Whatever happened to Bono?
Surprise, surprise: Bono’s in the news again.
At a recent concert in Auckland, New Zealand, the U2 frontman paid tribute to 29 miners lost in the Pike River blast by dedicating two classic songs to the deceased: ‘One Tree Hill’ (itself inspired by an Auckland landmark) and, curiously and insensitively, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.’ By all accounts, the bulk of participants took the tribute in the spirit it was intended, but many were offended by the rather crass choice of title.
Such daydreamy behaviour is not in the least unusual for our boy Paul, of course: the 50-year-old has a tendency not to see the woods for the trees in his eagerness, to put it charitably. Of more recent curiosity in Ireland has been the man’s total silence on his country’s economic woes, which have necessitated a bailout from the hated British, the dastardly Germans and the… well, we like the Swedes.
In normal circumstances, a tragedy on the scale of Ireland’s economic collapse would be Bono’s cue to hit the soapbox, but his bond with the old country has become evermore strained in recent years. His cosy relationship with Messrs Blair and Bush notwithstanding (though Ireland is more sympathetic to American interests than any other European country, barring perhaps the UK, we all have our limits), Bono and U2’s tax avoidance strategies have come in for increasing criticism at home.
Until recently, Ireland had a generous tax regime that exempted musicians (and other artists) from paying tax on all income earned from the sale of their recordings. The policy attracted a lot of multi-millionaire rock stars to settle in the country – Dalkey in particular – a clever strategy, particularly given that the vast majority of musicians in Ireland earn less than the minimum non-artist tax threshold and so wouldn’t pay tax in either case.
In recent years, the top limit for the artists’ exemption has been whittled down, first to €250k and this year to €40k – more than enough to fully cover all but the most successful artists, but clearly too strict a regime for U2. The band began to restructure their operations so as to have more of their income assessed in the Netherlands, where royalty earnings are similarly exempted from income taxes, and from where funds can easily be funneled to tax havens such as the Netherland Antilles (though there’s no evidence the band have taken this step).
Though U2 continue to pay large sums in personal income taxes from other sources, the particulars of their tax strategy have undermined their credibility on Bono’s pet project, humanitarian aid. So no sooner than some commentators on the right have begun to question the wisdom of the government’s commitment to high levels of overseas aid, Irish charities have found their greatest advocate abnormally reticent on the subject. This apparent need to stay silent is entirely of Bono’s own making.
Bono knows better than anybody that his actions haven’t matched his rhetoric, and that by speaking up in defence of current aid spending would open him up to the same charges of hypocrisy he has so skilfully avoided to date. While faux pas like Auckland’s are practically unavoidable where dreamers like Bono are concerned, he is at least surrounded by enough people grounded in the reality of the situation to prevent him wading into this altogether more controversial issue.
Which takes us back to the New Zealand miners. According to Australia’s Daily Telegraph, Bono told the audience: “People have ways of dealing with grief; in Ireland we sing.” Indeed, Bono does sing, and he has sung very well on almost exactly this subject, during a 1987 Late Late Show broadcast in tribute to tragic Dubliner Luke Kelly. To perform the song in Auckland may have opened wounds too fresh, but it would have been far more pertinent than the song that was eventually chosen.
In 1987, in the midst of a prolonged recession not dissimilar to what we can expect over the next decad, Bono sang the band’s interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The Ballad of Springhill,’ which had been renamed ‘Springhill Mining Disaster.’ A relatively young Paul Hewson sings the song with such passion and spine-tingling intensity that one can’t help but draw a sad comparison to his sheepish response to the issues that are affecting the people on his doorstep and beyond.
Watch out too for Edge’s beautifully understated guitar melody. His fetish for all things reverb has become a running gag at this stage, but he gets it absolutely spot on here and allows Bono the time and space to deliver arguably the most affecting vocal of his career.