It’s a rare feat to be able to strip a sonic juggernaut of a song back to just an acoustic guitar without losing any of the initial devastation. Somehow, though, Cash managed to make the song even more devastating in the process, truly claiming it as his own and essentially turning it into a first-person eulogy for his own storied life and career.
For such a now-legendary cover, it’s crazy to think that both Trent Reznor and Cash had mixed emotions about it. Reznor told UK publication The Sun a few years back that he was initially honored about the idea in concept, but then struggled emotionally when he first heard it:
“I said I’d be very flattered but was given no indication it would actually be recorded. Two weeks went by. Then I got a CD in the post. I listened to it and it was very strange. It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song.
I’d known where I was when I wrote it. I know what I was thinking about. I know how I felt. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive.”
However, once Reznor saw the stunning music video, he started to change his mind: “It really, really made sense and I thought what a powerful piece of art.
I never got to meet Johnny but I’m happy I contributed the way I did. It felt like a warm hug. I have goosebumps right now thinking about it.
Having Johnny Cash, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, want to cover your song, that’s something that matters to me. It’s not so much what other people think but the fact that this guy felt that it was worthy of interpreting.”
Johnny Cash, for his part, also had some initial trepidation and mixed emotions about the song. Producer Rick Rubin recalled that Cash thought he was nuts when the cover was first proposed to him:
“I played him the song first and Johnny [Cash] just looked at me like I was insane because the Nine Inch Nails version of the song is very noisy, aggressive. Johnny was wary! [Laughs].” In the end, though, both artists were thankfully able to embrace the cover in their own right for what it is- an incredibly profound piece of art that will have a lasting impact for generations to come.