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
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.
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.”
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