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Unforgettable fire

Future rock star Bono was born Paul David Hewson in Dublin, Ireland, in 1960.  

U2 lead singer brings passion to issues and music

(CNN) -- Bono is not your average rock star.

He is just as comfortable meeting with the pope or world leaders to lobby for social causes as he is being the lead singer for U2, the enduringly successful Irish band with total record sales of more than 75 million.

"Rock stars are good at making noise," Bono said, explaining his talent for getting out messages he thinks are important.

In May 2002, Bono and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill visited several countries in Africa to draw attention to the acute needs of the poverty-stricken region, using one another's position and celebrity to spark interest in a topic that each feels much of the world tries to ignore.

At 42, the Irish rock star seems at the top of his game.

U2 is going strong after more than two decades. Its latest album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," topped the charts in 31 countries and racked up the largest first week sales for any U2 release in the United States. The band's North American tour, "Elevation 2001," ended in November, 2001, after 113 shows in 64 cities.

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But U2's phenomenal commercial success is not the only thing that makes it noteworthy. The band distinguished itself early on by using music to make overt political statements, a sensibility shaped by its Irish origins. One of its most famous anthems, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," is about the conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants.

A band is born

Bono was born in May 10, 1960, in Dublin, Ireland, as Paul David Hewson. He was the second child of Iris, a homemaker, and Bobby, a postal worker. They were a typical middle-class couple but were considered a mixed marriage by Irish standards because he was Catholic and she was Protestant.

The young Bono grew up in the Dublin neighborhood of Ballymun, wedged between the countryside and the city. Tragedy struck in 1974 when his mother, Iris, died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage.

That fall, Bono entered the nondenominational, coeducational Mount Temple Comprehensive School. His years there would have an enormous influence on his life.

Larry Mullen Jr., then 14, posted a notice on the school bulletin board in 1976 to recruit people for a band. Bono, 16, showed up for a jam session in Mullen's kitchen, along with fellow Mount Temple students David Evans and Adam Clayton. Bono's charisma was evident even then.

"I was in charge for the first five minutes," Mullen told TIME magazine in 1987. "But as soon as Bono arrived, I was out of a job."

Around this time, a friend gave Bono his nickname after a Dublin hearing-aid store called Bonavox, which happened to be pidgin Latin for "good voice." Evans played guitar and also gained a nickname, the Edge, while Clayton played bass and Mullen was the drummer.

The fledgling group called itself Feedback, a wry reference to its early sound. The group later changed its name to the Hype before it finally settled on U2.

"We formed a band before we could play our instruments," Bono said. "It's really like a street gang, you know, people who are joined by their sense of humor and their sense of what they are against more than what they are for. We were a pretty crap wedding band actually."

Dublin businessman Paul McGuinness recognized the band's spark when he went to see it at the urging of a local music journalist.

"They were doing then badly what they now do very well, but the constituent parts of it are exactly the same," McGuinness said. "It's the primary colors of rock 'n' roll: guitar and bass and drums and vocal and four guys on a stage making an enormous noise and producing something very exciting."

In 1978, U2 won a talent contest in Limerick, with a prize of 500 Irish pounds and a studio recording session. They produced a three-song single "U23."

In 1980, the group signed with Island Records and released its first album, "Boy." Critics hailed the band for its original, shimmering sound, marked by the Edge's echoey guitar and Bono's yearning voice.

"I think his voice, which is this soaring instrument, ... and the Edge's guitar playing, which is full and doesn't sound like anything else, and it's just rousing and inspiring to hear. It's a great sound," said Kurt Loder of MTV.

Only nine people showed up for one of U2's first London shows, according to, the band's official Web site. But slowly the group built up a following through its original sound and uplifting live performances, including its debut before American audiences in 1980.

Bono took time out of the band's busy touring schedule in 1982 to marry Ali Stewart, whom he met while they were both students at Mount Temple. Clayton was Bono's best man.

"I'm lucky I have an extraordinary friend that I've been married to for a long time, seems like (since) we were kids," Bono said.

