I remember it now like it was yesterday – really, I do. I was 16, driving with my high school buddies, excited beyond my young, teenage belief, about plopping down $11.99 for the new LP from a band called U2. Its name: The Joshua Tree.
I was driving with Joey Kimmel, Bobby Jackson and Dennis O’Brien from our high school in The Bronx up to our favorite mall in White Plains , New York . This was necessary, of course, because, let’s face it, most record stores in The Bronx didn’t carry U2 then – or now.
It was early March, 20 years ago. Twenty years. Wow.
We piled into my old, gray Chevette – which was my Mom’s, of course – and drove up to, I think, a Sam Goody in the Galleria Mall the day The Joshua Tree was released. I bought the LP for some reason, clinging to that theory of old-music and, more likely, wanting the big pictures and lyric sheets that surrounded an old record.
I know someone bought the tape because we popped it out to listen on the way home. I don’t think any of us bought those new-fangled Compact Disc versions. Hell, they weren’t gonna last, right?
So we get back in the Chevette and put in the tape. Organ creeps in and someone announces this song has a weird name, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I figured it was about New York . I was wrong, it was Belfast but that didn't matter at this point - my world was about to change. I was listening for the first time to a modern musical masterpiece.
The moment the band came roaring in on that song, I knew they had more than lived up to the advance billing and hopes following the critical and popular acclaim of “The Unforgettable Fire.”
For me, it was a love affair cemented. I first got into U2 the way I did most of my music in those days, when one of my brothers brought home a record and I borrowed it. In this case, it was “War” a full four years before. He drew me in with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Years Day” – I stuck around for “Two Hearts Beat as One,” “Like a Song” and “40.”
We watched the Red Rocks show live on MTV, with our Mom. She liked “Gloria” because it had religious overtones. Hey, whatever it takes to win over Mom, right?
After “Unforgettable Fire” came out, we tried to score tickets for the Radio City Music Hall show on that first mini-tour. But it sold out in something like 10 minutes. Crazy.
But we succeeded on the full tour the next spring, scoring great seats for their unbelievable premiere at Madison Square Garden on April 1. Someday I’ll write expansively on that amazing night but, suffice to say, between "Bad" (which literally made the woman next to me cry) and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," they had me.
Anyway, I was a fan when the J-Tree came out. Afterward, I was a fanatic. The album was an instant classic and remains one of the greatest albums of all time – 20 years later. It’s just that simple.
It has such a wide, open sound – a yearning, hopeful sound that blew through the dark age it was born out of. It launched U2’s true love affair with America , with images as diametrically opposed as a scowling Reagan in “Bullet the Blue Sky” to the beautiful Southwestern images evoked throughout “In God’s Country.”
Several songs were hits – “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Streets.” Others, though less known, should have been – like my personal fav then and now, “ Red Hill Mining Town .” Why they never released that as a single and video is beyond me. "Running to Stand Still" - haunting, terrifying, a true story of suicide that came into its own only in later tours. "Mothers of the Disappeared" - underrated and rarely played but powerful in the way a mother can only love a son. "Exit" - the first in what would become a series of U2 songs that built a powerful rolling jam, where the lyrics were nice but the band really took charge over Bono. "One Tree Hill" - the eulogy for a friend. And "Trip Through Your Wires" - a Springsteen romp dressed up in an Irish bonnet.
I saw them 11 times on that tour – from a great starting point in Hartford where they came out with the lights still on and played “Stand By Me” to the first of many stadium blowouts at Giants and Foxboro. Driving to one show at the old Nassau Coliseum with Bobby, Joey and Jen Papp, I said aloud that I really wanted them to play “One Tree Hill” and Bobby said he wanted “Party Girl.” They played both. Great night. And, yes, I was there the night at MSG Bono had his arm in a sling and they played "Still Haven't Found" twice - the second time with a choir, and it ended up on "Rattle and Hum."
They came into their own on that tour, captured perfectly on “Rattle and Hum.” It was an age of promise for them and their music that just solidified a couple years later with the even-better-selling Achtung Baby!
The late 80s will always be a magical time for me – what time isn’t for someone in their late teens?
And the soundtrack to that magic was U2, usually “The Joshua Tree.” I’m glad to listen to it now, as I did driving home tonight. And I'm glad I can search You Tube for videos of these great songs recorded in concerts - as I did with the links above. All that brings back that flood of memories – so rich, as a good man once said, I have to swat them away like flies.
Congrats on the anniversary boys. A hell of an album.
The second time I met Bono I thanked him for writing “Out of Control.” He was shocked as hell.
Someday, maybe, I’ll get to add a thanks for The Joshua Tree – a modern masterpiece that day in the Chevette and 20 years down the road. Somehow, I don’t think he’d be quite as surprised.