Hard to believe that today, U2’s lead singer turns 50. Without a doubt, Bono is one of the best (if not the best) frontmen to ever grace a stage. Unlike a lot of other rock stars, Bono somehow manages the impossible feat of making the universal feel intimate. He tries to connect with every single person in the stadium and arenas that he commands. U2 has always aimed for every in large scales. And Bono is the key to U2’s success, because just like Bruce Springteen, Bono believes in the power of rock and roll. Unlike Springsteen who views rock and roll as a means to escape a pedestrian life, Bono sees and roll as a secular salvation. In “Thunder Road”, Springsteen sings, “Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.” Contrast that with Bono ad-libbing during a performance of “All Along The Watchtower” – “All I got is a red guitar. Three chords, and the truth” and you catch my drift.
If you’ve ever seen any video of U2 performing live, you probably know that he will do absolutely anything to get every single person’s attention. There’s the infamous Live Aid performance of “Bad” where in front of some 20,000 people (and millions watching) he jumped off stage, grabbing a girl from the audience and began dancing with her leaving the rest of the band wondered what the hell just happened to their lead singer. Then there’s U2’s performance on Saturday Night Live in 2001. During “Elevation” (which is either a great rock song or just plain dumb depending on your point of view) Bono made a normal performance into an event by again jumping off the stage, shoving his face in the camera, wandered around the sets, and demanded the crowds attention. I haven’t seen that many Saturday Night Live performances, but from what I’ve seen most artists just play their songs and hang it up. What other artist would bring Salman Rushdie up on stage during the height of the Satanic Verses controversy? Who else but Bono would bring the mothers of children who had been taken by Death Squads in El Salvador on stage? By doing this, Bono doesn’t try to connect with everybody when he’s on stage – he’s also trying to make a global connection as well. You can argue that sometimes his speeches about Africa before “One” go on for a while, but he’s taking a risk, and it’s a risk worth taking.
My favorite U2 album is Achtung Baby, and it contains some of Bono’s best singing and lyrics. Throughout the album he looks to the future for inspiration (“Zoo Station”), agonizes over being torn apart (“One”), moonlights as Judas talking to God (“Until the End of the World”), and evens questions his validity as a rock star with his faith (“Acrobat”).
Of course, rock and roll isn’t always about salvation – sometimes you can just be a fan as well. Bono’s essays on Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and Frank Sinatra rank up with some of the best writing about other musicians by a musician. He’s constantly slipping in lines of his favorite songs into U2 performances.
But above anything else, Bono also wrote this song: