Bono (born 1960), the Irish-born lead singer and guitarist of the rock band U2, has also gained acclaim—and sometimes criticism—for his many efforts on behalf of humanitarian causes that range from the AIDS crisis in Africa to debt reduction in impoverished Third World nations.
As lead singer in one of the most popular rock bands of all time, Irish-born guitarist Bono has become familiar to the general public as much for his support of social causes as for his trademark blue sunglasses and his energetic performances as lead singer in the musical group U2. Bono went from wowing concert audiences with songs such as "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" during the 1980s to spearheading benefit tours during the 1990s to speaking about Africa's AIDS epidemic before a church congregation in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2002.
Grew up in a Fragile World
Born Paul Hewson, in Dublin, Ireland, on May 10, 1960, Bono was the second son of Robert and Iris Hewson. His father was Catholic, his mother Protestant, and the religious differences their relationship represented played themselves out almost daily, not in the Hewson household, but in the violence erupting nearby in Northern Ireland. This turmoil was not lost on young Bono. Coming to embrace the Christian faith while in his 20s, the musician was quoted on World Faith News online as revealing to talk-show host Larry King: "I learned [as a child] that religion is often the enemy of God.… Religion is [actually] the artifice—you know, the building—after God has left it.… You hold onto religion, you know, rules, regulations, traditions. I think what God is interested in is people's heart."
When he reached school age, Bono adjusted well to the new routine of attending school, receiving high marks from his teachers and making many friends. Things changed when he reached St. Patrick's secondary school, however. Working for good grades no longer seemed important and neither did chess, or several other activities he dabbled in. Bored, the teen began cutting classes, and as the years passed he developed antagonistic relationships with several of his teachers. Having earned the label of "problem student," he was removed from St. Patrick's by his parents and transferred to a non-Catholic school, Mount Temple. There, the Hewsons hoped, their son would find his niche.
The move to Mount Temple was indeed where Bono found his niche, although it was not in academics. Although he got good grades in English, history, and art, his true calling lay in his popularity among his fellow students. The teen's outspokenness, charisma, and ability to spin a good story earned him the nickname "Bono Vox," which is schoolboy Latin for "good voice." Rather than identifying his singing talent, the nickname stuck because of Bono's outspokenness and his penchant for embroidering the truth.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the Hewson family in September 1974, when Bono's mother suffered a brain hemorrhage and died within days. Iris Hewson's death left her younger son devastated. Depressed, feeling alone, and realizing that he had no clear plans for a future, the teen cast about for something to give his life meaning and a sense of purpose. That he found it in music surprised everyone who knew him.
Helped Form Band U2
It was one of Bono's Mount Temple classmates, Larry Mullen, Jr., who sparked Bono's interest in forming a musical group. One day in 1976 16-year-old Mullen put up a notice on the school bulletin board, welcoming any interested musicians to show up at his house for a jam session. Five teens—including Bono, brothers David "the Edge" and Dick Evans, and Adam Clayton—showed up, and by the time the meeting was over it was decided that the Edge would make the best guitarist, Clayton could find his way around a bass guitar, and Mullen could keep the beat on drums. While he had not yet developed his vocal abilities and was a rudimentary guitarist, Bono had something else the band needed: enthusiasm, energy, and the drive to make them a success. As U2 manager Paul McGuinness later admitted to a Time contributor, he was at first lukewarm about taking on the group. "They were very bad," McGuiness recalled. "But it wasn't the songs that were the attraction. It was the energy and commitment to performance that were fantastic even then. Bono would run around looking for people to meet his eyes." The five teens from Dublin decided to call their band Feedback.
During the late 1970s the music scene was veering from the disco era to the punk scene due to the popularity of such bands as the Sex Pistols. Feedback followed suit, adopting a hard-edged sound and playing covers in Dublin clubs. After Dick Evans left, the group renamed itself, first the Hype, and then U2. In 1978 the group won a talent contest and an audition for CBS Ireland. On the strength of their sound and the large following they had by this time developed in Ireland, CBS signed the band and released the three-song EP U2-3. When, despite the band's sold-out shows and chart-topping success, the record company opted not to distribute U2's EP beyond Ireland's borders, Bono began sending tapes to journalists and radio stations. He finally attracted interest at England's Island Records, which signed the band in 1980 and quickly released U2's debut album, Boy.
In 1980 Bono and U2 took off from Dublin for their first tour of Europe and the U.S., traveling up the east coast. They returned in early 1981, and, on the strength of Boy played to packed houses in New York City and Santa Monica. Soon London crowds got the news, and U2 swept the English pop charts as well.
As Bono took his turn before larger and larger crowds, he reaped the rewards of his success, as did his fellow band members. In the early 1980s his role as a rock idol and sex symbol began to conflict with his reawakened Christian faith. Joined by the Edge and Mullen, Bono began questioning whether he could reconcile his life of rock-stardom with his responsibilities as a Christian. Meanwhile, Clayton, whose faith was rock 'n' roll, began to feel estranged from his bandmates. October, U2's 1981 album, reflects this state of affairs in being less cohesive than Boy. Fortunately, Bono's issues of faith resolved themselves, and 1983's War, which contains such songs as "New Year's Day" and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," reflects the songwriter's new politically conscious morality.
War was a powerful statement, made more powerful when videos of the single "New Year's Day" appeared on the newly-minted MTV. Airplay of the album increased following the band's video exposure, which showcased U2's handsome, energetic, and charismatic lead singer. Under a Blood Red Sky, a live 1983 album, further solidified the band's standing as the best-selling live album to date.
