The Good, The Bad and The Not So Pretty (part I) [Spoilers]

Now that a month has passed, I’ve had time to reflect on the show. The thing that comes to mind first is that there are advantages and disadvantages of seeing a show early. The advantage is obvious: seeing the show early. I get to see it before all of the footage, photos, reviews (i.e. spoilers) affect my opinion. I try to keep a wall around myself, but it has gotten harder over the years simply because of the sheer volume of content that comes out after a show. So the earlier I get to go, the less the content. That’s a good advantage; but it ends there.

The disadvantage is that it takes a while for our boys to iron out the wrinkles. In some tours they do it very quickly while others took much longer. I remember seeing them at PopMart ’97 in Oakland and even though they had been touring for a couple of months, they seemed a but unsure of themselves. That’s the best that I can describe it. After Zoo TV and Zoo TV Outside Broadcast, my expectations were high. They didn’t seem to have the confidence and swagger of the last tour and it was noticeable. There were six people in my group and we were all talking about it. One of my friends said, “Something’s missing.” I agreed with her even though I still loved the show. I read an article years later that detailed how the band was behind on the release of Pop and didn’t have enough time to rehearse before the tour launched. The good news is they found their legs by the time they hit Europe and were back to full form.

With that in mind, I figure the band needs to time to find their rhythm. As well-planned as this tour is, the show at Levi’s Stadium (Santa Clara, Ca.) lacked the dynamism of i+e 2015. Some of that was marred by our experience at Levi’s (more on that later), particularly the staff.

From the moment the show kicked off during i+e, I felt that it was going to be incredible; and it was. Seeing the gigantic screen for Joshua Tree 2017, I felt the same excitement. Yet as amazing as that screen is, it functions to strengthen the performance of the band. This is where I was hoping that they would bring the thunder and lightning, as they have so many times in the past.

One of the greatest things our Dublin lads do is perform at high level when the lights are the brightest. There is a fine balance between well-scripted and extemporaneity and this is where they shine, most of the time. It does feel a bit sacrilegious to give anything other than high praise, so it feels weird. But now that I am older and have seen a decent amount of shows (28) I am trying to be more objective.

Ever since Elevation ’01, I felt that the band has been getting better and better at live performances. Going into Joshua Tree Tour 2017, I tried not to have expections while knowing that this was a celebration of their landmark album. This was the album that turned me into a fan, so to say I was really looking forward to it, would be a huge understatement. Again, I wanted to “go in fresh” so I avoided anything that even mentioned the tour online.

The Good

Cutting right to the chase, the band opened on the satellite stage and launched into Sunday Bloody Sunday. It was a great way to kick off the show. They followed with New Year’s Day, A Sort of Homecoming, Bad and Pride (In the Name of Love). What I slowly realized was that they were playing all their songs that predated TJT, which was so cool. By then, the crowd was thoroughly warmed up and the band migrated back to the main stage to play the entire album—in order—without interruption. Nice.

By now it must be safe to say that nearly all of us have seen WTSHNN performed live and while a fan-favorite, how can it be re-experienced after thirty years? It can, and happened to me during the Elevation Tour ’01. There was something about that performance—and it helped being the in the heart—that took me back 14 years to 1987. I always thought it was the way Bono sung that song that reminded me of the first time I heard it live. For all of the ostentatiousness of PopMart and Zoo TV, the restrained production of Elevation actually made that song sound better.

For me the magnificence of the song is its wide-open nature. It was meant to be performed in front of a crowd. One of the best moments of the show was the beginning of song and it reminded me of a very similar performance during the film Rattle and Hum. As many of us know, most of the film is in black & white, except for a particular section. At the moment WTSHNN opens the screen is filled with the color red from the backdrop and the band members walk onto to the stage and take their positions. I always loved that because of the dramatic way color was introduced.

I believe the band had this idea in mind when they kicked off the song. That gigantic screen turned red and it was awesome. I also knew something would be displayed during the song, but didn’t know what. From what I learned later, Anton Corbijn filmed much of the content and he was the right man for the job. The moving image of a two-lane desert highway with jagged mountains in the background and beneath a cloudy, angry sky is so strikingly beautiful, I wanted to stop recording with my Canon G-16 and just enjoy the song. But, I really wanted to capture the entire song and focused on the task at hand (I will post the recording soon). The combination of the video and the performance gave the song a new dynamic.

For me, this was the high point of the show. The band was in full stride, Bono was in his element and that immense screen was the choir. I will mention it was at this point that much of the cold dissatisfaction of being at Levi’s began to melt away as I began to remember how much I loved hearing this song live.  I actually liked this version more than the version during i+e 2015.