Weathering conflicts

The group continued to evolve its sound and expand its political voice. Its 1983 album, "War," featured "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," a tribute to the Polish Solidarity movement.

Bono and his wife, Ali, have four children. They have been married since 1982.  

U2 was one of the standout acts at the 1985 Live Aid concert in London, giving an electrifying performance that was broadcast worldwide. The next year, U2 dedicated two weeks to the "Conspiracy of Hope" tour that benefited the human rights group Amnesty International.

The band's profile became larger with the 1987 album, "The Joshua Tree," which spawned the hit singles "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

The band moved from arenas into stadiums for a major tour of America. The resulting concert film, "Rattle and Hum," reflected the band's growing interest in American music genres such as country and the blues. But some critics attacked the soundtrack, which included recordings with B.B. King and Bob Dylan, as an attempt by U2 to elevate itself to the status of such music icons.

So the group sought to reinvent its sound on the 1991 album "Achtung Baby," which moved beyond the solid structures U2 had employed so successfully on "The Joshua Tree," by adding industrial and electronic textures to its sound.

Initially, there was disagreement among band members over the new sonic direction. But their bond was strong enough to weather the conflicts.

"A band is a very difficult thing to keep going, and when you're in a good one, you try to make it work whatever way you can. I don't think any of us would have imagined we'd still be together after so many years, but it's great that we are," the Edge said.

The band also radically revised its live act. Its 1992 "Zoo TV" tour featured the band playing while surrounded by televisions that broadcast an array of images, both taped and live, at the audience. Bono adopted a persona called the Fly, which represented the ultimate rock star, and another one called the Mirrorball Man, which parodied television evangelists.

For the European leg of the "Zoo TV" tour, Bono put on a gold lamé suit, platform shoes and red horns to portray a character called MacPhisto, which he said was the Fly when he was old, fat and playing Las Vegas.

The band's willingness to innovate has paid off artistically and financially. Critics gave favorable reviews to "Achtung Baby" and the follow-up record, 1993's "Zooropa," and the band's gross revenues topped $1.5 billion during the 1990s.

Staying grounded

Despite all the success, Bono tried to stay grounded, working hard to carve out time for his growing family. He and Ali have four children.

In 1998, Bono, center, joined forces with David Trimble, right, and John Hume, leaders of Northern Ireland's main Protestant and Catholic parties.  

"He's a mad dad; they get in cars and go to strange places, but he just loves to spend time with his family," said Barry Devlin, a friend of the band since its early days.

In 2000, even though the band was working hard on a new album, Bono devoted a large amount of time to the Jubilee 2000, a campaign that lobbies Western governments to cancel the debts of Third World nations.

Bono asked the U.S. Congress for funding to help pay off the debts and met with U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to ask for their support.

He and other debt relief supporters met with Pope John Paul II. Knowing the value of publicity, Bono gave the pontiff his rock star sunglasses, and the pope tried them on. Afterward, Bono told the media that John Paul was the world's first "funky pontiff."

It snagged far more copy than a dry speech in favor of debt relief. "People have a short attention span; you need a picture of a pop star and a pope together, that usually gets their attention," Bono said.

In 2001, when tragedy struck the United States on September 11, Bono, like many, was deeply shocked.

"The world was completely and utterly changed at that moment," he said in an interview with CNN.

It was not long before Bono devoted his time and his talents to raise money for victims.

In late October, 2001, Bono released a remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?," a song recorded by some of the industry's top artists. Originally recorded to help raise money for AIDS relief, the release was re-formatted to help both causes -- AIDS relief and the United Way's September 11 Fund.

"Music fills in for words a lot of the time when people don't know what to say, and I think music can be more eloquent than words," he said.

U2's 2001 tour "Elevation 2001" started in March and ended in November. Bono says the tour changed after September 11, as did the meaning of the band's music.

"If September 11th has taught us anything, it's certainly that the world has never been so interdependent. It is impossible now to be an island of prosperity in a sea of despair," he said.

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