“That song isn’t mine anymore.” That’s Trent Reznor, talking to Thursday’s Geoff Rickly in a 2004 Alternative Press interview, about “Hurt.” Two years earlier, Johnny Cash had recorded his cover of “Hurt,” the guts-ripped-open closing track from Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 opus The Downward Spiral. Reznor had recorded the original version of “Hurt” while in the throes of depression and heroin addiction. It was a fragile, personal song — so much so that Reznor wasn’t crazy about letting an American icon like Cash cover it: “I was flattered, but frankly, the idea sounded a bit gimmicky to me.” When Reznor first heard Cash’s version, he still wasn’t sure what to think: “It felt like I was watching my girlfriend fuck somebody else.” (Trent Reznor isn’t always articulate.) But when Reznor saw Mark Romanek’s video for Cash’s “Hurt,” he immediately understood that “Hurt” now belonged to someone else.
I watched the “Hurt” video today to see if I still feel. The verdict: Yes. Yes, I do. It’s very hard to watch the “Hurt” video without feeling anything. Mark Romanek’s initial idea for the “Hurt” video was that it should be a riff on Waiting For Godot, with cameos from Beck and Johnny Depp. Thank the fates that this did not come to pass. At the time, Johnny Cash was too sick to travel to Los Angeles, so Romanek had to come to him. Rick Rubin, Cash’s producer in this final years of his life, suggested that Romanek film at the House Of Cash in Hendersonville, Tennessee. That’s where Cash kept his offices and where there’d once been a roadside museum of Cash’s memorabilia. The museum had been shut down for years, and everything inside was dusty and flood-damaged. It was perfect. It was exactly what “Hurt” needed.
In the “Hurt” video, we see Johnny Cash, frail and wizened, visibly unwell. Cash’s health had been declining for years, and he had to take his time recording his album American IV: The Man Comes Around, fitting studio sessions between hospital stays. (Saturday marks 20 years since the release of American IV and, by extension, Cash’s “Hurt” cover. That’s why you’re reading this.) When Cash plays guitar in the video, his fingers move fluidly, but when he raises a glass to pour wine all over his table, his hand trembles. June Carter Cash, Johnny’s wife and savior, looks down on him beatifically, as if she’s welcoming him to the next plane of existence. All around Cash, we see rotten-looking fruit and beaten-up artifacts from his decades as one of our great entertainers. Romanek cuts in striking imagery of Cash from decades earlier, and it’s hard to square the scenes of that barrel-chested oaken-voiced cowboy with the frail old man that we see before us.
Everything ends. That’s the message of the “Hurt” video. Everyone you know goes away in the end. Your family, your accomplishments, your art — it’s all as transitory as the food you eat. And you knew that. We all know that. But seeing Johnny Cash sitting there, months away from death, telling you that — you feel it, too. Trent Reznor felt it: “Tears welling, silence, goosebumps.” He’d written a song about his own dark night of the soul, and Johnny Cash had turned it into an aria of loss for everyone. The video drove it home, but that feeling is there in the recording, too. It’s in the familiar old rumble of Cash’s voice, wheezing and craggy but still strong and still full of character, trembling its way through desperately sad words while the music rises up behind him into a clanging crescendo.
Trent Reznor wasn’t wrong to worry that a Johnny Cash cover of a Nine Inch Nails song might be gimmicky. It was gimmicky. When Rick Rubin signed Cash to his American Recordings label, it wasn’t some great stroke of genius. It was simply stunt-casting — taking a long-established entertainment pillar, convincing him to sing Beck and Soundgarden songs, putting him in front of a hooting Viper Room crowd. In substance, the idea of Cash’s American series wasn’t too terribly different from sending Tony Bennett to the VMAs to present an award with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wearing a Dr. Seuss hat and giggling while Anthony Kiedis deep-throated a banana. The difference was that Johnny Cash took the endeavor seriously.
In 1986, Columbia Records, Cash’s label for decades, dropped him from its roster. Other than a brief revival as a member of the all-star outlaw country team the Highwaymen, Cash hadn’t made a big country-radio hit since “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky” in 1979. A quick stint on Mercury did nothing to turn Cash’s fortunes around. By the ’90s, Cash was living on the road, playing to appreciative older crowds and cranking out new records out of something like obligation. Rick Rubin had never been a huge Johnny Cash fan; he’d mostly just known Cash as an ambient part of the cultural environment. But Rubin saw Johnny and June Carter Cash sing “It Ain’t Me, Babe” at Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992, and he wondered if he could maybe do something with Johnny.
Rick Rubin’s pitch to Johnny Cash was simple enough: Cash could record alone, solo-acoustic, in his living room. He could play whatever songs he wanted. Maybe they’d sell records, and maybe they wouldn’t, but the move would take Cash out of the diminishing returns of a Nashville system that was moving in a different direction. Cash agreed. 1994’s American Recordings was a critical success that brought Cash a whole new audience, and he loved the experience. Cash and Rubin recorded two more albums, working with younger admirers like Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and various Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Never Kiedis, though. As far as we know, no bananas were deep-throated during the recording of any Johnny Cash albums.) Even when covering the cool-guy rockers that Rubin suggested, Cash had enough sheer gravitas to connect. Cash could take a number like Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” and make it sound like it had always been a Johnny Cash song.
