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Johnny Cash: “Hurt”, The Story Behind The Video

Undoubtedly one of the most powerful music videos of all time, the Johnny Cash Hurt video serves as a moving and worthy epitaph to the late, great singer.

But as well as Cash’s outstanding performance, there were other creative forces that had to come together in order to make the award-winning video possible. Music industry professionals such as Trent Reznor, Rick Rubin, and Mark Romanek all played crucial roles in bringing about the song and video’s birth.

This is the story of how the Johnny Cash video “Hurt” came into being.

“Trent Reznor was born to write that song, but Johnny Cash was born to sing it, and Mark Romanek was born to film it.” Bono

Nine Inch Nails in 2009.  It was the industrial band who first recorded the song in 1995 and later publicly performed it.  The song, written by Trent Reznor, references self-harm and heroin addiction.
Nine Inch Nails in 2009. It was the industrial band who first recorded the song in 1995 and later publicly performed it. The song, written by Trent Reznor, references self-harm and heroin addiction. | Source

The Nine Inch Nails version

“Hurt” was written by Trent Reznor of the industrial rock band, Nine Inch Nails and was described by him as being, “a track I wrote in my bedroom at a black moment.” The song was made into a promotional single, but never released to the general public, until it appeared on the Nine Inch Nails 1994 album, “Downward Spiral”.

A video was made to go with the Nine Inch Nails version of the song, which showed the band performing live with a scrim in front of them, onto which various representations of grief, damage, and decay were projected. Later live renditions of the song by the band, however, were generally much more sparse and toned down, certainly until the final chorus arrived, when the rest of the band would join in (see video below to see a 2007 rendition).

Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin

Johnny Cash had been working with record producer, Rick Rubin since the first of his highly successful “American” series of albums. Although an unlikely combination on the surface, Cash and Rubin were a strong creative combination, with Rubin persuading Cash to step outside of his comfort area in regard to both song recording and the type of live concerts he would play (the memorable Glastonbury Festival 1994 being an example).

While working on their fourth album together, which would be released as, “The Man Comes Around”, Rubin continued to encourage Cash to step outside of his comfort area regarding song material and it was Rubin’s idea that Cash should record a version of Reznor’s song.

 Rick Rubin in 2006.  Rubin has worked with numerous artists, including: such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beastie Boys, The Black Crowes, Jay-Z, Danzig, Dixie Chicks, Black Sabbath, Slipknot,  Metallica, AC/DC, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, and Eminem.
Rick Rubin in 2006. Rubin has worked with numerous artists, including: such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beastie Boys, The Black Crowes, Jay-Z, Danzig, Dixie Chicks, Black Sabbath, Slipknot, Metallica, AC/DC, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, and Eminem. | Source

Trent Reznor was a friend of Rubin’s, but when Rubin rang him to ask if Cash could cover the song, Reznor said that he was very flattered, but sceptical of the artistic value of the idea. Nonetheless, Reznor agreed and Cash went ahead with his recording, making a minor change to the lyrics by substituting “crown of thorns” for the original “crown of shit” (Reznor had used this alternative himself in a radio friendly version of the song that he’d recorded.) As well as removing a profanity, the change also had the effect of adding a crucifixion image to the song, which would be exploited later in the video.

Reznor was still not convinced by Cash covering the song though and was unimpressed when he first heard the recording. “It didn’t sound bad, it just sounded something wrong, it sounded alien,” Reznor said, when describing his reaction later.

The Cash Video

Movie Director Mark Romanek was charged with making the video for the Cash version. He had previously produced videos for artists such as Madonna, Beck and Lenny Kravitz, and had been begging Rubin for a chance to work with Cash for some time.

He set out from the start to try to capture the essence of Cash, contrasting the cocky younger singer with the increasingly frail 71 year old man that Cash had become (Cash was already suffering a severe health decline by this time and would die seven months after the video was made). In an echo of the Nine Inch Nails original video, he also interspersed the film shots of Cash with images of decay, such as rotting fruit.

