30 Years of The Joshua Tree
A U2 apologist what he thinks is reconciles perfect art with an imperfect life.
The album begins with a foggy crescendo, an open-air atmospheric shimmer upon which any number of musical and spiritual possibilities could present themselves. It begins in much the same way life does: wordless fanfare, brimming with physical unrest, time unmarked, a blank canvas as alluring and pure as any found in nature. It is here that the familiar ring of The Edge’s guitar beckons: First in 6/8, before the rhythm section commences, turning a gentle invitation into a pummeling 4/4 heartbeat. Distilled to its essence, there is nothing complex about this commencement, only layer upon layer of simplistic building blocks which beg to enthrall the listener with the aggregate’s grandeur and majesty. And that’s all before Bono’s booming vocals and sky-scraping lyrics provide the formal introduction:
“I want to run. I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.”
It is the sound of a human faced with limitless possibilities and limitless limits, to the point where transcending human space sounds like the most rational way out — or the beginning of the breaking of one’s will. Over the next five minutes, the overture heightens, the pace quickens, the chords and overdubs envelope and engulf the listener in a sensory explosion. This is the sound of infinity — shackled by notes, by time, and sadly, by the impossibility of infinity as a musical, metaphysical and mathematical construct.
Over the course of 11 songs, the diverse yet thematically and sonically unified piece deliberately stands in as a celebration of life and death, a wake-up call, a rallying cry and a musical treasure map encompassing the boundless kaleidoscope of emotion, cognition and sensation. To the vulnerable listener, the divergent elements fuse together in a harmonic synergy, each fragment heightening the power of the others in an endless feedback loop.
I do not remember the first time I heard The Joshua Tree, but I do remember when and why I grew to love it.
The album was, with near metronomic frequency, spun as the soundtrack of my family’s regular trips from our home in Niagara Falls, New York, to my grandfather’s beach-side cottage in Long Beach, Ontario.
I can vividly and precisely recall the exact anchors along the trip where each song began, from the chiming, tuneless opening strums of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” welcoming the bridge to Erie County, to the singeing, tuneless assault of “Bullet the Blue Sky” blowing my hair — when I had some !— back as our van careened down the 190 toward downtown Buffalo.
Unwittingly, I learned every word, every musical nuance of every bar on the album by merely being present as the music washed over me, windows down on a myriad of pleasant Golden Horseshoe summer days. The album was so perfectly timed, so perfectly appropriate for the journey, that the final, ghostly hymnal “Mothers of the Disappeared” faded to black as we pulled in to my grandfather’s grassy, gravelly driveway, and I would spend my subsequent sun-soaked days on the beach recanting the canon to myself.
When I attended my very first (of many!) Buffalo Sabres home game — this one, as a matter of fact — “Where The Streets Have No Name” blared through a darkened arena, as the 16,000 proud Rust Belt riff-raff threw green neon pucks onto the ice, providing the only cool soft light for the home team, as they skated out to ring in the 1988–89 season. I was flanked by my aforementioned grandfather, father and uncle, three gentlemen who often accompanied me in Canada and in life, so I just sort of assumed that this song, this album, belonged to us. That we somehow bore the responsibility of not only creating the record, but for sharing it and keeping it alive. These are the delusions of grandeur of a seven year-old — the folly of youth played in the Key of D. Much the same way MS-DOS floppy disk games and paperback books taught me that if I offered a bear some honey, it would smile, laugh and usher me back to the Hundred Acre Wood as reward for my generosity.
Time waxed and waned. I moved away from the 716 area code at 11. It would be nine long years, an ocean of time to a child and the blip on the radar of an adult, before I would return to Western New York to attend college at the University at Buffalo. Nine years away some three hours down the I-90 changes a lot about a boy.
In the summer of 2002, just weeks before I came back to the city that birthed me and became the backbone of my character, my mom, sister and brother took a trip to Canada once again. As we drove to the cottage, I popped in the CD (which I had bought new, for $17, for my mother first, because CDs were like totally all the rage back then) and reminisced. I was able to recount my childhood in much the same way I’d lived it the first time. This was the last road trip the four of us would ever take together and remains to this day my favorite road trip our family had ever taken.
