A few days ago, my father and I were discussing cover versions. He was thinking of putting together audio playlists for bar trivia at a newly opened restaurant – a staple of NYC trivia that he was exporting to our small town in Kentucky – and he floated the idea of a list made entirely of songs that are more famous as covers than originals. We both immediately thought of the same song: “Hurt,” as rendered by Johnny Cash.
The history of “Hurt”
When Trent Reznor (aka Nine Inch Nails) recorded “Hurt,” he was in his late 20s. Over 6 minutes long, mostly quiet, but packed with dynamics changes, “Hurt” is atypical of its parent album, The Downward Spiral. Anyone who lived through the 1990s likely associates that LP with the creepy video for “Closer,” which features both an infamous “scene deleted” card (in a video full of undeleted distrubing images) and a bleep-out on the lyric “I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside.”
After an hour of grunting and quasi-rocking out (NIN always had a certain shambling quality to them, with their drum machines and gloomy 80s synths always sapping a bit of their rocking vitality out of even their loudest songs), “Hurt” is the big Dylanesque finish – both a brief respite from the preceding violence and a bleak prelude to what happens when the music is over (to borrow a Doors lyric). It begins with a windy swirl and ends in a grind of listless noise that fades to black.
In between, Reznor spins a tale of impending suicide. “Everyone I know goes away in the end,” he says, with the pseudo-profunity of a 20-something who knows death exists, but doesn’t realize yet – because of lack of age – how close it is to you at any given moment. “You could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.” There’s grandiosity here, from someone who has already achieved a lot before turning 30 (“my empire”), but also resignation (“you could have it all”), a subtle change in voice that shows the speaker finally acceeding to the power of what he once controlled. That is, the “you” seems to be heroin, which elsewhere in the song Reznor addressed memorably as “my sweetest friend;” the “I” seems to be the drug personified, talking about it simply making him hurt.
The striking thing about “Hurt” overall is how the cover version illuminates the strengths of the original, not weakening it or showing it up in any way, while also introducing an entirely new reading of its lyrics’ meaning. Somehow, there is a perspective that only a 70-something could bring to these words; we just didn’t know it until Cash brought it into the open.
No cover version has been so thoroughly changed simply by dint of the covering artist’s age difference from the original performer. Cash was old enough to have been Reznor’s father; by the time “Hurt” was recorded, he was already in his 70s.
“What have I become?” is perhaps the most touching lyric from “Hurt,” and it has a markedly different meaning coming from the mouth of 71 year-old compared to that of a 28 year-old. For the latter, “What have I become?” seems like generalized Gen-X angst about not having changed the world by age 30, a subtle prelude to wishes of suicide driven not just by loneliness (Reznor’s version of “Hurt” is notable for how it seems to unfold in a vast room in which he is the only occupant; he was the sole performer on many of The Downward Spiral‘s songs, albeit not “Hurt,” on which he relied on an outside human drummer) but by Julius Caesar-grade inadequacy. Caesar apaprently wept at a bust of Alexander the Great, despairing at what the conqueror had achieved at an age the would-be Roman emperor had already passed.
But for someone in their 70s, and with the backstory of Cash, “What have I become?” is not a preemptive justification of suicide. It’s a confessional, and one with an unmistakable physicality: Cash’s voice, always gruff, was shredded by this stage of his life, with the natural smokiness and grit that everyone from Nick Cave to Death Grips have tried to achieve instead by affectation. In uttering “what have I become?” in that voice, he answers his own question.
For Cash reading “Hurt,” it is too late for suicide, but too early for death. He truly has seen “everyone I know” go away in the end, unlike Reznor, who in 1994 could only hypothesize about such in rationalizing his hypothetical drug-induced death. Cash, ravaged by years of his own drug use, has already let his demons “have it all,” the “empire of dirt” that indeed looks increasingly indistinct as his natural death approaches.
Cash shortened “Hurt” to barely more than 3 minutes, stripping out the lead-in and noisy outro and rearranging it with only guitars, his voice (he also replaced “crown of shit” with “crown of thorns,” which presents him as a Christ-like figure bleeding out from the years of needle sticks and painkiller highs), and a lone piano that thuds in and out like an insistent church bell. The original dynamics still shine through, though, especially as Cash gives a distored “If I could start again…” near the end that never fails to raise the hairs on my neck as I imagine what it must be like to be imagine starting all over again despite the shackles of advanced age.
There are plenty of startling cover versions out there, but no one so dramatically seized the opportunity the way Cash did in turning “Hurt” into his deathbed autobiography.