We're at a place called Vertigo...
There is a moment that many rock performers have reached, the perilous point just after they have been named The Big New Thing . For many, the next step is a disastrous one, the stage where they Believe Everything That Is Written About Them, and the list of BNTs who crashed on its rocks is a long one. In fact, it’s not even necessary to fall for your own press releases; Simply having the public think that you do is sufficient.
The members of U2 have, almost miraculously, avoided such a disaster, though there was a time (somewhere around Rattle and Hum and through the early 90s) when it looked otherwise. Their response to the tightrope-walk set up by their own success has been to stay hungry, to continue producing new and original music of the caliber of 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” or last year’s “How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”. Is there another act old enough to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but still functioning as a significant contemporary act rather than cruising through tours on the strength of their greatest hits? A few – Springsteen, Prince - but there aren’t too many other names from the early 80s hat haven’t already walked the slow crawl from MTV to VH1 and on to “classic rock” oblivion.
Having said that, I’m sure there are plenty of cynical folks who resent U2’s success and find it easy to denigrate Bono’s image as a globe-hopping do-gooder. Needless to say, the new book “Bono, in conversation with Michka Assayas” is not going to appeal to them. For fans and those interested in the singer’s increasingly significant role as a diplomat, this lengthy interview provides many answers as to how the band has survived for so long as well as well as to the sincerity of his work for debt relief in Africa. Assayas, a French journalist, knew the band in their early days but had just renewed his acquaintance with them after a long absence when he decided to approach Bono with the idea of collaborating on a book.
The project must have grown in ways that Assayas didn’t expect. It’s not the “life story” of the singer, despite the claims of the jacket, nor is it particularly strong on celebrity gossip or sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll anecdotes, yet neither of those absences prevent the book from being an intelligent and illuminating portrait of a thoughtful and innovative artist.
What seems to take Assayas by surprise, and what ultimately comes through as the book’s strongest theme, is the sincerity and the informed nature of Bono’s commitment to African relief. By the final chapters, when every conversation seems to somehow lead into Africa, the interviewer seems just a little frustrated and tries to poke holes in Bono’s idealism, but the singer usually manages to provide commonsense answers to every one of Assayas’ doubts. Make fun of him, call him “St. Bono” if you will, but the man has done his homework and isn’t just signing on to a celebrity-cause-of-the-day. What ultimately surfaces from Assayas’ book is the portrait of a serious and sensible man who has achieved fame as a rock star but has used the privileges his musical career has provided to ask hard questions about the economic realities of the world.
If you’re already U2 fan, Assayas’ book is a useful guide to understanding some of the directions that the band follows. If you’re not necessarily interested in U2, you should at least take a look at some of the relief projects Bono has sponsored and see if they’re deserving of your support.
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