According to a story which Harry Browne accepts is surely apocryphal, but which he includes in his book anyway, at a U2 gig in Glasgow the band’s singer silenced the audience and started to clap his hands slowly, whispering as he did so: ‘Every time I clap my hands a child in Africa dies.’ Someone in the audience shouted: ‘Well fuckin’ stop doin’ it then!’ The story is worth repeating because it reflects the way many people, even charitably disposed rock fans, feel about Bono.
They think his name — born Paul David Hewson, he appropriated the stage name from a Dublin hearing-aid shop that advertised devices called ‘Bono Vox’ — is ineffably silly, and join Sinead O’Connor in preferring to call him Bozo. They object to his wraparound shades, leather trousers and designer stubble, and possibly to his diminutive stature and huge wealth (half a billion dollars or so). They deplore his friendships with Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Above all, they loathe his self-righteousness.
It is for such people that Browne has written The Frontman which, he explains, is not ‘conventional biography’ or ‘an effort at psychological profiling’. Nor is it about Bono’s music. It is, rather, an extended, furious, sporadically informative and often badly written rant about the man who has emerged from a crowded field to epitomise the ‘delusions, pretentions and misdirections’ of celebrity philanthropy.
In a speech in Washington in 2006, Bono claimed to have had ‘a father who was Protestant and a mother who was Catholic in a country where the line between the two was, quite literally, often a battle line’. Actually his father was Catholic and his mother Protestant, and any sectarian battle lines were far from the Hewsons’ middle-class suburb. But he has benefited from the Troubles by posing not only as a veteran of urban warfare but also as a peacemaker, claiming that the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which was in fact won by a large majority, was narrowly swung by a U2 concert.
But of course his messianic status derives from his work for Africa, which began in the 1980s with his performance on Bob Geldof’s dismal Band Aid single (‘where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow’), and his camera-hogging performance at Live Aid (which Frank Zappa called ‘the biggest cocaine-money-laundering scheme of all time’), and has continued for nearly three decades of ‘advocating ineffective solutions, patronising the poor, and kissing the arses of the rich and powerful’.
‘I’m fond of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown,’ he told the 2004 Labour Party Conference. ‘They are kind of the John and Paul of the global development stage…’ Blair returned the compliment, writing in his memoirs that Bono ‘could have been a president or prime minister standing on his head’. In 2005 Bono was floated as a possible president of the World Bank, and Oprah Winfrey has called him ‘the reigning king of hope’. He has conceded that his sucking up to Bush was ‘uncool’ and ‘incredibly unhip’, but insisted that it was necessary, ‘to get it done’.
Browne doubts if much has been done for Africa by Bono’s agency, and argues that his rampant egomania has turned him into a stooge ‘for a system of imperial exploitation’. As one might expect from someone who teaches at the School of Creative Arts and Media at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Browne is a hardcore Spartist — pro-IRA and so on — which doesn’t invalidate his thesis, but may make him even less sympathetic than his subject.