U2 will be playing its seminal album, The Joshua Tree, in several live concerts around the country beginning in May. It’s the first time the band has “looked back,” and while I hope the boys won’t be turning into a jukebox-nostalgia group, endlessly cranking out “the classics” for an increasingly graying (and irrelevant) audience of fogies like me, it is time for Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam to pay this album its full due.
That means playing the never-performed-live “Red Hill Mining Town” and the rarely performed “One Tree Hill” (played mostly for audiences in New Zealand), “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” From a musical standpoint, the shows will be unique in U2 lore, and should be interesting, to say the least.
The Joshua Tree turns 30 in March – an unbelievable milestone. (Yes, all classic albums do eventually attain a certain age, but still, 30? Wow.) I remember the night the first single, “With or Without You,” debuted on my local radio station (I forget the call sign, though I listened every single day). I remember buying the cassette at my local Wal-Mart. I still remember my initial reactions to the song and the album. I still listen to both, this very day, partly out of nostalgia, partly because they represent “go-to” music for me. Bored? Depressed? Tired? Need a lift? Go to The Joshua Tree.
I wasn’t a big U2 fan when The Joshua Tree hit stores in March 1987. I was 17 years old and in my AC/DC phase (also Van Halen, Foreigner, Dire Straits, The Police, Springsteen and Duran Duran). I’d heard some U2 songs but the four Irishmen were by no means my heroes. I’d seen Live Aid in 1985, when Bono leapt from the stage into the thronging masses below, until then the most famous moment in the band’s career. I’d heard “New Year’s Day” a few times on the radio but hadn’t yet heard “Gloria” or “I Will Follow.” I was a casual listener. U2 still had to sell me.
“With or Without You” wasn’t an easy sell. I thought the weird, droning song was unique, sure, and kind of memorable, but I hadn’t recognized it yet for the rock-and-roll monster it was. That didn’t happen until after I bought the cassette. For one whole weekend in 1987, I played nothing but The Joshua Tree, over and over, a phenomenon that spilled over into the summer months and extended into the winter. It became my favorite album without my becoming aware of it. It simply was the music I wanted to hear, the voice I wanted to listen to, telling stories I couldn’t quite understand but that seemed awfully important.
I didn’t know that U2 was considered a “political” band, and in fact, I still don’t quite agree with that label. (If anything, they’re a spiritual group, with rock trappings and a social conscience.) What struck me about The Joshua Tree was how damned catchy it was, from beginning to end. I’d never heard anything like the slow-burn opening of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which built, layer upon layer, into a driving, cinematic steed of a song. The bassline on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” hooked me immediately. By the third song, “WOWY,” I was enveloped in the icy, propulsive sheen of the thing, entranced by Bono’s plaintive vocals and the ringing tones of Edge’s Fender/Les Paul attack. No other U2 album, before or since, can top The Joshua Tree’s opening trio – arguably the three most important songs on any record.
There’s so much more to talk about, but I’ll limit myself to the last two songs on Side A, “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Running to Stand Still.” “Bullet” is a smashing rock-and-roll caper of a song, about a maniac who holds the fate of the world in his hands (my interpretation – Bono actually says it’s about El Salvador and the Reagan Administration’s interference in that country’s political affairs). “Running” is a campfire tale of heroin addiction in an infamous part of Dublin, a sequel, of sorts, to “Bad” on The Unforgettable Fire (1984). The contrast of the two songs, crushed together as they are, is probably the album’s most stunning moment.
Bono recently called the record “operatic,” and it is that, though you can say the same for all U2 albums. (Bono himself is more opera singer than traditional rock vocalist. You can’t put him in the same category as David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar.) The real star of the show is The Edge, whose guitar-playing was never more precise, emotional, or awe-inspiring. He found riffs and solos that live on to this day – the first four songs on the album are still concert staples, still a good way of livening up crowds bored with such contemporary releases as No Line on the Horizon or Songs of Innocence. When the band fires up “Streets,” it really is like God just walked into the room. You can’t help but cheer, and feel a kind of gratitude to the band.
The band will play Dallas in late May, and I’d love to see the show, but I’ll probably have to count myself out. No doubt the performance will live forever on YouTube, and I’m sure the band will release a DVD. Still, it would be fun to see the band play nothing but this album – no “Vertigo,” no “One,” no “Sunday Bloody Sunday” – which has a kind of new life in today’s supercharged (and super-gloomy) political atmosphere. The album was always about America and still is. I think the band is worried about America right now, and for good reason. I certainly am. There’s no better time to celebrate The Joshua Tree, to look back on what it was, and to think about what it still means.