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Bono's Long Journey Brings Him to Harvard

How do you reconcile a life as a commercial rock star with intense spirituality? U2's Bono is still searching for the answer--and his journey has brought him to Harvard

By Warren Adler, Crimson Staff Writer

Carrying nothing more than a few small bags and a single guitar, the four members of U2 stand calmly in the terminal of Charles de Gaulle airport in the image on the cover of their latest album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. It is a classy black-and-white spread that strips away the disco balls and splashy hijinks that marked their work in the late 1990s, and leaves exposed a pensive and insightful U2, in the middle of their ever-changing career-long journey.

For Bono, the lead singer for the multiple Grammy Award-winning and chart-topping rock band U2, life has always been an exploration. Down city streets, through seedy bars, in churches and on the concert stage, he has spent 41 years looking for answers. And after all that time, he may not have found exactly what he's looking for, but he is not anxious to rush the search. He is navigating the same fundamental questions that have consumed him since his youth--how does one remain a spiritual being in the modern world?

"He has a tremendous love for the world," says Bill Flanagan, a U2 biographer and a friend of Bono. "He always wants to go through one more door, go around one more corner."

His search for answers has led him through the extremes of both modern materialism and devout spirituality, which are deeply entangled in his life.

U2's last three tours have increasingly been multimedia spectacles that rate as some of the most expensive in rock concert history. For his part, Bono has undeniably lived the life of a rock star.

"He is someone who is always leading the 4 a.m. expedition to find the last open pub," Flanagan says. "He is the life of any party."

But there is a more spiritual side to Bono as well. A devout Catholic, he and his bandmates dabbled in evangelicalism during their youthful days in Dublin. At that time, they were torn between their increasingly demanding rock lifestyle and their spiritual devotion.

"The band almost broke up after their second album because they had a crisis over whether being in a rock band is a valid way to spend a life," Flanagan says.

The crisis was overcome, but Bono still refuses to allow himself to simply enjoy the hedonist luxuries of rock stardom.

"He has a genuine conscience and is dealing with issues, like if you only have one life to live, can you spend that life in show business?" Flanagan says.

Bono does not let show business monopolize his time. He has maintained an intense devotion to political causes--avidly supporting Amnesty International, meeting with then-President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Pope John Paul II, and lobbying for Third World debt relief.

"He feels a moral responsibility to do what he can to help people, whether by using his money or his public platform or simply his access to people," Flanagan says.

With the band's newest album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, Bono seems more willing than ever to sing about the complicated nuances of maintaining faith and hope in a world filled with pain.

The feeling of war-torn optimism permeates the lyrics. Bono sings as someone who has seen what is worst in the world and still finds a sublime beauty behind the tears. Throughout the album, there is a recurring message that even in the darkest moments, one can find the strength to stand tall and find hope.

This message comes from a well-traveled man who has seen his home country of Ireland torn apart by perpetual warfare, has spent time in Ethiopia volunteering to aid starving children, and has recently lived through the suicide of his good friend, INXS singer Michael Hutchence. When Bono writes about the pain and suffering in the world, he is not a distant artist, speculating at what is out there. He has been in the trenches, and has seen the horror firsthand.

But despite all that he has seen, the sentiment that he has to share with his audience is that it's "a beautiful day."

The Boys Of Dublin

Bono was born Paul David Hewson in Dublin, Ireland on May 10, 1960.

He was not led to rock'n roll because of exceptional musical talent. In fact, musical talent was something that the boys of U2 had very little of in their early days.

They were a ragtag gang of young Dublin friends that grew up with dreams of stardom.

"I think they always wanted to be famous and popular because they thought they were very interesting personalities," says longtime friend and band biographer B.P. Fallon, who knew the members during their days in Dublin in the late 1970s.

What the young bandmates did have was passion. There was a drive and work ethic that pushed them towards success, even before they were capable of playing any songs.

Fallon, who was unimpressed by their early demo tapes, says it was the vigor of the band that attracted him.

"I listened to the tape because of Adam's attitude," he says, referring to Adam Clayton, U2's bass player. "He wanted to be successful so badly."

Steve Stockman, a U2 biographer and Dublin resident, says the band had grown up in an "archaic Catholic country that was very sheltered from the outside world" in the 1970s. For that reason, "their first two albums were about themselves and God."

Bono and his bandmates were an idealistic young bunch.

"The early albums were a celebration--a naive celebration, probably," Stockman says.

Their narrow focus expanded as their touring pulled them away from their cloistered upbringing and led them out to the world beyond.

