i am just a copy of a copy of a copy
everything i say has come before
assembled into something, into something, into something
i don’t know for certain anymore
— nine inch nails, “copy of a”, 2013
when i dream, i can run.
when i wake, i can barely move. the muscles in my legs and hands are almost gone. i can’t hold a single sheet of paper. i can barely put one foot in front of the other. from the waist down, i burn with the fire of a thousand suns. my wheelchair, both saving grace and bane of my existence, invariably bends me into circus contortions. i physically fall into myself, angry and frustrated.
typing these sentences constitutes herculean effort. i am literally tormented by my own body every second of every day.
hesitation marks came today.
if you want to make god laugh, tell him about your plans.
in 1992-1993, i was living in a self-induced haze of unrealistic expectations. i breathed delusions of grandeur and pointless endeavors. i was 27, bulletproof, and invincible.
with designs on nashville fame and fortune, i began playing keyboards in a local cover band. i joined in the naïve hope we could sculpt a viable, off-kilter southern sound. something shiny and nasty, like black oak arkansas meets elton john. perhaps willie nelson doing nirvana. (it’s since been done. look it up.) but whatever the sound, don’t let ‘em see you comin’. make ‘em do a double-take. no cliches and no apologies.
back on planet earth, we routinely played the obvious to the oblivious and the disingenuous to the disinterested. we pandered, patronized, and propped ourselves up by the jukebox to play all your favorite line-dancing hits and red state classics. if it was predictable and stupid, by god we played it. twice.
but with the faith of a mustard seed, we bought a merriam-webster’s rhyming dictionary, cobbled together a few clunky rain/pain quatrains, and waited for prince charming to kneel before us, magic slipper in hand. we would make it. we would be somebody. we were convinced.
unfortunately, we were terrible.
our collective desire for success was not matched with a reason for it. we had nothing to say of any consequence. we became perfectly content and subsequently lazy, with stars in our eyes but no fire in our bellies. we couldn’t be bothered to show up on time, much less sculpt a viable, off-kilter southern sound. we just wanted to make it; we didn’t need a reason. long story short, we went through the motions, lied to ourselves, and waited to be discovered like lana turner at the top hat malt shop.
arrogance and entitlement wears thin very quickly.
by 1994, my post-gig ritual consisted of driving home alone, playing the furthest thing from the mainstream as possible in the car cassette deck, and wishing our guitar player was dead. my band mates subsisted on a steady diet of clint black, weird al yankovic, and journey. i cleared my head with danzig and the meat puppets. my fellow band members wanted to be on the cover of country weekly and i wanted to put on a hockey mask and kill them all with a scoop shovel. yea and verily, our band days were numbered. a house divided against itself cannot stand.
inertia is a powerful thing. we kept playing the same flatulent setlist for the same flatulent crowds, night after night after night ad infinitum. i don’t even remember playing some gigs. i completely zoned out after the first chord only to reawaken after the last. every song, every solo, every note was carefully rehearsed, scrubbed, and sanitized for your protection. to paraphrase waylon jennings, we did to country music what panty hose did to finger fucking. (and may i remind you, this was 1994. country music had become the night of a thousand mr. haneys. at some point during the evening, the dance floor would inevitably resemble some of george a. romero’s finest work. everything was starched. we were awash in mullets. my friends, i no longer fear hell for i have been there.) of course, we offered nothing in return, merely reflecting the medicated, sunken eyes of our zombified benefactors.
playing in a band enabled me to buy new pants and the occasional kristofferson cassette. the wolf was at the door. daddy was hungry and needed a new pair of shoes.
so i spent my nights playing billy ray cyrus, garth brooks, bob seger, and jimmy buffet. i spent my days listening to nick cave and the bad seeds, johnny cash, the grateful dead, and nine inch nails. my long and exquisitely painful nights enabled me to financially support my daytime playlist. my days enabled me to get through the night without killing myself.
i do not want this
don’t you tell me how I feel
you don’t know just how I feel
–nine inch nails, “I do not want this”, 1994
the winter of 1994 was especially brutal. just a few days before christmas, mother nature gifted us one of those frustratingly indecisive winter storms, part snow and part freezing rain. the roads were a huge question mark—would they be reasonably clear or the liliehammer winter olympics? answer: the latter, but since we had booked a corporate christmas party months in advance, i was now contractually obligated to risk my life for “god blessed texas” and the guns ‘n’ roses version of “knockin’ on heaven’s door”. if you require proof of god’s sense of humor, there you have it.
