Chasing Bono…in Soho: An interview with Neil McCormick

Original Story by Harry Kantas (2019-01-07)

You may have read the book (I Was Bono’s Doppelganger), or seen the film (Killing Bono). Neil McCormick is an artist born out of the post-punk movement that touched, among other places, Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, in the mid-70s.

I Was Bono’s Doppelganger tells the tale of Neil, and his brother Ivan (a former member of Feedback), and their musical journey alongside U2’s. Chasing Bono is the theatrical adaptation of that story.

1970s Dublin. Friends Neil McCormick and Paul Hewson share the same ambition: to form bands and become global superstars. Paul changed his name to ‘Bono’ and his band became U2. Neil’s band never got off the ground.

1987. Dublin gangster Danny Machin wants a fair and balanced account written of his life whilst now-writer Neil is wondering where his went so wrong. Danny sees an opportunity and kidnaps him. Neil becomes Danny’s biographer. Danny becomes Neil’s shrink, probing the reasons for Neil’s succession of disastrous decisions.

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Written by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais of Porridge, The Likely Lads, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The Commitments fame, directed by Gordon Anderson (The Catherine Tate Show, The Inbetweeners, Shameless, Fresh Meat, Lovesick), produced by Sally Wood, and with a brilliant cast behind it, Chasing Bono opened its doors in Soho Theatre on December 6th, 2018. On December 15th, there was a post-matinee Q&A with the cast and writers, where Neil even gave us an impromptu performance of one of the songs featured in the play, called “I Found God”.
Bono, and the rest of the band have also been supportive of I Was Bono’s Doppelganger and its derivatives. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” has been licensed and can be heard on both Killing Bono and Chasing Bono, and Bono was also interested who on would portray him in the play. His only request: “Make sure he’s very tall..!”

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We had a chat with Neil over the holidays on all things Chasing Bono:

Harry: First things first, how do you feel about Chasing Bono? Is it doing the book justice? Did having to adapt the narrative to a more theatrical setting come as a welcomed change, or was it challenging for you? (For what it’s worth, I thought it worked beautifully, and even added to the story).

Neil: I genuinely like Chasing Bono a great deal. I think it’s funny and philosophical with the same sort of balance of humour and pathos as my book, albeit achieved by very different means. There are chunks of my original dialogue and monologues still in there so it has a very recognisable tone and character to me. the way that Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenais adapted the narrative was kind of fascinating to consider as a writer but it was personally challenging to me too. Dramatically it makes sense but I have to get past the interior voice that objects to anyone altering the facts of my real life, and my real existence. But it has been a ride.

Harry: Last time we spoke, you had mixed feelings about Killing Bono, you mentioned it to have been traumatic in some ways. The 2 projects feel very different but Killing Bono might go down better now that Chasing Bono is around, to tell the original story. Do you feel that Chasing Bono may have brought some closure?

Neil: I am not entirely sure how I feel about it to be honest. it wasn’t as traumatic this time but that may be because I’ve been through the wringer experience. it was still deeply strange watching actors portray me and people I know and love in ways that don’t precisely chime with my own inner sense of the person or events. It’s like seeing your life through a distorting mirror or another person’s artistic prism. Anyway I don’t know about closure. In many ways writing the original book was supposed to be an act of closure but it really had almost an opposite effect, stirring up old emotions again. I couldn’t have written the original book if I wasn’t profoundly over the sense of envy and perhaps self pity that made me feel my life was marked by a quality of failure, certainly in comparison to my famous friend. But the success of the book and all the projects that have spun from it has, in many ways, tied me closer to Bono than before, so that, for some people, and by some of the crueler interpretations of our very volatile social media communicating world, I will always be in his shadow, and perhaps hanging on his coat tails. I can see and feel both sides. But I don’t particularly let any interpretation affect me emotionally. I enjoy the absurdity of all of this, it seems quite cosmically comical to me.

Harry: There was talk during the Q&A about perhaps recording some of the songs with the cast. The play runs until January 19th. Is that a hard stop? Would you consider extending it, should people keep coming to see it, do you see it as a potentially longer term project?