American IV: The Man Comes Around was Johnny Cash’s 67th studio album, and it was the last that Cash released during his lifetime. Maybe Cash knew that it would be his last, and maybe he didn’t, but he knew the clock was ticking. Cash had fought his way out of addiction multiple times. He’d suffered from diabetes. His vision was almost gone. Pneumonia had damaged his voice. A few years earlier, doctors had been unable to rouse Cash from a medically induced coma for 12 days. Cash couldn’t tour anymore. He had one foot out the door, and American IV sure sounds like a goodbye.
Still, Rick Rubin kept the stunt-casting going on American IV. At the time, the mere idea of Johnny Cash singing a Nine Inch Nails song, even that Nine Inch Nails song, seemed at least a little silly. (The Pitchfork review: “I give it one more album before he gets around to Tool’s ‘Schism.'”) Cash’s swampy, bluesy take on Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” completely alters the meaning of the song, and it’s definitive enough that I once saw an open-mic acoustic-guitar guy introduce his own “Personal Jesus” as “a little song by Johnny Cash.” But it’s still Johnny Cash singing a Depeche Mode song. That, in itself, is goofy. Nobody ever talked George Jones into singing Duran Duran. Some of Cash’s covers are simply takes on outsiders’ attempts at country-music tropes: Eagles’ “Desperado,” Sting’s “I Hung My Head.” (The country music establishment has now accepted Eagles, so that’s a different thing. It hasn’t happened with Sting yet.) But Johnny Cash’s take on “I Hung My Head” is devastating in ways that Sting’s original never could be. The mere weight of Johnny Cash’s presence could turn these silly ideas into something else.
On paper, it might be a bit on-the-nose for Cash and Nick Cave to sing a duet of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” But Nick Cave is no dummy, and he approached both the song and his singing partner with due reverence, staying out of the way of both of them. Cash had already recorded “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” decades earlier. He’d already recorded many of the songs on American IV. That lent extra pathos to the record. Making American IV, Cash was self-conscious about his increasingly shaky voice, but that voice still had a whole lot of feeling. Consider what Cash did with his own oldie “Give My Love To Rose.”
In “Give My Love To Rose,” a dying prisoner sends a message of love to the wife that he’ll never see again. Cash wrote “Give My Love To Rose,” and he recorded it in Memphis in 1957. It’s the B-side of the last single that Cash cut with Sun Records boss Sam Phillips. When Cash recorded another version of “Give My Love To Rose” 45 years later, he was a different person, and it was a different song.
When he was working on American IV, Johnny Cash wrote one new song. In a dream, Queen Elizabeth had told Cash, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Cash figured that must be a Biblical allusion, and he found the quote in the Book Of Revelation. Cash took that line and a few more from Revelation, and he wrote the spookily evocative “The Man Comes Around.” Since Cash’s death, “The Man Comes Around” has appeared in a whole lot of movies and TV shows, mostly as a herald of the apocalypse. I can’t blame the filmmakers who have relied on that song to do their heavy lifting. Johnny Cash didn’t have to raise his voice to conjure images of the world ending.
So many of the songs on American IV have that same air of finality: The old folk numbers “Danny Boy” and “Sam Hall” and “The Streets Of Laredo,” the Beatles’ “In My Life,” Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” (Rubin’s suggestion was that Cash should sing that last song not to a romantic partner but to God.) To this day, it feels like a small miracle that we got to hear Johnny Cash and Fiona Apple singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” together. The album’s closer, a take on the old World War II musical number “We’ll Meet Again” that Cash recorded with his family singing backup, took away some of the stinging snark from the end of Dr. Strangelove. “Hurt” was the song that became the album’s legacy, but the whole thing resonates.
In May of 2003, seven months after the release of American IV, June Carter Cash died. For years, June had been much healthier than Johnny. She’d been taking care of him. But June was 73 years old, and she didn’t bounce back after heart surgery. Johnny, crushed, worked tirelessly in the last months of his life. He was stuck in a wheelchair, and he couldn’t travel, but he still knocked out another 60 songs with Rick Rubin. He told Rubin that he had to keep working or else he would die. He kept working, and then he died. Johnny made it to September. Four months after he lost June, he rejoined her.
Johnny Cash was 71 when he died, and he seemed so much older. Near the end of his life and after his death, the world gave Johnny Cash a great deal of love. Cash badly wanted to attend the 2003 VMAs, where the “Hurt” video was up for a bunch of awards, but doctors wouldn’t allow it. (A small mercy: Cash didn’t have to sit there when Justin Timberlake beat him out for the Best Male Video honor, which Timberlake himself called a “travesty.”) In November, the Country Music Association, which had ignored Cash for years, gave American IV its Album Of The Year award; Cash beat Tim McGraw, Toby Keith, Joe Nichols, and the Chicks. American IV went platinum. In dying, Johnny Cash made a hit.
The American recordings are a slightly misleading legacy. Johnny Cash wasn’t the mythic poet of darkness that those Rick Rubin records made him out to be — or, rather, he wasn’t just that. Cash was an entertainer. He could be funny and pious and corny. For decades, Cash thrived within the Nashville studio system; he was never an outsider artist. But those American records, American IV in particular, tapped into something powerful and primal about Johnny Cash’s voice and presence. They gave him a different kind of life. And that dark-specter version of Cash might be the one that people remember best today. Maybe that’s not fair to Johnny Cash, but Johnny Cash doesn’t care. He’s dead, and his legacy was secure long before American IV. In some of his last months on earth, Cash gave the world a profound meditation on loss and mortality, and even if the album only captures one side of Cash, that one side is heavier than heaven.