With news U2 have just beaten the Rolling Stones for the highest grossing concert tour of all time, (tipped to pass US $700 million) I felt compelled to go for a stroll around the Lindeman Island golf-course with my iPod set to nothing but Bono, The Edge, Adam and Larry. And Johnny. I’ve always loved U2 and having done a bit of wandering (and wondering) myself this past year, the collaboration between U2 and Johnny Cash The Wanderer has struck a new chord.
Released in 1993 as the last track on the Zooropa album, The Wanderer is for some an awkward marriage between the country stylings of Johnny Cash and the electronic sounds U2 were experimenting with at the time. But after a couple of listens, the juxtaposition of the heavy lyrics and the seemingly frivolous backing track makes the song all the more unique.
Lyrically The Wanderer has U2 at the top of their game with a narrative that has provoked thousands of different analysis from U2 fans, Johnny Cash diehards and theologians. Is the song about Johnny Cash himself? Is it set in a post-apocalyptic world? It is about a wayward preacher? Why the line about carrying “a Bible and a gun,”?
One take on the song is that it is inspired by several Biblical passages, notably from Ecclesiastes where a prophet decides to try everything he’d previously avoided, including living as an atheist, a religious fundamentalist and a hedonist. In the song the character ultimately realises the errors of his life, his contradictions and despite it all, his faith.
The song’s defining moment is when Cash says in spoken voice: “I went out there in search of experience / to taste and to touch / and to feel as much / as a man can / before he repents.” When you hear him say these words you understand why Bono refused to sing this song, insisting it had to be Johnny Cash. Cash doesn’t just sound like he wrote those lyrics, he sounds like he lived them.
The lines are classic Bono in that they are both affirmative and doubting of faith. In I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For Bono sings of his “shame” for being held back spiritually despite knowing Christ “loosed the chains,” and “carried the cross of my shame, oh my shame, you know I believe it.”
In The Wanderer the character intentionally breaks his moral code, but does so knowing he will later repent. This has always intrigued me as it is quite a different concept from not comprehending you are off track and then having an epiphany and then regretting your past ways. Does it then make it OK to “taste and to touch and to feel as much as a man can,” if you do so knowing you’ll eventually get bored and repent? But how can you be sure you’ll really repent if you did all your tasting and touching intentionally and as a means of getting to the point where you can repent? Does that mean the repenting is not really genuine?
All good theological questions and all of it sensational songwriting. In the case of The Wanderer, I can think of few better examples of a song being written for another singer and then executed with such authenticity.