Well, that’s it for now.  I will post the video in my next article.

 

U2 invades Levi’s Stadium (SPOILERS)

Our favorite Irish quartet began their assault on the home of the San Francisco Forty-Niners last night in front of a sellout crowd of 50,000 fans.

I will give a fuller account of the show soon, but I wanted to post something while still bathed on the glow of the last night’s performance.

Sadly, my Canon G16 struggled to keep up with the boys but I managed to snap a few decent images from the hundreds I took. I realize that from where we were sitting, I really needed an SLR camera. We had club seats so there were some of the best in the house, but the field was where the action was.

The first thing you notice is the screen. It his huge and somewhat reminiscent of the screen from their show in Paris, way back in 1987 (that show is on the DVD from the 20th Anniversary boxed set). As you can see the Joshua Tree design on the screen as well and there is a matching design on the satellite stage, which is hard to see. This area was probably the second-best place to be on the field. The best was the front of the main stage. I’ll get into that in a later post.

In a twist on how they perform, the band began on the satellite stage with songs from Boy and TUF. Bono’s voice was in top form and they played a version of Bad that reminded me of the first time I heard it live nearly thirty years ago. Over the years, Bono has changed the way he sang some of the songs from older albums and it was totally awesome that Bad was performed much more closely to the original.

Bravo, Mr. B.

By the time they launched into Where The Streets Have No Name, they returned to the main stage and galaxy-sized screen I understood why they did that.

In my next post, I will talk about it, however in the meantime, here’s another shot of the band in Joshua Tree mode.

More to come…

All Because Of You

Now we have come to the reason why U2 do what they do. In nearly every interview that they have given, the answer is invariably the same to the question of how they make their music. They write and record their songs with the intent to perform them in front of an audience. For all their multiple transformations, one thing has stayed the same since their formation: they are a live act.

In the beginning, they could barely play their instruments, Bono sounded like a punk wannabe and the only gigs they got were in small venues around Dublin. But they had something.

Watching the band’s early performances, it is obvious that they were a little rough and needed a polish, but they were most certainly talented. Bono knew how to play to the audience and to the camera.

For all the work they do in the recording studio, or on a music video set or during a public relations event, the stage is where they really earn their money. Playing in front of a live audience—in full rock mode—is where they eat. The critics can say whatever they want about them, but they can’t say that band doesn’t go all in at the show. I’ve gone to shows where there were some in our group who didn’t even like the band and yet, they were blown away by what they experienced. And even though they didn’t become fans, they understood that band always put on one hell of a show.

U2 is a live band, but so what? There are hundreds if not thousands of successful bands that do what they do. What makes them so special?

First, their shows are always a spectacle. From ZOO TV to i+e, they changed the concert experience. I remember being at The Joshua Tree Tour in 1987 and having my mind blown away. But, it was only the third concert I had ever been to and the first big one. Yet as big as it was, it is considered minimalist compared to the other tours that followed. Their shows are huge.

It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain

I believe the idea of video enhancement came into fruition when Willie Williams was tapped to work on the production design. The band had used projected images on their tours before, but Williams’ vision—along with artist Catherine Owens—took the band’s shows to a new level (who could ever forget the dancing Trabants?). From that point on, they always incorporated some form of video in their performance. Does that make for a better show? I believe it does.

I remember seeing the band on stage during the original Joshua Tree Tour and thinking it was the greatest show ever. I had no idea that they would continue to set the standard for an awe-inspiring rock show for the next three decades.

By having the name Joshua Tree Tour, there is a deliberate look back to the original. It is just a celebration of the album and tour that cemented their status in the rock pantheon? Or is it also a statement of enduring relevance of a band in its fourth decade of existence? Not many bands can claim that. I’m not talking about bands still playing shows in small to medium-sized venues. I’m talking about sold-out, stadium-sized arenas around the world.

A part of me wishes it would be a little more stripped down. There was also something very special about the austere simplicity of The Elevation Tour. I like the idea of four guys on a simple stage just playing the music. Obviously, their set list will include other songs—and I’m hoping some from Songs of Experience—so I have no idea what they will be doing. I am deliberately avoiding any spoilers so that I can experience the stage and set for the first time when I walk into Levi’s Stadium.

There’s a part of me in chaos is quiet

A part of me also wishes I could recapture the same feelings I had when I saw my first TJT concert. But sadly, too much time has passed. I’m a different person than the high school kid who was prepared to beg his mother to let him go to the show. In previous posts (When I Became a Fan, parts I, II & III) I wrote about how the album and tour came at a tough time in my life and helped me get through it (along with family and friends).

