The motorway section of the drive home was the usual mental tug of war between boredom and concentration, as the smudge of movement smeared the other cars into an impressionistic blur. The traffic evacuated its pollutants in a thick fug that beat an ugly tattoo upon the twinkling September evening. The rape fields glowed in the dimming light, backlit by a child’s sunset. The dark silhouette of a hawk hovered over a broken fence at the motorway’s edge. The anonymous avian predator prepared to dive like a divine wind upon its intended prey, a prey oblivious to the proximity of death. I watched like a voyeur as this little drama of life and death unfolded, till a man on the radio told me: “Johnny Cash has died.”
My heart plummeted into a bottomless pit of sorrow. Even though I had never met him, I felt I knew him: I loved his music, I loved the way he wore black for the poor and the hungry, I loved the humble giant who had recently found a new young audience, as he gave their songs the “Cash treatment”. Perhaps most compelling and profound of these, was his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt and the astonishing video that accompanies it. One I had watched hundreds of times in maudlin admiration. I put it on an endless loop in my mind’s eye and finished my journey.
As the music starts the first thing you see are two gnarled hands, petrified by arthritis, barely able to play the pair of simple chords that define the mournful musical motif that runs through the song, till the voice comes in. Not ‘a ‘ voice. ‘The’ voice. The voice from my youth that made me smile with its tale of A Boy Named Sue, the voice that stuck in my head as I furtively listened to Radio Luxemburg as late night curfews past, valves squealed and the voice told me about A Burning Ring Of Fire. The voice from adulthood that sang Solitary Man, just for me, as I became a solitary man, sitting alone, contemplating how wedding vows turn into solicitors’ letters with agonising inevitability. The voice is now more expressive than ever, beautiful, but broken, resonating with a fractured, trembling, vulnerability. The voice that raised cheers in Folsom Prison when it told them “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”, is now telling how “I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real”. The voice now sounds like the one I’d expect God to speak in, if he’d just witnessed the end of the world.
Then we see his head, the once rugged profile fit for Mount Rushmore, has been subjected to time’s vicious corrosion, pitifully decayed, like a wax sculpture left for too long in the sun. His features distorted and bulbous, eyes watery and distant. Should we miss the point, the video cuts to: Cash on the footplate of a locomotive, Cash as a gunfighter, Cash as a father, Cash as an icon of American masculine virility. Then back to Cash bearing his soul with a visceral honesty, showing us that that death’s fetid breath is breathing upon the nape of his neck, as he stoically faces the inevitability of his fast approaching demise. Yet still doing what he does best, using this song of addiction and turning it into an elegy to absolute loss, somehow finding a poignant beauty in the despair. “Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you could have it all, my empire of dirt” The voice fills the words with unbearable pathos as distant piano chords stomp in the background like they are ascending the steps to a gallows. As they fade to silence we see him close the piano lid and run his hands over it, as if saying a final goodbye to his lover.
Before I got home I stopped at the off license, a long night of listening lay ahead, and I was going to need a bottle of Kentucky’s finest as I said goodbye to Tennessee’s finest. I passed over my debit card and smiled wryly as the young man behind the counter innocently asked: “do want Cash back with that?”
Video link below: