I’m not generally a great fan of cover versions, usually preferring to hear the original artists performing their own music. There are of course a few exceptions: Hendrix’s take on All Along The Watchtower and The Clash’s version of I Fought The Law are two that come immediately to mind.
But this is, in my not so humble opinion, the best cover version of them all.
I first heard Johnny Cash’s Hurt when it was released as a single just a few months after the great man’s death in 2003, and immediately enjoyed his take. It wasn’t until early 2007 though that I really came to appreciate just how good a version of Hurt this really is.
Sometimes a certain track strikes a chord with your life, providing a soundtrack to events or situations you find yourself in at the time. And no matter where you go it seems to be there, almost as if the gods of music are laughing at you.
I was in New York City in March 2007 and Hurt seemed to be playing in every bar I went into. And at that time I went into a lot of bars. The lyrics spoke to me; they seemed to describe the mess that was my life at a time when I was seriously considering ending it. It moved me, almost to tears at times. But that’s another story.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the song had been written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who has both bipolar disorder and an alcohol addiction. No wonder it struck such a chord!
Musically, Cash’s cover is a stark and simple arrangement that fits well with the lyrical themes of pain and regret:
I wear this crown of thorns
upon my liar’s chair
full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
There is a beautiful simplicity to the chorus, which ends with the lines:
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
The song’s final verse could be interpreted as hopeful, but somehow to me they always seem like a desperate and hopeless cry for redemption, for a second chance that just isn’t going to come.
f I could start again
a million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way
Johnny Cash’s version of the song, a performance by a man nearing the time of his own death, racked with pain and conscious of his own mortality, is simply stunning. That great voice is raw and laden with emotion, but it still has all of the power and authority of the Man In Black.
The video begins with Cash, dressed in black of course, playing a black acoustic guitar. As it moves on, director Mark Romanek has interspersed with shots from a run-down museum filled with mementoes of Cash’s life with images of a younger Cash, he picks out a simple melody on the piano. And at the end of the song he fades to black, closing the lid on the piano with a finality that speaks of the ultimate conclusion to life.
Raznor himself loves the Cash version. He tells of seeing the video for the first time: “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.”
Raznor is right. Cash didn’t simply cover the song. He reinterpreted it and took ownership of it.
But don’t take just his word for it. Hit the play button and see for yourself.