25 November 2003
'Marks On Paper'
Painting the illustrations for 'Peter and the Wolf', Bono drew on his
relationship with his father, writes Neil McCormick in the UK's Daily
"Art is an attempt to identify yourself," Bono once said to me. In which
case, judging by the self-portraits that form part of the U2 singer's first
exhibition of paintings, Bono appears to have identified himself as a baked
"I really did look like one until I was 13, and the freckly sphere was
punctured by a rather large nose!" he jokes. "I'm not making any great
claims for my abilities as an artist. I was just hanging out with my kids
one moment, having a laugh with a paintbrush - next thing you know, I'm
exhibiting in the Rockefeller Center."
At Christie's in New York last weekend, the auction of the illustrations
raised a big sum for charity (see our earlier story
), and proceeds go to the Irish Hospice Foundation - and
hospice care providers worldwide - which helped take care of Bono's father,
Bob Hewson, when he died of cancer in 2001.
"I love art too much to call these anything other than marks on paper," he
says. Nevertheless, there has certainly been a cathartic aspect to his first
public foray into the art world. Peter and the Wolf, he says, is essentially
a lesson in teaching music to children, an area in which he felt he was
badly let down in his own childhood.
"I got to work out one of those little kinks that I have that drives me,
this frustration I feel as a musician, not being able to get the melodies I
hear in my head out into the world. My father was a beautiful tenor who
loved opera, but he never imagined that music might be handed down, like his
bad back and his bad temper, so he never bothered us about learning an
Bono is particularly galled by the memory of how his father turned down the
opportunity to move his granny's piano into their small house in Ballymun,
near Dublin, claiming there was no room.
"As a kid, I would have loved to have learned to play the piano. I think I'm
more than angry about the reasons I didn't. Without the band I would
explode. Or worse, I'd just numb that area. I think that's what happens to
people who have a gift and they can't get it out; they fence it off, put a
lot of ice on it, and walk with a limp. So I kind of got to mark that
moment; that's really what art is to me. And to use humour. U2 songs are not
a bag of laughs, but with these works I got up to some mischief."
Central to the tale of Peter and the Wolf is the parental relationship. It
is about a daring child (cast in these illustrations as young Bono himself)
and protective grandparent (modelled on Bono's father). Bono's mother died
when he was 14, and he has long recognised that this was a defining moment
in his life, pushing him in two directions at once: towards his profound
faith in God and towards rock and roll.
But the peculiar thing is that he has admitted he doesn't really remember
his mother well. The key parental relationship was with his father. Bono
grew up (with his brother Norman) in a house of men, numbed by grief, unable
to share their feelings.
"If you are trying to fill that kind of hole, music and being a performer is
an obvious route," says Bono. "Insecurity is at the root of most interesting
endeavours, I find. If you're totally secure in yourself, and you were told
all your life that you were the bee's knees, well, you're probably going to
wind up with a respectable job in the city or something. And that's what I
want my kids to feel, by the way. I don't like being The Boy Named Sue!"
Bono speaks with great affection about the father with whom he had such a
complex, distant, yearning relationship that he once said to me: "Great
performers are supposed to play to the back of the hall. But really driven
performers, I think you'll find, are playing to one person. It might be a
lover. But it might be your father."
Bono has two boys of his own, Eli, 4, and John, 2. "You relive your own
childhood with your kids," says Bono. "If your little boy is four years old,
you remember being four. It's kind of spooky, because I sing songs to my
kids that I don't know the words of, or the melodies, and yet I am singing
them. Obviously, I remember this from my own childhood. You're so receptive
when you're a child. You pick up quirks and cracks, as well as these
melodies and stories. After the old man died, Ali said I was walking
differently and adopting some of his mannerisms.
This is an edited extract of Neil McCormick's interview. Read the whole
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Buy the CD and book of Peter and the Wolf here