[A guest post by reader John Duffy. -AC]
If there were a time and place where U2 became the biggest band in the world it would be Phoenix, Arizona, in the arid spring of 1987. And thanks to the buffoonery of one bigoted politician, it was the place where the band would map itself into the political consciousness of the United States, proving unafraid of taking a stand in America’s ongoing discussion on race and civil rights.
With the return of U2 to the U.S. this month, all eyes will be on the band’s Sept. 19 show in Phoenix, Arizona. This year the band has been on tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, playing the entire album sandwiched between other classics from their four-decade repertoire.
And with American policy being dragged even further to the right than when the band left, it might seem tempting to think a major confrontation with Donald Trump is coming. U2 has never been one to shy away from a fight, but perhaps they, or even rock and roll itself, are not up for this one.
Back in the first week of April in ’87, the band chose Tempe, Arizona—a sprawling suburban Phoenix college town—to start the tour in support of their then highly-anticipated fifth album.
The buzz was well under way when the band arrived for rehearsals in late March. “With or Without You,” the first of three hit singles from the record, was climbing the charts. In three weeks The Joshua Tree would be number one in the U.S. and Canada…and pretty much everywhere else. Both Time and Rolling Stone had cover stories the first week of April.
But shortly after arriving the band learned of a boycott in response to Republican Governor Evan Mecham’s decision to rescind the state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. It had been one of his first acts as governor. The Doobie Brothers and Stevie Wonder had both canceled dates.
Insisting King did not deserve the holiday, Mecham had told the state’s black residents they didn’t need another holiday: “what you folks need are jobs.”
The band, however, decided it was too late to cancel the three shows planned for that first weekend of April. After a mythmaking appearance at Live Aid and the previous year’s high-profile multi-artist tour in support of Amnesty International, U2 were fast becoming the consciousness of 1980s rock.
After all, they had written two songs about King, “MLK” and the anthem “Pride (in the Name of Love”), both from their previous album The Unforgettable Fire. Instead, they issued a strongly worded statement.
“We were outraged when we arrived in Arizona last weekend and discovered the climate created by Governor Mecham’s rescission of the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,” it read in part, calling the governor “an embarrassment to the people of Arizona.”
Local FM rock stations covered it like national news. The group also made a “substantial” financial contribution to the Mecham Watchdog Committee and urged “all forward thinking” residents to support the growing recall effort.
That night, fans at the Arizona State University Activities Center showed up ready to cheer the band’s efforts, swinging tour t-shirts wildly in the air when the statement was read and displaying numerous homemade “Impeach Meacham” signs.
For his part, Mehcam had made himself easy to despise. He used racist and anti-Semitic slurs without apology, blamed women for divorce, ran off the book’s investigations of political enemies. He was paranoid, irrational, convinced his enemies were eavesdropping on him with lasers. At first, people shook their heads and treated him like a joke.
But less than three months into his term, he was facing a citizen’s recall effort led by a member of his own party and a multiple-count Federal indictment for fraud. For U2 there had been Live Aid and a high-profile tour in support of Amnesty International the previous year, but the Mecham incident found the band wading chest deep into American politics.
But after all, The Joshua Tree was an album that sought to rectify the very enigma of America that so often troubled outsiders; why a nation so wealthy and so full of promise and possibility can also be so unforgiving, so cruel, so eager to consume itself and others in its path. Serving as a grand metaphor was the Southwest itself, the place where urban civilization meets the great empty of the desert.
It was an indictment of Reagan’s America. It was an homage to American possibility. And it remains one of the most important modern cultural explorations of the conflicted American soul.
The group even added Phoenix shows in December to close out the tour and cap off a triumphant year that would become one of the pop culture highlights of the decade. Critic Robert Hilburn, on hand back in the heady days of April, wrote in the L.A. Times that the tour was “indeed the rock arrival of the 80’s.”
Mecham’s political career died long before he did, removed from office by the state legislature after a mere 15 months in office. He passed in 2008, but his political pedigree is alive and well in Arizona.
Joe Arpaio, the Phoenix area sheriff illegally targeted Latino residents for over a decade, demanding proof of citizenship without probable cause. Despite costing his office over $150 million in civil settlements, Arpaio was re-elected 12 times. He was convicted in July of defying a judge’s order to stop.
And then there President Donald Trump, heir apparent to the kind of unaware, self-involved political ideology of Mecham. It’s all there: paranoia, blaming the press, wild conspiracy theories, blatant dog-whistling to white supremacists, the impossibly easy answers to hard problems. Longtime observers say it makes perfect sense that Trump first gained traction in Arizona. Phoenix was where his rallies first started getting coverage in 2015.
In a New York Times article from early August, Tom Zoellner called Arizona “a place where [Trump’s] ideas and style had been accepted before he came along.” The state has long held a preference for the far-right fringe: conspiracy theorists and talk show hucksters. Hell, Mecham was a car salesman.
Economic growth in Arizona has long been tied medicine-show style real estate speculation. All those air-conditioned houses in gated communities with high-walled backyards may have created the siege mentality and that Trump thrives on, Zoellner observed. To be even blunter, people weren’t meant to be in a place so damn hot. It is simply unlivable. But imagine what they’ll do, who they’ll blame, to make it so. Arizona was among the states hardest hit by the housing crisis of the last decade.
For most of the summer, the band tread lightly through the morass of politics, trying on a more hopeful, valedictory tone. Channeling the broad cinematic sweep of Joshua Tree’s songs, they’ve been playing in front of the largest screen ever built. The band, almost lost in the oversized grandeur of their legacy, have sought to make broader statements.
At the tour opener in Vancouver, Bono praised Canada’s commitment to openness, diversity, and global engagement. At the Canada 150 celebration in Ottawa, he was again a prominent participant. “When others build walls, you open doors,” he told the crowds on Parliament Hill on June 30.
But the question remains, will U2 take the opportunity Sept. 19 to make a definitive stand against Trump in his spiritual (if not actual) home. They’ve recently adapted Joshua Tree centerpiece “Bullet the Blue Sky” into a warning about escalation with North Korea, placing blame equally on Trump and Kim Jong Un. But so far, Bono hasn’t gone far off script.
But have things gotten so grossly obtuse that something so quixotic as rock and roll—which so many of us thought so powerful a motivator so social change—simply cannot muster the mettle to do what it once proudly did? Thirty years ago, making a righteous stand seemed so much easier. A press release sufficed in Reagan’s America. In Trump’s, what is there to try that hasn’t been attempted already?
Many have grown tired of waiting for a new clarion call or progressive ideal in rock and roll. So many have asked, “where are the young bands of today?” Truthfully, they’re dumbfounded. How do you write a protest song against a man who misspells in his tweets?
U2 also has a new album, Songs of Experience, due in stores December 1. The first single, “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” is a love song.