Artist: Johnny Cash
Description: album track, American IV: The Man Comes Around
Label: American Recordings
Release date: 2002
First heard: 2002
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
Johnny Cash died, aged 71, on 12 September 2003, in Baptist Hospital in Nashville. I was on the air the next day on 6 Music and had a copy of his most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, to hand. I played his movingly spare claim on Vera Lynn’s wartime spiritual We’ll Meet Again, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
I’d come to Cash late, but so many of us did. I remember in my first months in the art room of the NME producing a page layout marking a new Johnny Cash covers album for the Terence Higgins Trust by various “approved” artists – Michelle Shocked, Sally Timms, David McComb, Voice Of The Beehive, the Mekons, Marc Riley – and recognising the visual power of the Man In Black, whose image formed a striking half-tone backdrop to the text. I will have been aware of his greatest hits, but perhaps not fully up to speed with his fast life and times. Dropped from Columbia in the 80s, he went from country superstar and world-famous outlaw to sepulchral cult figure, and it took U2 (who invited him in from the cold for a cameo on Zooropa) and Rick Rubin to fully rehabilitate him for a new generation. Mine.
It was Cash’s hospitalisation in the mid-90s that coloured his second two Rubin albums, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around (with that fatalistic title track), and among the stunt covers found on those two splendid albums, it is surely Hurt by Nine Inch Nails that most convincingly and acutely sums up the condition his condition was in. The original suicide note was posted on Trent Reznor’s multimillion-selling second album The Downward Spiral in 1994, which served to cook down his industrial disco into a fine, reduced sauce – a concept album, no less. Hurt closes that album, and effects to end the life of its protagonist. Not an untwitching eye in the house. But what Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin did with it, and to it, casts the original into the middle distance.
Cash’s ripe old age, the ravages of neurodegenerative atrophy, and the likelihood of the Man Coming Around (he would come first for Cash’s wife, June Carter) combine to engrave Reznor’s depressive theatre permanently into granite. Not since Love Will Tear Us Apart had a song sounded so much like an epitaph in waiting.
Consider the difference in your gut reaction to these same words sung by a 29-year-old multi-instrumental prodigy from Pennsylvania and a dying septuagenarian icon who’d grown up in the cotton fields of Arkansas during the Depression:
I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel …
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting …
Reznor’s needle is hypodermic, and so is Cash’s, but whereas one threatens opiate oblivion, the other promises pain relief, perhaps even administered by a health professional. The damage done is the same. How profound to hear a lament of urban Gen-X loneliness transformed into a housebound elegy to old age. This cover – if “cover” isn’t too flimsy a word – is surely the polar opposite of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day being turned into a celebration of the BBC licence fee in 1997, its original meaning laid waste in the process (and by consent of the author). Or the Clash’s London Calling being eviscerated and de-clawed by Scouting For Girls in the concert at Buckingham Palace for the Cultural Olympiad in August 2008 (I can hardly bear to re-live the hurt; Strummer’s ghost is still spinning).
To say that Cash’s Hurt is the musical equivalent of the sequel that’s better than the original is to reduce the transubstantiative power of interpretation down to a competition. Both versions abide. The song is the thing. (I have never heard Leona Lewis’s version, but I don’t think I need to.) If Reznor is all about synthetic, cinematic FX, Cash is all about found sound. His rendition begins with just voice and what sounds to my layman’s ear to be a single guitar on a lap. Chords are picked out. The voice croaks its confessions (“I will let you down, I will make you hurt”), and the two coalesce. Rubin’s pin-sharp production allows us to hear the moisture being summoned up in Cash’s mouth as he contemplates his own “going away in the end”.
When he sings, “I remember everything“, he mines greater depth than Reznor, having walked this earth since 1932 and threatened to leave it prematurely more than once (out of it, he walked into a cave in Tennessee in 1968 with no intention of coming out again, but – as he tells it – God entered his heart and gave him the extra gas in the tank to follow the light to the exit). When he inquires, of his “sweetest friend”, “What have I become?”, he might be asking God himself – or the other fella. As they square off, a bystander might be forgiven for asking, “Who’s the guy with Johnny Cash?”
Mortality stalks Hurt like a ghost at a wedding. “You could have it all,” sounds like our man preparing to do a deal, and a jabbed piano and second guitar underline the importance of what’s afoot. The arrangement, Gothic, overwrought, final, clangs like a church bell, before draining back to one man and his guitar again for the second verse. The old quiet-loud dynamic from grunge serves him well. And then, the only change. Reznor’s “crown of shit” is replaced by Cash’s “crown of thorns”, for reasons of decency, perhaps? Or piety? A fluting synth steers this verse into the climactic chorus, where all hell breaks loose. If your heart isn’t in your mouth by now, you might want to check you have one.
We’re going through a tunnel. “I would find … a way.”
Reznor was gracious enough to say this about Cash’s version of his song: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in … 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.” His conclusion is ours: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”
I haven’t even mentioned the video.