There Is No There: Sounds, U2, and Confusing Career Trajectories

Back in the glory days of CD’s, my older brother was part of this music appreciation group. There were around 10 members, all very cool and interesting people from different parts of the country. They met once a month and took turns being the organizer, a key person who selected a theme for the gathering. Everyone would bring a song based on the theme, say a few about why they chose it, and open the floor for discussion.

In about 2006, I visited my brother in Cape Town the day after one of his music group meetups. The theme they’d discussed was titled, ‘There is No There,’ taken from a quote by Gertrude Stein. Stein was describing the neighborhood where she grew up in Oakland, her hometown, which had been leveled and replaced by an industrial park. For the group, my brother explained that they were asked to think about a specific sound that brought up memories of a lost moment or period in time.

The final compilation of songs he came home with is really interesting. Artists ranged from Neil Young to Hugh Masekela, Broken Social Scene, and Tree63.

It might have something to do with living in a country far away from where I grew up, knowing that my hometown is changing in ways I don’t understand, and being homesick a lot, but I think about the theme of this compilation constantly. It has become a screensaver that always seems to crop up at 3 am when I can’t sleep or when I’m hungover at home. And the song I always come back to is, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name,’ from U2’s Joshua Tree album.

Fuck me, right?

*


Before I get into this, I’d like to openly state that I’m aware of U2’s gradual shift into musical/cultural purgatory. I, too, am perplexed by Bono’s career path post-Zooropa. Once considered the most loved pop band in the free world, their notorious ‘Songs of Innocence,’ blunder is still an earsore to everyone with an iTunes account.
Moving on.

The opening bars to ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ immediately transport me to family holidays at the caravan park in Jeffrey’s Bay from 1987 to 1989. A lifetime ago. My father had ‘The Joshua Tree’ on cassette and played it from beginning to end, consistently over the weeks, occasionally changing gears to The Traveling Wilbury’s and Fleetwood Mac. Anyhow, the guitar riff that slowly fades in behind the keyboard brings back a vivid collection of memories, a mental collage.

I see my brothers and I riding skateboards along the gravel road to the beach. We’re playing on tire swings in the park. Eating a Surf Joy ice-creams and hanging outside our caravan on warm nights, the smell of fire burning cutting through the sea air. That song sounds like the night the campground’s goddamned pipes burst and our tent filled up with water. It takes me back to that time I lost my family while walking on the beach and thought I’d never see them again. I see my brothers and I eating watermelon in the hot sun. And then getting sunscreen basted across faces by our mother. My young mother. Her hair blonde, longer than it is now. My young father, too. I also see my young grandparents in lawn chairs, sitting in the shade playing cards. That song is the look, feel, and smell of so many other things that I’d recognize in a heartbeat if my brain could only recall them with more clarity. And the only thing that helps me get there is U2’s best-known album, from the opening track to ‘Trip Through Your Wires.’ (My dad recorded the album on an old cassette that only had room for the first eight songs and half of ‘One tree hill.’).

There is no other song, album and artist that sounds like so many beautiful things that live in the past. And none of this has anything to do with Bono’s reputation.

Still, I don’t talk about it to anyone because being a fan of any U2 song is like being a part of Fight Club. You don’t talk about it.

*

In 2015, I visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. My wife and I booked ourselves an Airbnb and made plans for a romantic getaway in the desert.
The night before we left, I started thinking about the Joshua Tree album and stayed up for hours watching live performances of it. Like a complete tool.
On our first day, we pulled up to Indian Cove and saw people scattered like ants atop the giant rock piles. We parked, stretched our legs and drank up the setting: the burlesque rock structures that tower over the parking lot and run on forever. Everything seems bigger and smaller at the same time. Like a dream.
To cap off the afternoon, we scaled a big hill that would give us a view of the sunset.
I was about halfway to the top when it dawned on me that we were 1) going higher than I first estimated and 2) started to worry about how we’d get down.
I had a lot to think about up there before those bridges needed crossing.

*

I don’t remember exactly when I first discovered that Bono wasn’t cool anymore – or if I ever really thought of him in those terms. It was sometime in 1997, the late grunge era.
I’ve lived long enough to see great artists die. Often both. Michael Jackson. Prince. Kurt Cobain. Layne Stanley. Their music is a lucky packet of crucial memories and experiences.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m not really old yet, but knowing that I’ve outlived the music of my youth makes me feel that way. I sometimes wonder how cool Bono would be if he’d died after the Joshua Tree.

