In our new David Bowie tribute issue, out January 29th, various artists pay tribute to the late singer, songwriter and pop innovator. In this exclusive recollection, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor reflects on the “validating and surreal” experience of working with his musical idol. Reznor spoke to Rolling Stone by phone; his thoughts have been condensed and edited.
For me, every Bowie album has its own set of memories. Back in the heyday of records, I’d go over to my friends house and listen to his collection of records in his basement. Scary Monsters was the first one I related to. Then I went backwards and discovered the Berlin trilogy, which was full-impact. By the early Nineties, as I found myself onstage with an audience, I was in full-obsession mode with Bowie. I read into all the breadcrumbs he’d put out — the clues in his lyrics that reveal themselves over time, the cryptic photographs, the magazine articles — and I projected and created what he was to me. His music really helped me relate to myself and figure out who I was. He was a tremendous inspiration in terms of what was possible, what the role of an entertainer could be, that there are no rules.
Then, in the mid-Nineties, he reached out to me and said, “Let’s collaborate and do a tour together.” It’s hard to express how validating and surreal the whole experience of the Outside tour was — to actually meet this man in the flesh and find out, to my delight, that he passed any expectation I had. The fact that he was this graceful, charming, happy, fearless character became a new point of inspiration for me.
At one of our first meetings, in rehearsals, we were talking about how the tour was going to go. I was faced with a strange predicament: At that moment in time, we’d sold more tickets than he did in North America. And there’s no way on earth David Bowie is going to open for me. And on top of that, he said, “You know, I’m not going to play what anybody wants me to play. I just finished a strange new album. And we’re going to play some select cuts from a lot of Berlin trilogy–type things, and the new album. That’s not what people are going to want to see, but that’s what I need to do. And you guys are going to blow us away every night.” I remember thinking, “Wow. I’m witnessing firsthand the fearlessness that I’ve read about.”
We found out a way to do the show that made sense, where it all felt like one experience. We’d play stripped down, then David would come out and he’d do “Subterraneans” with us, and then his band would come out and we’d play together, then my band would leave. One of the greatest moments of my life was standing onstage next to David Bowie while he sang “Hurt” with me. I was outside of myself, thinking, “I’m standing onstage next to the most important influence I’ve ever had, and he’s singing a song I wrote in my bedroom.” It was just an awesome moment.
There was a subdued reaction to him for the most part. In the environment of an outdoor-amphitheater rock concert in the summer, people with 32-ounce beers probably would have preferred to hear “Changes,” rather than an art installation on stage. He did what he wanted to do. That made an impression. And I think about that anytime I’m going to ask for your attention or your money in some capacity.
On that tour, I was a mess, quite honestly. This was the peak of Nine Inch Nails’ newfound rocket ship of fame. It distorted my personality and became overwhelming: to deal with having everyone treat you different, to going from not being able to afford a gas bill to show up to arenas full of people, who kind of think they know you. The line starts to blur between the guy onstage and the person you used to be. My way of dealing with life was to numb myself with drugs and alcohol, because it made me feel better and more equipped to deal with everything. My career was skyrocketing, but the scaffolding that was holding me up as a person was starting to collapse. I wasn’t fully aware of how bad it was getting, but I knew, in my heart, that I was on an unsustainable, reckless, self-destructive path.
When I met David, he had been through that. And he was content. He was at peace with himself, with an incredible wife, clearly in love. There were a number of times where the two of us were alone, and he said some things that weren’t scolding, but pieces of wisdom that stuck with me: “You know, there is a better way here, and it doesn’t have to end in despair or in death, in the bottom.”
A full year later, I hit bottom. Once I got clean, I felt a tremendous amount of shame, of my actions and missed opportunities and the damage that I’ve caused in the past. And I thought back to the time when we were together a lot, and I wonder what that could have been like if I was at 100 percent. The “I’m Afraid of Americans” falls into that category of me at my worst — out of my mind and ashamed of who I was at that time. So when I see that, I have mixed feelings — grateful to be involved, and flattered to be a part of it, but disgusted at myself, at who I was at that time, and wishing I had been 100 percent me. And it nagged me.
A few years later, Bowie came through L.A. I’d been sober for a fair amount of time. I wanted to thank him in the way that he helped me. And I reluctantly went backstage, feeling weird and ashamed, like, “Hey, I’m the guy that puked on the rug.” And again, I was met with warmth, and grace, and love. And I started to say, “Hey listen, I’ve been clean for …” I don’t even think I finished the sentence; I got a big hug. And he said, “I knew. I knew you’d do that. I knew you’d come out of that.” I have goosebumps right now just thinking about it. It was another very important moment in my life.
I didn’t think we were done. It feels like the loss of a mentor, fatherly figure, someone looking out for you, reminding you that in a world where the bar keeps seeming to be lower, where stupidity has got a foothold, there is room for excellence and uncompromising vision.
As told to Patrick Doyle