Bono and Bob Dylan: Two venerable musicians enter the audiobook world
“Hey, are you still there?” A voice asks this question with a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s incredible that we’re here, right?” It is the final line in Bono’s new memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, and it is delivered with the indefatigable sense of optimism and faith that permeates the book. But you won’t find the line anywhere in the hardcover or ebook editions; it appears only in the final 12 seconds of the audiobook.
For anyone who is a bit of an obsessive completist (like me) and hangs on all the way through the end credits of an audiobook, the line is a nice little bonus. After 20 hours and 25 minutes listening to the U2 frontman narrate his life story, the moment feels disarmingly intimate: a secret message to the growing number of consumers who have jumped onto the audio bandwagon, and a small window into how the format creates a unique and compelling experience for consumers.
Whether you have been listening or not, an audiobook revolution has been going on for quite some time. According to the Audio Publishers Association, the industry has experienced double-digit growth in sales in each of the past 10 years. The audio streaming giant Spotify is betting big that the $10 billion global audiobook market could eventually grow to $70 billion. Prior to this, the Swedish company had already invested $1 billion on the audiobook’s episodic and shorter-form cousin, the podcast, which has experienced even more explosive growth.
Whether you have been listening or not, an audiobook revolution has been going on for quite some time.
The creative ways audiobooks are being embraced by artists-turned-authors like Bono, or Bob Dylan in his recently published The Philosophy of Modern Song, are creating a new category of content that is different from conventional book publishing. We are only at the beginning of the journey into this storytelling form.
Bono is nothing if not a storyteller. Surrender finds the Dublin native pulling out every tool in his arsenal to tell his life story through the lens of 40 U2 songs. It is no surprise that the iconic singer and frontman is a charismatic narrator, or that he can powerfully re-imagine and perform the band’s songs in this format (both of which he does very successfully). But who knew he was a talented mimic and voice actor as well?
Peppered throughout the audiobook’s production—and make no mistake, this is a production—are aspects that resemble a radio play. In addition to the use of sound effects and musical beds to help set various moods or experiences, Bono uses his skills as an impersonator to recreate scenes throughout his life.
In addition to the voices of friends and family, we encounter Bono’s imitations of Frank Sinatra, Dylan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Kasich, Harry Belafonte, Jesse Helms, Bill Clinton, James Carville—the list goes on. As it turns out, Bono has known and worked with a lot of people in many different fields and is a pretty deft imitator.
Whether it was his earnestness in the ’80s, his ’90s Mephisto character dripping with irony and draped in devil’s drag, or any number of variations since then, the singer has always been larger than life and easy to mock. After his many decades in the global spotlight as an outspoken artist and an activist, few rock stars elicit the type of eye-rolling reactions that U2’s singer does. But if he is able to transcend that critical assessment, it is because his self-deprecating sense of humor is his saving grace.
Bono is nothing if not a storyteller. Surrender finds the Dublin native pulling out every tool in his arsenal to tell his life story through the lens of 40 U2 songs.
Bono is a force of nature who has harnessed his intelligence and enormous ambition to incredible effect. When not creating era-defining albums like “The Joshua Tree” or “Achtung Baby” or mounting record-breaking global tours, he has taken on large-scale humanitarian work. He helped run the Jubilee 2000’s Drop the Debt campaign and then focused his energies on fighting H.I.V./AIDS and extreme poverty. By all accounts, his activism is not superficial. He is not a rock star tourist just lending his name for publicity. According to the experts in the fields he works alongside, he is deeply immersed in the human suffering on the ground as well as the political dimensions and potential solutions to the issues with which he is engaged.
“I always thought mine was a gift for finding top-line melody not just in music but in politics, in commerce and in the world of ideas in general,” he says in Surrender, offering some insight into how he orders his world. “Where others would hear harmony or counterpoint, I was better at finding the top line in the room, the hook, the clear thought. Probably because I had to sing it or sell it.”
The pop culture landscape is littered with celebrities who support causes and do charity work, but Bono occupies a category all his own. He has redefined what informed, celebrity commitment can look like. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for his work on reducing the debt of developing nations and promoting AIDS awareness in Africa. It would not surprise me if he became a strong contender again at some point.
Surrender mercifully lacks any showbiz tell-all intrigue. Bono’s prose style is that of a poetic raconteur who can be self-indulgent and yet relentlessly on-point and on-message. The downside of his gift for finding the top-line melody is that it can also be exhausting for the listener. At times, his persona can feel like a charm offensive that doesn’t know when the battle is won and it is safe to stand down. It is clear that being Bono is a 24/7/365 proposition. It was helpful to me as a listener to be able to take a break from the narration from time to time and just revisit the band’s music.
Bono’s boundless optimism and activism is an extension of his band’s deepest convictions. U2 must have the most unique backstory of any band of their stature. They met in high school in 1976 and bonded over their love of the punk music that was then exploding out of London. But along with their musical inspirations, Bono and two of his bandmates (The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr.) were passionately committed to the radical Christianity practiced by a church group in Dublin called Shalom. Bono writes that he and his friends found resonance with the group’s embrace of “a kind of naïve first-century Christian life.” It was “an entirely countercultural life” in which everything was held in common.
“It was entirely anachronistic and also kind of beautiful,” writes Bono. The band’s commitment to the church group was so intense that U2 briefly broke up after their first experience of real success on their first album and tour. The band was receiving pressure and criticism from the group and weren’t sure they could be both a band and believers at the same time.
Bono has been writing about faith for his entire career. He has created a veritable hymnal of songs for believers who cry out to the Lord for help with their unbelief.
