Last year around this time, on a weblog I no longer update, I posted a piece about a St. Patrick's Day from twenty years ago. I'm adding it to Wissahickon Diary, since that is now where I keep my thoughts.
With or without youSaint Patrick’s Day came and went a week or so ago. We passed it in a civilized manner by having dinner with some friends in an upscale Italian restaurant down in the city. We ate good pasta and drank fine wine and avoided the crowded bars, which these days flow with imported Guinness. That’s okay -- the Guinness isn’t what it used to be.
I can’t help thinking about another Saint Patrick’s Day, however, March 17, 1987, twenty years ago. Twenty years ago. That was the day U2 released The Joshua Tree in the U.S., and I couldn’t wait for work to be over so that I could rush out and buy it. I was living in a tiny, dark, third floor apartment at the edge of Philadelphia’s Art Museum neighborhood. I hated that apartment and the one good memory from the year I spent living there was listening to that album.
I had just returned from a week in Ireland visiting old friends and falling in love with the sister of one of them. Her name was Maeve, and we met in the kitchen of her parents’ home outside of Wexford. Her brother Eamonn had brought me down from Dublin for the night to meet his family and go out on the town. She was tiny, with long black hair and pale blue eyes, and too young for me, being eighteen to my twenty-five. But I couldn’t stop looking at her as she moved about the house.
Too soon, Eamonn hustled me out the door. We attended an amateur theater’s production of “Da,” and then had dinner at his boss’s home. The dinner was conducted with typical Irish hospitality, including many courses and many drinks before and afterwards with lots of conversation. I kept looking at my watch with growing despair, realizing that Maeve would be asleep by the time we got back, and that I would not see her again.
Eamonn and I rolled in at two a.m. He directed me to my room and went off to bed. I came out of the bathroom, toothpaste and brush in hand, and there she was, standing in the darkened hallway in her dressing gown.The conversation was whispered and short and not profound. How was your evening? How was the play? She returned to her room, and I went into mine and crawled under the blankets. I floated up into the darkness. She had waited up for me.
We needed to get up early to catch the bus back to Dublin, Eamonn and I. And Maeve got up early too. She and I ate buttered toast and played with the neighbor’s dog who had come into the kitchen to warm himself against the electric heater. We smiled at each other as Eamonn bustled about, sharing a secret, even though we didn’t know exactly what that secret was. There was a radio on the counter, tuned into the early morning pop music program. The host of the show announced that he was going to debut the first single off of U2’s as yet unreleased new album. Then he played “With or Without You.” We all got quiet. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
When The Joshua Tree was released on Saint Patrick’s Day I was still under the hangover of that vacation, still in Ireland more than in Philadelphia. I made two purchases that evening, the album, and a bottle of Black Bush, my favorite Irish whiskey. I remember sitting on the floor of my apartment next to the turntable. (This would be the last record I would buy before going digital.) I opened the bottle and poured myself a glass.
The music came tumbling out. And it was great! The first song, “Where the Street Have No Name,” set a rising momentum that went straight to the gut, introduced the album, and did not relent. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the second song in the opening trilogy, established themes of irresolvable longing and spiritual yearning, mature themes that still resonate with me today. “With or Without You” is a song I will always be too close to to render an objective opinion.
Time passed. I wrote letters to Maeve. She wrote letters to me. I quit my job in early 1989 and went back to Ireland to be with her. We had our love affair, intense, full-blown. She came to the States. I went back to Ireland. In the end, I was not brave enough to make the commitment she clearly wanted. When she told me over the phone that she was getting married in the spring of 1993, I jumped on a plane to Ireland with the gloriously stupid notion of stopping the wedding.
Ireland is not the same. By the early 1990’s, if the Celtic Tiger had not yet arrived, you could surely hear him coming. When Maeve pushed me into the cab on the last night I saw her, she implored me to not walk back to the house where I was staying, the crime rate in Dublin having increased hand in hand with the country’s growing prosperity.
U2 is still a great band. I still buy all their albums, still go to their concerts, just like in the old days. We have grown old together, I like to think. But they will not make another album like The Joshua Tree. Being a culmination of all of their work leading up to that moment, it was an album only young men could make, a final furious gesture before the onset of middle age and its required compromises, good or bad.
In the narrative that each of us constructs with our memories, there are certain watershed moments after which everything seems to change. On the night of March 17, 1987, I played the album all the way through. I flipped the record over and started again. I kept playing it all night, pouring more whiskey as I went.