Profile: Bono - With or without him?

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By Claire Prentice, Scotsman.com

IT'S NO fun growing old when you are a rock god. It's a young man's game jumping from platforms, punching the air, and belting out your songs of rebellion and hope.

Until this week, Bono seemed to be holding back the years pretty well. The lead singer of U2 and global ambassador for good causes has kept his weight in check and the wrinkles at bay, even if his hair does look suspiciously black.

But last week, the 50-year-old global superstar was rushed into hospital in Munich for emergency spinal surgery, after suffering severe compression of the sciatic nerve while preparing for the next leg of U2's tour. Hospital spokesman Dr Muller Wohlfahrt said Bono's prospects for a full recovery were "excellent".

Though the prognosis is good, it's too late to save the tour. Sixteen US dates have been cancelled, and Damon Albarn's band Gorillaz have stepped in to replace U2, who were scheduled to headline at Glastonbury. Bono, who must recuperate for two months, said he was "heartbroken".

The accident is a rare intimation of mortality for a man who bestrides the stadiums of the world like a rock colossus. Even in the company of other rock stars, Bono is in the super league. His wealth is estimated at £480 million. He has the telephone numbers of presidents and prime ministers on speed dial. He uses his music as a bully pulpit to chastise the materialism of the West and champion the cause of Africa. He has parlayed his global celebrity into moral authority, a talent which has seen him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and receive an honorary knighthood from the Queen.

Bono has become the embodiment of a cause; U2 the vehicle for his vision of social justice. But it hasn't made him universally popular. According to childhood friend and rock critic Neil McCormick, "(Bono]'s not down-to-earth, he's got a big head, and he's got a big heart and he's a big guy who is doing an amazing thing out there."

He has been criticised for using his campaigns to feed his rampant ego. In a 2005 New York Times article, Paul Theroux dismissed a group of stars including Bono as "mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth". Many, including some African charities, have accused Bono of making Africa dependent on international handouts instead of working with grassroots organisations.

So is Bono pompous, sanctimonious and self-indulgent? Or is he a global philanthropist and visionary who has harnessed his fame and vast wealth to do enormous good?

The real answer may lie in the days before he became Bono. He was born Paul David Hewson in Dublin in May 1960, the second child of Bobby Hewson, a Catholic, and his Protestant wife, Iris. When Bono was just 15, his mother died of a brain aneurysm suffered while attending the funeral of her father. The loss of his mother was a seminal experience which recurs in a number of U2 songs. Bono didn't get on well with his father. Later Bono said: "His whole thing was, 'Don't dream - to dream is to be disappointed'. That was really what I think was his advice to me... I was only ever interested in big ideas, and not so much dreaming but putting dreams into action."

At his muti-denominational comprehensive school, Mount Temple, Bono became friends with Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and Dave Evans (The Edge). In 1976 they became U2. Alison Stewart, whom Bono married in 1982 - they have four children - was also a schoolmate, and the name Bono stuck in the 1970s, after a friend nicknamed him "Bono Vox", from the Latin for "good voice". Today, not even his oldest friends and family call him Paul.

In the early 1980s, when U2 were poised for world domination, Bono reportedly nearly quit the band over fears that the lifestyle was not compatible with his Christian faith. But he overcame his doubts and, by October 1983, U2 had secured their first UK No 1 album with War, which spawned two hit singles. In July 1985, the band played Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. For Bono it was the perfect meeting of global humanitarian dream and global audience.

Since then U2 have sold more than 150million albums and won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band.

As the awards and hit albums stacked up, Bono transformed himself into a star of another sort. Now he rubs shoulders with presidents and Popes, handing out praise (he described John Paul II as "a street fighter and a wily campaigner on behalf of the world's poor") and condemnation. In 2004, Bono famously described Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the global development scene. He turned up at the world economic forum at Davos, spoke at a Prayer Breakfast with George W Bush in Washington DC, was personally invited by Blair to speak at the 2005 G8 Summit at Gleneagles, and gave a video message to the 2009 Tory Party conference.

Bono has spawned more acronyms than a government department. Alongside the charitable brand RED, there is ONE - the Campaign to Make Poverty History, socially conscious fashion line, EDUN, and the campaigning organisation DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa).

But no matter how much the artist puts back, there are allegations of hypocrisy. RED was slammed for not giving enough money to Africa. Elsewhere his careers as a rock performer, philanthropist and environmentalist seem in conflict.

For a man who wants to save the environment, Bono has a mighty big carbon footprint. He once paid more than £1,000 to have his lucky black stetson flown from Dublin to Sydney. U2's 360 Degree tour earned $109m (£75.3m) in 2009, but the enormous cost of the set (£30m to build the stage alone) and the environmental impact of 200 trucks transporting it around the world was condemned by many, including former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

Critics also charge that he could do more to pay his own way. Bono and his bandmates were criticised in 2007 for moving their business out of Ireland after the Irish government introduced a new tax-free cap. The move saved U2 an estimated $30m in avoided taxes.

As the global frontman endures his enforced bed rest, flicking through magazines, sipping barley water and eating grapes, will he be fermenting some global philanthropic scheme, or will he take time to reflect on the intimation of mortality which has stopped a voice in its tracks and revealed its owner to be all too human?

© 2010 Johnston Press Digital Publishing

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on May 30, 2010 7:23 PM.

Why Bono's bad back could cost U2 millions was the previous entry in this blog.

U2's Bono risks millions on ethical fashion line is the next entry in this blog.

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