"I might be a hero on stage, but off-stage I'm an anti-hero."
Like A Song: Joy (by Mick Jagger, with Bono)
February 13, 2014
[Ed. note: This is the 82nd in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
I don’t tell many people this, but The Very Best Of Mick Jagger is one of my favorite CDs.
Sure, it has its share of clunkers. And it contains perhaps the most cringe-inducing lyrics in all of recorded history (“Life is a b*tch, it's way too short / Unlike a politician it just can't be bought”; or how about this one: “We haven’t spoken in months / You see, I’ve been counting the days”). But for every “Let’s Work,” in which Mick extolls the virtues of not being lazy—very rock ‘n’ roll, that—there’s a bit of, well, “Joy.”
Originally released on Jagger’s Goddess In The Doorway (2001), and featuring Bono as a guest vocalist, “Joy” is a spirited song about searching for—and finding—a state of grace. This is, of course, heady subject matter for Mick, who’s lyrics generally address more worldly pursuits. Thus his inviting the U2 frontman to join him on the track. “I thought that very appropriate given Bono’s mystical bent,” he says in the liner notes from the Best Of collection.
Musically, “Joy” is a slick affair, all bubbly synths and layered guitars. Mick and Bono trade verses over these. Bono sounds tired, almost weary. This may be simply because he’d played a show with U2 in Cologne the night before recording and his voice was ragged from that. (“There are some beautiful notes in there, if I can reach them,” he joked during the session, which is captured in the 2001 documentary Being Mick.) But it also kind of works in the context of the song; a pilgrim, after all, would surely be weary after his long journey.
Lyrically, the song edges dangerously close to cliché in depicting scenes of the spiritual quest. In the opening verse Jagger sings:
And I drove across the desert
I was in my four-wheel drive
I was looking for the Buddha
And I saw Jesus Christ
(Why in his four-wheel drive? I don’t have the answer to that, but I suspect it’s because he needed the rhyme.)
Elsewhere, “Joy” offers up images of drowning in the darkness, scrabbling in the dirt, and looking to the heavens with a light upon your face. They’re well-worn tropes in the “search for enlightenment” literature, really bordering on the hackneyed. But you know what? I’m totally OK with that.
When I lived in Southern California I would often hop in my car and disappear into the desert for a day trip or a weekend excursion. I would listen to “Joy” over and again as I barreled across the Imperial Valley or maybe the Mojave (playing a song about driving into the desert seeking salvation while actually driving into the desert is like putting on a Barry White record before an evening of amorous activity: a bit obvious, perhaps, but it still sets the mood). The insistent rhythms and overdrawn images of spiritual uplift carried me across those endless expanses of sand and rock; they provided the perfect soundtrack to my journey, whatever that journey was.
I didn’t encounter any historical religious figures out there in the desert, and I didn’t have any single, profound life-altering experiences, at least not the kind Mick describes in the song (the closest I came was the night I ate a limp egg salad sandwich I’d bought in a gas station somewhere outside Phoenix). Still, those road trips were important to me. They gave me room to breathe, to stretch out physically, emotionally and, yes, spiritually. I loved my time in the desert. And I’m glad I had “Joy” along for the ride.
(c) @U2/Boas, 2014