Songs of Our Lives: Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy”
It’d be a stretch to say that Johnny Cash and Iggy Pop are connected in any meaningful way. Both are patron saints of The Holy Order of White Dudes With Guitars, sure, and drugs, but that’s about it. They’re forever glued together in my mind, tied together by my putting a razor blade to my neck when I was 16.
It wasn’t because of Johnny Cash or Iggy that I did what I did; I’ll get that out of the way right now. I was 16 and didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in my own mind. I imagine that’s a common trait among everyone who is 16. Like the Italian noble convinced the world had to be flat, I’d spend an inordinate time after high school tearing down established fact. I knew I had ADHD when in reality I had Asperger’s, I knew I was hopelessly addicted to masturbation when in fact I was just 16. But above all, I knew that I was dead to the world, that I’d never feel anything. I often imagined myself as a cold, practically dead body, floating down a river until I actually died. After the razor blade I’d be diagnosed with clinical depression, but before that, the only real kicks I got were out of listening to The Stooges Raw Power.
That’s an oversimplification, of course: I listened to other music in 2002. But somehow, thinking about The Vines doesn’t conjure as powerful memories as coming home from yeshiva and blasting “Search and Destroy,” the original testosterone blast from Hell. “I’m a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm!”, it begins. What does that even mean? It’s insane, it’s horrifying, and when James Osterberg brings it to your attention, you know it’s true. It switches between desperate cries for help and endless machismo, the type of things that would later mark the best Black Flag songs. And on top of that add a boa constrictor guitar, one that paralyzes and strangles you until you’re just left with twitching, unable to comprehend anything that isn’t James Williamson owning your soul. I’d put on headphones and stare at myself in the bathroom full-length mirror, pacing back and forth while silently mouthing the lyrics, hitting my chest in the faint hopes that the pure rage of the song could wake me up somehow, make me alive again.
When that didn’t work, I’d put on Johnny Cash. As American IV’s name suggests, it was the fourth in Cash’s series of comeback records under Rick Rubin’s direction, a Lana Del Rey-type “new music with old roots” thing that was, like Del Rey’s rise to fame, helped by the fact that Cash had a voice that could cut through any barrier, time or otherwise. Any song he covered, it turned out, would instantly be his, torn asunder from its original form and born anew, rising from the gravel and the dirt into the stars. That’s what happened with “Personal Jesus,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and it’s what happened with “Hurt.”
I didn’t know who Trent Reznor was back then and didn’t need to; the song was Cash’s. The video, set in a decrepit Cash family museum, sets the tone: falling apart, physically, spiritually, emotionally. “What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I knows goes away in the end.” The video makes it clear that Cash is talking to his departed wife, June, but there’s a universality in Reznor’s words that could apply to anybody. What got to me was, “You are someone else, I am still right here.” That was it, that’s what I had been trying to tell the therapists and the doctors for all those years. At yeshiva, Cash was mocked as feeble and weird, an old guy putting his hat on backwards and rapping. But I was convinced that if I just listened to the right songs for long enough, things would get better. They didn’t.
Through no one’s fault I had been taking a medication for my ADHD/Asperger’s that triggered terrible brain chemistry, tacking paranoia onto a growing depression. My therapy sessions started getting creepy, I would stare at a wall in Dr. Selin’s office in silence for an hour, convinced that I was proving something to the world. Even if they couldn’t completely heal me, Cash and The Stooges provided the only bandages that felt like they were worth a damn.
So, the actual suicide attempt? It came on one of those nights where I would yell along to Raw Power (“Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell”), insulting myself as usual and trying to force some semblance of what I had deemed “real feeling” (a shorthand for “happiness” since I had dismissed the idea that depression could be a real feeling, a real place that it was okay to be in at times). The blade only moved a couple inches along my neck. That was enough to make me nearly collapse in tension. Mad at myself for failing and happy, for the first time in a while, to be alive, I turned to my mind’s “Pretty Face” b-side: Cash’s cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Fiona Apple’s background vocals make it a gorgeous duet, one full of love and tenderness. “I will ease your mind,” they both sang, and they did. I listened to that song about fifty times that night, crying and figuring out two things: that I’d hit rock bottom, and that even if music couldn’t save me, it could be my best friend, for arguing and for reminiscing and for feeling like tomorrow might be okay. I haven’t listened to either album since.
For me, to paraphrase the poet Wallace Stevens, Raw Power and American IV are one. Raw Power and American IV and a razor blade are one. Music doesn’t just change us, I learned. We change the music we listen to, just by living every day around it.