Johnny Cash could sweep MTV Awards
NEW YORK — This week’s MTV Video Music Awards, celebrating a medium that usually oozes youth and invincibility, would seem like the last place to celebrate a somber video with a frail, 71-year-old Johnny Cash.
Yet the extraordinary clip for “Hurt” — one that its creator feared would never be seen on television– is up for six awards, making Cash third only to Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake in nominations.
The country legend, who suffers from the nervous system disease autonomic neuropathy, has been working with doctors in the hope of traveling to New York for the show.
“He’s planning on it,” said singer Rosanne Cash, his daughter.
The video depicts a white-haired Cash, his gnarled hands occasionally shaking, in his home singing a song popularized by the rock band Nine Inch Nails. The images are interspersed with clips of a younger, more vital Cash.
The wrenching song is about the damage done by a life of drug abuse. “What have I become?” he sings. “My sweetest friend. Everyone I know goes away in the end.”
A camera cuts to a picture of Cash’s late mother on the wall of his Tennessee home after he sings the lyric.
The video is made even more heartbreaking in retrospect by the presence of Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, who looks at her husband with a mixture of pride and concern. She died on June 12, a few months after filming.
Warned by her sister that it may be tough to watch, Rosanne Cash avoided popping the video in her VCR. On a visit to Tennessee, her father asked if she had seen it.
“I watched it with him and June and I was weeping and weeping through the whole thing,” she said. “My dad was completely clear-eyed and focused on the merits of the video, which is so much like him. He’s able to focus on the most awful truths with an artist’s eye.”
It was only through director Mark Romanek’s nagging that the video was even made.
A Cash fan, Romanek begged producer Rick Rubin for years to make a video of his hero. He and Rubin expected no airplay. They figured they would sell copies in stores.
Memorable music videos are much rarer now than when MTV started the Video Music Awards in 1984. MTV plays videos infrequently and outlets like MTV2 and Fuse don’t have the same cultural impact.
“If you watch what’s on MTV, you don’t see anything like this,” Rubin said. “You won’t see anything from any artist in Johnny’s age range and you won’t see anything with this kind of serious content. It really sticks out like a sore thumb.”
MTV won’t say how many times the video actually aired on the network; Rubin said he’s heard it was played six times — one for each video music award nomination.
It has, however, gotten much more exposure than Romanek expected on outlets like CMT and MTV2.
Romanek’s original idea was to film Cash on a Los Angeles soundstage packed with memorabilia from the singer’s career. The artifacts would gradually disappear until Cash appeared alone at the song’s end.
Yet Cash wasn’t healthy enough to make the trip, so the director brought his crew to Cash’s home, not knowing what he’d find. One stroke of luck was finding the shuttered and decaying House of Cash Museum five minutes from the singer’s home. It was used in the video, too.
He never expected to make such a powerful reflection on aging and mortality.
“You really get an inside feeling of the human experience of growing up in a family and all the trials and tribulations that come up for everyone,” Rubin said. “It’s such a common thing but it’s so rarely touched upon.”
The veteran producer, a pioneer in rap music who has helped Cash to a creative rebirth with a series of intimate recordings, said he’s heard more people talking about the video than anything he’d ever worked on.
“If you were moved to that kind of emotion in the course of a two-hour movie, it would be a great accomplishment,” he said. “To do it in a four-minute music video is shocking.”
Romanek said that as a fan, he’s always appreciated the candor in Cash’s music and thought the video should reflect that.
“I certainly didn’t want the piece to appear like a premature obituary,” he said. “That wasn’t the intention, and I hope the piece doesn’t come across that way.”
Cash may have been clear-eyed when watching with Rosanne, but was quite taken aback when he first saw it, Rubin said. It was only with his family’s encouragement that he agreed to release it.
Now, he said, Cash is quite proud and excited that it has gotten recognition.
Tom Calderone, MTV’s executive vice president of music and talent, is hoping to see Cash at Thursday’s awards show. He’ll provide some heft for an event that even Calderone admits usually has its share of here-today-gone-tomorrow artists.
“Back in the day, he had edge,” Calderone said. “He was kind of a rebel.”
Cash continues to work despite his health problems and the emotional blow of becoming a widower. He and Rubin are recording their fifth disc together, and are also preparing a box set of unreleased material from their sessions over the past decade.
Romanek said he doesn’t want his video confused with real life. Cash’s life isn’t that bleak, he said.
“It’s a very somber song, but when we yelled ‘cut,’ there was a very different Johnny Cash that emerged, who was a lot more lively and a lot more sprightly and funny and frisky with June. (He was) having a good time.”
Johnny Cash could sweep MTV Awards