When Nine Inch Nails lynchpin Trent Reznor wrote Hurt he was suffering from a periodic bout of serious depression. Described by Reznor as a “a little poem I wrote in my bedroom,” the result is an intense, self-mutilating song of reflection that aches with pain.
The single was released on April 17, 1995 and while the lyrics are often interpreted as a lament on self-harm Reznor said, “I’m not proud to say I hate myself and don’t like what I am, but maybe there is real human communication that ends up positive even though everything being said is negative.”
It wasn’t until Johnny Cash, at the behest of Rick Rubin, covered it in 2002 that the tune was immortalised. It was the last album Cash would issue before his death, and to this day remains one of the most powerful works of transitional genius ever penned.
17 years ago a 70 year old Johnny Cash covered Trent Reznor’s Hurt with such longing and pain so as to stun the world. But how did Reznor feel?
In 1995, Trent Reznor was renting a house in LA’s Benedict Canyon, indeed the same house that was previously owned by Manson Murder victim Sharon Tate. Reznor noticed the word ‘pig’ scratched into the door on the night of the murders and has since been painted over. As a result Reznor named his studio there ‘Le Pig’ and kept the door handle as a memento. The legacy of Hurt would reach far further however.
Some read the opening lines as a suicide letter:
“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”
Others declare it a rather forlorn ode to the self-destructive glamour of heroin. Johnny Cash for one couldn’t hear it at all.
The Man In Black was dropped by Columbia Records in 1986 and Mercury Records in 1991. Feeling like his albums had ceased to sell the industry deemed Cash a has-been.
Rick Rubin – best known for his work with Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Run DMC among many others – disagreed. Rubin sat Cash down in his living room and recorded him straight: clean voice and acoustic guitar. The resulting album, entitled American Recordings, featured Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen covers among a smattering of originals and was one of the most highly appraised albums of his career.
Fast forward to 2002 and American IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash died the following year on 12 September 2003 but recorded one final masterpiece before he left. Plucked from Nine Inch Nails gruelling concept album The Downward Spiral, Rubin sent Hurt to Cash but he couldn’t hear the lyrics over the industrial noise and anguished howls.
Rubin said, “Just read the lyrics. If you like the lyrics, then we’ll find a way to do it that will suit you.”
Yet Johnny was convinced by Rubin’s vehemence and recorded it right away. At the time Cash’s health was failing from autonomic neuropathy and diabetes, his voice broken and it was a struggle for him to record.
Using this to his advantage Cash changed to lyrics to suit that of a man at the end of his mortal coil: “If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way.”
Reznor recalls hearing the song for the first time: “It felt very strange hearing the highly identifiable voice of Johnny Cash singing it. I certainly wasn’t cringing or anything, but it felt like I was watching my girlfriend f**k somebody else.”
“I’d known where I was when I wrote it. I know what I was thinking about. I know how I felt.”
Trent Reznor was convinced however after seeing the video directed by Mark Romanek. It is filmed in the derelict House Of Cash Museum with June Carter, who died three months later, tenderly accompanying Cash, who is quite literally surrounded by his own memories.
Edited with clips of Johnny’s youth from San Quentin to his blossoming love with June Carter it’s an incredibly moving clip that will defy you not to cry.
Reznor continues: “Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.”
“It really made me think about how powerful music is. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in.”
“Somehow that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.”
While Cash unceremoniously changed lyrics to suit him it was not out of disrespect but artistic interpretation. ‘I wear this crown of thorns’ was translated from Reznor’s brazen ‘shit’ to reflect Cash’s religious beliefs and beginnings as a singer for strictly gospel audiences.
The album was the first Johnny Cash studio LP to achieve Gold status in the US for more than thirty years. In the UK, Hurt only made Number 39 in the singles charts, but the single continues to stun listeners to this day.
Cash’s home of nearly 30 years, in which the video was shot, was burned down in 2007.
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