On Getting Older And Nine Inch Nails

File:Nine Inch Nails logo.svgTimes change.  Yes, that’s stating the obvious, because if they didn’t change we’d all still be living in a world where wheels were square, where Isaac Newtown is still trying to explain why apples fall to earth, and this thing called the internet was even so much as a pipe dream.  But even if I know things changed, it wasn’t until I started to actually get older myself that I really became aware of it.

(As an aside, when I say ‘get older’ I mean in the ‘nearing-40’ sense of the phrase, not the ‘nearing retirement’ sense.)

And because times change, it stands to reason things I used to be really into just 20 short years ago would no longer have the same appeal, just as things I thought really lame and boring might now kind of fun and interesting.  And even many things I still enjoy from 20 years ago have not been immune to change.  Sometimes they’re maddening and saddening.  Sometimes they’re downright goofy.

Let us consider Nine Inch Nails.

Trent-Reznor 2009.jpg

It was 1992 when I discovered Nine Inch Nails, which in itself is not exactly true, because I’d been aware of them before, at least in a tangential way.  In fact, my first memory of them isn’t actually a NIN memory at all.  Instead, it’s a memory of playing backyard football with my neighbor when I was 14 or so – this was 1989 – and having one of my neighbor’s friend’s spend all his time between downs singing the chorus to some song I’d never heard of.  And it was only singing in the loosest sense of the word, because in reality it was more akin to chanting.

I was up above it, now I’m down in it.”

It was that, the chorus to Down In It, over and over and over again, like a strange version of tourettes.

I was up above it, now I’m down in it.”

Curiously, in my memory this event is forever linked to another, disparate event, straight out of one of my earliest college classes.  It’s 1994 – public speaking was the class – and the guy sitting next to me kept singing “Soaring on a chemical/why don’t you kill me.”

No, not so much singing as chanting.

“Soaring on a chemical/why don’t you kill me.”

Over.  And over.  And over.

Obviously, anybody with half a brain recognizes that as a misheard lyric from Beck’s Loser, the fact that it was misheard was probably the reason it sticks with me.

Anyway, there’s no real rhyme or reason as to why these two events are tied together – they just are.  I suppose it could be I love both songs, or it could be the mind does funny things.  Or maybe it’s just the incessant chanting.  I suppose the only way to know for sure would be for somebody to repeatedly chant some song to me now and check back in 20 years to see if it stuck.  Still, I don’t think it will, largely because of the theory that when a person knows he’s being studied, he unconsciously alters his behavior and is incapable of natural reactions.

It wasn’t until watching MTV in my sister’s trailer while babysitting her brats – oh, all right, they weren’t brats, even if it gives the story flavor if I say they were – that my Nine Inch Nails journey really began.  This was back in the day when MTV still regularly played videos and even though I know we had the channel at home, because I distinctly remember being subjected to the video to George Michael’s Faith in my parent’s living room, it wasn’t exactly acceptable viewing.  The Nashville Network?  Watch as much as you like.  MTV?  Not on your life.

(BTW, after watching the video for Faith, with all the shaking man-ass, is there anything less-surprising in hindsight than George Michael being gay?)

Because MTV was looked down on, no surprise I missed more popular music than I caught.  It was also why I spent lots and lots of time at my sister’s, looking to catch up – I guess being a free babysitter was just the price I had to pay.  And it was there, in my sister’s trailer, where I saw the video for Wish for the first time.  Needless to say, I was hooked.

Here was this video for a song that said lots of those things I was thinking, that felt the things I was feeling, and managed to dispense with all the bullshit and artifice of hair metal.  It was true, which in a nice bit of symmetry, was exactly what the song wished for.  And so intense was my reaction to it that every other band I thought I cared for – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Doors – immediately became bastard step-children, ghettoized by my adoration of NIN.

In one fell swoop, everything changed.

(As an aside, it was near this time I first caught the video for Been Caught Stealing for the first time – hell, for all I know, it might have been the very same night.  In fact, it’s a much better story if I did see them on the same night, given the way both NIN and Jane’s Addiction affected me to my very core.  Still, memory is faulty, so I’ll never know for sure.)

So, here I was hooked.  But though I was newfound NIN junky didn’t mean I had the wherewithal – financially speaking – to feed my monkey, because the truth of my family was allowances were not given.  If you had money, it’s because you earned it.  Therefore, if I wanted anything, I paid for it with money from my job.  This included a car and insurance and movies and music and everything.  (Oh, did I mention that I was 15 when I got my first job and have worked steadily since?  Great days.)