–insert gig of infinite sadness here–
inexplicably, during our last set, we attempted to play bob dylan’s “man in the long black coat”. (the joan osborne version, of course. i would have expected no less.) as it turns out, no one actually knew the song except me and our lead singer. however, i had been drinking, so we trudged onward. (i always trudge onward when i’m drinking.) the dark and ominous key of g minor was chosen. we gingerly walked through the chord changes:
g – Bb – F – d
g -Bb – F – g (repeat)
g – Bb – F – g
the piano would lead off, the vocals would follow, then everyone else would enter in a subtle nod to dylan’s effortless ambiguity. watch the tempo. nothing dramatic, just keep it murky and cryptic. make ‘em smell sulfur.
alas, that is not what happened.
good intentions, may i present the road to hell: we performed a version of “man in the long black coat” that—no exaggeration—sounded like a flight of geese in a burlap sack falling down a flight of stairs. everyone except me stayed on a g minor chord all the way through the song. i played the changes and the rest of the band incessantly droned g minor over and over and over and over and over and over. and over. it didn’t sound oblique or ambiguous; it sounded like five monkeys trying to fuck a football. of this performance, i am less than proud.
soon after midnight, we began the unenviable task of the load-out. jackson browne, in a fitting tribute to the noble roadie and the nightly tear-down, famously covered this topic, romanticizing it eloquently:
now the seats are all empty
let the roadies take the stage
pack it up and tear it down
they’re the first to come and last to leave
working for that minimum wage
now roll them cases out and lift them amps
haul them trusses down and get ‘em up them ramps
’cause when it comes to moving me
you guys are the champs
–jackson browne/bryan garofalo, “the load-out”, 1977
browne’s well-intentioned salute is duly noted, yet we—a bloated assortment of factory worker, unemployed electrician, nursing student, substitute teacher, taxidermist, woodworker, and asshole—had neither roadies nor fleets of idling semi-trucks. we hauled our equipment in a recently retired head start bus. so much for romanticism. (and thus my insistence on driving home alone.) we were our own roadies. we mournfully wrapped our own cords, tore down our own light trusses, carried our own instruments, and mashed our own fingers in car doors. the load-out may be noble, but it’s routinely painful and exhausting.
another town, another place,
another girl, another face,
another truce, another race,
i’m eating junk, feeling bad,
another night, i’m going mad,
my woman’s leaving, i feel sad,
but i just love the life i lead,
another beer is what i need,
another gig, my ears bleed,
we are the road crew
–motorhead, “(we are) the road crew”, 1980
this particular 1994 holiday evening sucked my spirit dry. we strapped music into an electric chair and screamed “roll on one!!” for four solid hours. it was excruciating. enough was enough had become too much, yet i knew what was next: the inevitable and dreaded load-out banter. the mere thought of it made me double over and shit nails. to this day, the lingering anger makes me grit my teeth so hard, i spin like the tasmanian devil, all the lights flicker, and the nearest microwave shorts out. i simply could not tolerate one more mention of u.n. black helicopters, feminazis, gay plagues, the overlooked genius of .38 special, how california should fall into the pacific, or how they’ll get my guns over my cold dead body (which, in all honesty, still sounds like a fair trade). i didn’t want to hear another bigoted boneheaded mouth-breathing knuckle-dragging bottom-feeding word out of anybody’s drooling piehole. not another fucking word.
i made three lonely nerve-wracking, buttonhole trips to the car, traversing snow drifts and patches of black ice with a back-breaking amalgamation of 88-key digital pianos, cord bags, mic stands, amp heads, and 12” speakers. on my fourth and final trip to the car, twirling a solitary keyboard stand, i found myself on the pavement looking up. in the time it took to blink, i had tripped on…something. must have been the ice. “they really need to salt this. somebody could get hurt”, i said.
