Detroit's state theater is one of those baroque old piles that sometimes still exist on the edges of American downtowns, and when Nine Inch Nails are onstage, the orchestra of the great hall seems like some Victorian notion of hell: rolling bodies smashing up against the brass railings that separate each level from the next, pierced lips and noses coming up bloody from the pit.
You haven't really lived, I think, until you've heard a gang of Wayne State sorority sisters moan, "I want to fuck you like an animal," the chorus to "Closer," which has sort of the same resonance that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" might have had 30 years ago. Dressed in already-clammy NIN T-shirts newly purchased from the concession stand, whipping clean hair over their eyes, shoving the pimply skanks who dare to block their view, wild-eyed with hatred and desire, the women howl along with Reznor, who in turn howls into the black-rubber void with such intensity that you fear the throbbing balconies will sag and collapse, sending 200 tons of concrete, steel and slam-dancing teen-agers onto your sweaty head.
The women crush their eyes shut and scream, "You get me closer to God." All of them sound as if they mean it. There are four other musicians performing – though you would never guess it from watching the stage show – and a zillion gigabytes of RAM and a giant, costly rubber-fetish backdrop that is all but invisible to everyone except for the roadies. Banks of colored lights, like stands of bright, routant poppies, exist solely to shine in your eyes; infinite layers of computer-generated racket deafen you to all but the most basic blocks of harmony and rhythm and fucked-up guitar.
When Reznor changes up and sings a chorus in a sobbing croak that might well have come from David Bowie's "Heroes," he displays a hundred times more emotional vulnerability than, say, Eddie Vedder. "I just want something I can never have." Then again, unlike Vedder, Reznor is acting. The crowd is silent, rapt; the slam boys pause, then slowly begin to writhe until the pit undulates like a single-celled organism; and sex power radiates from the floor.
After the show, deli platters picked at and schmoozers briefly dealt with, Reznor ducks out of the theater and runs into the knot of people waiting patiently outside the stage door.
"Trent! Trent!" one guy yells, a scruffy-looking goth boy who looks as if he has just graduated to blue black hair from a faded Metallica T-shirt. "Can I ask you one question?"
Reznor looks back over his shoulder and rolls his eyes, anticipating the question. "Um, sure," he says.
"So, man," the guy says. "Tell me, what was it like living at the Sharon Tate house?"
Goth Boy cannot see it, but Reznor is mouthing his interrogator's words like an especially goofy ventriloquist's dummy. The Downward Spiral is perhaps more famous for having been recorded in the house where Sharon Tare was murdered by the Manson family than for any of the songs that happen to be on it. Reznor has heard this question before; he will hear it many times again.
"Trent!" interrupts a second dude, who materializes from behind a parked car. "Have you seen all the shit they talk about you on the Internet?"
Reznor, head down, peeling leather jacket gleaming in the dim street-light glow, shuffles toward the darkness and anonymity of the bus that will take him back to the hotel. "Of course those techno-computer guys hate me," he says. "You can't really dance to Nine Inch Nails, we don't play fast enough, and I don't know what the music sounds like on ecstasy. Yeah, I believe in song structure. Yeah, I care about the melody. I don't imagine they like us at all. But that guy probably waited out there for an hour. Why was it so important for him to tell me somebody I don't even know thinks that I suck?"
That night, as bass player Lohner and guitarist Robin Finck check out a downtown disco, as keyboardist James Wooley scarfs some chicken at an all-night hang in Greektown, Reznor is nowhere to be seen.
Woolley, an engaging guy who has been with Nine Inch Nails on and off since the 1991 Lollapalooza tour, looks down at the floor of the diner as if he were memorizing the arrangement of the sawdust "Usually we find out what's going on with Nine Inch Nails by reading Trent's interviews in magazines," he says. "I think he likes the band now, but I guess we're all still a little too nervous to ask him."
The day after the Detroit show, blasting down the highway toward Cleveland, Reznor curls up in the back seat of the tour bus and strokes a bottle of mineral water as if it were a kitten.
"I probably rely too much on sexual imagery as a metaphor for control, but I'm totally intrigued by it," Reznor says. "I think Nine Inch Nails are big enough and mainstream enough to gently lead people into the back room a little bit, maybe show them some things it might have taken them a little longer to stumble into on their own. I don't mean that in a public-service kind of way.
"I think that hack room could represent anything that an individual might consider taboo yet intriguing anything we're conditioned to abhor. Why do you watch horror films? Why do you look at an accident when you drive past, secretly hoping that you see some gore? I shamefully admit it – I do."
Reznor spots a NIN sticker next to a Metallica sticker on a van that roars by the bus, and he momentarily frowns. "I'm not as afraid to question my own sexual orientation as I might have been 10 years ago,"' he says. "I'm not afraid to think about certain things you aren't supposed to think about I mean, I do wonder what it would be like to kill somebody, though I'm not going to do it. I don't want to do it But I know why people idolize serial killers.
"I can make something loud, but how can I make it the loudest, noisiest, most abrasive thing I've ever heard?" Reznor asks. "Can I go 10 steps past the goriest horror film you've ever seen in a way that's more disturbing than cheesy? I know I can; I've done it Peter Christopherson and I made a long-form video for Broken that was the most horrific thing you'll ever see, but I didn't put it out because I didn't want to spend the next five years explaining the thing to every reporter I meet. It makes 'Happiness in Slavery' look like a Disney movie."
The framing device for the video, which was inspired by certain scenes from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, involves a lazy, brutal torture killing in which a victim is slowly dismembered while being forced to watch Nine Inch Nails videos – it may be a metaphor for the vivisection of the soul by American media culture, or it may just be the expression of a gore-film-obsessed rock guy who has been reading way too much Bataille and Artaud. Every good R&B fan has at least a second-generation copy of Prince's Black Album somewhere in his collection, but videocassettes of "Broken" axe as hard to come by as goatskin-bound copies of Baudelaire poems inscribed in blood outside of Reznor's inner circle, the tape seems to have been viewed mostly by professional dominatrixes.
And the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers illustrates a brutal, grotesque comedy about serial killers that may not strike that far from Reznor's own muse. "I know what you probably think of Oliver Stone," Reznor says. "But I saw the film, and surprisingly enough, it was really good. He asked me if I wanted to put together the soundtrack album – there's no original music in the soundtrack just pieces of 70 songs – and I wasn't interested in doing a Reservoir Dogs kind of thing, but I told him my idea for, like, a multi-layered collage with dialogue, and he made it happen."
"That agony, that pain, that overwhelming sense of suffering," says Stone from the remote village in India where he is shooting his next movie. "Trent reminds me of Hendrix or Jim Morrison, but with a heavier overlay of romanticism. The moment I heard Nine Inch Nails, I knew we had to get as much as possible of it in this, and there is quite a lot."
"I don't know why I want to do these things," Reznor says, "other than my desire to escape from Small Town, U.S.A., to dismiss the boundaries, to explore. It isn't a bad place where I grew up, but there was nothing going on but the cornfields. My life experience came from watching movies, watching TV and reading books and looking at magazines. And when your fucking culture comes from watching TV every day, you're bombarded with images of things that seem cool, places that seem interesting, people who have jobs and careers and opportunities. None of that happened where I was. You're almost taught to realize it's not for you."
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