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Bedtime for Bono

The dream of adult rock and roll dies hard.

By 4.6.05

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The AP is a wire service, I'm told, but you wouldn't know it reading their review last week of the opening concert of U2's world tour. Their correspondent, Solvej Schou, described the band's lead singer, Bono, as "a modern day priest in black leather, a shaman shaded by sunglasses." In a report that would have fit nicely in the pages of Rolling Stone, Schou declared that Bono's "two-hour display of personal vulnerability, soulful energy and political bravado summarized U2's 25-year maturation into the world's most important band."

What Schou neglected to say is that U2 is the world's most important rock band, an essential qualifier but not one that would mean much to someone who thinks of pop stars and holy men in the same sentence. Generally, those who do are in their 20s, or younger.

Rock and roll is a young man's business. In the 1980s, when I attended college, the band that stood out over all others was U2, and since that time they have maintained, sometimes shakily, their position at the top of the rock pile. The band members are now in their 40s, though, and it is a testament to the fragmentation of pop music and the dearth of quality that they still occupy center stage

The band now labors under an insurmountable creative obstacle, even for shamans like Bono: rock is adolescent music. From a commercial standpoint, the issue is irrelevant. There is still an ample audience to be found among 20-somethings, for whom U2 seems grander than most other choices, and among my age cohort, for whom the absurdity of hearing a 44-year-old man sing a song like "Vertigo" has not yet become disqualifying.

Some will protest that it is unfair to lump U2 in with more obviously adolescent rockers -- such as Bon Jovi, to name a generational peer. The music of U2, they'll say, has always aspired to deeper subjects, whether politics or spirituality. That is true, but being an adult and desiring adulthood are two different things. Singing about Jesus or Northern Ireland or political dissidents while wearing wrap-around shades, standing behind a circus stage, accompanied by a thumping, monotonous beat and flashing strobe lights, delivering your lyrics with poses of profundity common to high school students everywhere, is as adolescent as it gets.

You only have to watch (or read about) Bono's desperate posturing on stage -- "he placed the headband over his eyes like a prisoner, falling to his knees and crossing his wrists over his head. A huge screen scrolling the text of 1948's 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights' hung above him," wrote Schou -- to understand that this personable and hugely ambitious man would like nothing better than to define himself in another sphere. Maybe, given his efforts for Third World debt relief, he will succeed. There is talk that he is a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he might even deserve it.

Nevertheless, as long as Bono remains a rock singer, he can't act his age in public. It is something like observing an old friend whose intelligence has matured, but whose habits have not. The result is particularly embarrassing in the case of rock singers like Bono, who aspire to be taken seriously.

NO SUCH CONFLICT PRESENTS itself when listening to, say, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, who have no grand illusions about what they do. The band members, now in their 60s, come right out with it: we will never grow up, and neither should you. Maturity is overrated; restraint is for the timid. They are like one of Sherwood Anderson's grotesques, defined by One Truth (in their case, the truth of sexual desire) and that truth has twisted them into a horrible shape. But grotesquerie pays better than anything dignity can offer.

The grotesquerie of the Stones has the advantage of being a straightforward rejection of adulthood, a flat-out celebration of hedonism that is free of pretense. All of us carry around the memory of our youthful immortality, including whatever rebellion we managed to pull off, and the Stones are the soundtrack.

The U2 soundtrack is different. It's the impossible dream that somehow rock and roll can be made congruent with adulthood. U2 doesn't carry it alone. Bruce Springsteen, similarly, thinks of his music in grand, if not messianic, terms. Who else would have the audacity to make a "September 11th album," its title track written in the disembodied voice of a dead firefighter? And yet when Springsteen performs the song, he gyrates and pumps his fist in the same way he did when he was young.

Springsteen, U2, and a few others make the same promise: that adolescent longings and music can address the problems of global politics, life and death. But the outside world, impersonal and indifferent, usually can't be bothered with emotional appeals. Rock is a dream that dies hard.

Don't tell Bono that, though. The poor guy is still out there, chasing it. Sure, he's well paid, but you know what they say about money and happiness. It's the same with money and dignity

"I'm in a place called vertigo," he sings on the opening track of U2's new album.

It's called middle age, actually, though both have been known to cause dizziness.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.