Weeks after the debut of The Simpsons, and just days after seeing Nine Inch Nails live for the first time at the Phantasy Theater, I rang in 1990 at John’s parents’ house with a group of friends that ranged from years old connections to brand new relationships. (Maria wasn’t in attendance this night. Although we were together from that Christmas break through much of that next spring semester back at BG, we never officially dated, and I don’t think she ever actually broke up with her boyfriend.)
Although I contest the clarity of John’s chronology, I fully corroborate the importance of that night and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine.
(To be clear, I did have an advanced copy of PHM by way of the Akron CD store I worked at over summers and on breaks home from college, but by the time December 31, 1989, rolled around, PHM had been officially released and available for a couple of months. Long before that New Year’s Eve, I had the CD and John, by virtue of being not only my best high school friend but also my college roommate, had heard the album many, many times.)
This amazing confluence of old and new friends, alcohol, and music was somehow significant. It was a mingling of high school and college, Bizarre Love Triangles, and the inherent hyper-dramatic sense of trailing childhood’s end. And PHM was the soundtrack to my life at the time. It was, as John put it, “a damn dark raging album,” but more than that it captured the confusion and pain and drama and sex and fun of coming of age. No album will ever be as meaningful to me as PHM was when I was on the cusp of my twenties.
A few years ago, in a review of the Nine Inch Nails "Live: With Teeth" tour I did for Field’s Edge (a neutered version of the review also ran at PopMatters), I described PHM as “a perfect storm: The fury and passion behind the lyrics mixed with a completely different sound that bled into my world; I found it at a time when I was also discovering new sides of myself. The album came along at just the right time to be the single most influential collection of songs in my life before or since.”
At the time, The Cure’s Disintegration was epic, and Matt Johnson’s poetry on The The’s Mind Bomb was incredible, but what Trent Reznor captured in those ten songs on PHM was nothing short of monumental to a Midwest punk finding his way in the larger world. It was more than I could stand to not share it with everyone in my circle of friends – old and new, regardless of our personal history or musical tastes, I played this album for every last person I came in contact with for probably a year straight.
(The closest any other album has ever come to being as fundamentally meaningful to a period in my life is U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Released just after my 30th birthday at the end of 2000, this collection of songs became the soundtrack to our return to Ohio after ten years away, our trip to Paris, the birth of our son, our friendship with Jeff and Anna, our post-9/11 trip to New York City in December 2001, and on and on. But it was different, in that this was a collective soundtrack for experiences Tracy and I shared. And if you’re lucky, your thirties inhabit a very different worldview from that of your 19-year-old self.)
Much of that night two decades ago is fuzzy, and a lot of what I can remember is best left unsaid, but there was something about that moment when we shared Pretty Hate Machine, something of consequence. And sharing that collection of songs with our wider spheres of influence carried weight. A weight worth remembering 20 years later.