I always hated Nine Inch Nails. I categorically assumed that any industrial music was mindless, violent sludge – designed to appeal mostly to mindless, violent people. When my brother started listening to Nine Inch Nails a few years ago, I found frequent opportunity to share my opinion of his new musical tastes. My brother quickly tired of this. One day he sat me down and told me that I had never given this music a chance. Maybe some songs are pulp, but others may have some redeeming value.

He made me listen to the song “Hurt” off an old Nine Inch Nails CD. It was some sort of ballad. The incessant vulgarity and violence that I expected were conspicuously absent. The lyrics were introspective – they were still dark, but they were intelligent, intriguing. I liked it. I petulantly admitted that my brother was right and abandoned my disparaging comments.

A few months later, over Thanksgiving break, a friend asked me if I knew Johnny Cash. I probably groaned in response. In my mind, all country music fell categorically into a genre I loosely termed “garbage.” This was different, he explained, Johnny Cash is doing all sorts of covers, bands like Soundgarden, Beck, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails. “Listen to this, this is really good,” my friend implored. And so I listened to Johnny Cash sing “Hurt” originally by Nine Inch Nails. I thought it was ridiculous. Who on earth would listen to this? Why was this ever even recorded? I promptly forgot about it.

But in the spring it started showing up on MTV. Johnny Cash, a guy my grandparents remembered singing with Elvis in the ’50s, a guy who had over 100 hit country singles, suddenly had one of the most popular songs in modern rock. People liked it. I was again forced to retract my disparaging comments.

When I thought about it, “Hurt” was the perfect song for Johnny Cash to sing. The song was a sobering reflection on mortality. It actually made a lot of sense coming from Johnny Cash at the tail end of his career. Before he sang “Hurt,” he had almost disappeared entirely from the popular conscience – one of America’s biggest music stars of all time, quietly fading away. Oblivion, they say, is the final word in our common fate. What a painful reality this must be for someone who had lived such a renowned life. What a painful reality for anyone.

A few deaths in my family this summer caused me to reflect frequently about mortality. About the meaning of human life. I started reading biographies, hoping to instill the belief that our lives mattered. The more I read, the better I felt. There were, after all, more biographies in the bookstores than I could ever hope to read. As the summer progressed and my disposition brightened, I decided that perhaps it would be nice to read about someone still alive.

I had heard that Johnny Cash’s autobiography was a good read. Here was a 70-year-old man who evidently listened to Nine Inch Nails – he probably had some interesting perspectives. Besides, I knew the basic outline and it was classic. A poor country boy who soared to fame, his life was consumed by drugs, his marriage collapsed, his life fell apart. Standard rock star stuff. But Johnny Cash pulled out of it, cleaned up, remarried, became a strong Christian and started hosting a popular TV show.

Although not all interesting stories make interesting books, Johnny Cash’s life did. I started reading a couple days after classes started – before I was too fed up with books to do any reading outside of classes. I finished the book late on Thursday night. A few hours later, I was informed that Johnny Cash had just died. Within two hours of my finishing the book, Johnny Cash died. I was more than a little shocked. My friends patiently convinced me that I did not kill Johnny Cash.

Reflecting on the entire episode, I finally learned the lesson I was looking for over the summer. I learned the lesson I should have learned before criticizing my brother’s tastes. Say I had never given Johnny Cash a chance, never looked beyond his country persona, it would not have ruined my life. Say I had never given my brother a chance and he died Friday. Life is too short and people are too important. Too important not to give them a chance.

Josh Zumbrun is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and anaging Editor of The Hoya.

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