*

Sharing art is hard. Whenever I publish a story or a blog post, one of the most shameless things I do is forward the link to everybody on my list of contacts. All of my friends. My family. Acquaintances. Everyone.
I need them to see my work and like it and tell me that it’s good. And as soon as the desire for their approval has met the reality of my action, it always feels like I’ve dropped a plastic bird at their feet.
Which starts the process of ruminating over how pathetic I am; a real artist doesn’t mass email their entire contact list. A real artist doesn’t need to self-promote.
No matter how lame I feel, every time I write a new post I’ll send the thing out and keep hoping for compliments.

*

Back at Joshua Tree, we made our way back down the hill at Indian Cove, daylight fading all around us, and I started wondering how the U2 band mates spent their time here.

This place – Joshua Tree National Park – represents the climax of their career. They will likely never have a single as well loved as ‘With or Without You,’ or win any more Grammy’s for their music videos, like they did with ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’.
They flew close to the sun.

Our descent the hill at Indian Cove was scarier than I’d imagined. An eerie breeze whistled along the cracks at my feet, making the ground pulse and shake. I needed to make a two-foot step over a twenty-foot drop, and my body tightened up. Like a clenched fist.
While I tried to pry my cold fingers from the rock and make some progress, something profound occurred to me: I could very well have been in the same place where the Edge decided he’d never take his beanie off again; where Bono decided to wear red sunglasses for the Zoo TV tour; where Adam Clayton stopped giving a shit if the music was any good anymore, so long as he could keep playing in the background and cashing his checks.
After a while, it was clear that I was stuck and couldn’t get down. As calmly as possible, I informed her that she would need to get chopper assistance. Or bring me a sleeping bag and a flashlight.

And then it all hit me: maybe the iTunes thing was Bono’s moment of weakness and pride, him reaching for that high one last time. Maybe pre-loading their album onto everyone’s iTunes library was just to get that old feeling of approval back. Was this the single largest mass e-mail in history?
Maybe, beneath it all, Bono is just like every other artist in the world.
All of these things became clear as I butt-dragged myself downhill.

*

The Never Ending Story 2 came out in 1990, the year we stopped going to the Jeffrey’s Bay caravan park. That is the year that all of my Joshua Tree album memories come to an end and become something else.
In the movie, a sorceress named Xayide creates a machine that steals one of Bastian’s (the protagonist) memories every time he makes a wish. The whole movie revolves around making wishes to help rebuild Fantasia. Throughout the film, as he reconstructs one world he loses touch with the real world at home and all the memories that connect him to it. Her goal is to make him forget where he comes from or why he is in Fantasia, and eventually die there. Unlike the Joshua tree album, the Never Ending Story 2 was not well received globally, but its star, Jonathan Brandis, is no longer living.

*

The Jeffrey’s Bay that exists in my mind is a rustic, sleepy shell of the place today. The town has grown exponentially. There are shopping malls, apartment complexes, traffic lights, restaurants. The stuff of modern life. It’s a relative metropolis compared to photographs from 1988. The caravan park looks out of place, a disheveled clinger to an era long gone.
And me, I don’t have any cassettes or CD’s anymore, and I’m not sure I have too many musical revelations left. I have a Spotify account and try to keep up with all the new stuff, but it’s hard to care about new music the way I used to. I cared too much about the old stuff.
Instead, I keep this long playlist of songs that I’ll listen to at work or in the car. It once had the full Joshua Tree album on it. Over the years I’ve been removing songs one by one, for various reasons (mostly, I get tired of explaining why there are U2 songs on my playlist to coworkers and friends). I started with ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ and ‘Exit’, both of which I was never that attached to. Then I moved on to ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ and ‘In God’s Country’, my least favorited number. Then ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’, With Or ‘Without You’, ‘Trip Through Your Wires’, and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’.
All but one.

*

My wife and I were out on a day trip again last weekend and ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ started playing. She instantly got annoyed and asked me to skip the song. She didn’t care for Bono and found his voice irritating. “Grating,” was the word she used.
For a brief moment, I started to see what she meant. All of the glitter and nostalgia I normally feel when I hear that song wasn’t all there, it was fading.
So I changed the song.

And when I got home, I put the whole album of another playlist, a private one just for me. I didn’t want to taint the memories of Jeffrey’s Bay, the years between ‘86 and ‘89, my young family. Those memories are too precious.
I’m sure Bono would agree.