Johnny Cash Hurt

Johnny Cash, who died ten years ago, made an extraordinarily powerful music video just before his death

Contrary what your parents told you, it is now safe to send Cash through the mail (Nice tribute USPS!). Ten years after his death, Johnny Cash is appropriately remembered as a musical genius. If he had died in 1980, that would still be true. But in the last decade of his life he still had something to say, beginning with the unforgettably raw American Recordings.

In this period of his life he also produced, with director Mark Romanek, a truly extraordinary music video. Music videos are usually devoted to youth and flashiness. In that sense this is the ultimate un-video, dwelling on frailty, grief and the end of vanity. Most celebrities try to look younger. Here, the juxtaposition of the clips from the past are used to actually heighten the evidence of Cash’s physical decline. The emotional impact is to me overwhelming.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

32 thoughts on “Johnny Cash Hurt”

  1. Keith,
    Yes, it’s an absolutely stunning video. And it is unusual for an artist, even for one clearly nearing the end of their career, to so publicly come to terms with the cycle of life.

    Contrast Cash’s approach to say, Paul McCartney, who’s still trying to return to his youth as much as to describe and sum it up from the long view. Both are great artists, but one was coming to terms with the reality of life’s cycle, while the other is still trying to escape it. Just to prove I’m not picking on Paul for being a Beatle, compare Paul’s recent work with the last decade or so of George Harrison’s work, which, while not Cash-like, certainly spoke to that cycle, as did much of his long post-Beatle collection of work.

    1. It’s really hard to do something relevant when you are old. It’s not just McCartney. Most Rolling Stones records post-their 45th birthdays have had 1 or 2 good songs on them, Bob Dylan can’t sing anymore and writes forgettable songs, and Springsteen has put out bad album after bad album ever since “Born in the USA”.

      I think what makes what Cash did so successful is he took an existing song that was about a different subject, and re-worked it to make a personal statement. Trent Reznor, who wrote the song, really appreciated what Cash did, by the way.

      1. Dilan,
        Yes, excellent observation. I’ll agree with J. Michael that I like this version better than Reznor’s original, but it’s more a matter of taste than one being “better.” Both versions are powerful and moving, just completely different in tone and scope. Reznor’s is personal and searing. Cash is certainly portraying a personal decline, but I think he was hitting a more universal note for most of us.

      2. It’s really hard to do something relevant when you are old.

        I disagree. You’re just naming obvious failures. Perhaps it is true among the very top stars, but it’s not a general thing. Mark Knopfler is 64 and still very relevant. The members of Rush are all 60 and have done lots of fine stuff. Marillion are all in their 50s. Annie Lennox.

        There is a cult of youth about rock music that gets really annoying. Bands like the Rolling Stones never grow up but musicians that do, and start making music with the themes of middle age rather than adolescence, get dismissed. I’ll agree that as artists get older they become less prolific but not that they aren’t relevant. The only reason that would be true is that you just inherently don’t like them to evolve.

        1. It kind of undermines your point that the examples of people who remained relevant as they ages are all people I’ve barely if ever heard of.

          1. If you’ve never heard of Mark Knopfler (or, perhaps, Dire Straits, which he fronted) or Annie Lennox (of the Eurythmics back in the 1980s) or Rush that says a lot about the breadth of your music awareness. They are hardly nobodies.

        2. Add Neil Young to the list of performers who isn’t being slowed much by age. He’s all over the place in terms of what he’s up to, but there’s little that disappoints. He writes about the human condition, something that Cash fashions in his own way from Reznor take on it, which I think better represents a description of the body of work that is popular music than simple youthy angst.

          1. Neil Young is, of course, great. But he isn’t doing anything relevant recently either. The last record he put out that had any big impact on the larger culture beyond his fans was “Rocking in the Free World”, and that was a LONG time ago.

            Having said that, this is of course true:

            There is a cult of youth about rock music that gets really annoying.

            And it’s probably more true with rock than it is with previous forms of music– Haydn composed new pieces that were highly praised into his golden years, and Sinatra put out “Theme from New York New York” when he was 64.

            But I don’t think that “cult” is necessarily wrong. The reality is that a lot of these artists really were more interesting when they were challenging authority than when they are the authority. Springsteen is a really nice example of this. Sure, he may still have something to say, but a lot of his fans will probably tell you that when they first heard “Born to Run” it was a liberating experience, because of the particular pose he took on that album. Well, you can’t do that when you are rich and old. And thus, your music isn’t going to produce that same liberating experience.

            As I said, in “Hurt”, Cash found a way to speak about something that WAS interesting and liberating, which is why the song and video have really touched so many people. But it’s hard to do when you are old, and if you want to change that dynamic, you’d have to dull some of the youthful rebellion that so much pop music is really about and which people really do find liberating.

          2. Well, you can’t do that when you are rich and old. And thus, your music isn’t going to produce that same liberating experience.

            And this is exactly what I mean when I say that a lot of rock fans are a part of a cult of youth that is incredibly narrow minded. There are a lot of things music can be besides “liberating”. If that is the only message that you are willing to accept as truly great, the problem is you, not the musicians.

          3. I agree, Michael. As I said, Haydn’s late-life symphonies are great. And I think many Sinatra fans would consider “New York New York” to be a fine record. And “Hurt”, of course, is fantastic.

            But my real point is that even if stuff by older musicians is GOOD, it isn’t likely to produce the same intensity of emotion that the youthful stuff does. That’s just impossible to duplicate.

          4. But my real point is that even if stuff by older musicians is GOOD, it isn’t likely to produce the same intensity of emotion that the youthful stuff does. That’s just impossible to duplicate.