Neil: In an ideal world the play will have a longer life. this is essentially a fringe production to put it into the shop window of the theatrical world. The greatest delight of the whole thing from me and my brother has been to hear long lost songs being revived and actually resonating with audiences. so I am hopeful that there will be some kind of musical and theatrical extension of this whole experience, and that might involve cast albums and touring productions. but it is really out of my hands and I have been through enough not to worry too much about things that are out of my control. these couple of months in the theatre have been a fascinating delight and I’m enjoying it while I can.

Harry: Has the success of Chasing Bono taken away at all from the excitement around #Zero (Neil’s latest project, covered here), or introduced any delays? And respectively, has the experience of writing #Zero contributed at all to the adaptation of Chasing Bono?

Neil: The two aren’t really connected at all but I’m rather hoping the excitement around Chasing Bono will feed into the excitement around #Zero rather than the other way around. It hasn’t caused any delays. Publishing is a very slow business. I am going to have to get very busy now sorting out my pledges.

Harry: Your theatre family got to hang out with your life family last weekend. What was that like? That has got to be the definition of “centre of attention”, a rock star moment as any!

Neil: I like the actors very much and enjoy their portrayals of me and my family and it was amusing to see everyone interacting. It’s surreal, comical, weird, fun, I am really just trying to enjoy it for what it throws up. I have had a few fleeting rock star moment I suppose, and I am really just noting them with amusement. where my family is concerned I am very aware that this is their story too, and they don’t really have any choice in how are they represented and how their story is being told so I’m doing my best to be appreciative and include them in the fun surrounding the production. My brother (Ivan) has really enjoyed it and been incredibly helpful. It is, as I said, very satisfying in the great validation from both of us to hear those songs live again.

Neil and Bono would frequently get into conversations about God and faith. Rumour has it that Neil played a demo of “I found God” for Bono at some point, who liked the lyrics so much, that he jokingly claimed that it was one of his songs. To which Neil replied “You wish!”.

Harry: You also performed one of the songs for us: “I found God”, which you famously gave to Bono back in the day to listen to. He jokingly claimed that he wrote it. (I could actually see Bono singing those lyrics). Was there ever any follow up to that?

Neil: No. I thought it would be funny if he sang the voice of God on the recording but I think we both knew that would be setting him up for a fall, It was a song he felt affinity to perhaps because it really does describe our lifelong conversation about God and tries to look at it from different but not mutually exclusive perspectives. I would love it if that song found a new audience and maybe it will through the play. Bono has expressed his admiration for a few of my songs over the years – but to be fair I’ve expressed my admiration for a few of his. One day perhaps he and the Edge will be recognised as one of the all-time great songwriting teams. After all these years they still working at an incredibly high level lyrically and melodically.

Harry: It’s Freaky Friday, July 12th 1985.You wake up in Bono’s bed. Bono wakes up in yours. It’s the day before Live Aid. What do you do?

Neil: Sorry that is too freaky to even think about. One of the things that people perhaps misunderstand about my relationship with Bono is that I have no desire to be him. I could never have been the front man for a band like U2. I am so glad that they exist. Watching them come together, having a ringside seat for their world conquering rise, has been one of the great joys and privileges of my life. As a young man, like so many other young wannabe artists, I fantasised about that kind of career arc for my own art. I didn’t achieve that, but then neither do most creative people. Successful or not, my own expression of self is what it has been about for me. In the end, I have to be satisfied with whatever satisfaction I have achieved through my own creativity, rather than fantasising of succeeding by hijacking somebody else’s work.

Harry: It’s Freaky Friday, December 7th, 2018. You wake up in Bono’s bed. Bono wakes up in yours. It’s the day after Bono’s play, Chasing Neil has debuted. What do you do?

Neil: The interesting thing about that is how completely absurd it sounds and yet that level of absurdity actually reflects Bono’s everyday life. All fame is a mirage. It is smoke and mirrors. Coming to that realisation is what the play is about. Bono in the title is a metaphor for the illusory appeal of fame. So he did wake up one day to find there was going to be a play with his name in the title. But fortunately he is an individual who has a grasp on the difference between the illusory appeal of his marketing brand and the gritty reality of life as we all have to live it. As am I, albeit from the other side of the red cordon.

Chasing Bono is on at Soho Theatre in London, and will run until Saturday January 19th. It is highly recommended for any U2 fan!

Tickets are available at the Soho Theatre web page.

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