by John Ellis
This evening, U2 stops in Washington DC on the band’s The Joshua Tree tour. Released thirty years ago, en route to selling over 25 million copies, The Joshua Tree propelled U2 to superstar status. Containing the singles “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “Where the Streets Have No Name,” The Joshua Tree is one of the greatest albums in rock history. Depending on the day, it’s also my favorite album of all time; it’s biggest competition being Achtung Baby, another U2 album. In fact, when asked, I usually name U2 as my favorite band of all time. All that combined has left me as giddily excited as a ten-year-old on Christmas Eve as I impatiently count down the remaining hours before tonight’s concert.
Being far more connected to powerful people and having far greater influence than many of our old friends actually realize, my wife asked for free tickets to tonight’s concert, and she was given free tickets to tonight’s concert. While not as excited as me, my wife is also immensely excited about the concert. We both love music, we love sharing live music experiences together, and The Joshua Tree is the one of the few albums that we both love. In fact, if the two of us ranked our favorite albums as a couple, there’s a good chance that The Joshua Tree would nab the top spot.
(If you’re unfamiliar with the album, The Gospel Coalition published an article about The Joshua Tree. You can read that article by clicking here.)
Although I had heard and liked the radio singles since the time of the album’s release in March of 1987, The Joshua Tree didn’t begin to really resonate with me until the summer of 1994. Working my first non-church-related job, the summer after my senior year of high school was spent in an office and restaurant supply company. I unloaded the semi-trucks, stocked the warehouse, and every morning helped load the delivery vans. The radio was always playing on the radio, and, as a kid who was raised in Christian fundamentalism, it became quickly apparent my rock music knowledge was woeful.
Thankfully, during that era, top-forty stations played a much wider variety of music than top-forty stations do today. So, while it’s true that I liked Ace of Base, C + C Music Factory, and Ini Kamoze, I also liked bands like Nirvana, Beck, and the Crash Test Dummies. However, as I stated, if left up to me, the warehouse would’ve listened to Bon Jovi and Jon Secada.
It didn’t take long for my new co-workers, all older than me and from completely different backgrounds than me, to take it upon themselves to reform my music taste. Unless I was alone in the warehouse, I was not allowed to touch the radio, much less play the top-forty station. The youngest of my co-workers was a twenty-three year old, true-life grunge; he taught me that music mattered. From him, I learned that the power and value of music (and art) cannot be divorced from the message. From that time on, the cheap materialism of pop music appealed far less to me. One of my other co-workers, a middle-aged hippie who had been at the first Woodstock, taught me the power and value of aesthetic quality in music (and art). From that time on, mass produced pop music aimed at the lowest aesthetic common denominator began to ring untrue in my ears.
As the summer wore on, away from work, I found myself listening more and more to bands like Soundgarden, Cream, and the Talking Heads, to name bands from different rock music eras and, technically, while aesthetically connected, from different genres. However, it was one of the salesmen who unwittingly moved my rock music education into the truly personal.
I rarely saw the salesmen, much less spoke to them. At the time, and in my memory, they were what my fundamentalist-shaped brain imagined as the prototype of cool. Their clothes, hairstyles, discussions of their sexual exploits, and their apparent freedom was everything that I believed my fundamentalist parents had wrongfully deprived me of. When I did see them, it was usually when they were retrieving a beer out of the break room fridge. My boss allowed me to drink a beer or two at lunch, but the effortlessness with which the salesmen quaffed their Coors Light highlighted, in my view, my half-embarrassed fumbling with the can.
For some reason, one of the salesmen asked me to join him at lunch. My dad expected me to save my money for college, so going out to eat wasn’t supposed to be an option for me. However, this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I quickly said yes while hoping that we were going to go somewhere inexpensive, like a McDonalds.
His car was a brand-new Honda Civic with tinted windows and shiny rims. As we got in the car, he pointed out the huge speakers taking up the back along with the bass tube. He didn’t need to point out the newly installed 5-disc CD changer, because that was the first thing that I saw when I opened the passenger side door.
On the way to the restaurant, he proudly told me all about his car’s sound system while demonstrating its ear-shattering and seat pounding capabilities. I was impressed. He rarely stayed on one disc, much less one song, for very long, though; skipping from CD to CD to better put the sound system through its paces (or to show-off that he had a 5-disc changer). At one point, after he switched to the next CD, the music that filled the car drowned out the salesmen for the first time. Not that I couldn’t hear him, but his words were no competition for the swelling strains of a song that sounded very familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time. The ethereal guitars and impassioned drums that lead into a voice that exemplified sincerity, longing, doubt, and faith affected me like no music ever had.
As the salesmen flipped through the CD, I was mesmerized. That car ride to an overpriced seafood restaurant on the beach gave me the first taste of music’s potential to move me, cause me to think, and cause me to hope. By the third song, I recognized the band, although, at the time, I didn’t know the name of the album.
After lunch, on the way back to the warehouse, I worked up the courage to ask, “Could you play the U2 album?” The salesmen responded, “You mean The Joshua Tree?” Bookmarking the name in my mind, I said, “Yes, The Joshua Tree.”
A lot has happened in my life during the intervening twenty-three years. By word and deed, I have screamed in open defiance against my Creator. The Joshua Tree always made that harder. By God’s grace, I have bowed my knees in submission to my Creator, and am repenting of my sins and placing my faith in Jesus. By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit used The Joshua Tree to confront me with the truth and beauty of transcendence; my atheistic worldview was little match for the fractured yet persistent faith of Bono beautifully rendered on The Joshua Tree. As I’ve grown in grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, I have praised God for the beauty and truth found on The Joshua Tree that points me to Him.
So, yes, I am probably too excited for tonight’s concert. But, in my defense, The Joshua Tree means something far more than just good music to me. And that’s something that only great music that is both beautiful and true can accomplish.
 “Bullet the Blue Sky” became a popular song after the release of the concert album Rattle and Hum.