Much of the footage is taken at the “House of Cash” museum in Nashville. The building had served as Cash’s home for thirty years, but was now in a state of advanced dereliction. The setting inspired Romanek to use the house as a metaphor for Cash’s declining health and vitality. Cash agreed to this, demonstrating artistic and personal courage in the process.

Much of the footage showing the younger Cash was found by Romanek in the archive room at the “House of Cash”. Sadly, the building has disappeared completely now, destroyed by fire in 2007.

When Reznor received a copy of the video, he completely changed his opinion about Cash’s version of his song, describing it as an “unbelievably powerful piece of work.”

“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.”

Cash's grave and the Cash/Carter memorial in Hendersonville Memory Gardens, Tennessee.
Cash's grave and the Cash/Carter memorial in Hendersonville Memory Gardens, Tennessee. | Source

Death of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash died on on September 12, 2003, aged 71. His passing followed the unexpected bereavement of his beloved wife, June, less than four months earlier.

He was buried beside his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens, not far from his Tennessee home.

Some people have speculated that Cash's death was hastened, due to a broken heart over June's untimely passing. June had urged Cash to continue working if she died, however, and this is what he did in his final months.

The song, "Hurt" has since become the unofficial epitaph of Johnny Cash for many people.

© 2011 Paul Goodman

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Comments 8 comments

Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 5 years ago from Texas, USA

I enjoyed reading your article. Hurt is a powerful song.


PaulGoodman67 profile image

PaulGoodman67 5 years ago from Florida USA Author

I've watched the video many times and it always blows me away, so writing this hub was a labor of love for me! :-)


marcoujor profile image

marcoujor 5 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

This song brings back memories of my Southern Mom/ it will be a year in May...to me, the very best song Johnny ever did. Thank you so much.


Paula Andrea, MA profile image

Paula Andrea, MA 5 years ago from www.mode of cosmic therapy.com

I can not emphasize enough how much the behind the scenes information clips and written material you presented meant to me. Superbly written. I found you on RedGage. I will be following you, too. Bravo!


CharlesWhitman 3 years ago

The best most emotional cover


3 years ago

It's upsetting to me that the Cash rendition gets as much credit as it does. Romanek is the creative voice behind that video... Most of his ideas were what made it what it was... And the sad part is that the aforementioned video is what makes so many people worship Cash's version.

Cash was a fantastic singer and amazingly talentled, but when it comes to this song...he can't touch it. "Hurt" expresses a level of emotional pain Cash never knew, one that he simply cannot emulate. Reznor wrote it in such a dark time that it will always be his.

It's impossible to pour that much of yourself in to something and have another person represent it in a better way. Every cover of the song falls short, every attempt at performance is shamed by the original, for no rendition will know the exact place the song came from, the exact place that allows the necessary emotion and power in performance.

As a final note, I would like to address the fact that I am, by no means, a NIN fan-boy. This is one of their only songs that I regularly listen to, and I've heard a large amount of Cash's work. In the end, when you ignore the video that CASH DID NOT CREATE and pay attention only to their voice and performance, the original will always win, as nothing can match the pain that created it.


bensen32 profile image

bensen32 2 years ago from Round Lake Park

I was never much of a Johnny Cash fan, it's just not my type of music however Nine Inch Nails is more my type of music. Of course I had to hear this song remade by Johnny and OH MY GOD. This is one remake that totally improve the song. I have to disagree with K above and say this is the better version.

Thanks for the article it was very interesting to read.


Writer 2 years ago

From someone who has an ongoing battle of clinical depression, it is easier to feel in essence of the power of persuasion of peoples darkness. Weather or not this song was because of his wife passing, I can say. However, I can say it creates the same impact for everyone. I find it very fascinating that everyone uses the darkness for their own way.

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    PaulGoodman67 profile image

    Paul Goodman (PaulGoodman67)495 Followers
    58 Articles

    Paul promoted, played and sang in many music bands during his teenage years and twenties. Born in the UK, he now lives in Florida.



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