This past week my family bought me a turntable for my birthday present–better than that, a turntable and U2’s 30th Anniversary Joshua Tree 7 LP Super Deluxe Box Set! Along with the original Joshua Tree as a double album, the set includes a double-album from a 1987 concert at Madison Square Garden, another three albums of remixes, outtakes, and B-sides, a folio of Anton Corbijn colour prints, and a book of The Edge’s photography from the band’s trip into the California desert back when they were putting the original Joshua Tree album together. The other night I listened to the 1987 live concert, along with my copy of The Unforgettable Fire (1984), which I also somehow got on LP a couple of years ago (Was it you, Liz?). As the music washed over me, I found myself reflecting on the way U2 has functioned as a soundscape of memory for me for the past 35 years (i.e my whole adult life).
I say 35 years because it was on February 28, 1983, that U2 released War, the young band’s breakthrough album (#1 in the UK, #12 in the US). It must have been around this time that, as a kid in grade 11, I first encountered U2. It would be hard to overstate the impact that U2 had on me and so many other kids like me–young evangelicals (well, Mennonite Brethren in my case, but close enough) who found themselves in a difficult cultural cul-de-sac. In my case, I variously listened to and then trashed as evil records from groups like The Police, Toto, and other mainstream pop and rock acts. As for the safer world of “Contemporary Christian Music”–whatever you think about it today–there was precious little to choose from in those days. Petra was the only Christian group with much musical credibility, at least in the minds of the young Christians I knew. (Amy Grant was pretty, but that wasn’t so much about the music.) It’s hard to describe the situation as it was in the early ’80s–listening to secular music was, for many of us, a real moral quandary. I won’t belabor the point, but suffice it to say that many of us lived in a kind of musical wasteland.
Then came U2.
Sporting the Contemporary Christian Magazine stamp of approval–if I remember rightly, War was CCM’s controversial choice as album of the year–but played on the radio and sold in normal (read “secular”) record shops, U2 accomplished something completely new. They wrote and performed songs with serious Christian content (OK, some of them needed a bit of decoding) and achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim. They were, in a word, important.
And I listened to them day and night. Because I discovered U2 around 1983, I encountered War, Under a Blood Red Sky (1983), October (1981), and Boy (1980) at roughly the same time. It would be hard to overstate the impact on me of the seriousness, urgency, angst, and exuberance of those early U2 albums, including and perhaps especially The Unforgettable Fire. They were my constant companions from high school in Swift Current to Bible school in Germany to university in Saskatoon, and from singleness into love and marriage. (“Dating music,” as my wife Colleen put it ever so succinctly, even as she recalled the beat-up ghetto-blaster I used to play in my car.) Even as I continued to follow U2 into their superstardom, which probably had its beginnings with the 1985 “Live Aid” concert and then The Joshua Tree album, it was still the first five albums that I listened to most consistently, along with a few bootleg tracks and remixes I somehow recorded onto cassette tapes. Through much of the 1990s, I lost track of the band. Achtung Baby (1990) was fantastic, but much of what came between it and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (1998) I heard only in passing. (Having four children, working on a PhD, buying our first home and losing my mom to cancer might have had as much to do with that as the uneven quality of U2’s 1990s albums.) But I still remember the first time I heard “Beautiful Day” while running errands late one 1998 evening in Saskatoon, and I’ve enjoyed much of what they’ve recorded in the two decades since then.
Still, when it comes down to it, I’m still more likely to listen to early U2 than anything else. No doubt much of that comes from the kind of intense identity formation that happens in one’s late teens and early twenties, but much of it was also because of the profound spiritual connection I felt when listening to those albums. In many respects, U2 was an important component of my spiritual formation, especially during my year at Capernwray (Bodenseehof). (I’ll always remember my roommate Armin Boschmann playing “40” as a song of devotion in a chapel service he led!) It was during that year that The Unforgettable Fire was released. Walkman stereos were still relatively new, too, and with my headphones and my cassettes, I could listen to U2 while out walking or while falling asleep at night, back when those were still novel experiences. Music became ubiquitous at that time–a kind of soundscape, in the way that it still is today.
But oh, that spiritual connection! The desire of “Gloria,” the abandon of “I Will Follow,” the sadness and hope of “October,” the cry for justice in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the frustration of “I Threw a Brick Through a Window,” the celebration of sacrifice in “With a Shout (Jerusalem)” and “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the searching in “Is that All?” (or, later, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), and the devotion (and longing) of “40.”
Listening to the 1987 live album, I’m reminded of that spiritual intensity in U2: Bono speak-singing “The real battle just begun, to claim the victory Jesus won,” later wailing, “In the name of love, what more in the name of love?” then crying “Hallelujah, Hallelujah” over and over at the end of “40” at the close of the concert. Remembering my own live experience of U2 in 2011, standing ten yards from the stage at the 360 tour in Edmonton, I recall again the intensity of Bono’s performance, soaring in “Magnificent,” revelling in the raw power of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and then flowing into the sublime worship of “Scarlet,” which could have gone on for 15 minutes or a half an hour, as far as I was concerned. Just hearing (and singing) “Rejoice” over and over was, for me, the highlight of the night.
And I remember again why U2–and particularly early U2–has mattered so much to me for so long. It was (and still is, in it’s evolved way) a band that stood for something, a band on a mission, a band that sang about stuff that mattered: conflict and peace and nuclear war and broken people and human rights and Jesus and being alive and wanting more … always the search for more.
To be sure, the soundscape of U2 is a link to memories of places: Friedrichshafen, Berlin, Montreal, Saskatoon. Even more so, though, it’s a link to memories of feelings: of youth, of longing, of searching for God, of struggling to make my way in life, and of gradually seeing the pieces fall into place. What a great ride it’s been. I think I’ll give that album another spin.