i tore a hole in my jeans (quite the fashion statement in 1994), bloodied my left knee, and bruised my left elbow. the pavement was so cold, i was momentarily convinced my balls broke off. however, being 27, bulletproof, and invincible, i got up, dusted off the snow, did a quick testicular exam (all clear), and bid my fellow band members adieu with a hearty “i’ll see you bitches later”. i gimped my way to the car, using my keyboard stand as a walker. off to the figure skating competition.
i warmed up the car, silently prayed for our guitar player to enter the loving embrace of a deep dark ravine, put nine inch nails’ the downward spiral in the cassette player, and started for home. i would now sing the song of my people:
take the skin and peel it back
now doesn’t it make you feel better?
the pigs have won tonight
now they can all sleep soundly
and everything is all right
–nine inch nails, “march of the pigs”, 1994
the downward spiral is one of the most abrasive, nihilistic records to ever make the billboard charts. it’s also one of the most achingly beautiful. (it peaked at #2 in 1994, eventually selling over five million copies.) both cacophonic and catchy, it lashes out in every direction imaginable—religion, society, relationships, within. trent reznor spits venom at everything and everyone, including—and especially— himself. one moment there are insects drilling into your brain, the next is warm and liquid mercy. it erupts in anger, then disappears inside its own pain.
the downward spiral was everything i needed to hear. it was the antidote to my entire existence. in a word, it was—and still is—perfect.
nothing can stop me now
‘cause I don’t care anymore
–nine inch nails, “piggy”, 1994
i drove through the snow and the darkness, silently and gradually transformed into someone i recognized. i returned to 120 over 80. labored breathing became normal and a smile or two escaped. i forgot about falling. my elbow didn’t hurt. i no longer felt my cold and bloody knee.
i was free and clean. i felt nothing and everything.
i lost myself to find my way. i remembered me.
for some reason, i remember taking special notice of the trees as i passed by. it was long after midnight and they should have been covered in snow, yet they seemed bright as autumn.
tuesday, september 21, 1999
4:30 p.m. had finally arrived. actually, 4:25 p.m., but close enough for government work. i shut down my computer, got up, grabbed my book bag, and headed for the door. i took two steps, tripped over my own feet, and slammed head first into a concrete pillar.
when i opened my eyes, i was staring at the ceiling. wait…where am i? i was lying on my back, confused and embarrassed. my teeth chattered and my vision was blurry. i couldn’t think straight. what just happened? why am i lying in the floor? did somebody shoot me? i slowly leaned up, shook my head from side to side, widened my eyes, and reached for my book bag. i caught a glimpse of my watch: 4:35 p.m. carefully standing up, i began to massage the rapidly growing knot on my forehead. It felt like one of hellboy’s horn stumps. i licked my lips and tasted blood. then the headache arrived like a stampede of satans cast out of heaven. i winced, breathed deep, sheepishly reconned for witnesses (to my amazement, there were none), and shook it off.
“i suppose i should see a doctor”, i remember thinking. but no. i’m a man. men don’t do doctors. we suffer loudly and make widows. besides, i got shit to do.
so i drove to the mall. the fragile was coming out that day.
talking to myself all the way to the station
pictures in my head of the final destination
all lined up, all the ones that aren’t allowed to stay
tried to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away
–nine inch nails, “into the void”, 1999
i clint-squinted through rush hour traffic, miraculously arriving at tower records in one vertical, albeit wounded, piece. nothing can stop me now. neither concussion, nor confusion, nor dark of night, nor issue of blood shall tear me from my appointed destination. weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. after five interminable years, the feverishly anticipated double-disc follow up to the downward spiral had arrived. yea and verily, the lord hath smiled upon me.
i stumbled to the newly released discs, picked up the fragile, and flipped it over to see the tracklisting. the first song was called “somewhat damaged”. yeah, no shit, trent. i feel that. i just got mugged by a concrete pole. preach that gospel, brother.
i cradled the fragile as a newborn child, within my wingspan as if a baby bird. i held it as if its title were a direct order: handle with care—the fragile.
