Flashback: 1987 (Part 1)

Prince – “Sign “☮” the Times”*
Paisley Park 0-20648 (12-inch single)

U2 – The Joshua Tree
Island 7 90581-2 (CD)

Amidst all the anxiety and pathos swirling around inside my head, these two records were released. Prince’s new single, “Sign “☮” the Times”, came out in February (the album of the same name wouldn’t hit the shops until the end of March); The Joshua Tree came out in March, one week before my birthday.

The sound of “Sign “☮” the Times” enthralled me, what with its sparse arrangement—but its topical lyrics and existentialist bent resonated. The line “some say man ain’t happy unless man truly dies” (and its variant, “some say man ain’t happy truly until man truly dies”) especially fit right in with all the pondering I’d been doing about the nature of existence.

In its own way, the picture sleeve also mirrored my confusion about the state of things. The photographs featured backup singer and dancer Cat, but she was posed and styled in such a way as to suggest that perhaps it was really Prince in drag. (Not that it really mattered; I was more interested in the non-album b-side, “La, La, La, He, He, Hee”, than I was in Prince’s record sleeve fashion choices.)

The album that followed didn’t entirely live up to the promise of the single (not surprising, given its apparent history), but definitely had its charms. I may talk more about it later on.

The Joshua Tree had all the signs of being An Important Statement before I’d heard a single note. Anton Corbijn‘s iconic black-and-white photographs on the front and back of the jacket in particular signalled that the musical content of the disc within would not be ordinary, generic mid-1980s pop music.

Though there are a few spots where the album tends to drag a bit, the opening four songs have rarely been matched for impact. The first three—”Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With or Without You”—perfectly encapsulated many of the feelings I had within me as I approached the next chapter of my life, one in which my place in the world as I knew it was unsettlingly undefined.

I had finished school; I had come to the end of what had at that point been a lifelong journey—but I felt strangely unsatisfied. I actually felt little sense of having accomplished anything, or of having advanced in the world. And rather than feeling exhilarated, I felt tired. Instead, I was back at the beginning—but the starting line had shifted, and I no longer recognized the race.

And all this was aggravated by all the free time I now had on my hands. Yes, I was looking for a job, but it was slow going. Though lots of folks had taken up studying Japanese, what with Japan having become America’s latest economic bogeyman during the 1980s, there still didn’t appear to be a huge demand for Japanese language ability. Oh, people told me there was, but the job listings by and large indicated otherwise.

After eighteen years of school, I was still waiting for my future to begin.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was perhaps the best expression of the strong sense of yearning, of wanting more, of wanting to find one’s place, that I connected with in the songs on The Joshua Tree. The song’s protagonist has climbed mountains, run through fields, crawled, scaled walls, and felt sweetness and temptation to get where he is going—but is no closer to fulfillment.

That the song’s gospel feel (and lyrical reference to Jesus) gave it spiritual overtones only added to its resonance for me, as I also felt spiritually adrift. My Japanese studies had shown me new perspectives on the nature of existence; this, in combination with other interests, had me searching for greater understanding, if not actual answers.

“Bullet the Blue Sky” was a nearly perfect musical portrait of inner turmoil, again with a strong spiritual dimension. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the song means, but I find it no less powerful.

“In God’s Country” and “Trip Through Your Wires” both have a strong 1960s feel to me. Whenever I hear these songs, my mind almost always flashes back to the memory of hearing Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” (the single version, with the added electric guitar) on a portable record player at the pool in the downtown YWCA, where my mom used to take me swimming. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but there’s just some sense of brightness in the sound of these songs that I associate with that time.

And, of course, the line “sleep comes like a drug in God’s country” never failed to touch me, particularly when I was feeling the most tired.

Eventually, attempting to read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (twice) cured me of the worst of my existentialist tendencies (I still couldn’t tell you what any of it is supposed to mean—sometimes language really is an impediment to communication); that and subsequent developments helped me find my way out of this phase of my life.

The Joshua Tree, though, continues to resonate. I don’t listen to it a lot, but it do come back to it fairly regularly—really, a sure sign of a work of lasting value.

—April 29–May 2, 2012

* – “☮” from the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sign_o’_the_Times_(album)