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Thursday Tune: Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’ (2002)

Is this the best music video of all time?

In my opinion, unequivocally yes. If you have not watched the above YouTube video, please stop reading, watch it and prepare to be moved – there’s no need to be a fan of Johnny Cash, or the exemplary ‘Nine Inch Nails’ original, but merely a human with a beating heart and brain capable of feeling emotions.This is painfully emotive music.

Done? Then let’s move on.

Before I discuss this sparkling example of a music television, I want to share a personal musing.

This is about our memories, the important ones. The experiences that are seared onto the psyche, the sort of memory you can smell, taste and re-visit as if they happened mere minutes before. Particular songs possess that magical ability to trigger those memories, and drag you back to times in your existence, good or bad, happy or sad

Some of my earliest memories revolve around being driven to lower school in my Dad’s old maroon Vauxhall Cavalier and the music that provided the soundtrack to those short journeys. If Mum was driving, a mix of ‘The B-52’s’, ‘Simply Red’ and ‘Marvin Gaye’ would boom from the tinny speakers. However, if Pop Bilko was at the wheel, ‘Pink Floyd, ‘Genesis’, ‘The Rolling Stones’, ‘The Who, and of course ,‘Johnny Cash’, served as my pre-school musical breakfast – that and a sizeable bowl of Ricicles…always Ricicles.

I was blissfully unaware that this early exposure to a rich and varied smorgasbord of singer types would result in their lyrics writing themselves in to the blueprint of my brainbox. Even today, if I hear ‘Invisible Touch’, the words reverberate effortlessly from my underappreciated vocal chords, similarly if ‘Comfortably Numb’ catches me off guard in B&Q, I am powerless to its charm and find myself chirping out the lyrics like a mental.

Essentially, there are songs for everybody that serve as emotional triggers.

“No shit Sherlock!” I hear you cry, well I don’t hear ‘you’ because ‘you’ is a computer, and computers can’t talk. Actually Siri can talk, but Siri is a disobedient, useless prick that mocks my requests for “Nandos near my location”, instead searching for “Banjo’s near my probation”.

Phew, slight digression. I recognise this blog is in risk of entering in to a massive, fiery nosedive so I’ll cut straight to the chase.

Johnny Cash’s 2002 B-side ‘Hurt’ reduces me to a blubbery husk. Here is a triple threat of revered musical royalty, a heart-breaking video and an already brilliant original song. I won’t pretend I had heard Nine Inch Nails original before hearing Cash’s interpretation, but both are flat-out outstanding. Lyrically, this is dark stuff, touching on suicide, self-harm and mortality but also in a bizarre way euphoric.

NIN’s original is a slow burner incorporating those hallmark industrial crunches and writer/vocalist Trent Reznor’s fractured, frail voice that overlays the morbid proceedings. It is excellent, but today is about Mr Cash’s interpretation.

Cash’s version is similar but manages to bring its own meaning and emotion to the lyrics. Calling this a cover seems unfair, both are unique and equally epic. Reznor penned the original whilst fighting with thoughts of suicide and depression. Cash knew his demise was near and his reading of Reznor’s lyrics gain new meaning.

They dont make ’em like him anymore.

The 2002 Cash cover was recorded and released just months before his death and it’s impossible to not consider this recording to be Johnny’s epitaph of sorts. The video, set in the now defunct ‘House of Cash’ museum, was long since derelict and coated with a layer of regretful dust. The artefacts from bygone years scattered amongst the video serve to effectively taunt the ageing singer as if to say, “that was who you once were, but this is who you are now.”

Director Mark Romanek said, “It had been closed for a long time; the place was in such a state of dereliction. That’s when I got the idea that maybe we could be extremely candid about the state of Johnny’s health, as candid as Johnny has always been in his songs.”

Stark images of rotting fruit pepper the video spliced between shots of Cash’s late wife, June Carter Cash, watching over her one true love. Tragically, she passed away three months after the video was filmed. Not a second or frame is wasted by director Romanek, each vivid image supplementing the beautiful music.

To watch Cash as a frail, clearly unhealthy and elderly man is difficult. This is underpinned by accompanying shots of a youthful Cash in vibrant Technicolor, bringing forth a jarring contrast of a vital young man that once was to the old man that now exists in his place. His eyes still flicker with the adolescent fire that once burned so furiously but are lined with salty tears as Cash depresses the keys on his piano. Each word appears to punch its way out of Cash’s mouth, the weight of the lyrics weighing heavy on his failing frame.

As the song builds and reaches a near din, I challenge you to not feel tingles. For me, this heady sensation then moves deep into my throat as an inevitable lump grows – tears sometimes follow dependent on where I am or what I am doing. As a fan of Cash, the video is tough to digest. The visual climax is deathly poignant and smacks of finality and closure. As Cash delicately closes the piano lid, we are fortunate to witness the ending to a fantastic and unforgettable career and life.

Widely recognised as the one of the best music videos of all time, Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ transports me to a particular moment in my life, one that I am loathe to reveal on this blog. Yet, my point remains, that music unlike any other medium does possess that freakish ability to trigger untapped sources of pure emotion.

R.I.P Johnny Cash – (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003)

Below is a live video of the original version by the Nine Inch Nails, both are equally beautiful.

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