Neil McCormick’s entertaining memoir, Killing Bono: I Was Bono’s Doppelganger
, will probably be of interest firstly to U2
fans, but the author’s tale of growing up with the members of that famous band is valuable in many other ways as well. McCormick, who longed to be a rock star but ended up as a successful rock critic, has shaped his book to be a treatise on fame, envy, and the insanity of the music business. While there are a wealth of great behind-the-scenes moments from U2’s formative years in the book, Killing Bono
is such a rich work that you don’t have to love the titular frontman to be thoroughly engaged.
Bono, the Friendly Rival
Killing Bono is a provocative but misleading title for McCormick’s memoir. It’s inspired by a comment Bono made when he suggested that McCormick needed to metaphorically kill him so that McCormick could move on with his life. Indeed, the subtitle is more representative of what the book is about. McCormick grew up in Dublin in the 1970s, going to the same school as all four members of what would be U2. McCormick considered Bono to be a friendly rival, both of them passionate about music and performing. In the writer's mind, the young men were cut from the same cloth, mirror images of one another. But to McCormick’s horror, Bono would go on to have the life McCormick had always dreamed of, while the author struggled in vain for years to even get a record deal.
A Look at U2 Before They Were U2
Because the bandmates were just kids who didn’t know each other very well, the early sections of Killing Bono are a real treat for U2 fans, detailing the group’s first auditions and gigs as they started to form their onstage partnership. Through their shared love for rock music, McCormick and U2 – particularly Bono – ran in the same circles and maintained a friendly (but still somewhat competitive) relationship, which allowed McCormick to be privy to much that went on within U2 before they made their first album. McCormick ended up becoming a rock critic after finally giving up on his musician dreams, but his gift for words allows him in this book to detail in vivid colors what U2 sounded like during their nascent late-'70s period. Perhaps even more strikingly, McCormick’s quick sketches of the band members capture the essence of each guy in U2 perfectly. Even at a young age, the different members of the quartet hum with the personality quirks we still attribute to each of them – Bono is gregarious, Adam Clayton is super-cool, the Edge is quiet and thoughtful, and Larry Mullen, Jr. is rock-solid. Killing Bono is funny and colorful in its presentation of the scene that shaped one of the world’s most celebrated bands, and the sense of being along for the ride is thrilling without feeling gossipy.
The Struggles of Breaking Into the Music Industry
While U2 begin to find success – which first meant just a record deal but then, later, worldwide acclaim – McCormick fails to break through with any of his myriad bands. As he describes the sonic composition of each of his failed groups, Killing Bono becomes an accidental tour of the changing musical landscape of the ‘70s and ‘80s, as punk gives way to New Wave, and McCormick’s different bands reflect that cultural shift. Frustratingly for McCormick, his groups do find some interest from people in the music business, but something invariably always goes wrong, sending him back to square one. As U2 leave Dublin to become superstars, Killing Bono becomes more of just McCormick’s story, and while there’s a worry that his trials and tribulations wouldn’t be interesting enough on their own, his candid, humorous look at his flailing music career is a real eye-opener into the fickleness of the music industry. Though a talented songwriter, McCormick is ultimately at the mercy of music executives and lawyers who create more obstacles than they remove. In addition, his struggles in comparison to U2’s stratospheric climb become an interesting discussion on how we all measure ourselves against the accomplishments of others, a seductive but also destructive strategy. U2 fans might lose interest in Killing Bono once their heroes leave the central narrative, but it would be a mistake to bail on this book since it’s such a thought-provoking commentary on the thin line between success and failure.
A Happy Ending
Even when Killing Bono
shifts focus to McCormick’s struggles, Bono continues to pop in and out of the story, almost like a ghost whose fame and fortune haunt our luckless narrator. From his distant-but-friendly perspective, McCormick is able to see how Bono has changed over the years as he grapples with his notoriety while still trying to retain the spirit of his younger years. The memoir concludes after the release of 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind
, essentially allowing for a narrative that spans roughly 25 years, so the book makes room for several exchanges over the decades between Bono and McCormick as they continue to discuss and debate religion, music and success. Beyond all its other selling points, Killing Bono
in the final analysis is a story of friendship and how time can change not only ourselves but also our relationship with those we’ve known since childhood. McCormick’s situation is certainly unique, but the book’s central theme will speak to anyone. And while his life didn’t quite turn out the way he initially hoped, the book argues that McCormick found his happy ending nonetheless.
First published by Michael Joseph in 2004