John Cheek gets to grips with the U2 frontman's book Surrender
From the opening quote - a line from Bob Dylan's Christian song "Every Grain Of Sand" - to the final page and the "Thanks to the immortal invisible" gratitude expressed, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story is an autobiography from the erstwhile Paul Hewson which makes no secret of how his faith in Jesus influences and motivates every part of his life.
Bono had been considering the possibility of writing his story for several years and had had conversations with more than one publisher when the pandemic happened in 2020. He eventually used the enforced lay-off to put pen to paper. This isn't the U2 story; although there's plenty about them within the text. This isn't a studious, linear account in chronological order with discographies and so on; although there's a huge amount of personal sharing in this particular narrative. Also, the photography isn't presented in the way that we would expect in an autobiography, but rather looks like it has been lifted straight out of a scrapbook complete with hand-written notes.
Surrender is an exhaustive, compelling, honest memoir spread over nearly 560 pages and probably around one million words and one which is remarkable for three things. One, that it reveals a man who, when considering his superstardom, is modest and self-deprecating in nature, in sharp contrast to the Bono of tabloid media portrayal. Candid in his admission that he has made mistakes in the upbringing of his four children, as well as with his father and brother in their respective relationships, this multi-millionaire denies historical accusations of band tax evasion but confesses that there was naivety in one business decision that in hindsight was to leave the band wide open to such allegations.
Two, the impact of two defining periods in Bono's life. The tragic, sudden loss of his mother at the age of 14 is clearly still raw, even today. Once again, it's something that he returns to, as a point of reference, throughout his story. More than ever, it's apparent that her loss was completely devastating to the teenage Bono and that it has affected his relationships with the opposite sex even as an adult. A sub-plot in the story is how much wife Ali has been a rock and a mainstay throughout his adult life, even when, as Bono alludes, marriage for her was, at times, more like being in a relationship with a hurting, scared little boy or a thoughtless teenager and one wanting to stay out as late as possible. The other defining period was when Ali accompanied him to Ethiopia for a month in famine-relief work not long after U2 played Live Aid in 1985. Although not covered in too much detail here, it's clear that it was something that profoundly affected the Dubliner and, years later, was the precursor to his involvement with Drop The Debt, Jubilee 2000, Make Poverty History, DATA, (RED) and ONE.org.
Three, his Christian faith is as alive and essential to him as ever. Bono quotes from Scripture liberally throughout the book and he also alludes to other moments of faith, such as describing an epiphany in a Dublin church one Christmas, or often praying over his sleeping children in their bedrooms in the middle of the night. Many of the latter chapters see the author contemplating his personal beliefs and theology in a convincing manner, describing his life as a surrendering to God's will. They strike home when written by a singer who, in concert, used to wave a white flag on stage. The final chapter ends with the laying out of the lyrics of the U2 song "40", itself a mediation on Psalm 40:1-3.
Nearly a third of the text focusses on Bono's activism and his experiences of the third world - of nuns caring for starving children sleeping three to a (makeshift) bed. Each of the 40 chapters has the title of a U2 song, such as "Moment Of Surrender", and they often quote from old hymns, when they don't quote the words of Jesus or the lyrics of the song itself. There is a genuinely surprising revelation near the end; a family matter that was of key importance to Bono, but one that he handles with notable sensitivity and generosity.
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story is an autobiography that fans will refer to for years to come. It's one that shows that the man can clearly write and is a rewarding, if exhausting, journey into the soul and experiences of a supremely gifted musician.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.