Nostalgia is such a weird thing. Sometimes we go looking for the things, places, or times when our lives were hard or unhappy. It’s not to be unhappy, but to remember how we got through it. And sometimes we just want to recapture a moment when everything was perfect.

With or Without You: a troubled love song, a big hit

If there is one song that epitomizes TJT it is With or Without You. This song captures the mood and intensity of the album so eloquently. Quite simply, it is one of the most poetic songs in their entire collection. The harmony between the lyrics and melody is spectacular. It truly is a very beautiful song.

With two powerful songs released from the album: the anthemic WTSHNN and the revelatory ISHFWILF how could they possibly make lightning strike a third time? We all know that they did; but what was so special about WOWY that made it a signature piece of TJT, and of the decade?

No ordinary love song

In high school, my creative writing teacher said that ninety percent of songs are written about love. I thought it was an unbelievably high percentage, until began to look at it more closely. It turned out I couldn’t find many songs that were not about love.

Where most songs were about the joys of being in love or the heartache of a breakup, WOWY was about something else. Assuming that Bono is the person in the song, he finds himself in a place in between to different states: being with a person and away from them. There is a sense of melancholy and an ache that doesn’t subside by the end of the song. But, there is also a sense of trueheartedness to the subject, which I assume is his wife Ali, and an acceptance to the life he has chosen.

Shine Like Stars

There were hits from the eighties that were big, loud and ostentatious, and the very reason why they were hits. The eighties definitely were the decade for that. And the reason why WOWY was so successful was because it was the opposite of that. You always knew when it came on the radio when you heard Larry’s soft drumming followed by Adam’s soothing bassline. One of its best qualities is the restraint of Bono’s singing. There is a new layer—deeper and fuller—that was not present in previous albums. It’s obvious that producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno worked with him to explore other areas of his vocal range. The result was a far more dramatic performance that builds towards the crescendo.

I love the way the song just quietly slips in and builds to a climax and then slips back out. And the best part, no big guitar solo at the end. It is this structure that I’ve always found to be so brilliant. It is also no surprise that it went straight to number one here in the states.

The video

If the photographs by Anton Corbijn were an illustration of the music, then the video was the movie. The first time I saw it was very late at night, when music videos were played on television. There was a show called Friday Night Videos on NBC, but it didn’t come on until 1:00 am. I would stay up late just to record U2’s videos on my mom’s VCR. The challenge was that I did not know when the video would air. Sometimes it was the first; sometimes it was the last. So, it was an exercise in patience and stamina. There were times when I fell asleep—remote in hand—only to wake up in the middle of it. I cursed myself loudly whenever that happened.

However, I managed to record it and watched it many times. I loved the simplicity of it. It was dark and moody. The grainy images of shadows, branches and a woman wrapped in a white sheet were so evocative and a little haunting. To me, this is what the song looked like.

Many years later, when I finally got cable television—and MTV—videos from TJT weren’t aired that often. But when it did, I always watched it.

Looking back across the great expanse of three decades, I see a band that has changed so much. And yet, I am hoping that they haven’t changed at all.

Joshua Tree Tour 2017 is going to be freekin’ awesome.

Another Time, Another Place

My buddy’s daughter commented on the fact that TJT doesn’t sound like an eighties album. I found this strange because it is firmly rooted in that decade for me. I replied saying that it was because she was young (mid-twenties). But she said no, there were a lot of albums that had the eighties sound and TJT didn’t have it. Evidently that sound has been very popular with Millenials, but what do I know? I’m about as Millenial as a VCR (what?).

However, her comment did get me thinking about what the band was trying to do at the time. I’ve been rereading old Rolling Stone magazines and there is an interview with Bono where he grouses about eighties music—rock stars in particular. He saw the coolness by fellow musicians as a kind of detachment and something he and his band mates loathed. For all the criticism they received, detachment was not one of them. Their earnestness and seriousness was what drove much of their music. And it was what connected them with their fans. These guys believed in things very strongly and weren’t afraid to let the world know.

Bono also complained about the commercialism of music.  He felt that there are record companies “who treat music like a tin of beans—a product to be sold.” It could be said that this was ironic coming from the lead singer of one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. But what I think he as getting at was that U2 endeavored mightily against the notion of being mediocre, though commercially prosperous. They were not content with treading over familiar ground—even though it was lucrative and praiseworthy—simply because it successful.

In the interview, there is a sense that the band’s superstardom is not necessarily something to reject but to understand that with that position comes a responsibility to the music and the fans. And this is where I think they took the road not taken.

I can’t think of another band from that time that sang more about social and political issues than them (although I did not understand much if it). Songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday and Pride (In the Name of Love) had gravitas. The Police had gravitas, but I always felt they were more literary than political. Sting was political. But it was the subject matter of U2’s songs combined with their music that made them so different.

