Bono, lead singer of the Irish supergroup U2, is at Finnegan’s, a pub just up the road from his white Georgian home in Killiney, south of Dublin. Sipping a pint of Guinness, he is explaining how a person can be nominated for eight Grammys, attend a global economic conference with Bill Gates, move the irascible Sen. Jesse Helms to tears and still feel—especially when in Dublin—like an Everyman. You just have to be Irish. “We are taught not to court success here,” says Bono. “There’s an old story about an American and an Irishman looking up at a mansion. The American looks at it and says, ‘One day I’m going to live in that place.’ The Irishman looks at it and says, ‘One day I’m going to get the bastard who lives in that place.'”
Others are less reticent about giving Bono his due. The 41-year-old singer, along with guitarist the Edge, 40, drummer Larry Mullen, 40, and bassist Adam Clayton, 41, are “unquestionably the greatest rock band in the world at the moment,” says their friend and fellow rocker Elvis Costello. This year’s Grammy Awards, which will be handed out in L.A. Feb. 27, will likely second that. U2’s eight nominations include the biggies: record of the year (“Walk On”), album (All That You Can’t Leave Behind) and song (“Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”). “Artistically,” says Bono, who already has 10 Grammys with U2, “it’s been my best year ever.”
Last year, too, there was more to U2 than music. Many found the band’s keening, anthemic sound an effective balm in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; some of the songs on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, released in October 2000, even seemed eerily prescient. (One, “Kite,” begins, “Something is about to give/ I can feel it coming.”) After U2 performed Sept. 21 on the nationally televised memorial concert America: A Tribute to Heroes, they returned to their sold-out concert tour, where Bono cradled the flag and the names of the Sept. 11 dead were projected on a massive screen. When U2 sang “Where the Streets Have No Name” at the Super Bowl Feb. 3, “it was like taking a big bite out of a giant apple pie,” Bono says. “To feel the full embrace of America was the pinnacle.”
It had been an unusual week, to say the least. Two days before the halftime show, Bono appeared at the World Economic Forum in Manhattan, where he sat on panels with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. An activist for nearly as long as he has been a performer, Bono has earned a reputation as a detail-oriented wonk who stays with a cause—be it Third World debt relief or aid for AIDS-ravaged Africa—for the long haul. At the forum, the singer self-deprecatingly introduced himself as “the poor man’s James Joyce or the thinking man’s Perry Como.” But he’s no dilettante, not “some leprechaun,” says O’Neill, who plans to visit Africa with Bono later this year. “He’s a lot more than that,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.): “A lot of celebrities lend their names to something for the moment. But Bono cares.” Adds a friend, producer Hal Willner: “It’s amazing that Bono can read and understand all those economics books.”
Still, John Maynard Keynes never had the option of indulging in a little rock-star swagger to make a point. Seldom without his trademark fly-eyed sunglasses, Bono startled conference attendees with a foul-mouthed anticapitalist plea. Nor is Bono always patient. “He will knock down a lazy thought,” says the band’s manager, Paul McGuinness, “whether it is a bad political argument or a mundane lyric.”
Yet even as he meets with heads of state, including Pope John Paul II, he remains on solid and equal footing with his bandmates, all friends since high school. “They call it the politburo,” says Bono’s friend, rocker Bob Geldof, who drafted Bono into famine relief with the all-star benefit single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984. “They often say no to him, and he defers.”
Managing his personal life also can require delicate negotiating. He made it home in the midst of the band’s yearlong, 109-concert Elevation Tour in May, when his wife of 20 years, Ali, 40, gave birth to their son John. Even before the new baby, Ali—who also has two daughters, Jordan, 12, and Eve, 10, and another son, Eli, 2, with Bono—preferred to be left behind in Killiney (their home for 13 years) and away from the media scrum when U2 hit the road. Although she has had her own causes, including an Irish charity to help children of Chernobyl, “she doesn’t want to be part of any entourage,” says Bono. “But I spend a lot of time with my kids—more than most other dads. I took my girls to California on tour. I took Eli to Venice.” Bono isn’t likely to have to worry about making time for any more deliveries: Ali recently told the Irish Independent, “We are very happy [but] definitely no more kids—we are overrun as it is.”
