Sublime Time: The Joshua Tree at 25

March 15, 2012

Before there was the deservedly beloved Achtung Baby, there was The Joshua Tree. Before U2 were reinventing themselves, they were creating everlasting greatness. Before there was post-modern kitsch and contradiction to wrestle with, there was spiritual unrest and personal relationship uncertainty to wrestle with. Before U2 even had a notion of assembling their greatest hits, they were creating that canon with an album of greatest hits.

For those of us that were there, this was a sublime time. This was the Beatles getting off of the plane in the States. Oh sure, U2 wasn’t new to us or to the US at this time, but this U2, this upped the ante. This was a collection of songs and songwriting that was consistently magnificent and transcendent throughout the entire album. This was rock ‘n roll of the highest order. One listen to this album and you knew – this was Revolver for the Beatles, Beggars Banquet for the Stones, Bringing It All Back Home by Dylan, Tommy for The Who, Born to Run, Purple Rain

Long gone was the naivety and innocence of the band members’ late teen years and the mullets of their early to mid-twenties. Gone was the style and fashion of post-punk and New Wave. Gone was big hair (only to be replaced by all-one-length, shoulder-length hair, sans the hair products).

Once “With or Without You” (the video as well as their first single from this album) hit the airwaves, the pop culture style of such acts as The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Duran Duran and The Smiths was replaced by the ponytail, denim jeans, cool patterned, long-sleeved, untucked, collared shirts with leather vests draped over them and headwear and footwear that looked lived-in and straight out of the Old West.

U2 had steeped themselves in the imagery of the American Southwest during this period and Bono and The Edge in particular looked as indigenous to the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico as much as any native son from those regions. If Achtung Baby was the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree, The Joshua Tree was the sound of four men burying New Wave.

For those who have felt the excitement of anticipating a new U2 release for a decade or two now, there was nothing like that feeling of anticipation in the Spring of 1987, a quarter of a century ago this month.

I was just a teen, well into my second semester of my junior year in high school and hating the social scene at my school, feeling very detached. Music—U2’s music especially—was my solace, my escape. A classmate and I were big fans of the band and neither of us could wait for this one to be released. I remember that my friend went out and bought the album a day before I did, a day prior than I thought it was to be released. All these years later, I can still recall his first words to me that next day at school.

“Bono is Dylan on this thing. He’s playing harmonica on this album.”

Harmonica?  From Boy to now The Joshua Tree, where the hell did the harmonica fit in their music? I had to get this album. Immediately.

I purchased it, and for the next eighteen months or so, this CD took me on a journey unlike any other album before or since. It consumed me and of course I consumed it. Daily. With vigor. And so did the world. U2 was quickly catapulted into the stratosphere. The band that was always arriving had arrived. Pop culture was no longer shaping them, they were shaping it.

They became a household name with this album and no longer just keen dwellers of college charts on back pages of rock magazines. Indoor arenas were no longer large enough for them and their fans.

The harmonica was there, indeed. But the anticipatory refrain of the opening organ on “Streets” set the tone. That was followed by the flickering guitar sound of The Edge which was followed by the pulsating bass line from Adam and the crescendo of drums from Larry, all culminating with the first that we hear of Bono’s voice on this album (fully mature at this point, if it wasn’t already) pronouncing his restlessness and the journey began—a yearning, searching, joyful, raucous, heartwrenching, thrilling, pulsating and, at times, somber journey that wouldn’t end until we heard the haunting, fading sounds of “Mothers of the Disappeared.”

The desert imagery throughout this album was so damn cohesive. There were the desert plains, the desert skies, the howling winds and stinging rains, rivers running and then soon running dry. There was the heat and the dust, the rust and the waterless wells, throats that were dry, sunlight on my face, caverns in the night and desert roses that called out like sirens to you and me.

