There are songs that lived in my brain before memories did; or maybe they go so deep the songs themselves feel like a memory. “Where The Streets Have No Name” is one of my first memories, I remembered the sound of it before I knew what sound meant. In fact, it’s easy to latch onto Bono as a very small child — half of his lyrics are wordless wails that are primordial, glistening, instinctive. This song, though, meant more to me when I grew old enough to understand its significance. First, the guitar building like a sunrise, illuminating a dark expanse, then suddenly everything is bright and urgent: I want to run. Later, I learned that guitar was coming from a man called The Edge. My parents would smile when the said this so I knew it was both funny and serious; funny, because it was a name like a superhero, serious, because despite their smiles, they still called him that.
There are albums that become lodged in your heart before you understand what it means to be a fan, and The Joshua Tree is one of these for me. Sometimes, our taste is not dictated by us, but by our parents; the songs that surrounded us as infants become unshakable as adults. These songs run in my blood; I don’t just like them, I have no choice in the matter. They’re part of me. Looking around the Rose Bowl stadium on Saturday night, I realized a lot of people feel that way, too. All in all, there might be a couple million of us, or at least that’s the estimated number of people that will see the The Joshua Tree tour that the band are currently embarked on to celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary. 1.7 million people across 33 shows, these people are my kin. We are related through these songs that burn in our blood, regardless of the year.
The Joshua Tree was a record that lived in me before I had any words to assign to it, but today I will — it’s a brave record. It’s a popular stance in 2017 to dismiss the overly earnest and the very tender as “corny,” but truthfully, this depth of feeling, this dedication to belief, is a feat of no small courage. On their current tour Bono and his crew do their damnedest to honor their initial impulse; they were off to look for America, and all throughout the show on Saturday night, Bono interpolated this line from a beloved Simon & Garfunkel song (“America”) into his intros and codas. In the midst of a particularly dark period for the country, it is important to hold onto the small, flickering lights that still exist. It is also important to stare down the darkness and acknowledge its existence. The Joshua Tree tour does both.
The album came out in 1987, the year before I was born, and as a very small child, my father, an avid record collector, would play these songs on tapes in the car, on our record player at home (which I wasn’t yet allowed to touch), and later, through an mp3 player on our desktop computer that I could operate much better than he could. As a teen, I knew my parents had gone to see U2 in concert, a very rare and expensive occurrence for them, but I’m not sure at what point or where they did. I begrudged them this; it felt like one of those grown up things I would never be old enough to participate in myself.
So, instead, I would listen to a burned CD-R copy of Joshua Tree on my flimsy Walkman headphones, running laps around the nearby middle school track, pretending the lanes lead somewhere, anywhere but here (I want to run). I know it can’t possibly be true, but sometimes I wonder if I was drawn to become a long distance runner because of how often running crops up on this record — the desire to break free, the urgent need to explore, a sense of freedom in movement.
On my runs, I’d memorize every wordless vocal wail that made Bono not just a rockstar, but a folksinger too. This record thrums off the riffs — and Larry Mullen Jr.’s ceaseless drum fills — but we all know it’s Bono’s raspy, soaring walls of wails that made this band a legend. My intimate knowledge of every musical moment made the album mine, even if I knew little about the band before or after this album. It didn’t even occur to me to look for other music by U2. That’s how complete this record is.
There are the bangers, sure, and the album is completely front-loaded between the opener, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With Or Without You,” but the later tracks like “Exit,” “In God’s Country” and “Trip Through Your Wires” had remained largely unsung. “Red Hill Mining Town” quite literally remained unsung, as the band has never performed it live until this tour. “Sometimes songs become themselves years later,” Bono said while noting they’d never performed the track till now. That resonated with me. I feel I am becoming myself only now, years after I fell in love with this record. What was it that this album made me want to become? (I want to run.)
Joshua Tree is about the American dream, both mythological and lived, and on the Joshua Tree tour, which came to Los Angeles for two nights this weekend, Bono made a point of addressing the chasm between those two concepts again and again. “Tonight is for those letting go of the American dream,” he said about halfway through the band’s performance of the album in full last night. “And for those who are holding onto the American dream.” There was something comforting in the dichotomy here; that I wasn’t alone in a complete disillusionment with my country, which had always been sold to me as a facade of courage, honor and justice. Namely, by my parents. I have begun letting go of the dream I had about what America was. I have learned it is not that.
Courage, honor, justice — none of those words ring true to my experience of America in 2017, and truthfully, they haven’t rung true at any point in the country’s history for many, many of its citizens. Yet, as an outsider, on this record Bono also gave us room to hold onto the myths that make being an American feel powerful, that give us hope in a potential future. Much later in the night, he’d point to the immense impact of recent HIV/AIDS relief, that has been largely spearheaded by America. There is never a black and white divide of good and evil, myth and reality, when it comes to things as enormous as countries and principalities, or even slightly smaller elements like rock bands and parents. The good and the bad remain, mixed, inexplicably, leaving it to us to sort through the memories for ourselves. Leaving us to determine what is in our blood and what we can unlearn.
After a mini-opener of hits like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “(Pride) In The Name Of Love,” along with a couple others, the band left the jutting out replica of a Joshua Tree they kicked off the show on, and headed back to the massive full stage, which was backlit by the largest high-res LED video screen ever used in a touring show. Throughout the show, it played immersive, interactive videos that made the show feel like a movie we, the audience, were also participating in. The screen, which ended up stealing the show in some ways, wasn’t something any of us could’ve envisioned or imagined back in 1987. Those years spent begrudging my parents’ U2 experience were put to rest, gently, by the proportion and magnificence of this weekend’s show. More bands should perform their most beloved album live, and allow their fans to share what was most likely an intimate, solitary experience, not just with the band, but with other, similarly eager fans.
There were many very meaningful moments that stood out to me Saturday night at my first U2 concert. One of the major ones was during the lengthy encore, when Bono dedicated “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” to women, specifically his daughters, and I thought of the gift my own father had given me, by loving this album. Also, I had never seen a white, male rockstar of this caliber and scope so publicly and directly recognize the fact that women struggle in specific ways he will never understand, and attempt to honor that struggle in a series of images celebrating those of us who have succeeded against enormous odds, from bell hooks and Virginia Woolf to Patti Smith, Michelle Obama, and beyond.
But the best moment, all night long, was hearing thousands of other strangers bellowing along to Bono’s wordless vocal runs. We had all memorized the same swells and shapes of his inexpressible emotion, lyrics weren’t necessary. These songs live in me like memory and blood, they make me want to run, they make me want to become. They make me want to look for the America that can grow like a flicker of light on a horizon of darkness. Wailing along with you, thousands of strangers who feel this too, I felt the light growing.