U2 Plunge Into Darkness on ‘Exit’: The Story Behind Every ‘Joshua Tree’ Song
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“This is a song about a religious man…who became a very dangerous man, and couldn’t work out the mystery of the hands of love,” Bono said while introducing “Exit” on a Joshua Tree tour stop at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1987. The U2 frontman was no doubt preparing the packed house for a song that doesn’t have a happy beginning, middle or end. It remains one of the darkest in the band’s catalog.
The genesis of “Exit” can be found in the viciousness populating the novelization of murderous crimes in the heartland of America from decades past. Specifically the pair of killings committed by Gary Gilmore in Utah in 1976 and the Kansas massacre of the Clutter family in 1959 by Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.
“I had read Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood,” Bono said in the book U2 by U2. “[‘Exit’] was my attempt at writing a story in the mind of a killer. It is all very well to address America and the violence that is in an aggressive foreign policy, but to really understand that you have to get under the skin of your own darkness, the violence that we all contain within us.”
“Violence is something I know quite a bit about,” the singer continued. “I have a side of me which, in a corner, can be very violent. It’s the least attractive thing in anyone and I wanted to own up to that.”
U2 guitarist the Edge told Rolling Stone that the working title of “Exit” was “Executioner’s Song,” and added, “We were using a lot of literature as our jumping off point for the songs in terms of just taking our work in a slightly different direction.”
Graeme Thomson, in his book, I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure, as Related in Popular Song, drew parallels between the lyrics of “Exit” and the 1955 film gothic-cum-noir classic The Night of the Hunter. In it, Robert Mitchum plays a misogynistic reverend who also happens to be a serial killer. It’s a tale of where anything light and buoyant is completely enveloped by the shadows.
The blackness of the stanzas in “Exit” — telling of a tortured man who “went astray” and found himself with his hand in his pocket gripping a pistol — is enhanced by the unrepentant, ominous mood set first by Adam Clayton’s menacing bass, eventually exploding into a wall of dissonance from the Edge’s guitar.
“’Exit’ came out of the band jamming,” Clayton said in U2 by U2. “It was quite a long piece originally and we played it once and [Brian] Eno cut it down into that shape.”
Although the track is supposed to kick off with Clayton’s bassline, an unknown number of CD pressings over the years have started the track with Bono singing a capella, “Oh great ocean / Oh great sea / Run to the ocean / Run to the sea,” which is actually the coda from the previous song, “One Tree Hill.”
A more tragic note connected to the track was Robert Bardo claiming “Exit” was the inspiration that led him to stalk and later murder actress Rebecca Schaeffer in the summer of 1989. During the trial, according to the Los Angeles Times, when the song was played in the courtroom, Bardo became visibly excited, even mouthing the words “pistol weighing heavy.” It’s a chilling account as he had shot the 21 year-old in the doorway to her California apartment. Following the disturbing revelation coming to light, U2 stopped playing the song live, which could have been simple coincidence. When asked years later by Hot Press if he felt responsible at all for the terrible turn of events, Bono replied, “Not at all.”
“That sounded to me like a good lawyer at work for his client,” he said. “But I still feel that you have to go down those streets in your music. If that’s where the subject is taking you, you have to follow — at least in the imagination. I’m not sure if I want to get down there to live. I’ll take a walk occasionally, and have a drink with the devil, but I’m not moving in with him.”
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