'One Tree Hill' was inspired by the death of U2's roadie and friend... and Auckland's famous landmark of the same name.
When U2 arrived in Auckland to perform a show as part of 'Unforgettable Fire' tour in early September 1984, lead vocalist, Bono was suffering from jetlag during the night. A group of Kiwi production staff gave Bono a late-night tour of Auckland to help him pass time.
One of the places Bono visited was the one and only None Tree Hill, which had a tree 32 years ago until it was chopped down by a drunk.
“They took me up to the top of a place called One Tree Hill, where a single tree stands at the top of the mount, like some stark Japanese painting,” Bono recalls in 'U2 by U2'. “And we looked around at this city that’s made by craters of volcanoes. I remember it so vividly, I think because it meant something to me about my own freedom.” Also known as Maungakiekie, the area holds great spiritual significance to the Maori people."
Among the touring group was a Maori lad named Greg Carroll who had experience working with many local bands. Hired by U2's production manager, Steve Iredale, Carroll made a very memorable impression on the band and was soon offered a job as a gofer and stagehand for the remainder of their 10-month long tour. He was also given a permanent role to assist U2 in Dublin after the tour and became very close to Bono and his wife, Ali.
However, sometime in July 1986, Carroll was in a fatal accident where a car had cut him off when riding his motorcycle through Dublin streets in the rain. Unable to stop in time, Carroll, who was only 26 years old at the time, slammed into the side of the other car and died on impact.
“It was a devastating blow,” the grieving Bono tells Rolling Stone in 1987. “He was doing me a favour. He was taking my bike home.” Larry Mullen Jr., Bono, his wife and many other U2 crew members accompanied Carroll's body back to New Zealand for a traditional Maori burial. In addition, Bono sang "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "Let it Be" for his fallen mate.
It is during this time after the service where Bono reminisced the night he had met Carroll, travelled to One Tree Hill once more and put his thoughts and heartache into the song of the same name.
When it came to producing the song, the instrumental track was worked on over a jam session while Bono recorded the vocals all in one take. It was said that he was unable to attempt another recording from the grief.
“It brought gravitas to the recording of 'The Joshua Tree',” he claims in the band’s autobiography. “We had to fill the hole in our heart with something very, very large indeed. We loved him so much.”
The completed album was dedicated to Carroll’s memory.
Watch Bono's dedication to Carroll and their performance of 'One Tree Hill' from one of their 2017 gigs in Cleveland.