Nine Inch Nails Wave Goodbye Forever, Frighteningly Enough

Our columnist once saw Trent Reznor as terrifying, and on this latest tour, he still is, in Bigger Than the Sound.

Despite what you might have heard, in the summer of 1991, when I was 12 years old and terrified of everything, I didn’t actually go to Lollapalooza.

This is a pretty big revelation, as I have spent the subsequent 18 years pretending that I actually did go to Lolla ’91 (“Man, Body Count were crazy”), and to this day, I’m not really sure why I didn’t. I mean, it was certainly the biggest thing to hit the Central Florida Fairgrounds that summer — the standard-bearers of Alternative Nation (Jane’s Addiction, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Violent Femmes, Nine Inch Nails, the Rollins Band, etc.) in sleepy, swampy Orlando, Florida! — and I had a ticket and everything ($20, which was a lot of scratch when you were 12). I just think, when it came down to it, I was too scared to go. So the day before the show, I wussed out and told my buddies that my parents wouldn’t let me go.

And, yes, I have regretted this decision ever since.

Here’s the thing, though: Looking back on it now, what frightened me wasn’t the mosh pits (or the accompanying Dr. Martens) or Henry Rollins’ histrionics (or the accompanying short-shorts). No, that stuff actually seemed pretty thrilling to me back then. What I was scared of — I mean, positively, totally, 100 percent terrified by — was [artist id="1001"]Nine Inch Nails[/artist]. Because they were evil. This is pretty embarrassing to admit now, but when I was 12, there was no band on the planet as frightening as NIN. They were nihilistic, brutal and brooding. They were into stuff like S&M and drugs and saying “f—” a lot, and Pretty Hate Machine was the soundtrack to all of that, a violent, twisted missive that poked holes in my sunny, suburban brain (I had never heard a Skinny Puppy or Throbbing Gristle record at this point, so cut me some slack).

Frontman Trent Reznor was the worst part of it all. He personified everything evil about NIN, and rather gleefully so. Like he sang on “Wish” (which NIN had begun playing during Lolla ’91), “I’m the one without a soul/ I’m the one with this big f—ing hole.” To a suburban 12-year-old who had rung in 1991 with Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme stuck in his Walkman, this was traumatizing stuff. I was so certain Reznor was going to leap off the Lolla stage and flagellate me — while his black-clad fans cheered him on — that I opted to skip the festival altogether, $20 be damned.

In retrospect, all that fear only goes to show the power of NIN’s music and mythos (not to mention how dumb I was as a 12-year-old). In the years since, I have seen the band on several occasions — including a 2000 stop on the Fragility Tour (don’t remember much), their chill-inducing set at New Orleans’ Voodoo Music Experience , just two months after Katrina decimated the city, and last year at Lollapalooza — and not once was I even remotely frightened. In fact, during some of the Ghosts I-IV stuff they worked through at Lolla, I was even slightly bored.

Basically, I had triumphed over my inner 12-year-old. But then, last week, someone brought up a good point: I’ve never actually seen a Nine Inch Nails show. The Fragility gig didn’t count, since it was at an arena and I was so intoxicated, and I’ve only caught festival gigs since then. I’ve had ample opportunities to see them at various points in between, yet, for whatever reason, I always skipped those shows. Was I still actually terrified of Trent Reznor?

This seemed rather funny to me. After all, I have interviewed Reznor and found him to be a nice, if somewhat serious, guy. He’s gotten clean and gotten buff and is decidedly less nihilistic than he was 20 years ago, when he first started Nine Inch Nails. Still, maybe there was something to it. I mean, I generally prefer my music as cloying and unthreatening as possible (Sufjan Stevens, Wilco, the National, et al), so I decided that I had to face my fears once and for all. I was going to see a real NIN show.

Of course, I had to do it fast, since NIN are currently in the midst of their 10-date Wave Goodbye Tour, a farewell run of shows in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles (and one in Toronto at some festival, but who’s counting?). So on Tuesday, I plunked down $55 (which is a lot of scratch when you’re 30 and it’s a recession) and packed into New York’s Terminal 5 to catch the band for the first — and last — time.

And after something like 29 songs stretched over 250 minutes, I can unequivocally say that I am still positively, totally, 100 percent terrified by Nine Inch Nails. Not so much because they’re evil or nihilistic or really into S&M (all those things seem to have disappeared with age), but because they are a frighteningly great band, the kind capable of creating thunderous rackets one minute (“March of the Pigs,” “Burn,” “Survivalism” and, of course, “Head Like a Hole”) and whisper-quiet atmospheres the next (“La Mer,” “The Fragile,” “The Way Out Is Through”). Their live show is a whirlwind of tempos and emotions, of volume and violence, of subterfuge and defiance. They summon great waves of industrial noise and fury, currents of slinking, slurring bass lines and tracks of clicking, ticking electronics, and they do it all with lockstep precision. They are a machine.

And deservingly, they command an army of frighteningly loyal fans, the kind that sweat and bleed for them, the kind that turned Terminal 5 into a hazy, stinking hive of fists and legs and emotion. If anything, Tuesday’s NIN show made me feel 12 all over again (OK, maybe closer to 16); it was packed, sweaty, dangerous. Kids surged toward the stage from the opening strains of “Home” and didn’t let up until the final booming chords of “Hurt” had finished echoing around the room. There was pot smoke and crowd-surfers, kids with bloody heads and terrified girls pushing by you, trying to break free from the masses. I haven’t been to a show like this since I was in high school. And that’s pretty scary, when I think about it.

But here’s the thing I found most frightening about the whole Nine Inch Nails experience on Tuesday: After they wrap up the Wave Goodbye Tour next month in Los Angeles, NIN will cease to exist. We will have lost one of our most confounding, confrontational and uncompromising bands, and I’m not sure there’s anyone waiting in the wings to replace them. There will be a whole new generation of 12-year-olds who won’t even have the option of wussing out of a NIN show, which, to me, is more terrifying than the “Happiness in Slavery” video (which is banned just about everywhere).

So, if this really is it, thanks for frightening me for all these years, Trent. Thanks for never bending or breaking. Thanks for always pushing the envelope and never backing down or editing or filtering. Thanks for being Nine Inch Nails. I’ll see you in my nightmares.

Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.