Deep Dive Friday – A Middle Age Look Back at ‘The Joshua Tree’ by U2

It was thirty-five years ago this week U2 released their album, ‘The Joshua Tree’. It was highly-anticipated and I believe their best-selling album ever. And I remember hearing it for the first time as if it had come out yesterday. But since the album is now thirty-five years old, it’s entered middle-age as I have.

In March of 1987 I would have been twelve years old, in junior high, writing, and kind of hating my life at times. Junior high was the worst of my school years for the bullying I endured along with alienation and ostracization, too. My home life was deteriorating and I didn’t have the words to express it. But in the words of U2’s lyrics on ‘The Joshua Tree’, I found a way to put them in my mind and keep them there.

I’m going to say that for me, ‘The Joshua Tree’ and the follow-up album ‘Rattle and Hum’ (the album recorded live on ‘The Joshua Tree’ world tour along with additional studio tracks) was the end of the first era of U2, and my personal favorite. They’ve gone in different directions since and sadly I haven’t always kept up with them though I will remedy that someday. But in the thirty-five years since ‘The Joshua Tree’, I’ve come back to that album along with ‘Rattle and Hum’, and the four albums that preceded those two (‘Boy’, ‘October’, ‘War’, and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’).

For me, U2 taught me about ‘conscience’. My personal definition of conscience is the beliefs, ideals, thoughts, and feelings that guide a person’s words and actions in the world. Because for me, U2 are all about passionate feeling along with quiet introspection. They sang about feelings, about faith, love, hope, but also pain and anger. ‘The Joshua Tree’ album and the ‘Rattle and Hum’ follow-up were a culmination of that era because after that they moved into a more technical and critical eye to the world (though they did return to that in the early part of this century).

The first track released from ‘The Joshua Tree’ was what I call a non-traditional ballad “With or Without You”. It was a huge hit and I think was the first U2 song my mother really got into. Then I played ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (the second single released) and she was like, “They’re talking about God and Jesus.” I told her U2 had been talking about God and Jesus since their first album and they were men of faith and that yes, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is a gospel song (my favorite version of it is the performance with the band and a gospel choir from Harlem in the film ‘Rattle and Hum’).

The third single from the album, “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a favorite of mine because of the way it starts out like the Second Coming almost. It builds and soars and I will personally recommend laying down and listening to the song with headphones to get the full experience.

But there isn’t a misfire of a track on this album at all. The song “Running to Stand Still” (track four) is one I have come back to time and again and will go into at another time and another place here. I read in interviews with the band that the song is about drug addiction as heroin ravaged Ireland in the 1980’s and band members lost friends to drug overdoses. One set of lines stands out for me (and these are the ones I will return to at a later date in a different place here):

You got to cry without weeping

Talk without speaking

Scream without raising your voice

You know I took the poison, from the poison stream

And then I floated out of here

(Songwriters: Evans / Clayton / Hewson / Mullen

Running To Stand Still lyrics © Polygram Int. Music Publishing B.v.)

And for me, all I have to say to those lyrics is: “There but for the grace of God go I” (attributed to John Bradford, mid sixteenth century)

But I’m going to move on to the other tracks on the album:

“Bullet the Blue Sky” – a powerful song with serious political statements in it. Bombs falling raining down onto the sky ‘pounding the women and children’ (line from the song) and also calling out the hypocrisy of Christian evangelism in asking for money yet doing nothing to alleviate pain and suffering in the world as Jesus taught.

“Red Hill Mining Town” is about a mining town when the mine closes and the hardships faced by the people. In the 1980’s, this happened throughout England, Wales, and the rest of the United Kingdom due to the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and so this song is a statement that everything wasn’t good for everyone like the powers-that-be wanted you to believe.

“In God’s Country” is a personal favorite and one I want to blast as I drive through the deserts of the American southwest or the wheatfields of the Midwest some day.

“Trip Through Your Wires” reminded me of something Bob Dylan might have done and I know Bob Dylan was a huge influence on the band.

“One Tree Hill” is a song they wrote for a member of their crew who was killed in a motorcycle accident and they sang it at his funeral. Once you know the story behind the song it stays with you forever.

“Exit” – From what I’ve read, this is a song the band hasn’t performed live in many years and it is very dark. For more on the song, here’s a link that contains quotes from the band members themselves about the song’s origins and history: Link here

“Mothers of the Disappeared” – The last track on the album and it’s about the mothers in Central and South America who’s husbands, sons, and fathers were taken from them by the brutal regimes in many of those countries never to be seen or heard from again. From this song, I learned about these women who would hold silent protests and just dance in public to campaign for the release of their loved ones.

In the thirty-five years since this album came out, the passion and emotion of this album became a wreckage of lost faith through relentless criticism that passion and feeling were nothing but attention-seeking behavior and ego (NOT TRUE AT ALL!!!). In addition to the criticism, cynicism took over and life itself ground down a lot of people. And all this culminated in the last six years in our world where right-wing extremism threatens to engulf the world in a totalitarian nightmare. No, I’m not exaggerating that at all because when you lose or temper your passion to try and keep from having raging hate-mongers come at you, that tolerance doesn’t work.

It’s time to get passionate again. To talk about faith, hope, love, pain, and suffering and to work our asses off to make this world a better place. Because peace, hope, love, and freedom are worth fighting for. In the last few years, I’ve begun to find my passion that I thought I had lost but unlike the band on this album, I am finding what I’m looking for because it was always there all along.

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