"[I]t's an attempt to paint a picture that is real, that is not advertising. You enjoy the light by contrast with the dark."
-- Bono, on Pop
My Fan Year - #15
April 17, 2005
You mean to tell me it's April and I haven't written about The Joshua Treeyet?
Once upon a time I was warned by my brother not to listen to any one album too often: "You'll burn yourself out on it." I don't think he was quite right about this. There are albums you can play to death-those you love at first, play a million times, get sick of in six months and laugh at in ten years.
But The Joshua Tree came out in 1987.
How many times have you played it?
Are you sick of it yet?
Didn't think so.
They say -- U2 even say -- it's about America. But there are many Americas -- even back in '87 there were many, and there are even more today: corporate America, America the land mass, the America of Hollywood, the America of the nightly news, talk radio America, Bill of Rights America, America the "Great Satan," the uncredited star of George M. Cohan musicals, William Faulkner novels, Berkeley Breathed comics and Hank Williams songs. Which one is explored on The Joshua Tree?
One thing you can say about any America: it's a hard place -- or idea -- to get away from. That quote Bono stole (from Wim Wenders), about America colonizing our subconscious, may come from this sense that our cultural flotsam and jetsam has washed up on every shore. Indonesians wear T-shirts and blue jeans. Italians participate in the cult of celebrity. Icelanders eat McDonald's hamburgers. Iranians know Mickey Mouse.
You have to leave a place to write about it, you have to be outside a situation to have any perspective at all. So where do you go to get away from someplace that has imported itself, invited or uninvited, into every continent, that has cast itself as the Promised Land in millions of imaginations?
Dublin's not far enough. How about Ethiopia?
I just flipped through The Joshua Tree's lyrics and counted the times the same concept appeared in different songs. "Night" shows up seven times out of eleven, followed by "rain" or "storm" (in six songs), "wind," "fire" or "burning" and "love" (in five).
If you do this, you get a sense of how stark and elemental the imagery really is. Here are other notions that come up again and again: Walls. Streets. Dust. Sky. Desert. Sea. City. Rust.
None of this has anything to do with Mickey Mouse or McDonald's hamburgers. It's nothing to do with anything restricted to one continent at all.
Are we in America or Ethiopia?
This landscape, wherever it is, is a mythical landscape, a metaphorical desert or wasteland. That's why in a certain sense it is no place at all, although in another sense it is the only place that exists -- at least to the one writing about it, because it is the place he's carrying around in his head. The desert -- for many poets, storytellers, filmmakers or musicians -- signifies testing and temptation. It is where everything but the bare essentials get stripped away. It is where you stand exposed to the sun-itself a handy metaphor for the source of life -- and can so easily get scorched. (Notice: "burning down love," "burned like a fire," "burned by the fire of love"...)
"Nature is a Haunted House," Emily Dickinson wrote, "but Art - A house that tries to be haunted." So this album, to confronting a place whose spirit has invaded the whole planet, conjures up a spirit of its own-all of earth and water and sky, with a few city walls and doorways thrown in. And there we explore all our elemental contradictions: You give it all but I want more. The hands that build can also pull down.
Perhaps these contradictions are everywhere, but in America they are starkest. But if we live here, or anywhere in the world we've colonized, we find it hard to see them. We need someone to relay the message back to us from where he's standing, in that place where he can say "Outside it's America," where he knows that any moment America will come in.
Â© @U2/Pancella, 2005.