Band Developed New Direction
The Unforgettable Fire, released in 1984, signaled a departure for U2. Changing producers from Steve Lillywhite to Talking Heads band member Brian Eno and producer Daniel Lanois, the new collaboration yielded the hit "Pride (In the Name of Love)," a tribute to U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The tour that followed ended with Bono strutting on stage at the Live Aid concert to earn funds for Ethiopian famine relief. A single from U2's rendition of "Do They Know It's Christmas" also went to feed the victims of Africa's drought.
U2's transition to making "serious" music addressing social and political issues reflected the will of its frontman. While continuing to turn in a gritty, noisy performance, he also began to channel the band in a crusading direction. He also worked on a number of side projects, including spending time in the studio with Steven Van Zandt on the anti-apartheid Sun City, where he absorbed some blues influences while working with Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. 1986 found Bono and U2 joined by fellow musical philanthropists Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Lou Reed as headliners during the six-city Conspiracy of Hope tour benefiting Amnesty International.
While U2's reputation as an "important" band grew, Bono discounted his crusading efforts to the press. "We're a noisy rock 'n' roll band," he asserted to Time contributor Jay Cocks. "If we got on stage, and instead of going 'Yeow!' the audience all went 'Ummmmm' or started saying the rosary, it would be awful." While U2 audiences continued to yell and clap and shout, they were also more educated, activists, and older-than-average, and for them being a fan of U2 held a special meaning. It was the band's role as crusaders that propelled their sixth album, 1987's The Joshua Tree, into the Top Ten. Focusing on problems ranging from drug addiction to homelessness to political turmoil, the album was unique among its pop predecessors for being more intellectual than commercial. During the tour following its release, Bono performed for some of the largest crowds in the band's history.
U2 was, by the late 1980s, the most successful musical group in the world. With sales of The Joshua Tree cresting at eight million copies, the group's four members found their picture on the cover of a 1987 issue of Time magazine. However, by this point Time was behind the times; two years before, Rolling Stone had already proclaimed U2 the Band of the '80s. 1988's Rattle and Hum confirmed the Rolling Stone pronouncement, producing the singles "Desire" and "When Love Comes to Town."
Although their sound became more experimental during the 1990s, U2 remained popular. Albums such as Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993), with their Grammy Award-winning performances, retained the group's loyal following, and the band's Best of 1980–1990, released by Island in 1998, cemented U2's roots and earned them new fans among younger listeners. Bono and his bandmates also continued to pinpoint areas of humanitarian concern. In 1990 U2 contributed to a Cole Porter anthology to benefit AIDS education, released as Red Hot + Blue. Two years later U2 ended a tour with a benefit for Greenpeace during which they protested the construction of a U.K. nuclear power plant. Their transition album into the next century, 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, took Bono and the band back to their '80s roots, particularly the song "Beautiful Day." Following the terrorist attacks against U.S. soil in September of 2001, the album's "Walk On" became, for many, an anthem of hope for a safer future. Other actions in response to the terror earned Bono and U2 four awards at the 2002 Grammys as well as an invitation to perform before crowds at the February 3, 2002, NFL Super Bowl.
Committed Frontman for Activism
Bono's activism began in earnest in the summer of 1983, when he accepted an invitation from Irish Prime Minister Garrett Fitzgerald to join a Select Government Action Committee on Unemployment. Two years later, in 1985, he and his wife, Alison, visited Ethiopia and spent seven weeks working alongside other humanitarian relief workers to improve housing and sanitation in a crowded refugee camp. During a visit to El Salvador, he witnessed a military attack on a village. These experiences found voice in the album The Joshua Tree. Other causes he has supported, both on and off the stage, include gun control, Jamaican hurricane relief efforts, and the forgiveness, by the world's superpowers, of Third World debt.
While Bono's activist efforts have drawn praise from many quarters, and inspired thousands of his fans to become involved in social change, they have also drawn some criticism. Among his colleagues, rock group Black Flag's former lead Henry Rollins was quoted in Launch as questioning how Bono could shift from one social cause to the next so frequently. "If he's using all that rock-star power, well, right on," but "how did you go from Third World debt to AIDS?" Other, more cynical pundits questioned whether the singer's activism was perhaps just another way to promote the band's music.
Acting apart from the band, Bono continued to appear on world stages as part of celebrity gatherings and musical events supporting relief and humanitarian causes. In 2003 he was awarded the King Centre Humanitarian Award, presented by the fallen civil rights leader's widow, Coretta Scott King. He also traveled to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II regarding ways to ease the financial strain of poor nations and has appeared before the U.S. Congress and legislative bodies in Europe. In 2002 he established the nonprofit advocacy group Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa (DATA), in a continuing effort to aid the world's most impoverished and threatened populations. In May of 2004 Bono was a guest speaker at the University of Pennsylvania commencement ceremony where he encouraged graduates to get involved with the fight against the AIDS epidemic in Africa. He also received an honorary doctor of laws degree. Also in May 2004 Bono helped launch a new campaign called the ONE Campaign. The goal of the campaign is to get Americans to come together and fight against poverty and AIDS.
Throughout his career, Bono has eschewed the "pop star" crown and attempted to live a normal life as possible for one whose face is known to millions around the world. He has been known to invite fans into his home in Bray, just outside Dublin. Married to his childhood sweetheart, Alison Stewart, in 1983, he announced the birth of his fourth child, a son, in May of 2001. The couple's three other children include daughters Jordan and Eve and son Elijah.
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