"If you look at music as emotion, then I think you'll connect us to the ballad tradition, to the wailing and keening of the old music."
Like a Song: A Sort Of Homecoming (A Prelude to The Joshua Tree)
May 28, 2017
Before U2 launch into their Joshua Tree set on the current tour, they dig into the back-catalog and play some pre-JT-era favorites, such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day” and “Pride.” One of the most intriguing songs used in this section of the concert is “A Sort Of Homecoming,” a tune performed regularly on the Unforgettable Fire tour in 1984-85, but never a top hit or even a widely distributed single. Fans got to hear this rarity at the first four concerts of Joshua Tree 2017, but since it unexpectedly disappeared from the setlist for three shows after that, they have filled social media with appeals and petitions to bring it back. What’s going on with this deep track from the eighties, and why do fans care about it so much? At first glance, “Homecoming” doesn’t seem like a good tune for an opening set, but a closer look reveals the roots of what would eventually become the iconic Tree.
In her earlier column, Sherry Lawrence did an excellent job exploring “Homecoming” as a song of “exile, survival, longing and renewal,” showing how The Joshua Tree draws on themes found there. Her treatment of “running” and “crying,” as well as inclement weather as a metaphor for dislocation, is right on. But there’s more to be said -- U2’s use of the homecoming motif directly relates to the context of America, both in the mid-eighties and now.
U2’s first three albums, Boy, October and War, were projections of young idealism on the bleakness of an Ireland divided by the sectarianism of The Troubles, and ravaged by the poverty, unemployment and violence of a struggling Dublin. But with their second trio of albums, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum, the band exchanged the subject of their youthful homeland for the much broader topic of America and beyond.
On the current tour, this is played out visually as U2 perform the first set of tunes from their little island on the b-stage (also known as the “tree-stage” because of its shape), then traverse a sea of fans to reach the mainstage, leaving behind their musical childhood, where they ascend to take their triumphant spot under the shade of a colossal Joshua tree. The move is symbolic of the band’s actual mission in the mid-eighties to transcend the Emerald Isle. In an essay titled “Boy to Man,” U2 biographer Neil McCormick notes manager Paul McGuinness’ strategy in the early days, saying, “McGuinness didn’t just take U2 out of Ireland; he brought the band to the world.”
The Unforgettable Fire functions as a bit of a prequel to The Joshua Tree and U2’s subsequent American adventure, so it makes sense to feature two or three of its songs in the first set of this tour. Not only a musical departure from earlier works, the 1984 album, helmed by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (who would later help produce The Joshua Tree), tackled sophisticated themes with multiple layers of meaning. The idea of “fire” took on several different nuances, representing the consuming flame of heroin addiction, as well as the burning passion of Dr. Martin Luther King and his quest for civil rights in America (MLK’s Dream speech is also used as U2 segue into “Streets” on the current tour). But the initial concept came from an exhibit of the same name when U2 toured Chicago’s Peace Museum in 1983.
That exhibit seems, at least in part, to be the theme of “Homecoming,” the opening track on The Unforgettable Fire. At the Peace Museum, U2 experienced the tragic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 through the eyes of its youngest victims. There, the artwork of children who survived the death and destruction of these two Japanese cities recounted the catastrophic effects of America’s assault – still the only combat use of nuclear weapons in history. In Hiroshima, at least 80,000 people were killed instantly, with another 40,000 casualties in Nagasaki, while tens of thousands later died of complications from burns and radiation exposure, and hundreds of thousands suffered from other injuries including bleeding and multiple types of cancers. The white-hot flash of an atomic bomb knew no borders or boundaries, obliterating schools, churches, hospitals, factories and landmarks across each city. In a 1985 interview with Record Magazine’s Wayne King, Bono recalled his encounter at the exhibit: “The images from the paintings and some of the writings stained me, I couldn’t get rid of them.”
In “Homecoming,” Bono sings, “The city walls are all come down / The dust a smokescreen all around / See faces ploughed like fields that once gave no resistance.” And it’s not coincidental that Nagasaki is a city nestled between two mountain ranges: “And we live by the side of the road / On the side of a hill as the valley explodes / Dislocated, suffocated, the land grows weary of its own.” Many of the children’s pictures at the peace exhibit displayed something akin to a “bomb-blast lightning waltz.” For the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were “no spoken words, just a scream.”
Near the end of each concert on Joshua Tree 2017, Bono talks about the right of all people, especially women and children, to have a safe and welcoming place to call home. With that in mind, “Homecoming” becomes a kind of manifesto for the refugee, the wanderer and the oppressed, a communal show of support: “Oh, don't sorrow / No don't weep for tonight, at last / I am coming home / I am coming home.”
Omaima, the fifteen-year-old Syrian featured during the encore’s “Miss Sarajevo,” speaking from the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, says something similar as she crosses a cultural chasm to us via ultra-high-definition video screen: “I would love to go to America because it is a very beautiful country and one can be happy there. It's a civil country, it’s the land of dreams.” That expression perfectly mirrors a collection of unassuming poetry scrolled across the screen during U2’s preshow. One of the poems presented is Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” a lament for “Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, Manuel,” and other unnamed immigrants who “All died dreaming about america” (sic). Martin Wroe, the band’s tour chaplain and an accomplished poet in his own right, recently Tweeted a Paul Celan quote: “Poetry is a sort of homecoming.”
“Homecoming” is a satisfying tune because it highlights U2’s early thoughts about America, provides a foundation to build on for Joshua Tree 2017 and perfectly represents the theme of the show from beginning to end. Like many diehard U2 fans, I’m also hoping it finds a regular place in the opening set again. It feels at home there.
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2017