Unless you live beneath the rocks along the Lake Erie shoreline you know U2 is coming to Cleveland for a 30th anniversary celebration of their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, Saturday, July 1, at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Reviews so far have been generally quite favourable. The full-album concert that is becoming a staple for veteran bands is apparently working very well for the band and an album that finds itself by circumstance still relevant in 2017. Forbes contributor Steve Baltin writes: “[U2] have no interest in being their own tribute band. This is not an act that wants to take victory laps and bask in past triumphs. If The Joshua Tree didn’t feel relevant, both globally and musically, in 2017, this tour doesn’t happen.”
I have more U2 stories than I can count. I have made life-altering decisions based on things I learned from U2’s music, not kidding. And there was that time I stole $135 from my Grampa to buy a single ticket to their show from a scalper when I was 17 – another story for another time, and different album. I probably haven’t listened to The Joshua Tree in over a decade; if I want to hear it, I can just listen to it from inside my brain where it has maintained permanent real estate since I was 12. I’m not really listening to “albums” in 2017 anyway.
I remember exactly how I felt about this album in 1987; I remember how everyone felt about it, it won the coveted ‘Album Of The Year’ Grammy – but exactly why does the album still resonate in 2017, and how does the passage of time and the addition of age and wisdom change our perceptions of The Joshua Tree from thirty years ago?
1987 was a world on the cusp of brilliant change. Hints of the world we know today were bubbling under the surface: a Gay and Lesbian March on Washington attracted nearly 200,000 people. Compaq was marketing the first portable computer and recycling literally drifted onto the American agenda with the “gar-barge”, a floating ship of rubbish from New York that spent months traveling along the eastern coastline looking for a dump spot and getting rejected at every port. Pennsylvania Treasurer Budd Dwyer shocked the world when he committed suicide at a recorded press conference, challenging broadcast media ethics and prompting regulations that still exist today. The average salary was $24,350, sadly not far from where we are today, but a new car back then only cost around $9,000 and I remember my mother bitching about having to spend $1.89 for Froot Loops ‘cause it was the only cereal I would eat. U2 gave the world an album that was most likely ahead of its time, but we’ll never know as The Joshua Tree simply became its time.
“They defined what the world, and I, was experiencing during the late 1980s,” says Libby, now 65, a fan from Indiana. “Many other things happened to me to help me heal, but I am forever grateful to U2 and their incredible talent and creativity which made my new journey of the next chapter of my life appear before me with much more clarity and the determination to make it on my own.”
“Where The Streets Have No Name”
“The Joshua Tree has the greatest first minute of any album ever,” stated NME writer Henry Yates on the album’s 25th anniversary, pretty good for “Where The Streets Have No Name”, which almost ended up in a scrapheap on Brian Eno’s studio floor.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
The album’s second song is now an anthem of the struggle to maintain religious faith in the face of both internal and external infliction, a hymn for liberal Christians all over the world. One of the local churches in my city holds an event called “U2-charist”, where they discuss the Christian philosophy in the band’s songs, most notably this one.
“With Or Without You”
Author Chris Charlesworth once described “With Or Without You” as U2’s “first real adult love song.” Maybe it was the way Bono sang, “My hands are tied/ my body bruised, she got me with/ nothing to win and nothing left to lose”; I remember being confused, almost unnerved, because when you’re 12, you’re not aware of the dark places to which love sometimes goes.
“Bullet The Blue Sky”
In the mid-80s during the height of the Lebanese Civil War, the U.S. cut a deal to try to secure the release of several hostages, ultimately breaking the long-standing rule of not negotiating with terrorists. The Americans sold massive amounts of weapons to Iran via Israel and used the money from the sale to fund right-wing militant groups in Nicaragua whose political ideologies matched the business interests of the U.S. there. The ultimate goal was to unseat the Nicaraguan left-wing socialist government.
Bono attended a trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua as part of an Amnesty International visit and walked away shocked at the lives the people in the villages led in fear of the American-supported terrorist attacks, around 1,300 total would occur. “Bullet The Blue Sky” came out of that, the most hard-rocking, most dangerous song on the album.
“The Joshua Tree was the first time I understood that musicians could use their talent and influence to make cultural statements,” says Laura, a fan from Detroit, now 42. “Having not lived through the political music movements of the 60s and 70s, the idea of activism through music was foreign to me.”
Today, in a world much more complex and screwed up than it ever could have felt in 1987, “Bullet The Blue Sky” maintains its relevance as state-sponsored terrorism, now motivated specifically by religion and ideology, is one of the current world’s most distressing problems.
