The band’s rise to fame coincided with the emergence of contemporary Christian music (CCM), which by 1980—when U2 released their first album, Boy—had gone mainstream. Young artists with sincere faith and fresh (often beautiful) faces were being marketed to parents and kids who were looking for music that was “safe for the whole family.”
Success in the new industry was a double-edged sword. Record labels needed bands that could play a church service and sell albums in Christian bookstores, so along with having talent and charisma, CCM artists were expected to maintain a squeaky-clean image and load their songs with overtly Christian lyrics. Some musicians jokingly refer to this as CCM’s “JPM” quotient—the “Jesus Per Minute” count in a song.
U2 evolved outside this ecosystem, and by the 1990s had become one of the biggest bands in the world. Their lyrics were often saturated with Christian imagery, biblical language, and spiritual longing, but they were just as often about sex, power, and politics.
Your origin story,” I say to Bono, “there’s a sense that you’re haunted by ghosts.”
He laughs. “Was it T. S. Eliot … Four Quartets?” he asks, “‘The end is where we start’?”
We were talking about Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, Bono’s nearly 600-page memoir that was just a few weeks away from its November release.
“Nineteen seventy-four took my mother away from me, but it gave me so much in return,” Bono tells me.
“My mother collapsed as her own father was being lowered into the ground, and I never spoke with her again,” he adds. “I saw her a few days later in her hospital bed as she took her last breaths. It was … I mean, people have gone through a lot worse,” he says, describing a few of the horrors he’s witnessed in his work with some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth.
“But yeah,” Bono continues, “death is ice-cold water on a boy entering puberty. T. S. Eliot is right, the end is where we start. You begin your meditation on life often in that kind of moment. I mean, we’re all really in denial most of our life.”
Surrender [the book] is an extended confrontation with the denial of death, beginning with a heart scare in 2016 that almost killed him. But his mother’s death looms largest in the story—her absence from their home and her presence in his heart and imagination for five decades since (emphasis added).