The Poet Tree: while you wait to rock out, don’t forget to read the screen!

May 22, 2017

In his review of the Joshua Tree revival for the New York Times, music critic Jon Pareles notes Bono’s lyrical debts to “language that drew on the Bible and Beat poetry.” This connection between sacred canon and subversive counterculture is an important one, and the summer rock recital of the 80s classic also invigorates the band’s respect for American writing, poetry in particular. As a matter of fact, fans waiting for the show will be treated to a digital anthology of poems, curated by U2.

When we got to our seats at Levi’s Stadium last Wednesday, we were early. With more than an hour before the show, this anticipation could have easily produced boredom or frustration. But we were not bored, not this night. As the sun started to set over the hills, we turned our attention to the mammoth stage that filled the south endzone.

The gold-hued backdrop would later double as an IMAX-style movie screen for the films that would accompany the concert, but for now on the right-hand side of the screen, the texts of poems, chosen by the band, scrolled before us. My sweet wife and I spent our time reading the poems out loud to each other. Each was incredibly powerful, and even though I am a huge poetry reader and poet myself, many were new to me.

Although U2 is an Irish band, these were all American poems by American poets, as American writers inspired the legendary 1987 album that they are touring behind to celebrate its 30th anniversary, playing all eleven tracks of the record in sequence for the first time in a live setting.

We heard from contemporary writers like Naomi Shihab Nye, Alberto Rios, or Elizabeth Alexander. We got challenged to our core by the late Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri. We heard from classic writers like Carl Sandburg or the legendary Walt Whitman. Whitman warmed us with his words from Leaves of Grass. Words like “argue not concerning God” or “give alms to every one that asks” or “dismiss whatever insults your own soul” because according to good old Walt, these ideals will turn our entire lives into a poem.

What a great sentiment for the living fandom of the thousands not just watching, but participating in, this historic tour. Let’s make our entire lives a poem, or maybe a U2 song, or perhaps a psalm, a beatitude, or a Bible verse.

These particular phrases from Whitman remind me of the Kentucky farmer, poet, and believer Wendell Berry when he declares, “Love the Lord. Love the world. Love someone who does not deserve it.” Or “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” I hope that perhaps U2 will add that Appalachian poem to their spontaneous anthology when they play shows in Tennessee and Kentucky next month.


A hardcore fan and fellow U2 scholar suggested that about 1% of the masses would read the poems, busy as they were, we suppose, with beers and merch lines, with Mixlr and Twitter. I hope that his estimate is low, but it might be high! But even if a mere one hundred of the thousands got excited about the poems and their messages, that is a great thing.

It didn’t matter to me about the other fans, because under the spell of these poems, I was enthralled. The very next day, I was hunting for poems on websites like or or before heading out on a pilgrimage to North Beach to the Beat mecca City Lights to collect some works by some of the poets I learned about and add to my always growing book collection.

Over at the Beat Museum, we found fellow U2 fan travelers, including Beth Nabi (@bethandbono), enjoying the city of San Francisco, before heading south for the Pasadena.  shows. For at least some of us, books and poets and converging countecultures go hand-in-hand with rock fandoms. I’m excited to see if and how the digital anthology evolves or changes at the coming shows.


Check out some samples of the poetry shared on #U2TheJoshuaTree2017

William Matthews, “Why We Are Truly a Nation” from Selected Poems and Translations, 1969-1991

Because we rage inside

the old boundaries,

like a young girl leaving the Church,

scared of her parents.

Because we all dream of saving

the shaggy, dung-caked buffalo,

shielding the herd with our bodies.

Because grief unites us,

like the locked antlers of moose

who die on their knees in pairs.

William Matthews’s poetry has earned him a reputation as a master of well-turned phrases, wise sayings, and rich metaphors. Much of Matthews’s poetry explores the themes of life cycles, the passage of time, and the nature of human consciousness. In another type of poem, he focuses on his particular enthusiasms: jazz music, basketball, and his children.


Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary” from Selected Poetry

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

passing their bill collectors

on to the next of kin

All died

waiting for the garden of eden

to open up again

under a new management

All died

dreaming about america

waking them up in the middle of the night

screaming: Mira Mira

your name is on the winning lottery ticket

for one hundred thousand dollars

All died

hating the grocery stores

that sold them make-believe steak

and bullet-proof rice and beans

All died waiting dreaming and hating

Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and raised in Manhattan. A few years after graduating from high school, he was drafted into the Army and served in the Vietnam War. Upon his return to New York, Pietri joined the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican Civil rights activist group. In the early 1970s, he co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Café with Miguel Piñero, Miguel Algarín, and others.

Carl Sandburg “Prairie” from Cornhuskers

I am here when the cities are gone.

I am here before the cities come.

I nourished the lonely men on horses.

