August 21, 2012
At the top of another semester as an instructor of writing and literature, I was meeting with some students that I mentor in our living/learning village (formerly or pejoratively known as “the dorm”) where I work as a “faculty head.” Our village vice-president is a music fan, and he showed up in the epic “Fish Can Fly” t-shirt with Bono’s artwork that we for sale at the Hard Rock café.
I couldn’t help confess my Bono fandom, the number of shows I’ve seen, that I essentially dropped out of a college to follow the Joshua Tree tour in 1987. In fact, I even had a coffee-stained manila folder over on the bookshelf with some ticket stubs and photos of me in U2 gear and climbing-up an actual Joshua tree.
Sometimes I forget the extent to which U2 were the band of “my generation,” of how U2 along with REM helped us make sense of growing up. And despite the critical controversies that surrounded Rattle and Hum and eventually prompted Achtung Baby, these records sound so good in retrospect that the sympathetic Rattle and Hum reclamation and historical revision I’ve advocated before still seem timely and necessary.
Just a few hours after sharing some meeting Bono stories with my students, an article popped up in my Facebook news feed from the popular NPR Music site. Visually tagged with the epic Edge image from Rattle, the piece was titled “What Was The Most Important Band Of Your College Years?” Turns out for blogger Robin Hilton, U2 was it.
In all honesty, U2 was more my high school band. I did drop-out of school the fall after my Joshua Tree jaunt—and had been exploring DIY punk rock, folk, and psychedelia more than U2 when I finally got back in school in the early 1990s. Even though my brother insisted on taking me to the Zoo TV show in Detroit, I kind of sipped-my-90s-U2-from-the-sidelines, not revisiting my U2 fandom full force until the early 00s (or “the oughts”) as part of a mid-life crisis.
But Hilton has an experience I think many people who came of age in the 80s can relate to. He recalls, “But when I really put my mind to it, I realized there was one band poster that hung on every wall of every place I lived those years. It was U2. It was one of those huge posters, too — about six feet high — and featured a crouching Bono, with the rest of the band, looking to be deep in thought, with the words ‘In God’s Country’ written above them.”
No doubt those black-and-white Anton Corbijn shots from the desert most likely adorned many a young-man’s wall in the late-Reagan, early-Bush years. Hilton continues, “That was a reference to a cut from the band’s 1987 masterpiece, The Joshua Tree. It’s probably my favorite U2 album. But the song that always slays me — and the one that seems to perfectly capture the wistfulness with which I now regard my college years — is ‘All I Want Is You,’ the bawl-my-eyes-out closing cut to 1988′s Rattle And Hum.”
What is it about “All I Want Is You”? It remains a U2 live staple after all these years. I was definitely bawling my eyes to it the summer of 2011 when it closed the Nashville show, and I was staring into the sunshine of my fiancé’s smile. A friend interpreted it for us as a centerpiece of our wedding in January 2012.
Hilton reflects, “‘All I Want Is You’ offered me the heartbreakingly beautiful belief that everything could be alright with the right person to love. Nothing else mattered.”
Was U2 your college band? Was U2 your college band in a later period? What U2 songs give you that “nothing else mattered” solace amid the chaos of the world? - Andrew William Smith, Editor
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
November 27, 2010
I guess we could say “I found what I was looking for.”
Visiting Vegas with my patient wife Lisa for a series of professional workshops and job fair lasting several days, I sat down at the computer and started researching things to do there, in addition to gambling. Lisa had the idea to drive from Las Vegas to San Diego to attend a friend’s wedding in the days after the workshop and fly home from there. She suggested we could see the scenery and visit the Joshua Tree National Park. Cool, I thought.
So, my first search was “Joshua tree.” Since I’m a pretty sizeable fan of the Irish rock band U2, I noticed immediately the search responses relating to their hit album of the late 80s, The Joshua Tree. There were several of photographer Anton Corbijn’s black and white images shot for the album included in the search results.
I remembered that these photos captured my attention so much as a college pre-law student that I decided to put my aspirations of being a lawyer aside and change my major to photojournalism. I was already a senior, but that did not matter. I became passionate about photography and the emotional response certain images could create in a viewer. I wanted to make images like that. For U2 at the time, Corbijn showed seriousness at a time when the band was promoting its political conscience – a defining mood that still follows them today.
On the back of the album, a photo showed the band standing in the desert near a lone Joshua Tree. I wondered if I could find the tree today. Surely, someone knows where it is.
As the story goes, Corbijn and the band drove around the Mojave Desert in California on a bus shooting photos for three days in 1986. Driving along, Corbijn was reportedly looking for a single, lone standing Joshua Tree for the band’s photo. On a stretch of highway near Death Valley, not in the Joshua Tree National Park, Corbijn shouted “Stop the bus.” One of the band members related how he bolted from the bus and ran through the desert to the now iconic tree
“Hey, honey. What if we went and found U2’s Joshua tree instead of going through the national park?” Of course, she would say “yes.” She could tell I was getting excited about the adventure and one of her greatest gifts to me is to encourage my passions.
I became obsessed with it about a week before the trip. I became far less interested in Las Vegas and focused on finding this tree. If Corbijn could see it from the road, I could, too. It was just going to be a matter of knowing where to look
After refocusing my searches on the internet to U2’s Joshua Tree, I found bits and pieces of information all across the web on blogs, travel sites, and U2 fan sites. I began to put together a file of info that included maps, photos, even videos of others who had found the tree over the years. I contacted friends who lived in the area and even started looking at weather reports about the Mojave Desert. And, I found GPS coordinates. Lots of them. They had the tree placed in a dozen locations.
