New Book Rips U2’s Bono as a Lap-dog for Neo-liberals

New Book Rips U2’s Bono as a Lap-dog for Neo-liberals May 9, 2013

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 TimesSunday TimesIrish Daily MailEvening 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.

Here’s an excerpt from Marsh’s article:

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.

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  • “Dave Marsh is a grumpy rock and roll journalist” That pretty much sums it up. Other than Springsteen…Dave Marsh has his nose so far up Springsteen’s arse, it’s truly disgusting. I’m sure this book will be an interesting read and conversation starter, if nothing else.

  • Clarke Smith

    Nice piece Tim (as usual). If I had to categorize Bono I’d probably call him a practical progressive. I think he – like anyone with that kind of stardom – is used to seeing RESULTS and he’s used his fame and influence to try to get results by working around whatever institutions get in his way, generally to the benefit of those he’s trying to help.

    When I was at Hallmark I was one of the Category Leaders for the launch of
    Hallmark’s (RED) product line. It was a really interesting experience.
    Bono (and Bobby Shriver) had assembled a group of very savvy business
    people to help try to improve the plight of those infected with AIDS in
    Africa and working with them was a great experience.

    At the final launch event (when I was out of town) Bono showed up
    unexpectedly to thank everyone who had worked on the project. I heard the story that he walked into the room singing “White Christmas” and was extremely charming and engaging and went out of his way to personally thank the people who worked on the project.

    One of my colleagues was assigned to be his guide for the day and – despite whatever ego Bono may have had – said that he insisted on walking the
    halls at Hallmark, going from meeting with product teams to senior
    executives, rather than being shuttled from place to place in a car to
    avoid engaging with the people (he also told some pretty hilarious
    stories about the looks and responses a lot of people had when they
    unexpectedly walked past Bono in the halls).

    I suspect that both Browne and Marsh are blinded by their own petty
    personal perspectives. Can they – or anyone – name another rock star who
    is/was anywhere near as big as Bono (for anywhere near as long) who has
    consistently tried to use their fame for good rather than for their own
    personal pleasure and indulgence. If nothing else the guy deserves
    credit for trying (and gets lots of extra points in my book for being
    married to the same woman for 25+ years, having a reputation as being as dedicated a father as you can be while being on the road much of the
    time, and who’s been in exactly 1 band that entire time).

    I honestly can’t think of another contemporary “star” – musician or otherwise – who you could say that about.

  • Tim Neufeld

    I think this critique is valid for most rock n roll activists, but Bono truly falls in a different category for two reasons: (1) He is studied and well read, having developed a cunning and insightful sense of politics, aid, finance, poverty, etc. A couple of years ago he was asked what he’d been reading lately. His answer: governmental economic treatises. Most celebs don’t event know where the country they’re raising money for is located. (2) Bono is remarkably self-aware. He’s very conscious of his fame and what it can buy with regard to political influence. In the 90s, Bono would call the White House live from concerts on the Zooropa tour. They were always rejected. Today, he gets invitations to Capitol Hill and has access to politicians on both sides of the isle. But all the while, he is completely aware of what he is doing, what effect it will have, and how it will be perceived. He is also aware that handing out money to solve the world’s problem is woefully inadequate. He has often said, “This is about justice, not charity.” His interests are not colonial, as are those of BOTH conservatives and progressives. He seeks systemic changes through alliances and partnerships. In this way, he truly is a rare bird and hard to understand for cynics like Marsh and Browne. And it’s fascinating that Browne casts Bono as a liberal but has a picture of him with George Bush. That photo right there is why so many people charge Bono with selling out. To me, that’s just plain smart.

    And Bono is no saint. He’d be the first to admit that and I’d be the next in line to point out some faults. Still, I’d rather have someone out their practicing what he preaches and occasionally getting it wrong, than an academic who is comfortable writing books and reviews for a living.

  • you guys are trying to make money on the picture of Bono with Bush, making up the entire contents of your books and opinions. Knowing Bono is knowing he’s not politically polarized, that he does what he does as a genius who has a heart for God and the down-trodden. Africa is his pet project. Although he gives all he has to help the helpless, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. YOU GO, BONO! Don’t let the Bast**ds get you down. Happy Birthday!

  • heyjude999

    Sorry Tim you have not read Harry Browne’s articles concerning Bruce Springsteen

    ” However, that is not a case for Bono being “bad,””

    In relation to Tax avoidance .. Bono is indeed bad

    In relation to be been pals with Paul Wolfowitz .. Bono is indeed bad

  • SpiderWoman4

    The reason Dave Marsh hates Bono is because Bono is bigger than Springsteen, Bono will always be bigger than Springsteen, and Bono may get the Nobel Prize one day for his activism. That’s all you need to know. All of Marsh’s criticisms of Bono stem from these three things.