It seems to be a new feature, borne of these viral times, that I find a song to listen to—and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it.
For the most part, this behavior is benign. It's just a song that I remember from the 90s. It's just a song that I remember from the radio that was released before I was. I mean—it's just a song, and there's no slippery slope into the abyss.
It's not always the case, though, right? All music is sound. Some of that sound digs into some emotion. Some of those emotions are connected to a root nerve that convulses when it's touched. It can't be helped.
I don't remember how this got started, but I've been listening to Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"—and watching it, too. If you listen to it, you'll hurt enough. If you watch it, you'll hurt all the way.
For me, "Hurt" was a minor song on The Downward Spiral. The disturbance in the right channel was a distraction, the last two or so minutes of noise was an indulgence. Besides, the album has "Closer" and "March of the Pigs", and, frankly, you could hit the square stop button before it got to "Hurt" with nothing lost. When you're younger, at least, before the scars feel more like persistent aches than proud markers of having lived a life.
I don't know what heroin addiction is like. I don't know what Trent Reznor's problems were like. There are enough interviews out there, if you search for them, that answer enough of the questions that you might have, if you have them. I don't have any. I don't want to know. Let him have his problems. Let me have mine. I don't think of those problems specifically when I hear these songs, but the weight is there, and the muscles in my body tense as though even they know it's time to jump for something higher, to reach for something else—for Something Else.
Are there any other original/cover duos that manage to exist together with such effect as the Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash versions of "Hurt"? Maybe—there's probably some Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen masterwork out there that I'm forgetting. But, damn—the regret that drips off of these two versions of "Hurt"... There's Trent Reznor's apologetic offering on one side, Johnny Cash's broken nostalgia on the other.
I'm trying to think of another song that gets me as close to tears as Johnny Cash's "Hurt". I had one earlier but it's escaping me now. I keep listening to Cash's version, knowing that he's only got a few months left in the world after the video, and it throws a bucket of cold water over every other thought. I don't think a man could write a final chapter of his life like that if he wanted to—it just has to happen, and be like that.
What have I become / My sweetest friend? / Everyone I know / Goes away in the end / You can have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt
You know... some dust in my eye... just a second...
I don't know what heroin addiction is like. And I'm not interested, really. I don't need any encouragement to stay away, but Trent Reznor's "Hurt" is enough of a straightarm to stay away—the song drips regret for having fallen into that hole, for having gone that direction, for having been that person. That song really does hurt. And, listening to it 25 years later, the persistent scratchy noise in the background seems less like a kitschy feature and more like an honest reporting of what it's like to live with that flavor of regret—and when that distorted guitar rips in after...
If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way
...you can hold both the regret and the possibility of redemption in your hands—even if the mass of the regret hand far outweighs the redemption hand.
But when Johnny Cash sings it, and the video zooms in when he closes the fallboard at the end... that's it.
2020... If we're going to have to live in isolation while the virus does what it does, I don't know if I can keep listening to songs like this. It's a weight to lug around. But these songs keep rising out of the background to find me. And once they find me they follow me around until another song finds me, then they compete among themselves for the privilege of following me around. The upshot of this is that I get to become more familiar and acquainted with a few songs while we walk together about the house—upstairs and downstairs and sitting and standing and so on. But why, in this neverending day, can't it be something light and sparkling. Let us all deal with our addictions and darkness later when there are more options to deal with them—who can we even offer our empire of dirt to at this point?