Pity for those who suffer

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with two very great friends of mine who had barely spoken to each other. I call them friends for different reasons, and as a result, I was a bit nervous about being around both of them at the same time. What would we talk about? How was I supposed to act? What if I said something one of them wasn’t accustomed to hearing me say? Would they think I was a turncoat? What if they didn’t get along? What would that say about me?

The atmosphere ended up being an odd mish-mash of the time I’d spent with them separately, but I’d mostly been worrying for nothing. There was enough to talk about, and it became clear I hadn’t put enough faith in the abilities of either of my friends to be sociable. We had a pleasant evening, but one moment lodged itself in my memory: when one friend confessed that they didn’t like Radiohead, and the other agreed that they’d never understood what all the fuss was about.

Now, this conversation took place within my earshot. I knew they were both aware that I used to be a pretty big Radiohead fan. As far as they knew, all they had in common was myself and the possibility of making some sport of me. Which was okay in my book; as long as they had something to talk about, I didn’t mind being the butt of a few affectionate jokes. It was kind of nice, really. But, for whatever reason, I felt like I was expected to leap to Radiohead’s defence, so in my offence I ignored the opportunity as well as I could. Christ, I haven’t listened to Radiohead in years. Why should I bother defending them to those two heathens?

This brief exchange kept replaying itself in my mind for some time. This wasn’t something that could be ignored after all. Here there laid a puzzle: two friends of mine that I have immense respect for, united in their dismissal of something I believed in. It couldn’t be ignorance, nor was it spite.


In the end, I came to the conclusion that one had to be a specific type of person at a specific time to really fall in love with Radiohead. I wasn’t a question of taste, but rather of location: emotional, spatial and temporal. My friends simply never occupied those places, and I once did.

You’re probably reading this thinking “of course that’s why they didn’t like Radiohead, people like different things because of different experiences.” And you’d be right. I know it all seems very tautological to you, because you’re smarter than me, and you aren’t as socially unhealthy as I am.

But maybe you’re more like me than you think. Maybe, like me, you get worked up dissecting things other people take for granted. Or perhaps you have someone in your life that you don’t quite understand, someone who seems to get needlessly worked up about the a priori of the world.  I think we explain that side of ourselves rather poorly, so here goes:

I’ve never once fit in.  That’s probably more my fault than anyone else’s, because I’m too focused on what makes me different rather than what makes me the same.  It’s what gives me strength; it’s also what wears me down.

I know what the difference is between liking something because it’s cool or it’s fun or any one of a thousand descriptors that are vague to the point of meaninglessness, and falling in love with something because I think it’s beautiful and inspiring and meaningful. When other people (through no fault of their own) can’t see that beauty or meaning,  it’s yet another thing that makes me feel different.  Like I don’t fit in.  Like I’m Wrong.

Sometimes that frustration expresses itself as defensiveness, and I’m sorry. I’m trying to get over it.

“I knew the dog before he came to class…”

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I first came across Charlie Brooker when I was about 8. He used to draw comics for CeX, the shop he worked in when he was a student. They were called “Here’s Toby”, and were used for ads in Gamesmaster and other magazines. They looked like this:

I thought they were funny, but didn’t pay them much mind.  How often do you care about who drew an advertisement?  A couple of years later, my dad bought a PC for university and my love affair with computers began. I started getting a magazine called PC Zone, now sadly defunct, which focused mainly on video games available for the platform, and contained some truly brilliant writing delivered by a witty and intelligent team. I haven’t seen anything like it since, which is a shame. The gaming press could use a voice like PC Zone’s in these times.

I’ll save the PC Zone chat for another entry, because I still have one issue from those days which is close to my heart. For the moment, I’ll say I had my preferred writers, like Duncan MacDonald and David McCandless. David McCandless had been with the team since the first issue, wrote with a bitter sense of humour, and was by all accounts a god at Quake. Nowadays, he does highly-regarded design work that you’ve probably seen in a hundred blogs and The Guardian. You can see it at his website, informationisbeautiful. He also did a TED talk on the visualisation of data.

You’ll notice he slipped in some video game references there. Clearly, he’s a talented guy who’s doing well, but his success is dwarfed by that of my favourite writer, Mr Charlie Brooker.

Angry graduate in the PC Zone days.

I loved Charlie Brooker.  I noticed he’d also done the CeX cartoons I remembered from older magazines, so he was already in my good books.  His reviews weren’t great, admittedly (games were either amazing or dreadful, no middle ground), but his miserable temperament cracked me up. His style was reminiscent of early Chris Morris, tempered by his schoolboy sense of humour. I especially enjoyed his regular ‘Sick Notes’ page, in which he’d invite hate mail and respond to it in his signature caustic manner. He also drew cartoons, edited together pictures and generally did stuff that had nothing to do with games, which gave the magazine a lot more variety than its competitors. In one of his most notorious features, he prank called a number of game developers, posing as a clueless dad in need of tech support, recorded the ensuing conversations and put them on the cover CD. Looking back on it, I find it astonishing he didn’t get fired, let alone be allowed to present it as content. I guess it stands as an example of how unique PC Zone was.

I used to have that issue. I wish I’d kept it.

