u2 the joshua tree
Photo: Cover of U2's The Joshua Tree by Anton Corbijn

Outside Is America: 35 Years After U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’

U2’s classic album The Joshua Tree offers insights into the power of art to challenge the stories we tell ourselves 35 years after its initial release.

The Joshua Tree
U2
Island Records
9 March 1987

Human beings seek meaning through narrative. We tell stories to situate ourselves within an ever-changing landscape and anchor ourselves in shifting tides. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that this narrative quality is unique, separating ourselves from the rest of the natural order. We can’t know for sure. We weave narratives not just with words but through music, memories, sights, and smells. If we’re fortunate, our stories expand our horizon and connect us, precisely where we acknowledge that we may not have all the story. 

One of the stories I tell myself involves the convergence of my college career, the ending of the 1980s, and a tour promoting an album that would sell over 25 million copies and enshrine four Irish lads into rock royalty. I caught U2‘s Joshua Tree tour on its third leg in November of 1987 as a college student in Nashville, Tennessee. Middle Tennessee was not on the original itinerary, and it was a surprise addition, and tickets were released and sold within 24 hours of the announcement. Despite its “Music City” moniker, Nashville in the late 1980s did not yet have a venue adequate to host the newly crowned “biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world”. So the concert was held 30 miles down the road in Murfreesboro at the athletic center of Middle Tennessee State University. 

Memory can be an unreliable narrator as one’s experiences wed themselves over time with emotions and impressions of time, place, and one’s emotional state, rendering a gauzy impressionistic portrait that we often mistake for a polaroid snapshot. In the midst of my senior year, I was probably consumed with thoughts of the future and fantasies of changing the world. A boy from East Tennessee, my world was already being expanded from time in the “big city” and a summer of non-profit service in San Francisco, California’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. There are several things wrapped up in my memory of that time when the winding down of a decade coincided with my own supposed launch into the world of responsible adulthood. 

In America, the Reagan revolution had dominated the decade. The self-titled “revolution” had seen a narrative of a particular type of patriotism emerge, a macho and unapologetic Americanism. Other stories struggled to expand the view and, in crucial places, call into question whether it was “morning in America” only for a select few. The AIDS epidemic ravaged communities and was met with governmental inaction, societal stigmatization, and indifference. America saw itself as the righteous defender of democracy against the scourge of communism but was embarrassed by its president short-circuiting democratic mechanisms and international agreements to sell arms to Iran and funnel the proceeds off the books to the Contras in El Salvador’s civil war. What is the story we tell ourselves?

U2 were expanding their own story in 1987. The Irish post-punk unit grabbed attention with their righteous passion-fueled bombast in 1983’s War, a verbal shot across the bow of the violence wracking their own home amid The Troubles, where an unholy alliance of religion and nationalism was expressed in terrorism and state oppression. One of the indelible moments of that November concert for me—part of the story I’d take away from that night—occurred before the encore conclusion to the show, War’s “40”, a weary lament calling for the end of violence forged from Psalm 40. Bono had just finished covering Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” with Wynnona Judd, having called her out of the audience to join him. He talked about U2’s tour and how the band had “fallen in love with America”. A voice cried out from the floor and caught Bono off guard. “You’ve fallen in love with Ireland?” he asked the fan. Then he spat back, “Have you ever been to Ireland?” In a moment of blunt honesty, he cautioned at prematurely connecting stories without practicing empathy and understanding first. After all, who gets to tell the story? 

And yet, part of the power of The Joshua Tree album lay with how it told stories of America of which many Americans preferred to stay ignorant. In Neil McCormick’s U2 by U2, the Edge described the band’s work on The Joshua Tree as reaching for “a ‘cinematic record’ where every song would conjure up a physical location”. He claimed that The Joshua Tree sought “music that can actually evoke a landscape and a place and really bring you there”. The album, in other words, sought to tell stories, bring them to life, and ask the listeners to situate themselves within it. It is worth considering how those stories resonate then and now, 35 years from its initial release.

A great deal of the enduring legacy of The Joshua Tree lies in U2’s success at fashioning and evoking these sweeping, aural landscapes the Edge refers to above. From the opening guitar riffs on “Where the Streets Have No Name” to the subtle distortion breaking the silence in “Mothers of the Disappeared”, the record was as grand and cinematic as the band hoped, if not more so. So much has been written on it over time, it could border on repetitive. From Anton Corbijn’s Mount Rushmore-like album cover photo to debates about records with the strongest opening three songs ever, The Joshua Tree emerged from the perfect storm of creativity, collaboration, and a band coming fully into voice as an undisputed classic. 

But it is the question of stories and the choice of the ones we tell that needle me about this album 35 years in. Despite Bono’s cautionary retort to the fan expressing a possibly naive love of Ireland that night in Murfreesboro, the group channeled others’ stories and sought to bring an American audience to an awareness of an expanded account of Western military intervention in Central and South America.

On a break from the Amnesty International “Conspiracy of Hope” tour, Bono and his wife, Ali, spent some time in Nicaragua and El Salvador in 1986. They were working with a group named Sanctuary, who supported peasant farmers caught in the crossfire of civil war and terrorized by US-trained guerrilla fighters. He heard the stories of those persecuted and witnessed the devastation and horror of bombing campaigns and the cost behind the pleasant euphemism “spreading democracy throughout the world”.

Some experiences strain our ability to give them a voice, things so profound or traumatic that we risk trivializing them in slogans. We turn to existing narratives and mediums, borrowing from them and seeking to express what can’t be said. Bono turned to the Bible and the power of the Edge’s amplified guitar. Having witnessed the bombing of a small village, Bono mined images of biblical destruction to give voice to the scope of fear and anguish. “In the locust wind / Comes a rattle and hum / Jacob wrestled the angel / And the angel was overcome.”

Sometimes, only the ancient and foundational stories have the heft to carry the weight of specific experiences. Yet, even then, the storyteller can—with a subtle alteration—bring new meaning to an older story. In the Hebrew Bible, the tale of Jacob’s encounter and wrestling match with the mysterious heavenly messenger is a stalemate until the angel touches Jacob’s hip socket, rendering it out of joint. Jacob is renamed Israel, which means roughly “one who struggles with the divine”. In Bono’s re-telling, the angel is overcome, and America’s intervention in Central America is situated in stark relief. It is literally god-forsaken. 

The tone set, the song then punctuates the horror in graphic metaphors and sounds. Relating these stories to U2’s guitarist, the Edge, Bono allegedly asked if he could put this experience through his amplifier. The effect is jarring and harsh, like a fighter jet tearing through a tranquil sky. The images are shocking, with a sky ripped open into a gaping wound from which bullets and bombs pelt women and children. There’s no equivocating here. The band’s song recounts war crimes and, while evoking a Central American landscape in the music, U2 are clear as to the geographic locus of those who hold responsibility for the horror. “Outside is America. America.”

The song is fierce and is a musical and lyrical display of the band’s righteous passion. It has become a fixture in their live performances, with its first inclusion as the opening encore number during the original Joshua Tree tour. Adding Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” as its live intro connected the song’s condemnation of American militarism with the Vietnam protests of the 1960s. But compelling stories count on receptive hearers, and human beings are adept at selective hearing when the stories that comfort us are called into question. 

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