Bono: In the name of love

Bob Hewson was a charming and likeable man, but possibly not the best father to his wild younger son - who was to become Bono. So why is the U2 frontman still writing songs in his memory? He talks to Michka Assayas about fame, family and forgiveness
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The Independent Online

On a gloomy November day, Bono picks me up in his Mercedes. He's apparently given up ignoring red lights and driving the wrong way down one-way streets. When we pull up to his house, the electricity is down, and the security gate has collapsed. Bono helps the caretaker shove it open, then shows me to the pavilion where Bono and his wife Ali put up distinguished visitors: the walls are covered with letters from Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdie, and others.

On a gloomy November day, Bono picks me up in his Mercedes. He's apparently given up ignoring red lights and driving the wrong way down one-way streets. When we pull up to his house, the electricity is down, and the security gate has collapsed. Bono helps the caretaker shove it open, then shows me to the pavilion where Bono and his wife Ali put up distinguished visitors: the walls are covered with letters from Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdie, and others.

I follow Bono back to a small room. He takes off his shoes and tucks himself up on the couch. We will be visited by his elder daughter, Jordan, and his two little boys, Elijah and John. Sometimes, he halts the conversation to make a call. He's expecting one from Prince, but gets one from Bruce Springsteen. He is trying to organise a new song to be performed during halftime at the Super Bowl, so that Americans will consider it a "patriotic act" to help Africans with Aids get the drugs they need. Our first conversation centres around Bono's father.

What was your father like?

A very charming, amusing, likeable man, but he was deeply cynical about the world and the characters in it. I got to make peace with him, but never really became his friend. Nothing extraordinary here, just Irish macho male stuff. We never really could talk. Even in his last days, when I visited him in hospital, all he could do was whisper. He had Parkinson's. I would lie beside him at night on a roll-up bed. Being sick, he didn't have to converse. I could tell you he was happy about that.

Occasionally, I would read to him... [pause] Shakespeare. He loved Shakespeare. If I read the Bible, he would just scowl. [laughs] It was like: "Fuck off!" In fact, the last thing he said was "Fuck off." He said: "Would you ever fuck off and get me out of here? I wanna go home. This place is a prison cell." And they were his last words. Not romantic, but revealing. I really had a sense that he wanted out of not just the room, but out of his body and his skeleton. That's classic him. He would always pour salt - and vinegar - on the wound. He could meet the most beautiful girl in the world. In fact, Julia Roberts... I remember introducing her, and he goes: "Pretty woman? My arse." [laughs]

You have said there were questions you wanted to ask your father that remain unanswered. What is it that you wished you knew?

My father's advice, without ever speaking it, was: "Don't dream! To dream is to be disappointed", which would be a pity, wouldn't it, never to dream. Of course, this is where megalomania must have begun. To never have a big idea was his thing. That's all I'm interested in. Why would you want to go to university?" he'd say. He was confused, but in the end he said: "Yeah, go to college. Sure, I'll help you..." He'd eventually pay for guitar lessons, but it didn't come easily to him. Yet the thing he regretted the most in his life is that he hadn't become a musician and a singer.

That's hard to figure out. I can't imagine thinking like that. But his way of guarding you from being disillusioned was by not letting you have illusions in the first place. I think he had to cut off something, and he didn't want his kids to go through that. Either that or he was perverse.

So what did he think would become of you?

Hmm. I think, either join the civil service, like he did, which was a safe job, which you couldn't be fired from, or a travelling salesman. A lot of our family were travelling salesmen. And of course that is what I have become! I sell songs from door to door, from town to town. And in my political work, I sell ideas.

Anyway, it's a wonderful thing to come out of an environment where you really didn't have to achieve anything, isn't it? God bless them, I was an unruly kid. And when my mother died, that turned into rebellion. So I can't blame my father for not seeing my future as being bright, because he saw me setting fire to myself. Most of the people I was hanging around with weren't interested in school. So I don't hold him to too much blame.

How did your relationship with your father evolve after your mother died?

After my mother died, I think I tortured my brother and my father. There were three men living alone in a house. There were some awful times that we shared, about as low as you can get for three men. I remember my father trying to knock me out. I never returned fire, but it was hard. Mostly, they were comical moments. He worked out some of his own anxieties by so-called "worrying about me". I'd be 17, and be going out to punk rock gigs, and coming back. He'd be waiting for me at the top of the stairs, with some heavy artillery. [laughs] It was like an obstacle course for me and my gang of friends: how to get back in the house without waking him up.

Why did you stay at home?

