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U2, Martin Luther King Day and Arizona — A Defining Battle of the 1980s

U2 plays “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” on its most-recent tour.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, which always makes me think of my early days in Arizona in 1986-1987.

Just weeks after moving from the Great White North to the Grand Canyon State, a Mormon car salesman named Evan Mecham was elected governor. He was a Republican who had won the election with some 40 percent of the vote because a third-party candidate split the Democratic support between them. Mecham was a very conservative candidate, but also a political novice. One of his first acts was to cancel the Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday, citing improper political procedure used in creating it by the previous governor, Bruce Babbitt. He defended his action with words that did not serve anyone’s best interest, saying to supporters of a King holiday something along the lines of: You don’t need a holiday, you need to get a job. This immediately became a lightning rod in Arizona politics of the sort that seems so cute and quaint in the age of President Trump.

Welcome to Arizona, pal.

The result was predictable: Boycotts, and lots of them. Stevie Wonder said he wouldn’t play Arizona. Harlan Ellison, one of my favorite writers, said much the same. You could hear the echo of Little Steven Van Zandt’s anti-Apartheid anthem Sun City — you know the words! “I! I! I! I! I! I! Ain’t gonna play Sun Citaaayyyyyy” — took on a second meaning because one of Arizona’s most conservative towns was a sleepy, seniors-only, “I don’t want to pay taxes for other people’s kids’ schools” municipality called — you guessed it — Sun City. Plus, that record featured the original version of Silver and Gold, by Bono and Rolling Stones members Keith Richards and Ron Wood.

The MLK issue presented a potentially big problem for U2, which was preparing to release its now-classic album The Joshua Tree in March 1987. The album heavily evokes the Southwest desert as a place of, alternately, despair and escape. The supporting tour was set to open with multiple dates at Arizona State University in Tempe, and a few more down the road in Tucson.

Clearly, U2 had to do something to address the Arizona MLK situation. Since the release in 1984 of The Unforgettable Fire album, which included two King-praising tracks in the hit Pride (In The Name Of Love) and the elegaic album closer MLK, the band was heavily associated with Martin Luther King. There was no way they could play Arizona without addressing the controversy, but the band had found a lot of support for its music in Arizona and not playing for them was no solution.

Instead of backing down, U2 followed King’s example and stood up for what it believes in. The band donated $10,000 to the recall effort against Mecham and made a strongly worded statement that was released the day the tour was to start and read on the radio and by promoter Barry Fey to the audience at the ASU Activity Center just before the show. (You can see this statement being read on the documentary U2 – Outside, It’s America, which aired through 1987 on MTV and can be seen online and on the DVD included in the deluxe edition of the 20th anniversary edition of The Joshua Tree.)

The segment “Governor Mecham & MLK” begins at the 23:30 mark of “U2 – Outside, It’s America.”

As for Mecham, he had a penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth. He obliviously referred to African Americans as “pickaninnies’ and I think he was truly stunned to find that was not considered a term of affection. He also insisted the press was out to get him, and that laser beams were monitoring his brains. Garry Trudeau turned him into a two-week running gag in the Doonesbury comic strip. One of the local radio stations turned all this into a novelty song done to the tune of Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.

The video for “You Can Call Me Ev,” which features ASU alumnus turned talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel.

When U2 returned to Tempe for two nights in December 1987 to shoot a concert movie at ASU Sun Devil Stadium for the upcoming feature film Rattle and Hum, things got a little weird. This story I did not know until a few years back, when I was reading issue #281 of the U.K.-based music mag Mojo, which put the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree on the cover.

The cover of Mojo #281. The CD was not very interesting.

The feature inside begins thus:

“Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona, December 20, 2987. It is the final night of the Joshua Tree tour and, on-stage, in the hyper-alert minds of the four members of U2, the air is bristling with danger. The FBI are here, scanning the 55,000-strong crowd for a potential gunman who has issued a death threat against singer Bono, declaring that he will be shot tonight if he dares to sing the third verse of Pride (In The Name Of Love), which directly addresses the assassination of Martin Luther King, 19 years before.”

The story, written by Tom Doyle, recounts the story so far and then tells us what happened next:

“Seventeen songs in, U2 launch into Pride. In the third verse, Bono crouches at the front of the stage and closes his eyes to sing. ‘I looked up at the end of the verse and I clearly wasn’t dead,’ he laughs. ‘But not only that … Adam Clayton was standing in front of me.’

