U2 On 'The Joshua Tree,' A Lasting Ode To A Divided America Bono and The Edge explain why, 30 years later, the biggest-selling album of their career feels disquietingly resonant.

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

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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?


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."


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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...


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.


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.


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.


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

INSKEEP: They're touring on the 30th anniversary of "The Joshua Tree."

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