Sonya Bilocerkowycz on the unlikely music of grief
I went out searching,
looking for one good man.
IT SHOULDN'T WORK, but it does: Johnny Cash growling over a U2-produced synth.
It’s 1993, and Bono writes a song he can’t imagine singing himself. It has to be Johnny Cash, he insists. Though it’s his composition, Bono will be virtually absent from it, save for two signature background howls at 4:11. Cash and U2 meet in Dublin to record the track and toy with names. Something about a preacher; something about searching. They settle finally on “The Wanderer.” The song appears on U2’s 8th studio album, Zooropa.
“The Wanderer” is a peculiar blip in music history. The song was almost never performed by Cash or U2, and the two musical acts are rarely, if ever, associated with one another. In the popular imagination, Cash is country music’s public sinner and secret prophet, its jailbird man in black (even though he never spent more than a night in lockup). Bob Dylan once said Cash “sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire.” Cue the flame and brimstone. We all know Cash sleeps with a lot of women, but we believe he’s June Carter’s soul mate.
U2, meanwhile, are the guys flanking Bono’s blue shades while he receives another humanitarian award. The band is so ubiquitous that Apple freely downloads their albums into our iTunes libraries for us, as though the music is as agreeable and innocuous as a default screensaver or software update. David Bowie once said that to some, U2 “might be all shamrocks and deutsche marks.” Though he goes on to call them visionaries, Bowie’s compliment is nothing if not backhanded.
Johnny Cash and U2 inhabit different decades, different continents, different genres and sounds. Cash’s rustic, repetitive bass-baritone is like a sermon rising from a basement. Bono’s voice is an eagle flying over a cliff-face. Not an eagle in nature, but a nature film—a time-lapse sequence, filtered, surreal. What they have in common is that they are symbols: one the quintessence of Americana, the other a vaguely cosmopolitan sense of goodwill with discernible Celtic Tiger stripes. We recognize what each stands for alone, but when you put them together, meaning gets jumbled. Their collaboration is an outlier: it doesn’t fit our cultural schema, and thus most people have forgotten it.
IT'S 2005, AND I am watching Walk the Line in a South Dakota movie theatre that still doesn’t have stadium seating. Our town is always the last to get such things. It’s a midday show and the theatre is practically empty save for the four of us—me, my stepfather, mother, and the woman I call my stepsister, though I’m not sure if she’s technically anything to me. We sit in the row designated for wheelchairs because my father needs room for his oxygen tank.
We’re listening to Joaquin Phoenix do a decent-enough job of hitting Cash’s low notes, and our eyes are all wet, probably because it’s been two and a half years since we’ve heard my father’s voice. When he was diagnosed with throat cancer, they removed his voice box and recommended an artificial larynx, which is a small machine that helps you talk like a robot if you hold it just right on your neck. On the days when his neck is too sore from radiation, his voice is upright block letters scribbled on a legal pad.
Walk the Line is an exhausting film that drags you through the whole long life of an impossible man. It’s pretty formulaic and a bit sensational, in the way that biopics tend to be, but we are riveted. We barely move, yet I am acutely aware of these still, crying people beside me: my stepfather (who was always just “Dad” because he’d been around since before I could remember), and my mother (who was his third wife), and his grown daughter from an earlier relationship (who was really just a few years younger than my mother). We are unmoving and fatigued in a way I doubt the other moviegoers are. For our short row, Cash’s voice is like a reverse siren; instead of drawing us into the rocks it reminds us only of the home we’re losing. We watch Johnny Cash fuck up for two and a half hours, and we are tired of it. We are tired of being a family that’s accidental and haphazard, people arbitrarily gathered around a single point. We are tired of sitting with the dying.
BONO SAYS THAT “The Wanderer” was inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes. In its lyrics a man ventures out into a world that is part apocalyptic, part consumerist: the cities are soulless “capitals of tin” with streets of gold, the sky above them atomic. The protagonist—the wanderer—goes out “in search of experience,” hoping to taste everything a man can “before he repents.”
“I went out walking,” he says, “with a bible and a gun. The word of God lay heavy on my heart. I was sure I was the one.” And when Johnny Cash sings it you think he really might be the one, that he alone is somehow able to channel the bottomless voice of God. Like Cash was in real life, his declaration is spacious and bold, expanding into places where most of us have the good sense not to go. If the song were a picture, it would be that iconic photo of Cash in a long black coat, carrying his guitar down some dusty American highway, his back to the camera.
U2 is easy to poke fun at, but their decision to layer Cash’s roughened voice-from-Mt. Sinai over an electronic, synthesized bass line was brilliant. He really sounds like a man wandering in the absurd (an earlier working title was “Johnny Cash on the Moon”), taking stock of where he’s been, trying to decide where to go now. When music bloggers do talk about the track, which is rare (in part, of course, because it was released just before the dawn of the blog), they pretty much agree: the combination doesn’t make sense, but it sounds right.
