In a poetic sense, I was looking forward to Johnny Cash's death. After all, his wife, June Carter Cash, had died in mid-May, setting the stage for an ultra-romantic can't-live-without-you exit from the Man in Black himself. That's exactly what happened -- Johnny Cash died on September 12 of complications from diabetes. At 71, the country music deity had lived a preposterously full life, one now celebrated in an astounding and probably endless stream of magazine covers, tribute albums, and weeping testimonials.
This brings with it the surreal and creepy feeling of relief you get when your great-grandfather dies after years of illness, loneliness, and pain. You're sad but weirdly happy -- it was for the best, he was glad to go, it was his time.
Except I didn't know Johnny Cash. It's insanely presumptuous to suggest when his "time" is. And thus, such well-meaning sentiment is profoundly fucked up.
I blame it all on the "Hurt" video.
Yes, the "Hurt" video: the most insane, nerve-shatteringly powerful image the MTV generation will ever generate. You will stare at it, mesmerized. You will replay it continuously. You will most assuredly lose your shit. And all this from a Nine Inch Nails cover.
Starting in '94, Cash began collaborating with weirdo producer Rick Rubin for the "American" series, albums that mixed new Cash tunes with covers of later pop icons such as Soundgarden, Danzig, and Beck. Warmly received at first, the series' charm had largely worn off by the time last year's American IV: The Man Comes Around arrived. The cheeseball gimmick of hearing Johnny freakin' Cash bumble through Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" drove devout fans nuts.
From the same album, Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" received a similarly derisive greeting: As NIN focal point Trent Reznor conceived it, the tune is so maudlin and overblown ("You can have it all/My empire of dirt") -- the ultimate example of irrelevant, petulant alt-rock whining. Have a glass of chocolate milk, get some sun, and stop playing Doom 24 hours a day, you big baby.
But as the Cash video -- released in February and directed by Mark Romanek (impresario of One-Hour Photo and other videos for Madonna, Fiona Apple and, yes, Nine Inch Nails) -- unfolds, suddenly the tune could reverse rivers, flip over mountains, destroy your soul. It's simple and spare, combining archival footage of a much younger Johnny performing, train-hopping, and generally sneering with modern-day shots in the flood-damaged, closed-to-the-public House of Cash museum.
There, Cash looks weather-beaten, exhausted, and 98.9 percent dead. He goes through the lip-synching motions and quietly vamps it up a little, slowly pouring a glass of wine over a lavish medieval dinner spread as the "You can have it all" chorus rolls back around. There's also a shot of June on the stairway, watching sadly from above as Johnny plays, as though she's watching her husband drift slowly away.
For the big climactic finish -- "If I could start again/A million miles away" -- Romanek juxtaposes old Cash clips with depictions of Jesus being crucified. The music ends suddenly; fade out.
And if you're watching this via Internet at work (try MarkRomanek.com), you're now balled up under your desk, weeping.
Good covers honor a great song; great covers redeem a lousy one. "Hurt" in its original, NIN form is effective for what it represents, but what it represents is the modern rock archetype of extreme self-loathing and, specifically, the notion that you should despise your own artistic success. Cash reimagines "Hurt" as a shaken but still proud man looking back on a full life that's nearly over; he has no time for the maudlin antifame crowd. His epic battles with drugs and the rigors of celebrity are oft-revisited ground, but he never seemed irredeemably uncomfortable with the intrusive and invasive nature of rock deification. He survived it. He's no Trent Reznor, no Kurt Cobain.
This makes him truly unique, truly irreplaceable. Cash's death has inspired the usual spate of hooting from cultural critics deriding our current state of plastic, disposable, fleeting celebrity. The music industry is now too busy suing twelve-year-olds to develop artists of Cash's grandeur. If he debuted today, he'd be dropped within a year for selling one-tenth as many records as that "Right Thurr" guy. Etc. Etc.
True, but irrelevant. Fact is, no one wants to be Johnny Cash anymore. Cobain and general indie rock ethos warn against that level of iconic celebrity. You're trained to avoid it and thus unable to handle it.
Consider Jeff Mangum, long-exiled frontman for Athens, Georgia, indie rock legends Neutral Milk Hotel, who in 1998 released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a fantastic and surreal underground classic that preeminent indie rock rag Magnet recently named the best record in the mag's ten-year history. Aeroplane will likely never spawn a sequel -- due to a vague mix of personal chemistry and a distaste for the pryings and pressures that accompany such success, Mangum gave up and might never publicly make music again. He's a ghost, a mirage, a Captain Beefheart figure for the Pitchfork Media set.
But Mangum's fans refuse to let him be. A starry-eyed writer for alt-weekly Creative Loafing Atlanta recently tracked down the songwriter's old bandmates and acquaintances, even grilling the guy's father. Finally, Mangum himself protested via e-mail, refusing an interview request and literally begging for privacy: "Please. I'm not an idea. I am a person, who obviously wants to be left alone. If my music has meant anything to you, then you'll respect that. Since it's my life and my story, I think I should have a little say as to when it's told. I haven't been given that right."
"He's wrong, of course," the author noted. "It's not just his story. ... It's mine, too."
The author is wrong, of course. And maybe that's what died with Johnny Cash -- the notion that anyone could get that big and that revered without giving up in the face of pressure from critics and disciples. Beyond bluntly showcasing Cash's own mortality, the "Hurt" video shows what happens when overzealous fans turn you into a museum exhibit, when their love for your art convinces them it's their right to decide how you should live, and when you should die.
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