Watch Johnny Cash’s Poignant Final Interview & His Last Performance: “Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” (2003)

“Ask some­one to name a song that always has the pow­er to reduce them to tears,” writes Inde­pen­dent cul­ture edi­tor Christo­pher Hooton, “and the chances are they’ll swift­ly reply ‘John­ny Cash. Hurt,’” the coun­try leg­end’s heart­break­ing cov­er of Trent Reznor’s masochis­tic anthem. Asked to name a music video with the same emo­tion­al res­o­nance, and you’re just as like­ly to get the same answer. I find myself tear­ing up just read­ing Hooton’s descrip­tion of it. Shot at The House of Cash, the singer’s decrepit home (and shut­tered muse­um), direc­tor Mark Romanek’s wrench­ing video speaks to us of “the tran­sience of life, the grace­less­ness of death, the Ozy­man­di­an crum­bling of an oeu­vre and the decline of a genre, an era and an atti­tude.”

It does all that, but does much more besides: the video, and Cash’s last record­ings in gen­er­al, show us a man in the depths of lovelorn grief, yet unafraid to face mor­tal­i­ty and decline and unwill­ing to deny their rav­ages. We mourn with Cash and for him, but his final per­for­mances are so riv­et­ing because, while most of us may fear death, he did not.

“Corinthi­ans 15:55,” his last orig­i­nal song—on his final, posthu­mous col­lec­tion, Ain’t No Grave—is named after the verse that asks “Death, where is thy sting?” Through­out the album, Cash sounds, writes Adam Richter, “unim­pressed by the threat of death…. Singers are almost nev­er as pre­pared as Cash was to bid adieu to all that.”

The “Hurt” video net­ted Cash, Romanek, and his team six MTV Video Music Award nom­i­na­tions. Before it won for Best Cin­e­matog­ra­phy, Cash sat down with Kurt Loder on August 20th, 2003, for what would turn out to be his final inter­view. Although he con­fess­es to a dis­taste for the work of mak­ing videos, of “Hurt,” he says, “I felt we were doing some­thing worth­while.” He talks about meet­ing Rick Rubin and mak­ing the Amer­i­can Record­ings series of albums, some of the most wide­ly praised records of his career, and the music he had always want­ed to make. And he express­es the fierce inde­pen­dence, com­pas­sion, and authen­tic­i­ty that made him such a phe­nom­e­nal writer and admirable human being.

“You can’t let peo­ple del­e­gate to you what you should do,” Cash says, point­ing at his heart, “when it’s com­ing from way in here, you know?… I wouldn’t let any­body influ­ence me into think­ing I was doing the wrong thing by singing about death, hell, and drugs.” We’re all lucky that he didn’t. Cash’s expres­sions of grief after the death of June Carter cut deep, but it was his abil­i­ty not only to play the out­law but also to empathize with peo­ple who are abused, per­se­cut­ed, and exclud­ed by the law that set him apart from oth­er coun­try and gospel singers, and made him a hero to mil­lions of peo­ple who don’t share his roots or his faith.

The month before Cash gave his final inter­view, he gave his last per­for­mance at the Carter Ranch. (Watch it above.) Less than a month after the inter­view, he was dead. In 2007, the House of Cash, the house Cash had lived in since 1968, burned to the ground. Cash sure­ly would have mourned the loss, but it would­n’t have kept him down for long, I sus­pect. Not only did he stare down death with grace, humor, and dig­ni­ty, but he faced the pains of life with those same qual­i­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John­ny Cash Sings “Man in Black” for the First Time, 1971

John­ny Cash & Joe Strum­mer Sing Bob Marley’s “Redemp­tion Song” (2002)

John­ny Cash’s Christ­mas Spe­cials, Fea­tur­ing June Carter, Steve Mar­tin, Andy Kauf­man & More (1976–79)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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