Where The Streets Have No Name

Sometimes, I feel like what I do with analyzing lyrics is a special kind of witchcraft. I take Bono’s awesome rhymes, mix them with a splash of newt’s foot, and chant the chorus of the selected song a few times when I really should be trying to sleep. And somehow, this mystical process allows me to churn out a cool analysis column every so often.

But not everyone has the magic power of automatically seeing messages in U2’s lyrical tea leaves, so to speak.
(And by “automatically,” I mean I literally cannot stop myself. I blame my English teachers.)

I was reminded that not everyone shares my ability—and by “ability,” I mean compulsion—when I was sitting, of all places, on the bench at a dartball tournament. Dartball, for those of you who have never heard of it (which I assume is almost everyone), is a “sport” that is basically baseball with darts. You throw darts underhanded at squares on a dartboard that are marked like the bases on a baseball diamond, and you hope like heck you hit a home run. Thankfully, there’s no running involved.

Anyway, my brother and I are on my church’s dartball team, and while we were waiting for our turn “at bat,” I asked my brother what song I should interpret next for my U2 Radio column. My brother, who is usually very skeptical of my magical lyric-interpreting powers, said, “How about Where The Streets Have No Name? I have no idea what the words mean to that song. I just kinda use it as background music.”

Background music?!
I first opened The Joshua Tree right before we took a road trip, and my brother and I have a long-standing agreement that when we are on a road trip together, we will take turns choosing which song to play on the radio. For the entire duration of the hours-long trip, my brother played Where The Streets Have No Name literally every chance he got. I’m the kind of person who could listen to one song on repeat for days on end, and by the end of that trip, even I was so tired of that song that I didn’t willingly listen to it again for at least another two or three weeks.
And all of a sudden, he said it was just background music!

But I wasn’t surprised. My brother is a unique sort when it comes to music. I *was*, however, surprised that he was actually interested in me telling him what the lyrics mean. As I mentioned before, he’s very skeptical about my talent/obsession. And therefore, I decided to take up the challenge of figuring out Where The Streets Have No Name.

To research for this song, I checked out the Live from Sydney video, the famous Super Bowl halftime show video, and one of the videos from the Joshua Tree Tour. I have no idea about the date on the Joshua Tree video, but whichever show it was, Bono had his arm in a sling.

The Joshua Tree video was definitely my favorite. I know that the Joshua Tree tour was rough on them, but they were definitely having fun that night, and Bono was dancing around despite his sling, and the camaraderie of the band was very evident.
The Super Bowl video speaks for itself, as a very moving tribute to those who gave their lives on 9-11. I can’t help but think how comforting that must have been for the families who lost loved ones.
And as for the ZooTV video, well, I don’t know what I was expecting (actually, I do know what I was expecting. It starts with an “M” and ends with an “acPhisto”) but I was surprised by how “normal” the performance was. It was serious and straightforward, as opposed to the rest of ZooTV.

This song seems very concrete at first glance—or at least, it seemed that way to me—but this song has many nuances and means a lot of things at the same time. What U2 song doesn’t? This song incorporates the contrasts between Africa and Belfast as well as the contrasts between heaven and Earth. And, in some ways, it seems to me that it could also reflect the dividing lines between the denominations of Christianity. This song is all about dichotomy—comparing one world with another.

The halftime show version opens up with Bono and The Edge singing: “Oh, Lord, open my lips so I might show forth thy praise. This… America.” This alternate opening—is it a snippet? It’s not a coda—sounds like a prayer for guidance, asking for God to reveal the right words to say, or to sing. The “America” at the end makes me think that maybe it’s a prayer for God to help them say the right words to America, to the people who lost loved ones. It seems to me that adding this spiritual request at the beginning changes the song into a reflection of how people came together after 9-11. People in New York helped each other in the streets. People across the nation took care of each other and worked together to recover. And people across the world, regardless of national borders, poured out great sympathy and prayers. For a while, all of us were one—with no dividing lines to keep us apart, no street names to separate us. According to a 2011 article in the Telegraph, Bono said, “It’s just too big a moment in all our lives. Even if you’re not American, everyone became an American that day.”

In pretty much every other version, we start off with this: “I want to run, I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.”

One way to interpret this is very personal, and another way to interpret it looks at a “big idea.” The personal way to interpret it is that one is tearing down the walls within oneself. U2: Into The Heart tells us that Bono once said, “I always think there’s two modes – hunter and protector… If I gave in to one, I’d be an animal. And if I gave in to the other, I’d be completely domesticated. Somewhere between the two is where I live.”

