The Joshua Tree and Me: Musical History in Five Parts

I am almost 17. It is spring. My father is 7 months dead, and I’m somewhat unmoored by the potent cocktail of teen angst filtered through that prism. In retrospect, I had a pretty ok high school exprience, but only because of friends and the idea of what would come next — not because of anything that happened in any class there, except one: our very free-form debate team, naturally scheduled for the last class of the day. After school on a March afternoon, after someone in that class (Jason?) reminded me of its release date, I drive to the mall. The small, southern town I grew up in had only a single music store, and it was mall-bound: Camelot. We called it Camelsnot, and it was the only outlet for music short of expensive mail-order from NME or Rolling Stone or other, hipper, indie or punk magazines like Maximum Rock & Roll. I buy it on cassette. Only rich people had CD already, and only people older than me had vinyl. I unwrap it in my 1978 Buick, but I don’t move my car until I have to flip the tape. The music is ethereal, atmospheric, deep, and polished without being poppy. (It will be years before I realize this is Daniel Lanois’ touch.) The tape moves with me from car deck to walkman to bedroom stereo and back for much of the rest of the year.
I am 19, and a college freshman in Tuscaloosa. The rest of my life I looked forward to in high school is starting. My tape has gone the way of all flesh, which is what happens to tapes in cars in the South. The transparent case is scratched to opacity; the tape warbles and presents only a distorted version of the record. Two years is a long time, though, and I have a CD deck now. I buy a CD copy at Turtle’s — a real record store! in a college town! — on a credit card I won’t pay off for years. I listen to it again, closely, for the first time since 1987. I play it over and over that afternoon, kind of amazed it’s still interesting after two whole years, and realize suddenly it’s a record I’ll keep coming back to all my life.
I am 26, theoretically an adult. Years of dorm life, college-era parties, and haphazard storage habits claim the CD; a skip I know by heart mars “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Mobile Fidelity releases a “gold disc” remastered version, and I buy it — this time at the venerable Cactus Music in Houston. It does indeed sound better than my old CD, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is real and how much of it is the lack of the skip I continue to anticipate for years afterwards. I fail to notice that, at 26, I am about the same age the band was when they recorded it.
I am 34, edging into the vast middle of life. I am engaged to a woman I knew in 1989, but lost track of. Our first date after finding each other again in 2001 was a U2 show in Dallas; the date lasted 72 hours, and continued the following weekend for 72 more. I buy her the U2 iPod for Christmas, and fill it with the Digital Box Set, which of course contains the first new copy of the Joshua Tree I didn’t actually need to buy. We listen to nothing but U2 for weeks, and it reminds us of high school, of college, and most of all of a bubble of possibility we created for ourselves as we drove to Dallas on that absurdly optimistic first date. On our honeymoon, a year later in Mendocino, it is this copy and that iPod that we listen to through the window of our suite as we soak in our private hot tub, gaze at the California stars, and marvel at our incredible good fortune.
I am 38. The actual Joshua tree pictured on the cover is now dead and the album itself is older than I was at its release. Actually, it’s also older now than “old” records like Abbey Road, Who’s Next, Sticky Fingers, or the entire discography of Led Zeppelin were when I discovered them in high school. My brother and sister-in-law notice that The Joshua Tree is now old enough to drink, and send me the 20th Anniversary edition for my birthday; it’s playing as I type this. The mix is brighter, more alive, more intense, more spacious. Listening closely, I hear things I don’t think I’ve noticed before, deep in the background of the mix. When it finishes, I hit “play” again.

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