Hurt is a song written by US band Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and released on the album The Downward Spiral (1994). Johnny Cash recorded a critically acclaimed cover version in 2002, which was released as a single in March 2003, just 6 months before his death. It is Reznor’s most personal and reputedly his favourite song and was written in the Los Angeles house where the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate, where Reznor was living at that time.
“Interestingly enough, when I wrote the song I had no idea what was in store for me. I wrote the album about somebody who follows this path who was an extension of me. But it was in my head. I hadn’t actually lived it. Then later I lived it. I didn’t realise the record was a premonition. I was using the metaphor of drugs at the forefront of what was going on. But I wasn’t a junkie. Later I became one, but I didn’t know there was an addict in me that just hadn’t bloomed out of the dirt yet.”
Johnny Cash’s version was accompanied by an extremely emotional video (ranked the greatest music video of all time by NME), in which we see a very frail Cash and his wife June Carter in the broken-down House of Cash Museum in Tennessee (once Cash’s home for 30 years), the final lines of the song matching perfectly the scene unfolding before us: “You could have it all, My empire of dirt, I will let you down, I will make you hurt, If I could start again, A million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way.” June died three months after the video was made, Johnny following her a few months later; the house was destroyed by fire four years later.
Reznor was greatly moved by Cash’s version of his song: “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.” There is much debate about which version is strongest; both received critical and commercial success. The two versions of the song are powerful, haunting and deeply felt meditations on life and suffering. Cash’s version changes the original line “Crown of shit” to “Crown of thorns” to reflect his Christian beliefs, but otherwise the lyrics remain the same – nevertheless, the songs are remarkably distinct. Reznor’s a sort of post-adolescent expression of isolation and disgust, Cash’s a richer, complex mix of pain, regret and more happy memories from a life lived to the full.
The artists included in this exhibition present artwork in response to their reading of the song: Basil Beattie, Lawrence Carroll, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Patrick Graham, Catherine Lee, Alice Maher, Michael Warren