By embracing all parts of yourself, and by finding balance, you’re tearing down the walls that we put inside ourselves. When the walls are still up and you deny part of yourself, the result is conflict, and it’s understandable to want to run and hide from internal battles.
(This is a case where I think a Spock reference is appropriate, since he is a child of two worlds, but since I’m making another Star Trek reference later on, I’m not going to push my luck with this one.)

The other way to interpret these first lines is with a really big idea.
One of the big ideas behind this song is the aforementioned contrast between Africa and Belfast. In villages in Ethiopia that Bono visited, the streets literally had no names, whereas in Belfast, the name of your street determined your social status, your religion, and your occupation. The street names were labels, and labels often block people into groups. Trying to make people fit into labels, into little restrictive slots, can do some real damage to everyone. We put ourselves and everyone else into little boxes, and try to make everything “fit.” We limit ourselves in what we can and cannot achieve.
The rigid labels placed on the world also divide us. They divide us by nationalities, like Irish and Northern Irish; they divide us by political views and socioeconomic status; and they divide us by religious denomination, like Catholic and Protestant, which is something that Bono and his mixed-denomination family would have experienced firsthand.

We push people away, seeing them as “other,” but as Bono says in Invisible, “There is no them. There’s only us.” It seems to me that the same idea is explored in both songs.

“I want to reach out and touch the flame where the streets have no name.” To me, reaching out for a flame just screams Pentecost. I’m a Methodist, so I tend to see Pentecost in everything, but in this case I think a Pentecost-like experience would fit as an interpretation because the entire song reflects a search for that place where things are better and more real. Bono was also influenced by his trip to Africa while writing this song, and he’s stated before that his journey there was an eye-opening experience, which could be compared to the very eye-opening experience of being influenced by the Holy Spirit.

The next lines are “I want to feel sunlight on my face. I see the dust cloud disappear without a trace. I want to take shelter from the poison rain where the streets have no name.”
Unless, of course, you’re listening to the Superbowl version, in which case that last line is changed to: “I want to dance in the Louisiana rain where the streets have no name.”

This section sounds to me like it could be referring to Africa again. I must admit, I don’t know much about Africa today, but I do know that Africa has a wealth of natural wonders, like the famous savannahs and jungles that contain so much diversity. Seeing sunlight and escaping dust clouds could be a reference to the untainted beauty of some of these natural areas. In addition, Bono has said that the people of Africa have a spirit that the “First World” nations lack.

According to our old buddy Niall Stokes, Bono said, “The spirit of the people I met in Ethiopia was very strong. There’s no doubt that, even in poverty, they had something we didn’t have. When I got back, I realized the extent to which people in the West were like spoiled children.”

Taking shelter from the poison rain could be an analogy for escaping the divisive “walls” from the first section and for getting out of that empty First World mindset, for gaining some of the spirit that’s been lost in the West.

Seeing the sunlight and/or the Louisiana rain could also refer to escaping the walls of being inside the “box” that society imposes on people. However, section could also be talking about heaven for a lot of the same reasons. In heaven, there aren’t any divisive walls or labels; the saints sing with the angels. There’s no dust, no poison, no pain. It’s the ultimate shelter, the ultimate safe haven from the dangers and emptiness of the earthly world.

After that, we have the chorus, which for a long time was the most confusing part of the song for me. Three rounds of “Where the streets have no name” is followed by the lines, “Still building, then burning down love, burning down love. And when I go there, I go there with you. It’s all I can do.”

Repeating “where the streets have no name” makes sense to me, and the couplet makes sense to me, but burning down love? That one threw me for a loop. At first, my general thought process was something like this: “It’s love! It’s a good thing! If you’re building it, why are you burning it down?!”

However, I think I’ve finally gotten that part figured out…more or less.

Love is perfect and infinite. Love just exists, all around us and through us. Obviously, you can’t literally build it or burn it down. It’s kind of like Leonard Nimoy once said: “If love can be withdrawn, then it never was.”
However, being the imperfect human beings that we are, we’re still learning what to do with our love. God’s love is perfect, and as John 4:8 tells us, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Humans, however, are a little more fickle. We fall out of love just as easily as we fall in, and sometimes even if we love someone, circumstances change our commitments to each other.
We are always learning new and deeper ways to love. For example, I love my family, but I don’t know what it is to love someone as a mother because I’ve never had someone that I see as my child. Someday, I’ll know that kind of love, and it will be a deeper love than the love I know now. Human ideas of love are always changing.

