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The art of dying

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, December 2, 2005

It is sometimes said that the English care more about animals than people. The evidence suggests however that it’s only furry animals we care about more than people.

Sir Paul McCartney recently announced that he would never perform in China because he had learnt about the barbaric cruelty of the Chinese fur trade, which includes trafficking in fur from cats and dogs. Now I consider myself as much of a cat-lover as a man can be without compromising his rugged machismo, but China is a communist state in which both female infanticide and child labor are widespread and in which citizens lack many of the most basic political freedoms. The fact that it took a PETA documentary about the terrible things they do to cats and dogs over there to spark McCartney’s outrage suggests a rather blasé attitude to all the terrible things done to the Chinese people. The former Beatle is now in his 60s and well past the point at which idealism unconstrained by anything resembling a sense of perspective is endearing.

When John Lennon was shot in 1980 his early death ensured that his myth would be preserved intact. I am not old enough to remember Lennon’s assassination, but I vividly recall Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, which sent shockwaves of sorrow through my contemporaries. Many of them called it a tragedy. Even at the time it struck me that there was something bogus and self-deceived about their mourning. Not that the sorrow wasn’t genuine, but on some level Cobain’s fans had always needed more from him than his music; they needed him to die.

When your heart is broken, it feels as if your whole self splits in two. Part of you just wants the pain to go away, but another part feels that to ever recover from it would amount to a kind of betrayal by your future self. Angst-ridden teenagers often experience a similar phenomenon, and the fear that their sense of alienation and despair may indeed be “just a phase” as their (impossibly-old) parents keep telling them, they are driven to identify with figures like Cobain for whom the same feelings seemed to remain raw and strong into adulthood. The sad truth is that if your emotional appeal rests on your status as the embodiment of teenage angst then sooner or later you have to kill yourself just to prove that you really mean it. Eventually even staying alive would be selling out.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has been making dark, angst-ridden music for over 15 years. His debut album was released in the same year as Nirvana’s Bleach and he’s still producing albums full or rage and despair, set against the kind of sounds that suggest that he’s playing the guitar with a dentist’s drill instead of a plectrum. But these days it feels fake; sure, Reznor may really be feeling angry and alienated, but by now those feelings are just part of his job description.

An artist whose authenticity has never been in doubt is Johnny Cash. The son of a cotton farmer, in 1955 Cash auditioned for Sun Records as part of a gospel act, but was offered a contract singing country music in which he was told he had a future. Cash took the advice and the contract, and in the fall of 1969 he outsold the Beatles.

The recent film Walk the Line deals with the early part of Cash’s life, his struggle with alcohol and painkillers, and his legendary romance and marriage to June Carter, while lopping the story to fit the Procrustean conventions of the biopic genre. But personally, it’s the last part of Cash’s life that interests me most.

In 2002 Johnny Cash released the fourth and final volume of the American Recordings series that he began almost a decade before with the producer Rick Rubin. The album contained an extraordinary cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” The song was inevitably overplayed, and film and television producers quickly adopted it as the new track to use whenever they needed to create a moment of guaranteed pathos but couldn’t trust their plot and actors to get there on their own (before “Hurt” came along Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was the most-overused for this purpose).

The vocals for “Hurt” were recorded dry (without digital effects or augmentation), which is almost unheard of in modern music production. As a result the weaknesses of Cash’s voice are starkly displayed, as he intended. What would be the point of pretending he could still sing like he did when he played San Quentin? No, the song is meant to show without disguise or artifice what an old, diabetic man sounds like. On the video, in which his ravaged, crumpling face is interspersed with footage from his life and shots, the lyrics (written by Reznor when he was barely in his twenties) are made to sound like something from Ecclesiastes.

You have probably seen the video, which won countless awards. But it’s less likely that you have heard the final album, The Man Comes Around. I suggest you do, not for the recording of “Hurt,” but for the very last track, Cash’s rendition of “We’ll Meet Again.” That’s not a gospel song of course, but when it’s sung joyfully and even a little playfully by a dying man with a cracked voice, it becomes one.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department who was dressing like Johnny Cash before he even heard of him. He would like to express his thanks to Douglas Ayling, his research assistant. Peter can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.