In the DVD Classic Albums – The Joshua Tree, Edge recalls that they felt very disconnected with what was going on in music at the time, even their music videos were “so different, like they were from some other place”. And though I relate all those songs with the eighties, it is because I listened to them so much during that time. But to someone like my buddy’s daughter, she doesn’t get that eighties-feel like she does from Def Leppard, INXS or Bon Jovi.

No blind alleys for Streets

I remember the first time I saw the Where The Streets Have No Name music video on television. The band set up on the rooftop of a liquor store in downtown Los Angeles and played to a captivated and growing crowd. The part that really struck me was there was a moment when the crowd was still respectful and stayed on the sidewalk while the police tried to keep order. And then—all of a sudden—they run into the street seemingly oblivious to the traffic. I thought how cool would it have been to be there. And in my new-to-rock naiveté, I realized this band was going to be huge. Even watching the video now, there is this sense that this very event was marking a significant change in the growth of the band. They were going to be megastars from that moment on.

After all of the hype surrounding the new album and immense anticipation, the band launched the release with the force of a supernova. Streets raced up charts all around the planet. For a moment, everyone was playing U2 on the radio. They were, as the April 27th issue of Time Magazine stated on the cover, “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”.

Into the arms of America

What nearly all of us can agree on is the sound. The moment I hear the beginning of Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You, I know what it is. These songs are recognizable for their towering vocals and soaring guitars. They are the gold standard for bringing-the-house-down noise that only the best bands can produce.

When I first listened to the album what knocked me off my feet was the open, ambient nature of the songs. There was something sweeping and spacious about them. I visualized the band playing atop a barren mesa beneath a domed night sky. But there was also this strangeness that was a part of every song. It was a little hard to express other than the album felt otherworldly and unlike the times.

If that is what my buddy’s daughter meant, I agree. I have so many memories from that time it is hard to separate the album from the decade. I needed to step out of my own experience to see her point.

1987 was such a momentous time for the band. The culmination of their efforts was put to test to the country that held their fascination. It was a big album by a big band on a very big stage. And we here in the United States ate it up.

It was the album of the eighties that didn’t sound like it came from there.

Let Me in the Sound

U2 recording the Where The Streets Have No Name video

On March 9, 1987, TJT was released and sold over 300,000 copies in two days in the United Kingdom. By March 21 it debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart. Less than a month later, across the pond, the album debuted at number seven on the United States’ Billboard charts. Three weeks later it rose to number one and stayed there for nine weeks in a row. The album was met with the same kind of demand around the world. This was not short-lived either, as it remained on dozens of charts for years. It was an unquestionable success.

Looking back at it now, it is no surprise. The music is extraordinary.

What I found interesting was that the band wanted to go into a new direction after the The Unforgettable Fire Tour (summer ’84 through summer ’85). It shouldn’t have come as a surprise because they have always done that. Fresh of their most successful album and tour, they felt they were now at a stage in their career to take bigger risks and explore new sounds. I’ve always admired them for doing that because it takes courage to not go with something that was tried and true.

So how different was TJT than previous albums? In one word: completely. This was the culmination of the band’s growth and it had not been so clearly—and beautifully—expressed before. Granted, it took a lot of hard work with producers Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Flood. Reading through some of their interviews in U2 by U2, I learned how difficult the album was to produce. There were conflicting opinions about every song. Although they had a lot of developed material, no one was happy with the current state as they continued to write and record. There was a near-loss of the only full recording of WTSHNN. And in usual fashion, they were in danger of missing the release deadline.

The key ingredient

One of the elements that the band was exploring was soundscapes. Edge explained in Classic Albums – U2 The Joshua Tree DVD, they were trying to create a sound that would place the listener. The idea was to musically recreate some of their experiences in traveling across America. This is a difficult thing to do and something my unsophisticated ears did not pick up for many years. As I began to listening different types of music I realized that there were influences of blues, country and gospel—and not just in the lyrics but the melody. These elements were blended and then illustrated from an Irish perspective, which gave these songs such a distinctive sound. The new sound reflected the band’s love affair with the U.S.

On the same DVD, Bono said that the album is not Irish in the obvious sense, but in a more mysterious sense it is very Irish. The ache and melancholy is something that they identify with very strongly. It was also something that I was in tune with at the time, although I didn’t have the words.

He also added even though the album was huge, they felt they were out of step with what was going on at the time. With much of contemporary music using synthesizers, keyboards and drum machines, they deliberately stuck with traditional instruments. But, I believe it is precisely for that reason that it was so successful. In era of synth-pop coolness, these guys weren’t cool.