But God’s love isn’t like that, so in heaven, in that place “where the streets have no name,” love is permanent and fixed and eternal. We’re still trying to figure love out, but infinite love awaits us.
If you interpret the place in the song as being Africa, the things I said before still apply. Love in the First World can often seem empty because we live in a disposable society. People say, “I love my car,” but they get rid of it once it gets old. People say they love all sorts of items, but they all get thrown away when they’re broken. And people say they love other people, but their actions don’t always reflect real love.
In Africa, many societies involve extended families living together, so people are truly close to each other. Broken items are fixed and reused. Nothing is lost or wasted. People’s love for each other is solid and real. So these lines could also be interpreted as building on the idea of the hollowness of “modern” society and the contrast with the realness of the African people Bono met.

The chorus closes with this couplet: “And when I go there, I go there with you. It’s all I can do.”

This is one of my favorite lines of this song, even though Stokes quotes Bono as saying, “…’Where The Streets Have No Name’ has one of the most banal couplets in the history of pop music.”
Well, first of all, I’m not sure that this song qualifies as pop music—actually, I’m not even really sure what it is, but I think it transcends genres—and second of all, Bono also continued, “But it contains some of the biggest ideas. In a curious way, that seems to work.”

Bono is, in my opinion, 100 percent correct on this. But I’m not going to discuss that; instead, I’m going to talk about why that banal couplet isn’t so bad.
I think that the couplet is a good line because, even though the song isn’t letting us off the hook and it’s still reminding us that we have a long way to go, it’s giving us comfort because sometimes, you’ve just got to give it all you’ve got and hope that it’s enough. It’s kind of like Bono says in Every Breaking Wave: “This is as far as I can reach.”
We’re still journeying. We’re still trying to go to the place where the streets have no name. But we aren’t there yet. We’re doing our best, but that really is all we can do.

After the chorus, we have one more short verse.

The first line of the second verse is another of my favorite parts of this song, because it’s full of possibilities. Here’s my question: Is this line “The city’s a-flood,” as in, the city is being flooded and submerged in water? Or is this line “The city’s a flood,” as in, the city itself is overflowing?

I think both versions would fit, and I’m not sure which one Bono is actually saying. If he’s saying that the city is being submerged in water, then that would make sense because the emptiness of “modern” culture and earthly things could be drowning out the spirit of the people.
And if he’s saying that the city is overflowing, that would make sense as well, because the city could be the source of the earthly things that are eroding the spiritual things. After all, Belfast is a city, and there are few major cities like that in Africa.

Either way, “our love turns to rust” sounds like another way to say that our concept of love is imperfect. Earthly, empty things will all fall away, because this world is not permanent. It doesn’t last. “We’re beaten and blown by the wind and trampled in dust.” This world can be a cruel place, unlike the shelter of a heavenly place.

In most versions, Bono sticks to saying that the place where the streets have no name is “high on a desert plain,” which calls to mind both Africa and the American West, both of which were strong influences on the Joshua Tree. However, in the Superbowl version, the line is changed to “I’ll show you a place where there’s no sorrow or pain/ where the streets have no name.” This definitely sounds like a reference to heaven, which I think contributes to the song as a tribute to the victims of 9-11.

In every version, the chorus follows the second verse, but after that, the different versions diverge again. In the album version and in the Joshua Tree video I saw, the earlier lines about being beaten and blown by the wind repeat. “Oh, see our love, see our love turn to rust…”
But in the ZooTV version and in the Superbowl version, those lines don’t make a second appearance. In the Superbowl version, Bono sings “Love, love, love,” followed by another repeat of the chorus.
The ZooTV version also features an extra chorus, embellished with a “Yep” at the beginning, and the song closes with an added line: “Oh, love, I want to go there with you.”

The added line at the end of the Live from Sydney edition seems to be a reminder that this place in the song really is the place we want to go. Sometimes, we get distracted by rock extravaganzas, or by tragedies, or by the worldliness of our societies. But no matter who we are and no matter what walls we face, the end goal is the same: to reach the place where the streets have no name, where we are all One.

“We can be in the middle of the worst gig in our lives, but when we go into that song, everything changes. The audience is on its feet, singing along with every word. It’s like God suddenly walks through the room. It’s the point where craft ends and spirit begins. How else do you explain it?” — Bono, Los Angeles Times 2004

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My friends call me Lieutenant. I'm a Christian, a Trekkie, and a college student with a love of writing, history, pineapples, and literature.

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