In Other Words: Trent Reznor
Industrial heavyweight delivers a eulogy for a country legend
By ANTHONY DECURTIS for Rolling Stone on June 7, 2005
When Johnny Cash first told me he was recording the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt," I was immediately struck by how brilliant that was. "When I heard that song, I thought, 'That sounds like something I could've written in the Sixties,'" Cash said about the original version. "There's more heart and soul and pain in that song than any that's come along in a long time. I love it." Cash then took Trent Reznor's tortured rendering of the agony of addiction and transformed it into a stunning meditation on mortality itself.
Then came Mark Romanek's video. Cash, withered by his illness, bravely allowed himself to be shown exactly as he looked, juxtaposed with images of him as a young man that bristle with virility and life. It is a stunning statement of his artistic integrity and his commitment to the truth.
When I wrote Cash's obituary for Rolling Stone, I wanted to speak with Reznor about Cash's interpretation of the song and Romanek's video. Even though the video had attracted a huge amount of attention -- earning seven nominations at MTV's Video Music Awards and winning one -- Reznor had not publicly spoken about it. I knew that he would have something powerful to say, and he did.
In "In Other Words", a longer version of this interview appears in a section called "Cash Family Values," that also includes interviews with Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, Bono and Tom Petty.
How did you first find out that Johnny Cash wanted to record "Hurt"?
I've been friends with Rick Rubin for quite a while, and he asked me how I would feel about Johnny Cash doing one of my songs. I thought, "Wow," because my songs have been my therapy, a vehicle for me to keep sane. I've never really thought about writing songs for other people, and I've never tried to pitch my songs to people. And that song in particular came from a pretty private, personal place. So it seemed, well, like that's my song.
Johnny Cash had always been this mysterious figure to me. My grandfather had listened to him. I'd never paid that much attention to him. But he was one of the few greats left, a real individual persona.
Rick sent me a CD of it. I listened to it, and it seemed incredibly strange and wrong to me to hear that voice with my song. I thought, "Here's this thing that I wrote in my bedroom in a moment of frailty, and now Johnny Cash is singing it." It kind of freaked me out.
Did you say any of that to Rick?
Rick asked what I thought, and I said, "You did a very tasteful job with it" - which I did think and do think. It was a big juxtaposition for me to hear it as someone else's song now. It instantly became his song after that.
Then I heard that Mark was campaigning to do a video for it. If I had to list the people that I had the most respect for in the music business, Mark and Rick would be on that list. I saw the video and it took my breath away. Immediately my throat had a lump in it, and at that point, it really struck home. It was heartbreaking. I had goosebumps, which I have right now even thinking about it. It became really inspiring to me.
What did you find inspiring about it?
It reminded me of the power of music. Something that I made in my room, that came out of my little private backyard -- to have an icon like Johnny Cash juxtapose it into something that now, especially with the aid of that video, gives it a whole different set of scenery and a backdrop and a context to listen to it in. It works. And it probably works better than my version.
I was sad about the context with Johnny, but I felt honored to be a part of it. I spoke with Mark about this the other day, when I heard that he died. This artist deserves and demands respect from a new generation that wasn't that aware of him. It's nice that we were able to present him to a new world of fans, even though, unfortunately, it's the end of his life. The MTV exposure, even though they were cowards to not give him the awards he deserved, might open a lot of people up who weren't that aware of Johnny Cash, or of his importance. I felt honored to have been involved in that in any way, but I'm sad that it's a eulogy almost.
When you say it felt "wrong," what felt wrong about it to you?
It felt invasive. It was my child. It was like I was building a home, and someone else moved into it. When I write a song, I'm only considering myself as the one narrating it. It's my voice. So it did seem very odd at first. Also, as soon as you hear his voice, you go, "That's Johnny Cash." How fucking weird is that? Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would write a song that Johnny Cash wanted to sing. I never thought that our paths would intersect.
How has all this affected your own relationship to "Hurt"?
I haven't listened to my version since then. I've been so proud of what they've done with it that I haven't thought that much about it. I'm over my initial shock, and I realize that's what music's all about. I've thrown some things in the pot, and now it's turned into something else. It's a pretty powerful thing.