U2 have quite a history with Johnny Cash, starting in the late ’80’s, when they were exploring the south-western United States and enjoyed a lunch with Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash at the couple’s home – You can read all about it on page 204 of the great U2 by U2 book. The next time U2 and Cash got together was to record the song “The Wanderer”, for the Zooropa album in 1993, on which Johnny sang the lead vocal and U2 acted as his backing band. The focus of today’s article, though, is the occurrence, in 1999, of U2 covering Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” for a televised Johnny Cash tribute concert.
What makes this cover so interesting is the unique reggae arrangement that the band give to the song. As befits a style of music that’s driven by rhythm, the duo of Adam and Larry really shines in this performance – especially Larry, in my opinion, who turns in some really great drum fills. Reggae is a genre of music that U2 haven’t experimented with very much, and every time I listen to this cover I wonder why, particularly since they do have such a great rhythm section. Perhaps the answer to that is simply that reggae music is too confining, with its strict musical patterns. Still, I appreciate that U2 took this opportunity to play around a little bit and have some fun with what turns out to be a pretty somber song.
Another thing that I frequently wonder about is why U2 chose this song out of all of Johnny Cash’s great catalog to cover. The song is unlike a lot of U2 compositions in that it tells a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, something that U2 very seldom do in their songs. In fact, it wasn’t until about a decade after this cover was recorded that Bono began to play around with telling stories in his lyrics for the No Line on the Horizon album, and even then, those stories were less complete vignettes and more snatches of tales about characters created by the writer. Indeed U2 songs have traditionally been more about capturing moments in time and the feelings that occupy those moments. Perhaps Bono or one of the other band members identified with Billy Joe, the protagonist in the song. Part of what makes the song so compelling is that it’s easy to understand where the characters are coming from and what drives them. Billy Joe is obviously a cocky young man, as young men often are, who nevertheless feels insecure without his guns. Billy Joe’s mother tries to dissuade him from taking his guns into town because she foresees her son coming to a bad end, knowing that he will be too quick to rely on violence if he has the opportunity to do so. Maybe Bono imagined his own mother looking out for him and felt a connection with the characters through that.
“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” has only been performed once and that performance was later released as a B-side to the Elevation single. I doubt that U2 will ever play the song again, but I’m glad that the one performance they did give was given an official release so as to be enjoyed by as wide an audience as possible. The song is a lot of fun, despite the sadness of Billy Joe’s story, and yet still retains an intoxicating air of mystery. I wonder what Johnny Cash thought of U2’s odd little cover of his song.
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