“Astonishingly, U2’s bassist had protectively stepped between Bono and the audience, ready to take a bullet or disuade the shooter. ‘It’s weird what goes through your head,’ says Clayton now. ‘Or maybe not even through your head. Maybe it’s just an instinctive thing of daring someone to carry out a threat like that.’

“The Edge, with the guitarist’s habitual gift for understatement, says, ‘I just thought, That’s a mate …'”

I love this story, but it’s not 100 percent accurate. There’s video of that night’s show on YouTube, and it doesn’t go down the way Doyle describes. Check it out below; the third verse starts at the 2:42 mark.

U2 – Pride (In The Name Of Love) – Live at Tempe, Ariz., Dec. 20, 1987.

I doubt everyone was making this up, which means they were likely talking about the previous night’s show, which happens to be the first U2 show I attended and the one that made me an instant fan of the group’s music. Now, I can’t find video of that night’s show (if you know of one and you’re reading this, let me know!), but I do have audio of it, which you can check out below.

U2 – Pride (In The Name Of Love) – Live at Tempe, Ariz., Dec. 19, 1987.

That night, Bono introduced Pride by saying: “There’s two words that aren’t allowed into this stadium; there’s six words that are. This is Pride (In The Name of Love).” Well after the third verse, Bono says at the 3:53 mark, “The two words: Ev Mecham.” Of course, he botched the pronunciation and said “Mee-chum” instead of “Mee-kam.” But whatever.

Ev Mecham was eventually impeached for violations of campaign finance laws and the Arizona Legislature removed him from office on April 4, 1988. Exactly 20 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. I was amazed no one at the time seemed to mention this.

The aftermath of Mecham’s removal lasted for years. Secretary of State Rose Mofford stepped in as governor and became the first woman to head Arizona’s state government. She had a rockin’ white beehive hairdo, to boot. Various propositions were floated, one changing the electoral system to prevent another gubernatorial candidate from being elected without a majority. That was put to test in the 1990 election, when the thin margin of write-ins and obscure third-party candidates left Republican J. Fife Symington III and Democrat Terry Goddard with just under 50 percent of the vote. That required a repeat of the election with only those two candidates on the ballot. (Side note: It was around this time that Symington’s son had a minor fender bender with me and my 1980 Toyota Celica one morning on the way to class at the University of Arizona. He paid for the damage to my car, but wasn’t nice about it.) Symington won, but was forced to resign in his second term after he was convicted of bank fraud and Arizona law forbade convicted felons from holding office.

The Martin Luther King holiday became a constant source of political idiocy. Arizona’s strong conservative bent meant many people objected to establishing a new holiday in which state employees got the day off with pay because it was a waste of government funds. So attempts were made to eliminate another holiday so MLK Day wouldn’t reward slacker government employees with an extra day off. But they picked Columbus Day for elimination, and the folks descended from Italians took offense. There were competing and especially confusing propositions on the ballot in nearly every election. The result was all the support for an MLK day was split up. I remember covering elections in November 1990 as a journalism student and going to bed rather late on election night with the various MLK propositions leading comfortably, only to wake up and find that the rural results kept any of them from passing. Strangely enough, it was the promise that the NFL would bring the Super Bowl to Phoenix — the city got its team in 1988, when the St. Louis Cardinals relocated to Sun Devil Stadium — that eventually made MLK day official starting in 1993. The Super Bowl was played in the Valley of the Sun in 1996. (I will someday blog about the horrors of seeing Billy Ray Cyrus “singing” the national anthem at a Cardinals’ preseason game and then climbing the rafters during a post-game “concert” in 100-plus degree heat for a marathon rendition of “Achy Breaky Heart.”)

As for Mecham, He continued to rattle around Arizona politics for a while. He was acquitted of criminal charges of campaign fund misappropriation. He tried and failed to create a conservative daily newspaper to counter what he saw as bias against him on behalf of The Arizona Republic. He made some efforts to run for office, including U.S. Senate, but he was a no-go. When he died in 2008 at the age of 83, the obits revealed a lot of facts that weren’t as well known during those pre-internet days when he was a big controversy, including his service in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. He earned the Purple Heart and the Air Medal.

I’ve rarely heard U2 talk about Mecham and MLK in the intervening years. I do remember Bono saying something like “We’ve been here before” during the Zoo TV Outdoor Broadcast concert at Sun Devil Stadium in October of 1992. But perhaps that’s for the best. They still play Pride, and it still rocks. I haven’t lived in Arizona since 1996, and it’s not as weird as it used to be. But it’s still weird, and I can’t imagine it ever being not weird.

Published in Music Politics

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