So, after 15 years of passively listening in my mom’s car — at times stuck in a faulty tape deck for weeks on end — and internalizing the band’s musical and lyrical dialogue (often to great comedic misinterpretation, I actually tried to mathematically devise how one could “see seven towers, but” also “only see one way out” before realizing the whole of “Running to Stand Still” was actually just a musical requiem for the perils and pitfalls of hard drug abuse in a hardscrabble neighborhood) I bought the album for myself at a campus used music sale. For $3.
To say I bought it because it was my favorite album is a dramatic oversimplification.
No, I bought it because for the first time in my life, I was on my own, living alone in a white-roomed apartment with none of my mom’s music to borrow and bring to my headphones. I missed her, and the comfort of hearing “One Tree Hill” on long campus walks reminded me who I was living for, who gifted me my life and who spilled blood and tears just to afford me the opportunity to continue breathing, through my varying successes and failures. The Joshua Tree, in all it’s dark and mystical and spiraling majesty, was the soundtrack of family, the bedrock and benchmark upon which I built all life experience and musical detours my tastes.
Hellos and Goodbyes
I started writing music in the Summer of 2002, not long after I bought The Joshua Tree for myself.
I will never sing like Bono. My guitar will never scream like The Edge’s. But as I grew older, and I discovered my passion for writing, creating and performing music (really! you can buy this record!), realizing my limitations never stopped me from trying to overcome them. I stumbled aimlessly attempting to architect the perfect 11-song album, soaring overtures cascading into wistful ballads and gospel-tinged declarations of self-assuring prophecy, with proper political and personal confessionals to fill in the cracks. I mostly failed.
I don’t need to sit here and write to you that the magnum opus in my mind never materialized on tape — especially if you listen to the output that nearly 13 years of harvesting my “gifts” yielded — or that I never penned a couplet as succinctly satisfying as “we’re wounded by fear, injured in doubt / I can lose myself, you I can’t live without.”
My grandfather, he of those sprawling trips to Canada, passed away just after his 75th Birthday. I sat, numb, for days on end sitting in my dark apartment, guitar and notebook in hand, bottles of beer, candles and incense lit, chopping codeine on my desk and rolling up Franklins, wondering just how the hell I was going to make it on my own and wondering if I’d ever end up 10% of the man he was. (Spoiler alert: I’ve mostly failed.)
Not long after he passed, I took a secret tribute lap from my old house to his Lake Erie enclave, The Joshua Tree blaring as I struggled to see the road through my welling eyes. Guitar riding shotgun, I bought a duty-free bottle of Bacardi Limon and some Pepsi Twist. As “Mothers of the Disappeared” vanished into the ether, I crawled out of the car and down to the beach where I’d spent so many summer nights lit by fire and firework and the vague haze of Downtown Buffalo staring at me like an overprotective mother from the other side of the water.
This time, one mere Yankee Midsummer Night Candle lit, I struggled in the sand to create the appropriate requiem. Not just for my beloved Papa, but for family, home and youth. The melodic accompaniment was easiest, the song is a slow, hymn-like folk number. The words were harder to pen without cracking and bending them into something my heart could hold onto. In the song, I included “I’ll see you again, when the stars fall from the sky”, an homage to the third verse of “One Tree Hill.” After several hours of silent plucking and listening to the soft Great Lakes waves lap against the coast while desperately searching for meaning and purpose in a world that to this day still sorely seems to lack it, I took a deep breath, packed up the guit-box and trudged home to the soundtrack of a quiet car.
Over the next few months, I’d put a bow on the tune, entitle it “Marseille” (my grandfather’s French hometown) and debut it at a show on the one year anniversary of his passing.
Cathartic? Maybe. But the tune’s themes of loneliness, emptiness and transience stood in stark contrast to the affirmation, universal longing and soul-searching that beats as the lyrical rondo of The Joshua Tree. I guess I suppose the song I wrote is the way life is … and The Joshua Tree is the way I wish life was.
“Marseille” is still played on rare occasion, even to this day, but will never be put on record. I played it once with my father — not my grandfather’s son, but, quite easily someone who doesn’t just carry his torch well, but acts unwittingly as my guiding light through an infinite abyss of darkness — in the audience. I’m not sure if he liked it, but it is my hope that he merely understood. After all, his song has yet to be written, and I only hope he knows how much harder his song will be for me to write.
