Photo: Benny Gool
He's the cooler-than-cool rocker, the legendary front man of U2, husband of 22 years and father of four who's singing his heart out to shine light on a crisis devastating a continent.By the time the sun sets this evening, AIDS will have claimed the lives of 6,500 more people in Africa. Before you finish this sentence, another mother, father or child will succumb to the virus. We've all heard the numbers, shaken our heads at the horror and moved on to whatever we had to do next. Bono, on the other hand, takes the AIDS epidemic personally.
"Our generation will be remembered for the Internet, for the war against terror and for how we let an entire continent burst into flames while we stood around with watering cans—or not," he said when I sat down with him on my show. He compared the situation to watching Holocaust victims being put on trains while the rest of the world did nothing. Determined to take action, Bono launched a nonprofit organization, DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa). One of DATA's goals is to reduce African debt, which would free up billions of dollars for healthcare and education. Who else could have used rock 'n' roll to get us to feel the impact of Third World economics?
I caught up with Bono again in Cape Town, South Africa, after he'd given a riveting performance in conjunction with World AIDS Day. Born Paul Hewson to a Protestant mother and a Catholic father in 1960 in Dublin, this man with a social conscience and a contagious fervor makes being a pop star a part-time job. When we talked in Chicago, he left me with his own blue wraparound sunglasses—such a hot gift. This time he left me with an even greater treasure—his wisdom. We talked about everything from songwriting to raising kids to working to save Africa. I have the ultimate admiration and respect for him.
Oprah: How does the music come to you? Quincy Jones once told me that he can sometimes see melodies.
Bono: I've never seen the music. For me it's a puzzle. I hear strains of a melody, and only when I work it out to its end can I be at peace. Until then it's like a twitch.
Oprah: I got it.
Bono: It just comes out. No choice. It's sort of embarrassing because it happens when you don't really want it to. You're writing a song on the back of an Air India sick bag, and you're not writing it because you need a hit—you're writing it because you need some sleep. You have to put it on paper so you can quiet the nagging.
Oprah: Can you set out to write a hit and then actually write one?
Bono: Well, one of the things that hits have and that great music always has, you know—the music feels like it was already there.
Oprah: Like your song "Beautiful Day."
Bono: I don't know if that's great. But when you stumble on certain melodies, you think, That was already there.
Oprah: It's like what Michelangelo said: The sculpture was already in the stone.
Bono: And I don't think he was just being clever. The hit—what might be called eternal music, if you want to be high-minded—is a song that most people feel familiar with. And the most extreme end of that spectrum is music...
Oprah: ...that resonates on a level that's indescribable.
Bono: Right. Like "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day." Or my favorite song, "Amazing Grace." My second favorite song is "Help Me Make It Through the Night." What I like about pop music, and why I'm still attracted to it, is that in the end it becomes our folk music. In the seventies, when we were growing up and all the rock criticism was going on, disco was supposed to suck. But you listen to some of that music now—"I Will Survive"...
Oprah: And the Donna Summer stuff.
Bono: Yes. It's like folk music now. That other stuff with the guitar solos? Who cares? The great music for so many artists—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones—was always at the moment when they were closest to pop. It would be easy for U2 to go off and have a concept album, but I want us to stay in the pop fray.
Oprah: Do you have anxiety every time you release an album?
Oprah: You do?
Bono: Of course. It's much easier to be successful than it is to be relevant. The tricks won't keep you relevant. Tricks might keep you popular for a while, but in all honesty, I don't know how U2 will stay relevant. I know we've got a future. I know we can fill stadiums. And yet with every record, I think, Is this it? Are we still relevant?
Oprah: Well, you haven't been invited to play a Bat Mitzvah yet.
Bono: No. I just don't want to go through what I call the Interesting Music Phase. That really means "We just don't get it."
Oprah: So would you stop first?
Bono: Yes. Our idea in the band is this: Two crap albums in a row and you're out. That gives us two to go. One crap album is fine, because you can pull back and try again. But after two, you're forever "interesting."
Oprah: I was watching you up onstage last night, and I said, God, this just makes me want to go put on a pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket. Is there anything better than being on that stage in that moment and being you?
Bono: Wow—I don't remember feeling that good. You certainly have moments when the music dwarfs you, brings you to your knees and you're only a tiny part of it. But most of the time, unfortunately, you're a very large part of it. And you're self-conscious, or something's irritating you or you're under-rehearsed. So, yes, there are moments like last night when we're standing out there singing a melody—"It's a long, long walk to freedom"—and the crowd starts singing with us, though they've never heard the song before. I had just watched this extraordinary man, Nelson Mandela, who taught us all a lesson, take that long walk to the podium. As everyone sang, I realized we were guests of the nation of South Africa. They were singing the hymn, he was smiling to the crowd—and we were in between.
