Well, the Joshua Tree Tour 2017 is in full swing now, but I’ve written just about all I can about songs from The Joshua Tree, songs that are related to The Joshua Tree, and songs that U2 are performing on that tour, (with one exception – an unreleased gem called “The Little Things That Give You Away”, but I’m waiting for an official release of that song, whether studio or live, before covering it.) so today I’m talking about a song from U2’s final 80’s album, and the album that immediately followed The Joshua Tree.
That album is called Rattle and Hum, and it was released in October of 1988. The album is a collection of new studio tracks (including one reworked outtake from The Joshua Tree sessions) and live tracks from the original Joshua Tree Tour of 1987. Unfortunately, the album and its accompanying movie received what were some of the harshest feedback of anything U2 has ever recorded. The result of all of these negative responses is that U2 mostly likes to pretend that the album never happened. The worst victim of this stance is an absolute delight of a song that I’d love to hear performed live again, “Hawkmoon 269”.
To the uninitiated, the first reaction might be “what a strange title”, and I’d have to agree. In fact, I’ve heard different accounts of where the song’s name came from, although the 269 part is easy. Supposedly, that was the number of mixes that the song went through before the band was satisfied. Edge claims that they worked on mixing this song for over three weeks. Time well spent, I’d say, considering the final result. The “Hawkmoon” part is a little less clear. Bono once claimed that it was inspired by Sam Shepard’s book Hawk Moon. I have read or heard in the past that both Bono and Edge became interested in Shepard’s writing during the mid to late ’80’s, so this claim is, perhaps, the most believable. Edge, however, claimed in the book U2 by U2 that the song’s title came from a location in South Dakota. Whichever claim might be true, the strange title somehow adds to the song’s grandeur.
“Hawkmoon 269” is pure dynamite in audio form. It’s passionate and soulful, romantic and tender and yearning all at the same time. The lyric is relatively uncomplicated and straightforward – it’s a song about Bono missing his wife, plain and simple, but it still features some of the most genuine and authentic thoughts on love that I’ve ever heard. Every stanza starts with the word “like”, then compares a series of things to the need that Bono feels for Ali’s love. Some of these comparisons are, to me, among the most powerful lyrics that Bono has ever written. Similes like “someone to blame”, which all of have spent too much time searching for, and, my personal favorite, “a free way out” speak of the desperation that Bono felt while touring for The Joshua Tree in 1987.
Bono’s voice is in top form on this song. He starts out singing calmly in a lower register before being swept away by the song’s driving rhythm and allowing some of that trademark break into his voice. His performance continues to build in intensity until, at the song’s first crescendo he’s singing his heart out in the greatest rock ‘n’ roll shout that I’ve ever heard. It might honestly be my favorite moment in a career full of amazing moments. Finally, the final verse of the song is restrained once again, as the music slows and the background vocals come in, quietly at first. After Bono’s final stanza, once again, the drums build back up to a frenzy, the guitar wails and cries, and the female vocals build in strength and volume until, at last, the passion overflows and it all comes to a screeching halt. Timpani by famed jazz musician Larry Bunker and organ from Bob Dylan only add to the wall of passionate sound that the band build with this masterpiece.