Then producer Rick Rubin engineered one of the most unlikely comebacks in the history of popular music. Rubin had made breakthrough hip-hop records in the Eighties with the likes of LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, and he had also done eardrum-shattering work with the thrash-metal band Slayer. But now he was interested in signing Cash, of all people, to his American Recordings label. At first, Cash was understandably wary. "From the very beginning, I couldn't see what he saw in me," he said of Rubin. For Rubin, however, the issue was clear. "He's a timeless presence," he said about Cash in 2000. "From the beginning of rock & roll, there's always been this dark figure who never really fit. He's still the quintessential outsider. In the hip-hop world, you see all these bad-boy artists who are juggling being on MTV and running from the law. John was the originator of that."
The four albums Cash and Rubin made together, beginning in 1994 with American Recordings and extending through last year's American IV: The Man Comes Around, revitalized Cash, bringing him both a new, younger audience and lavish critical praise. Rubin encouraged Cash to explore whatever type of music interested him, and he introduced the singer to the work of song-writers including Beck, Chris Cornell and Martin Gore of Depeche Mode – artists who, in one sense or another, are Cash's spiritual heirs. Cash seemed entirely enlivened. "There was such charisma about him," Petty says about their time recording Unchained. "To see a man in his sixties come to work in knee-high boots and a cloak – and this was just for a night in the studio – I thought that was so damn cool."
The Cash-Rubin collaboration achieved its apex last year, with Cash's soul-ravaging rendition of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" and the stunning video, directed by Mark Romanek, that accompanied it. "When I heard that song, I thought, 'That sounds like something I could have written in the Sixties,'" Cash said about "Hurt" while he was working on The Man Comes Around. "There's more heart, soul and pain in that song than any I've heard in a long time. I love it." Cash's performance and Romanek's visual treatment transformed "Hurt" from a fevered chronicle of addiction to a fallen legend's look back at a life of scarifying triumphs and tragedies.
It is precisely that translation that initially unnerved the song's author, Trent Reznor. "My songs have been a vehicle for me to keep sane," he says. "And that song in particular came from a private, personal place. I thought, 'Here's this thing I wrote in my bedroom in a moment of frailty, and now Johnny Cash is singing it.' It seemed incredibly strange and wrong to hear that voice with my song. It kind of freaked me out. But when I saw the video, it took my breath away. It was heartbreaking. My throat had a lump in it, and I had goose bumps, which I have right now just thinking about it. At that point, it became inspiring to me. I've been so proud of what they've done with it." Of its six nominations at the VMAs, the video for "Hurt" won only one, for cinematography, prompting Justin Timberlake to declare one of his own awards "a travesty."
Cash had hoped to attend the MTV Awards, but he was not well enough. After June's death, he recorded as much and as often as he could to keep his mind off his loss. But the rock on which his life rested had been shattered. "There's unconditional love there," he once said about his marriage to June. "She's always been there with her love, and it has certainly made me forget the pain for a long time, many times. When it gets dark, and everybody's gone home and the lights are turned out, it's just me and her."
But no more. Now Johnny and June Carter Cash will realize the vision that their faith made real for them so many times in song. "I'll be waiting on the far-side banks of Jordan," they sang together on June's 1999 album Press On. "I'll be sitting, drawing pictures in the sand/And when I see you coming/I will rise up with a shout/And come running through the shallow water/Reaching for your hand."
This story is from the October 16th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.
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