It’s a rumour that has circulated for decades. The story goes that at the height of the Irish rock band’s popularity, U2 frontman Bono wrote a postcard to reclusive cult musician Captain Beefheart, asking him to collaborate. According to the legend, Beefheart responded with three devastating words: “Dear Bongo, No.”
In reality (or at least publicly), Beefheart – real name Don Van Vliet – had a great deal of respect for Bono, and in a 2001 interview even heaped praise upon his most famous fan. Where exactly, then, did this strange tale emerge from?
Throughout his U2 fame, Bono has written fan mail to other musicians. “Thanks for the blood, the sweat, and the sparing of the tears,” Bono – real name Paul Hewson – once wrote in a letter to Iggy Pop. “I step inside your song and it’s a black beauty, achingly awesomely vulnerable and terrifying,” was Bono’s compliment to Billie Eilish.
Among Bono’s successful yet unlikely collaborations was Johnny Cash, who sang the final song on U2’s album Zooropa, as well as Stephen Hawking, who made a video introduction for U2’s 2015 tour.
Any written communication Bono might have had with Captain Beefheart, however, remains unpublished. Still, over the years many media outlets have referenced the alleged “Dear Bongo, No” note, with The Irish Daily Star, The Times and The Big Issue all having mentioned the tale in passing.
The Swedish screenwriter Andres Lokko referred to the note in his autobiography, even stating that Beefheart’s reply had a postmark from the Nevada desert.
Some variants of the story claim that it was Frank Zappa, not Beefheart, who delivered the withering response to Bono. Another version has Stephen Hawking give the “Dear Bongo, No” reply – a rumour denounced on Twitter by journalist Mic Wright.
(Journalist Danny Kelly also took to Twitter to discuss another amusing rumour about Bono: “[Can it be possible] that Peter Gabriel, inviting Bono to lunch, said, ‘And bring the Hedge'”, in reference to U2 guitarist The Edge.)
But it is Captain Beefheart who is most frequently cited as the person who sent the “Dear Bongo” message – and nobody has pushed that version of the story more than Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes.
“In the late 1990s, while researching my biography of Captain Beefheart, I was amused by accounts of when Bono tried to lure the Captain out of retirement in the early ’80s,” wrote Barnes in a 2002 Mojo article. “With typical dismissiveness Beefheart would disingenuously ask friends: ‘Man, who is this Bongo?'”
The rivalry between Bono and musicians in Beefheart’s orbit is undeniable. In 1989, the Dickies – a band that featured former Captain Beefheart drummer Cliff Martinez – dreamed up a rock opera that would feature a giant animated statue of John Lennon. “One of the first things it’s going to do is strangle Bono of U2,” said Beefheart band member Leonard Phillips.
Concrete evidence of Beefheart himself having no time for Bono, however, has always remained elusive. Certainly, their paths didn’t cross while at their respective heights. Captain Beefheart never enjoyed the same level of popularity as U2. The latter’s successes have spanned the decades, while in the 80s Beefheart turned his back on music to focus on painting, finding it to be more financially viable.
As one journalist put it in 1991, “[Beefheart] is more or less worshipped by a small cadre of largely underground musicians, but he’s not much more than a footnote in most rock histories.” The writer went on to quote Beefheart as saying, “I’m surprised anyone still remembers me.”
Q Magazine ran a readers’ poll in 1999 to select ‘The 100 Greatest Stars of the 20th Century’, and Bono landed himself in 18th place – while Beefheart trailed behind at number 50.
So when it emerged in the early 2000s that Bono and Captain Beefheart were, in fact, fans of one another, a meeting was set. Their spectacular phone interview – their first confirmed interaction – was published in the April 2002 edition of MOJO Magazine. At the time, Beefheart was living in the California desert.
The interview was arranged in 2001 by Anton Corbijn, who was U2’s creative director as well as the director of a short BBC film about Beefheart. Funnily enough, Corbijn was also reportedly responsible for another connection between Bono and Beefheart: he once photographed Beefheart in front of a striking tree in the California desert. He would return to the same spot to photograph U2 for their 1987 album, which Bono then chose to name after that species: The Joshua Tree.
Bono’s discussion with Beefheart, in which Bono asked most of the questions, was at turns bizarre and sweet. Beefheart was flattering towards U2, comparing their work to the art of painting: “You’re able to have the song be moving and then you shape it.” He singled out their album One for particular praise, describing it as “fantastic”. Bono replied that this was the biggest compliment he could imagine.
Bono, meanwhile, expressed regret that they hadn’t spoken sooner – and stated that he had always been too shy to approach the star. Beefheart responded with a polite “Oh no, no way”.
Beefheart also stated that he wanted to visit Bono’s home country of Ireland, but he was too fearful of the IRA. They discussed their mutual hatred of digitalised music.
The conversation then turned to Africa. “Hip hop is how black people use technology to discover Africa,” was one of Bono’s stranger soundbites from the interview. Beefheart, meanwhile, described his love of wildlife, saying, “I’m a damn animal freak” and asking Bono if he’d ever seen a sunfish.
They ended their chat with Bono wishing Beefheart a safe future in the desert, and Beefheart replying: “God bless you.”