As a member of Joshua Tree Tour support act Lone Justice, Maria McKee met Frank Sinatra with U2, partied with Clash legend Mick Jones and provided inspiration for a mooted Bono film script.
Lone Justice were one of several acts who supported U2 on their record-breaking Joshua Tree tour, which first criss-crossed America before triumphantly heading to Europe. Having emerged from LA’s burgeoning cow-punk scene, they blended country-rock with punk to forge an exciting roots rock sound. Later, the band’s singer Maria McKee would go on to enjoy a successful solo career both as a songwriter – penning hits like Fergal Sharkey’s ‘A Good Heart’ – and as a performer, scoring a UK number one with the ballad ‘Show Me Heaven’.
But back then, Lone Justice were another young band hungry for success. The group had already played US dates on The Unforgettable Fire tour and were friends of U2 when the upwardly mobile Dubliners asked to join the band on the Joshua Tree trek. Strangely enough, McKee says she wasn’t a huge U2 fan initially.
“Well, it’s kind of complicated,” she begins. “Lone Justice formed as a sort of reaction to post-punk and new wave – that kind of clean-cut, post-Bowie, new romantic pop that was around at the time. We were into roots rock and country and hillbilly and all that stuff. Shaping it into something new with a punk energy was our main thing. We would have appreciated U2 as musicians but to us they were almost in that MTV/new wave category, so I wouldn’t have paid that much attention to them, and I would have seen them as part of the old guard.”
However, once McKee saw them in concert she was smitten, as she relates. “When they first invited us to tour with them we went to see them play and I thought ‘wow you know, respect’, because their live show was so otherworldly. And Bono’s voice was just incredible, he would truly soar. It was operatic, almost high church, reverential and transformative. So absolutely, I became a fan. I was raised in a Christian church and they were outspokenly Christian so there was that connection too.”
In total, Lone Justice opened for U2 57 times and, as McKee recalls, some nights were more memorable than others.
“I’ll never forget the time we played in Las Vegas. There’s a famous comedian, Don Rickles, one of the funniest people who ever lived, and his son Larry, who is no longer with us, was a big U2 fan. He arranged for the band to come and see Frank Sinatra perform in a small room – I think it was at Caesar’s Palace and Don Rickles was supporting Frank at the time. So we all went along and saw Frank up-close in this tiny, tiny venue. All the U2 guys were there and Frank was making wisecracks onstage about U2 submarines or something. But I think he knew that this band was big and that they were on a big tour at the time.
“Afterwards, we went backstage and met him. I’m sure it was the first-time Bono had met Frank. That night changed my life basically – I thought he was the greatest singer who ever lived and Frank and I had a moment (laughs). I was a very young blonde and dressed a bit like Grace Kelly and he did a kind of an old-time vaudeville double-take. But he was very gracious – he told me I was beautiful. Any time after that if I was having a bad hair day I would just think about Frank and how beautiful he said I was.”
McKee says she remembers touring Europe as being like a holiday.
“I ended up calling it the ‘U2 Lone Justice Country Club Tour’ because it was literally like a vacation package,” she laughs. “It was when they were doing big open air festival type shows – and they would alternate support acts. Some nights it’d be The Pretenders, or Big Audio Dynamite or Lou Reed, and some nights it’d be us. I remember we did Wembley and in Italy we’d perform in Rome – get onstage and play for about 20 minutes and then we’d have three days off. My roadies and I would just train-hop and visit all the sights – it was just crazy and so much fun. Then I became a part of Mick Jones’ entourage with Don Letts and those guys and they knew where all the underground clubs and house parties were. I was very inexperienced in those days – I didn’t drink and I was still a virgin, but I was also an old punk and I was keen to see what was going on. It was always Don Letts who would say, ‘Who’s looking after Maria?’ I was very uncorrupted in those days.”
Did she have any favourite songs from The Joshua Tree album?
“Gosh I’m trying to remember them now. ‘God’s Country’ is just gorgeous – one of the greatest song they’ve recorded. It’s perfection. Everything about it is so beautiful: the guitar, the lyrics, all of of it. A lot of times, if we were in Cleveland or somewhere like that, I would hang around backstage after we played and I’d watch their show. Suddenly. the tour manager Denis Sheehan – God rest his soul – would burst into my dressing room and grab me and shout, ‘Bono wants you onstage now’. He’d sneak me up onstage and Bono would bring me out to sing. It would usually be something like [sings], ‘How long, to sing this song…’ Then he’d fool around and maybe go into Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ ‘Islands In The Stream’ or ‘Sweet Jane’.”
Did Bono pick her brain about America during that time?
“Oh, I don’t know that I was his gateway into America or anything like that. Bono and I became close friends and he knew almost everything about me. I remember he wanted to write a script about a girl singer and he wanted to read my journals. But I grew up in Beverly Hills and I was a theatre student – I’m not exactly the paragon of typical American culture. LA is a different kind of America.
“I don’t really see Bono much anymore – his life is a lot different to mine. His wife [Ali] is still a friend of mine – we reach out now and then and see each other occasionally. But I have an entire life in Ireland that is sacred to me. I have two best friends who are married, who I met almost 30 years ago, when they were teenagers. They have children who are my God children and they have made my life kind of complete. So, I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for my relationship with Bono and the band, there’d be a whole part of my life that doesn’t exist. Ireland is my second home – it’s my home away from home. I feel almost more at home there than I do here.”
Finally, is there an outside chance that Maria might end up onstage with U2 at some point during The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary tour?
“Oh, I doubt it very much,” she laughs. “Would I do it if I was asked? They’re family to me so, of yes, course I would.”
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