Oprah: I felt that, too.
Bono: It was even more poignant because it was a predominantly white audience singing to him. I'm standing there thinking, this might be a big miracle we're witnessing.
Oprah: The sea of white faces, singing that song to him.
Bono: And there was no patronizing from either side.
Oprah: I agree. I was happy to be a witness to it.
Bono: I was pretty knocked out. I wished my entire band were there. With the band, we would have pulled that house down, because there was a lot of energy in that crowd.
Oprah: So when do you really have a good time?
Bono: When I'm playing with the band. As a soloist, I'm average at best. But with the band? There's nothing better, I promise you. I'm sorry, but I can say that. Two weekends ago, I was in New York with my wife, and we had a great time. My wife and I surfed our jet lag.
Oprah: What does that mean?
Bono: When you have kids, you have to go to bed and get up at a certain time. But if you don't have the kids with you—which we didn't—you can go to bed when you're sleepy and stay up when you're not. That means you can stay out until 4 in the morning.
Oprah: I've got to learn how to surf my jet lag. How old are the kids now?
Bono: The two girls are 14 and 12; the two boys are 4 and 2. They're great. I don't know why I have the life I have. I don't deserve it. I think the family is as strong as it is because of my wife, Ali. She is just really so cool.
Oprah: How long have you been married?
Bono: Longer than I haven't been. We married when we were kids. We couldn't have known what we were getting involved in.
Oprah: And after all these years, you still think she's cool?
Bono: Oh, yeah. She's quite a character. And she has a very strong sense of herself. She's capable of extraordinary things. Right now she's working on a new way of doing business in apparel. It involves fair trade practices in which people in Third World countries get paid properly and get health insurance—and you still make a fortune. It may be one of the biggest brands in the next years, so watch out. It's called Edun.
My wife is not ambitious in any way you may be familiar with. For her, ambition is a slow kind of burning. If each partner wants the other to realize his or her potential, the relationship will probably be okay. If one has to sacrifice for the other, which is so often the case, I don't think it's as good as two people trying to outdo each other [with support]. I think she has sacrificed more than I have, so I'm trying to balance that now.
Oprah: How often are you home?
Bono: I'm home a lot. Because I live in Ireland, we can live under the celebrity radar. I might go missing for a whole year. As it happens, that might have been the last couple of years. You may get the impression I'm always out there, but I'm usually home driving my kids to school. I like morning better than night.
Oprah: I thought all musicians kept those crazy "Quincy hours"—working late at night.
Bono: I peak early in the morning. It's downhill from there.
Oprah: Are you a full participant in parenting?
Bono: Yes, except when I'm on tour. Even then I'm never away from Ali and the kids for more than three weeks.
Oprah: What have your children taught you about yourself?
Bono: I have very little memory of my childhood, so as I raise my kids the memories come back in the most bizarre ways. Like you're singing your baby a song, and you don't know why you remember it, but somehow you do. You don't even know the tune, but you sing it anyway and think, How am I singing this song?
Oprah: There's a theory that whatever stage your children are at, it reminds you of that stage of your own childhood. Like if you have a 7-year-old and something traumatic happened to you when you were 7, that's when all your stuff comes up. Has that been true for you?
Bono: I certainly thought my 20s were turbulent, but I didn't realize that the real turbulence comes later in life, when you get a chance—whether it's through your own children or others—to revisit what made you who you are.
Oprah: And brought on your rage.
Bono: Yes. I wrote a piece called "Rage Is Not a Great Reason to Do Anything, but It'll Do." It's a story of me learning to write songs as a kid. I didn't go to music school, because I wasn't from that kind of family. And I remember the frustration of hearing a melody in my head but not being able to quite put it down. So you learn to rely on other people, the band, and you start thinking that's a weakness. But it's a strength to rely on others.
Oprah: You have a gift, though. Does it come from a place you can't really describe?
