The album begins with a foggy crescendo, an open-air atmospheric shimmer upon which any number of musical and spiritual possibilities could spring. It begins in much the same way life does: wordless fanfare, brimming with physical unrest, time unmarked, a blank canvas as beautiful and pure as any found in nature. It is here that the familiar ring of The Edge’s guitar beckons: First in 6/8, before the rhythm section commences, turning a gentle invitation into a pummeling 4/4 heartbeat. Distilled to its essence, there is nothing complex, only layer upon layer of simplistic building blocks which befuddle the listener with the aggregate’s grandeur and majesty. And that’s all before Bono’s booming vocals and skyscraping lyrics provide the formal introduction:
“I want to run. I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.”
It is the sound of a human faced with limitless possibilities, to the point where transcending human space sounds like the most rational way out. Over the next five minutes, the overture heightens, the pace quickens, the chords and overdubs envelope and engulf the listener in a sensory explosion. This is the sound of infinity – shackled by notes, by time, and sadly, by the impossibility of infinity as a musical, physical and mathematical construct.
Over the course of 11 songs, the diverse yet thematically and sonically unified piece works as a celebration of life and death, a wake-up call, a rallying cry and a musical treasure map encompassing the boundless kaleidoscope of emotion, cognition and sensation. Divergent elements fused together in a harmonic synergy, each fragment heightening the power of the others in an endless feedback loop.
I do not remember the first time I heard The Joshua Tree, but I do remember when and why I grew to love it.
The album was, with near metronomic frequency, spun as the soundtrack of my family’s regular trips from our home in Niagara Falls, New York, to my grandfather’s beach-side cottage in Long Beach, Ontario.
I can vividly and precisely recall the exact anchors along the trip where each song began, from the chiming, tuneless opening strums of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” decorating the bridge to Erie County, to the singeing, tuneless assault of “Bullet the Blue Sky” blowing my hair back as our van careened down the 190 toward downtown Buffalo.
Unwittingly, I learned every word, every musical nuance of every bar on the album by merely being present as the music washed over me, windows down on a myriad of pleasant Golden Horseshoe summer days. The album was so perfectly timed, so perfectly appropriate for the journey, that the final, ghostly hymnal “Mothers of the Disappeared” faded to black as we pulled in to my grandfather’s grassy, gravelly driveway, and I would spend my subsequent sun-soaked days on the beach recanting the canon to myself.
When I attended my very first (of many!) Buffalo Sabres home game – this one, as a matter of fact – “Where The Streets Have No Name” blared through a darkened arena, as the 16,000 proud threw green neon pucks onto the ice, providing the only semblance of light as the home team skated out to ring in the 1988-89 season. I was flanked by my grandfather, father and uncle, three gentlemen who often accompanied me in Canada, so I just sort of assumed that this song, this album, belonged to us. That we somehow bore the responsibility of not only creating the record, but for sharing it and keeping it alive. Of course, I was 7, and I am pretty sure I also thought if I offered a bear some honey, it would smile, laugh and usher me back to the Hundred Acre Wood as reward for my generosity.
It would be years – 15 of them, in fact – of passively listening to my mom’s cassette and internalizing the band’s musical and lyrical dialogue (often to great comedic misinterpretation, I actually tried to mathematically devise how one could “see seven towers, but” also “only see one way out” before realizing the whole of “Running to Stand Still” was actually just a musical requiem for the perils and pitfalls of hard drug abuse in a hardscrabble neighborhood) before I bought the album at a campus music sale at the University at Buffalo upon my return to Western New York after a nine-year exile some three hours down the I-90.
To say I bought it because it was my favorite album is a dramatic oversimplification. That summer, my mom, sister and brother took a trip to Canada once again, and as we drove to the cottage, I popped in the CD (which I had bought for my mother first, before I even thought about buying it for myself, because CDs were like totally all the rage back then), and reminisced. I was able to recount my childhood in much the same way I’d lived it the first time. This was the last road trip the four of us would ever take together and remains to this day my favorite road trip our family had ever taken.
No, I bought it because for the first time in my life, I was on my own, living alone in a white-roomed apartment with none of my mom’s music to borrow and bring to my headphones. I missed my her, and the comfort of hearing “One Tree Hill” on long campus walks reminded me who I was living for, who gifted me my life and who spilled blood and tears just to afford me the opportunity to continue breathing, through varying successes and failures. The Joshua Tree, in all it’s dark and mystical and spiraling majesty, was the soundtrack of family, the bedrock and benchmark upon which all life experience and musical detours my tastes took were built upon.
I will never sing like Bono. My guitar will never scream like The Edge’s. But as I grew older, and discovered my passion for writing, creating and performing music, these realizations never stopped me from trying. I stumbled aimlessly attempting to create the perfect 11-song album, soaring overtures cascading into wistful ballads and gospel-tinged declarations of self-assuring prophecy, with proper political and personal confessionals to fill in the cracks.
I don’t need to sit here and write to you that the magnum opus in my mind never materialized on tape, or that I never penned a couplet as succinctly satisfying as “we’re wounded by fear, injured in doubt / I can lose myself, you I can’t live without.” But not long after I bought that album, and sat for days on end sitting in my dark apartment, guitar and notebook in hand, bottles of beer, candles and incense lit, chopping codeine on my desk and rolling up Franklins, my grandfather, who I assure you will be given his proper due in a subsequent post, passed away just after his 75th birthday.
