How I fell in love with U2
My favorite band returns to Houston on their timely tour of ‘The Joshua Tree’
One of the most enduring, passionate and loving relationships in my life is with four men I’ve never met. (And my husband is OK with that.)
I first heard “The Joshua Tree” at overnight camp in 1987, and I have been in love with U2 ever since. I use the phrase “in love” because I think it most accurately describes our relationship. I might not know Bono (vocals), The Edge (guitar), Adam (bass guitar) or Larry (drums), but I do know U2 — the phenomenon that transcends the sum of its mortal parts — like I know my own heart.
As with all enduring loves, our relationship has evolved and deepened over the years.
First, it was all about the music — I became obsessed, addicted. “The Joshua Tree” rocked me. I experienced art’s unparalleled power to arouse emotion, spirituality, community and the intellect — I learned why art matters — by listening to that album.
I was only nine in the summer of ’87, and yet I understood something of the searching, lust, love, malcontent, displacement, anger and political unrest that thrums through “The Joshua Tree.” It introduced me to passions and struggles that, though nascent, were already inside me.
When I returned home from camp, I purchased my own copy of “The Joshua Tree” and, after a short negotiation with my mom, “War” and “Unforgettable Fire” (which happened to be in the same cassette-tape bin at the record store).
“Achtung Baby” was the first CD I ever owned. I brought it, fresh in its plastic wrap, to my neighbor Mariah’s house to play it for her and our friend, Matt, on a Friday night in November when we were in ninth grade. What leapt from Mariah’s stereo was exciting, complex and wholly unexpected. Bono still likes to say that Achtung Baby is “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.”
We’d never heard anything like it — Mariah set the album on “repeat” so we could wrap our heads around it. We were transfixed. Like every great record, “Achtung Baby” spoke to each of our individual struggles while simultaneously freeing us from them: For one evening, Matt transcended his struggle with sexuality; Mariah her superior, isolating intellect; and I my desperately awkward, too-tall frame. We craved the confidence and sexiness in “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “Until the End of the World.” We wanted to love and be loved enough to experience the heartbreak in “One” and “You’re So Cruel.”
IN THE ’90s, I began reading interviews with the band; I was instantly impressed with their unusually long relationships, impressed that they were intolerant of injustice and took to heart the responsibility to do something about it. They believed, as Bono often says, in the “idea of America,” in the “ideal of America,” which was what I wanted America to be, too.
Now I’ve seen U2 20 or so times. (I lost count around the Vertigo tour.) The live shows are where U2 and I love each other back, where we fill each other up until we can meet again. And I’ve given then more money than I’ll ever admit. I reaffirm my unwavering confidence in them by purchasing each new album on the day it’s released, before hearing a single track.
But, in return, they have carried me through every high and low in my life:
“With or Without You” pulled me from the shadows at a bar mitzvah party to ask a boy (four inches shorter than I) to dance.
“War” let me rage through my first high-school break-up.
“All That You Can’t Leave Behind” replenished my energy and confidence every Friday afternoon during my brutal first year at Harvard Law School.
I trekked from Boston to Providence to take comfort in an Elevation show in October 2001, so soon after experiencing 9/11 far from home.
As my first husband slid deeper into depression, and I teetered on the edge of his sad rabbit hole, long walks along Chicago’s lakefront with U2 resuscitated and reminded me who I was.
“Achtung Baby,” heavy with the agony of Edge’s divorce, got me through the most miserable phase of my own. Once I reached the survival phase, the live versions of those tracks gave me hope: Ironically, Edge met his second wife while touring the album written partly about splitting from his first.
My 30th birthday fell three weeks before my divorce was final, when I was at my rawest, most scared and least sure. So my best friend, Gaby, insisted that we hire a U2 cover band to play our party. I drank too much and danced the entire night, focused not on the love that let me down, but on the love that always came through.
I watched my now-husband, Josh, intently when we were first dating and “With or Without You” came on the radio. We were stopped at a red light, the roof of his tiny convertible down. When he instinctively turned up the volume, reached for my hand, threw his head back and sang along at the top of his lungs, he told me everything I needed to know.
In 2009, I was new to Houston, newly remarried and, unbeknownst to me, pregnant with our first son. I missed Chicago, my family and friends. But Gaby — terrified of airplanes — flew south so that we could stand in line all day to ensure just-right floor spots at Houston’s U2 360 show. I wasn’t used to Houston’s omnipresent strip malls or constant humidity and wasn’t ready to trade deep-dish pizza for chile con queso. But that day, at that show, I wasn’t in Texas — I was home.
IN THESE scariest of times, when the pillars of our democracy seem to be crumbling around us, to whom else could I turn but U2?
On January 9, when Trump’s inauguration loomed large and sleep had begun to elude me, U2 announced its plan to tour “The Joshua Tree” this spring, 30 years after its release. Nineteen of the tour’s first 21 dates will be in America. I’m not usually much of a crier, especially when sleepily scrolling through emails before waking my kids for school. But on January 9, when I saw the tour announcement sandwiched between the usual messages about America’s impending demise, my eyes welled up. That U2 was coming to me, to a stadium a mile from my house, when I was afraid and needed them most, overwhelmed me.
How do they always know?
When I clicked on the Rolling Stone interview in which Edge explained the band’s decision to shelve its nearly complete, highly anticipated new album in favor of touring “The Joshua Tree,” my tears — of gratitude, of pride — spilled over. “The Trump election,” he said, gave an old album new import. “That record was written in the mid-’80s, during the Reagan-Thatcher era … a period [of] a lot of unrest … . It feels like we’re right back there in a way. I don’t think any of our work has ever come full circle to that extent.”
No kidding. I purchased my tickets — to stand on the floor, closest to the band — to shows in Houston and Chicago. In May Gaby will fly to Texas for the first time since 2009. Once again we will stand in line all day outside NRG Stadium, sweating and holding our bladders like lunatics.
But this time, my husband will bring our six-year-old son, Jacob, to stand with us. Jacob’s heart will race right before U2 takes the stage. The music will speak to him, in a language he can understand, as it first spoke to me 30 years ago. He won’t grasp everything Bono sings, won’t understand why this tour is so important or the timing so apropos — but he will feel it. And with any luck, at the tender age of six, he too will fall in love.
Emily Wolf is a recovering lawyer and emerging writer. In 2009, she moved from Chicago to Houston, where she lives with her husband and two young sons.