I only got to see Johnny Cash perform live once.
It was September 23, 1992 and he was playing the Tower Theatre in Fresno, and while I didn’t have tickets for the show, Erica & Erin were working the box office and I persuaded them to let me in for a few songs, as was my custom at the time.
At that time, of course, it was still pre-American Recordings, so Johnny Cash wasn’t just a legacy act, he was a legacy act in an idiom that wasn’t quite mine, and so while I enjoyed it just fine — the best part was when he brought June Carter Cash out for a duet that was probably “Jackson,” but I honestly don’t remember — my main takeaway was that I was going to have a story about seeing Johnny Cash that I could blog about over a quarter-century later.
I’ll get to it in more detail when I write about U2 in a couple of years, but about a year later, Zooropa just kind of appeared — having been planned as a EP that kinda got out of control — and one of the more experimental things on it was the last track, “The Wanderer,” featuring the lead vocals of Johnny Cash.
Now, this wasn’t the first time U2 had guest vocalists — Brian Eno & Chrissie Hynde both sang on The Unforgettable Fire, and B.B. King and Bob Dylan both featured on a pair of Rattle & Hum’s more unsuccessful — but “The Wanderer” was the first time anybody but Bono or The Edge sang lead vocals on an U2 album.
I went out walking through the streets paved with gold
Lifted some stones
Saw the skin and bones
Of a city without a soul
I went out walking under an atomic sky
Where the ground won’t turn
And the rain it burns
Like the tears when I said goodbye
And Johnny Cash, clearly prepping for the final phase of his career, completely owned it. With a simple synth, a low-down guitar and multi-tracked Edges providing backing vocals, the music of “The Wanderer” was unlike that you’d ever heard Cash sing over before.
And yet, it fit somehow. Maybe because it doesn’t matter what the music, there’s no way Johnny Cash wasn’t going to nail a lyric like:
I stopped outside a church house
Where the citizens like to sit
They say they want the kingdom
But they don’t want God in it
I’ll admit this: it took me awhile to come around to this. In 1993, “The Wanderer” felt weird to me, even in the context of all of the electronic muckery that defined “Zooropa.” But, like the man, I eventually came around, especially as I realized that the whole point for Johnny Cash was to wander artistically outside of his normal experience.
Which is what he proceeded to do for the rest of his career, by which I mean for the rest of his life.
Fan-made video for “The Wanderer”
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