‘We promised each other we would never grow up’ — Bono and Guggi on their lifelong friendship


THEY say everybody needs good neighbours and this was certainly the case for two young boys on a certain road in Ballymun in the early 1970s.

Derek Rowen lived at No 5 Cedarwood Road with his six brothers and three sisters, while across the road at No 10, Paul Hewson lived with his older brother.

Derek and Paul were best friends. One became the acclaimed abstract artist, Guggi; the other, Bono, a world-famous singer in a rock band.

In 2014, on U2’s Songs Of Innocence album, Bono dedicated the track Cedarwood Road to his friend.

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He sang how “a friendship once it’s won… is won… is one.

“I was running down the road. The fear was all I knew I was looking for a soul that’s real. Then I ran into you… Symbols clashing, bibles smashing. Paint the world you need to see.”

Bono said once of another occupant of Cedarwood Road — Guggi’s profoundly Christian father, Robbie, now in his late 80s — that “it was like the prophet Jeremiah lived on our street. I always remember the colour of the language he used when he preached at us and the conviction of the words he used”.

“Bono came to his faith through my dad,” Guggi said last year, “And I came to faith through my dad.”

There is more to Bono and Guggi’s bond.

On September 10, 1974, Bono’s mother, Iris Hewson, died of a brain aneurysm four days after collapsing at her father’s funeral.

Bono’s life was never the same again. He was 14.

“After her death, Bono spent a lot of time at Guggi’s house, where he fell in naturally among the 10 Rowen siblings,” wrote Cathleen Falsani for Religious News Service last year.

In the liner notes to the Songs Of Innocence album,Bono wrote: “Lou Reed, God rest his soul, said you need a busload of faith to get by. That bus was full of Rowens and I was on it.”

Guggi, in 1971, also gave his friend the name Bono Vox after a hearing-aid shop in Dublin city centre, while the future singer with U2 renamed Derek as Guggi — because he thought he looked like a Guggi.

I ask Bono what kind of man Guggi is.

“Well,” he says, “I guess he is a man in so many ways, but in so many ways he is still a boy. I was three when I first met Guggi, who was a year older than me… we had a discussion about a swing, we learned to push each other to great heights and then we would jump off the seat and see if we would not fall on our head… which, of course, we mostly did. Which might explain why when I was seven and he was eight we pledged to each other that we would never grow up. I think we’ve both partly kept that promise.”

What kind of artist is Guggi? “Somewhere between the spirit and the soul is where art lives,” Bono answers.

“In Guggi’s case,” he continues “it’s influenced by his personality, but strangely for someone with such a big one, not that much. His essence is what he paints or rather essences he sees around him, and their containers.

“I was always struck by his paintings with Russian script stolen from Tolstoy or whomever. What do those words mean?“ Guggi can’t read Russian as far as I know, in fact he didn’t read or understand Latin when he called me Bono Vox.

“He kinda made up his own language when we were kids, it was a kind of verbiage…slang…patois, now it’s the sesurfaces, vessels and scripts.» He answered me.

“That’show I felt when I was in school looking up at the blackboard and the teacher with the chalk. They might as well have been speaking Russian as far as I’m concerned, indeed I would have preferred it… it’s a better looking language.”

What does Guggi’s work— like, for instance, his new exhibition Broken — say to you?

“I find some of i toverwhelming,” Bono says. “It seems to bypass the intellect and go straight to instinct. I love these new works on paper. They seem so free and even if there’s a brokenness at the heart of this work, they kind of call down healing when I stand back and stare at them. It’snot like art can cover every crack — in fact by revealing the cracks it begins the discussion of how we might heal. And as for the bowls.. .all I remember was the bowl haircuts that his dad used to give Guggi and his brothers that made them look like medieval boys wandering down Cedarwood Road.”

I go to the man himself and ask Guggi how autobiographical is Broken? Is the world broken? Is he broken?

“I finished the first painting of the series with a broken graphite line, because it needed that to make it complete, hence the title. Perhaps it was influenced in some way by my personal situation,” Guggi says, perhaps referring to the break-up of his marriage to fellow artist Sybille Ungers a few years ago, “but ultimately I can’t speak for the subconscious.”

Broken is at the Kerlin Gallery,Dublin 2, until this Friday. Guggi will stage other exhibitions in the Enrico Navarra Gallery in Paris in early summer and the Yoshii Gallery in New York in the autumn.

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