In 2002, on his album American IV: The Man Comes Around, music legend Johnny Cash made an unlikely move: he covered the 1994 song “Hurt” by industrial/alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails (penned by frontman Trent Reznor). It’s fairly common for an artist to put a new musical twist on an old song, but it’s far more challenging to cover a song in a way that means something. Johnny Cash didn’t just make a mark on “Hurt”; he embedded his signature voice and enduring legacy into the heart of the song, resulting in a recording of profound beauty and a music video that rivals cinema’s best film sequences.
The musical reworking of “Hurt” is, I would argue, not what makes the cover so original, though the transition from alternative rock to folk is certainly significant. Rather, it is Cash’s voice itself that remolds the song and creates new sensations. His is a voice that remains incredibly beautiful from start to finish—beautiful because it seems with every note that it might break and beautiful because it never does. The rich tonal quality that made Johnny Cash famous in the 1950s is ever present but it has aged; every syllable sounds as though it has been dragged through the years, scraped against concrete, and brought to purpose, finally, in Cash’s last lament.
Reznor wrote “Hurt” in his late 20s when he was at a particularly desolate point, but the words take on a new meaning for Cash, who was at the end of his life at the time of recording. When he begins the chorus with the lyrics, “What have I become, my sweetest friend? / Everyone I know goes away in the end,” Cash sings with the vulnerability of old age and the weight of a lifetime worth of mistakes. In the music video, he sits at the head of a table in an antique-looking house—a patriarchal figure at the end of his days. But as reels of his younger life with wife June Carter Cash play across the screen interwoven with shots of his number one records smashed on the floor, it becomes clear that Cash is not glorifying himself as the patriarch of a great dynasty or legacy. He is a patriarch of memory, broken and bruised—of Reznor’s “empire of dirt” that Cash usurped and made his own.
As the song comes to a close, Cash gruffly produces the final lines that resonate poignantly for a man who knows he is nearing the end of his life: “If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way.” In the final shot of the video, Johnny Cash closes his piano and runs his gnarled and trembling hands over the lid. A lifetime of music in the books. He died seven months later.
Watch Cash’s gorgeous video below, and then check out a live performance of “Hurt” by original artist Nine Inch Nails.
- Nora Curry
Image Source: http://heardbefore.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/americaniv.jpg
Video Sources: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clq01TXQR0s&feature=player_embedded