i managed to dragass my way to the checkout line. the baked and stupefied teenager behind the counter looked at me like i’d wandered off the jailbird crew picking up trash on the interstate. i was cross-eyed with a busted lip and a frankenstein monster knot on my forehead. there were drops of blood on my shirt collar. i looked like i’d been run over. in a vain attempt to assuage his suspicions, i tried to smile and couldn’t. it hurt too much. i just wanted to go home and go to bed. i slid him a $20 and closed my eyes. please, dear god almighty, just take my money. i don’t want to collapse and die in the checkout line at tower records, surrounded by cardboard cutouts of britney spears and korn. at this point, i may have started to cry. i don’t remember. everything turned opaque.
i stopped on the sidewalk and stared at my car, 10 feet away. i could feel it mocking me. i swallowed hard, whispered “good god help me jesus”, and began yet another lonely nerve-wracking, buttonhole trip to the car. at no point do i remember crawling, so i’m going to assume my prayers fell upon merciful ears.
i slumped behind the wheel, pulled down the visor, and fell asleep.
ever tried. ever failed. no matter. try again. fail again. fail better.
i was awakened by darkness and complete silence.
i took the fragile from the front seat, fought through the plastic wrapping, opened the cardboard package, and inserted disc one into the cd player.
this must be what heroin feels like. it floated out of reach, then furiously crashed to earth. whispers turned to screams, chaos turned to order, agony turned in on itself. explosions gave way to a single sleepy piano. it was dense and pummeling, but warm and safe.
beginning with “somewhat damaged” and ending with “ripe (with decay)” (clearly not gaining much traction), the fragile sounded like a vain attempt to pick up the pieces. it was ambient, danceable, and it told me the truth: the way out is through.
sitting alone in the parking lot, i listened to every dank and serrated note.
a weight lifted.
i smiled and it didn’t hurt. i could think straight. i could see.
i drove through a maze of flashing neon lights. the way out is through.
the clouds will part and the sky cracks open
and god himself will reach his fucking arm through
and push you down
just to hold you down
stuck in this hole with the shit and the piss
and it’s hard to believe it could come down to this
back at the beginning
–nine inch nails, “the wretched”, 1999
i continued to play in a series of cover bands, each one indistinguishable from the last. we would begin with high hopes and big plans, only to collapse into a fetid heap of indifference and laziness. we routinely resorted to hoary old chestnuts like “takin’ care of business”, “bad to the bone”, and “when a man loves a woman” (the michael bolton version, of course). we willingly, without gratuity or additional financial provocation, played “mustang sally”, “play that funky music”, and “gimme three steps”. you didn’t even have to ask. we played the dishonest to the disengaged and the infuriating to the inebriated. every vain attempt to replace the lowest common denominator (creed, sugar ray) with something transcendent (springsteen, the cure) was met with disdain and incredulity. so i gave up. my inner sisyphus got tired of rolling that stupid boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again. no one listened and no one cared. you win, drunk america, you win.
so i played for the money, horrible as it sounds. i grabbed my top hat and cane:
overture, cut the lights
this is it, the night of nights
no more rehearsing or nursing a part
we know every part by heart
overture, night of nights
this is it, we’ll hit the heights
and oh what heights we’ll hit
on with the show this is it!
–mack david/jerry livingston, “this is it!”, the bugs bunny show
i’m not proud of my days as a song-and-dance whore, but it paid for equipment, repairs, parking tickets, car loans, rent, girlfriend maintenance, hotel rooms, and the occasional tom t. hall box set. i sold my soul, but i bought a condo. welcome to the real world, ladies and gentlemen, where you sleep with your integrity in a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass. a brother has to do what a brother has to do.
between sets, i would often go to the car and read. i kept a pile of books in the passenger seat: davis grubb’s the night of the hunter, cormac mccarthy’s blood meridian, nietzsche’s also sprach zarathustra, the book of ecclesiastes. anything to lighten the mood. when my 15 minute break was up, i slunk back inside and slid unnoticed behind the piano, like the shadowy keyboard player(s) in black sabbath. (you didn’t know black sabbath had a keyboard player? they’ve had two: geoff nicholls and adam wakeman. oh, those wily and surreptitious birmingham devils.)
