THIRTY YEARS LATER
My summer has been CONSUMED writing the Tiger Woods biography. But last weekend I took a much-needed break to go see U2’s Joshua Tree tour. It’s strange to write that sentence, given that I went to see the Joshua Tree tour thirty years ago. But U2 is doing a 2017 version of the tour to commemorate the epic record. This post is about looking back and going forward.
The sun is shining and cool rain drops from a passing summer shower are falling like mist. The show doesn’t start for a few hours, but I’m already sitting in Gillette Stadium, eating ice cream with a gorgeous woman who doubles as my best friend and my lover. The ice cream is deliciously sinful – heaps of chocolate and vanilla covered in hot fudge, caramel, whip cream and chocolate chips. We’re violating every healthy eating rule that governs midlife weight control. But tonight we are going on a trip to 1987 – the year Joshua Tree was released, the year we started falling for each other.
I can pinpoint the moment. I was at Sea-Tac Airport, wearing a white shirt and tie, awaiting a flight to Hartford after spending two years in Seattle on a Mormon mission. A few families had come to see me off. Lydia was there with her parents and siblings. I still remember what she was wearing that day. It was July and her skin was golden brown. One of my friends noticed me looking at her and whispered in my ear: “Who’s the girl?”
It was a great question, one that I wasn’t allowed to pursue while on a mission. But suddenly I was itching to find out. When I got home, I spent the rest of the summer and fall writing her letters. Every day I’d check the mailbox in hopes of finding one from her. We were still buying vinyl and cassette tapes back then. One day I recorded some songs from the Joshua Tree and mailed her the tape. I was pretty sure at that point that I had found what I was looking for. A little over a year later we were married, working part-time jobs, and enrolled in college. We were young and broke, but we were brimming with hope and dreams.
For my generation, the 80s was a decade of promise. It was also a decade dominated, musically speaking, by U2. Boy, October, War, The Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum all came out in that ten-year span.
But for those of us who were in high school and college during the Ronald Reagan years, Joshua Tree was the pinnacle. The opening tracks weren’t just hits; they were anthems for our time.
“Where The Streets Have No Names” represented fearlessness and daring.
“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” represented searching and faith.
“With or Without You” represented love and passion.
“Bullet the Blue Sky” represented social consciousness and political activism.
No one but Bono was penning lines like:
Jacob wrestled the angel
And the angel was overcome
You plant a demon seed
You raise a flower of fire
See them burning crosses
See the flames higher and higher
As the seats started to fill up around us last weekend, I couldn’t help noticing how many people were drinking red wine. Nobody would have been drinking red wine at a U2 show in 1987. But it’s 2017 and our generation is no longer young and broke. We are doctors, lawyers, professors, small business owners, entrepreneurs. We buy our food at farmer’s markets and Whole Foods. We have children and they are in college and getting married. Our hopes and dreams are all grown up.
Suddenly the stadium goes dark and Larry Mullen, Jr. is alone under a spotlight, banging the militaristic drum beat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” I’ve been to Patriots games at Gillette Stadium in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. It gets pretty intense. But even at a Patriots playoff game, the fans sit down between plays, during timeouts, and between quarters. At a U2 show that goes for over two hours, 67,000 fans never sit down. There are no timeouts. And the floor of the second deck literally shakes when everyone belts out: “It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall. Sunday, bloody Sunday.”
“Thank you for letting us back into your country,” Bono says, drawing cheers. “A country that’s been so great to us. Tonight we let go of some things and hold on a little tighter to some others.”
That last sentence sums up where many people in my generation are at in 2017. We have let go of some things and we are holding tightly to others. In my case, I’m clinging to relationships. With my wife. With my children. With my cherished friends. I’m clinging to my health. Guys like me count each day as a blessing.
It got surreal when the screen behind the stage turned red and the silhouette of a black Joshua tree appeared. As The Edge broke into the opening chords of “Where the Streets Have No Names,” I remembered with amazing clarity the moment the band took the stage at the New Haven Coliseum on September 23, 1987, and played that song. I’d only been home from my Mormon mission for two months at that point. So much of my life was still ahead of me. I was 21, single and hungry.
I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I want to reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no names
At 51, those words still make me feel like I could outrun a bullet. But now I’ve arrived at the stage of life where I wish I could stand still. I’m not talking about taking my foot off the gas or taking it easy. I mean that the fifties seem like the ideal chapter in life. I wish I could freeze time right here. But it doesn’t work that way. The chapters only get shorter from here on out.
That’s why I felt like an electric current was running through me when Lydia touched me during “Bad,” her head nestled against my shoulder. I felt like we were back on a beach in 1988, a ring in my pocket, sand between her toes. To feel that in 2017 made me want to scream: “I’m wide awake. I’m wide awake. Wide awake. I’m not sleeping.”