I will keep the laughing men who ride iron.

I am dust of men.

Carl Sandburg (January 6, 1878 – July 22, 1967) was an American poet, writer, and editor who won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as “a major figure in contemporary literature”, especially for volumes of his collected verse, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920). He enjoyed “unrivaled appeal as a poet in his day, perhaps because the breadth of his experiences connected him with so many strands of American life,” and at his death in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson observed that “Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.”

Alberto Rios, “The Border: A Double Sonnet” from A Small Story about the Sky

“The border is a moat but without a castle on either side.”

Born in 1952, Alberto Ríos the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona and the author of many poetry collections, including  A Small Story about the Sky (Copper Canyon Press, 2015). In 1981, he received the Walt Whitman Award for his collection Whispering to Fool the Wind (Sheep Meadow Press, 1982). He currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.


Sherman Alexie, “The Powwow at the End of the World” from The Summer of Black Widows

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after

that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws

a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire

which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told

by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon

who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us

how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;

the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many

of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing

with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He received his BA in American studies from Washington State University in Pullman. His books of poetry include Face (Hanging Loose, 2009), One Stick Song (2000), The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998), The Summer of Black Widows (1996), Water Flowing Home (1995), Old Shirts & New Skins (1993), First Indian on the Moon (1993), I Would Steal Horses (1992), and The Business of Fancydancing (1992).

Shirley Geok-lin Lim, “Learning to love America” from What the Fortune Teller Didn’t Say

because I walk barefoot in my house

because I have nursed my son at my breast

because he is a strong American boy

because I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is

because he answers I don’t know

because to have a son is to have a country

because my son will bury me here

because countries are in our blood and we bleed them

because it is late and too late to change my mind

because it is time.

Born in Malacca, Malaysia, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim was raised by her Chinese father and attended missionary schools. Although her first languages were Malay and the Hokkin dialect of Chinese, she was able to read English by the time she was six. Lim emigrated to the United States after college, settling eventually in California. Her several books of poetry include Monsoon History: Selected Poems and What the Fortune Teller Didn’t Say.


Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American through poems about heritage and peace that overflow with a humanitarian spirit.

Robinson Jeffers, “Juan Higera Creek” from Californians

There have I stopped, and though the unclouded sun

Flew high in loftiest heaven, no dapple of light

Flecked the large trunks below the leaves intense,

Nor flickered on your creek: murmuring it sought

The River of the South, which oceanward

Would sweep it down. I drank sweet water there,

And blessed your immortality. Not bronze,

Higera, nor yet marble cool the thirst;

Let bronze and marble of the rich and proud

Secure the names; your monument will last

Longer, of living water forest-pure.

Elizabeth Alexander, “Preliminary Sketches: Philadelphia” from The Venus Hottentot.

Which way to walk down these tree streets

and find home cooking, boundless love?

Double-dutching on front porches,

men in sleeveless undershirts.

I’m listening for the Philly sound—

Brother            brother            brotherly love.

Elizabeth Alexander’s career as a poet has been impressive. Her book American Sublime (2005) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and in 2005 she was awarded the Jackson Poetry Prize. She is often recognized as a pivotal figure in African American poetry. When Barack Obama asked her to compose and read a poem for his Presidential inauguration, she joined the ranks of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams; her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” became a bestseller after it was published as a chapbook by Graywolf Press. Alexander writes on a variety of subjects, most notably race and gender, politics and history, and motherhood.


First Tree Reflections 2017: Primary U2 is Music and Poetry for Peace and Justice

May 18, 2017

Back in January, the Edge showed up at the Los Angeles version of the global women’s march during #45’s first weekend as president to play a jagged version of “Pride” with cinema star Juliette Lewis on vocals. As it turns out, that was not a one-off nod to the current wave of feminist fury against the gendered injustices of the current predicament. Indeed, the Joshua Tree’s 2017 revival reminds everyone in attendance about the vulnerability of women’s rights and the vision for universal equality.

Bono and the band reframe several songs as statements about sex and gender in the context of poverty and power. The encore of post-Joshua Tree songs come packaged in a searing cinematic tableau of agit-prop feminist and Womanist organizing. The re-invention of “Ultra-Violet” is ultravisionary for the audience member who can suspend the dark doubt of denial.

Somehow, U2 once again risks but transcends the white-liberal guilt-trip with a global testimony and altar call to activism. The videography blasts the buzzed and tired masses with a prophetic message packaged in sensationalized documentary footage. These are crimes against humanity, the disasters we privileged and paying customers might not want to stomach after already surviving so much cacophonic bombast and Bono preaching, unless we give in with our tears and a commitment to real social change.  Making “Miss Sarajevo” about Syria, the band brings Omaima Hoshan, a teen activist in the tradition of Malala Yousafzai, to speak for the hopes of young people in a war-ravaged region.


