”.
Yet this “tightly enforced Dublin consensus (that) there was no injustice in the North that was worth shedding blood over” was also the view of the SDLP, who were the majority nationalist party in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. U2’s “generic deploring of violence” was the popular view of Northern Irish Catholics. (I was a pre-teen in Derry in the early 80s; both my parents voted SDLP.)
Browne tangles himself into a small knot over Sunday Bloody Sunday. He chastises U2 for not actually saying anything in the song, for a lack of “insight, empathy or courage”, shorthand for not explicitly taking the side of nationalists. Yet he also mentions that the original first line of the song was “Don’t talk to me about the rights of the IRA”. In a sublime piece of twisted logic, he criticises this unused lyric because “in a sense Bloody Sunday’s victims … had died for trying to ‘talk about the rights of the IRA’.” So U2 are criticised for not taking a side in the Troubles with the actual lyric, and criticised for taking the wrong side with the unused lyric. It seems that Browne really wanted Bono to wave an Irish tricolour whilst the band blasted out a stirring rebel song, openly supporting nationalists instead of defying what was a “beleaguered, oppressed community of mainly working-class people who were under physical and ideological assault”.
On page 18 Browne claims that believing “the Provisional IRA to be thugs and murderers whose campaign of violence must somehow be stopped … would pose little problem for U2’s entrée into culturally enlightened society in Britain … but it would pose more of a problem in the US, where open adherence to ‘the cause’ was more widespread in and beyond Irish communities.” Yet then, on page 20, he writes “one can see what a faintly absurd statement of the obvious it was for Bono to introduce the 1983 song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ in concert after concert with the famous words, ‘This is not a rebel song’.“
No Harry, no! You can’t have it both ways. If Irish Americans are more into ‘the cause’ then it makes absolutely perfect sense for Bono to declare that Sunday Bloody Sunday is not a rebel song if there was a possibility someone may appropriate it for republican fundraising ends. (NORAID were successful fundraisers in America in the 1980s, remember.)
When Bono wrote MLK in 1984, Browne positions Bono’s pacifist Christianity in terms of Northern Ireland. “Why oh why couldn’t Northern Catholic-nationalists have stuck to strictly peaceful means of protest when faced with, first, discrimination and disenfranchisement, and then with violent oppression and ethnic cleansing in 1968-70?” Pride and MLK were written in 1984. Northern Ireland had changed dramatically between 1970 and 1984. And of course, there was a non-violent political movement within the nationalist community in Northern Ireland led by John Hume, which was far more popular than Sinn Fein and IRA terrorism.
(This is, incidentally, the first time I’ve ever heard someone describe the Troubles in terms of “ethnic cleansing”, although it may be a common term in political and historical discourse in Norn Iron these days. It’s a strong phrase. I think it’s wildly inappropriate.)
Also, Browne tries to suggest that the oppression of black people in South Africa under apartheid was comparable to the situation of the Catholics in Northern Ireland. Perhaps in the 1960s this analogy could have stood up; it certainly wouldn’t have stood up to scrutiny in the 1980s. He claims there is unintended irony in Rattle and Hum when Bono describes Silver and Gold as a song about a man “ready to take up arms against his oppressor” only to later make his famous “fuck the revolution!” rant during Sunday Bloody Sunday. Browne is again equating the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in 1987 with the situation for Catholics in Northern Ireland in 1987 – two years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Finally, and somewhat bizarrely, Browne makes an odd claim involving Bono and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. According to Browne, the “summary photo-op of the whole affair, the crowning achievement of the peace process” was the photo of Bono holding David Trimble’s and John Hume’s hands aloft at a concert in Belfast. You may need to re-read that last quote. I did. Several times. And I’m still not convinced I’m not missing something. “The crowning achievement of the peace process” (emphasis added) was “the Bono-Hume-Trimble moment”. Goodness. Of course, Browne sets this moment up as the most important event only to immediately call it “bullshit”. Right word, wrong subordinate clause.
(My personal choice as the crowning achievement of the peace process was this wee beaut of an anecdote. Apparently during some of the intense overnight negotiations before Good Friday, when I believe Sinn Fein and the DUP couldn’t even be in the same room cos they despised each other so much, Gerry Adams is having a pee in the pristine marble splendour of the Stormont gentlemen’s room when Ian Paisley walks in. Following the etiquette of male bogs, Ian takes a urinal as far away from Gerry as possible. An awkward silence falls as both men stand staring at the wall in front of them. After a while, with not much else happening, Gerry turns to Ian, “It’s difficult isn’t it? This damn pee process.” I may have invented some of the details, but hey, it’s surely an apocryphal story.)
Browne criticises U2 for being ignorant of the results of the referendum held in Northern Ireland in 1998 to ratify the Good Friday Agreement. Edge thought the vote was much closer than it was. Bono exaggerates the effect of U2’s gig on the result. This could be “refuted by a minute’s fact-checking”.
It delights me to be able to point out that when Browne claims that U2 have never played in Israel (p145), one minute’s fact-checking could have found this. I hold polemicists to tougher standards of research than rock stars. (I was hoping to tell Browne about this little factual error at his Rough Trade talk to check his reaction but alas I forgot.)
Ambassador of Imperialism
Almost all of Browne’s most serious criticisms of Bono are spokes off this central accusation: that Bono is a cog in a colonial Western capitalist and political machine that professes noble goals of poverty reduction in Africa but actually does huge damage i.e. that Bono’s philanthro-capitalism makes things worse.
Browne attacks this premise from numerous angles:
1) Band Aid and Live Aid
2) The Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns
3) Persuading George W Bush’s government to allocate $15 billion to pay for AIDS drugs in Africa
4) The G8 summit in Scotland in 2005
5) Product (RED)
6) Bono’s editing of newspapers and magazines
7) Bono heckling a speaker at a TED talk in Tanzania
8) Bono and Ali appearing in an advert for a Louis Vuitton bag
10) U2’s commercial tie-ins with Apple
11) U2’s aggressive defence of their intellectual property
12) Elevation Partners investing billions of pounds
13) Bono providing cover for war-mongering presidents and prime ministers
14) The ONE campaign
15) Bono and ONE supporting the Gates Foundation whilst it funds GM food programmes in Africa
These are big issues. Each is analysed in depth, always to show Bono at fault. I actually agree with Browne on a few of his points, some of which are pretty much givens (U2’s tax avoidance is immoral, for example; and Product (RED) is ludicrous; and the heckling was inexcusable).
However I’m most interested in the claim in the book’s blurb about Bono’s overall negative impact. This is the specific accusation that the book is being promoted on. It will need some compelling evidence to back it up.
Right, I’m gonna have to review these parts of Browne’s anti-Bono case over the next few days …