The weight of that type of judgmentalism ultimately caused Shalom’s demise altogether, Bono writes. “In truth something never sat right with us about this ‘in or out’ Christianity,” says Bono. As artists, Bono and his band were “slowly uncovering paradox and the idea that we are not compelled to resolve every contradictory impulse.”
The tension between fervent belief and band life has been at the heart of U2’s music for decades. If the band’s musical stock-in-trade has been its ability to create epic cathedrals of sound, then lyrically Bono has played the role of St. Augustine rattling around inside that cathedral pleading, “Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Bono has been writing about faith for his entire career. From “I Will Follow,” “Gloria” and “40” on their earliest albums to massive hits like “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Vertigo” and countless others, he has created a veritable hymnal of songs for believers who cry out to the Lord for help with their unbelief.
There are no doubt millions of U2 listeners who are unaware of, or uninterested in, this Christian dimension, but it is impossible to understand Surrender without it. The book is suffused with the Christianity that is foundational to Bono’s life. It is not an evangelical faith looking to save souls but something more challenging. It is faith grounded in a deep, dynamic and necessary engagement with the world rather than a brittle judgment of it. It is born out of his realization decades ago that the attraction to the radical Christian community and the punk music that set him and his bandmates on fire as young men are not in opposition but are simply opposite vantage points for the same experience of transcendent mystery. They are intimations that a reality that is sacred, holy and fully alive exists and that it carries a responsibility worthy of surrender.
As a student of the folk song tradition for over 60 years and the most revered living practitioner of that tradition, who better than Dylan to write on the nature of song?
Then there is Bob Dylan.
When the venerable singer/songwriter announced in early 2022 that he was releasing a new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, it promised to offer Dylan’s “extraordinary insight into the nature of popular music.” The volume touted more than 60 essays by Dylan on songs by songwriters and artists ranging from Stephen Foster, Hank Williams and Nina Simone to The Clash and Elvis Costello.
As a student of the folk song tradition for over 60 years and the most revered living practitioner of that tradition—not to mention the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature—who better than Dylan to write on the nature of song?
There is ample proof that, now in his early 80s, he is still creative and vital. At the outset of the pandemic, Dylan released a late-career masterpiece, the beautiful and elegiac song “Murder Most Foul.” Even the pre-publication information about the audiobook was encouraging, as it promised narration by Dylan himself along with a star-studded cast of readers including Jeff Bridges, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Alfre Woodard and Oscar Isaac.
My hopes were high that The Philosophy of Modern Song might be a companion to Dylan’s 2015 Musicares award acceptance speech, in which he offered some uncharacteristically direct comments on songs and songwriting. What he delivered instead with this book was an idiosyncratic and impressionistic rumination on over 60 songs. The audience is left to assume his choices of music are important or consequential for some reason, but that reason is never articulated.
Interspersed throughout are evocative images of Americana, ads and photographs that act as visual time capsules for the themes discussed in each chapter. Most of the essays contain one section that describes the historical context and story behind a particular song or recording, and another that can best be described as the author’s free-association musings on the same song. In the audiobook, the celebrity readers handle the former to great effect; guess who handles the latter?
Trickster figures in folklore and mythology play important transformational roles, but Dylan appears to relish becoming a trickster figure in the telling of his own story.
There are bright moments scattered throughout, and some of the better essays feel like jumping-off points for Dylan’s thinking on broader themes. In his essay on Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” his praise of the record’s ability to work on multiple levels for the listener is an opportunity to decry the lifelessness of our narrowcasting today. “That’s the problem with a lot of things these days,” Dylan writes. “Everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed everything. All songs are about one thing and one thing specifically, there is no shading, no nuance, no mystery. Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs.”
His take on Edwin Starr’s “War” yields a wide-ranging reflection that draws on the wisdom of labor and civil rights activist Asa Philip Randolph, who said back in 1925—decades before the term “military industrial complex” had been used—“Make wars unprofitable and you make them impossible.”
There are even small nuggets that shine through, as in the chapter on the song “Volare,” in which Dylan discusses why certain languages simply sing better than others. “Sure, German is fine for a certain type of beer-fest oompah polka,” he writes, “but give me Italian with its chewy caramel vowels and melodious polysyllabic vocabulary.”
But more often than not in the audiobook we are subjected to endless passages of Dylan reading his own impressionistic riffs on songs; his voice drenched in reverb that makes him sound like he is being held hostage in a “Tales From the Crypt” episode.
His riff on The Who’s “My Generation” is just one of many examples:
This is a song that does no favors for anyone, and casts doubt on everything. In this song, people are trying to slap you around, slap you in the face, vilify you. They’re rude and they slam you down, take cheap shots. They don’t like you because you pull out all the stops and go for broke. You put your heart and soul into everything and shoot the works, because you got energy and strength and purpose. Because you’re so inspired they put the whammy on, they’re allergic to you, and they have hard feelings.
Huh? As a reader these sections are mystifying. As a listener and a fan of The Who’s signature song, my only reaction was “I hope I die before I have to listen to that ch-ch-chapter again.”
As a musical artist and singer, Dylan is a master. He possesses the gift—common to all great singers—to make us believe the words he sings. Truth telling in song, as he mentioned in his Musicares speech, is a supreme value for him. Which is why, in comparison, his offerings outside of music can be so frustrating.
As I wrote in my 2005 review of his autobiography in America, Dylan has long courted mystery as an end in itself. Whether it was his 2004 memoir, his 2019 “pseudo-documentary” film “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” or The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan uses formats generally designed for explanation and clarification as exercises in obfuscation and mystification. Trickster figures in folklore and mythology play important transformational roles, but Dylan appears to relish becoming a trickster figure in the telling of his own story. It is a valid choice that he is free to make, but it smacks more of adolescent contempt for an audience than artistry.