            I think that’s true only if you use a very narrow definition of “intensity of emotion.” It certainly isn’t true for me. Rush’s Vapor Trails produces very intense emotions in myself and plenty of other people I know. And I could list a lot of other things.

        1. I can make a strong case that you’re crazy.

          I can make that case in a whole bunch of different ways, but I will pick an easy one:

          During Dylan’s heyday, he wrote and performed songs that were eventually covered multiple times by multiple artists and became hits and cultural touchstones. Peter Paul & Mary did “Blowing in the Wind”. Hendrix did “Watchtower”. Numerous artists did “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”. The Grateful Dead did “Desolation Row”. Manfred Mann did “Quinn the Eskimo”. Joan Baez did “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”. Simon and Garfunkel did “The Times They Are A-Changing”. The Stones covered “Like a Rolling Stone”. And that’s scratching the surface– there’s a bunch more.

          Whenever I hear someone say that one of Dylan’s recent albums compares, I say “where’s all the covers?”. If the recent material was really better than Dylan’s classic stuff, wouldn’t our airwaves be awash in hit Dylan covers? They aren’t, because the songs aren’t actually very good or memorable. Afficionados like them, sure (just as Springsteen has fans who swear that “Working on a Dream” or “Magic” is as great as “Darkness on the Edge of Town”). But the general public ignores them. They are irrelevant.

          1. Hey, Hendrix did four Dylan covers, and I’ve lost track of how many Joan Baez did. But you know what? None of those would be hits today, for either the cover musician or the original. (Only a few of those covers were hits in the day.) The times, they have indeed a-changed. But note that “Mississippi” was written for Sheryl Crow, who happily recorded it.

            A record has to be judged on its own merits. I listen to Love and Theft more than any other Dylan record–and I have a lot of Dylan records. Every song on it is excellent. The record blends mid-sixties image-mongering (think Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde on Blonde) with the intense personal narratives of the early seventies (Planet Waves through Desire). The pacing is a little odd–fast, slow, fast, slow, over and over–but it works. The only thing it’s lacking is an explicitly socially conscious song, for which you have to go to “Workingman Blues #2” on Modern Times. And there’s something new–an affirmation of life along with an acceptance of age and impending death. Consider the opening chorus of “Summer Days”:

            Summer days, summer nights are gone
            Summer days and the summer nights are gone
            I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on

            Or this verse from “Mississippi”:

            Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
            I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
            But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
            I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me

            It’s a great record.

          2. That’s fine. It does it for you. But it’s not RELEVANT. We’ve found exactly one significant cover of a recent Dylan song, versus all those covers in the 1960’s.

            When Dylan releases a record now, nobody but the afficionados cares. When he went electric in the 1960’s, or crashed his motorcycle….

          3. Relevance is not greatness, and sales figures don’t equate to artistic quality. There’s Dylan material being released in this century from the mid-sixties period most (I think) people consider his best and “nobody but the afficionados” care. Some of it is stuff I’ve cherished on bootlegs for decades, as have other listeners. Shall we call it inferior on that basis?

            Come to think of it, have you heard Love and Theft? You don’t seem to be arguing on the basis of knowing the record itself but on knowing its commercial reception.

          4. That’s fine. It does it for you. But it’s not RELEVANT. We’ve found exactly one significant cover of a recent Dylan song, versus all those covers in the 1960′s.

            When Dylan releases a record now, nobody but the afficionados cares. When he went electric in the 1960′s, or crashed his motorcycle….

            You seem to be using the circular argument that it isn’t relevant because no one cares and that no one cares because it’s not relevant.

  2. Great video. It successfully yokes a number of classic vanitas themes (, a genre explained by a reference to Ecclesiastes, to a Nine Inch Nails song; it even begin with a reference to Atlas. To me, it makes strong case for a unity of suffering and human experience across American cultural divides and then across millenia. Ars longa.

  3. I find Cash’s version of “Hurt” far more powerful than the original Nine Inch Nails track. The music without the industrial synthesizer track better fits the lyrics. And it carries such different meaning sung by someone on the edge of death than by someone young. It is still deeply personal but also more universal.

    1. although i too find the cash cover to be the more profound version, a finding that reznor agrees with based on a few quotes i’ve read, i do have to say the fraying at the edges of reznor’s “wall of sound” in that song and the way his mix drowns out the end of the final line of the song are also appropriate to the lyrics.

    2. I saw NIN do it live on the tour they introduced the song. It was spectacular. And that was long before Cash covered it.

      It’s basically a different song in Cash’s hands. But both versions are great.

  4. And if you’re not yet overwhelmed by the sight of Cash’s wife sorrowfully watching him struggle to pluck the strings of his guitar with those arthritic fingers, then this should tip you over the edge.

  5. I despised the strings in the background of his ’70s songs, which I heard a lot growing up, and wrote him off. Run away! Run away! Then in ’94 a friend from my grad school days who I’d lost touch with called and sez, check out this new Johnny Cash record. I’m thinking, new Johnny Cash record? So what. But I knew my friend had good taste. So I put the CD on and 30 seconds into Delia’s Gone I realized how awful Cash had been mismanaged. It’s fantastic! I’ve been a huge fan ever since. How many artists have you known who get better, a lot better, the older they grew? And yeah, he was a class act with his wife, too.

  6. Of all of the principal figures associated with Sun Records in Memphis during the late 1950s, the only one still living is Jerry Lee Lewis.

    Who would have predicted that?

  7. Trent Reznor said this about the video:

    “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.”

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