Listen to this track by venerable country-folk patriarch and one-time Man In Black Johnny Cash. It’s “Hurt”, a song as taken from his 2002 album American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash’s 87th (!) studio album, and last to be released in his lifetime. As may be ascertained, that album was one in a series starting from the 1990s that had Johnny Cash working with producer Rick Rubin, showcasing material that on the surface seemed to be unlikely candidates for songs for Johnny Cash to cover.
This is certainly one of those songs, written by Trent Reznor the creative fulcum behind industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails. Upon hearing that Cash would cover his song, Reznor was flattered. But even he thought it might be an awkward fit for the guy who once had a hit with “A Boy Named Sue”. And yet, even Reznor would discover that through this new version of the track from an unlikely, and some might say mismatched, connection between artist and material, that there were hidden layers of meaning that could be brought out in his own song. Cash’s take on the song was a hit, as was the album off of which it had come; his best selling, non-compilation album in decades. But by the time this song was recorded, Johnny Cash was not a well man, suffering from neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. It shows on this performance. It certainly was demonstrably true as evidenced by the gut-wrenching video that accompanied it.
This goes well beyond the realm of commercial success of course. This remains to be one of those songs that goes beyond its writer, and in many ways also beyond Johnny Cash. And maybe that’s why it had such impact.
The original song from Nine Inch Nails appears on their landmark 1994 album The Downward Spiral, coming off as the expression of dark thoughts simmering inside a disturbed mind, or maybe just a self-important one. The effect is that of a more interior exploration of one’s own sense of despondency and feelings of falsehood. It’s a young person’s song, full of self-doubt, disappointment, and of the initial loss of innocence very common to the human experience when one leaves the idealism of youth behind in favour of a steady march toward the uncertainty of adulthood. It certainly fit in very well with the outlooks of other men and women in black, those being nineties-era goths. In Johnny Cash’s hands, it becomes something entirely other.
Here, the song becomes about a man at the end of his life, taking stock of what he’s accomplished and finding that he still falls short. He finds that he was not able to capture it fully, or come to really understand its nature even in the acceptance of its fragility. It’s also a song about loss. This is not just about the loss of idealism or innocence. It’s about the loss of everything, given enough time. With Johnny Cash’s weakened and papery delivery taking the place of his usual sonorous baritone, and supplemented by the vintage footage in the song’s video of him when he was younger, this song becomes about the ephemeral nature of our lives, with loss tied up inextricably into every memory and experience we have in some form or another. Everyone we know goes away in the end. The twenty-one year old kid singing along with that line in a university dorm listening to Nine Inch Nails in 1994 most likely did not take that aspect into consideration. But by 2002, Johnny Cash was able to underscore that point very potently..
As such, this version of song brings out so many other dimensions that the original doesn’t touch upon in the same way. This is not just about the meaning and weight of loss, or in what form it takes. It’s also about the perspectives we gain, or don’t gain, in the light of it. The crown we wear becomes one of thorns. The empires we build are ultimately of dirt when disconnected from others. Because time makes dirt of everyone and everything, given enough of it. So, what do our lives mean in the face of that? This is still a song about self-doubt, then, inviting us to ponder that question for ourselves. But the difference is that it is no longer just a young man’s struggle. It’s one that follows us to the end. That’s the gut-punch of Cash’s version; it’s not just about him. It’s about all of us, eventually.
Here’s another aspect of loss that I think this song represented by 2002; the loss of a certain kind of artist, of which Johnny Cash was one; one who had forged a path for the many artists who had followed him, and did so with what seemed to be unflinching authority, and never to be replaced. With his latter days so precisely documented on this song, “Hurt” also represents a world that was soon to pass for all of us, one in which there was no longer a Johnny Cash and with that many fewer artists of his stature.
Johnny Cash died in September of 2003 at the age of 71, following his beloved wife June Carter Cash in May of that same year. Despite the graveness of this particular song, what we’re left with is a body of work that continues to inspire today, long after his passing.
In this, he managed to overcome his own mortality that is laid so strikingly bare on this, one of his greatest performances in a lifetime of the same.
You can learn more about Johnny Cash at johnnycash.com.