There are a few songs in U2’s catalog that the band has never played live. Songs like “Acrobat” and “Red Hill Mining Town” that, despite the most fervent hopes of the band’s fan-base, have never made the transition to an on-stage performance. Add to that list today’s topic, “Drowning Man”, from 1983’s War album.
“Drowning Man” is a fairly straight-forward love song, and it’s easy to imagine Bono thinking of Ali when he wrote these words. The couple were newly-weds, having been married for just about six months when War hit record store shelves. Bono’s passion for his new bride is evident in the lyrics and vocals of this song. Like a lot of early U2 songs, “Drowning Man” mixes some Christianity in with its romance, quoting from scripture near the end of the song. Isaiah 40:31 is the original source of the lyrics “rise up… with wings like eagles…you run and not grow weary”. The Bible describes those attributes as belonging to those who trust in the Lord. In the lyrics to this song, Bono is seeking to encourage his bride to have faith not only in their earthly love, (“I’ll cross the sky for your love, and I understand these winds and tides, this change of times won’t drag you away”) but also in their shared belief in God’s love. As good as Bono’s lyrics are, musically is, in my opinion, where “Drowning Man” really shines, though. Edge’s lovely acoustic strumming is held up by some strings, (a rarity for early U2) some gentle snare drum from Larry and a sensational, throbbing bass line from Adam that is one of my favorite things the man has ever set down on record. The resulting product makes for a moving listening experience, both physically and emotionally.
As I mentioned at the start of the article, “Drowning Man” has never been performed live, but it came pretty close on more than one occasion. Back in 1983, on the North American leg of the War Tour, and following closely on the heels of the release of the War album, the opening lines of “Drowning Man” were snippeted in several performances of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”. Then, in 2009, while in rehearsals in Barcelona for the 360 Tour, “Drowning Man” was played in its entirety several times. It seems that the song was being considered for a regular spot in the set-list, but for some reason the band decided against including the song in their performances. Fortunately, some recordings of those practice sessions do exist, so those who desire can hear what a live performance of “Drowning Man” would sound like. If it were up to me, U2 would play “Drowning Man” at the next earliest opportunity, but I feel like those rehearsal sessions were probably the closest we’ll ever get to a live performance of the song. Whatever reason the band had for deciding against playing “Drowning Man”, I don’t see anything overturning that decision in the near future. That’s a shame too, as the song is one of only a few from the band’s first three albums not to have been played live. Maybe someday U2 will get around to playing whole albums live in order in a single set. If they played War all the way through in concert, we could remove both “The Refugee” and “Drowning Man” from the “never been played” list.