With or without U2. '' Surrender '' : 40 Songs. One Story by Bono

In 2001, I tagged along on a U2 tour for a magazine story. I was fortunate enough to be with the band for some of the first shows they played following the Sept. 11 attacks, and it was astounding to watch them working out song by song, gesture by gesture - exactly what their audience wanted from them at that harrowing, bewildering moment.

Following the concert in Montreal, and the police-escorted sprint to their plane, Bono flopped down in the seat next to me. The first words he spoke were ''What could we do better?''

By the time they played the SuperBowl halftime a few months later, a set that featured a scrolling list of the victims' names, the performance had been honed to pitch-perfect emotion.

Curiously, though U2 became so closely associated with those raw and tragic days, 9/11 is barely mentioned in Bono's ambitious, sprawling memoir, ''Surrender.'' But the theme of utility and the practical function of a band comes up repeatedly. ''If you're going to be famous, sure, be funny, be reverent,'' he muses.

''But above all, be useful.'' Elsewhere, he writes : '' To be useful is a curious prayer. Unromantic. A little dull even, but it's at the heart of who we are and why we're still here as a band.''

Has any rock star ever been more invested in the meaning of his job? For more than four decades, so much of U2's project has been an exploration of the promise, potential and pitfalls of pop music, the endless considerations and reconsiderations of its role in the world.

''Surrender'' is largely the story of Bono wrestling with ''pseudo-religious part of being a rock star, how we put the messy in messianic.''

The book is nominally organized around around 40 different U2 songs, mostly presented in chronological order. But it's far from a list of ''making of'' stories; very little time is spent in recording studios, even less describing the process of songwriting.

Faith, philosophy and political strategy occupy far more of the pages than session details, and readers' reactions will largely depend on their feelings about Bono, which tend to run to the extremes. If you want to hear a musician posing questions like ''So where is God?'' you've come to the right place.

Oh, he knows what the skeptics think of him; he good-naturedly anticipates every criticism and mocks his own flirtations with self-parody. '' The cerebral nature of our inquiries., mine specifically, may sometimes appear pretentious,'' he says dryly, and later notes of his crusading.

''I can be over the top in standing up for what I believe in, how very worrying that must be.''

One topic that Bono has previously kept more private is his relationship with his wife, Ali Hewson. 

They've been together since high school - almost unbelievably, their first date took place the same week he joined the band that would become U2 -and, given his self-proclaimed overheated emotions and considerable ego, her role as guiding light, sounding board and reality check more than earns her the love letter, apology and thank-you note he offers here.

Of course, Bono has three other life partners, with whom he has truly pulled off the impossible. The lineup of U2 has remained intact for more than 45 years, and every single day that Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. wake up and are still the members of this band, they are in uncharted waters.

''Surrender'' makes no real attempt to explicate fully how they execute this magic trick - Bono writes respectfully if a bit distantly about his bandmates, and maybe that discretion is critical to maintaining the sense that U2 endures as an experiment rather than an oldies act.

''If we keep going,'' he says, ''we could do that thing that no one else has done. But only if we kept moving, kept together and kept a kind of humility. Only if we kept breaking up the band. And putting it together again.''

It's telling, though, that the third and final section of ''Surrender'' is much more devoted to Bono's activism than to his music.

His bold efforts on behalf of causes like international debt relief and AIDS prevention take us inside rooms and meetings with Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Bill Gates and numerous committees and commissions. U2 feels like less of a priority [''Meanwhile, the band - the other one, remembers them? - had put out two albums. And done two tours,'' he tosses off at one point], which is how many fans have responded to their recordings for the last 15 years or so.

But like U2, ''Surrender'' soars whenever the spotlight comes on Bono is never more powerful, on the page or the stage, than when he strives for the transcendence that only music can offer.

''I had to create that fusion, to make a chemistry set of the crowd,'' he says,

''Finding some moment that none of us has occupied before, or would ever again.''

The World Students Society thanks review author Alan Light.


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