He also had a website at superkaylo.com, which was unfortunately taken down about a decade ago. He probably found it a significant source of embarrassment when his later career began to gather steam, but it had some gems. I particularly miss his fake advertisements for holidays, which bore some similarity to his TV Go Home website. He also recalled a time when he put a dab of his urine on a photo of a model. I’m still not sure if that was true or not. Oh, and I always remember him saying “I fucking HATE drawing comics”, which struck me as odd for someone who drew so many of them.

I eventually stopped reading PC Zone and Charlie Brooker left not long after. I noticed a writing credit for him in the Brass Eye Special, and he went on to do Nathan Barley. A couple of years later, he was immensely popular. Now, I think of him more as the guy who does Screen Wipe and turns up on game shows, but for a while it was a bizarre feeling, hearing people talk about him. It was like finding out someone you went to primary school with became a movie star.

But I’m glad he’s done so well. I’m glad other people had a chance to read his writing. The 13 year old version of me thought he deserved it, because he made me laugh and influenced my writing, if not stylistically at least in spirit.

Good on you, Brooker.

In which I invite the vitriol of the entire human race by denouncing Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’.

I have a confession to make: I don’t like Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’.

It’s not bad, certainly, and the video makes it worthwhile, but then again, it’s not like I need to defend it. Pretty much the entire population of the world loves it. The first five results on Youtube have over 50 million views, it’s arguably Johnny Cash’s most famous song to our generation, and at any one time some guy out there will be talking about how it makes him “cry manly tears”, as if tears have sex-specific qualities. No, instead I’m going to defend the original, released in ’94 by Trent Reznor (aka Nine Inch Nails) as the final song on his most popular and influential album The Downward Spiral.

I haven’t conducted any studies into this, but I’m fairly certain that of those who have heard both versions, all prefer the cover. On every upload of the original, anywhere on the internet, the top comment will always be “Johnny Cash’s cover is better” or some variation thereof.   Only metalhead losers prefer the original, right?  Trent Reznor’s opinion of it, in which he claimed it wasn’t his song any more, is often used as evidence of the cover’s objective superiority, but what most people miss is that it was only upon watching the video that he formed this opinion. Until then, he said hearing someone else perform his most personal song felt “invasive”, and that when asked by Rick Rubin for permission to record Johnny Cash singing it, he feared it would sound “a bit gimmicky”. 

Perhaps I’m biased. My older brother was a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails, and I got into The Downward Spiral when I was around 13. Hurt was probably my favourite on the album, and four years of loving the original recording would naturally put me on the defensive. But I honestly believe it’s not fair that Johnny Cash’s version receives so much applause and Trent Reznor’s so little. I think it’s praised too blindly because when he died and the (heavily fictional) biopic of his life Walk the Line became a hit, Johnny Cash morphed from ‘half-novelty, half-cool country musician’ to ‘godlike mainstream icon’. You can’t criticise Johnny Cash. He’s a legend. Well, as a stone-cold Johnny Cash fan, I’m happy to criticise him – he recorded a lot of really awful stuff, to the extent that his discography is about 10% gold and 90% total dreck.

Independent of its video, I don’t think ‘Hurt’ is a great cover. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.

It made sense in its original context. See, The Downward Spiral was something of a concept album. It’s a violent assault on your ears, industrial noise and atonal screeching, expressing anger, hopelessness, depression and despair. Listen to the first minute or so of track 3, ‘March of the Pigs’, and you’ll see what I mean.

Then, at the end of it all, there’s Hurt. A half-whispered, unexpectedly melodic confession at the end of so much fury. “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.” The words of a man who has raged, lashed out at everything, and is left with nothing. All he has left is the physical pain he can inflict upon himself, because relentless mental anguish has left him numb to anything else. “What have I become… everyone I know goes away in the end.” A man who truly hates himself, and is in no doubt that everyone he cared about and disappointed hates what he’s become as much as he does.

It doesn’t really fit with an old man facing up to death, does it? A man who lived a long time, achieved much, and by his own account, had a woman he loved more than anything? It meant something when Trent Reznor sang it. It was his song. He wrote it, and expressed himself through it. Johnny Cash did a cover with a (genuinely beautiful) video that retroactively implied it was his epitaph. But around 50 songs were recorded during those sessions. ‘Hurt’ was just one of many covers, with no specific meaning. Are the others also his epitaphs? Like his risible cover of Danny Boy, from the same album? What about Like the 309, the last song he ever wrote, released on one of two posthumous albums assembled from the discarded recordings? It’s got the line “it should be a while before I see Dr. Death, so it would sure be nice if I could get my breath… put me in my box on the 309.”  That’s a song about dying by a man who’s dying, right?  What about his cover of In My Life, for goodness sake? If there was ever a cover that could fit as someone’s last song, surely that’s it.

I think the reason the excessive praise bestowed upon Johnny Cash’s cover bothers me so much is because it seems like popular opinion would rather loosely interpret words the man didn’t write as evidence of the song’s power than give credit to Nine Inch Nails. Because Trent Reznor makes loud, ugly music, and not easily-consumed acoustic meanderings. There’s an underlying implication that Trent Reznor’s pain, as an angry and desperate 28 year old industrial/metal/electronic musician, isn’t as valid as Johnny Cash’s performance of a cover as an old ‘icon’ with an acoustic guitar.

And I think that’s a damn shame.