My empire of dirt: Cash, R.I.P.

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.

Categories: music

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20 replies

  1. I was never much of a Cash fans until he did those Rubin albums, but as soon as I heard them I fell in love with their raw- intensity. I don’t know if there has ever been a more powerful, naked display of visceral vocal art. I know what I’m gonna listen to while I blog this am.


    • Yeah, me too Jon. Those records got my attention, good on Rubin for helping Cash kind of rebrand himself. And hearing that cover of “Hurt” really made me freeze in my kitchen yesterday and stop everything I was doing. Funny it sounds like that’s viewed as his last song/recording, too. The video is a bit intense I must say, a bit over the top. But that’s kind of him, too. Cheers, – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

      • A sidebar, having nothing to do with your post, but a college buddy of mine bought one of Cash’s black jackets at an auction. Which was when I realized he was earning a good deal more money than I was…oh well.


      • Yeah, that is kind of bragging rights alright. It pretty much doesn’t get better than that, for bragging rights. And you wouldn’t have to worry about getting cigarette burns in it or spilling Bourbon on it, because, well, need I say more.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sobriety often comes at a time when age makes your ridiculousness unbecoming anyway.


    • Ugh, I get that. And then the image of your true self is that much harder to bare, unfiltered.


      • I have this warm memory of me at a newspaper convention, just killing it at the mic with some improvved blues using ridiculous beginner French phrases (“mon stylo est dans le fenetre”). I mean KILLING it! Having been sober around drunk people, it occurred to me only just the other day that it was probably more like this:


      • That was freaking funny. I actually sang a poem I wrote a cappella at a poetry slam thing many years ago, and think I must have been out of my body and mind to have done that sober, and to have sounded (I think) not altogether embarrassing. But probably like the video you know: two versions of that reality there mister.


  3. I grew up with Johnny Cash, and when I found my own musical tastes, NIN was a huge part of it. As was anything Rubin produced (although you must admit some of it sounds the same). I love both versions of “Hurt” depending on my mood. Cash was awesome, and I respect the way he went about his life and grew from everything. Now I have to go listen to “Highwayman”, because him and Willy, and that song…just good stuff.


    • Yes that Highway man record is really cool. “Girl From the North Country” in particular. That’s cool that you liked both Cash and NIN…a very unseemly pairing. But it’s cool when you see artists do that, seemingly unlikely pairings, because you realize at the root of it there’s something they share beyond their musical style. I was thinking of a post along those ideas, and researching more about the band Low hooking up with guys from the band America, and how I thought that strange, but there’s something deeper and interesting they share still. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Josh! Have a great day and thank you for reading my blog. – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  4. that song was my absolute favorite and most heart-ripping of the lot. i love the rubin cd’s. heard reznor say he was angry at first that jc covered it, as it was his anthem, about his life. once he heard jc sing it, he said it was clearly jc’s song and gave his blessing.


    • What an interesting story about Reznor and Cash! That’s really cool, thanks for sharing Beth. I didn’t expect so many reactions to that song…I should listen to it again myself! I kind of dropped out with NIN after the first record, though I’ve always respected his musicianship. Perhaps I’ll have another listen. The Cash cover is really heavy. Have a good weekend! I’m heading out to the canyons again, and looking forward to fresh air, and no devices.


  5. Love his cover of Hurt. Really like what you say at the end about Reznor and those who make it through the arc. Success like that doesn’t seem easy. Not sure I’d want it, not that it’s a worry, but I do admire those who pull it together and keep making music, writing or acting…often it’s better, in my opinion.


  6. Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt came up in conversation the other day. Small Cash aside: The first day my younger son went to nursery school, the teacher pulled me aside at the end of the day to let me know he was upset. Apparently at circle time they all got to chose a song to sing. Someone chose Wheels on the Bus. Someone else chose Twinkle, Twinkle. My son was upset when he chose Ring of Fire and his teacher didn’t know the words. 😉


    • That’s funny…I think I’d heard it in the way you don’t notice something, sometimes, but it’s neat when it really stops you, when you hear a song and are struck by it. I like the story of your son, wonder if the teacher was Danish? Can’t get much more ‘Merican than Cash, right?


  7. Where in Cleveland, please? Do you remember the name of the venue? I grew up there. Do you remember Peter Murphy’s Cuts You Up? I loved that song. Trent Reznor is from Cleveland so that was a local gig for him. I used to see him in his post-punk-pop band The Exotic Birds.

    This post started with a dead celeb and I thought it was going to segue into a dead Leonard Nimoy piece. This was better.


    • I forgot you grew up there Mark. I don’t remember the name of the venue unfortunately. I do remember that song though (Cuts You Up), and someone had scratched the chorus of that song in the wall, which we noticed waiting outside to be let in (la la la la la la la la la or thereabouts). I loved that song too. He came off a bit of a wanker though; too bad because I never got to see Bauhaus and his wankery there, which I kind of worshipped for a while. I was living in Erie PA and we’d drive over there to see bands occasionally. Also saw The Cure there around that time and the band Ministry, on their Mind Is A Terrible Thing to Taste tour. That was nuts. Uh oh – crying kids, sounds like an injury out back. Thanks for visiting my friend! Enjoy your week.


  8. I am just now re-reading the story of the Carter family singers, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? Since the book begins in 1891 (!!!) and is mostly about the 1930’s, it takes a while to get to Johnny Cash (1960’s.) It says he would stay at the home of June Carter’s parents in Nashville and he was a mess. But they were afraid to turn him away because they had not been able to save Hank Williams so they wanted to try and help Johnny if possible. Finally, love won out in 1967 when he got free of addictions with their help, and Johnny went on to bring up the Carters along with him in a restored music career.


    • Wow, how interesting Valarie. Yeah, I’d love to hear more about his life. You watch snippets of it through that video for the song “Hurt,” and well, I can’t say much more…seems there are lots of snakes and spiders in that there closet of his. I didn’t know he went free of addictions in 67. Seems that would be a good time to do it. Anytime’s a good time.

      Nice to hear from you and hope you’re well! I’m going to turn off this stupid machine and go outside now while the birds are singing, etc. Best, – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

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