"I'd been talking to my friend Rick Rubin a lot Rick's a pretty good friend of mine," says Reznor. "And I was completely bummed out. Rick asked me what my motivation for doing this record was, and I told him the truth: Just to get it fucking done. And he said, 'That's the stupidest fucking reason for doing an album I've ever heard. Don't do it. Don't do it until you make music that it's a crime not to let other people hear.'
"I started thinking about it, and I realized he was right," Reznor says. "I was in the most fortunate situation I could imagine. I had a decent budget for the record. I've got really cool equipment and a studio to work at. And for the first time, recording music was my job.... I didn't have to fucking clean toilets all day just to afford a few minutes in the studio. So I kind of got my head back straight. I started noodling around with ideas, with computers, and five or six months later I've got two-thirds of a record written. It's like I came up for air.
"But I got dragged into a strip club a few months ago," Reznor says, wand it was, like, 1:30 in the morning. To my horror, to my absolute horror, I realized the DJ was playing 'Hurt,' the last track on Downward Spiral and a song based on the most personal sentiments, the deepest emotions I have ever had: 'I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel.' We were crying when we made it, it was so intense. I didn't know if I even wanted to put it on the album. But there we were, and there it was, and girls were taking their clothes off to it."
Later that night in Cleveland, in front of a hometown crowd of people that stand as impassively as if they were jaded A&R men at an industry showcase in Manhattan, Nine Inch Nails are if anything more intense than they had been the night before, lunging into their power chords, Reznor alternating between shrieks of deepest anguish and exquisitely sustained quieter bits that in their way are not unlike the emotionally wrenching moments that raise the artistry of Frank Sinatra above that of, say, Tony Bennett. Then it's back to heavy-metal thunder.
"I want to know everything/I want to be everywhere/I want to fuck everyone in the world/I want to do something that matters."
Reznor craves the respect from Clevelanders that was denied him when he lived here. The town had not been good to him: He had escaped it as eagerly as he has left Mercer and Los Angeles. "The thing about a town like Cleveland," Reznor says, "is that nothing really ever comes out of there, and the idea of getting a record contract is unimaginably distant. People go about it in such a fucking dumb-ass way: 'Let's just play bars and try and fuck girls, and maybe somebody from a record company will see us.' When I was here, the local media was incredibly unsupportive of local acts. There was a local music magazine that was OK, but at the time, the big radio station's big contribution was an hour a week on Sunday nights where they'd play the local bands Its really this whole incestuous power struggle.
"I was working on a demo tape," Reznor says, "We sent it out to labels, didn't make a big thing out of getting a deal, got a deal. Kept our mouths shut, made a great record – what I thought was a great record. And then I went to this club that we used to go to that played this kind of music we liked, and I brought a test pressing of a 12 inch that [British producer] Adrian Sherwood had mixed and said, 'Hey, you guys are going to be the first people in the country to get this record.' We were so proud of it. 'We don't play local bands; they said. 'You don't understand, we're from Cleveland, but this is a nationally released thing. Adrian Sherwood produced it.'
""We don't play local bands.'
"I was like 'Fuck you,' you know? A month later, they were playing it because it was in the stores and on the charts. It was OK. But still, when Downward Spiral came out, it got almost universally good reviews . . . except for the scathing, scathing reviews in Cleveland."
Tonight, Reznor is redeemed. During the last encore, a version of "Happiness in Slavery" that sounds like 200 guitar players methodically shorting out 200 Marshall stacks with 200 faulty cords, Reznor tackles guitarist Finck. Then he wrestles his own keyboard from its stand and strips off the keys with his boot heel as if he were stripping corn kernels from a cob. The audience screams its approval even louder than the din from the triple cranked guitar. Reznor looks out at the crowd, then down at the destruction he has wrought and grins for what may be the first time in weeks.
The next day as Reznor is preparing to catch a plane to Boston, somebody runs into the hotel and fetches him to see the near-total solar eclipse that is about to occur. On the sidewalk outside, road manager Mark O'Shea positions a couple of sheets of hotel stationery to make the kind of jerry-built camera obscura recommended by all the newspapers. The air grows dark and still.
Reznor leans over and squints through O'Shea's construction, trying to make out the vague nimbus of light, but he is as frustrated as he would be by a malfunctioning microphone or an incompetent roadie, and you can almost see the anger beginning to vibrate within him. Suddenly his shoulders relax, and he almost begins to smile.
Tilting his head toward heaven, shading eyes with outstretched fingers, Reznor stares up at the blackened sun.
This story is from the September 8th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.
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