Music of the Week | Johnny Cash

On the first hearing, and perhaps even on subsequent hearings, Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ can sound like original Cash, maybe even like one of his best.  One cannot help but feel this, for the song has Cash’s soul breathing, talking, taking a dip in the river of black bile.

However, the fact remains that the song was a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song of the same name, a cover which outdid the original by all means, in fame and in spirit.

The original song was released in Nine Inch Nails’ second studio album, The Downward Spiral (1994). It even went on to receive a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Song in 1996. The song, as on record, makes references to self-harm and heroin addiction, sort of a melancholic note on oneself, furthering one’s self-harm. One would expect a country song to be slower than a rock song but quite oddly, the original song is slower than the cover version.

When Trent Reznor, the singer and songwriter of Nine Inch Nails, first saw the music video of Johnny Cash’ cover of his own song, he had this to say:

“I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” (Alternative Press Magazine)

And this is true to the core.

Anyone who hears Cash’s version first, and has followed Cash for a significant amount of time, wouldn’t have the faintest idea that it’s not his original, or that someone else had possessed the capability to write such a song. The original song has elements that I don’t personally like although I don’t bear any intense dislike towards it. I like it fairly well, but I cannot, however, agree with the use of percussions, or the high pitch notes, or the guitar distortion, or even the attempt at pulling off a very somber voice. All these elements, according to me, reduce the life and soul of this song, and merely escape the listener instead of reaching him.  The lyrics had the capability of reaching anyone at all, for the music resounds with the universal humour of black bile, melancholia.

This is where Cash’s cover does it better. He was wise enough, in age and experience, to use the acoustic guitar and the piano to add to the gravity of the song’s lyrics. Cash recorded the song for his 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around, and the music video was filmed in February 2003, when Cash was 71 and nearing death. His wife June Carter who also made a short appearance in the video died three months after filming, preceding his death by three months. The music video was directed by Nine Inch Nails collaborator Mark Romanek and is, in my humble opinion, the saddest music video ever made. The video attempts to capture Cash’s whole life in a montage, clipping footage from his heydays to his home at 71, in despair, in pain. The video adds great value to the song.

It was a song made for Cash, full of apologetic Christian references (Cash being a devout Christian) and references to his drug abuse and prison term. An epitaph of a rebel tamed in his old age-  repenting, regretting, asking for forgiveness, fearing the Judgement Day. He even made a change in the words “Crown of Shit” found in the original song, to “Crown of Thorns”, making a direct reference to his conflict with Christ in his early years. Following is an excerpt from the song which I feel really captures the essence of Cash’s plea.

What have I become

My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away

In the end

And you could have it all

My empire of dirt

I will let you down

I will make you hurt

I wear this crown of thorns

Upon my liar’s chair

Full of broken thoughts

I cannot repair

Beneath the stains of time

The feelings disappear

You are someone else

I am still right here

This is a song which will drive anyone to tears for it speaks the universal truth, that between life and death, there is only cold loneliness, despair and emptiness with bouts of sanity and joy. It was a greatly timed song in his career for it  released during an age when he had lost his shine but not his class. An old man looking back at his life with nothing but regret and expressing his fear of the future. He is telling us that he is not ready for the journey to end, or rather, that he is not ready to experience the ending, if not the end itself.

‘Hurt’, the song, as well as the music video accompanying it, sum up Johnny Cash’s life. He describes his empire of dirt, singing in his trademark, breathy baritone voice. After hearing both the songs, one wonders how Nine Inch Nails managed to translate Cash’s very thoughts into words. I’ve always believed that the song was made for him, because it had his soul in it, and to me, it is the saddest song, with the saddest music video I’ve ever seen.

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