Rediscovering the music

Recently, one of the speakers in my car began to distort. After trying to endure the sound for two weeks, I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down and bought a new set of speakers. The key was to be as economical as possible. I don’t listen to music the way that I used to and haven’t in a long time. So, when I bought my first new car I opted for the basic audio system. It has performed well enough over the years and I was content with it, even though I toyed with the idea of installing a premium sound system. But, I’m a guy on a budget and couldn’t justify spending all that money on something like that.

However, the hellish scratchy noise coming out of my right speaker made the decision much easier. After speaking with the sales manager at the mobile audio store near me, I went for it. He suggested a set that was within my budget.

Consequently, I have been listening to the remastered version of TJT like I used to when I was a teenager—in my car, with the volume cranked to eleven. It is music nirvana.

And the point of my little speaker story is this: it feels like I am reliving the first few times I listened to the album and not just remembering it. It had been a very long time since I really paid attention and even longer since I’ve had a decent audio system.

The best thing about the album is the big-sound, arena-rock anthems that made me wear out the tape in the cassette deck in my first car. These songs are good. I’m talking about drum your hands on the steering wheel good. I’m talking about air-guitar at the traffic light good. Driving down the highway and singing unconsciously I’m transported back to 1987. My car is a time machine and I’m hearing Where The Streets Have No Name like I used to hear it, like when it was new. The way that the beginning just builds and builds and builds, it feels like I am fully immersed in it—like I am literally inside the song. I am way too old to be rocking out so hard, but I love it.

It’s kind of amazing to think that these songs can still make me feel this way—after hearing them so many times. I guess that’s what makes them so good. But it took new speakers to really set the Wayback Machine to the eighties.

In my next post, I will do a deeper dive on the songs and talk about those awesome videos.

A really, really big album

u2_the_joshua_tree_death_valley

Happy Birthday, TJT! You have brought so much happiness to us for the last three decades.

It is embarrassing with what has happened to my memory in the past thirty years. I had forgotten how big The Joshua Tree truly was. It was huge. Following The Unforgettable Fire Tour (’84 – ’85) and The Conspiracy of Hope Tour (’86) droves of fans and the media were anticipating what the band had in store for its next album.

I’ve been rereading some of my U2 books about that time and I had simply forgotten how much buzz there was about their new album. This was before social media or even the Internet. Where fans and music lovers alike got their news was from…the news. Rolling Stone magazine provided news about the band. MTV had a news segment. Radio stations would talk about where the band was in recording process.

In The Joshua Tree section of my copy of The Best of Propaganda, the band’s official magazine, they were interviewed in the weeks before the album’s release. It has been nearly fifteen years since I read the book and I forgot that the original name of the album was The Two Americas. The band had spent several months touring the United States for their last album and seen much more of the country than ever before. The title was a reflection on their experiences with the sharp differences between the rich and the poor.

While that would have been a great title for the album, there is no doubt that The Joshua Tree was and still is the better choice. What I didn’t know at the time was that their photographer Anton Corbijn had suggested that they travel to Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California to shoot some pictures for the album cover and sleeve. Corbijn drew his inspiration from the new music. His idea was that the stark landscape of the desert matched the sound the band had been writing and recording.

A critical time

This was also the when the United States and the Soviet Union were building up their nuclear arsenals and the rest of the world watched nervous anticipation as our two countries were careening towards an all-out conflict. The tensions that were so high between our two countries have slowly subsided since the eighties, but have recently surged.

Bono was critical of the Reagan Administration and its involvement in Central America. In fact, Bullet in the Blue Sky, Mothers of the Disappeared and Exit were all commentaries about U.S. action in the region.

I was in high school and did not know it at the time. We had kids in my class who were politically inclined and knew about all of this. I was not one of them. In fact, I wasn’t really aware of anything going on in the world, either politically or socially. I have a vague memory us talking about the arms race in my U.S. History class, but as I mentioned in a previous post, I was failing early every class.

It was a time when Bono began speaking more about this during their shows. I was too naïve back to fully understand why he was doing it. It turned out that it had much to do with growing up in Dublin and watching as tensions between Northern Ireland and Britain were increasing. I realize now that when you are around the anger, hostility and outright violence in your hometown, you become more sensitive to it when you are traveling around the world.

So there were all these conflicts between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., in Latin America and the Middle East. The whole world seemed eager to fight itself. It was during these times when the album came out.

Suspense, intrigue and burning the midnight oil

The anticipation was huge and it was one of the first albums that went on sale one minute after midnight at record stores. For me that was astonishing. Did the labels and stores seriously think that they would attract anyone at that time? And would it have been better than simply opening at the normal time? This is the reason why I am not in the music business; I do not know anything.

