Into the arms of America
This is not the time to sunder our special relationship with the US, says Brendan O'Connor. After all, Americans have stuck with us through much worse choices
Thirty years ago, four twenty-somethings from Dublin wrote a love letter to America that would go on to become one of the biggest selling albums of all time. While The Joshua Tree was still very much an Irish album, it explored too the textures of Americana and the classic myths of America, evoking the cinematic sweep of the desert, the melancholy of the heartlands, the romance and the cruelty of the South. It was very much a love letter to a mythic America, the America of Jack Kerouac and Walt Whitman, the real America that endures, whoever is in charge. But equally the album touched on what twenty-something Irish social justice warriors in the 1980s would have seen as the ugliness of America - violence, what was seen as objectionable foreign policy, bogus preachers, false gods.
As the album exploded, U2 would go on the road through America. Like Kerouac they hit the road to find themselves and to find America, to find what Kerouac called the American soul, to seek the spirit of this great self-renewing country. And as they delved into the myths, heading to Graceland, Sun Studios, Harlem, hanging with BB King, Bob Dylan, the tensions were there too. They went for example, through the Bible Belt, with which this largely Christian band had an ambivalent relationship. And all the time they had to reconcile that tension of being twenty-something Irish lefties in the crucible of capitalism.
Kerouac believed at one point that capitalism was a uniquely American creation, a product of its rugged individualism, while he thought any strain of leftism in America had its roots in Europe. That tension was played out almost within U2 itself as they became, with that album and tour, a massive capitalist enterprise, but with a socially leftist conscience. They would seek to straddle both these positions unashamedly since.