The imagery was desolate and yet things grew, just like in the desert itself, as Bono has pointed out. And of course there was that damn tree – standing there majestically for the band to pose in front of, remaining there for years for us fans to figuratively, metaphorically (and sometimes literally) bow down to and relish. If Joshua pointed to the promised land, fans of the band were having none of it. This, THIS was the promised land—this album, this tree.

The Edge stated later in life that he dearly recalled how much music meant to him at the age of seventeen, and so he could relate to the feeling that his music gave his teenage fans. I know the feeling. I was weeks away from turning seventeen when this album, one of rock’s greatest, most unified albums of all time, was released.

U2 successfully chopped down The Joshua Tree a few years after its release, and I don’t blame them at all. They had to go dream it all up again and I’m glad that they did. But if you listen closely to the howling wind, in the caverns of the night, through the stinging rain, I believe you can hear her haunting melodies, flickering notes and pulsating rhythms. I can. For like a siren she calls to me. –Greg Melton

“My Hands To Learn”: Many Mumford Meanings At The Mother Church

March 7, 2012

The religious implications of Ryman Auditorium gigs have long-been established, and since Mumford & Sons has essentially billed their three-night stint this early March as a kind of homecoming dance or spiritual residency, we came to our pews in the Mother Church of Americana prepared for a sonic baptism.

The first night of this “threefer” will fast fade into history, and I expect many assessments will point to a sad collision of a young celebrity’s nerves and the high expectations wrought from the band’s first visit to Music City’s Hallowed Hall. Folks might say that there was something a little “off” about this show, off for the simple facts that Marcus forgot his lyrics and fudged not one, but two, songs, and almost botched a third. But during the closing “Cave,” the lead singer begged the crowd to sing along, suggesting that if he fell to his fears we would fill his ears. And we did make a beautiful choir, coming together to belt out our part for an epic crescendo.

From my arrival at this beloved pop temple for the umpteenth time, I noticed something “off,” too, but it wasn’t even show time yet. There was no beer line. But the merch line wove around the balcony lobby like a snake. I confess I’m so jaded by people getting stupid-juiced at shows, that seeing only moderate drinkers, plenty of little kids, other middle-aged people and teetotalers like myself, and rarely anyone intoxicated—this was an added blessing to coming to church on a Tuesday night.

Opening act Agigail Washburn—a curly-haired banjo player with an angel’s voice—did something else “off”: she went off-mic for a truly acoustic version of her traditional closing number “Bright Morning Stars.” Later, the Mumfords would follow suit, taking at least two numbers to the front-of-stage for quiet, truly unplugged renditions. During the last of these—I think it was “Sigh No More”—some fans couldn’t help singing along, but they did so at such a respectful volume that it only added to the majesty of what Marcus and crew were doing on stage.

Joined by renowned dobro player Jerry Douglas, the band covered Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” before a rip-roaring “Awake My Soul.” As heartfelt-hopeful and gut-soothing sacred as the familiar tracks were, the cover and the newer songs really owned the night for me. Marcus Mumford’s fast evolution into rock god hangs on the hinge of his humility and humanity—he’s more of a “Wretched Man” (as one of his pre-Sons demos was dubbed) than a holy man.

Flubs and flaws aside, we still fly to new heights with artists who keep us on the ground. The lyrics to “Below My Feet” illustrate this well: “Keep the earth below my feet/For all my sweat, my blood runs weak/Let me learn from where I have been/Keep my eyes to serve/My hands to learn.”

How refreshing to rock out with this new folk revival that rests its reputation on remaining in reality. I don’t think Marcus Mumford was having a meltdown of the medical or medicinal nature, and he certainly wasn’t having a tantrum as some stars have been prone to throw. He was just nervous to be sharing the stage that some of his heroes still haunt. And he asked us to help him get through it. And we did.

