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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

I come to Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" in my own time of pain

It's a powerful reminder of the wide-ranging consequences of not taking care of oneself.

I'm... not in an ideal headspace as I write tonight, especially given the joyful time of year this ought to be.

I'll be the first to admit that the pain I internally feel is largely my own doing. I've been the cause of unnecessary issues at home, and while other members of my family are able to let those happenings go after apologies and discussion, I have always had a very hard time doing the same.

I'm not acting out against myself as much as I used to, but I still consider my inability to let things go very damaging and bordering on a form of self-harm with what it does to my mental state. All of my emotions about tonight and past occurrences have led me to channel my inner pain through listening to Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," a deeply personal song considering my tendencies and its grappling with the aftermath of harming oneself, as well as the impact those actions have on others.

In its original form, "Hurt" is the chilling finale to Nine Inch Nails' 1994 album The Downward Spiral. Trent Reznor's largely fragile vocals against an industrial backing make for an emotional close to a record that sonically depicts a man's emotional descent and ultimate self-destruction. While Reznor was 28 upon the release of The Downward Spiral, Cash covered "Hurt" at the end of his life; his rendition was released on his final album released in his lifetime, a Rick Rubin-produced cover album titled American IV: The Man Comes Around. His arrangement is gentler, with the dissonance in Reznor's original replaced with consonant acoustic guitar chords and with its chorus driven by piano — played by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, respectively.

More than the instrumental changes, though, Cash's cover draws its emotion from his vocal performance. The fragility in Cash's singing comes from the effects of aging and the hard life he lived, accelerated by addiction to alcohol and amphetamines. It comes from a place of knowing he is near death, a feeling which certainly comes across in both the music and the accompanying Mark Romanek-directed video, which features his former home in disrepair — a painful setting for a painful recording.

I don't remember when I first heard "Hurt," but I do know I first heard it through this video, and I likely began crying when Cash sang the first lines: "I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel." Given my history of self-harm, as I previously discussed in my article on "Dark Necessities," these lyrics are particularly profound and difficult for me to hear coming from someone very clearly near the end of their life. After I lash out at myself in the wake of causing pain to others, I rarely stop to think of how my pattern of damage to my own body will manifest in my later life. Hearing Cash softly singing about hurting himself at age 70 gets me to think about my own future and how, if I want to see it in better health, I need to start taking better care of myself sooner rather than later — and first and foremost, I need to stop myself from doing things that (cause me to want to) hurt myself. Otherwise, I'll only regret my earlier behaviors if I have the wherewithal at that age to understand just what I've done.

Such regret is palpable during the chorus, when Cash asks, "What have I become / My sweetest friend?" It's only in the aftermath of our poorest behaviors that we can truly understand the damage we have done to those we love. The expression may be that time heals all wounds, but I offer two rebuttals to that saying. Firstly, I often find that is not the case for me, considering the memory I have and how I have a pattern of remembering the worst moments rather than the best ones. Secondly, in the immediate aftermath of an argument or event, time only opens up the fresh wounds as one inspects them and realizes the extent of the damage they have dealt. Even though Cash's version of "Hurt" in particular deals with the longer-term effects of neglecting and hurting oneself, I can't help but escape the present moment when I listen to it following a bout of damaging behavior. Even worse is my expectation for the behavior to repeat itself, making the final two lines of the chorus all the more painful: "I will let you down / I will make you hurt."

...And yet, I still sometimes feel hopeful when the track comes to an end. Whereas the Man in Black was nearing his deathbed, I (God willing) am far from that at age 21. As such, I can mentally the outro lyrics that speak to what the narrator "would" do if they had the ability to "start again," because I have the time to turn things around. I can "keep myself" and prevent these painful cycles of behavior for the sake of everyone around me. I can "find a way" through the darkness if I put myself to the task. I may not be able to change the past, but I certainly have the ability to prevent past behaviors from resurfacing. That's what "Hurt" inspires me to do, because it's a stark representation of the consequences of unchecked behaviors.


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