“In God’s Country”
It is the universally agreed-upon “driving song” of the album thirty years on, but at also stands up through time as a criticism of Christianity by Christians, like terrorism, a subject at the top of the world’s current debate schedule. Not long after The Joshua Tree’s release, the U.S. Supreme Court (Edwards v. Aguillard) would strike down the first of many attempts by the American creationism movement to teach Christian-based science in public schools.
“Running To Stand Still”
“Council estates”, the British Isles’ version of the American “projects”, were the inspiration for “Running To Stand Still”. Dublin, Ireland was poor and rife with heroin abuse in the mid-80s; the lyrics “I can see seven towers and only one way out” refers directly to the seven high-rises of the Ballymun Flats, the council estates in Dublin where Bono observed the suffering to be most rampant. Sadly enough, U2 returns to Cleveland in 2017 while we’re in the throes of the worst opioid epidemic we’ve ever seen. On the current tour, it’s been re-packaged as a tribute to Chris Cornell.
“Red Hill Mining Town”
“Red Hill Mining Town” has long been regarded as the weakest song on The Joshua Tree and a case can been made for how a vague song about a miner’s strike in 1984 Britain may not have impact on this current tour in 2017 America. At 12, I knew nothing about the miner’s strike nor would I have understood – it was simply a song about love and in that way, it will continue to resonate. The culture that created the foundation for the miner’s strike still exists in 2017, especially in the north of the UK and in our own American Midwest where cities and populations are still trying to recover from the decline in industrial manufacturing.
“Trip Through Your Wires”
This song sounded so sexy to me at 12, like I wondered if my mother should be letting me listen to this, but the words seemed okay? 42-year-old me would love to tell 12-year-old me, “That, kid, is the blues and you need to start learning that shit right now.”
“One Tree Hill”
The most personally painful song on the record, “One Tree Hill”, will always be about Greg Carroll, U2’s friend and assistant who was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin while running business for the band. Carroll’s death still weighs on them; in 2006, Bono talked to the audience at U2’s Auckland, New Zealand show about Carroll, opening into the song, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”.
In Rolling Stone’s original review of The Joshua Tree, “Exit” is regarded as a “psychodrama of a killer” thought “awkward enough, not even Patti Smith could regularly pull it off.”
That depends on who you ask. The LA Times reported in 1991 about Robert Bardo, the obsessive fan who shot and killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer and claimed “Exit” as inspiration:
“[Bardo], hearing a tape in his trial Tuesday…rocked in his chair, drummed his hands on his leg and, smiling, mouthed the lyrics “pistol weighing heavy”. His reaction to the song ‘Exit,’ from the rock group U-2’s Joshua Tree album, was perhaps the most visible display of emotion the defendant has shown in the course of three weeks of testimony and evidence.”
Schaeffer’s murder prompted the state of California to create what would become the U.S.’s first anti-stalking regulations.
“Mothers Of The Disappeared”
This song was a tribute to the mothers of hundreds of Central Americans who went missing under mysterious circumstances, mostly people who were opposed to the ruling regimes during the 1970s and 80s, a practise that still occurs today, most notably with the disappearance of 43 Mexican student teachers from the town of Iguala in 2014.
The fundamental struggles of self and mankind The Joshua Tree so eloquently addressed in 1987 are still at the root of the problems we face today: irreconcilable religious and ideological differences, the oppression of one people to the benefit of another, leading one to ask, what exactly have we learned since 1987? The names have changed – Reagan to Trump, Gorbachev to Putin, cassettes to MP3 files – so have the frames of reference, but the songs actually do remain the same.
“I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky/ And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill,” Bono sings on The Joshua Tree’s ninth song, recalling his first experience with the death of Greg Carroll at the ripe young age of 26.
“I suppose that’s the privilege of youth,” The Edge once said in a 1987 interview. “You leave death to one side to be dealt with later. The uncertainty — that this person who had been so close to us was gone.” I wonder what the audiences feel when we hear this song on the new 30th Anniversary tour, are there others as lost in their own heads as I would be, thinking of the ones we’ve buried young in the thirty years since Bono first had to do it, the ones that throw our own mortality into our faces when we know we’re still too young and too scared to be concerned? Former classmates, co-workers, even close friends and family – most of us have had this unfortunate experience by now, we’ll be meeting the band on their level with this one in ways us younger ones weren’t yet capable of thirty years earlier.