one night in bowling green, i was walking across the dance floor toward the stage and tripped over my own feet again. this time, i landed on my left shoulder and rolled back and forth to cushion the blow. i quickly got back up, but was faced with the requisite catcalls and hardee-har-hars. “too much to drink”, they said. “you need to watch where you’re going”, they said. “pick your feet up”, they said. i tried to laugh it off, but this was happening all too often. falling down may be an endless source of amusement among middle-schoolers and bar bands, but it certainly isn’t normal or funny.
something was wrong and i knew it.
after each gig, i would go home and try to teach myself to walk. desperate for muscle memory, i would start at one end of my apartment hallway, make slow and deliberate steps, and force myself to lift my feet and ankles correctly.
and i failed spectacularly. i staggered and stumbled all over that empty hallway, becoming intimate with every ass-ugly strand of its 1970s green shag carpet. i spit out dirt. i studied the baseboard paint job. (i found it haphazard and lackadaisical.) i searched for the elegant and poetic female figure in ceiling tiles. sometimes i gave up and slept in the floor. i couldn’t teach myself to walk any more than i could teach myself to moonwalk on the moon. tenacity—like love—is not enough. a man is only as good as his tools.
vanity, however, was my tipping point. i didn’t want people to stare at me like i was re-enacting the cover of ozzy osbourne’s speak of the devil. i am not a three-headed calf.
i ran out of options, so i traded in my hard-earned manly man credentials and called a doctor. first i saw a general practitioner, who referred me to a podiatrist, who referred me to a neurologist, who accidentally referred me to an multiple sclerosis specialist, who referred me to another neurologist, who referred me to a special clinic consisting of numerous pointy-headed neurologists, sleep experts, and high-functioning idiot savants.
to those unfamiliar with the infinitely cruel and byzantine nature of america’s health care system, it is nothing short of a serpentine and breathtakingly incompetent rat maze eventually leading to bankruptcy and suicide. if you’re lucky. i got diagnosed with everything from foot drop to charcot-marie tooth disease to disuse atrophy to limb-girdle to a bunch of shit i don’t even remember anymore. i even went to an amish herbal healing doctor. he made me pee in a cup, shined a flashlight in my eyes, and asked me if i was heartbroken. he told me not to eat potted meat and sold me a twice-daily regimen of roots and branches that tasted like powdered ass. it was quite the bill of goods. his last comment to me was: “do you have the internet?” my response was: “dude, you’re amish. do you have the internet?” seriously, what the fuck?
my diagnosis: doctors are faking it and hoping nobody notices, just like the rest of us.
their diagnosis: inclusion body myositis, a rare form of muscular dystrophy.
i was now one of jerry’s kids.
jerry lewis, of course. not jerry lee lewis. being a piano player, i’d gladly take whatever affliction jerry lee handed out. he’s the killer, not a killer. he’s also upright and above ground. but this? this is bullshit.
i was up above it
now i’m down in it
–nine inch nails, “down in it”, 1989
inclusion body myositis (ibm) is insidious. it steals your muscles slowly; first it comes for your feet, then your legs, then your arms and hands. pretty soon, you can’t comb your hair or tear toilet paper off the roll. ibm has no cure and it doesn’t even have the decency to be fatal. it is beyond heinous.
but it picked the wrong guy to fuck with.
i read christopher reeves’ nothing is impossible (highly recommended), got a handicapped parking placard and vehicle hand controls, started wearing some sexy plastic orthotics, and ate a lot of hard-boiled eggs and baked fish. if ibm wants a fight, by god it’s got one. bitch got a diamondback by the tail. when i’m done, people are going to feel sorry for inclusion body myositis, not me.
gentlemen, to your corners. may the best man win.
just how deep do you believe?
will you bite the hand that feeds?
will you chew until it bleeds?
can you get up off your knees?
are you brave enough to see?
do you want to change it?
