“Here’s a song that isn’t mine anymore,” Trent Reznor told the 1,800 fans in the Reno Hilton theater as he began singing “Hurt.” It’s an expression of isolation and self-loathing from his “The Downward Spiral” album -- and a song that makes Kurt Cobain’s tales of alienation seem almost cheery.
Reznor fell into his own downward spiral shortly after recording that song a decade ago, and millions now know “Hurt” more from Johnny Cash’s unbearably bleak interpretation in an award-winning 2003 video.
Onstage in Reno, though, Reznor made the final lines of the song sound like a statement of survival:
If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way.
Reznor’s rousing vocal was more than the sign of a man reclaiming his song. He’s also reclaiming his career, maybe even his life.
In an interview before the concert, Reznor, who tours and records under the band name Nine Inch Nails, spoke for the first time about his troubled decade, outlining in detail how he let alcohol and drug addiction strip him of his confidence and vision.
The low point was waking up one morning in London with a hospital tube in his mouth and not knowing where he was. He had overdosed on heroin in his hotel room and had been taken out through the laundry room by aides who were trying to protect his privacy.
That was after Reznor came out with his follow-up to “Spiral,” 1999’s aptly titled “The Fragile” -- an unwavering portrait of psychological helplessness that felt both frightening and sad. Sales were disappointing, and even admirers in the music industry wondered if he’d ever make another album.
But Reznor has surprised the rock world by returning with a new album, “With Teeth,” due May 3. The CD recaptures the accessibility and command of his best work, combining the savage force of “Downward Spiral” with a new, revealing sense of vulnerability. In the rock world, where visionaries with the ambition and craft to appeal to a mass audience are rare, Reznor’s resurgence is welcome news indeed.
Backstage after the concert, the 39-year-old pop auteur was all smiles. On a great night, rock bands can give you chills, and this night was one of them -- on both sides of the stage lights. Reznor was touched by the Reno audience’s warmth. But touring also reminded him of the bad old days.
“There were nights when I used to be so depressed that I would look out at the audience and resent them because they got to go home and have a good time, and the show was the only time I had any fun,” he said. “I’d go back to the hotel room and have panic attacks. I totally lost my soul.”
Airtime for single
Six years between albums can be an eternity for an artist, and Reznor worried about whether there would still be an audience waiting if he made another album.
That question won’t be fully answered until the new album hits stores, yet the evidence so far is encouraging.
Rock radio stations around the country have put “The Hand That Feeds,” the first single from the album, in heavy rotation, and tickets for nearly 40 stops on a U.S. and European theater tour were all sold in minutes. The show here in Reno was a warmup for Reznor’s headlining spot at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on May 1.
But the most convincing measure of Reznor’s continuing impact is in the devotion of the hundreds of fans, mostly in their 20s, who began lining up at 8 a.m. for the 9 p.m. concert at the Reno Hilton theater.
Many were wearing souvenir T-shirts from past Nine Inch Nails tours, and they couldn’t have looked more like outsiders as they sat patiently for hours on the casino floor, squeezed in between hundreds of middle-aged men on their right competing in a poker tournament and scores more on their left placing bets on the NCAA basketball tournament.
“A lot of people think that if you listen to depressing music, it will make you more depressed,” said Brian Stephens, 22, who drove eight hours from Panorama City with a friend. “But what really happens is the music helps you feel better because you realize that others have the same questions and doubts in life.”
Like others in line, Stephens had no idea of the notoriously private Reznor’s addiction. But he could tell from “The Fragile,” perhaps the darkest album ever to reach the national top 10, that the songwriter was going through depression, and he figured the delay in the new album was writer’s block.
Once Reznor hit the stage in the theater, which has featured the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones, the fans reacted strongly to the new material, often picking up on the words so fast that they were singing along by the end of the number.
