With his soaring voice, larger-than-life personality, and ostentatious stage performances — he has climbed the scaffolding at concerts and assumed alter egos like the Fly and Mirror Ball Man — Bono not only helped steer the course for post-Eighties rock & roll, but also became pop music’s global ambassador.
Away from the studio and stage, the U2 frontman has helped raise awareness of social causes ranging from world hunger and AIDS to third-world debt relief.
He’s met with and won the praises of world leaders from George W. Bush to the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and France. He’s been granted knighthood and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And he’s become a formidable entrepreneur as co-founder of the private equity firm Elevations Partners.
He was born Paul David Hewson on May 10, 1960, in Dublin, Ireland, and raised along with a brother in the neighborhood of Glasnevi. His mother was a Protestant and his father a Catholic. Hewson initially went to a Catholic grammar school but later attended the progressive nondenominational Mount Temple High School. When he was 14 his mother died of a brain aneurysm. By then Hewson had become part of a group of teens, including singer Gavin Friday, who formed a fantasy world called Lypton Village for which they gave themselves nicknames.
Hewson was christened Bono Vox (Latin for good voice), from the name of a local hearing aid shop. In 1975, he began dating Alison Stewart (the couple would marry in 1982, eventually having two girls and two boys). In 1976 he responded to 14-year-old drummer Larry Mullen’s ad for band members, and the seeds of U2 were planted; within four years the band, by then inspired by the sounds of such punk and postpunk acts as Siouxie and the Banshees and Joy Division, would sign to Island and begin work on their 1980 debut Boy. Meanwhile, Bono other members of Lypton Village had become involved in a Bible study group, which informed much of the band’s early music, particularly songs like “Gloria,” from its second album, October, in 1981.
Increasingly, Bono’s lyrics integrated his spiritual beliefs with social and political themes, and by the time of 1983’s critical and commercial breakthrough, War (Number 12) — with its anthem-like singles and the MTV staples “New Year’s Day” (Number Two) and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (Number Seven) — he was being hailed as a rock & roll crusader. Bono continued in that earnestly passionate vein through several U2 albums including The Unforgettable Fire (Number 12, 1984), The Joshua Tree (Number One, 1987) and Rattle & Hum (Number One, 1988).
But by the early 1990s, Bono, teetering on the brink of self-parody, began to assume new characters in U2’s music and stage performances. On Achtung Baby (Number One, 1991), U2 added elements of industrial and dance music, and during the band’s Zoo TV tour in support of the album, Bono appeared onstage as the Fly, a parody of the arrogant rock star, and Mirror Ball Man, which mocked televangelists. Bono’s newfound irony continued on Zooropa (Number One, 1993) and the long-awaited Pop (Number One, 1997), which added techno-disco textures to the band’s sound.
By then, though, critics had soured on Bono’s reinventions of himself, and the album received lukewarm reviews. Bono himself expressed dissatisfaction with the album, and the band came back three years later with the critically acclaimed Number Three album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, on which Bono was back to his optimistic, anthemic self on the single “Beautiful Day” (Number 21, 2000).
By the late 1990s, Bono began spending more of his time on his philanthropic ventures. He had been motivated to use his star power after seeing a Secret Policeman’s Ball benefit show for Amnesty International in 1979, and during the Eighties U2 performed at a number of major benefits including Band Aid, Live Aid and Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour. But in 1999, he stepped up his activism, tirelessly campaigning for third-world debt relief and shining a light on poverty and the AIDS pandemic in Africa. In 2002 he accompanied President Bush during his White House lawn speech on the U.S.’s commitment to Africa. Bono also accompanied dignitaries on a trip to the African continent and criticized world leaders who were late to the cause. In 2004 he cofounded the ONE campaign along with eleven major humanitarian groups advocating on behalf of children, world hunger and medical aid. In 2005 he and Band Aid/Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof teamed up to present the Live 8 concerts calling attention to the G8 Conference and summit that year in Scotland. From 2003 to 2010, Bono won numerous accolades for his humanitarian work including three Nobel Peace Prize nominations; in 2004, the government of Chile awarded him the Pablo Neruda International Presidential Medal of Honor.
Bono’s humanitarian work has not gone without criticism. Some observers have called his philanthropic zeal narcissistic; a writer and former Peace Corps volunteer penned a scathing 2005 opinion piece for The New York Times, suggesting the attention that Bono and other celebrities get for their causes is harmful, creating the impression that complex world problems can be easily fixed. That same year Bono drew some ire from his left-leaning supporters when he became a major business mogul, cofounding Elevation Partners to invest in entertainment and media businesses, one being the Forbes Media group, another being a company that makes war-simulation video games. In 2007 he and U2 were criticized for moving part of their song catalog out of Ireland after the government stopped giving tax breaks to musicians’ royalties.