The Common Good

Hugging Bono, Engaging Critics, and Wishing 'The Frontman' a Happy Birthday

Back in December 1984, I went to my first U2 show at Detroit’s Fox Theater. The first leg of the Unforgettable Fire tour, it was the band’s last set of “intimate” shows before graduating to arenas and stadiums. After the gig, I was that 17-year-old hardcore fan who waited dutifully in the Detroit winter weather by the backstage door. Eventually our patience paid off, and we met everyone in the band except for Larry.

Bono outside the Vertigo tour show in St. Louis, photo by Andrew Smith
Bono outside the Vertigo tour show in St. Louis, photo by Andrew Smith

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The most memorable moment from that night aside from the concert itself was asking Bono for a hug and Bono generously sharing it. Friday, I wished I could give Bono another hug. Friday, the man born Paul Hewson turns 53.

Another U2 album finally appears eventual or inevitable, perhaps by the end of this year. At this late stage in their career, each record could be the last. And each record could tarnish with dismissal or disdain or varnish with more adulation and praise their creative reputation. But see, this fan kind of needs a new U2 record just about now to distract me from the rest of the U2 newsfeed.

Bono was all over the interwebs Friday. Even as the Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with birthday blessings from fans and charitable groups like (Red) or the African Well Fund, other sources like Google news alerts blew-up with the latest phase in Bono backlash. Because Dave Marsh reviews Harry Browne’s forthcoming book The Frontman. As we know this leftish Springsteen scholar Marsh has devoted decades of an entire career tangent to tagging Bono with the online rhetorical graffiti of gritty shame and righteous blame.

But Marsh’s latest screed on Counterpunch counters the viciousness of his previous attacks with a tone of pity. Bono is no longer an object of scathing leftwing critique but an object for a softer but no less mean-spirited ridicule. Marsh feigns feeling sorry for Bono and calls him pathetic. For not knowing any better. For being a tool and a fool. We’ll have to see how this new lesser-evil Bono-hate all fits with Browne’s book when it is actually released soon. Besides Marsh, also cluttering my newsfeeds was yet another article articulating the band’s problematic tax practices and a blog responding to Marsh, neither agreeing with him or taking him on.

As U2 fans, we have a choice whether to engage with criticism like this. Some choose to ignore it; others take a defensive stance. My perspective has always been one taken from Bono’s lyrical playbook: “stand up to rock stars.” Or put another way, practice critical fandom. Despite what others say, he’s neither saint nor messiah and is worthy of constructive pushback, especially if it comes from a good place. I definitely don’t see Bono as an uber-capitalist “lapdog for neoliberals” as he’s been called, and at the same time, I don’t think we need to be lapdogs or sycophants for Bono or U2.

At the recent U2 conference, Laurie Britt-Smith and I and some of our co-presenters engaged in a critical dialogue about some of the queasy reservations we have about digital activism, capitalist charity, and how these apply to the ONE campaign and product (RED). We hardly reached conclusions or consensus, but in light of those conversations and these recent attacks on Bono’s political and economic perspectives, I have some tentative shots into the ongoing online conversation I’d like to launch.

Bono is not and has never been a leftist in the sense that Marsh, Browne, or the editors of Counterpunch are. Moreover he’s not and probably will never be a rightist as some critics have complained. Is he an intellectually weak, foolish, and hypocritical liberal as is also proposed?

I don’t know how I feel about liberalism or capitalism beyond the degree to which I participate in both by necessity. But I do know what I perceive as the source of my activism and Bono’s: Jesus and the Bible; spirituality and scripture; the new commandments of radical love and service taught by the carpenter from Nazareth. What’s been called the preferential option for the poor. Bono’s lack of economic literacy, or worse, allegiance to wrong-headed economic mentors, may make me and others uncomfortable and may play into the hands of the problem-creators rather than the problem-solvers, yet Bono’s Biblical, musical, and poetic literacy remain on target in my eyes and heart.

In 2005 just after How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, as much as I loved that record and the subsequent Vertigo tour, part of me wanted to give up on Bono for his self-imposed public silence on the Iraq War, for hanging so intimately with people like George Bush and my then least favorite Tennessean Bill Frist. That year, I picked up Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Not only does the front man answer all his critics in a nuanced manner, he diminishes and self-deprecates his own significance. The alleged egomaniac also has a streak of deep and deferential humility.

But more than that, he speaks ever so elegantly and evangelically about his faith in Jesus and how Christian religious perspective, spiritual practice, and central Gospel narrative inform everything he does. Like Bono, I am no economist, but also like Bono, I take seriously the Biblical teachings about poverty and justice.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to see Jesus in the (RED) campaign, but Bono’s willingness to work with Bush, Clinton, Obama, Gates, Sachs, and others comes from statements like this, that he attributes to lessons he learned from Martin King: “Don’t respond to caricature — the Left, the Right, the Progressives, the Reactionary. Don’t take people on rumor. Find the light in them . . .”

It’s hard to understate the light that Bono and U2 have given us with songs and albums and concert tours. But Bono also reminds us that there’s some of that God light in people as different as Bill Frist is from Dave Marsh and in people from other faith traditions, as his COEXIST bit on the Vertigo tour so strongly stated.

The odd rivalry between Marsh and Bono, according to the critic, began with a mediocre review of The Unforgettable Fire. Marsh claims to have given Bono a book about Elvis because Marsh didn’t get “Elvis Presley and America.” As I listen to that deep track off Unforgettable Fire for the umpteenth time, I don’t know that I get it either, but I get what it does to me: how it gets me, how it’s music that takes me outside the music, that gives me knowledge more than ideas, connection more than critique, grace more than karma.

I don’t mind standing up to rock stars. But I don’t mind standing up to grumpy rock critics with an axe to grind either. But I’d rather not stand up to anybody and instead look for the light within, for the Christ within all. And I’d like to give Bono this virtual hug for his birthday. Fact is I’d like to give Dave Marsh one, too. They both probably need a hug more than either would admit.

Andrew William Smith is an English professor by day and DJ by night who works as the Faculty Head of the Tree House environmental living and learning village at Tennessee Tech. He’s an activist, poet, blogger, writer/editor at Interference.com, ruling elder in the PCUSA, and aspiring preacher. Check out his blog at http://unlikelysundayschool.blogspot.com/ or follow Andrew on Twitter @teacheronradio.

Photos are by Andrew Smith from outside the Vertigo tour show in St. Louis in late 2005.

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