This week’s U2 101 article is on the fan favorite track One Tree Hill, and is in response to a request from reader Brent. I think that most of us are aware of how this song came to be, but for any latecomers, I’ll give a quick rundown of it’s origins. While the band were in New Zealand for the Unforgettable Fire tour in 1984, they met a fan named Greg Carroll who was something of a celebrity in the local music scene. He worked as Bono’s stage assistant and, the story goes, the band were so impressed with his work that they hired him and took him with them when they left his homeland. After the Unforgettable Fire tour, Greg relocated to Dublin, Ireland where he continued to work with the band while they worked on what would become their breakthrough Joshua Tree record. It was during this period that Greg was tragically killed in a road accident while driving Bono’s motorcycle. Understandably, the band, especially Bono, were heartbroken by the loss of this young man who had become a trusted worker and a close friend. The song One Tree Hill, named after a memorial volcanic peak in Greg’s native New Zealand, was written and included on The Joshua Tree album, and both the song and the album it’s from were dedicated to Greg’s memory.
Like Red Hill Mining Town, which has never been performed in front of an audience, Bono initially claimed that he was unable to sing One Tree Hill live, likely due to the genuine emotion behind the song. In fact, most of the Joshua Tree tour had passed before the song made it’s live debut, which finally occurred at the start of the third leg of the Joshua Tree tour, in September of 1987. It’s easy to see, even from that one performance, why the song is so beloved in the U2 community. As emotionally charged as the vocal and lyrics are, the melody expresses loss more eloquently than any spoken or sung word ever could. It’s not a mournful sound, though, instead recalling the circle of life that Bono sings about in the chorus. “We run like a river, runs to the sea”. From the source we all come and to the source we all return. When one individual’s existence ends, life dictates that the rest of us keep on, forever perpetuating the endless current. Despite the enthusiastic response from the audience, the song was played at only 8 shows before being inexplicably dropped from the setlist again. I wonder if the band didn’t worry that they were capitalizing on the tragedy of their friend’s death. Still, as much as it must have hurt to perform the song, nothing heals a wound like singing the pain out, and so the song was resurrected again about a month later in Los Angeles California, on the 17th of November, 1987. From there, it was played semi-regularly for the last month of the Joshua Tree, including the very last show of the tour, on December 20, 1987. It was also during the Joshua Tree, while the band were being filmed by Phil Joanou for the Rattle & Hum film, that a video of One Tree Hill was filmed. Although the footage was excised from the final Rattle & Hum movie, it was released in 1998 as part of the Best of 1980-1990 video package.
The song was again revived for 1989’s Lovetown tour, appearing at about 40% of Lovetown’s shows. Most noteworthy of those appearances was the song’s first outing in Greg Carroll’s native New Zealand on the 4th, 8th, 10th, and 11th of November, the latter two in Greg’s hometown of Auckland. As you might expect, the song’s reception was TREMENDOUSLY positive, and it’s hard to imagine that, for those in the audience who had known Greg, this wasn’t a big step in their own healing.
In the 25 years since the Lovetown tour, One Tree Hill has only received 8 complete performances, although it was snippeted twice on the Zoo tour, both times at the end of One, in the spot usually occupied by Unchained Melody. Both of those snippets were in New Zealand, and the song didn’t reappear at all until November of 2005, in Oakland California. Apparently there was a man in the audience that night who had recently lost his wife, whose favorite song was One Tree Hill. During the show, he passed a note to Bono asking that the band perform One Tree Hill. Following the band’s performance of One, Edge strummed a few simple chords and Bono sang the first verse and chorus of One Tree Hill for the man’s wife. It’s another reminder that life MUST go on, even if we’re not a part of it, whether we want it to or not.
About a year after the Oakland performance, U2 were once again in New Zealand for a pair of shows on the 5th and final leg of the Vertigo Tour. One Tree Hill was played in full at both of these shows, as well as two subsequent shows in Japan that same month, for the first time in almost 16 years. In spite of the intervening years, or maybe even because of them, these performances were as emotionally intense as any that had come before, as Bono’s voice noticeably broke while he sang the song.
The song wasn’t played live again until the band’s next trip to New Zealand, for two shows in November of 2010, during the 360 tour. The second of these, which Bono dedicated to Greg Carroll and the victims of the Pike River Mine disaster, was captured for the fan club exclusive U22 live collection, and is a wonderful high-clarity representation of the dignity and majesty of one of U2’s most beloved songs. The song was performed twice more during the closing months of the 360 tour, once in Chile, and again in Chicago, IL, bringing the lifetime total performances to 49. I think that it’s almost certain that One Tree Hill will be played again if and when the band visit New Zealand, but it seems unlikely that this cherished ode to dear life will ever again be regularly performed outside of that country.