Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 48
Sat, Mar 16, 2013

“The Wanderer ”
Johnny Cash & U2


“♫ I left
with nothing/
but the
thought of
you/ I went

It really shouldn’t have worked, the legendary Johnny Cash singing Bono’s words over U2’s electronic wasteland like Edge layered canvas. But looking back, it couldn’t have been any more sacrilegious than Cash’s 1984 “Chicken in Black,” who called his most infamous recording, “I hated it from the first day, “ Johnny said about his infamous “Chicken in Black recording, “and I refuse to admit that I even know the words to it anymore.” But Bono’s lyrics were anything but fowl, “The Wanderer” described The Man in Black searching for God in a modern post-Apocalyptic Zooropa inspired world without faith or love. And their collaboration would change the lyrical destiny of Johnny Cash.

Bono explained the reason he penned “The Wanderer” for Johnny Cash when he said, “I have had a lot of father-figures in my life. But somewhere up the top of them has got to be Johnny Cash, who we wrote a song for and persuaded him to come in and sing it with us, to close the album, “The Wanderer.” I wrote the lyric based on the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, which in some translation is called The Preacher. It’s a story of intellectual wanderlust. The preacher wants to find out meaning of life and so he tries a bit of everything. He tries knowledge, educates himself, reads every book, but that doesn’t do it. He tries travel, sees every sight, but that doesn’t do it. He tries wine, women and song, that doesn’t do it. All the most extraordinary line is “There’s nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good labor.” Love your work. That’s what it is. It is good to love what you do.”And that’s what Bono’s “The Wanderer” did was spark the light of Johnny Cash’s love for the art of the song.
Bono smoke

Bassist Adam Clayton said this about U2’s collaboration with Johnny Cash in Graeme Thomson’s book The Resurrection of Johnny Cash, “Bono had written this song and very much inhabited the soul of Johnny in terms of the lyric. Even though it was like a sci-fi band at the Holiday Inn and it’s not sonic territory he’d be comfortable in, Johnny understood and inhabited it. He knew his part in it. Bono always identified with these somewhat misfit, biblical characters and I guess Johnny fits into that. There was an acknowledgment that this was relevant and not gratuitous, that it had some gravitas to it.” Johnny’s daughter Rosanne Cash agreed when she said in Thomson’s book, “The U2 collaboration in particular was very significant. It was a regrounding thing for him and he was very proud of it. It centered him. It was a musical decision, he realize [the connection to a new audience] after the fact.”

In his collaboration with U2 on “The Wanderer,” The Man in Black defied F. Scott Fitzgerald infamous saying, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Thanks to Bono and U2, The Man in Black found his voice, his faith and love of song again after recording “The Wanderer.” According to The Resurrection of Johnny Cash, when Graeme Thomson wrote, “Perhaps more than anything that happened subsequently, “The Wanderer” put Cash back on the map. What the [Zooropa] album—which sold over three million copies in 1993 alone, and more than double that in total—offered him was a powerful platform from which he could reach people who had, mercifully, no idea about “Chicken in Black,” but also had knowledge of “I Walk The Line.” All they heard was something akin to the voice of God singing, “I went walking with a Bible and a gun…” What was there not to love?

“The Wanderer” might have sounded out of place for some U2 fans but if thanks to Bono and the band, because they added this timeless lyrical alliance with The Man in Black, I instantly became a Johnny Cash fan for life. It sounded like Cash was the actual voice from the sky and his bringing Bono’s words to life was like a lyrical sermon and I was forever moved by this song. The inspiration that Cash has had on my writing is priceless that I owe to Bono. No one more can say that “The Wanderer” changed their lives than Johnny. Because of his working with Bono and U2, Cash found a renewed sense of purpose in his craft when he explained after recording “The Wanderer,” “I work harder on my songs now that I ever did. I’m aware of the great writers that we have and I want mind to be like theirs.”

We can thank Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. for second act of Johnny Cash. You can bet there would have been no American Recordings without “The Wanderer.” No Rick Rubin, no “Personal Jesus” and no “Hurt.” “The Wanderer” was the song that resurrected the career and legacy of Johnny Cash. It was the first time ever and since, U2 took a back seat to anyone. And thankfully, Bono’s lyric restored life to the legend of The Man in Black. He was no longer wanderer; Johnny Cash had found his gift of song again.