Anyway, because I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a ‘high dollar earner’ at the time, my expenses – a car, even a cheap car, ain’t all that cheap – I didn’t have a ready well of cash to draw from.  Meaning my fix of new music was fed by the radio, which didn’t play a lot of NIN, or MTV, which played as little NIN as the radio did, lost as it was in Dr. Dre’s The Chronic – great album – and the less-great Rico Suave.

Mercifully, some lost money at work found a home with me.  No, I’m not proud to say it, but at 16 my policy was pretty simple: if I found money, I kept it.  Which is how I managed to have the money to procure a cassette for Broken that I think I wore out from overplaying.  In fact, I was so blown away by it I thought, ‘hey, I should review this thing for the school newspaper.’  So I did.  The one line from the review that sticks with me?  ‘This album is like a 30-minute orgasm’.  In my memory, that particular line managed to make its way into print.  I have no actual proof to back this up but, as we learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

So, my review made print.

Coming to NIN late, I didn’t have the chance to see them on Lollapalooza and even if I could have seen them, I still couldn’t – there is no way I could pay for the tickets on my own.  And even if I could I was too young to drive and there was no way my parents would ever take me.  So, it wasn’t until the Downward Spiral Tour I saw them live for the first time – a little research reveals it was actually called the Self-Destruct Tour and Nine Inch Nails online actually provides the exact date of the show – January 12, 1995.  I wasn’t yet 20 when I saw them, going with my wife, Amy – I hadn’t married her yet, I would – and my roommate Adrian.  Neither of them were into NIN like I was, and never would be, but they went just the same because that’s what you do when you’re young – you go to concerts.

It’s fun to remember this show occurred in the days before Ticketmaster Hoovered up all the ticket business and took it all online and pretty much ruined everything with instant sellouts that somehow managed to move all the tickets from their own site to places like Stubhub.com only seconds later.  No, if you wanted tickets you didn’t fire up an app, or deal with an online scalper, you actually had to stand in a line with actual physical people standing in it.  So that’s what I did, got up early the morning the tickets went on sale, went down to the stadium and stood in a line.  It should come as no surprise that waiting in that line plays a large part in my own personal mythology – at least the one I’ve constructed in my own head.

Anyway, there were two opening acts when the show rolled around.  There was Pop Will Eat Itself and despite the fact that the lead singer, Clint Mansell, has gone onto a pretty long career writing music for the movies, I only have a clear memory of just one song from them.  It’s a little thing I like to remember as Slamdance – because that seemed to be the only word of the chorus.  Except, here’s the funny thing, there doesn’t seem to be any song in the PWEI cannon by that name.  And sadly, since I have no interest in plumbing the depths of their back catalog to find the truth, I suppose I’ll never know for sure.  Still, from the little digging I did do I turned up a video for Ich Bin Ein Auslander, which feels very familiar.  So, there you go – memory lane.

The other opening act was the Jim Rose Circus, which is actually the clearer in my memory of the two, but I suppose that’s to be expected when you see a guy swing a suitcase from his nuts – you tend to remember that kind of thing.

Anyway, because it was my first show that didn’t involve a church yard or hay bales or square-dancing or my parents sitting there watching, I didn’t know what to expect.  Being taught as a child how to be pessimistic and believe the worst in everything, I bought special footwear because I’d somehow convinced myself I’d have my toes crushed, and parked myself  up front, stage center.  After all, that seemed to be the best place to see a show and while I was right about that, it was also the best place to be if you wanted to get crushed against a metal barricade.  No surprise, by the end I’d pretty much allowed myself to be shoved off to the side, where I could see well-enough and wasn’t in risk of losing my life.

Good news is, I managed to keep my toes and these are the shoes that kept me safe – I have them to this day.


Needless to say, though I was already a fan, that show hooked me.  It was energetic, raucous and Trent Reznor ran wild thourhgout, smashing a keyboard and so selling the music that for years afterwards other shows by other bands would always pale in comparison.  For instance, when I saw Smashing Pumpkins and Garbage, a year or so later, I was so underwhelmed by the Pumpkins listless stage presence I basically swore them off forever and in my mind they released no albums after Siamese Dream.  Would I feel this way had I not seen NIN?  I don’t know, but it certainly didn’t help.

