By David Bauder
The Associated Press
The MTV Video Music Awards, which celebrates 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" 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, hopes to be in New York for the show (8 p.m. Thursday, MTV).
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 most awful truths'
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."
The video is made even more heartbreaking by the presence of June Carter Cash, who looks at her husband with a mixture of pride and concern. She died June 12, a few months after filming.
"I watched it with him and June, and I was weeping and weeping through the whole thing," daughter Rosanne Cash said. "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 to make a video of his hero. He and Rubin expected no airplay. They figured they would sell copies in stores.
"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."
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 end.
Yet Cash wasn't healthy enough to make the trip, so the director brought his crew to Cash's home.
He never expected to make such a powerful reflection on 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."
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."
A brighter side
Cash was taken aback when he first saw it, Rubin said. It was only with his family's encouragement that he agreed to release it.
Cash continues to work despite his health. He and Rubin are recording their fifth disc together and preparing a box set of unreleased material.
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."
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