Music Video: Hurt by Johnny Cash

Eight years ago this month, Johnny Cash passed away from complications relating to diabetes. Aged 71, his half-century career had earned him plaudits and putdowns, fame and failure, money and mistakes. The stories of his drinking have passed into legend, his infamous concert in San Quentin prison into folklore. One of the most memorable artists ever to walk up to a microphone, his sonorous Arkansas twang is widely recognised as one of the great voices of this or any time: rightly so.

The list of classics he recorded is lengthy, from ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘Ring Of Fire’ to ‘Man In Black’ and the inimitable ‘I Walk The Line’. Along with dozens of other songs, Cash also once recorded a reading of the New Testament, and one can only imagine the power of the Man in Black reading Revelations aloud (one likes to imagine that, should he ever meet the Almighty, he’ll sound just like Johnny Cash).

His final years reflected a move toward cover versions of other people’s songs, largely laid down on the six albums dubbed the American Recordings series after the label they were recorded on, owned by Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin.

This late career renaissance produced some of Cash’s most haunting and wondrous performances. His cover of Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat’ (American III: Solitary Man) is spine-chilling brilliance; ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’ (American V: A Hundred Highways) an imposing warning to sinners, Cash himself included; ‘I Won’t Back Down’ (American III) an incantatory delight.

Yet perhaps the most famous of these covers is Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’. Trent Reznor – NIN’s frontman and the song’s writer, for those unaware – was initially hesitant to allow the recording to go ahead, worrying it may sound gimmicky, but a few notes into the sparse guitar line and you know this is something special.

Its chilling lyrics seem to flow from Cash’s own past, tales of regret and loss which in his autumn years must’ve opened some old wounds. Its video, directed by Mark Romanek, is perhaps the finest visual accompaniment to any song: its certainly one of the most fitting and poignant.

Splicing footage of a younger Cash in with images of he and his wife June Carter Cash in the present day, sitting in the opulent house Cash’s successes have afforded him, it’s an elegiac piece which shows both the fruits of fame and its end worth. Cash, sitting at a dinner table creaking with lavish food, pours a cup of wine over it; he sits at a piano and strokes its oaken frame; he pines gazing out of a window as his wife looks on; all these and many more are sumptuously filmed by Romanek’s lens. The fact that both Johnny and June Carter Cash would pass away later that same year (2003) only adds to the beauty of these gloriously captured images.

One of the only music videos I know of which has reduced people to tears, it would take a stone heart not to well up as Cash’s life literally flashes before us. It celebrates a legacy, but also asks us all that which we fear: what is the sum total of a life, and what is to come? Romanek’s video captures a chilling beauty which shakes us to our core, and lets us reflect on both Cash and ourselves; truly, this is a perfect union of sight and sound. Spellbinding.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.

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