Bono composed the song with Cash in mind. In an interview Bono explained that though he’s had many “father figures” in his life, Johnny Cash is somewhere near the top of the list. “I think he was a very godly man,” Bono said, “but you had the sense that he had spent his time in the desert.”
MY FATHER GOT throat cancer because of years of straight vodka. This is one of the many vices we like to blame, even though we know the disease is indiscriminant and that we are probably wrong. These explanations are something of a family game. We are looking for clues, anything to explain how a man can go from stentorian and present to voiceless, vanished, dead.
His brother, my uncle Larry, told me about a time in the 70s when my father came home from the California desert without his mind. He had gone mad, and it must have been drugs but nobody knows which ones exactly. My father had a vacant look in his eyes and furious nightmares, he was sleepwalking all over the house. My grandmother woke up to her son standing over her bed one morning saying, “Today is my day to die.” They admitted him to a psychiatric hospital.
After my father was released, Larry volunteered to drive him back to where his wife (the first one) and his daughter were living. On the highway they passed a black truck pulling a black boat, and my father begged his brother to turn around.
“What is it, Johnny?” Larry asked.
“It’s a sign,” he said, voice anxious. “A black knight on a black horse is a sign.”
Larry managed to convince him to keep going, but he said it wasn’t easy, that my father was always running away and returning. There are many variations on this theme. My father did a lot of wandering and a lot of drugs before he met my mother. It sounds reductive to say that he repented because of a woman, but that is what happened. Around the time Bono was writing “The Wanderer,” my father was on his knee in the laundry room, trying to convince my mother to marry him. She was his employee, twelve years his junior, straitlaced and innocent. Both families agreed it shouldn’t have worked, but it did.
THIS PART IS not in the movie: Johnny Cash almost killed himself in a Tennessee cave in 1967. The way Cash told it, he wanted to “get lost” but instead passed out on the floor of the cave from exhaustion. When he came to, he changed his mind about suicide and followed a dim light out of the dark. Cash called it a spiritual experience and said it compelled him to quit abusing amphetamines. He wrote that “there in Nickajack Cave I became conscious of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God's time, not mine.”
I learned later from thinly veiled stories in his journals that the time my father came home without his mind he’d been in New York City, not the desert. He had been studying at the Arica School, a new age consciousness-raising institute founded in the 70s by a Bolivian philosopher. My father wrote about a community-building activity they did which involved sitting lotus-style across from a partner and staring deeply and intentionally into his or her left eye, while your partner did the same to you. In theory, if you sat long enough, patiently enough, you and your partner would come to know one another in the most intimate way. They called this exercise “crossing the line.”
I read recently in Robert Hilburn’s biography of Cash that in the fall of 1967, construction on a dam across the Tennessee River was near completion and swaying water levels up and down the river. At the time Cash cited for his spiritual experience, Nickajack Cave was underwater.
A WEEK AFTER we saw Walk the Line, my father died in the upstairs bedroom on a borrowed hospital bed. My sisters and I (these ones half-sisters) were at church when it happened because my father had raised us to go to church no matter what. Later that year, I would take his name—John, as in the Evangelist, or the Apostle, or the Beloved—for my confirmation name because if I still believed in anything, it was mostly because of him. My father was god-fearing, but full of contradictions. He was a drinker, a drug user, a man who played fast and loose with his body, but who wanted to get at truth from whichever angle would allow it. He left behind several bookshelves full of Merton, Maritain, Laozi, Sartre, which I often skim for margin comments, looking for his written voice. I took his name because my father’s searching honesty appealed to me more than any self-satisfied brand of belief.
My father’s voice box had been gone for years, so he couldn’t have said anything profound in his final moments on the bed that wasn’t his. But I still wish I had been there for those seconds of silence, the last electric currents that make you a man before the alarm goes off and you wake as something else.
Later, my mother would blame the Johnny Cash movie, say it precipitated his death by at least a couple of weeks. It must have been unbearable, she figured, to watch something like your own troubled life scroll before your sick eyes. Unbearable to sit beside the ones you love most with your sins on full display. Maybe he died of shame
“THE WANDERER” IS the final track on Zooropa. Cash concludes by singing, “I left with nothing, nothing but the thought of you. I went wandering.” The synthy background sounds finish at 4:40, and then there are 35 seconds of silence. That silence is long enough to cue the listener: pick a new disc, a new artist, go make a sandwich.
But if you’re patient enough to sit with the dying, to abide for those 35 seconds, you’ll hear a hidden track. At 5:15 a metal bell clangs. The noise is brash and obnoxious, and it lasts for 25 seconds before the album cuts, really done this time. The alarm mimics the sound that radio DJs hear in their booths. It warns them of too much dead air time. It says, put on something new. Keep going.
SONYA BILOCERKOWYCZ's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere, while her reporting on the Ukraine crisis has been cited by the Atlantic Council. She is an MFA candidate at Ohio State.