Others Receiving Votes (Albums Worth Loving That I Should’ve Written About But Could Not)
Other albums have waxed and waned and been labeled my favorite singular pieces of music. In no particular order, they include:
- Oasis — What’s the Story? Morning Glory
- Green Day — Dookie
- Pink Floyd — Dark Side of the Moon
- The Beatles — Rubber Soul
- The Who — Who’s Next
- Dave Matthews Band — Crash
- Outkast — Speakerboxxx / The Love Below
- Bruce Springsteen — Born to Run
- Radiohead — OK Computer
- The Verve — Urban Hymns
- John Mayer — Continuum
- Arcade Fire — Funeral
- The Hold Steady — Boys and Girls in America
- Miles Davis — Kind of Blue
- Butch Walker — The Spade
- Stevie Wonder — Talking Book
- The Hold Steady — Boys and Girls in America
- Kendrick Lamar — Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
- D’Angelo — Black Messiah
- The Black Keys — Rubber Factory
- Ben Harper — Lifeline
- The National — Boxer
- Anderson Paak — Malibu
- Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
All of these albums are gorgeous and profound in their own rights, with strengths and merits that music critics and populists could wax poetic about for hours, ultimately reaching circuitous conclusions that would either prop up their stature into the “classic” canon or dismiss the art as something altogether disposable. And, with a critical ear, one would be inclined to agree or disagree.
I realize objective musical observation falls flat. It is this regard that I am blinded to the myriad musical shortcomings of The Joshua Tree. Its bombast, its comic vagueness, its rudimentary song structures.
So much of what we enjoy, what we assimilate into our being as something profoundly awe-inspiring, what we dare to attach meaning and emotion to, has very little to do the objective quality of the music itself. Our realities are beholden to our perceptions, which are inherent biases framed by experience, mindset, receptivity to novelty and our own colored history. And it is within this imperfect fluidity that our assessments of events, and *especially* of art, are etched and re-etched into our minds.
You’ll always have a soft-spot for certain songs that take you places. When I hear “Champagne Supernova”, I immediately remember being in Scotland, listening to a beautiful girl who shared my birthday (October 3, 1982) singing it to a smattering of strangers. She offered me whiskey and we kissed not long after, and when you’re 13 and you’re tipsily locking lips with anyone you deem beautiful and wondrous, you’re bound to enhance the experience of listening to any piece of music each time it echoes in the great CD-R in your cerebral cortex.
How I Got Here
I realize saying, “The Joshua Tree is my favorite album” is a lot like saying “I’m a big fan of The Sun.” (I find “favorite song” to be a loaded question and hardly indicative of someone’s musical tastes, especially since it generally takes someone either a split-second or six weeks to answer intelligently.)
In fact, I can’t even tell you it’s the album I’ve listened to most often — that’s the Hold Steady’s “Boys and Girls in America” — since I believe it is a piece so precious and fragile that I reserve it for only occasional listening, for fear of spilling it’s meaning and power and letting it spoil in my synapses.
The album’s been out nearly 30 years. U2 (and Bono, in particular) have morphed into a worldwide cultural behemoth that draws ire from critics, former fans and mortal enemies for their overt grandstanding, politicizing and occasional musical self-parody. They’ve also become the ire of Apple diehards. Hell, U2 may have even churned out an objectively better-sounding offering with “Achtung Baby”, and no song on “The Joshua Tree” holds the (seemingly) universal spellbinding appeal of “One.” But if you separate all that … the music that’s come before and after, the inescapable omnipotence of the album’s principal players, the ever-increasing distance between U2’s vogue and the current state of our cultural zeitgeist — if you just sit there, speakers loud and mind clear, you might just hear a damn fine record over the course of 45 easy minutes.
Me? Well, I hear distinct fragments of my life echoing through the speakers. I hear my mom telling me to come home for dinner. I smell my grandfather’s clams steaming on the porch of the lakehouse. I see the Buffalo Sabres setting fire to ice. I experience youth and age, memory and dream, the past and the future, all contained in the ‘now.’
And that ‘now’ still tells me, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, and implores me to go seek it out. Maybe I’ll never find it. After 30 years, who knows? But I’ve at least found what I’ll be listening to when I find it.