I remember being in my twenties and not really understanding why people get burned out. It was hard to grasp. I was young, happily married at the time, had no kids and in retrospect, not that many responsibilities. I led the kind of life that would make a great holiday resort for someone needing to recover from a rocky patch. Of course, when you are knee-deep in the Garden of Eden, you rarely realize that this is the case. Rather, you find the silliest things to complain about: a chipped tooth or a bad grade from an exam. The old wisdom, according to which we don’t know what we have until we lose it actually rings true for most us. I know it did for me. We usually learn to appreciate our blessings only after a cloud of darkness falls on us and reminds us how easy we have had it. Speaking of darkness…
Our track of the week, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash (written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails) is a powerful track about depression and finding a reason to live in spite of the presence of daily pain. When Cash released “Hurt” he was very ill, suffering from multiple conditions, as is evident when watching the official music video of the song. This is most likely why “Hurt” is so often connected to actual physical pain and death. It isn’t easy to watch video footage of the frail artist clearly on his last legs. However, this wasn’t necessarily how the songwriter Reznor originally intended the song to be interpreted.
Reznor’s lyrics have had many readings over the years. As the song has clear references to self- harm and heroin addiction, the lyrics have often been described as a suicide note, the protagonist overdosing on purpose to escape the pain of life. However, as acclaimed as the original version by Nine Inch Nails might have been (it even received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Song in 1996), it’s Johnny Cash’s version of the track that’s proven to be the definitive one. Here’s how Reznor reflects on the experience of watching Cash’s music video of “Hurt” for the first time:
I pop the video in, and wow... Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore... It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] 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.
Of course, as usually is the case, there is a great producer behind every great artist and Johnny Cash is no exception. Producer Rick Rubin’s approach on “Hurt” and other final recordings Cash made is brilliant. They are simple, barren and honest. In fact, Cash recorded the entire American IV: The Man Comes Around album in his living room, under the supervision of Rubin, accompanied only by his trusty Martin Dreadnought guitar. It’s powerful stuff. And regardless of Johnny Cash’s concerns about the stripped-down production, his voice never sounded more sincere or convincing.
Interestingly enough, “Hurt” almost never happened, as the song was at first rejected by Cash. Explains Rubin:
That was one where I had to re-record the song to present it to him, because when he heard the original recording of the song it really terrified him (laughs). He thought it was unrealistic and that I was crazy for suggesting it. But then when I recorded it more the way I imagined him doing it, just as a demo, he really liked it.
And the world will always be grateful to Rubin for going through the trouble he did.
Pain is an interesting thing. Whether mental or physical, your tolerance for it grows the more it is present in your life. If you add a spoonful of pain to the life of a man who is already hurting considerably, he’ll shoulder it. He might shed a few more tears in private or smile a little less but he’ll go on. However, if you take a person who doesn’t have a care in the world and have him switch roles with a person who is carrying a world of pain and sadness on his shoulders, you will probably kill him. Watching the music video of “Hurt” is a bit like that. All of a sudden, you are thrown into the world of a dying man and taking it all in as the song unfolds is a bit hard at times.
Although none of us knew it at the time, Rubin and Cash recorded “Hurt” at the eleventh hour. It turned out the song (along with its music video) was one of the very last things the man in black worked on in his lifetime. He died seven months after the single’s release in September 2003.
You can learn more about Johnny Cash here:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.