–nine inch nails, “the hand that feeds”, 2005
on the first night of a weekend gig in louisville, i found myself sitting behind my bank of keyboards, secretly plotting my own disappearance. i was sick and tired of sucking hind tit. eyes shifting side to side, i was a self-conscious, frustrated, and humiliated wreck. it might as well have been “man in the long black coat” all over again.
like a particularly painful childhood trauma, i have mercifully blocked out most of our performance. i have chosen not to dwell upon it lest it bedevil me to the point of catalepsy. i do, however, recall blowing through a few jamboree classics: “some kind of wonderful” (which was decidedly not), “cold shot” (bucket of warm pee version), “knock on wood” (flaccid, yet nut-wrenching), and the arnold schoenberg twelve-tone rendition of “save the last dance for me”. we even played a “baptized” version of ac/dc’s “you shook me all night long” (“she told me come here/but i was already gone”).
zap. another microwave sent to jesus.
i remember thinking to myself, “god, i hope nobody recognizes me up here. i should stop at spencer’s gifts and buy a slipknot mask and a slaughterhouse outfit to wear for tomorrow night. ladies and gentlemen!! on keyboards…clown #6!!” a wry smile escaped as i glanced at the set list. “fuck. the chicken dance is next. then ‘wipe out’. there is no god. there is only pain.” the smile was gone.
a dwindling, insulted crowd looked at us like we were five overflowing toilets. and they were right.
our work here was done. there was but one place to go: show tunes. our guitar player was already an obsessive barry manilow fan and our drummer was the whitest black man i have ever known. it would be a short drive to oklahoma!
and i am telling you i’m not going. i’d rather die than give you control.
i would not be dressing up like patrick swayze in to wong foo, thanks for everything! julie newmar. i would neither sing in the rain, nor would i fiddle on the roof. no way in hell. never.
i hate musicals.
i hate them like vampires hate sunlight, how noel and liam hate each other. hate hate hate. the nazis pillage a city, round up all the jews and gypsys, and clearly it’s time for a musical number and dance routine. really? seven brothers ride into town, kidnap seven brides, take them to their cabin in the woods, and leave them snowed in until spring. now, everybody!! barn dance!! really?
i hate musicals with the red-hot jettisoned fire of satan’s sulfuric asshole. glee makes me want to kill kittens and drown the baby jesus. i wouldn’t cross the street to piss on broadway if its guts were on fire.
but they were galloping toward me like a scantily clad herd of dancing sailors. i could feel their fabulous breath upon my neck.
hello! ma baby
hello! ma honey
hello my ragtime gal…
–joseph e. howard/ida emerson, “hello! ma baby”, 1899
i was finished. in the words of john mellencamp, “i’m on my way and i’m not running anymore.” in retrospect, it was a wise decision, since i was physically incapable of running. i padded my shoes with quilt batting, wore my erotic orthotics, and carried a tree-limb cane. i couldn’t pick up the pace if my own ass were on fire. my last legs were down on their knees. i had no choice but to stand my ground.
i would play no more forever.
i fulfilled the remainder of my band obligations and took a hasty, long overdue bow. no happy ending, no spit and polish, no picardy third. i offered an upraised middle finger and an irish goodbye. fat ladies sang the world over. there is a god.
i prayed silently.
lord, if i can’t crawl out of this hole, please give me the strength to stop digging.
to break from what
we’re tied to
how much i’ve tried to
and i am still inside you
and I am still inside you
–nine inch nails, “home”, 2005
october 31, 2005, nashville, tennessee
there was blood in the water.
i swiftly maneuvered my wheelchair to the front of the ticket line, deftly avoiding fuck me boots and eyes of pity. i was getting good at this. all i needed was a sympathetic smile and a vague hint of light between bodies and i was in. i was like a bushytailed wood rat—if i could fit my head in, i could pull the rest of my body through.
in a matter of minutes, i was surrounded by dracula, little red riding hood, the grim reaper, batman, and the chick that crawls out of the tv in the ring. i looked at my then-girlfriend (now wife) and said, “dammit. we stand out like johnny winter in compton. i should have spray-painted my chair gold and come as larry flynt. you could have worn one of those catholic school whore getups. this is most unfortunate.”
