- 06 Apr 23
24 years ago today, U2 contributed to a special concert, celebrating the music of Johnny Cash. In addition to the Irish band, who performed 'Don't Take Your Guns To Town' via video stream, the all-star tribute show featured the likes of Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Wyclef Jean and more. Cash passed away four years later, aged 71. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting The Edge's reflections on the Man in Black – originally published in Hot Press in 2003.
I think punk rock was the turning over of a page, turning your back on the past in many respects and making it all up anew, but there was a certain few select artists who kinda transcended that, who were part of the punk mentality simply because of what they stood for, and Johnny would have been part of that. His angle on many things meant that he survived through all that need to reclaim rock ’n’ roll from the fat fuckers who completely messed it up. Johnny was cool throughout that whole period, and I think it was his combining so many things that people were interested in, the political awareness and a sense of righteous anger of behalf of the downtrodden and the disenfranchised, whether they were the inmates of San Quentin or just the working class people that he knew so well in America and wrote so eloquently about. He always seemed to be up for the underdog and that just sat so well with what punk rock was all about.
I think like so many of our best ideas, ‘The Wanderer’ happened almost by magic. We were working on the song, Bono got on the mic to sing and he was going, ‘I dunno quite how I’m gonna approach this one’. And out of the blue he said, ‘Hey, y’know, I think Johnny Cash is in town, maybe we could get him to come and sing on this, with me or instead of me’. I don’t know quite what he was trying to put over; at that moment I think we all thought, ‘Aw, Bono’s just trying to create some sort of distraction from the fact that he really has no idea what he wants to do on the song, this is just one crazy idea too far’. But whenever something like that happens I’ve learned to bite my tongue somewhat, because those crazy ideas often turn out to be the ones that come to pass, and indeed this was one of those. We got on the phone pretty much immediately to try and get through to Johnny, and he said he’d love to come down just to say hello, and, y’know, if it was something he could sing on, great, he’d be up for it.
So then Bono went in and did a sort of faux Johnny vocal and it was eerie, suddenly this track just clicked into place. And Eno at the time was going, ‘That’s it! We don’t need Johnny, you’ve done it, this is exactly what we need!’ And Bono said, ‘No, no, this is just half what this song would be’. So anyway, almost against Brian’s advice, we had Johnny come down and he sang on the song and it was unbelievable the way it came to life. It got a bit surreal. Everyone completely got into the spirit of what he was doing. He did two vocals, that was it, we didn’t even get into, ‘Could you try it this way?’ it was literally a case of, ‘I can’t quite believe what’s going on!’ There was a little element of giddiness in the room. After he left and we’d said our goodbyes, everyone just looked at each other and went, ‘What just happened?!!’
He was just about to start the first American Recordings album when we worked on ‘The Wanderer’. We were delighted that Rick [Rubin] had decided to make this series of records with Johnny and we understood exactly why he had – it was great that someone else had recognised that there was a lot more in Johnny as a singer and a performer. He really made some great recordings with Rick. The cover of ‘Hurt’, that’s my favourite thing he’s done for years. And ‘One’ is a huge song and I loved his version, it’s like a different take on it.
He was big in every sense, but incredibly funny, and he had this self-deprecating quality which was very charming. He came across as somebody who’d been around and he knew, there was very little bullshit there. He was a survivor. On the inside of Rattle & Hum there’s a few portraits that were on the walls of Sun Studios when we recorded there, and Johnny is there, but he’s the one that really came through; everyone else had in one way or another fallen by the wayside, either passing away or musically drifting off into obscurity. But Johnny Cash probably went through as much down times personally as any of the others, but the fact that he came through it gave him incredible power.
He really touched so many different areas of music in an extraordinary way. I mean you’ll find people who just never got Elvis because of the panto aspect, it just became a freak show of a sort, but I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t love Johnny Cash ’cos there was something so true about what he did. He was an incredible man. Somebody said, ‘If the Grand Canyon could sing, it’d be the sound that Johnny Cash made.’ I think that sums it up.
Read our current cover story, penned by The Edge here. In a major Hot Press original, the guitarist – and producer of Songs Of Surrender – writes passionately about the inspiration behind the new album, the process of re-imagining some of U2's most beloved tracks, what he learned from Bono's memoir, and the importance of music as a force for change...