He gave me a year at home, bed and board, free of charge. He said: "You got one year. If at the end of this year, things aren't happening for your band, you gotta go and get a job." Pretty generous when you think about it. He started to mellow. There was one extraordinary moment I remember when he really helped me. This big shot came over to see the band, and offered us a publishing deal. It was a big moment, because we were flat broke. And with the money that he was offering, we booked a tour of the UK. We still hadn't got a record deal. We said: "On that tour, we'll get a record deal." But, on the eve of that tour, the publisher rang up and halved the money, knowing that we had to take it, because we'd already hired the van, the lights, the whole thing. But we told this man to shove it up his arse. We went to our families, and asked them for £500 each. My father gave it and the mood of the relationship, as you're asking me about, starts to improve.

Did he ever tell you that he was proud of your success?

I think he was proud. I took him to the United States for the first time in the mid-Eighties. He'd never been there, and he came to see a U2 show in Texas. I got Willie Williams, our lighting designer, to have a Super Trooper focused on the sound platform, and at the right moment, I told the audience: "You know, there's somebody here tonight that's never been to Texas" - they scream and hoot - "that's never been to the US" - more screaming - "that's never been to a U2 show in the US" - they're going bananas - "Ladies and gentlemen of the Lone Star state, I want to introduce you to my father, Bob Hewson. That's him there!" The light comes on, and my dad stands up. What does he do? He starts waving his fist at me. It was a great moment.

Then, after the show, after coming offstage, he came back. Normally no one would talk to me - I just need some moments to climb down a few gears. I heard footsteps. It was my father, and he looked... almost emotional. I said to myself, "God, he's actually going to say something. This is the moment I've waited all my life for." I think there's tears in his eyes. He's putting his hand out, I put my hand out, and he looked at me and said: "Son... You're very professional..."

That's fantastic, isn't it? I mean, especially if you came from punk rock, the last thing that's on your mind is being professional. But no, he was proud. I think he always probably found me very pretentious, which is probably right. I think he still found me a little preposterous, which I think is probably right.

What was your father like with your kids?

He loved kids. His big thing was, when I would have children, I would find out what it was like to be a father. The pain, the torture, etc. So when I told him that Ali was pregnant, he burst out laughing. He couldn't stop laughing. I said: "What are you laughing at?" He said: "Revenge."

So has your experience of fatherhood been as difficult?

No. There's rarely a raised voice in our house. Ali's mood prevails. It's kind of serene in comparison.

And how did your father get along with Ali?

Oh, very well. Women loved him. He was completely charming and he was great company. And as long as you didn't want to get too close, he was happy. I think he could reveal himself to women easier than to men, which is something I probably have in common with him.

Did he give you any advice on how to handle your money?

"Don't trust anyone."

Did you follow him on that?

I absolutely didn't. Trust is very important to me.

What do you feel most guilty about in your relationship with your father?

Mainly, I just think he was dealing with a precocious child. Can't have been easy, especially when he found himself trying to do it all alone. I just feel... I'm angry about... there was a sort of father-son tension, that I probably just let go of in the last few weeks.

Ali said to me that since his death, I haven't been myself, and that I have been more aggressive, and quicker to anger. When my father died, I went on a short trip, which turned into a euphemism for "drinks outing". I don't like to abuse alcohol; anything you abuse will abuse you back. But it's fair to say I went to Bali for a drink. I wanted to blow it out, get the monkey off my back.

But when I returned, funnily enough, it was still there. So just on Easter, I went up to the church in a village where we live in France, and I just felt this was the moment that I had to let it go. In this little church, on Easter morning, I just got down on my knees, and I let go of whatever anger I had against my father. And I thanked God for him being my father, and for the gifts that I have been given through him. And I let go of that. I wept, and I felt rid of it.

This is an edited extract from 'Bono on Bono: Conversations with Michka Assayas', Hodder, £18.99, or £17.50 from Independent Books Direct (08700 798 897; www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk)

Bono on...

Bono

"I'm a scribbling, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking, Bible-reading man. A show... who loves to paint pictures of what I can't see. A husband, father, friend of the poor and sometimes the rich. An activist travelling salesman of ideas. "

25 years of monogamy

"I wasn't set up for marriage. I was not the kind of person that any of my friends would say, 'He's the marrying kind.' But I met the most extraordinary woman, and I couldn't let her go. She has an incredible respect for my life, and she's a very independent spirit."

Blair

"He's a pretty good guitar player - plays every day, his missus told me. I checked his guitar case to see if it was in tune. It was, perfectly. But seriously, he and Gordon Brown could really change the world if they keep up their work in Africa. They can be the Lennon-McCartney of global development."

Bush

"He was more amusing than I expected... quick-witted. I got quickly to the point, and the point was an unarguable one - that 6,500 people dying every day of a preventable and treatable disease would not be acceptable anywhere else other than Africa, and that before God and history this was a kind of racism that was unacceptable. He said, "In fact, it's a kind of genocide."

U2

"There's a joke in the band that goes: Edge wants to play the drums, Bono wants to play the guitar, Larry wants to be the singer, Adam... only wants to play the bass!"

His sunglasses

"You don't know what's going on behind those glasses, but God, I assure you, does."

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