“I’m still pretending this is a book tour.”–Bono
Those are the first words you hear spoken by Paul “Bono” Hewson after he took the stage on May 7, 2023 at the Beacon on Broadway to U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” which he performs a shortened version of during the opening of this somewhat indefinable performance. Is it a concert? Not exactly, although there is a lot of musical performance during the show, sung by Bono while backed by Jacknife Lee’s DJing (and occasional drum playing), along with cellist Kate Ellis and harpist Gemma Doherty. Is it a book tour? Well, Bono’s Stories of Surrender is the impetus for this tour in the first place, but he doesn’t so much read from the book, but more accurately, he re-enacts the scenes from his book. On top of that, while the stagecraft is relatively sparse, with chairs used to play his band mates (and perhaps most importantly, his father, Bob), the background of the stage is filled with what looks like two very long, draped flags used to project animation against them to assist with the storytelling.
Somehow, the show manages to be high-tech and lo-fi at the same time. I guess if you were looking for the truest phrase to describe the two hour Stories of Surrender show, you would call it performance art. And look, that’s a term that often makes people cringe, thinking of performers making strange noises while they pour paint over themselves or something. But Stories of Surrender is so carefully calibrated that at no point is it overly pretentious or puzzling. While I want to take no credit from the musicians or the production team that put this show together, I’m not sure how well it would work without a natural storyteller at the center.
And let’s be clear, Bono is a natural storyteller, a raconteur, a teller of tales both tall and small, and all of it, and I do mean all of it, is riveting. Depending on where you are in the performance, the show is capable of being hilarious (as when Bono’s stoic father tells his famous son, “You know, I heard “Pride” on the radio the other day, and…I felt some”), explosive (the retelling of the creation of “I Will Follow” is stunning), or truly heartbreaking as Bono recounts his father’s last days.
As carefully constructed as the show is, it never fails to feel like a highwire act. The musical performances are integrated into the storytelling, but not one song (save one I’ll get to later) is performed in full. The recreations of how the band was formed, the rows they had, the left turns they made over their career that took them in bold new directions, and the struggle to keep it all together from family life to the road is a lot of ground to cover during this unique extravaganza. Yet somehow, you never feel that the show is lurching from one mode to the next. Everything you see is at the service of storytelling. There’s a saying that I once heard about the occasional big budget movie that turns out to be great: “All the money is on the screen.” Meaning there is nothing fatuous about the film despite its massive budget. It doesn’t take a genius to sort out that this is a very expensive show, but you know what? All the money is on the stage, and, if I may be permitted to quote from Swingers, it is “so money.”
I referenced “I Will Follow” as a musical highlight of the show, but I think it’s essential to try, as best I can, to describe it. It starts with Bono playing the young version of himself looking for a sound that the band can’t hear while they are recording their first album. Bono bounces from playing himself to the other members of the band. He then takes The Edge’s imaginary guitar from him and tries to show him the sound he is looking for – something akin to a whirling drill playing a guitar. The Edge replies that he thinks he knows what he’s going for, and as this is all happening in front of you, being performed by one man in four roles, the music behind the storytelling starts to swell, and then coalesce, and then in truly thunderous fashion, the opening guitar chords of the song begin to chime and then thrust forward, until finally, as if all the pressure in the room can no longer take it, Bono opens his voice in full: “If you walk away, walk away, walk away, I will follow!” I thought the goosebumps on my arm might never recede.
But for all the great music and band history covered here, by the end, the show becomes about a man who was orphaned twice. Bono’s mother Iris died of an aneurysm when he was just 14. As he recounts in the show, the three men left in the house, Bono, his brother, and his father, dealt with her passing by never discussing it. Even when the band was rehearsing in a small house near the graveyard where Iris is buried, Bono never once went to visit her site. It’s hard to imagine a more unhealthy coping mechanism than silence and denial, which also excerbated Bono’s rift with his father, especially in the absence of the warm love of his mother.
It’s a rift that was never fully repaired, but as Bono and his father got older, they did begin to find a level. Bob Hewson possessed a fine tenor of his own and was stunned to learn that Luciano Pavarotti wanted to record with his son. There’s also an impossibly delightful story of how Bono’s very anti-monarchy father was charmed out of his shoes by meeting Princess Diana. As Bono put it, “800 years of Irish/English conflict went up with a poof.”
In fact, the best parts of the show are Bono meeting up with his dad in a scaled down version of the pub they would go to on Sundays when Bono wasn’t traipsing across the world. It’s just two simple chairs separated by a coffee table where Bono would place his Guinness and his father his whiskey. Their meetings all began the same way, Bono’s father would say, “So, anything strange or startling?” Most of the time during the performance, these little breakaway pub moments would lead to amusement. However, the one time Bono turns the tables on his father and asks first, “So, anything strange or startling?”, we learn that on that occasion, his father reveals to him that he has cancer, and the end is coming soon.
What makes the moment so heartbreaking is that Bono’s father was taken from him by this most accursed disease just when he was beginning, however incrementally, to find his “Da.” For years, Bono lived without a mother and a distant father. Now, he was to become an orphan, again. Bono takes his heartache, speaks of his dad’s confusion near the end, of sleeping on a mattress next to his bed in the hospital, and of his dad’s final words: “Fuck off!” Words that Bono took to mean that all the weight his father had carried through his life as a widower with two sons he didn’t understand was finally coming off. And look, when Bono, as his dad, shouts “Fuck off!” it’s actually a moment of comic relief from the despair being depicted and told to you.
But then, as Bono always has, he takes that sorrow, that grief, and turns into something else. He speaks of his choice of how to carry his grief. Then you hear the strains of :Beautiful Day, and as Bono breaks into his full singing voice, I’ll be damned if this man didn’t once again pick those of us who have loved his band for so long off the floor and into the stratosphere.
I mentioned earlier that there is but one song that Bono performs in its entirety. It’s a 19th century Italian song (“Torna a Surriento”) composed by Ernesto De Curtis, and frequently performed by Pavarotti. Bono starts the song from the bar chair where he used to sit next to his dad and discuss the strange and the startling. Bono is a 63-year-old man now. That soaring voice that exploded at Wembley Stadium during Live Aid is no longer readily available to him. However, as the song builds, with no accompaniment, through what I can only describe as sheer force of will, this sexagenarian singer finds the full size and measure of his voice, and as he rises up, walks through the opening in the back of the stage, his lone voice fills the auditorium from the first row to the back of the balcony. If there was one soul in the theater who wasn’t wiping tears from their eyes, you’d have wanted to check their pulse.
God, what a beautiful night.