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.