I next caught NIN on the Outside tour, with David Bowie.  This was October of 1995 and I remember we had good seats, on the floor, just behind the pit.  This seating was an improvement over the first show because from our vantage point we could see everything unobstructed, we were near center, and nobody could crush me against a barricade.  Better, when I got tired of standing, I had an honest-to-goodness chair to take a load off in.  Anyway, as strong as the show was, the sad truth is I wasn’t a fan of Bowie then and so when he segued onstage, via a duet with NIN – NIN were not the headliner than night – I pretty much bailed.  In hindsight I regret this, because how many times in your life do you get to see David Bowie, but that was 18 years ago, so I’m over it now.

By the time I saw them again, ten years on, during the With Teeth tour in early 2o06, things had definitely changed.  Obviously, I was married and had kids, so that was change one.  Change two was I was on the verge of graduating Law School – yes, I’m a bit of a late bloomer, so law school at 30 was no big deal – and because I was living in a satellite location for school, while the wife was back at home with the kids, we had to meet in Grand Rapids for the show – an hour drive for us both.

Honestly, it was only because of the wife I even went to the show at all.  Yes, I was still a big NIN fan but in law school I had other priorities – concerts were just of my radar.  The wife, being as amazing as she is, put it on my radar, buying the tickets for a Christmas gift.

Except, rather than hide them from me in some conventional way, like in her closet or sock drawer, she hid them in the spice drawer in the kitchen, thinking I’d never find them there.  Even though I tend to be the primary cook in the family.  And it’s not unlikely I’d look in the spice drawer for spices.  And I did.  But at least I was smart enough not to say anything about it, at least not until she properly gave me the tickets and I had to admit I’d known about them all along.

For this show I’d all but given up the idea of being in the pit and amongst all the rowdiness or even anywhere near it.  After all, I’d gotten to the point in life where that kind of thing wasn’t for me – a good rule of thumb for everybody is that, once you have children, you are not allowed to act like them ever again.  So I stood a bit off to the side, closer to the back than front, and anybody who’s seen the Beside You In Time DVD knows it was a stellar show.  Even if my particular version of the show was abbreviated, cut short as it was by some jackass throwing a lighter onstage and hitting Trent Reznor.  Reznor immediately bailed and, even if I’m bummed he did, I couldn’t really blame him.

(As an aside, could somebody explain to me again why security confiscated the carabiner on my key ring but let through every lighter they saw?)

So here we are, nearly twenty years after that first show, and Nine Inch Nails is touring again.  This time it’s called the Tension Tour – I caught it at the Palace of Auburn Hills on October 7, 2013 – things are ever-changing.

The cell phones that basically didn’t exist back in the day, because they were too expensive and too bulky for regular people to have, were now so small and cheap and ubiquitous that half the crowd spent more time watching the show through the screen on their phones as they recorded it, instead of just watching the show.

And the thrown lighter that cut short the last show I saw?  Nobody continued to give a damn about lighters and fortunately they didn’t give a damn about the carabiner on my key chain this time, either.

And my eyesight?  Well, this time I wore glasses when I saw them.  Funny story about that – I didn’t realize I couldn’t see very well until I went to law school and found myself squinting through the materials the professors projected on the overheads.  When I asked my neighbor why the prof didn’t realize they were out of focus, she told me they were in focus and my need for glasses was born.

And glasses would be a big help to me because, curiously, as I get older, I prefer to sit farther away.  The first show, front and center.  The fourth show, upper deck.

But I’m not the only one changed.  Trent Reznor?  The angry young genius behind it all, the one raging against the world and being pelted with mud at Woodstock?  Now married, with a family.  And an Oscar and Golden Globe.  And a side project with his wife.

And the show itself?  Well, there are always incredibly overpriced tour shirts and merchandise.  But now there were vendors selling popcorn and candied almonds.  And the choreography of the light show now required about a dozen technical/computer people to run, not to mention other guitar techs running about.  Or the eight singers/musicians on stage.  Gone were the days when Trent Reznor ran around and simply smashed things for production value – now he had actual production value.

But as much as some things changed, some things stayed the same.  The show was great, as always.  The primary light arrays over the band, with the lights arranged in a tic-tac-toe board shape, were eerily reminiscent of the lights used during the Outside tour with David Bowie.  And yes, even though those guys are all pressing 50 and I’m pressing 40, it seems that the one thing that never changes is there will always be something to rebel against, even if it isn’t exactly the same things we fought before.

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