Legendary rock writer Dave Marsh wrote a column for Counterpunch yesterday reviewing the book The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power) by writer Harry Browne. It wasn’t very nice.
Dave Marsh is a grumpy rock and roll journalist who was the editor of Creem magazine and has written for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice and he helped create the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and currently sits on the board. He’s known for his cynically-jaded writing style and his strong (often negative) opinions of legendary rock bands. (He panned every Journey album ever, considered Queen a fascist rock band, and called The Grateful Dead “the worst band in creation.”) Marsh is irascible, and likes to rip on rock icons, so maybe its fitting that he’s stumping for Harry Browne’s new book slamming U2’s front man Bono.
In my world Bono is considered a saint – the truly Christian rock and roll star. You don’t mess with Bono. I have this gut reaction to that sort of unanimity. When nobody has anything bad to say about the world’s biggest rock and roll star, I start looking for a second opinion. That’s what Marsh sees in The Frontman. Marsh admits that most writers who rip Bono (himself included), do so out of “a blend of anger, contempt, condescension and frustration.” Browne, he says, doesn’t fit this bill.
Harry Browne is not a rock and roll guy, he’s an activist and journalist who has written for the Irish Times, Sunday Times, Irish Daily Mail, Evening Herald and Sunday Tribune. He covers media and politics among other subjects – he’s legit. His argument is that Bono isn’t really a radical. He’s a pseudo-liberal who is simply out for all the power and fame is ginormous ego can garner. He’s not a bad guy, he’s a fool who has been used by politicians who don’t really want what he wants – hence the picture on the front cover. A real radical would have never stood for that photo.
The counter-argument is that Bono has never claimed to be a saint. In fact Bono is famously self-aware of his monstrous ego. (I once heard him say that he can’t go straight home after a tour. He’s been surrounded by adoring fans and sycophantic employees for months, so it takes a buffer before his soul is contrite enough to see his family.) Whatever his personal failings, at least Bono is trying to do something, using his success for good. He flirts with calling himself a whore for causes. He says he’ll sit down with anybody who can help, but he’s not a cheap date & you better bring your checkbook. I’ve always kind of admired that.
Brown’s book is attempting to claim that Bono has unwittingly allied himself with neo-liberals who are only making things worse in the world. It’s not that Bono is evil or duplicitous, he’s just deceived by neo-liberals who use his star power to serve their lurid interests. That’s an interesting case. However, that is not a case for Bono being “bad,” but rather a case for Bono being “wrong” about his approach. Two things it seems like Marsh/Browne might be conflating.
The Front Man is about a boy who never grew up or faced facts. Through very careful accretion of detail it left me feeling that Bono resembled no entertainment or arts figure nearly as much as that other sad, sheltered boy, George W. Bush. In fact, what surprised me most about my reaction to the book was how my response changed as I read. At first, the prose seemed too reserved, too cautious, incapable of capturing the outrageousness of Bono, one part talent to nine parts hubris. But as the pages turned, what engrossed me was another portrait: Bono as that little boy in man’s boots, surrounded by forces he fathoms no more than a five-year-old fathoms the perils of the sea. In the end, Harry Browne’s Bono is not so much a huckster as a sucker; not a con man so much as a victim of the world’s greatest con artists; not an egomaniac but someone so insecure he has found ways to be shielded from almost all harsh realities (well, at least his own). If this were a movie, you might be able to measure the price paid just by the way he looks at himself in the mirror.
Most less than adulatory writing about Bono, including my own, is a blend of anger, contempt, condescension and frustration. The Front Manrecognizes all these instincts, but keeps them under tight command. For instance, Browne allows himself to be angrier (in tone) at Bono’s wife, Ali, whose business machinations are real but comparatively trivial, than at Bono, himself. There’s kind of a shadow behind such moments, as if we’re meant to glean that the book’s protagonist can’t be judged like other men, not because he is extraordinarily gifted or brave or empathetic, but because he’s so lost, frightened and pathetic. Bono may be the personification of all that’s evil about contemporary celebrity culture and all that’s worse than bankrupt about liberal capitalism (and liberal capitalists) but there’s also a real person in there, and he’s spent most of a lifetime making himself what history must surely judge—perhaps not with as much restraint as the author—as a fool.
Does this make Harry Browne’s Bono less easy to despise? Probably but it also makes him easier to understand. Here, Bono becomes less the many-sided symbolic figure and more a fallible (sometimes likable, sometimes detestable) human. Think of the former Paul Hewson as the first self-created one dimensional man (all front, no back). Browne’s dug past the PR and the rhetoric and found…a Mad Mencliché for our times.
But that’s not why you need to read The Front Man. You do need to. Not because you want to better understand Bono, let alone empathize with his plight, but because what topples is not only Bono’s stature but the excuses his chosen trade, liberal philanthropic paternalism, makes for itself. Langston Hughes wrote that the animal that should be chosen to represent liberals is not a donkey or an elephant but an ostrich. This book could be subtitled Bono (With His Head in the Sand).
The book doesn’t come out until June. It should make for some interesting conversation. Short aside – Counterpunch is old school rock and roll journalism. Pretty interesting site.