This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #72: Hurt by Nine Inch Nails (+) Covered by Johnny Cash.
In 2002, Johnny Cash was entering the final stages of his life. The idea was presented to him that he spend whatever time he had left making new albums; one of which was to be a tribute to other artists for whom he had respect. So, the album, “American IV: The Man Comes Around” came into fruition. The idea behind the album was that Cash was going to cover some songs that he felt spoke about him and his life, by artists/bands that he admired from afar throughout his life. One of the songs he asked permission to sing was called, “Hurt” by the Alternative band, Nine Inch Nails. In the musical canon of Alternative songs, “Hurt” held a place of honour. Long before Johnny Cash came to call, “Hurt” was revered as a moody, industrial-sounding alternative masterpiece. In fact, the overall sound of the song “Hurt” was so iconic that when Cash initially sought permission, the leader of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor’s first reaction was to decline that permission because he was worried that the Johnny Cash version would have a novelty aspect to it and Reznor couldn’t stand the thought of that. But, one of the main stories behind the legend of this song is that of faith and trust. Somehow, the reputation of The Man in Black held enough sway that Reznor relented and gave Cash permission to use his signature song on his final album. As it turned out, that move helped create a cover song that rates as one of the best covers ever and, beyond that, the video shot for Cash’s version of “Hurt” is universally regarded as the best music video ever made.
One of the characteristics of a good cover song is that it honours the original song but that it also changes the song in a fundamental way so that it becomes something new and previously unimagined. In order to appreciate what Johnny Cash managed to accomplish, it is important to start with the original version of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. The reason for this is that, to many people…even to this day…..the Nine Inch Nails version of “Hurt” is the definitive version of this song. The song was created as a promotional single for the band’s second album, “Downward Spiral”. This album was inspired by albums by David Bowie and Pink Floyd. Trent Reznor wanted to create an album that was seen through the eyes of a central character and was, especially, taken by Pink Floyd’s use of the character “Pink” in their album, “The Wall”. So, Trent Reznor created a character that, as it turned out, was based on himself and his life at the time. He recorded the album in a makeshift studio in the former home of actress, Sharon Tate who, as you may know, was one of Charles Manson’s victims. At the time, Reznor was abusing alcohol and drugs and was lapsing into a state of Depression. So, his song, “Hurt” describes what it is like to be struggling to find the value in living. As the opening lines of the song reveal, Reznor captured the mood of resignation and desperation very well:
“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
But, I remember everything.”
In a world of accomplishment and accolades, what is their value if Life seems meaningless? That was the ground that Reznor was attempting to cover with “Hurt”. When Nine Inch Nails performed this song live, it would all be very theatrically done. Smoke would swirl, images would be projected on screen behind Reznor, he would fully immerse himself in the slow, note by note, syllable by syllable story as it unfolded and the audience would join him in exploring his pain. As big of a downer as it seems, most people recognized it as Art and not a celebration of addiction nor of mental illness. Consequently, the Nine Inch Nails version of “Hurt” went on to be regarded as one of the best Alternative songs ever made; its’ iconic status, unchallenged.
So, when a weak and dying legend, in the form of Johnny Cash, asked to sing this song, Reznor was not the only one who felt that it was more song than Cash could adequately handle. But, Cash swore to Reznor that he wouldn’t release the song unless he honoured it properly so, Reznor relented. In his life, Trent Reznor understood that redemptive aspect to hitting “rock bottom”, as it were, and then, having a rebirth because of the intervention of another who had their best interest at heart. For Cash, he has stated many times that, if not for June Carter agreeing to stay beside him in his wilder, early days, that he would have been dead long ago. For Reznor, who knew this story, he saw similarities because, when he reached his lowest point, he had someone step forward and offer him a lifeline. That person turned out to be someone who seems to have made a habit out of saving lost souls….it was David Bowie. Just after Nine Inch Nails released “Hurt”, Bowie swooped in and took Nine Inch Nails on tour with him. *(Just as he did for Iggy Pop, way back in the 1970s). Nine Inch Nails opened for Bowie on his tour. “Hurt” was the closing song in Nine Inch Nail’s set. Bowie took it upon himself to join Reznor on stage for this song which, then, became a duet. Because of Bowie’s intervention, Reznor entered rehab and became sober. He has remained sober ever since. Because of Reznor’s new outlook on life, he started moving away from being the leader of an active band to, instead, focus more on contributing to movie soundtracks. In fact, he recently won an Academy Award for his soundtrack to the movie, “The Social Network” which, you may know, was all about how Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook.
As for Johnny Cash, he did what all good cover artists do….he made “Hurt” his own. In Johnny Cash’s capable hands, “Hurt” transformed from a story of addiction and depression and changed into an autobiography of his life. Like all good cover artists, he, also, kept the core concept; of questioning the worth of awards and fame if, in the end, Death is all that awaits. However, while the song was well-received on its’ own merit, the real accomplishment for Cash rests on the music video that accompanied the song. The music video was directed by a man named Mark Romanek, who had already made videos with the likes of Jay-Z, Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Taylor Swift. Under Romanek’s direction, the music video for Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” shows Cash taking stock of his life. In the video, there are archival clips of a young, vital Cash, juxtaposed with images of a much frailer man surrounded by treasures and trophies, along with images of his Museum in ruins from a real-life flood. These images, when combined with a re-working of the musical structure of the song, added a sense of urgency to his story. It was almost as if he may run out of time before the song was over. The video is an examination of the worth of a man and the worth of how a man lives his life.
It is a masterpiece.
I remember first seeing this on the Country Music channel one day. When I first turned on the tv, it happened to be the two anchors of the afternoon show on CMT. They were both shaking their heads and talking about this video in a way that made me feel that there were shaken by it or, at the very least, changed by it. Then, they played it on tv and I got to see it for myself. I have to say that it changed me, too. It is unlike any music video I have ever seen. What a story it tells. God Bless Mr. Romanek for having the creative vision to make such wonderful Art. Thanks to Johnny Cash for having lived such a life and so willing bared it all in the end. Thanks, of course, to Trent Reznor for having created the foundation of it all with his own masterpiece if a song called, “Hurt” to begin with.
So, without further delay, here is one of the best Alternative music songs of all-time, “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. To follow, here is the music video that is universally-regarded as the best ever made….”Hurt” by Johnny Cash. As covers go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Nine Inch Nails, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, can be found here.
The link to the official website forJohnny Cash, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for playing the best music of all-time. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.