Not long after, I took a secret tribute lap from my old house to his Lake Erie enclave, The Joshua Tree blaring as I struggled to see the road through my welling eyes. Guitar riding shotgun, I bought a duty-free bottle of Bacardi Limon and some Pepsi Twist. As “Mothers of the Disappeared” vanished into the ether, I crawled out of the car and down to the beach where I’d spent so many summer nights by a fire.
This time, one mere Yankee Midsummer Night Candle lit, as I struggled in the sand to create the appropriate requiem, not just for my beloved Papa, but for family, home and youth. The melodic accompaniment was easiest, the song is a slow, hymn-like folk number. The words were harder, but included “I’ll see you again, when the stars fall from the sky”, an homage to the third verse of “One Tree Hill.” After several hours of silent plucking and listening to the Great Lakes waves lap against the coast while desperately searching for meaning and purpose in a world that to this day still sorely seems to lack it, I took a deep breath, packed up the guit-box and trudged home to the soundtrack of a quiet car.
Over the next few months, I’d put a bow on the tune, entitle it “Marseille” (my grandfather’s French hometown) and debut it at a show on the one year anniversary of his passing.
Cathartic? Maybe. But the tune’s themes of loneliness, emptiness and transience stood in stark contrast to the affirmation, universal longing and soul-searching that beats as the lyrical rondo of The Joshua Tree.
The song would be played on rare occasion, but would make an appearance anytime there was a family member in the audience. I never told them the story behind the song, for the sake of theirs and my composure. It is my hope that they merely understood.
Other albums have waxed and waned and been labeled my favorite singular pieces of music. In no particular order, they include:
- Oasis – What’s the Story? Morning Glory
- Green Day – Dookie
- Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
- The Beatles – Rubber Soul
- The Who – Who’s Next
- Dave Matthews Band – Crash
- Outkast – Speakerboxxx / The Love Below
- Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
- Radiohead – OK Computer
- The Verve – Urban Hymns
- John Mayer – Continuum
- Arcade Fire – Funeral
- The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
- Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
- Stevie Wonder – Talking Book
- The Black Keys – Rubber Factory
- Ben Harper – Lifeline
- The National – Boxer
- Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
All of these albums are gorgeous and profound in their own rights, with strengths and merits that music critics and populists could wax poetic about for hours, ultimately reaching circuitous conclusions that would either prop up their stature into the “classic” canon or dismiss the art as something altogether disposable. And, with a critical ear, one would be inclined to agree or disagree.
It is in this regard that objective musical observation falls flat.
So much of what we enjoy, what we assimilate into our being as something profoundly awe-inspiring, what we dare to attach meaning and emotion to, has very little to do the objective quality of the music itself.
Our realities are beholden to our perceptions, which are inherent biases framed by experience, mindset, receptivity to novelty and our own colored history. And it is within this imperfect fluidity that our assessments of events, and *especially* of art, are etched and re-etched into our minds.
For example, you’ll always have a soft-spot for certain songs that take you places. When I hear “Champagne Supernova”, I immediately remember being in Scotland, listening to a beautiful girl who shared my birthday singing it to a smattering of strangers. She offered me whiskey and we kissed not long after, and when you’re 13 and you’re tipsily locking lips with a lass of considerable beauty, you’re bound to enhance the experience each time it echoes in the great CD-R in your cerebral cortex.
I realize saying, “The Joshua Tree is my favorite album” is a lot like saying “I’m a big fan of The Sun.” There is no compelling objective narrative that will convince you one way or the other that the answer is either the dullest response to the most pressing musical answer you can ask someone (I find “favorite song” to be a loaded question and hardly indicative of someone’s musical tastes, especially since it generally takes someone either a split-second or six weeks to answer) designed to solicit the fewest “HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY SAY THAT”s from the pollsters or a tacet “F**K YOU” answer designed to stop anyone from prying further.
In fact, I can’t even tell you it’s the album I’ve listened to most often, since I believe it is a piece so precious and fragile that I reserve it for only occasional listening, for fear of emptying the music of it’s magic or spilling it’s meaning and power and letting it spoil in my synapses.
The album’s been out 25 years. U2 (and Bono, in particular) have morphed into a worldwide cultural behemoth that draws ire from critics, former fans and mortal enemies for their overt grandstanding, politicizing and occasional musical self-parody. U2 may have even churned out an objectively better-sounding offering with “Achtung Baby”, and no song on “The Joshua Tree” holds the universal spellbinding appeal of “One.” But if you separate all that … the music that’s come before and after, the inescapable omnipotence of the album’s principal players, the ever-increasing distance between U2’s vogue and the current state of our zeitgeist, if you just sit there, speakers loud and mind clear, you might just hear a damn fine record over the course of 45 easy minutes.
But for this writer, I hear distinct fragments of my life echoing through the speakers. I hear my mom telling me to come home for dinner. I smell my grandfather’s clams steaming on the porch. I see the Buffalo Sabres setting fire to ice. I experience youth and age, memory and dream, the past and the future, all contained in the ‘now.’
And that ‘now’ still tells me, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, and implores me to go seek it out. Maybe I’ll never find it. After 30 years, who knows? But I’ve at least found what I’ll be listening to when I do.
Thirtyist is a series of 30 tales of the 30 people, places, ideas and events that shaped the last 30 years of the life of someone of no particular importance – told in no particular order. To read them all, click on the post tag, “Thirtyist” or on the links below.*