This month, there’s been construction going on in the lot behind Basement Geographer HQ. In and amidst the sounds of hammers, saws, drills, and heavy machinery have been the sounds of the classic rock radio station the construction workers have been playing over their radios. As I headed out for a walk to the store yesterday, what should come wafting over the airwaves but this:
Yes, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, the second track and second single off of U2’s landmark 1987 album The Joshua Tree. Now, I admit that I don’t actually own a copy of The Joshua Tree anymore (I actually used to own one way back when on cassette tape, but a quick 30-second survey of my current record collection for 1987 releases didn’t turn up the album in question), but it’s safe to say most people are familiar with the album or at the very least the first three tracks off Side A, which were each massive singles and still receive large amounts of airplay today. The Joshua Tree was inescapable during 1987 and 1988, selling 25 million copies worldwide and turning U2 from the most popular band from Ireland into the biggest band in the world, period. As I listened to the song, being a geo-wonk I flashed back in my mind to the iconic image on the back of the album cover: a lone twisted Joshua tree standing in the desert. Few album covers ever drove home a sense of geography like that of The Joshua Tree.
Indeed, The Joshua Tree was an album rooted in geography. Much of the album’s lyrics and chiming, echoing sounds were inspired by the band’s fascination with the landscapes of the United States, particularly its deserts. In the liner notes for the album’s 20th anniversary re-release, the band’s art director Anton Corbijn even wrote that one of the titles originally tossed around for the album was The Desert Songs. It was Corbijn who was ultimately responsible for the selected title. In December 1986, Corbijn went with U2 into California’s Mojave Desert to shoot the photographs for the as-yet-untitled album’s artwork. At the end of the first day of shooting, Corbijn relayed to the band the story of the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia), the hardy monocot native to the Mojave. Also known as the yucca palm, the Joshua tree is one of the few large plants that can survive the harsh climes. The tree received its name from Mormon settlers journeying through the desert in the mid-19th centurywho thought that the twisted branches of the tree resembled the biblical Joshua reaching his hands to the sky in prayer. Taken by the both the symbolism of the tree’s name and by the symbolism of the tree as a landmark encountered while traveling through a barren desert, whether physical or spiritual, lead singer Bono decreed the next day that The Joshua Tree would be the title of the new album.
On that second day of shooting as the band and Corbijn drove along California State Route 190 (the highway that bisects Death Valley National Park from west to east) about 21 km (13 mi) southeast of the village of Keeler just before the park’s west gate the group spotted a lone Joshua tree in the desert a short distance south of the road – unusual, as Joshua trees usually grow in groves. This would be the iconic tree that graced the album cover, although oddly enough not on the front of album, which instead used a shot of the band standing in front of Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point (itself a famous location in rock music history thanks to the Pink Floyd/Jerry Garcia-based soundtrack for the eponymous 1970 Michelangelo Antonioni film).
A 1994 picture of the famous Joshua tree. Source: Joho345 – @u2.com, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joshuatree.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic licence.
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, where the front cover was shot. Source: Theschmallfella, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zabriski_Point.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
Unsurprisingly, the tree became a pilgrimage spot for U2 fans from around the world, marking the location of the iconic tree with left-behind mementoes, usually messages or designs made with assembled rocks. Sadly, the tree blew down in October 2000 after living for approximately 200 years. Today, the body of the fallen tree still lies desiccated on the Mojave Desert floor. The location, however, is still easily discerned from the highway since another Joshua tree is growing a few metres in front of the fallen famous one, even closer to the road (the other locations pictured in the album art, on the other hand, still look decently identical more than two decades later).
The iconic Joshua tree, now fallen, still lies on the desert floor. Another Joshua tree grows a few metres away. Peace symbols made out of rocks have been left behind by fans, along with a plaque (visible at right) that states ‘Have you found what you’re looking for?’ and a capsule called the ‘U2ube’ where fans of the band can leave messages for fellow musical pilgrims. Source: Theschmallfella, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:U2%27s_Joshua_Tree.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
The biggest misconception about the tree on the cover of The Joshua Tree is that it lies within the eponymous Joshua Tree National Park, which is a four-hour drive to the south from U2’s tree. Sadly, this confusion may have led to the August 2011 death of a Dutch music promoter and his wife who died of heatstroke in Joshua Tree National Park while searching for the tree.
Biringer, B. (2007). My Two Visits to U2’s Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree National Park, California, 2 November 2007. Available at http://www.joshuatreenationalpark.net/u2tree.htm. Accessed 23 August 2012.
Hall, S. (2011). U2’s Fallen Joshua Tree. Steve Hall’s Death Valley Adventures. Available at http://www.panamintcity.com/exclusives/u2tree.html. Accessed 23 August 2012.
Malpas, J. (2006). Philosophizing Place in The Joshua Tree. In M.A. Wrathall (ed.), U2 and Philosophy: How to Decipher an Atomic Band, 43-54. Peru, IL: Open Court.
Wagner, H. (2012). The Joshua Tree. Henry Wagner Photography. Available at http://www.henrywagner.org/pictures/California/Desert/JoshuaTree/. Accessed 23 August 2012.
Watcher (2008). Monocot Week Part 4: Yucca Trees, Misadventure and a Video . Watching the World Wake Up, 6 May 2008. Available at http://watchingtheworldwakeup.blogspot.ca/2008/05/monocot-week-part-4-yucca-trees.html. Accessed 23 August 2012.
Wilson, S. (2011). Guus Van Hove, Dutch Music Man Who Died in Joshua Tree, May Have Been Searching for Site of U2’s Album Cover. The Informer, 25 August 2011. Available at http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2011/08/guus_van_hove_joshua_tree_u2.php. Accessed 23 August 2012.