The day Johnny Cash died was a Friday and I woke the same as any day at 6 AM to the local radio station, and lay there in bed for one, two, then three songs before I realized something was wrong. They only play that many songs by the same artist if you’re dead.
A couple hours later I saw our then-CEO who asked how I was and I remarked he was dead and he acknowledged it, then rushed off because he knew we would run out of his CDs, we had to get more.
And today the same local radio station played songs by him all day long which is too much, really too much for anyone who’s dead; I would reach for Hag if I wanted to hear old Country, but hearing him cover songs by Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails really cut through me.
In the mid 90s, Cash started working with producer Rick Rubin, of Def Jam / Run-DMC, Beastie Boys fame, to redefine his sound for a younger audience. These last albums of Cash are stark — I gave one to my dad, who was going through a divorce at the time. It’s like a swig off a bottle, hard to swallow but feels better after.
Regarded one of his last recordings, Cash covered the song “Hurt,” by Nine Inch Nails, a mash-up of angst-ridden imagery that suits Cash, he really delivers it. It’s a nihilistic, angry song and a coup for its writer, Trent Reznor, to have Cash carve out the same words, to make them his own.
About the same time in 1990, I saw Nine Inch Nails open for Peter Murphy in Cleveland. NIN was just the opening act, but their debut album was out for about a year by then, and I sat in the back of a small theater with my date, sunk lovey-dovey in our seats while everyone else stood, feeling the vibration of the bass and the music move through us, more memorable than Peter Murphy and his well-choreographed moves.
Reznor went sober and talks now about touring with his wife and kids and how that’s different, but he’s still making music, he’s made it past the drugs and the angst that comes from wanting to make it then making it, and having that mess with you in ways you never imagined.
It’s the artists who can make it through that arc I most admire, who succeed in spite of their success and hold onto themselves still. It’s courage and crazy conviction, movie-making, it elevates the artist beyond themselves and makes us think we can too.