Being confined in a small dark room snout-to-snout with Trent Reznor and his music for two-and-a-half hours -- which was the case at Nine Inch Nails' "goodbye tour" show Saturday at New York City's tiny Bowery Ballroom -- is a rather startling experience for everyone involved.
(See a photo gallery of the show here.)
Sure, he could scoot up to the tiny Bowery dressing room for a B12 shot (or whatever uber-healthy 44-year-old rock stars resort to these days) or we could flee to the pissoir and pound another $7 draft, but after Nine Inch Nails' pistoning programmed beats and power-sawing guitars jacked into their relentless, familiar schematics, and Reznor assumed his clenched crouch behind the mike (imagine an NFL fullback picking up a blitzing linebacker), we were all locked in the ritual together.
And make no mistake, despite the towers of cornea-lashing strobes behind the piles of equipment onstage, this was a ritual not a spectacle. There were no scrims or cage-like lattices or dry-ice fog banks or video screens to mediate (or enhance) the encounter, as with NIN's arena and stadium appearances. When you looked up at the stage, you saw four veteran, dark t-shirted artisans carefully sculpting a visceral raaarrggh of desperation over and over and over. Fifteen years after The Downward Spiral album portrayed a self-destructive, end-times victim renouncing love and God and ultimately snuffing himself, in songs that felt like the overture to an S&M orgy, here we were again, trying to purge our impure bodies and minds by repeatedly agreeing : "We're totally fucked, but..."
Reznor himself, about a third of the way into the set, even seemed taken aback. "There's no place to hide up here," he said with slight sheepishness. "Usually, we have little places where I can go hide and drink tea, but tonight I'm kinda stuck." A supportive voice from the balcony yelled, "You can hide!" (Now there's a true believer).
And it must've been a little awkward for him to stand there, an arm's-length from the audience, politely expressing thanks after just completing a shuddering lurch of a song about a suicidal man patronizing a prostitute because, in his twisted delusion, she's the only person who could possibly be as dead inside as him. Of course, he's horribly disgusted by her, and alternately howls and croons, "She has the blood of reptile just underneath her skin / Seeds from a thousand others drip down from within" ("Reptile" from The Downward Spiral).
So it subsequently felt somewhat forced when he added, "But it's good to be back where we belong [presumably in a smaller venue], where you can actually see people." Really? To be honest, I could've used a smidge of theatrical distance and Jumbotron jabberwocky at that point. It was like meeting someone at a party who you've always been fascinated with from afar, and they suddenly start discussing the specifics of their urinary tract infection. Of course, maybe if you can survive that, you've really got a strong foundation for a relationship, but I'd rather not find out.
Later in the set, after the tangled electronic flurry of "Survivalism" -- which envisions America as a militia-movement sockhop fist-fuck with Reznor growling, "Can't seem to keep her legs shut / Our mother nature is a whore" -- he spoke again, more reflectively this time, musing on how, as a young Pennsylvania industrial/goth kid he used to "come up and play some terrible shows in New York." Again, looking sheepish, he added, "If any of you were there, you know how much they sucked. Make no mistake, we've done some sucking in our day."
Having been at one of those shows, circa 1989, at some Manhattan club I can't remember, only because a friend of a friend had once done some temp work in the same office as Reznor (or that was the story), he's right, they did kinda suck, almost to an embarrassing extent. It was uncomfortable being so close to such a self-serious kid who was so intently trying to spew what to him was all this incredibly scary and depressing stuff via his limited electronic-rock gear to a bunch of random bystanders who were snickering to themselves. "Nine Inch Nails," I recall somebody muttering, "is that supposed to be funny?" No, it wasn't, and that was the point. Unlike Big Black or Ministry, which Reznor bit equally, there was no sarcastic wit or wicked glint being attempted. He was about the grand, morose, self-abusing manifesto.
And once he got the confidence and the musical oomph behind him, that manifesto found its own grandiose level, defining a sector of the '90s, as Reznor eagerly popularized various transgressive subcultures, mixing the kabuki-rock hustle of KISS with punk's most nihilistic gestures and the illness-as-metaphor, performance-art pain of Bob Flanagan, pushing and playing with the barriers of what was permissible in the realm of corporate entertainment.
As various institutions pushed back, high drama resulted -- for one thing, the Republican "culture war" ramped up to even more hysterical levels. And over time, his music, as well as the videos that accompanied it, probably schooled (and/or terrorized) more 12-year-olds about the menacing morass of sex and religion and governmental control that awaited them as adults than any other pop-culture phenomenon of the past 20 years. Whether or not that's a good thing is, honestly, your own individual problem to resolve, but for better or worse, Reznor largely redefined mainstream rock'n'roll as that very dilemma.
Now, in 2009, as he plows through his "Wave Goodbye" tour, ending on Sept. 6 at the relatively tiny Echoplex club in Los Angeles, claiming he'll never take the stage again under the Nine Inch Nails banner, those boundaries have crumbled, and those institutions are collapsing. But even though Reznor has embraced the Internet as a fresh way to control his own brand outside the incompetent record-industry system, his music, at least as Nine Inch Nails, remains a lonely, dystopian wail.
Perhaps after so successfully and so mercilessly flaying himself and his audience and society at large for so long, he needs to stop and figure out how to live a life that's not so inevitably bound by apocalyptic melodrama and empires of dirt and crowns of shit. Maybe the last institution he needs to destroy to glimpse the future is Nine Inch Nails Inc. As he himself has written on his website about young artists who wanna be hugely famous and commercially successful like Lady Gaga or U2 (or Nine Inch Nails) in the current economic climate: "Good luck with that one."