Thirty years ago—more than a quarter of a century and almost half your life expectancy—U2 released The Joshua Tree, inspired by the band’s sudden curiosity about and immersion in American roots music, and at least colored if not influenced by the waning years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
It was their fifth album, and the one that came to define them.
The Joshua Tree made them superstars, launching them from very popular to the most popular band in the world, and when they toured America to support the record, already a worldwide chart-topper, they joined the already-thin rank of groups who could sell out football stadiums. (They famously finished with just 1000 unsold tickets, all from their Las Vegas show, where, honestly, most of the local population think rock ‘n’ roll peaked with Elvis.)
At the time, The Joshua Tree (named after a tree of that species spotted by photographer Anton Corbijn on an isolated stretch of California desert, albeit not in Joshua Tree National Park, about 200 miles away) was musically breathtaking; stillness-shattering in the same way The Dark Side of The Moon or Sticky Fingers or Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band were in their time.
It was fresh and anthemic—an incredibly difficult combination to pull off successfully. Songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” embodied the ridiculous oxymoron “instant classics.”
That impossibility notwithstanding, these were some of the greatest songs of rock’s first half century, the lyrics masterfully empathetic and universal, the sound so spacious, uplifting, so chimingly and charmingly different, so blue-sky clear. Deeper cuts, less epic but no less effective, particularly “Mothers of the Disappeared” and “Red Hill Mining Town”—by turns haunting and riveting—would be beyond most artists’ reach.
Flash forward to 2017, a different millennium, a vastly different world, and by few means or measures a better one. U2 decide to back-burner the album they’re working on, because Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has made them rethink what they should be talking about in their music.
They weren’t sure their new material appropriately addressed the menacing genie newly released from his bottle, or that a tour in support of that material this summer wouldn’t dissolve into irrelevance in these surreal mists.
At this point they remembered this was the 30th anniversary of their masterpiece. Why not tour that? Having never played the entirety of a record on tour before would be a unique selling point, and, well—here one might be guessing—they didn’t have anything better right now. That 33-date world tour begins tonight, Friday, in Vancouver.
There is no doubt that U2 will put on a very professional, very theatrical, and probably very exciting show, and that fans will get their money’s worth hearing the greatest Joshua Tree hits and the other lesser, or in one case, “Red Hill Mining Town,” never played tracks.
But I have strong doubts about the relevance of The Joshua Tree to the current idiocratic epoch, other than as a marketing hook.
I think it’s too facile to say that today, in Trump, America has the same kind of ideological despot in charge as we did in Reagan in 1987, one who again threatens America’s eternally youthful and progressive spirit with a choking, ancient-values conservatism aimed at preserving the best of everything for rich white men.
But Reagan’s administration, vastly flawed and anti-progressive and often useless as it was, hoped to generally improve everyone’s lot and genuinely believed in its principles—and wasn’t always wrong—whereas Trump proposed a tax code revision that would earn him and his family tens of millions of dollars more each year.
Reagan was ideological, and I think often in misguided, retarding ways; but he was honest. And he was transparent with his social agenda (and, cough, cough, his personal finances).
When The Joshua Tree came out, my magazine Spin was two years old, and boundlessly enthusiastic about U2 and their magnificent new record, and pretty tirelessly critical of the Reagan White House and the corona of conservatism inexorably, like a runaway Pacman, trying to swallow artistic freedoms. At the time, we, at Spin and MTV and Rolling Stone, and all the progressive radio stations and print media around the country, really did feel we were foot soldiers in a very real culture war. Reagan was, or at least epitomized, the enemy.
The Joshua Tree symbolically became a brave reclaimer of the true American spirit, a sonic boom announcing a renewal of our vows to freedom and personal growth. It perfectly fit the times. Eventually Reagan’s America, the actual and the illusory, dissolved into myth, most of it exaggerated, and Reagan became another part of the uneven fabric that this great and still-young country is tailored from. Imperfectly, the country evolved. As it always has.
For all his faults, and they were, in my opinion, manifold, Reagan was a Colossus compared to the clueless buffoon sitting in his chair now. Reagan was a public servant—Trump wants the public and the system he’s trying to game to serve his interests. Reagan was undeniably a decent, admirable man, a brilliant communicator who earned the respect of even his strongest adversaries.
Trump, as a person, is repugnant on so many levels (I know him, by the way, so I’ve witnessed his repugnance), and as a public servant he’s a fraud who has open contempt for the institution of democracy, which he sees as a vast inconvenience to his insanely megalomaniacal view of himself. He talks so much nonsense, is so incontinent with delusional gibberish, that soon we may actually start to feel sorry for him.
Even in Reagan’s latter, fuzzy years, he was more universally inspiring and effective than Donald Trump has been for one minute of his nascent presidency. And Reagan had Alzheimer’s.
I think it’s lazy, of us and to some extent of U2, to pull The Joshua Tree off a shelf and wheel it around America, reenact it like some civil war pageant, and say that it is a rallying cry, as pertinent now as it was when first released. It isn’t. It’s a reheated pizza.
U2 is still a good enough band to give us new, original songs to reflect these shameful, empty-spirited times. They should do that.
But, like I said, it’ll be a great show.