<i>60 Minutes II</i>: Bono

Singer, Advocate, Movie Producer

As lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, Bono is one of the biggest — and most mispronounced — names in music. He and the other members of the band have survived more than 20 years without a change in personnel and sold more than $100 million worth of albums.

For most rock stars that would be enough, not for Bono. At age 41, he's also co-written and co-produced a movie, and spent the last few years on a crusade to save the world, as Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports.

And now he's back to his roots, back to some good old rock 'n' roll, that scored U2 more awards at last year's Grammys. U2's song, "Beautiful Day," picked up three Grammys: best record, best song and best performance by a rock group. This year, the band is up for eight Grammys, including best song and best album.

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That's not bad for four men nearly old enough to be most pop stars' parents. They've been together since high school, from the early days of the punk scene.

Their focus has been anthem rock as they tour with big songs about heavy issues: topics like civil rights, with lyrics about the assassination of Martin Luther King and civil war, with words from the headlines in Northern Ireland.

"You can't escape the politics if you're Irish. It's like the two subjects you can't talk about anywhere else in the world: religion and politics. It's all Irish people talk about," Bono says.

"I was taught that if my opinion was informed, then I had the right to express it and not to be afraid of who else is in the room," Bono says. "I'm just going to be mouthing off anyway. That's who I am. It's just somebody gave me a microphone. I'm just a lot louder now."

Given his background, Bono's mouthing off about religion and politics makes even more sense. He was born into a particularly Irish controversy. "I come from both traditions, Protestant and Catholic," Bono says. "My mother was a Protestant, my father was a Catholic; no big deal anywhere else in the world but here.

It was on Dublin's streets as a child that Paul David Hewson got the nickname Bono. He met his future wife and the other members of U2 in high school. They recorded their first albums in a studio in a rundown part of town. It's become a mecca for U2 fans.

On St. Patrick's Day, Dublin awarded U2 the freedom of the city and with it the right to graze sheep on public land.

But for the most part, members of the band are ordinary citizens there. They send their kids to the local schools, drink in the local pubs and give free concerts for their neighbors.

"The greatest gift the city gave to us here was a life," Bono says. "We get to live a life. Irish people have this kind of irreverence toward success anyway....I'm good at smug actually; it's a shame I can't use it here."

He can't be smug in the studio; the other band members won't let him.

60 Minutes II watched as they worked on the song, "Stuck in a Moment," from their latest album, two years in the making.

Bono arrived with his laptop full of lyrics, enough for 100 songs, but only 11 made the cut. Together Bono, the band and producer Daniel Lanois tried to cut and paste a hit.

They may be using Bono's lyrics, but in the studio, it is a democratic process. Everyone's opinion is equal. When drummer Larry Mullen said, "Whatever way you sang it, it didn't sound like it made sense," Bono replied, "Let me try again."

But recently Bono has been as likely to step to a microphone to talk politics as he is to sing.

His dedication to helping the poor started in the early 1980s with Live Aid, the benefit that led to "We Are the World" in America.

Rock stars banded together to raise millions for starving people in Africa. "It was $200 million we raised for Africa there. And we were jumping around the place; we felt we'd cracked it," Bono says.

He then discovered that this is what Africa pays every week servicing its debts to wealthy countries.

That's when Bono found the cause that has consumed his life for the last four years: the never-ending cycle of crippling interest payments made by poor countries to the richest Western nations.

Bono observes that the poor countries are just paying the interest. "They're never even getting near the principle....It's simply wrong."

Why is this important to Westerners? "Poverty leads to instability and war, which is bad for everybody," he says.

On behalf of a group called Jubilee 2000, he went to Washington, made calls, pounded the pavement lobbying Congress and won. President Clinton and Congress agreed in principle to cancel $435 million dollars worth of debt, providing that the money be used for health, education and development projects, not to line the pockets of corrupt leaders.

While Bono says he's not sure he can make the topic of Third World debt sexy, "I can certainly contribute the bsurd," he says. "And the shot of...a rock 'n' roll star next to a pope usually gets people's attention."

The pope gave his blessing to the cause. In return Bono gave him a book of Irish poetry and a pair of his trademark sunglasses.

"He was just staring at them in my hand," Bono recalls. "And I just gave them to him and said, 'As well as a great holy man you're a great showman.' "

"He surprised everybody, particularly the Vatican courtiers, 'cause he put them on and kind of smiled at me, devilishly, I might say," Bono adds.

The Vatican never released those pictures, which may be just as well. Bono worries that celebrities can trivialize an issue even as they draw attention to it.

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"There's something uneasy about you know spoiled rotten rock stars talking about people who have nothing," Bono says. "I see how uncomfortable that juxtaposition is. And yet...I don't let it gag me."

For a while Bono devoted so much time and effort to debt relief there was hardly time for the music.

Do Bono's crusades interfere with the band's business or does it bring something fresh to the group?

"It does interfere with the band," says drummer Mullen. "It's a four-legged table, and with one leg missing even for short periods of time the thing becomes a little unstable."

Bono maintains, however, his most important job is the one he's had for half his life:

"Some people say that being in a band is like being in a street gang and that you should grow out of it," Bono says. "But I think the opposite. I think people, as they get older, get rid of the arguments...until they're left with only their point of view in the room. I don't want to be in that situation. I'm glad I'm in a band. I like the row."


  • David Kohn

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