As you would expect, I have heard from some folks asking my opinion of the Washington Post feature story about that Paul Hewson guy that ran with this faith-based two-decker headline: “Bono’s Calling — The Irish Rocker Has a Mission: To Fight Poverty and Enlist the Powerful in the Battle.”
The good news is that this giant piece, which ran atop the Style section, was remarkably snark-free (although opening with that cute Beatles songfest inside a Beltway bathroom comes close).
The other good news is that there really isn’t anything all that new or edgy in reporter Sridhar Pappu’s piece. It covers lots of old U2 territory and gets most of it right, even if the sketches are a bit incomplete.
It’s impossible, of course, to talk about Bono’s long history of work in Africa without digging into his Christian faith. It’s even hard to talk about the political angle here in Washington, D.C. — by which I mean Bono’s ability to connect with people on both sides of the cultural aisle — without talking about his ability to quote St. John as well as John Lennon.
Bono brings that up, himself:
“I think knowing the Scriptures helped,” Bono says of his conversations with more conservative legislators. His father was Roman Catholic, and it was his Protestant mother who regularly took him to church before her death when Bono was 14. “I think I could debate with them. I hope they had appreciated that, and they knew I had respect for their beliefs. Even if I wasn’t the best example of how to live your life, they treated me with respect. I’m nervous of zealotism, even though I have to admit I’m a zealot for these issues of extreme poverty.”
But this is really old stuff, as I mentioned in a recent post flashing back to my U2 interviews from 1982. But here is a crucial chunk of the history in this piece:
He was an ordinary man once, with an ordinary name. Paul David Hewson started to become who he is at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin. There, when he was 15, he met Alison Stewart, now his wife of 25 years and the mother of his four children. And it was there he found his mates — the three men who would join together and stand together to this day as U2.
From the very beginning, they were not content to stay a garage band or merely a darling of the critics. They always wanted to be galvanizing, a force that could reach millions, everlasting and indestructible. Musically, their songs (beginning with their first album, “Boy”) made that extended reach, informed by a sense of spiritual longing, underpinned by biblical beliefs.
… (Millions) across the world heard U2′s anthems to social justice in 1985 at the Live Aid benefit for a starving Ethiopia. After that, Bono and Alison went there themselves and worked for six weeks giving out essential food supplies. At one point, a man approached Bono with his young child, asking the rocker to take his son to Ireland.
Those who know Bono say it was something he never really got over. It spurred his transcendence from mere rock star to savior of both the world’s most impoverished and the button-down servants of the American experiment working along the Potomac.
So what is missing? The Post misses several connections between the religion, the music and the politics that were already in place long before Live Aid.
It’s important to remember that in the crucial 1981-82 period, the Christians in U2 were part of a charismatic-evangelical house church crowd, which meant listening to the powerful voices of people who were saying that it was, literally, a sin to be a rock star. The band almost broke up over the issue, but did not.
Why? The music was the big thing, obviously. But Bono was also wrestling — way back then — with the positive side of being famous, as well as the negative side. From the very beginning, the positive side of fame became linked with the desire to help others and he was already talking about Africa in 1982. Here is how I tried to sum up some of that love-hate relationship with his own celebrity status in a 2001 column for Scripps Howard:
In U2′s early days, other Christians said the band should break up or flee into “Christian rock,” arguing that fame always corrupts. Bono and his band mates decided otherwise, but the singer soon began speaking out about his faith and his doubts, his joys and his failures.
“I don’t believe in preaching at people,” he told me, back in 1982. A constant theme in his music, he added, is the soul-spinning confusion that results when spirituality, sensuality, ego and sin form a potion that is both intoxicating and toxic. “The truth is that we are all sinners. I always include myself in the ‘we.’ … I’m not telling everybody that I have the answers. I’m trying to get across the difficulty that I have being what I am.”
So the Post feature was quite solid and far better than the norm. It’s simply interesting to note that Bono and Co. have been, well, singing this song for a long, long time. It’s news, but it isn’t new.