“What have I become, my sweetest friend?” – Johnny Cash, “Hurt”.
I said I’d be reviewing “whatever” here on this blog. That could be any media but a reoccurring theme for non-films (ok, most of them too) is that it needs to be something that makes me think and become reflective. Johnny Cash’s song “Hurt” recorded in 2002 slowly before his death is one such song. It makes me think, it has every time I’ve heard it since it came out, and I had to talk about it.
The song itself is a cover of Trent Reznor’s song, which you can find on YouTube. Passionate and disturbing in a very different way, I would actually not recommend looking it up so the Cash version is the one that sticks in your mind. The trick to the emotive power of this song is that you have to understand where Johnny Cash was in his life. This is a man who enjoyed huge fame, wealth, accolades, and women. Yet, in so many ways he messed up his private life.
He was at various points a womanizing cheater, a drug addict, he attempted suicide, he dealt with a messy divorce, he even started a forest fire that almost killed him while in a drug induced malaise. He was charged with several misdemeanors (though he never did any hard time).
At the point when “Hurt” was released Johnny Cash was only a year away from his death. His wife June was to pass only four months before he did in 2003. This was a man who knew that the Reaper was not far away. He could see the vultures start circling overhead and with so little to look forward to – it was time to look back.
The voice we hear is subtle yet emotional. Cash does not ‘over sing’ the lyrics but there is a tremble in his voice that carries through the entire song and is more noticeable during the chorus. I would like to say his voice aged like “fine wine” but that would be a cliché. While I think his voice is great for the song, there’s a sense of weakness. It’s as if it saps the energy (and positivity) of the listener. We’re sharing an experience with this man though and I believe that empathy, if we feel it, shows our humanity.
Let’s break down some lyrics I think are especially important:
“And you could have it all, my empire of dirt, I will let you down, I will make you hurt.” Going off nothing solid here I think Johnny Cash is thinking back to the “empire” he built as a star but that it meant nothing for the time he spent away from his children and the destroyed relationships his career left in his wake.
“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focused on the pain, the only thing that’s real. The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting.” Here I think the connections are more concrete. I can’t believe Cash would have thought of anything but his drug use and suicide during this time. Honestly, I think that type of reflection would take a lot of courage for him to do. This period for him must have been dark and shameful in retrospect. Like a blot on his soul he cannot purge and is making an attempt to resolve.
“I wear this crown of thorns, upon my liar’s chair, full of broken thoughts, I cannot repair.” The “crown of thorns” takes a little understanding of Christian terminology as it refers to a literal crown of thorns given to Jesus to mock his “kingship”. In this case, through the lyrics Cash may have realized that his “kingdom” of wealth and fame was a mockery as well – what good are those things when he hurt the people around him?
The saddest part of this line; however, is the phrase “I cannot repair.” That’s the truth, that’s why we try to live life with so few regrets. Fact of the matter is, when we screw up, that becomes history. It happened, it can’t be undone. Forgiveness exists sometimes but lets not lie to ourselves that somehow undoes the damage. The scar is still there and its’ ugliness will remain.
This wasn’t a “happy” review, you might feel a little depressed and wondering why you should give this a song a listen if you haven’t heard it before? Because it’s real.
Look, I love to take pleasure in the beautiful parts of life – but life doesn’t always come up ‘roses and daffodils’. We make mistakes, we hurt ourselves, we hurt those that we love. We make choices that dig holes for ourselves – then we keep digging.
We need to learn to appreciate each season of life even if it is a bitter tonic. There is satisfaction though, in having the courage to look to our past, own it, confront it, and try to make peace with it as best we can.
Now try listening to the song with that perspective: