I'm 'getting on my boots' for the U2 360 tour in Edmonton on June 1. It’s my third U2 concert in three different decades. I have seen them grow from a fledgling group that couldn’t fill the small Queen Elizabeth Playhouse in Vancouver, to a world-renowned foursome that can sellout massive stadiums in minutes.
The first time I listened to U2, I couldn’t stand them. It was 1981 and I was a 20-year-old university student who liked progressive rock bands like Yes, ELP and Jethro Tull. I applauded musicians that were at the top of their league. This “New Wave” music didn’t do much for me.
The lead singer was called “Bono Vox” which meant “good voice,” but he needed to sing with the reverb at full to make his voice palatable. The only talented member of the foursome was their guitarist, The Edge. He created a whole new sonic sound with his guitars that had me entranced.
But I had created stringent rules for listening to music. Every album had to have five complete listens before I trashed it, so I took U2’s first album, Boy, and played it on my record player for the next few days. Their songs had depth and soul I hadn't noticed the first time through. I couldn’t get them out of my head. I soon found myself joining the rapidly growing ranks of U2 minions. I was hooked.
When their second album, October, came out, I painstakingly wrote out all the lyrics. It was while listening to Tomorrow over and over again, that I realized something horrific had happened to Bono.
His Mother's Death
The spellbinding lyrics and music in Tomorrow tells the story of a frightened boy being forced to go to a funeral. He just couldn't face the loss of his mother.
Bono's mother was at her father's funeral when she fainted. Or so her 15-year-old son was told. She had really suffered a brain hemorrhage and died a few days later. This left Bono without the mother who had given him such love and filled his world with life. After she died his father and older brother tried to make their house a home, but Bono often said he was surprised they didn’t kill each other. He credits his mother’s death with driving him to an understanding of Christianity. This was the first change that would set the stage for the rest of his life.
Bono says, “...in this despair, I did pray to God. And I discovered that, even sometimes in the silence, God does answer. The answer may not be the one you want to hear but there’s always an answer, if you are serious, if you are ready to let go.”
Then came that fateful day at Mount Temple School when Bono responded to a note placed by 14-year-old Larry Mullen saying, "Drummer seeks musicians to form band."
Larry himself says, "I just thought of it as a bit of fun, it was never anything else. No big ideas. No expectations, really."
Larry was taking drum lessons and could actually play the drums, well, a bit anyway. Dave (Edge) Evans brought his yellow Flying V guitar. Adam Clayton just looked cool with his Afghan coat and blond afro. He couldn't play the bass but he did own one and that meant he was in the band. And Bono...well...Larry says, “It was the Larry Mullen Band for about 10 minutes, so as not to hurt my feelings. It was also my kitchen. Then Bono came in and that was the end of that. He blew any chance I had of being in charge.”
Edge says, "Bono didn't even have a guitar but he seemed to think he was the lead guitarist." Larry concurs, "It was obvious from the beginning that Bono was going to be the singer, not because of his great voice but because he didn't have a guitar...what else was he going to do?"
All the band members described themselves as awful and I have some of their first 45’s to prove it!
The third event that changed Bono’s life started at Live Aid in 1985. They were playing on London’s Wembley Stadium, when Bono noticed a girl being crushed by the crowd. Bono jumped off the stage and, with the help of the security people, pulled her out and then danced with her. The song they were playing, Bad, went on for 14 minutes – it is the moment in U2 history that established them as a pre-eminent live group.
Live Aid raised nearly $284 million for famine relief in Africa. It sounds like an enormous success but when Bono heard that South Africa’s foreign debt rose to $23.5 billion in 1985, this money seemed insignificant.
Soon after Live Aid, the humanitarian agency World Vision asked Bono if he and his wife, Ali, would like to come to Ethiopia as volunteers and see the famine for themselves. “We left for an adventure that would change our lives,” Bono says.
For six weeks they worked in an orphanage in Wello, Ethiopia. “You’d wake up in the morning and the mist would be lifting. You’d walk out of your tent and you’d count the bodies of dead and abandoned children," Bono says. "It’s a truly shocking sight to see thousands and thousands of people in rags, who’ve walked all night to come to our feeding station, only to stand outside and not be let in, and watch the other Ethiopians eating their food and yet have no malice...I was really humbled by them.”
One day a father placed his son in Bono’s arms. The father said, “You can afford to take this boy. You can look after him. If you don’t take him he will surely die.”
Bono couldn’t take him and looked the father in the eyes, telling him that. But that moment of anguish stayed in his heart. “In a certain sense, I have always taken that boy with me,” Bono says referring to all the work he does to help fight AIDS, provide lowered trade embargos and Drop the Debt in Africa.
Bono’s humanitarian and advocacy work on behalf of the African continent has seen him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times and awarded Knighthood in Britain.
During U2 tours he tirelessly meets with presidents, prime ministers, and any other world leader that will listen to his plea for aid to Africans.
"Most of the time I would come back from those meetings, conferences, marches or rallies and arrive on the stage two feet taller," says the diminutive Irishman. "I'm floating because of what could become of all this. And I feel God's blessing on it. You can't out-give God, I've noticed. I feel like I've been carried by people's prayers."
Bono explains he was always seeking the Lord's blessing on the things he was doing - his music, his family, his 'big ideas.' Then he met this 'wise man' who said, "Stop asking God to bless what you are doing. Get involved in what God's doing because it's already blessed."
This encouraged Bono to pursue his work on behalf of the people of Africa. "God is always with the poor," Bono says. "That is what He is doing. That's what He's calling us to do."