i realize i may have abused my station in life by bullying and shaming my way to the front of the line. in my defense, i enter an alford plea. despite evidence to the contrary, i don’t harbor an inflated sense of importance or entitlement. yea, when i shitteth, it doth stink. i don’t believe i’m special. no one owes me anything. however, no one wants to get run over by franklin roosevelt and lucy spencer. so there you go. it is what it is. don’t hate me because i see your soft white underbelly.
besides, this was my first opportunity to see nine inch nails in concert. ever. i would run over a field of newborn babies to get there. like george costanza at a birthday party, i’d mow down schoolchildren, senior citizens, and a clown. it was halloween night in music city u.s.a. and cripples were on the wing. don’t you judge me.
welcome back, my friends
the show that never ends
we’re so glad you could attend
come inside, come inside
–emerson lake & palmer, “karn evil 9: 1st impression, pt. 2”, 1973
after handing our tickets to the nice lady with the 6-inch fingernails, we went through a makeshift metal detector consisting of two elderly gentlemen wielding security wands. they were looking for the usual contraband: alcohol, drugs, weapons, cameras, recording devices, backpacks, chains, spikes, ibuprofen, and healthy food. finding none of these things, they waved us on. (by the way, i have an excellent flac recording of this show and some great pictures, if you’re interested.)
with my sad and over-rehearsed countenance leading the way, we cut an anxious path through burly bearded bikers, bartenders, bodybuilders, busty burlesque dancers, and giant bunny rabbits. i remember thinking, “step aside, misfits and ne’er-do-wells!! begone, thy foul nickelback crop top abomination!! i shall part these waters left and right!! i divide…wait…was that a giant runny babbit? i love runny babbits.”
” …i divide thee, oddities and miscreants!! to section 106, row j, seats 8 and 9!! quickly!! onward, trusty metal steed!!”
we were among the first to take our seats, burrowing in and surveying all that lay before us: seizure-inducing led signage, a veritable sea of torn fishnets and black mechanic shirts, a gothic rag doll, a woman wearing a bloody wedding dress with angel wings, an undead pope, ten thousand tramp stamps, jesus christ our lord and savior, and a half-empty arena steadily transforming itself into a sardine can.
(seriously, you cannot make this shit up. man’s most vivid and cracked imagination will never compete with the circus humanity foists upon itself. truth will always be stranger than fiction.)
but despite the sideshow vibe and impressive opening acts (death from above 1979, queens of the stone age), nothing fully prepared us for the compound fracture we were about to receive.
the lights dimmed, anticipation thickened, and the ominous spiral of “pinion” fell over the arena— thrusting, slashing, pulsating. it grew louder, louder, louder, then sudden impenetrable darkness and silence. the world went away.
explosive lights and shadows, then complete darkness.
the luminous glow of 20,000 cell phones.
violent, scattered infernos of white light.
from center stage, the unmistakable voice of trent reznor:
the more that we take
the paler we get
i can’t remember what it is
we try to forget
the tile on the floor
so cold it can sting
in your eyes is a place
(“love is not enough”)
i had waited 16 years for this. from pretty hate machine (1989) to with teeth (2005), every nine inch nails record mirrored my life. for every disappointment, broken heart, betrayal, angry tirade, and awful mistake, there was reassurance: you are not the only one. the music of trent reznor helped me survive relentlessly tedious and useless nights, pulled me out of bed in the morning, and blunted the casual drudgery of everyday existence. it kept me from killing guitar players. every note was a safe place. it made me believe life is not all mud and shit.
because it’s not.
i looked around me. every single person in that arena was beautifully broken. we all are. that’s why we came. it wasn’t the big top carnival atmosphere. it wasn’t the social event of the season. it wasn’t just a night out of the house. it was reassurance: you are not the only one. we came to believe life is not all mud and shit.
because it’s not.
what if everything around you
isn’t quite as it seems?
what if all the world you think you know
is an elaborate dream?
and if you look at your own reflection
is it all you want it to be?
what if you could look right through the cracks?
would you find yourself
find yourself afraid to see?