The fact of the matter was the midnight-release of the new album was pure genius. To have the media show fans waiting in long lines to be the first the get their hands on one is a brilliant marketing move. First, it shows that there are thousands of people all around the world willing to stay up late and stand “in the queue”. This coverage did not cost the label. All they had to do was put out a press release the public. The media would cover this for free.

Second, it also planted in fans minds that, Hey the store near me might run out of records before tomorrow morning, so maybe I should get in line, too, which only made the lines longer. As I mentioned earlier, this was pure genius. Once again this was before smartphones, social media, the Internet and even personal computers (yeah, PCs were around, nothing like today). Yet still, during those primitive times, people found out. MTV, Rolling Stone Magazine, local radio stations were where we learned about the band. For those who were too young to remember or not even born, this was more than enough. It might be hard to imagine (to those younger than me) how they were able to reach so many so quickly, I would simply say what has always been said about this kind of information: good news travels fast.

In a way those days were better. There was something special about buying a record album, cassette tape or compact disc. The album was big and had large images of the band. Sliding the record out of its sleeve and seeing that black, grooved slice of vinyl was like discovering an artifact.   As great as it is to download an album onto the computer from the comfort of home, it’s just not the same thing. I love technology, but it can’t always replace the joy of certain things.

Getting back to the album, for the hardy folks who stood out in the chilly—and sometimes rainy—weather and were willing to lose sleep to be able to listen to the album, I commend you. I didn’t. As I mentioned in previous posts (When I Became a Fan) I didn’t buy it immediately. I discovered it only after it was receiving heavy airplay. And it was because if that, that I bought my first U2 album. But I did know about the big midnight release and I did sense that something was happening to the band, something big. The buzz was everywhere and it got louder with each passing week. Even with my very limited teenaged awareness, I realized that they were a band on the run.

Taking into consideration all the hype, rumors and prognostications, how could it ever live to up that kind of expectation? History tells us that it did, of course. But how did the band capture lightning in a bottle?

In my next post, I will attempt to break down the success of The Joshua Tree.

Stay tuned.

Songs of Brilliance

u2-time-magazine

I was talking with a buddy at my gym and gushing about the upcoming Joshua Tree 2017 Tour. He is not a fan but knew that I was. In addition, he is nearly ten years younger than me. I mentioned that that album propelled them into the ionosphere. Songs like Where the Streets Have No Name and With or Without You and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For were what produced the album’s huge success. I finished my spiel by stating that these songs were classics. To which he replied, are they or are they just old?

There times when I have been myopic about the band’s music, mostly when I was younger. And I admit that I bristle whenever someone criticizes the band, but less now than before. Yet I was still surprised that he asked that. My response was, of course they are. But was that just the fan in me talking?

I was fully prepared to launch into a dissertation on why those songs are, but did not have the time to explain in the gym setting. But it got me thinking about what made me believe that they were.

Classic songs or not?

There are many ways to define a classic and folks far more knowledgeable than me may have a better set of criteria, but here goes.

First and foremost, the songs had to have stood the test of time. They have to be listened to and enjoyed by the original generation—in this case Gen X—and the generations that followed. And they have to be remembered. There are many songs that were big hits of a particular time, but literally forgotten in the years that followed. The songs that I mentioned have stayed in the public’s memory banks. Longevity is what helps a song achieve classic status.

Second is impact. The songs had to have an influence culturally and critically and it had to have been widespread. The success of the album in sales, airplay, music awards and tour attendance clearly demonstrated its appeal around the world. They are still recognized today for their effect on the original generation of fans, artists, critics and the ones that followed.

Third is representation. The songs must be illustrative of the time, like the eighties. There are so many songs that are classic eighties songs, and these are definitely at the top. Major music publications such as Rolling Stone Magazine, Spin Magazine and Q Magazine have attested to album’s relevance, so this is not just my opinion.

Fourth is quality. Simply put, how good are these songs? I would say that they are great and so have music fans, successful musicians and respected critics. It is difficult to get so many to agree on something. So, an achievement like that can only result from that thing being good.

Combined, these elements are what warrant giving a song (or songs) classic status. These helped solidify than band’s place in the rock pantheon.

Regarding my buddy at the gym, I simply supported my opinion by turning to a couple other gym buddies and asked if these songs were classic, to which each responded yes. I told him if he asked around he would get more yeses than nos. It wasn’t convincing win, but I could see he was thinking about it.

The Soundtrack of My Youth

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Now that the band has launched its Joshua Tree 2017 Tour, it is astonishing to believe that is has been nearly thirty years since their original tour.

