Trip Through Your Words: Bono and the books that became the seeds for The Joshua Tree
Having once memorably sung “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief”, BONO has never been shy when it comes to acknowledging his artistic influences. Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Sam Shepard and Raymond Carver were amongst his literary reference points when it came to penning the lyrics for The Joshua Tree. By OLAF TYARANSEN
In 2014, twenty-seven years after its seismic release, U2’s fifth studio album The Joshua Tree was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress. The Dublin band’s bestselling, game-changing, (maybe) magnum opus was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry. A fitting home for a work of musical art that was described by Bono at the timeas “our most literate record so far”.
The singer was talking about the music as much as the lyrics, but both the melodies and the words were very much inspired by all things American. Following on from the sophisticated, stylistic European atmospherics of 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, U2 had gotten all down and dirty, donning cowboy hats and deeply immersing themselves in American roots music, folk, gospel and blues.
Looking for insights into the vast country that had already somewhat embraced them (and was set to seriously make them ‘Rock’s Hottest Ticket’, as their debut Time cover story put it), and with the conscious ambition of creating the aural equivalent of the Great American Novel, Bono had gone west in his reading: later name-checking the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Sam Shepard, Raymond Carver, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer in interviews.
“We had all fallen under the spell of America, not the TV reality but the dream, the version of America that Martin Luther King spoke about,” Edge explained in the band’s autobiography, U2 by U2. “Bono had been reading Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote. The language of the American writers particularly struck him, the kind of imagery and cinematic quality of the American landscape became a stepping-off point.”
In the same book, Bono wrote, “I started to see two Americas. The mythic America and the real America. It was an age of greed, Wall Street, button down, win, win, win, no time for losers. New York was bankrupt. There was a harsh reality to America as well as the dream. So I started working on something which in my own mind was going to be called The Two Americas.”
Apparently it was Bruce Springsteen who personally recommended the work of southern author Flannery O’Connor to his fellow rock star. Like the Dublin singer, O’Connor was deeply religious, although her own brand of faith eschewed that of fundamentalism and fanaticism. Bono has cited her 1952 debut novel, Wise Blood – described by its publishers on its original cover as ‘A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption’ – as a serious influence on The Joshua Tree.
In her introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of Wise Blood, O’Connor herself stated that the book is about “freedom, free will, life and death, and the inevitability of belief.” Themes of redemption, racism, sexism and isolation also run through the novel. As they did throughout the album.O’Connor’s delight in aphorisms would also undoubtedly have appealed to Bono. Indeed, some of her sayings sound uncannily like quotes from his own mouth: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” She also wrote: “Where there is no belief in the soul there is very little drama. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.”
Bono later told U2 fan magazine Propaganda, “I’ve never felt such sympathy with a writer in America before.”
O’Connor’s work, along with the short stories of Sam Shepard and Raymond Carver, helped the songwriter in his quest to understand “the ordinary stock first, and then the outsiders, the driftwood – those on the fringes of the promised land, cut off from the American dream.”
It’s worth noting that while The Joshua Tree is considered U2’s big ‘American album’, only three of the songs deal specifically with the country (it also features tracks about Dublin’s heroin epidemic, the British miners’ strike and the crimes of the Argentinian military junta). But the influence of American writers is still writ large throughout the lyrics.
Journalism was also a big inspiration. Although there were 30 songs in contention for inclusion on The Joshua Tree, Bono wanted a song “with that sense of violence in it, especially before ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’.”
Two award-winning books about famous American murders, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1980), inspired the album’s blood-chilling penultimate track, ‘Exit’ – which Bono described as “a story in the mind of a killer.”
Capote and Mailer might have given him the murderous lyrical intent, but the sparse and economical short stories of Carver were also presumably an inspiration. Bono later described the lyrics as “just a short story really, except I left out a few of the verses because I liked it as a sketch. It’s just about a guy who gets an idea into his head. He picks it up off a preacher on the radio or something and goes out…”
The lyrics of the fourth verse go: “Hands in the pocket/ Finger on the steel/ The pistol weighed heavy/ His heart he could feel/ Was beating, beating/ beating, beating, oh my love/Oh my love, oh my love/ My love…”
“I don’t even know what the act is in that song,” Bono later told Hot Press. “Some see it as a murder, others suicide – and I don’t mind. But the rhythm of the words is nearly as important in conveying the state of mind.”
Sadly, ‘Exit’ was reported to have inspired a real life murder two years after The Joshua Tree was released. In 1991, a paranoid schizophrenic named Robert Bardo claimed in a Los Angeles court that ‘Exit’ had inspired him to shoot dead a 21-year-old actress named Rebecca Schaeffer (whose career highlight at that point was a brief appearance in Woody Allen’s Radio Days). After he killed her, he attempted suicide by running onto a busy freeway, but was caught and arrested.
Bardo’s claim about the effect of ‘Exit’ on his state-of-mind was never properly pursued in court, as he pleaded insanity and was swiftly given a life sentence. One direct result of Rebecca Schaeffer’s murder, however, was the subsequent classification of stalking as a felony in California.
At the time Bono said that he didn’t feel responsible that his song was used in a murder defence, stating, “I still feel that you have to go down those streets in your music. If that’s where the subject is taking you, you have to follow. At least in the imagination. I’m not sure I want to get down there to live. I’ll take a walk occasionally, and have a drink with the devil, but I’m not moving in with him.”
Of course, U2 have a long record of taking inspiration from literary sources. In the early ’90s, the cyberpunk feel of the Zoo TV partly took its cue from William Gibson’s cult sci-fi novel Neuromancer, with the author even contributing to a couple of the band’s projects around the period. It was also around the time that Bono first became friendly with Salman Rushdie, the British author who infamously had a fatwa placed him for his novel The Satanic Verses.
Although they wouldn’t become friends for another few years, Rushdie’s impact on Bono does actually date back to the ’80s, when the frontman read the author’s book The Jaguar Smile. The book addressed US foreign policy in Nicaragua, a theme that also surfaced on The Joshua Tree. Rushdie famously joined U2 onstage during the 1993 Zooropa tour while still in hiding, and was a frequent visitor to the singer’s Dublin home. Indeed the author once remarked that Bono annoyed both his security detail and the Gardaí by taking him for a pint!
In 1991, meanwhile, U2 had a chapter-long cameo in Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel American Psycho (they are also mentioned in Ellis’ books Less Than Zero and Glamorama), in which Bono appeared as the devil to serial killer Patrick Bateman. A year later, on the Zoo TV tour in support of Achtung Baby, he was donning horns as MacPhisto (in which guise he greeted Rushdie on-stage).