The three-day shoot for the video was about to wrap, and director Mark Romanek needed just one more shot from his singer star, Johnny Cash. As Romanek recalls, "I said to John, 'This is the last take. So if you want to get angry or smash something up, this is your last chance.'" Cash didn't get it. He thought Romanek meant this would be the final shot in the ailing star's life, so he had better make it good. Cash wouldn't, couldn't surrender to such defeatism. "I hope it's not the last take," he said in that baritone growl, which for nearly a half-century brought matters of death to musical life.
When Cash did the video for Hurt last year, he was hurting. Indeed, for 15 years he had been in near constant pain. Decades of drug dependency, since conquered, had sapped him. So had heart surgery, diabetes and the medication he took in 1998 for Shy-Drager syndrome, a fatal neurological disease. (The diagnosis was incorrect, and Cash weaned himself from the medication.) Failing eyesight made it difficult for him to read his beloved books on Roman and early Christian history. A dentist, tending to Cash's teeth problems, had broken his jaw and never fixed it properly, the singer once said. Cash was then told he could have surgery, which might end his singing career, or take pain-killers, which could retrigger his drug addition. He chose instead to live with the pain--all of it. "He told me that the only time he didn't feel pain," says author Charles Hirshberg, who spent much time with Cash in his last years, "was when he was onstage."
Moreover, the song Cash had to enact, by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, is an intense cry of pain dished out and taken--a dirge for a life misspent in rancor. "The facet of John that it explores is serious, somber and angry," Romanek notes. "But between takes, the John Cash I saw was someone more active and sprightly than he looks in the video." When Romanek asked the singer's wife June Carter Cash if she would appear briefly in the video, the Man in Black puckishly suggested, "Yeah, honey, why don't you dance naked on the piano here while I'm playing?" The room roared.
"I can't go on, I'll go on," wrote Samuel Beckett, whose plays and novels are no more depressing than your average country lament. John R. Cash (his first producer, Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, dubbed him Johnny) had every right to sing the country blues. Demons found him even when he wasn't looking for them. He dressed like a hip coroner and sang like a gunman turned Pentecostal preacher. His haunting songs perfectly matched his haunted voice. Rarely before Cash had a singer taken vocal pain--not the adolescent shriek of most rock singers but the abiding ache of a veteran victim--and made it so audible, so immediate, so dark and deep. Rarely, before or since, has a voice also shown the grit to express, endure and outlive that misery. His songs played like confessions on a deathbed or death row, but he delivered them with the plangent stoicism of a world-class poker player dealt a bum hand.