I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic lately. If you have read my previous posts (When I Became a Fan) you will know that I have been looking back through the long lens of time and reminiscing about days long gone.

The origination of the word nostalgia is from the Greek nostos, meaning pain, grief or distress and algos, meaning homecoming. And it is true that when I think about when the album first released, there is a tug on the heartstrings that feels like pain, although not unpleasant.

If I could turn back time

For a little while now, I have been feeling a strong desire to return home—not a place but a time. The eighties seem so cheesy now, but it was a heady age filled with video games, hair gel and lots of MTV, although I had to go over friends’ homes to watch MTV. No cable for this guy back then.

I remember how truly wonderful it was to discover the band for the first time. Their music was new and different and came at a time when my life was in constant flux. High school was tough enough, but losing a parent made even the simplest things, like going to class, a much greater effort than I could have imagined. There were times when it felt like I had a tornado inside me and I really wasn’t equipped to handle it. As a matter of fact, I handled it badly and was failing at nearly everything in life.

Listening to The Joshua Tree made me happy and going to the concert helped me realize that things were not as bad as I thought. The best part of that time was that I learned that things get better—I got better. As they did, the music from that album took on greater meaning. Listening with my unsophisticated ears as Bono’s words went into my brain I slowly realized that there was so much poetry in their songs.

Lots of popular songs from the eighties had lame lyrics if you just saw them on the page. I never felt that with U2’s songs. There was something much more abstruse and challenging about their words and I liked that, even though I couldn’t discern the meaning some of the time.

But what a great time it was. That album changed the way I dressed. I abandoned sportswear and sneakers and started wearing a lot of black. Much to my mom’s chagrin, I grew out my hair and pierced my ears. After the music video With or Without You aired, I started wearing my hair in a ponytail. I also bought a black trench coat from a secondhand store and a pair of Dr. Martens boots. For me, it was somewhat transformative. There was something particularly enjoyable about it, like I was changing my identity.

There was also another change in me. It awakened the creative part of me that had fallen asleep during the time of my father’s illness. I learned that it was difficult to be imaginative when I was unhappy. The album made me want to write. And I did again.

I find myself wishing that I could go back and discover their music again—if only briefly—just to have the feeling again.

A really big album

It’s been nearly three decades since the release of The Joshua Tree and there are times when it doesn’t feel like it and there are times when it does. With the album approaching thirty, I wondered if the album is as huge as I remembered.

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Here are a few facts that I gathered:

  • Over 25 million albums sold
  • Ranked number 3 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Albums of the 80s.
  • Winner for 4 Grammy awards and numerous international awards.

That is quite a feat considering that there were so many great bands that were in the eighties. The ones that I remember were Van Halen, Motley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, but there were many others. In my high school those bands were all bigger and more popular than U2. But there was something cool about liking a band that was not as popular. And I did know that U2 was already big prior to Joshua Tree.

So here we are nearly three decades later celebrating an incredible album that marked the band’s rise into superstardom. What better way than to see them live? My only wish is that they perform the songs like they did during their first tour. For me, it’s how I remember those songs the best. It will be exciting to hear the whole album—live—just like we did way back when. For some of us, it will be A Sort of Homecoming (and you see what I did there?).

For all of us it will be a reminder that we are all still young, where it counts.

When I became a fan (pt. III)

The Afternoon of the Show

I showed my mom how grateful I was by actually helping her clean the house. It was one of those rare occasions where I actually did something without being asked several times. I already mentioned that I wasn’t doing well in school; I also wasn’t so great around the house. But she let me help without pointing that fact out. Moms can be cool like that, sometimes.

RJ swung by my house around one o’clock (I was the last to be picked up) and we headed over to Oakland. Joshua Tree was playing on the tape deck in his car.   It was a warm, cloudless afternoon with no wind as we drove across the Bay Bridge. Our friends Cecca and Julie were sitting in the back seat and singing along and I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m going to a U2 concert. Perfect moments. There aren’t enough of them in life, are there?

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Although we had reserved seating, RJ wanted to get there early so that we had enough time to buy a concert tee shirt. Back then, certain bands would do this cool thing with their concert tees. You could only get the real tee at the concert. The real tee had all of the tour stops on the back. I remember seeing a Joshua Tree Tour ’87-’88 tee in Tower Records long after the tour ended. There was no itinerary on the back.

Back to the show. We pulled into the parking lot of Oakland Coliseum about a half-hour later and five dollars for parking (yeah, that’s right). We all chipped so RJ didn’t have to pay. I had never been to the Coliseum before and had no idea what to expect. I did not expect to see so many vendors selling all kinds of merchandise. Concert tees were ten dollars and the lines were very long. I was determined to have a memento of the show and told our group that I wanted to get one before it started. They were all in agreement and waited with me; RJ got one as well.

