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U2 On 'The Joshua Tree,' A Lasting Ode To A Divided America

Mar 20, 2017
Originally published on March 20, 2017 10:01 am

The members of U2 are preparing a new tour to play some old songs — 30 years old, to be exact. Paul Hewson and David Evans, known to the world as Bono and The Edge, will be the first to tell you their band isn't normally fond of looking back.

"Usually Edge, when we have a greatest hits collection coming out, has to struggle to get me to listen to it, because it feels dead to me," Bono says. "Plus, I don't like the sound of the singer very much, especially the one with the mullet in the 80's."

The hairstyles of that era of U2 may be dated; the music, they feel, is not. The Joshua Tree appeared in stores in 1987 and sold more than 20 million copies, making it one of the major pop culture events of that decade. On it, these Irish musicians were writing about the America of the moment: A time of social change at home and the climax of the Cold War abroad.

"Ronald Reagan was in power, and Maggie Thatcher in Britain. The miner's strike was a big issue in Britain, a lot of unrest," The Edge says. "I think we all realized that things had almost come full circle — like the environment in which that album was written is more similar to the political environment we are in today than it has been since."

Bono and The Edge spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep, who asked the singer and guitarist to explain the mood The Joshua Tree was made to capture. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Steve Inskeep: Is it true that this album was going to be called The Two Americas at one point?

Bono: Yeah, it was. There's two Americas: There's the mythic America and the real America. We were obsessed by America at the time. America's a sort of promised land for Irish people — and then, a sort of potentially broken promised land.

If the Declaration of Independence is like the liner notes of America, we're like annoying fans that follow politicians into the bathroom and say, "But it says here, 'We pledge our sacred honor.' What's that about?" And people suffer us talking about America because we love it so much. Rather arrogantly, we don't think you own it. We think America is an idea that belongs to people who need it most.

Inskeep: One song that really sticks in my head from hearing it years ago is "Bullet the Blue Sky." What is happening in that song? Is there a real event back behind it somewhere?

Bono: As well as Live Aid and a trip to Ethiopia, to try to figure out how poverty can exist in a world of plenty ... I went to El Salvador, trying to understand the conflict there.

Inkseep: There was a conflict there, and in Nicaragua as well. This is during the Cold War, where the US supported wars to push back against what was seen as the communist threat to Central America.

Bono: And I witnessed some things in Salvador which were really unspeakable. We witnessed a firebombing in rebel-backed territory, watching people's livelihoods get exploded and feeling the ground shake, even though we were safe enough ourselves. It was something that made, as you can imagine, a bit of an impression: Seeing bodies thrown out of cars on the side of the road, terrible stuff that was going on. Watching foreign policy work itself out in a small country. That's where "Bullet the Blue Sky" came from.

Edge: It's actually a great example of U2 working as a band. I had a guitar part, and Adam and Larry started playing along — and they played against this guitar part in half-time. I remember being quite frustrated and a little annoyed at them: "Why are you playing half-time?" The engineer and Bono were in the control room going, "Wow, that was amazing!" And I was like, "No, you don't understand — that was wrong. That was not what it was supposed to be." [But] it was a great lesson for me: We rewound, hit play, and heard this bass part that Adam had come up with that was so wild, so brilliant, and not what I would have ever put on that guitar part.

Bono: It was in a different key!

Edge: From that, we built the rest of the music. And as Bono's describing, he had some words that he'd started working on based on these experiences that — and it was clear that the mood of this music suited the experience that he'd had.

Inskeep: I'm looking at the lyrics to "Bullet the Blue Sky," and there's a spoken word-verse that feels, to me, like a dream sequence. It begins, "I can see those fighter planes," and at the end you're in a room listening to a saxophone. It feels like you're moving from one scene to another. Do you know what's happening there?

Bono: "This guy comes up to me, his face red like a rose on a thorn bush, like all the colors of a royal flush. And he's peeling off those dollar bills, slapping them down — one hundred, two hundred -- and I can see those fighter planes."

