One of my favorite Popdose experiences to date came in the wake of Part 9 in our colleague Dave Steed’s wonderful “Bottom Feeders” series. He had identified his first CD purchase, and dozens of his readers spontaneously took the opportunity to share their firsts — CDs, LPs, singles, MP3s, etc. In a shameless attempt to replicate the Kumbaya togetherness of that key moment in Popdose history, I’m launching an occasional series inviting readers to share your experiences as fans, haters, critics and/or ignorers of some of the greatest acts in rock history.
The rules will be simple. Every few weeks I’ll choose an act, offer up a story about a particular song that has affected me, and then open up the request lines for you to talk about a song by the same act that has affected you, positively or negatively. (If you’d like to suggest an act for a future column and offer your own story – in essence, to take over the column for a week – please write me at jon.) I’m counting on you all; if you don’t play along, I’ll kill the column and I’ll be very, very disappointed in you.
Starting things off with an easy one, this week’s artist is U2, the song (for me) is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and here’s my story:
On March 9, 1987, I was a senior at Northwestern relaxing through the “study period” preceding winter-quarter exam week. I’d slept in that morning, and was walking into town (that’s Evanston, IL, for the uninitiated) just before lunchtime for my Tuesday ritual of checking out the new album releases at Vintage Vinyl. I had just descended the steps in front of Northwestern’s somewhat-famed clock tower when a black, late-model sports car pulled up in front of me and the driver yelled, “Cumshot!”
Now, only one guy had the Bush-ian temerity to nickname me “Cumshot,” or “Cumquat,” or “Cummilingous,” or choose your favorite: my friend/rival John Heilemann. John usually, but not always, got the better of me in our continual attempts to one-up each other as budding journalists, but he and I shared a giddy devotion to riding the crest of the pop-culture zeitgeist. So I walked up to the passenger window and Heilemann simply said, “Get in. I got it.”
“It,” of course, was The Joshua Tree, and Heilemann had gotten to the store first (bastard!). We — meaning the whole of Generation X — had already suffered through a winter of Bon Jovi mania, then had gathered before the tube for the MTV debut of the “With or Without You” clip (remember when video “premieres” were Must-See TV?). Music geeks of the ’80s had pursued a multitude of subgenres and cherished a plethora of obscure acts in our endless pursuit of cool, but practically none of us bothered to downplay the significance of this moment we all knew was coming – the moment when this band we had nurtured through “I Will Follow” and War, who had emerged politically at Live Aid and on the Amnesty International tour…whom we had forgiven for that whole “Early morning April 4” business…were going to release something astounding and irresistible that would make them the Biggest Band in the World.
I was 17 months old the day the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, and I’m pretty sure that no album release in the 20 years since then had been as highly anticipated as this one. Heilemann, sensing the occasion, had bought the album on cassette so he wouldn’t have to wait until he got home to listen to it, and before I’d gotten into the car he had rewound it to Side 1, Track 3. As a couple seconds of tape-hissy silence filled the car, he said, “This isn’t the first track, but you gotta hear it first.”
Coming through the cranked-up stereo of a (relatively) high-performance automobile as we cruised Sheridan Road along the shore of Lake Michigan, taking it all in, those initial Edge-y guitar chimes marked “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as a revelation. A leap beyond even the atmospherics of The Unforgettable Fire and its best track, “Bad” – and with vocals more expressive and lyrics more universal than the ham-fisted Christ-aping of “With or Without You” – this song ironically marked the moment when U2, as well as the mainstream media and pop fans who hadn’t quite figured out what the fuss was all about, found exactly what they were looking for. The public had found a band who spoke to them emotionally and intellectually – and who, by the way, rocked, with a sound like nobody who’d come before – and U2 had found their way to the pinnacle upon which Bono quite obviously had set his sights years before.
The band subsequently would overplay their hand with the Rattle and Hum project, then would (sorta) reinvent themselves with Achtung Baby just in time for Nirvana to come along and supplant them atop the coolness-for-the-masses heap in 1991. But that was all immaterial in March of ’87, as Heilemann rewound the tape so I could hear the practically-as-majestic “Where the Streets Have No Name”; its searing, two-minute instrumental lead-in set a standard for album-opening drama rarely matched since then.
After that I got out of the car, wanting to soak in those two overpowering tracks for awhile before experiencing the rest of The Joshua Tree. I pushed the car door shut, and before Heilemann sped away I stuck my head in the window and said, “Man, I gotta get a CD player.” I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in responding that way; if ever there was an album that screamed out for high fidelity, it was this one. Indeed, sales of CD players and discs grew exponentially in 1987, as production increased and hardware (though, controversially, not software) prices fell. I got my first CD player later that spring, as a graduation present; my first CD purchase was The Joshua Tree.
As for Heilemann, you can read his excellent, highly regarded political commentary most every week in New York magazine, and frequently you can catch him punditizing on Hardball – he’s Chris Matthews’ latest journo man-crush. (Bastard!)