Johnny Cash plans MTV appearance

Monday, August 25, 2003

— 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.

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.

MTV won't say how many times the video actually aired on the network; Rubin said he had overheard 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.

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."