Nine Inch Nails: Love It to Death
In the light of day, maybe yelling at a soundman or discussing marketing strategy with his manager John Malm, Reznor looks pretty robust for a rock & roll guy. He has ruddy Midwestern cheeks and an athletic ease you might associate with the quarterback of a small-college football team. Perhaps surprised by his rude health, strangers meeting Reznor for the first time often describe him as normal. (He is more likely to describe himself as a “computer dweeb.”)
Onstage though, splayed like a St. Sebastian without the torturing arrows, Reznor resembles nothing so much as the Bronze Age man they dug from that glacier in Austria a couple of years ago, give or take a pair of fish-net stockings: rough-edged bowl cut, leather cod-piece thing, garters, tunic and pre-industrial boots. Though the subject of control is as central to Reznor’s collected works as the subject of marijuana is to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s — an early press release for Pretty Hate Machine took pains to point out “Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails” — Reznor appears powerless onstage, buffeted by harsh, glowing fog, martyred to the noise and to the crowd, enraged by a world he does not understand.
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: roiling 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, mutant 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. “I’m not trying to hide,” Reznor says later. “Or make up for a lack of songs, but essentially Nine Inch Nails are theater. What we do is closer to Alice Cooper than Pearl Jam.”
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 Tate 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 Woolley 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.”
Jessie Murph, Maren Morris Shame a Cowboy Heartbreaker in 'Texas' Video
- More Exes, More Texas