June Carter Cash appears afraid that her husband is going to upset himself or that he will need his medication. Her eyes are keen and frightened. His are rheumy, so light they look clear. His ridged cheekbones now suggest a stripped skull. His nose has eroded. This is Johnny Cash at 70, in the video for “Hurt” (VH1, MTV2), the dirge by Nine Inch Nails that Cash has brought back to life.
The song may also have brought Cash back to life. Long in purgatory, Cash has begun to appear in Nashville again. He has opened his doors to cameramen. The video opens on a Greek figure in bronze, possibly Laocoön, whose eyes are rolled back; he looks pious and desolate at the same time. He is part of Cash’s household, one jammed with bounty—a broad cornucopia of meat and shellfish on which Cash will pour his wine. And later, Christ will appear, first in a commonplace painting, possibly a Warner Sallman, and then in a flickering re-creation of the Crucifixion, at which a crowd—a crowd from a long-ago Cash concert—cheers as nails are hit.
The voice of sorrows has lasted. At the head of a heavy table, Cash delivers “Hurt” in the voice of a heartbroken patriarch, occasionally gesturing abruptly, as if dismissing ghosts. He appears once convulsed in sobs, and some of what hurts, it seems, is memories (“I remember everything”), though the director, Mark Romanek, can only guess which ones in archival footage. Dancing with June? Cash sings, “I will let you down.” Winking at fans? Playing San Quentin? That gold album, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, framed, is smashed, part of the neglected memorabilia at the House of Cash Museum in Hendersonville, Tenn. According to a sign, the House of Cash is now closed to the public.
You may well scoff at Christian kitsch, but be on the lookout for “Hurt”; the video is loosely and beautifully made, and, by running the stark song up against set pieces and still-lifes of trinkets, it manages to make perishing kitsch stand in for end-of-life regrets. The song contains the word “focus”; it contains the word “hole.” Cash has “hole” down—it’s a country word, his frown hardly splits to say it—but “focus,” as in, “I focus on the pain,” is a conspicuous trace of the hi-fi songwriter Trent Reznor. In Cash’s awkwardness with the word, he shows a hint of loathing for the song, whose theme is self-loathing. Cash plays the song on the guitar, with mounting panic from the piano. Today is his birthday.