There have been heartaches. Three months after John’s birth, Bono’s father, Bob Hewson, a retired postal worker, died of cancer at 75. Bono went almost directly from his father’s deathbed in Dublin to a U2 concert in London, where he dedicated the song “Kite” to him. “The show must go on,” says screenwriter Simon Carmody, one of Bono’s circle of old Dublin friends. “That is Bono’s real political philosophy.”
The roots of that philosophy were sown in the North Dublin neighborhood of Glasnevin, where Bono—born Paul Hewson and raised Protestant in the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish Republic—lived with his dad, mother Iris, and brother Norman, 48, now proprietor of a Dublin health-food cafe. “They would save hard, and they didn’t drink much at all,” says Bono pal Guggi, a Dublin artist. But normal family life changed dramatically for Bono at 14, when Iris, who had worked in the offices of a local dairy, died of a stroke. Bono had already shown his friends that same passion for resolving trouble that he would later put to use in world issues. “If I fell out with some other kid,” says Guggi. “Bono would work very hard to bring us together.” With his mother’s death he became markedly more serious in all his interests, particularly music. That was always a strong presence in the Hewson household, says Guggi. “There were records—classical, opera, Sinatra. His dad had an incredible voice.”
But the future star’s biggest inspiration, says Geldof, was England’s powerful punk band the Clash. After hearing them, says Geldof, “a band was what he decided to do.” At 14, he’d already been dubbed by Guggi with what would come to be a perfect rock moniker: Bono (pronounced BAH-no). “The word suggests his shape, his vibe,” says Guggi (whose own real name is Derek Rowen). “There was a hearing-aid shop, Bonovox of O’Connell Street. I thought he looked like the place.”
A restless student, Bono was tossed out of one high school, St. Patrick’s, for flinging dog manure at a teacher “who’d been giving him a hard time,” says Guggi. He transferred to Mount Temple, where fellow student Mullen posted a bulletin board notice looking for bandmates. The quartet of Mullen, Bono, the Edge (full name: Dave Evans) and Clayton came together in 1976 as a band, Feedback.
Bono was making other friends at school too. When the fledgling rocker first introduced Guggi to classmate Alison Stewart, he recalls, “she just looked like the straightest girl, wearing this gingham dress and a little cardigan. I didn’t get it. But he adored her.” Wed in 1982, “they are a bit similar in their spirit,” says Simon Carmody. “They both have a bit of ‘go’ about them.”
Bono definitely had it. Changing their name to U2 in 1978 at a friend’s off-the-cuff suggestion, the band quickly established itself on the Dublin rock scene. Their first album, Boy, made a minor splash in the U.S. By the time of their fifth album, 1987’s Joshua Tree, which yielded two No. 1 singles, critics regarded them as the band of the decade. “I was kind of getting in my stride by that time,” says Elvis Costello. “Then they came roaring past at 100 mph.”
Ten albums and 15 Top 40 singles later, Bono is rich enough to own a Dublin hotel, the Clarence (the Edge is coproprietor), and a villa in the south of France. And yet, if he has it all, he has remained committed to the have-nots. In 1999 Bono approached his friend, music and movie producer Bobby Shriver (son of Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver), about working on the Jubilee 2000 campaign, urging wealthy nations to forgive billions of dollars owed by the world’s poorest countries. “Ireland has a tradition of famine and wanting and suffering,” says Shriver, 47.
Shriver calculates that Bono made at least 12 trips to Washington, D.C., meeting everyone from President Bill Clinton to the Senate’s most adamant conservative, North Carolina’s Republican Helms, who choked up when Bono told him stories of dying children in Africa. “I went in there thinking he was going to spit on me,” Bono later told Gene Sperling, then Clinton’s chief economic adviser. Instead, “we bonded.” In October 2000 Congress passed a $435 million debt relief bill. “It’s tremendous,” says Shriver, “to see a guy accomplish a thing he has no business accomplishing.”
Back in Finnegan’s, Bono is enough of a regular that no one looks his way. “I’m happy to be in Dublin,” he says, “and a non-celebrity.” But he concedes he’ll likely be back in the thick of things soon, lending his high profile to public debate. “I love the din of argument,” he says. “We Irish go insane if there is accord.”
Eileen Finan in Dublin, Pete Norman in London, Rachel Felder in New York City, Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles and Jen Chaney in Washington, D.C.