Friday, July 22, 2011

Who We Used To Be

Nine Inch Nails
27 June 2006: Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is a folk hero in these parts. A musician friend of mine once observed, “Everybody in Northeast Ohio has a Trent story.” And she’s right. My wife has hers (tales of Trent dating her best friend and of watching Trent play in his garage), I have mine (memories of Trent frequenting the record shop I worked at, bringing in and playing demos of what would become Pretty Hate Machine) and our friends have theirs. Even now, over 20 years after he arrived in Cleveland, Reznor’s impact on the local music landscape is as legendary as the way he changed the face of industrial music on a global scale. Given all that history, when he plays here, the shows seem to be about more than just the music.

I have seen Nine Inch Nails in concert more times than I can count, and all of them at assorted hole-in-the-wall Cleveland bars and venues in support of Pretty Hate Machine in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The debut album was 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. For that reason, I originally approached Reznor’s homecoming show with reservation. But at the urging of my wife, and the opportunity to see Goth godfathers Bauhaus, I was persuaded.

And when Bauhaus strolled on stage amid fog machines and white light for their hour-long set, I knew I had made the right decision. It was strange to see the founders of the Goth movement playing while the sun was still up. The rains and humidity had created real fog just off to the left of the amphitheater stage, carrying the theatrics into the crowd of Goth girls in black prom dresses and punks who weren’t around when Bauhaus originally formed. We were close enough to the stage to see the band well, but far enough away to preserve my original images of the group in their heyday.

Songs like “Double Dare”, “In the Flat Field”, “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores”, and the one-two closers “Stigmata Martyr” and “Dark Entries” all sounded as fresh as they do on 1982’s live effort, Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape. Thoughts of an album of new material danced through the heads of the faithful as the new tunes, “Adrenaline” and “Endless Summer of the Damned”, were unveiled -- although the latter was slight on substance and long on cliché (as evidenced by the title), even for these guys.

The sibling rhythm section of Kevin Haskins and David J carried the show, and you could feel the muscular beats pulsing in your chest. Peter Murphy’s singing was spot on, and he sounded every bit the English gentleman, even as he bitched out the lighting people from the stage – pointing out the differences between left and right and telling them not to fuck it up again. Daniel Ash, sporting a white shag carpet vest and oversized bug-eye sunglasses, was the consummate glam rock guitarist. And his on-stage shtick was the same as it was 25 years ago – stalking the stage, playing guitar on his knees, and punctuating songs with his saxophone skronk.

During Bauhaus’ set, the rains stopped and the temperature dropped. Blossom’s lawn took on mudslide qualities and visions of Reznor’s infamous Woodstock appearance were replaying in my mind. Although the mosh pit in front of the stage was complemented nicely by a mud pit at the base of the sloping lawn, a recreation of the literal mud-slinging of that ’94 incident never materialized here. Shortly after sunset, the house lights dimmed, and the deafening roar of the crowd was supplanted by the slow build of “Somewhat Damaged” – the first of five songs off of 1999’s The Fragile. (The song selection was the most curious aspect of the show. Apart from the new song, “Non Entity”, the band only played three songs off of the support album, With Teeth, and three off of the critical and popular darling, The Downward Spiral. Four songs each were played off of Pretty Hate Machine and the stop-gap Broken EP.)

Hearing songs that I had never previously experienced live was a treat. The folding cage of lights that was lowered and raised throughout the show was partially down during “Closer” – where the center section slowly “filled” with red Matrix-style dashes and blips of light, but it was the funky workout of Broken’s “Suck” towards the end of the set that really stood out. The touring band, which includes Jordie White (formerly Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson’s band) and Josh Freese (who has played with Akron’s Devo), allowed the song to retain its aggressive nature while stretching and breathing in a groove.

While “Hurt” was an expected showstopper, it exceeded expectations. Reznor was exposed, alone on keyboards, and it was as intimate as any of the 100-listener shows I saw him perform over two decades ago. Something about the ringing piano and Reznor’s melodies never seem quite right, they always seem broken – musically, emotionally. Although the song isn’t a sing-along, per se, the crowd made it one in the most reverential of ways and as the band came in at the end for a beautiful slow burn, there was nothing left but passion.

Of the new songs, “Only” could be the next “Down In It”. From its emphasis on synthesizers to Reznor’s more-rapping-than-singing approach to the “tiniest little dot” lyrical reference, the song is a throwback to the Pretty Hate Machine material.

Things got arena-rock clichéd, though, during the chorus, when too-clever lighting took the focus off the band and put it on the crowd during “There is no you” and reversed the effect during the “There is only me” lines. The clap-along to “The Hand that Feeds” also treaded the cliché, but that is today’s Nine Inch Nails – including a Reznor who has transformed himself from skinny kid into Henry Rollins’ little brother, complete with ’roid-y muscles, sleeveless shirts, and a buzz cut.

Although I understand what Reznor has done with his music (and image, for that matter), I have had a love/hate relationship with him since the early days, when he wrote the soundtrack for my life and then turned around and marketed it to frat boys. And “The Hand that Feeds” almost seems like an acknowledgement, an apology for it – “What if the whole crusade’s a charade / And behind it all there’s a price to be paid... Just how deep do you believe? / Will you bite the hand that feeds?... Are you brave enough to see it? / Do you want to change it?” – wrapped in a neat industrial-pop package, of course.

This night, it was the Pretty Hate Machine cuts that were the most amazing. I had forgotten how powerful these songs are when played live. The synths of “Something I Can Never Have” were mixed behind the chest-rumbling bass and stripped-bare vocals, complete with a cough by Reznor that made it all the more real. Synths poked through the guitars’ wall of sound like glass stabbing at skin on “Down In It”, and the party spun out of control during the set closing “Head Like a Hole”. Ferocious, angry, exhilarating. Hands and voices were raised as one: “Bow down before the one you serve!” The crowd noise was deafening as the house lights came up, the cage lowered, and the “NIN” logo was flashed in lights on it. No need for an encore.

Regardless of the mixed up nostalgia and confusion that accompanies growing older and watching your heroes do the same, everything about this show felt right. And between songs, Reznor summed it all up perfectly when he told the crowd, “It’s good to be home. All grown up.”

(Edited versions of this piece have been published by PopMatters and Field’s Edge.)

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