If you resent and recoil when Bono asks you to organize not agonize — as one fan tweeted, that the singer was talking “at” him and not “to” him — you may go ahead and beat the traffic at this point. When the cut-out mask gimmick with Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t really take on the first leg of 360 in 2009, this next stunt is a U2 crowd- engager in a history of such audacious and seemingly silly risks. A giant cloth photograph of Omaima is passed through the crowd; it’s kind of like “the wave” meets summer-camp ice-breaker, and that is when I started to stupid cry. We humans are better than our borders, biases, and bigotry, and we thank Bono and band for reminding us.

But last night was the Bay Area. And I cannot help but wonder how these bits will play when U2 reaches — where I will be for the rest of my shows this tour — the American South? Will the band keep this bit for the terror-mongers of Texas, the stoners at Bonnaroo, or the Bible thumpers in Kentucky? I remember the 2001 Lexington show when a fan cheered for Charlton Heston and against U2 during the gun-control version of “Bullet The Blue Sky.” Omaima might really inspire the crowds in Texas and Tennessee, in Kentucky and Florida, in ways the band might not anticipate, but that does not mean they should change the show. I don’t think they will. Just be ready for the masses to challenge this boldness.

Added to this are dynamic themes about diversity and the dogged ghosts of racism and genocide that haunt our content. From the U2 curated anthology of American poems that scroll on the screens on an empty stage while fans wait for the show to start to the sepia tones of Anton Corbijn films and photos, the shows runs on a rugged hope and passionate honesty; the band’s status gives them courage to challenge us, after all these years.


Before performing the Tree-in-sequence for the massive and meaningful middle section, the fans get going with a suite of War and Unforgettable Fire songs that send us singing and jumping and arm-waving. A reimagined “Sort of Homecoming” is the hard-core fan’s favorite addition to this tour, and it brings many of us back to our teenage years, first discovering this band on MTV and on vinyl records in our basement family rooms and poster-decorated bedrooms.

After a song by the Pogues, the band walked out, one at at time. Larry sits alone for the drum cadence of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and catapults us into the song Bono once said he hoped to stop singing. The world requires us to keep singing it. Same for “New Years Day,” “Pride,” and “Bad.”

We need to hold onto these songs of hopeful defiance. But other things we need to surrender. We fans need to surrender any second-guessing about the motives for this tour, for this is pure U2 in its primary colors. We need to throw ourselves into the enduring meaning of this tour and let go the rest. We need to let it all go, not just addiction and loneliness but also cynicism and hopelessness, resentment and the need for revenge.

I am so grateful to have four more shows yet to see, and I hope to write much more, as these morning-after musings just scratch the surface of everything we experienced with thousands of our friends on the third night of this inspiring annivesary tour and this present-day testimony to the power of music and poetry as means for peace and justice. -Andrew William Smith   @teacheronradio

Photos from opening night in Vanouver courtesy of Remy at 


“World Peace Tomorrow”: U2′s 1987 Manifesto Resurfaces

May 8, 2017

The U2 manifesto to change the world has resurfaced, buried in a 1987 interview available on YouTube.

During the conversation with NBC television in the United States that took place during the third leg of the first Joshua Tree tour, the band were pressed on their reputation as the new religious and social conscience of rock music. As in other interviews where this topic was pursued, the band pushed back against any messianic implications that they were or are spokespeople, while also owning their commitment to justice.

Edge emphasized, “We refuse to accept that there are certain things that you can’t deal with in a rock n roll song.”

Toward the end of the interview (around the 6:25 mark of part 5 of the clips), the band kicked into playful mode and dropped a point-by-point declaration, which we can now show the world again, their 1987 manifesto. It all seems sincere, except for a silly point about hats and Texans, which is hilarious considering the band’s late 1980s obsession with American head-wear. The points follow:

  1. Solve World Hunger
  2. World Peace Tomorrow
  3. All Political Prisoners Released Tomorrow
  4. Removal of All Borders
  5. Removal of All Hats from Texans
  6. Free Fuel
  7. Another 100,000 Rock n Roll Bands Formed

Thirty years later, the world is still dealing with these problems. There has been lots of cynicism from left and right toward the band’s activism over the decades, but they still address the issues of the day. It will be interesting to see how the current controversies and commentary factors in to the upcoming U2 world tour.

The interview clip with the “manfesto” is here:

The whole interview begins with this clip:

interview with us

Celebration Road: Restless Reflections of Redemptive U2 Fandom, then & now

May 7, 2017

The Joshua Tree must be more than an album. And pondering its impact on me for its 30th birthday, this is more than just another mid-life crisis and exercise in nostalgia. 1987 was such a whirlwind year. 1986 and 1988, too. I graduated high school, started college, dropped out of college. I was finding myself and losing myself.

