I can’t have this week’s theme without mentioning Johnny Cash’s American Recording series. I’m not usually a fan of Rick Rubin’s production style, but he deserves a place in the rock and roll hall of fame just for his collaborations with Johnny Cash. These recordings played a huge role in the revival of Cash’s career, and also his stature in popular culture. At first it would seem a novelty that Johnny Cash would record such songs as “Personal Jesus” and “One”. But the performances were intimate and sincere. Rubin was correct in thinking that these records would remind people what was great about Johnny Cash.
Trent Reznor famously said that once Johnny Cash covered “Hurt” it was no longer his – it was a Johnny Cash song. Some 8 years after Cash recorded the song, “Hurt” is more associated with him than Nine Inch Nails. While the NIN version was a song about suicide, Cash took command of the song and transformed into a song about death staring an old man in the face. It’s a song that once you hear you never forget what you were doing the first time you heard it.
American IV, which “Hurt” appears on was released in 2002. I was in college at the time. One of my friends called me and a bunch guys from the hall down to his room to watch the video for “Hurt”. We all stood up and stared through the smoke at the TV, as a frail Cash appeared on the screen with just his guitar. His voice was no longer what it once was. It sounded frail, and he looked even older than his 70 years, “But I remember everything” he sings. His youth had been stripped away, but he still seemed alive when he picked up the guitar and sang. “Beneath the stains of time, this feeling dissappears,” Cash whispers just as the video switches back to footage of a younger Cash (probably taken sometime in the 1960s.)
Once the video ended, we all just stood in stood. “Oh my god,” somebody said. “Johnny Cash is gonna die.” A year later he would be. I attended a Springsteen show that weekend, and the first song that he played was “Ring of Fire”.