“Something I Can Never Have”
Nine Inch Nails
Pretty Hate Machine
I have always listened to all kinds of music, from pop to new wave to hard rock to synthpop to alternative to alt country. But in my mid-high school years, I was deep in classic rock. I loved the Who, Jim Morrison and the Doors, Queen, Boston, the Kinks, the Stones. Also on that list was Pink Floyd. Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, the post-Roger Waters A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and, of course, The Wall all rotated through my various cassette decks. It seems there are very few white, suburban, adolescent boys who don’t fall under the sway of The Wall at one point or another. It’s an album that, despite its rock star narrative, speaks to the isolation of youth. And I was no different.
While maybe not apparent at first glance, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine was a logical progression for me. Thematically, it represents the tumultuous stretch from teen to young adult that follows. Where The Wall plays to adolescent confusion, Pretty Hate Machine mines the raging hormones of teenage angst.
“Something I Can Never Have” fit perfectly in the headspace of a 19 year-old creative writing major who fancied himself a tortured poet. Every agonizing line of this thing reeks of hyper-romanticized desperation. Lyrically, the fifth track on Pretty Hate Machine is a downward spiral (no pun intended) of adolescent love and loss. The imagery is stark, heart-ripped-out, post-relationship depression, but there is a poetry to the torment that I love. Lines like “My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore / Scraping through my head ‘till I don’t want to sleep anymore” and “This thing is slowly taking me apart / Gray would be the color if I had a heart” were both beautiful and right in the wheelhouse of my own over-wrought conviction.
I subtitled both discs in the original BGSU / Fall 1989-Spring 1990 set with lines pulled from Pretty Hate Machine songs, and “Something I Can Never Have” provided disc one with the perfect encapsulation: “Just a Fading Fucking Reminder of Who I Used to Be”. It’s a good line that works in the song, but taken out of context, I loved how it could be interpreted multiple ways as the title of the disc. Sarcastic bravado or hidden embarrassment of misspent youth? Does it matter?
Musically, the tune borrows heavily from The Wall’s “Goodbye Blue Sky”. The underlying atmospherics ape the song to the point where I have always mentally inserted the “Did-did-did-did-did-did you see the frightened ones?” opening line of the Floyd classic. That’s not a knock on Trent Reznor or “Something I Can Never Have”, I always took it as just another example of the link between what was my old self and my then-new self.
Mix playlists are as much about the song-to-song flow as the song selection. And I love the way the Gothic noir of “The Spy in the Cab” bleeds into the industrial quiet of this particular Nine Inch Nails’ tune. Looking back on the romantic relationships I screwed up in college (and there were plenty), “Something I Can Never Have” perfectly fit the post-destruction sentiment at a time when every emotion was felt on an epic scale. It captured the profound loss of intensely burning love and lust.