Dressed in his trademark black, Reznor and the four-piece band opened with “Love Is Not Enough,” a song from the new album that shows Reznor has found room for gentler emotions without sacrificing the sonic punch of his trademark industrial rock assault. In the song, Reznor speaks of old friends (“In your eyes is a place worth remembering”) and new admissions (“underneath we’re not so tough”).
The growling “The Hand That Feeds” drew the most response from the audience. The track features a slightly more guitar-oriented rock sound -- not the synthesizer-driven approach of the “Downward Spiral” days.
The tune is one of Reznor’s rare excursions into social comment, a warning against blind acceptance of authority, including that of a president leading his nation to war. “Just how deep do you believe?” Reznor snarled. “Will you bite the hand that feeds? Will you chew until it bleeds? Will you get up off your knees?”
In the recording studio, Reznor plays most of the instruments himself, including guitar, synthesizers and bass. On the current tour, however, he is joined by bassist Jeordie White (who toured with Marilyn Manson as Twiggy Ramirez), guitarist Aaron North, keyboardist Alessandro Cortini and drummer Jerome Dillon.
As the band left the stage, it was easy to think back to the ‘90s, when Reznor and Cobain boldly brought raw honesty and emotion to a rock world that had become increasingly hollow and timid.
In the worst times, Reznor said, he thought about how Cobain killed himself with a shotgun and wondered about his own future.
“I wouldn’t buy a gun, but I could see where the drinking and the cocaine could lead. You get to a point where you just don’t care. When I wrote ‘Hurt,’ I was thinking about my own pain, but I was also trying to imagine the emptiest a person could feel. But ‘Hurt’ became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wasn’t flirting around the rim of darkness anymore. I was right down at the bottom of the despair.”
Creativity loves misery
After years of living in New Orleans, Reznor now makes his home in the Hollywood Hills because, for one thing, his friends here don’t drink. He used to be intimidated by life in New York and Los Angeles because he didn’t feel he could live up to expectations people have of rock stars, which is surprising because he seems so commanding onstage and so smart and articulate in interviews.
Growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, Reznor discovered early that he craved life in the extreme, from scary movies to the fire-breathing KISS. He also felt like an outsider at school, and that contributed to a resentment that fueled his aggressive musical style.
“I learned early that I could feel miserable and write about it, much more so than if I was feeling good,” Reznor said, sitting in a Culver City soundstage, where the band rehearsed for weeks before going on the road. “I could take that ugly feeling and turn it into something that even has beauty in it.
“I still remember the first time I saw people in a town I had never been to before yelling my words back at me, and I realized the music was cathartic for them, too. It was providing for them the same thing it provided for me -- the friend I never had.”
As much as he became a symbol of darkness and alienation in rock, he didn’t start living out that character in his personal life until he went on the road in support of “Downward Spiral.” He found it easier to deal with people if he had a few drinks or cocaine.
After a while, he checked into a rehab clinic in Florida.
“I had told myself for a long time that an alcoholic was a guy down the street and that a cocaine addict was a guy with his nose falling off,” he said. “I told myself I was smarter than that. I was the guy who could get onstage and make music for thousands of people. I was invincible.”
After rehab, Reznor began work on “The Fragile” in New Orleans. He was still fragile himself, but he was sober, and he threw himself into the album for several grueling months. Though the words were often generic, the music itself was extraordinary, so haunting and personal in places that it felt like a cry for help.
Looking back on the CD now, he said, “It was a record of complete fear, as if I had tapped into my insides and captured exactly how terrified I felt. I listened to it the other day for the first time in a long time, and I was amazed how frightened I sounded.”
At the time, however, Reznor was so happy to have finished the album that he did a stupid thing. He took a drink, his first since rehab. The next day he had two more, and it only got worse when he started touring again. The old insecurities were back.
“For a year, every day off, I’d spend the day sweating in a hotel room, feeling terrible about myself,” he said. “I felt I would be ruined financially if I stopped the tour and afraid I would kill myself if I continued.”
