By the time he was singing Hurt, Johnny Cash was an old man, bloated and in physical pain, still a rich man, still a legend, about as famous and iconic as a country singer can be, and here he was singing about the futility of all of it.
And you can have it all. My empire of dirt…”
he sings as he shakily pours a glass of red wine out over the table he sits at. Nine months later he was dead.
I’ve been taking both my dogs for a walk in the mornings, down our steep hill and into the floodplain parklands, along the Wii-fit picture-perfect pathway, watched over by huge Moreton Bay fig trees, weeping plumes of yellow Acacia and spectacular African tulip trees. Dogs surge forward, gagging at the lead the whole way. Anyone would swear they just wanna get home already. That’s not true, however, there’s just one thing they want. They are gagging to get to a small man-made waterfall, a weir we used to call them, that spans the width of our freshwater creek. They race off the lead and down the steep bank to it, where one dog goes nuts at the cascading waters, diving and snatching at the foam like a Kodiak bear looking for salmon and the other looks on at the foolishness of dog youth. It’s a wonderful morning journey to forest and babbling water.
On the way, I listen to my iPhone, currently set to the oddest playlist—an absurd mix of Chinese bluegrass and 70’s pop, intermingled happily with stories from Moth.
But one song stands out. Hurt by Johnny Cash. It catches me by surprise every time. The song was not a Cash original. Rather it was penned by a Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, an industrial band out of Cleveland, and about as far away from Johnny Cash’s country guitar chugging style as you can git. Listening to the original NIN version, the song’s hero is suffering addiction and self-harming, and it’s sung in the key of angst. The idea of the song is grisly and fairly emo and I think I remember even Reznor commenting that it was a weeny bit self-indulgent.
But that is not what Johnny Cash’s Hurt is, despite him having changed only one word in the lyrics for his version.
You see, context is everything.
Johnny Cash’s Hurt depicts a lifetime of fame and the madness that attends it. He sang like it was his last desperate message, a haunting apology to loved ones who had often suffered the unpleasant weight of his life. Not the least of whom was the love of his life, June Carter.
He uses the song to express the profound truth about the way he conducted his personal life and his frank admission of regret. In doing so, Cash turned an okay average song about a depressed 20-something into an overwhelmingly beautiful opus of love and loss.
Let’s admit that the film clip is a large part of why the song is so powerful. Even my 14-year-old son, who knows nothing of the life and times of Johnny Cash, instinctively understood the montages switching between Cash in his heyday and the old sickly Cash sitting at his banquet table of rotting food as an expression of unspeakable grief about the man’s folly.
Apparently, Trent Reznor was initially reluctant to let Cash have the rights to the song, believing Cash would make a cheesy job of it. He perhaps had no idea who he was dealing with; Cash knew a thing or two about what songs he could make work (go read the story of Ring of Fire as another example of his fine intuition in this regard). Upon seeing Cash’s film clip version of the song, Trent later had this to say:
[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.”
Context is everything. As a playwright, your job is to write the story- get all the words all in the right order, not too many, not too few. How the story is told, what the actors and directors and lighting designers and set designers bring to it, can change your story into something you didn’t expect. Like Trent Reznor said—you have to think of it like, the play “isn’t mine anymore”.
But whenever I worry about this, as playwrights often do, I remember Johnny Cash and his version of Hurt. As an artist, he brought to it his whole life, all his experience and weight and context. And he elevated it to a whole new level that cuts the audience to shreds every time.
It’s a good thing.