I hurt myself today. To see if I still feel.
It’s such an unbelievable collision. Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, the American symbol of country music, the icon of strength, and a song by alternate rockers Nine Inch Nails. Such a simple song too, with flat, direct lyrics set to an ironed out melody, but the outcome is something of almost infinite strength and terror. Trent Reznor’s song is about addiction, about heroin, about the point at which you become so hollowed out that pain is needed to test that you can still feel something, anything. And it’s about recognition that by taking yourself to this extreme, the hurt you cannot feel is the same hurt that you have visited on those around you, who love you.
I heard about the song through its video, watched it out of curiosity, was overwhelmed by its visceral power, built upon Cash’s obvious age and fragility. Until relatively recently, I only played the video, that accumulation of stillness and normality that makes the music the starker for its lack of adornment.
But the song is no less powerful when you only listen to it. It grows, it swells, it compresses the chest, it slows the heart as it builds through that simple chorus, underscored by the pulsing piano chords, until your heart races with desperation and your own body is drained, and you are shaking and desperate for it to stop and desperately afraid that it won’t.
Cash doesn’t just sing the lyrics, he inhabits them, as if they are the newly-coined words of a man speaking from all the length of his life, not merely regretting, but knowing that the pain he has caused can never been undone, can never be forgiven, least of all by himself. June Carter Cash looks on in the video, willing him the strength to last, unable to do anything but love, untouching, as the song ends, the piano lid comes down carefully, and Cash slumps.
This is astonishing. One leaves it changed.
I have never heard the original version. With respect to Trent Reznor and his band, I propose never to. This isn’t a song. In Cash’s mouth it traverses a Universe in just over three minutes. It is a Universe. It scares me.