July 31 – The Turntable Talk, Round 5 : Reznor, Rubin Didn’t ‘Hurt’ Johnny’s Rep

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! By now, if you’re a regular reader here – and if you are, thank you, I appreciate your time here – you know how this runs. We’ve invited several interesting and talented music writers to sound off on the same topic. In the past we’ve looked at topics like why the Beatles are still relevant, whether MTV and the video sensation helped or harmed music and great debut records which took them by surprise. This time around, it’s “Cover Me”. Much of what we hear and love is songs which aren’t original to the artists we hear. So we’re asking what makes a great cover song? Are there any that stand out as being very good, or even better than the original? (I add that we’re restricting this to cover songs in which the original was fairly popular or well-known. Thus ones which are cover songs but where the original was obscure, like perhaps The Clique’s “Superman,” made a hit by R.E.M., wouldn’t be counted.)

Today, we have Max from the Power Pop Blog. He’s taking a bit of a summer break there this month, but usually he’s posting stories of great tunes from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, as well as thoughts on TV, movies and more there daily. He isn’t alone in thinking a legend took a ’90s alt rock hit to a new level:

Trent Reznor: “That song isn’t mine anymore”

A good cover song needs to be somewhat faithful to the original but not an exact replica as in Todd Rundgren’s “Good Vibrations”. Rarely do I hear a cover song that transcends the original in popular culture. Jimi Hendrix did the trick with Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watch Tower” and Dylan does it in Jimi’s style even today. Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” adds a different layer to the song…and it works. 

Hurt” written by Trent Reznor seemed unlikely to be covered by Johnny Cash. The producer Rick Rubin convinced Cash to give it a shot and it worked. Johnny was a different kind of artist. There are only a few that can cross genres so easily. I think Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash belong in that category.

The song was born in a house that at one moment in time… was a real house of horrors. Trent Reznor, the singer of Nine Inch Nails, moved into a rented house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles. Nine Inch Nails recorded the EP Broken and The Downward Spiral album in that house. “Hurt” was on the later album.

The house was no other than Sharon Tate’s old home where Manson’s followers murdered Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steve Parent in 1969. After Reznor met Sharon Tate’s sister…he realized he didn’t want to be looked at like he was endorsing serial killers, so he moved out. “When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, ‘What if it was my sister?’ I thought, ‘F— Charlie Manson.’ I don’t want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bull—-.” Reznor moved out soon after that, but he did take the front door. It was demolished soon after.

The song deals with addiction struggles and isolation but in the hands of Cash it changes but remains true. This is the one song where I say…watch the video also. I don’t say that often, but it adds to Cash’s story. The video was shot in February of 2003. June Cash would die in May and Johnny would die in September. Cash conveys the agony of deteriorating in the song. Movie Director Mark Romanek’s video showed the museum “House of Cash” that had been closed for awhile and was in a state of advanced dereliction to parallel the state of Cash.

It’s a painful video to watch but it’s as close to a work of art as a video can be.

Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers play on the track.  

Trent Reznor: “I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. Somehow that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”

Trent Reznor: “I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, what I had written in my diary was now superimposed on the life of this icon and sung so beautifully and emotionally. It was a reminder of what an important medium music is. Goosebumps up the spine. It really made sense. I thought: ‘What a powerful piece of art.’ I never got to meet Johnny, but I’m happy I contributed in the way I did. It wasn’t my song anymore.”



27 thoughts on “July 31 – The Turntable Talk, Round 5 : Reznor, Rubin Didn’t ‘Hurt’ Johnny’s Rep

  1. thanks Max, I think this is a great one too, and kudos to Trent Reznor for admitting it. Can’t go wrong with the Man In Black! Did you ever get a chance to go to that museum? Hoping your summer “holiday” is going fine so far

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I once passed by a place that was allegedly a “Neil Young museum” in Ontario but never stopped. It didn’t look like much, but it might have been an interesting half-hour or whatever it took.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember how I felt the first time seeing and hearing Johnny do this song and what a profound impact it had. I’d never heard the original by Trent and so no comparisons. It stood on its own and it was clear that Johnny was more than just singing some words. He was directly communicating/communing his truth to the audience (as well as June did, wordlessly.) No idea that June would pass so quickly after and then Johnny after her. It gives that much more meaning to the tune. And where it was filmed, wow. Good choice and great write-up, Max.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Badfinger (Max)

      Thanks Lisa… when i heard and saw the video… I was knocked out. I didn’t know it was a cover at the time either… it sounds like Cash wrote this for his last days.
      I do like the Nine Inch Nail version also but… it doesn’t have the power of this.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I knew the song pretty well already from the NIN original… I wouldn’t say I was a fan of theirs but I heard them quite a bit on radio and from one or two friends, and this seemed one of their more palatable tunes. But Johnny really captured the bones of the song and elevated it… though it’s not a mood-raiser!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. loudhorizon

    Yeah – I think the video plays an integral part in Cash’s version of this song. as you know, I don’t really ‘do’ slow songs, but this was so powerful. (Didn’t know it was a Trent Reznor song. Nice one. 0 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. It is hard NOT to think of this song when you talk about cover songs. It truly is the perfect example of a song that gained new life by a new interpretation.

    This song is now essential Johnny Cash listening!! The video is powerful. I almost didn’t watch it when it came out because he looks so frail in it, but it is powerful.

    While I am familiar with the group, I’ve never really heard anything by the Nine Inch Nails I cared for. When I heard that Johnny had done a cover, I was immediately interested. Something about the song must have struck a chord with him. A perfect “final now” if you will for him.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Badfinger (Max)

      Yea I think “powerful” describes it. He changed the interpretation of it completely. The original is not bad…it’s really not but this one…will to me always be his goodbye.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Agreed.
      NIN were big in Toronto in the 90s so I heard quite a bit of their stuff. some of it I thought was quite decent, but still rarely my cuppa tea. Odd thing is one radio type I know, whose tastes and opinions I tend to agree with absolutely loves them. He wrote the book on them – literally! I never quite got that, but that’s what makes music great (or one thing of many)… different acts will be received totally differently by different people, sometimes in unexpected ways.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. he definitely did! Like Max suggests, he had an extremely rare ability to appeal to a wide swath of society- different generations, different races, different music genre fans. Part of that was being smart enough to keep an open mind. He listened to people like Rick Rubin and listened to acts like Depeche Mode you’d never “expect” him to give an ear to, let alone record.


  5. Pingback: Johnny Cash – Hurt – PowerPop… An Eclectic Collection of Pop Culture

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