The Stadium

What surprised me the most was to see so many people smoking regular cigarettes, clove cigarettes and marijuana. It’s not that I was strait-laced, but there were so many cops around. It didn’t seem like the ones smoking weed were even concerned about getting caught. I kept thinking they were all so daring. How can you not be worried about being caught?

To continue, RJ and I bought our shirts and we headed to our seats. We were in the very Upper Reserve section. There is another term for that: The Nosebleed Section. For those who have never heard of that term, the thought was that the air was so thin up there your nose would bleed. It didn’t matter because I would have gladly listened from the men’s room. The show was sold out and we had seats.

As we made our way to our section, I could hear some stagehands doing sound checks on the equipment. Let me state that The BoDeans opened for U2 (followed by The Pretenders) and it was The BoDeans equipment that was being tested. When one of them began strumming on a bass guitar, it reverberated throughout the Coliseum. The sound was literally booming. I was surprised at how loud it was.

We got to our seats and sat down, watching the crowd stream in from all around. Since we arrived early there was no one seated around us, but we also knew that would change very quickly. RJ lit a cigarette and held out the pack so each of us could take one. I looked around for the security guards, who were everywhere, but didn’t seem to notice or care that so many were smoking. Cecca and Julie didn’t seem to be too worried either. I was the only one who was concerned that four teenagers were going to get caught smoking in a non-smoking event and get kicked out. Again, this was my first rock show and I didn’t know anything.

RJ finished his cigarette and stood up, “Dude, let’s go.”

He wanted to buy four 7-Ups. My friend Cecca brought a hairspray bottle filled with whiskey she took from her dad’s liquor cabinet. She snuck it her purse and I was sure the guards who were checking people’s bags were going to confiscate it. All they had to do was smell what was in the bottle. But they didn’t. At this point it was probably safe to assume that the security staff really weren’t anything to brag about. The plan was to be sipping on Seagram’s Seven Crown and 7-Up (Seven and Seven for the unenlightened) at our seats. Mission accomplished.

I am going to skip talking about The BoDeans and The Pretenders. Both put on a great show and I was surprised how good Chrissie Hynde sounded live.

However, it was U2 we came to see and they did not disappoint. Everyone leapt to their feet as soon as the house lights dimmed. The band took the stage to roaring crowd. It was so loud that it sounded like one continuous tone. The show hadn’t even started and I felt like I was going to pop from the sensory overload.

Bono stepped to the microphone shouted, “San Francisco!” Everyone threw their hands in the air and howled as the Edge began to strum the beginning of Where The Streets Have No Name. I cheered at the top of my lungs. Suddenly lights as bright as the sun shined from the stage and Bono launched into song. All sights, sounds, even the pounding of Larry’s drums in my chest was nearly too much and wonderful at the same time.

For me, there is no better U2 song heard live than Where The Streets Have No Name. I think the long beginning gives you a sense of ascent and by time Edge’s guitar comes in, followed by the rhythm section, you are flying. Add to that the flashing lights above and around the stage and the experience was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

I sang aloud and didn’t care that I was off-key. Cecca wrapped her arms around my waist and held me so tight. The past few days were a surge towards this song and I just let it fill me up. It was like a waterfall of sound that poured right into me. I closed my eyes and let it wash the grief and sadness out of me, even if it was only for a short time. It felt like I was being purified of all of the melancholy in my body.

I have heard people say that going to a particular concert was a “religious experience”. I think what they meant was that they encountered some kind of epiphany and that I understood. That show was a baptism, although I feel a little guilty saying that as a lapsed-Catholic. But it did feel like I was being admitted into a body that shared a common interest. That night I became fan.

To be perfectly candid, it wasn’t as though I recovered completely overnight. I still had my bad days, but there were good ones, too.

In addition, it wasn’t the music that saved me from a foreseeable decline; my family and friends did that. Instead, it was the music that I turned to when I was alone and wanted to feel better. There were days when the pain and loneliness were more than I could have ever imagined. And there were days when the joy and comfort from loved ones were more than I deserved.

Over time, I got over it. I grew up and learned how to deal with loss. The happy days eventually outnumbered the sad ones. U2’s music stayed with me from that time on.

Finally, I am thankful for the things that I learned from that time. That solace can come from simple things like listening to a record album. Happiness can be singing along to it with friends as I drove down a stretch of open highway. The best of all, I was surrounded by people who loved me.

And during those tough few years when I was young and still innocent, The Joshua Tree was the soundtrack of my life.