Bono: Before I answer you, I want to say this: I think God gets annoyed with the gifted. We should know that our work is no more important than a plumber's or a carpenter's. And here's what I love about hip-hop artists: They set up the brand and start selling T-shirts. It's like, "Here's my chair. I built it. How many do you want?" Whereas with some other musicians, it's like, "I don't know anything about my record contract. I'm not involved in that stuff." That's such bullshit. That's one reason hip-hop is walking all over rock 'n' roll right now. In what I would call alternative music, there has been a bunch of lies—which meant that you couldn't own up to your ambition. You couldn't own up to the idea that art and commerce are certainly cousins, if not brothers. So where does all music come from—be it hip-hop or rock 'n' roll? I don't know. But I do know that all music is praise.
Oprah: I'll be quoting you on that.
Bono: It's praise to the god of your making. Which, in the case of a rock star, might be oneself. Or a woman. Or an idea.
Oprah: I love that.
Bono: When I was 10, I learned what unlocks creativity. We were studying William Butler Yeats, one of the great poets of the 20th century, and my teacher explained that there was a period when Yeats had writer's block. I put my hand up in class and asked, "Why didn't he write about that?" It was like, "Oh, shut up." I've since learned that there's something to being truthful. The Scriptures say the truth will set you free. The truth is at the root of every piece of creativity. So if you're truthful about your situation, whatever it is as an artist—whether it's despair, whether it's hope, whether it's ambition—suddenly you're there.
Oprah: Isn't that what all real art is—truth?
Bono: Yes. Truth is beauty. That can be a hard thing to say, because some things are not so attractive on the surface. But by owning up to them, we change them—just by speaking them. The first line on the page can be "I have nothing to offer. I'm empty today." That's why public confession—whether it's part of religious practice or on your show—is so important.
Oprah: Yes. Twenty years ago, people were living dysfunctional lives, but they thought they were the only ones living that way. I grew up thinking that people really did live like Leave It to Beaver. I thought, Gee, if I had a mom who made me milk and cookies, my world would be okay.
Bono: In my music, I try to be as truthful as I can. I'm not sure I can be as honest in my life as I can be in my music, because with manners comes insincerity. Like "How are you?" "I'm very well." But I'm not. I have a massive hangover. Truth is sometimes difficult.
Oprah: What makes you happy?
Bono: I'm not the happiest person, and I'm certainly not happy-clappy. There's a bit of "woe is me" that comes with melancholy, the Irish thing, and it's draining.
Oprah: Okay, so what gives you joy? Joy is a better word anyway.
Bono: Joy is the hardest possible thing to contrive as an act. It's easy to describe anger, rage, happiness. But joy is difficult.
Oprah: Is joy elusive for you?
Bono: I don't know. Our band has it when we're going off. There's a joy vibration there. It's not miserable-ism.
Oprah: Joy is a very high energy field.
Bono: I'm grumpy. You seem to have a level of joy. Are there months when things aren't going right for you, when you're in a trough, or do you have just, like, one bad day a week?
Oprah: Not even a bad day a week.
Oprah: Absolutely not.
Bono: Well, I have a couple of bad days a week.
Oprah: So tell me this: Where do your commitment and passion come from? For as long as I can remember, you've been using your voice to make a difference in the world.
Bono: Growing up in Ireland was part of it—the simple, practical life of Irish people. Wherever you go in Africa, you find an Irish priest or a young nun. They're everywhere! And then, of course, Bob Geldof [formerly of the Boomtown Rats] is my friend, and we did the whole Live Aid thing together. [Held simultaneously in the United States and the United Kingdom in 1985, Live Aid was the biggest benefit concert in history, raising millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia.] Around that time, my wife and I lived in Ethiopia for a month, in a tent in a feeding station in the middle of nowhere. It was extraordinary. That royal Ethiopian thing is in these people; that Solomon and Queen of Sheba thing is all around. At my site, there was barbed wire, like a concentration camp—but the wire was meant to keep people out, not in. A man walked up to me, gave me a child, and said, "You take my son. He'll live if you take him." And I couldn't take the boy. But that really formed my commitment. I remember coming home on the plane saying, "We'll never forget this."
Oprah: And did you forget?
Bono: I did. Yet somewhere inside me, I'll always remember it. Somewhere there was a prayer to say, and there will be a way to help. What I saw in Ethiopia wasn't just about people falling on hard times. It was a wider problem—political, not just social. So in this work, the circle is becoming a bit completed for me now. And my people have been supportive. The Irish can be annoying—and I'm one of them—but they really are good. Here in Africa, I'm the anomaly. It's an odd and freakish thing that I, an Irish guy, am sitting here and that you're even asking me questions. Yet the people we'd choose to describe the condition of the world are not often the people God would choose. The chosen may be punk rockers or hip-hop people. But nonetheless, the state of the world will be described.