My first wave (1983-1988) of seriously following U2 would peak when I caught numerous shows that spring season, trekking around on the first leg of the North American tour, from Tempe to Los Angeles, from San Francisco and Detroit. My friendship with Maria McKee and Lone Justice, who would be tapped to open the shows on this tour, helped make this possible for a college student on a budget, as her generosity provided me guestlist tickets to the shows I attended.

jt aws 2

The Lenten season had just begun when the album was first released, so the record’s desert Biblical tones seemed more than a perfect fit for the journey we were on.  That March, I scrambled to throw together my dream of following the band’s world tour. If people could follow Springsteen or the Dead, then U2 needed that kind of traveling fanbase, too.

At the time, I was living in intentional Christian community in Atlanta, and the idea of running off to catch these shows seemed frivolous, even a decadent privilege, but I was possessed in my gut with that kind of fandom obsession only conjured by rock n roll bands. Within walking distance of where I lived, I could purchase the new tape for less than ten dollars, and I learned all the songs by listening to it on my cassette Walkman with headphones.

The social frame surrounding The Joshua Tree was for me more-than-intense, a fierce urban and rural religious resistance to Reagan-era America. We could feel it from the breathing bricks and overgrown weeds of our lives, manifest in mixtapes of classic rock. I was running from rally to protest, against the KKK or against intervention in Central America or against apartheid in South Africa or against the nuclear arms race. We had a lot to be against. Because of all this passion, I decided my touring with U2 needed a “mission statement,” so I conjured up “Celebration Road” as the nickname for my endeavor. I would pass out fliers at the shows, encouraging fans to get involved in movements for change.

celebration road

Like the social and political edges, the musical ambiance that influenced The Joshua Tree also influenced me in heady and heavy ways. Like Bono and the gang in their late 20s, during my last days as a teenager, I rediscoverd the deeper cuts in the music of the late 1960s, music that had been on the turntables at my house my whole life. And after being mostly straightedge in high school, I was suddenly discovering the substances that made the 60s sound better. Like Bono has said about himself in the intervening years, I was as much punk as hippy. But so much both, that at times, I had been called hippypunk. For my sensibilities, U2 and R.E.M. of the late 1980s were much more avant-garde in musical and political spirit than their sudden “college rock” surge in popularity might suggest.

As much as I loved learning more Dylan or more Doors, more Beatles or more Hendrix, I could easily fall into rapturous moments with the Minutemen or the Meat Puppets or even hardcore like M.D.C. or Dead Kennedys.

Looking back, this time would be the last season of my youth when I would identify as a follower of Christ, before a two-decade descent into a crazed wilderness of addiction. My belief in Jesus had shaped, inspired, and guided me for so long, that it was hard to imagine life outside church and fellowship communities. My faith filled me with passion, and it shaped the entirety of my life, fueling my commitment to social justice. But the allure of the secular counterculture called loudly. I found myself dancing in the streets, debating in classrooms, and drinking at parties, seeking and craving and experiencing a version of the revolution that wasn’t rooted in a religious context.

jt aws

Listening then and listening today, The Joshua Tree reaches the status of canon and brings a riveting liturgical experience. This is rock as revelation. The tracklisting is an order-of-service. Strangely, my experience of immersion on the opening leg of the tour would almost completely sate me. These concerts were undoubtedly church, but I would get somehow and somewhere disillusioned by the end of the line, and I was ready for extended visits to other rock-and-roll denominations. Months later, I would get spiritually restless, and some of the theological significance of the album for me would get lost, at least for awhile. Nevertheless, I have returned to this record at various times and places, and it has been rock scripture again and again, unpacking parts of my aching heart in new ways.

I stopped listening to U2 as much when I drifted away from Jesus. Then, when I made a decisive break with the church at 20 years old on Easter 1988, it was to listen to loud voices of hedonism, psychedelic and otherwise. When I returned to U2 in the 2000s, to this album along with all the others, especially All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2’s music helped draw me back to the source of my faith, the source of salvation, to Jesus.

U2 has always embodied for me what we today call the intersectional, the deeply connected. For them, the message is musical art as justice, brandishing a chorus or a guitar solo at that crossroads of God and spirituality, at the intersection of romantic love and movements for social change.

The music that a person connects with while growing up is the music that grabs heartstrings and holds you with gravity. To this music you can return, years and years later. My yearning for deep spirituality and romantic love and world peace were the swirling turbulence of the late 1980s, and this album brings those aches a profound amplification. Older versions of ourselves share the same concerns, and we will sing them out loud on this coming tour. -Andrew William Smith @teacheronradio

 Interference fanzine editor Andrew Smith (pictured here, 30 years ago) has been on hiatus from this page but has found his way back. He will catch five shows this spring/summer.