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.

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

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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

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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.

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.

When I became a fan (pt. II)

Even after listening to The Joshua Tree dozens of times, I still didn’t consider myself a “true” fan. Back then I believed a real fan had to attend a concert.

For me, going to a show was a big deal. First, I had to be able to afford to buy a ticket. Second, I had to have permission from my mom. Now that I think about it, I needed to get my mom’s permission first. I wouldn’t be going anywhere if she said no. Truth be told, I was failing a few of my classes and getting into trouble outside of school. She was frustrated with me but gave me room to deal with it myself.

I always tried to mollify her concerns by telling her I was okay, but I really wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to tell her how unhappy I was or how much I missed Dad.

When I learned that that they would be coming to San Francisco (technically Oakland Stadium) I knew I this was my chance. My best friend RJ also wanted to go and had already decided to buy tickets when they went on sale. These were the days before the Internet so if you wanted to buy them, you had to go to a ticket broker or the venue itself. In the Bay Area, music stores like Tower Records and The Wherehouse had outlets inside where you could buy them. But, you needed to get there early if the group or artist was popular. You could always tell when there was going to be a big event because people lined up the night before. Thankfully, RJ already said he would do it. He had more lenient parents because there was no way my mom would have let me stay in a parking lot in the city overnight.

The Hurdle

With the ticket problem solved, the big challenge was my mom. The concert was on Sunday, November 14, 1987. I had school the next day and it was in Oakland, California. I prepared this whole argument about how the stadium was right off the freeway and we wouldn’t be going into any of the rougher parts of town. I had a list of reasons why this would be my only opportunity to see them. I had a back-up plan of simply begging. So one night after dinner, and after doing the dishes and taking out the garbage I was ready for my pitch. I decided to simply ask her if I could go and was ready to be upset if she said no. I was worried that I hadn’t earned the right to go. With a list of rebuttals in my mind, I was like a lawyer trying a case. But all that was unnecessary, because she said I could.

Years later she admitted to me she didn’t want to say yes, but when she saw how happy I was, it made her happy. She said that I had been sad and quiet for so long.

Three Days Before the Show

My phone rang at five o’clock on that Wednesday morning and I almost didn’t answer it. But, I got up to yell at the idiot calling at 5 am. As it turned out, it was my buddy RJ.

“Dude,” he said, “U2 is going to play a free show in the City today, before the real concert, do you wanna go?

I was barely awake, but still coherent enough to say yes. He said he would pick me up in thirty minutes. I was ready in fifteen.

Only in San Francisco

RJ picked me up and we drove into the city. He explained on the way that they would be playing a free concert at Justin Herman Plaza at Embarcadero Center. He also said that we would have a prime location at his mom’s office building, which overlooked the plaza. We would have a bird’s eye view of the show and not have worry about being crammed together with thousands of other people. I still have no idea how his mom got approval for us to be there, but I was glad she did.

We arrived at the office and met her at her desk. She then led us to an outside stairwell where we had a fantastic view.

There were thousands of people already waiting and I was so glad we weren’t in the throng. A flatbed truck was parked in front of the water structure. There was a drum kit, a stack of amplifiers and three microphone stands positioned on the bed. I remember thinking how simple and stripped-down it looked. It seemed plain compared to their other concerts that I had seen on MTV, but ultimately I had no idea because I had never been to one.

There was an electric excitement in the air and everyone around buzzed with patient enthusiasm. The band’s staff was walking the area, talking into their crackling radios and seemingly oblivious to the crowd as they were going through their sound and video checks. And because a big rock band was giving a free performance, there was a heavy police presence as well.

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Rather than detail the awesomeness of this show, let me just say that their show was captured brilliantly in the band’s film Rattle & Hum. My words cannot do it justice and I’m sure fans—especially ones of my generation—have seen the performance. So to state the obvious: it freakin’ rocked. Seeing the band play and watching Bono sing for the first time in my life was momentous. It was literally one of the best days of my life. I l kept thinking, that’s really them. There is something magical about seeing them live, like all your senses have been enhanced.

Towards the end of the show, Bono picked up a can of spray-paint and wrote, “Rock ‘n Roll Stops the Traffic” on the water structure. The crowd roared its agreement and he ran back to the stage to finish “Helter Skelter” and I wondered if he would get into trouble. He did.

The time after the free concert was surreal. It was strange that everything felt slightly different that day. We left the city and thought about where to eat. Our friends Cecca and Julie met us in the afternoon to hear how it went. While at McDonalds I couldn’t stop gabbing about how awesome the show was. I felt like a lightning rod after a storm.

As special as that was, it was only a prologue of what was to come.