The son of evangelical church leaders, Marcus wears his religious influences on the white, rolled-up sleeves of his lyrics. Fame might hold a dangerous “spell,” as “Below My Feet” suggests, but “But I was told by Jesus/All was well/So all must be well.” For Mumford fans in middle Tennessee this week, all certainly is well! –Andrew William Smith, Editor

(Photo of Hatch prints from Mumfords/Ryman websites; instagram photos from beckbeck & jessicadeshae.)

Turned Against In The Dark: U2 Superfans & the Scapegoating of Julie Taymor

March 6, 2012

Some can do no wrong. And no one can do any wrong quite like Bono and The Edge.

Criticism of theater, opera, and film director Julie Taymor by the overly biased U2 fan community: is this the primary reason that Bono and Edge are allowed to delude themselves with the notion that they did no wrong in the ugly divorce from the Spider-Man ex-Director?

Do we as fans sell the false narrative because it fuels and justifies our disdain for anyone who dares to go against the unblemished perfection of the U2 lead singer and guitarist? Overly protective U2 fans don’t want their heroes’ anywhere near human or even mere celebrity status—where sometimes ego, pride, and ambition take over. Taymor is Judas in the haters’ mind, the woman who betrayed Bono and The Edge.

New reports and published e-mails both claim Julie Taymor accused Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark producers including Bono and The Edge of making her a scapegoat to appease investors anxious about poor reviews and lack of financial success during the play’s previews. Taymor was booted when the budget soared and delays escalated fears of investors. Now, reports are out in which Bono is described as attending a crucial meeting drunk on beer with a bevy of supermodels. This meeting came a few days before Taymor was ousted by Bono and Edge themselves before using her firing as a launching pad for a second chance with the press and the Broadway public.

I don’t hate Bono or The Edge. I love U2. I’ve seen them in every tour since Elevation and have accumulated more air miles seeing them live than one can imagine. But to say that Bono and The Edge weren’t graceful in tough times and didn’t act according to what they sometimes preach needs to be said by fans—and seen as true by superfans.

In theatrical terms, Julie Taymor is a Michael Jordan. Taymor has received many accolades including two Tony Awards, and Emmy and even an Academy Award nomination. Her biggest mainstream hit, The Lion King is Broadway’s seventh longest-running show in history. Unfortunately, people forget that the play almost never reached the six month mark after a slow start in attendance compared with expectations from Disney. Sound familiar?

Bono and Edge more than anyone else, should know that art sometimes takes time to grow into its potential.  They have no excuse to let an original artistic piece reach its climax. After all, aren’t these the same guys who gave time and air to their struggles in 1991 to eventually make Achtung Baby?

By not only not sticking to Taymor’s vision, but then using their public voice and goodwill to chastise her in the public arena, the U2 leaders showed an ugly side to their personality: a side one doesn’t usually see in Bono’s documentaries in Africa or while The Edge is helping save New Orleans.  The side where manipulation and reputation mean more than everything.  Even loyalty.

And sure, Spider-Man is now an economic success. But at what cost? The unique artistic vision of Taymor was sabotaged for a kid’s friendly, popcorn-style family musical about as artistic as an episode of The Jersey Shore.  Maybe if Bono and Edge follow through on their artistic instincts, we will see another Joshua Tree, but don’t let your super fandom convince you otherwise: Bono and Edge didn’t act the way they taught us: with honor. –Jaime Rodriguez, Contributing Writer Follow Jaime on Twitter: @Jaimearodriguez





It’s All We Can Do

March 5, 2012

Editing the webzine of a U2 fansite can be challenging. In general, we’re looking for really thoughtful essays that strive to say what hasn’t already been said, even when retracing steps we’ve taken before. Even though some material has been addressed previously in other contexts, it’s still possible to shed new light, as is the case with an excellent, thoughtful piece we wish we’d written; here, Paul De Revere looks back for with a wide lens at Bono’s lifelong intersection of the personal and political, spiritual and social, rooted in the uplifting “gnostic gospel” of The Joshua Tree in general and “Where The Streets Have No Name” in particular. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. -the editors