There's A "War" On Out There

"After their third album, War, they began traveling around the world, seeing what a mess it was, and they started asking questions," Stockman says.

Bono developed an increased interest in political activism in 1985 when he performed in the high-profile "Live Aid" concert that raised about $200 million. The 16-hour music marathon, performed simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, was broadcast to more than 60 countries, and featured many of the top musicians of the day, with performances by Bob Dylan, Duran Duran, Phil Collins and reunions of both The Who and Led Zeppelin.

Despite the star power of the show, U2's impassioned performance at Wembley Stadium was generally accepted by press and audience members alike as the highlight of the show. Bono was able to overcome the daunting size of the venue to create a true rapport with the audience, even jumping through two photography pits to stand in the crowd. Some critics believe it was this performance that truly made U2 a world phenomenon.

The band issued a statement on the day of the concert saying, "U2 are [sic] involved in Live Aid because it's more than money, it's music...but it is also a demonstration to the politicians and policymakers that men, women and children will not walk by other men, women and children as they lie, bellies swollen, starving to death for the sake of a cup of grain and some water."

Their devotion to public service has only increased over the years. Currently, Bono is working on Jubilee 2000 and its Debt Relief Campaign, aimed at convincing the world's eight richest nations to cancel the debt owed by Africa's poorest countries.

Jamie Drummond, an organizer of Jubilee 2000, says Bono signed on to the project after learning that the $200 million that "LiveAid" had made is the amount of money that the countries of Africa pays in debt every five days.

An Era Of Pop

Since the 1980s, U2's devotion to fighting important political causes has never flagged. But during the 1990s, the band shed their image of heart-on-their-sleeve activists.

Bono had announced at the final show of their 1989 Lovetown tour, "We have to go away and dream it all up again."

"They may have been protecting their own personalities, which were becoming caricatures," Stockman says.

After the failure of their documentary and double live album, Rattle and Hum, fans were becoming skeptical of the band's sincerity because of their commercial success. U2 knew that they needed a change.

The U2 that resurfaced in 1991 was dramatically different from what audiences were used to. Their sound was infused with synthesizers and techno-based drum beats, while their tours were large-scale spectacles that expanded to the $250,000-per-day multimedia extravaganza of the 1997 PopMart tour, complete with a lemon-shaped spaceship that carried the band on stage. U2 was trying to create the next generation of music and performance by utilizing the technology of the era.

"[The band] actually became an image, whereas before they had been 'the real thing,'" says Carter Alan, a Boston radio DJ and U2 biographer, referring to the 1991 U2 song "Even Better than the Real Thing." "They were making fun of their own success."

The image that they took on was perceived by the press as cynicism that seemed to be mocking the modern world. The Pop album, whose release was originally announced in a Greenwich Village Kmart for full ironic effect, marked the extreme of their consumerist parody.

The band's performances were a theatrical satire of the fast-paced, high- priced, modern world. Screens on the stage would flash from footage of the Gulf War to Van Halen music videos and back to CNN satellite feeds. Bono would talk to the audiences through characters that he had adopted for the show--"the fly," "Mirrorball Man," and "Mister MacPhisto," which were caricatures of lust and greed.

It is generally agreed by those close to the band that a lot of what U2 did during the later 1990s was misunderstood. The band's cynicism was overblown by reviewers and audiences, they say, who may have missed the fact that U2 was tackling the same issues they had dealt with for years. They just approached the questions from a new angle.

"U2 felt that the way people were experiencing reality and fiction was becoming so intertwined that they thought it would be an interesting thing to explore," Flanagan says. "If you go to the songs, then those are very personal songs, about marriage and intimacy and temptation. [Bono] wanted to know if all this sensory overload we experience in the world gives you permission to live for your own pleasure."

The PopMart tour did reach the threshold of sensory stimulation, and in many ways, the show was too big for the band to handle. The tour did not sell enough tickets to cover its expenses, and the album, with its experimental music style, sold only a disappointing million copies. It was clear that the band could not continue expanding their act.

According to Alan, U2's guitar player the Edge says that "each album is a reaction to the one before it." This was never clearer than with the sudden scaling-back that the band underwent during the past two years. U2's current tour is smaller and more intimate, and Bono's lyrics are an honest inquiry into issues that have been on his mind for years.

"Bono is dealing with the conflict between wanting to have a stable home and the conflicting desire to go out in the world and have an adventure and never come back. To some degree, that's what he's been writing about since 'I Will Follow," the band's first hit single, released in 1980, Flanagan says.

--Staff writer Warren S. Adler can be reached at

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