At the time that was Ronald Reagan in my head, and the reason was that I'd [seen a mural in El Salvador with Reagan in it]. I was standing in this church going, "Wow, what's Ronald Reagan doing there on the chariot?" And they said, "It's Ronald Reagan as the Pharaoh, and we are the children of Israel running away." Really, the image in that dream sequence is the stuff that happens behind oak doors, down marbled corridors, that works its way into the everyday lives of good people who get caught up in a conflict.

Inskeep: Now that you're revisiting these songs, and you'll be playing them on tour, do you feel an urge to revise or rewrite any of them?

Bono: I change the lyrics all the time. Not just because I don't remember the original ones [laughs], but because I felt the first ones were just sketches a lot of the time. I'm proud of the thoughts behind the material, but sometimes not the expression of the language. So I do change all the time.

Inskeep: I'm curious now, have you ever been like Ella Fitzgerald in that famous "Mack The Knife" rendition where she just has no idea what the words are anymore, and she's just kind of making up things?

Bono: That's how we write songs! I've been making s*** up on the microphone since we were 17 years old. Sometimes it turns into words, sometimes it's just like sound paintings. I've only got semi-literate recently. But then, there's an age old tradition, isn't it: "A-womp bop a-looma, a-womp bam boom." I mean, it's just ... sound is everything.

Producer Gabriela Saldivia and web editor Daoud Tyler-Ameen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep with the opening sounds of an interview.

Would you each say your given names as well as stage names before we get going?

THE EDGE: No.

BONO: (Laughter) That's something that only ever happens...

THE EDGE: That would be impossible.

BONO: ...When I'm presenting my passport to an immigration officer or a policeman (laughter).

INSKEEP: All right, I'll say it. Their names are Paul Hewson and David Evans, better known by their stage names with U2.

Can I call you Bono and Edge? Is that OK?

BONO: Paul is dead.

THE EDGE: Yeah, Bono and Edge is - Paul is dead?

BONO: Paul is dead (laughter).

INSKEEP: They're preparing a new tour to play the songs from an old album. Thirty years ago, they released "The Joshua Tree."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME")

U2: (Singing) I want to run. I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.

BONO: What did you tell me about nostalgia, The Edge?

THE EDGE: I said, Bono, it's a thing of the past.

BONO: You did.

INSKEEP: True enough, but in this case it's quite a past. "The Joshua Tree" appeared in stores in 1987. It sold more than 20 million copies, making it one of the major pop culture events of that decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME")

U2: (Singing) Where the streets have no name.

BONO: Usually, Edge, say when we have a collection coming out, a greatest hits collection, has a struggle to get me to listen to it because it feels dead to me. Plus, I don't like the sound of the singer very much when I'm listening...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BONO: ...Especially the one with the mullet in the '80s who sings like a girl.

INSKEEP: We were watching videos of the mullet in the '80s. It's a very impressive mullet.

BONO: Can you imagine one of your greatest moments of your life, say Live Aid, looking like your hair was ironed?

INSKEEP: If the hairstyles of U2 in the '80s were dated, they feel the music is not. Bono and The Edge were writing about America in the 1980s. It was a time of social change at home and the climax of the Cold War abroad.

BONO: It seemed to us at the time that there was the America that we always thought of, the America of John F. Kennedy, of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln. And then there was this other America that came around once in a while that was a much more fear-based mentality.

INSKEEP: So 2017, a moment a lot of old assumptions have been tossed in the air feels familiar to these Irish musicians now in their 50s.

BONO: And at a time like this, it is a moment to re-evaluate yourself, your value system, what you believe in. And I imagine Americans are going through that right now. And, you know, what is this country?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN GOD'S COUNTRY")

U2: (Singing) Desert sky, dream beneath a desert sky. The rivers run but soon run dry.

