When manager Paul McGuinness took on U2 in 1978 he said, quoting F Scott Fitzgerald, that their 18-year-old frontman saw “the whole equation”. Incapable of meeting punk’s standards of cool, the young Dubliners found improbable success by going too far and being too much. That impulse produced fabulous coups, from their performance at Live Aid in 1985 to their reinvention of stadium rock with Zoo TV – as well as memorable disasters, notably the decision to deposit 2014’s Songs of Innocence into every iTunes account in the world. As Bono writes in this, his first memoir: “Our best work is never too far from our worst.”
The same goes for his extracurricular activities. Nobody has done more to expand the parameters of rock stardom, often in contentious ways. If any song title sums him up, then it’s Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World, from 1991’s Achtung Baby. Bono wants to go everywhere, meet everyone, learn everything and somehow pull it all together. His failures are therefore more interesting than most people’s successes.
Running to 557 pages, Surrender is characteristically expansive, but it whizzes by, with each of its 40 present-tense chapters pegged to a relevant song lyric and decorated with a felt-pen sketch. Bono has storytelling verve and a genuine desire for self-examination, neither of which is guaranteed in rock memoirs. He is enthusiastic about praising others, often at his own expense. The supporting cast is ridiculous: he relates colourful encounters with David Bowie, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash as well as Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Steve Jobs and Pope John Paul II.
You could trace Bono’s desire to build bridges back to his parents’ marriage: his father Bob was a Catholic and a romantic; his mother Iris, whose death when he was 14 became his primal trauma, was a pragmatic Protestant. It’s notable that he still lives in Ireland and has retained the same bandmates, best friends, partner and core collaborators for more than 40 years. His wife Ali emerges as the book’s quiet star: “‘I wouldn’t trust a man who didn’t find you attractive,’ I say. ‘I wouldn’t trust a woman who found you interesting,’ she replies.” This enduring camaraderie, together with his religious faith, becomes a recipe for how to become incomprehensibly famous without losing your head – but there is also candour about the persistent tension between family and showbusiness; music and activism; ambition and principles.
Bono is unusually open to being challenged in interviews, turning them into megaphones for his own doubts. He manufactures that push-and-pull dynamic here by restaging arguments, especially with Ali and McGuinness, who sceptically describes his lobbying for debt cancellation as “Mr Bono Goes to Washington”. After he reluctantly agreed to a photo op with George W Bush as part of an effort to get him to fund HIV medication in Africa, George Soros told him: “Bono, you have sold out for a plate of lentils.” Bush eventually agreed to $15bn for starters (“That’s a lot of lentils”) but it was a bruising education in political realities. Lessons are learned, too, in a section on “White Messiah Syndrome”: “Despite our best intentions, some of us activists can burn out in the fire of our own do-goodery and the secret is to know when to shut up and listen.”
There’s some blarney here – a weakness for the too-cute aphorism and the florid metaphor – but Bono’s appetite for contradictions and humiliations, which goes far beyond tactical self-deprecation, more than compensates. He admits that his “tendency toward the preposterous” and his bullish conviction can be “very wearying”. Such self-knowledge makes this generous, energetic book anything but.
• Surrender by Bono is published by Cornerstone (£25). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.