The first time the video for Johnny Cash's single "Hurt" was screened on terrestrial television earlier this year - amid the Day-Glo Eighties relics of Top of the Pops 2 - it stood out like an El Greco painting in a gallery full of Andy Warhol's old Soup Cans.
The song, which started life as a morbid junkie's lament by the Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, had already been broadened by Cash's bold and sympathetic interpretation to embrace universal themes of loss and human frailty. But the visual treatment (by the One Hour Photo and Static director Mark Romanek) elevated it to an almost metaphysical plane.
The state of Johnny Cash's health had long given fans cause for concern, and his willingness to grapple with the looming shadow of his own mortality had already justified his sepulchral soubriquet, the Man in Black, several times over. Indeed, the sequence of four albums he had made with the super-producer Rick Rubin, stretching from 1994's American Recordings to 2002's The Man Comes Around (whence "Hurt" was lifted), probably constitutes the most remarkable pre-emptive epitaph in the history of popular music.
Yet the spectral figure that Cash presented in the video (filmed at the ailing but artistically potent 71-year-old's home in Hendersonville, Tennessee) still came as something of a shock. And as the camera paused for breath on the Mount Rushmore crags of the great man's ravaged visage, Romanek intercut archive footage of Cash's vital younger self - casually jumping trains, or entertaining the prisoners at San Quentin jail - to almost unbearably moving effect.
The sense of a life being weighed up, even as it slipped away, was reinforced by poignant shots of the empty shelves and broken exhibits of the flood-damaged and now derelict "House of Cash" museum. But far from being depressing, there was - and is - a kind of celestial grandeur about the dignity with which Johnny Cash embraced the transient nature of human achievement. And it was this essential humility which made the spectacle of Justin Timberlake and Snoop Dogg competing to heap praise upon him at last month's MTV awards (where "Hurt" was nominated in seven categories, though it ultimately won only one) so strangely incongruous.
At the moment in the video where Cash intones the lyric "Everyone I know goes away in the end", the camera pulls back to a framed photo of his mother on the wall. This emotional sucker-punch is lent still greater force by the presence of another of the singer's loved ones. When they were filming the performance sequences, June Carter Cash - the wife of 35 years who used to hide the amphetamines Johnny was addicted to, and who co-wrote the apocalyptic love song "Ring of Fire" as a testament to the intensity of her feelings for him - came downstairs to watch.
Romanek was so moved by the look of "sadness, pride and love" on her face that he asked her to appear in the video. And that expression - a quietly overwhelming statement of the kind of total concern for another person which is both agony and ecstasy at the same time - was captured on film for all to see.
When news emerged in May of June Carter Cash's death, it seemed as if the grim reaper had had the last laugh. But watching the video again now her beloved husband has joined her in the sweet hereafter (and it was hard enough to get through it without a tear in your eye when they were both still alive) death's victory seems less certain. Tenderness on that level is a power which knows no master.Reuse content