By Ron F. Hale
Raw emotion swept over me the first time I saw and heard Johnny Cash’s video rendition of “Hurt,” a song first recorded by Nine Inch Nails in 1994.
Seeing the now frail Cash singing the ghostly opening lyrics made me feel just a hint of the heartache that made the “Man in Black.”
I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
The eerie medley and montage of a life-time of photos and film clips of Johnny along with his unmistakable voice helped rank the video one of the “The 30 All-Time Best Music Videos” by Time.
There was a hopeless day in 1967 that Johnny literally crawled into a deep dark cave to die. The accumulated pain and shame of a decade of doing drugs, popping pills, ruined relationships, while always riding the rapids of whiskey river brought him to the mouth of Nickajack Cave on the Tennessee River north of Chattanooga.
All his “uppers” had turned to “downers,” but Johnny wasn’t blaming anyone but himself. He knew that he had been his own worst enemy. The “Man in Black” would die in total darkness that day!
Dave Urbanski writes about this day in The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash, “I never wanted to see another dawn. I had wasted my life. I had drifted so far away from God and every stabilizing force in my life that I felt there was no hope for me.”
Parking his Jeep, Cash walked into this underworld that he had explored years earlier during happier times. He knew that many had gotten lost in this large labyrinth of connecting tunnels and chambers stretching all the way into Alabama and were never seen again.
Cash walked into the cave, then crawled for three hours until his flashlight died before he could. Engulfed in pitch darkness Cash remembered, “The absolute lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was as far from God as I had ever been.”
Waiting on death, Johnny realized that he could not crawl into a hole deep or dark enough to escape God’s grace. “I thought I’d left Him, but He hadn’t left me.”
Cash testified to a sudden awareness of utter peace, clarity and sobriety overwhelming his mind and body. He says, “There in Nickajack Cave I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.”
This spiritual revival presented a new dilemma. Johnny had crawled in to die and no exit strategy existed. He had no earthly idea of which direction to crawl and utter darkness only intensified his confusion.
Driven by a simple urge to begin moving, Cash painstakingly crawled like a blind crab until he felt a faint breeze. Honing in on its direction, he crawled toward the breeze until it felt stronger. He crawled until a faint shade of light was sensed. Pulled toward the light like a dying man crossing over into eternity, Johnny finally surfaces.
Overjoyed with a second chance, Johnny finds his mother and June Carter parked by his Jeep with water and a basket of food. God had been leading them too!
On the long road back to Nashville, Johnny confessed, “God saved me from killing myself.” Johnny spoke sincerely of committing himself to God and doing whatever it would take to kick his drug habit. His promise turned to reality as he gradually regained his physical health and emotional wellbeing.
After destroying his first marriage, now a new man, Johnny married June Carter and little John Carter Cash was born on March 3, 1970. Life was getting much better!
Recording his Live at Folsom Prison album was a turning point for Cash’s career. The song had been a huge hit. Soon ABC television offered him The Johnny Cash Show. For two years, Johnny and June entertained as the show was taped at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Johnny invited guest singers from every genre of music — from Bob Dylan to Louis Armstrong and a lot of country in between.
The dark cave that Johnny crawled into represents a scary place — for most of us are just one step from stupid even on our best days. Over 40,000 people kill themselves in America each year. Many more are slowly crawling with feelings of hopelessness.
If Johnny could find a new reason for living, so can you!