Hurt – Johnny Cash

Cash Hurt I’ve always been a fan of songs that express a certain degree of regret… (It’s Been Awhile – Staind, Say It Ain’t So – Weezer).  To me, there’s something much more authentic and genuine when artists talk about their shortcomings.  But no song exhibits as epic a moment of reflection on a life less than perfect as when Johnny Cash decided to cover Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt. Trent Renzor himself said in an interview that when he listened to the song, he was moved to tears.  He says that when he heard the song, he realized that “it wasn’t my song anymore.”  (Presumably meaning that Cash gave the song some alternate meaning – not that he ‘took’ the song.)  The original is itself a powerful song, but somehow Cash takes it to a different place.  Trent’s lyrics are a masterpiece. Yet somehow Cash’s interpretation breathes new life into them.  And when you reflect upon the lyrics as they leave Johnny’s mouth, it’s almost as if Trent he wrote them knowing that Cash would sing them one day.

The song seems rather incomplete without watching the video, because it tells such an incredible story.  As you watch all of the accolades – the awards and pictures and statues that are piled up and dusted in the Cash home… and as you watch his older (and presumably wiser) self with clips of Cash as a younger man, it paints a complete picture.  It works on several levels.  Most obviously is the fact that Johnny is reflecting on his life minus the tales of glamour, as his wife June watches on.  (June would pass away in May of 2003 and, like the love story always goes, Johnny would follow her in September.).  But it’s also a cautionary tale.  It’s the wise, old man who takes a moment away from the chess table in the park and decides to impart some words of wisdom to you.  It’s the rock star who’s telling you that now that it’s all said and done, that some of the pain and struggle wasn’t really worth it.  It’s the black sheep of the family exclaiming that although you think he’s just a screw up, that he really wishes he could take back some of the moments of imperfection.

There are so many things about this song that I love.  But what truly brings the song together is the last verse.  As the song is brought to a crescendo, there’s the verse at the end that just doesn’t seem to fit.  It isn’t in line with the structure of the rest of the song.  However, it fits the emotion of the song perfectly.  It’s the final thought of a man reflecting on a life that’s been fun, but that has moments he wishes he could take back.  I recall watching Mickey Mantle at a press conference where he announced that he was dying.  I didn’t grow up a Mickey Mantle fan, but in that moment he earned my undying respect.  As he reflected on his bouts with alcohol that would eventually take his life, he decided to take the opportunity to do something most celebrities would never think of doing – he dispelled the myth of his perfection.  He talked about how all of his fans looked up to him and wanted to be like him.  And he answered them: “Don’t be like me.”  And this song encompasses all of the regret expressed in that moment:  “I will let you down… I will make you hurt… If I could start again… a million miles away… I would keep myself… I would find a way.”

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
Try to kill it all away…
…but I remember everything.

What have I become
My sweetest friend?
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt.

I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here.

What have I become
My sweetest friend?
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt.

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way.


2 Responses to “Hurt – Johnny Cash”

  1. 1 Matt Black
    January 6, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    You could have read the story before engaging in so much speculation.


    As you can see, Trent was not “moved to tears” when he first heard the song. Although he gave his permission for the cover, he was upset when he heard it, saying “I listened to it, and it seemed incredibly strange and wrong to me to hear that voice with my song… It kind of freaked me out.”

    He may even have been a offended. By what? He gave a clue when he stated to producer Rick Rubin that “You did a very tasteful job with it”. Talk about “damning with faint praise…”

    What was so tasteful, that he changed “crown of shit” to “crown of thorns”? It certainly can be offensive to change an artist’s lyrics. Why did Cash do this? Did he simply lack the courage to sing it as written? Fear to offend Jesus? Surely Jesus was covered in every kind of filth when he reached Calvary. Or did he merely wish to make the reference more explicit?

    In any case, he changed the song and made it his own, and Trent abandoned it. “I haven’t listened to my version since then… I’ve thrown some things in the pot, and now it’s turned into something else.”

    Trent came to appreciate it after the video was made, which gave “a context to listen to it in.”

    As you yourself insightfully say, “The song seems rather incomplete without watching the video.” Yet the song was fully complete and perfectly brilliant as delivered from Trent.

    The brilliance of Johnny here was making the connection from the pain of youth abusing IV drugs, cutting, losing their minds, losing their lives, to the pain of the elderly, being stabbed with needles, cut by doctors, losing their minds, losing their lives. Poignant statements by both about the pain, sadness and loss experienced by everyone sooner or later.

    Regarding the last verse of the song, the only thing it doesn’t fit is your conceptions of traditional song structure. It is not tied up neatly with a bow, but goes out with a bang. “Do not go gentle into that good night…”

    Wishing you well on your search for meaning…
    (which ultimately lies in the mind of the listener, not the person who wrote, performed, or adapted a song. There are unlimited “alternate meanings.”)

  2. January 20, 2009 at 3:20 am

    Matt – thanks for taking the time to comment. (It’s a great song – both versions.) Take a sec to listen to the link below. I think this is from the same interview. Keep in mind — I didn’t say that Trent was moved to tears upon FIRST listening to the song. He talks about everyone having tears after seeing the video – I would imagine this was a subsequent listening. (For the sake of brevity, I didn’t go into all of Trent’s reactions — I just went to the last one. From the video, it kinda sounds like he was moved… and that kinda moves me.)

    I get a new appreciation for the song every time I hear it.

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