–nine inch nails, “right where it belongs”, 2005
“intense” doesn’t even begin to describe the nine inch nails live experience. it’s a towering skyscraper and a complete meltdown, an intravenous bullseye and an unscratchable itch. it’s enraged and hurt, part riot and part prayer meeting.
and it’s louder than god.
holding an entire stadium in the palm of one hand, a solitary whispered exhortation from trent reznor—“burn this motherfucker down”—and we would gladly melt this godforsaken place into a smoldering empire of dirt. kill it all away, you say? as you wish, my liege. after all, reznor did everything except slit his own wrists and projectile bleed all over the first five rows. the least we could do is repay his intensity in kind.
instead, as the piece de resistance, the band collectively destroyed their own equipment, making every instrument a premeditated victim. guitars and mic stands pierced the air like guided missiles, drums became shards of glass and metal, and piano keys crunched under their feet. the stage was left in rubble and ruin, smothered in fog and feedback.
i left the arena numb and speechless. i felt nothing and everything,
we bungled and botched our way toward midnight and home.
i climbed into bed and closed my eyes.
ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
–leonard cohen, “anthem”, 1992
tuesday, september 3, 2013
hesitation marks came today.
in total darkness, i sat on the edge of the bed, and closed my eyes. “the eater of dreams” marched toward me, cold and sinister. it slowly took aim, growing louder and more menacing with each step. i could feel the inevitable: past would be prologue. it would turn inward, consume itself, and explode.
but it didn’t.
it shot out of the water, gasping for air. it wanted to live.
i did not have my face fixed for this. my eyes narrowed and i silently mouthed the words, “wait…what just happened? doth my ears deceive me? let there be light and there was light.” a smile escaped.
hesitation marks is unmistakably nine inch nails (danceable despair and disillusionment), but it’s—dare I say it—happier. it shimmers like bright and colorful barbed wire. much of it is sparse and subdued, beginning with minimalist drum machine patterns and steadily adding flesh, blood, and muscle to its bones. it channels prince, sly stone, and—gasp— the beach boys. there’s even falsetto and a saxophone. and despite borrowing a line from hank williams sr.’s’ “weary blues from waitin’” (“of all the things that might have been/god forgive me if i cry”), hesitation marks is not the downward spiral. if anything, it’s the upward spiral—shooting out of the water, gasping for air, and wanting to live.
just a few short years ago, trent reznor could very easily have succumbed to personal demons. but that was then. where once there was drug addiction and suicidal depression, there are now hesitation marks. perhaps he has come to believe life is not all mud and shit.
because it’s not.
but this thing that lives inside of me
the sound that rocks awake, awake, awake, awake, break
–nine inch nails, “everything”, 2013
i am destroyed.
i never know which body part will abandon me next. my legs and arms crunch like walking through snow. my every step is a downward spiral. i have the feet of an embalmed corpse and the hands of barnabas collins. i can barely write my own name. i hunch over like quasimodo tying his shoes.
i can’t even turn over in bed. my long-suffering, underpaid, and criminally unappreciated wife has to redesign and redraw my crime scene chalk-outlined body at least five times a night. defying all laws of physics, her 120-pound frame pulls me out of bed in the morning, dresses me, and makes me fit for public consumption. taking a shower risks both of our lives. i end each day in the fetal position, curled up to alleviate the pain in my back. the fragile, indeed.
i try to laugh at this ridiculous turn of events, but most of the time i end up screaming.
i am a constant and undeserved burden on everyone i love.
well, god is in his heaven
and we all want what’s his
but power and greed and corruptible seed
seem to be all that there is
–bob dylan, “blind willie mctell”, 1983
i want to play the piano again. i want to pick up my mat and walk. but i can’t. i am broken.
we all want to weep diamonds, shit rainbows, and live on love. but we can’t. we’ll raise unicorns, beat our swords into plowshares, and melt our beloved handguns into paper clips. but…no. no, we won’t. we live here. we live with built-in obsolescence and irreparable harm. everything is broken.
but that’s how the light gets in. that’s how it works.
the world is mud and shit, but life is not.
as for me, hesitation marks came today. for 61 minutes and 59 seconds, i could walk.
and when i dream, i can run.
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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