When he returned to New Orleans after the tour, he thought his career was over. “I hated making music,” he recalled. “From a commercial standpoint, ‘Fragile’ was a failure. The record company seemed to abandon us. My manager and I weren’t getting along. I didn’t feel like I could write anymore, and I couldn’t even stop drinking.” (Reznor and his former manager have sued each other, each claiming to be owed millions of dollars by the other.)
Eventually, Reznor -- seeing how tenuous life is after a friend in New Orleans was killed in an apparently random shooting -- got the strength to check himself back into a rehab center in New Orleans. It was a cold-turkey experience that still makes him shudder.
“Imagine being put in a locked room where you feel you’ve got the worst flu you can imagine and your skin feels like it’s on fire and you have to vomit constantly,” he said.
Reznor said he hasn’t had a drink in nearly four years.
Still, his reentry into the pop world has been slow. To avoid opening himself up to old temptations and insecurities, he pretty much kept to himself in New Orleans, working on a few side projects but not ready to tackle his own album until moving to Los Angeles early last year. He even cut himself off from his record company for months at a time.
Rick Rubin, the producer who suggested to Cash that he sing “Hurt,” is one of Reznor’s closest friends in the record business, but he too lost touch with him during those dark years.
“Trent’s music is a very, very personal, intimate thing,” Rubin said. “He doesn’t edit himself in any way. He’s very much of an open book in his music and in his dealings with people. He’s always pure and he’s honest, and that’s a very vulnerable place to be, so he probably learned the best way to protect himself is to just disappear if he’s not ready to deal with things. But he’s great again.”
As to whether there’s a big audience waiting for Reznor’s music, Rubin said, “I think so, definitely. He kind of carved out a niche, and even though he hasn’t always been there to push the niche forward, no one has come and taken that space.”
Jimmy Iovine, the Interscope Geffen A&M; Records chairman who signed Nine Inch Nails to Interscope, is also thrilled with Reznor’s recovery. “To me, Trent is one of those incredible talents that comes along every 10 or 20 years,” said Iovine, who as a producer or engineer worked with such major figures as John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and U2. “I never think his talent went away.”
Reznor is apprehensive about going back on the road, knowing that, for him, the touring environment made it easier to succumb to his addiction. Yet everything seems to be going well. He’s in great shape, his arm and chest muscles pressing so hard against his black T-shirt that he looks as if he just came from the gym.
“By going through recovery and rehab, it has made me learn so much about myself and why I acted the way I did,” he said. “I’ve finally begun to like myself.”
There were only band members and a few friends with Reznor backstage in Reno. After someone congratulated him on the show, Reznor held up a bottle to toast day two of the tour. This time around, the bottle was filled with water.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Reznor often listens to particular albums repeatedly while working on his own. Here are the CDs he focused on while making his last three albums.
“The Downward Spiral” (1994)
“First there was Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall.’ I liked the theme of the album [fighting against conformity] and that it was a concept. It was all about one character and I felt like that character. Then there was David Bowie’s ‘Low,’ which sounded so fragile and icy and desperate. It felt like someone was about to fall apart.”
“The Fragile” (1997)
“I spent a lot of time listening to the soundtracks of David Cronenberg films, especially ‘Crash.’ What I like about him as a filmmaker, mostly, is the sense of dread he puts into his work. You know something bad is going to happen, and the soundtrack captures that tension.”
“With Teeth” (2005)
“It was mostly like old Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd.'s ‘Flowers of Romance,’ some Pere Ubu. It wasn’t so much for songwriting, but for the spirit of those records. I wanted to avoid ... over-production, which can often result in losing the human touch in the music.
I wanted the album to sound fresh and immediate.”
On the Web
To hear samples from Trent Reznor’s and Johnny Cash’s renditions of “Hurt,” and Reznor’s new album, “With Teeth,” visit calendarlive.com/nails.
Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org.