INSKEEP: Did you call this album "The Two Americas" at one point?

BONO: Yeah, just "Two Americas." We were obsessed by America at the time. America is a sort of promised land for Irish people and then a sort of potentially broken promised land. If the Declaration of Independence is like the liner notes of America, we're like annoying fans that follow politicians into the bathroom and say, but it says here well we pledge our sacred honor. What's that about?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BONO: You know, and people suffer us talking about America because we love it so much rather arrogantly. We don't think you own it. We think America is an idea that belongs to, you know, people who need it most.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN GOD'S COUNTRY")

U2: (Singing) Sleep comes like a drug in God's country.

INSKEEP: Their love for the United States did not keep them from being critical. "Bullet The Blue Sky" was inspired by brutal episodes of the Cold War. Bono grew interested in U.S.-supported wars to push back against what was seen as the Communist threat to Central America.

BONO: And I went to El Salvador trying to understand the conflict there. And I witnessed some things in Salvador which were really unspeakable. We witnessed a fire bombing in rebel-backed territory and watching people's livelihoods get exploded and feeling the ground shake. Even though we were safe, it was something that made, as you can imagine, a bit of an impression seeing bodies thrown out of cars on the side of the road, terrible stuff that was going on watching foreign policy work itself out in a small country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BULLET THE BLUE SKY")

U2: (Singing) See the face of fear, running scared in the valley below.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at lyrics to "Bullet The Blue Sky." And there's a spoken word verse...

BONO: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...That feels to me like a dream sequence. It begins - I can see those fighter planes. And at the end, you're in a room listening to a saxophone. It feels to me like you're moving from one scene to another. Do you know what's happening there?

BONO: Yeah. This guy comes up to me, his face red like a rose on a thorn bush, like all the colors of a royal flush. And he's peeling off those dollar bills, slapping them down, slapping them down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BULLET THE SKY")

U2: One hundred, 200. And I can see those fighter planes. And I can see those fighter planes.

BONO: At the time, that was Ronald Reagan in my head.

INSKEEP: Bono's inspiration was a mural featuring President Reagan that he saw painted on a wall in El Salvador.

BONO: I was looking at, wow, what's Ronald Reagan doing there on the chariot? And they said, is Ronald Reagan as the pharaoh. And we are the children of Israel running away. And really, the image in that dream sequence, Steve, is this stuff that happens behind oak doors, down marbled corridors, works its way into the everyday lives of good people who get caught up in a conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BULLET THE BLUE SKY")

U2: See the rain through a gaping wound, pounding on the women and children who run into the arms of America.

INSKEEP: Now that you're revisiting these songs and you'll be playing them on tour, do you feel an urge to revise or rewrite any of them?

BONO: I change the lyrics all the time not just because I don't remember the original ones...

(LAUGHTER)

BONO: ...But because I felt the first ones were just sketches a lot of the time. I'm proud of the thoughts behind the material but sometimes not the expression of the language. So I do change all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: I'm curious now. Have you ever been like Ella Fitzgerald in that famous "Mack The Knife" rendition where she just has no idea what the words are anymore and she's just kind of making up things?

BONO: That's how we write songs. I've been making [expletive] up on the microphone since we were 17 years old. Sometimes it turns into words. Sometimes they're just like sound paintings. I've only got semi-literate recently.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BONO: But it's an age old tradition, isn't it? A wop-bop-baloo-bamawang-bang-boom (ph), I mean, it's just - sound is everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH OR WITHOUT YOU")

U2: (Vocalizing).

INSKEEP: Well, Bono and Edge, thanks very much to both of you, really appreciate it.

THE EDGE: Steve, it's been great fun. We'll do it again sometime I hope.

BONO: Yes. Please come and see us.

INSKEEP: I'd like that very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH OR WITHOUT YOU")

U2: (Singing) With or without you. With or without you.

INSKEEP: They're touring on the 30th anniversary of "The Joshua Tree." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.