It seemed no one was willing to give the exact location for two reasons: First, to protect it from vandals and, secondly, to make anyone seeking it have their own adventure in finding it.
I was able to determine that the tree was now dead. Joshua trees can live hundreds of years in the harshest desert environments at certain altitudes, but this one had fallen after dying of natural causes around 2000.
It had also become an unofficial shrine to U2 fans willing to find it. There was a monument someone had placed in the ground nearby and a box kept at the site filled with U2 memorabilia. There was even a guestbook/notebook kept there for visitors to write their thoughts
If it was down, though, I would probably not be seeing it from the highway like Corbijn. I narrowed all the info down to where I was confident I knew where it was within half a mile. I studied the Corbijn photos looking at the mountain ranges behind the tree and then used Google Earth to take me there.
I had the location pinpointed by cross-referencing the mountains in the photos with the Google Earth 3-D images. I had some GPS coordinates that I felt good about, but I still wasn’t totally sure I was going to find it. The desert is big and things like time and distance get distorted out there.
We went to Las Vegas, lost some money, saw a Criss Angel show, visited a Titanic exhibit, even took a field trip to the Grand Canyon, but I was fixed on the adventure of finding this tree.
When the day arrived, we packed, got a jeep and headed to Death Valley. I hadn’t driven in mountains like these since … well, never. Following the GPS in the car, we swung by Zabriskie Point in the Death Valley National Park, another more widely known U2 fan spot where the actual cover of The Joshua Tree album was photographed with the band by Corbijn. It was beautiful. Ansel Adams made a famous shot there. Nice. Now, let’s go.
We pressed on through Death Valley, I got out and shot pictures here and there, but a sense of urgency was creeping up on us as the sun was creeping toward the horizon. The GPS said 84 miles to the tree. Up mountains and down mountains, long flat roads where a mile seemed to take 10 minutes to cross.
The sun was beginning to touch mountaintops, but we were getting close. Lisa and I counted down five miles, four miles, 3, 2, 1. Stop. I said to her that this is where we need to park, checking my map printouts, looking at 3-D images of the mountain range in front of us.
Wide open desert. I took the GPS and headed out in constant fear of the deadly Western Rattlesnake coming out to enjoy the coolness of the evening. My contacts were dry from the desert air and sand, so binoculars were useless. Lisa said, we’ll stay at a motel nearby and comeback tomorrow in the daylight. I walked for what seemed like 20 minutes, maybe it was, until I was confident I could see the tree resting on the ground about a hundred yards away. I waved to Lisa. I had found it, but I knew pressing on would leave me out there in the dark very quickly, so I turned and headed back to the jeep.
Lisa found a motel in Lone Pine, Calif., a small town, a few miles across, beneath Mount Whitney. The biggest industry is tourism. What? It seems the area was a hotspot for filming westerns decades ago. Scenes from the more recent movies Iron Man, Gladiator and Star Trek: The Next Generation were filmed there. There’s even an annual film festival which draws old, western movie stars. On the walls of our motel were signed photos of dozens of cowboy movie stars like Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, and Roy Rogers. We ate dinner at a nearby café and turned in for the night.
The next day, we arrived back at the location and it was raining … in the freaking desert. So, what? I unloaded the camera gear and headed along the footprints I had left the day before. We never did see a snake. In fact, I didn’t see anything living, not even an insect. This place was harsh.
We could look in every direction and there was no one. The only sound was the swishing sand under our feet. Quiet and alone we soon found ourselves standing beside a dead, rock music icon. It was kind of like standing by the grave of some forgotten hero, except that it wasn’t forgotten
Visitors over the years had taken nearby rocks and fashioned them into symbols and messages relating to the band. Stones were placed to spell “U2” and “Pride” among other song titles. There was the gorgeous metal-engraved monument that asked the question, “Have you found what you’re looking for?” derived from the name of one of the band’s most popular songs on the Joshua Tree album.
We signed the guestbook. I thanked the band, Corbijn and the tree for inspiring me to embark on my career of 20-plus years, and I left a momento in the box with the other items left by previous visitors, a small book of photos Corbijn had taken of the band and the tree. The guestbook showed a small but steady stream of visitors to the site, only a few every month or two, but hundreds of entries written over the years.
After being dead for a decade, the tree itself still mostly held the shape of the silhouette shown in Corbijn’s photos. It showed no signs of being ripped apart by souvenir hunters or for auction on the internet. It was crumbling in places in a natural process.
I photographed it in every way I could for nearly an hour, more time than Corbijn had spent there shooting the band. The rain had stopped.
I said to Lisa, “You know, it’s kind of sad. This tree was once so majestic, and now it’s fading away. It will only deteriorate from here. If we ever come here again, it won’t be the same.”
“It’s like life. That’s the way life is,” she said.
We walked back to the jeep and drove on to San Diego. We passed hundreds of Joshua trees along the way, stopping to photograph a few. I thought of the settlers that passed the same trees as they headed west.
Mostly, I thought of how many lives that one single tree during that one single photo shoot had affected, especially mine. My camera brought me to meet Lisa, who was also a photographer at the time. U2 and Corbijn were already on track for their success, but there is little speculation that the album made the band superstars, selling over 25 million copies.
Very rarely does an image match the spirit of its purpose as well as those of the tree. It just happened in the moment, as they say.
A previous version of this article already appeared athttp://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/article/20101121/LIFESTYLE/11210335/-I-found-what-I-was-looking-for-