The Music Of Rage
Is Nine Inch Nails' lead singer, Trent Reznor, fury incarnate or just a hardworking guy with a gig?
Even rock stars can be broken-hearted. And when they are, they can usually count
on a little help from their friends. But when word spread among Nine Inch Nails fans
recently that group leader Trent Reznor's dog, Maise, had died after falling 50 feet
from a third floor balcony in a Columbus, Ohio, concert hall, the grief wasn't
universal. "I'm sort of happy that Trent's dog died," said leather clad Laurie Davis, 21,
during a NIN concert outside Chicago a week after the accident. "I like it when he's
depressed. It's good for his music."
Reznor would likely agree. Wailing his songs about self-loathing, sexual obsession,
torture and suicide over a thick sludge of gnashing guitars and computer-synthesized
beats, the 29-year-old rocker, like Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne before him, has
built his name on theatrics adn hihilism. Nearly all of Reznor's lyrics are unprintable,
and his videos, with their frightful scenes of dismemberment and sadomasochism, has
been censored or banned outright by MTV. Yet Nine Inch Nails' three dark and
complex albums- 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, 1992's Grammy-winning Broken (EP)
and their current Grammy nominee and million selling megahit The Downward Spiral-
all made Billboard's pop charts. The group's continuing Self Destruct Tour, which
played 83 sold out concerts in 71 cities last year and has grossed more than $10
million to date, has won raves from critics and fans for performances as intense and
viscerally thrilling as any in rock. "There is no music out there like this," said one fan
after the Chicago concert. "They are a step beyond."
Much as Reznor's fans worship him- "He is my messiah," proclaimed one devotee on
an Internet chat line recently- he may figure in the nightmares of their parents, who
wonder what rock will come up with next. But even the shouts of fundamentalist
Christians who picket the band's concert sites claiming Reznor is doing "the work of
the devil" are music to the singer's ears. "Rock music was never meant to be safe," he
told Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn last October. "Ther needs to be
an element of intrigue, mystery, subversiveness. Your parents *should* hate it. If you
think I worship Satan because of something you see in the `Closer' video [with its
images of a crucified monkey]- great!"
So is this guy the product of a warped childhood or not? Surprisingly, the answer is
not. Reznor was raised from the age of 6 by his maternal grandparents in little
Mercer, Pa., north of Pittsburgh, after his parents, Mike, and interior designer and
amateur bluegrass musician, and Nancy, a homemaker, divorced in the early 70's.
And even though his only sibling, Tera, now 24 and mother of two, lived nearby with
Nancy, Reznor did not grow up steeped in bitterness. "He was always a good kid,"
says his grandfather Bill Clark, 84, a semi retired furniture salesman, as he pers Rusty,
the chocolate Labrador Reznor gave him, and recalls idyllic days spent cane-pole
fishing with his grandson, a Boy Scout who loved to skateboard, build model planes
and play the piano. "Music was his life, from the time he was a wee boy. He was so
Though family and friends saw few hints of the fearsome dramaturgy to come-
Reznor's playing "always reminded me of Harry Connick Jr.," says his former piano
teacher, Rita Beglin- no one in Mercer seemed surprised by his success.
Remembered as clean-cut, handsome and popular, Reznor, who played tenor sax
and keyboards, starred in his Mercer Area Junior and Senior High School jazz and
marching bands, was voted best in drama by his classmates and performed with
various local rock groups before and after graduating in 1983. "I considered him to
be very upbeat and friendly," says Mercer's band director Hendley Hoge, 40. "I think
all that 'dark avenging angel' stuff is marketing- Trent making a career for himself."
After a year studying computer engineering at nearby Allegheny College, Reznor
moved to Cleveland, where he played in a succession of bar bands while working as
a handyman in the Right Track studio (it has since been renamed Midtown
Recording). "He is so focused in everything he does," says Midtown's owner Bart
Koster. "When that guy waxed the floor, it looked great." During the studio's off
hours, Koster let Reznor work on his first album, Pretty Hate Machine. "How could I
possibly stand in this guy's way?" says Koster. "it's planed, but it is not contrived.
He's pulling that stuff out from inside somewhere. You cannot fake that delivery."
Off the road the reclusive Reznor spends most of his time composing in a series of
rented Hollywood homes. (One of them, the Bel Air mansion where he recorded
TDS, was the site of the Manson family murders of Sharon Tate and four others in
1969.) Though Reznor visited Mercer during the holidays and drops in on old pals
whenever he's in Cleveland, he has claimed that he has few friends and no current
love interest. (A rumoured recent liason with Courtneyt Love was "blown out of
proportion" his managers say.) Indeed, his strongest emotional tie seems to have been
to the ill-fated Maise: Reznor canceled a concert after her death. Now he's back on
his yearlong tour- it winds up in New Orleans on Feb. 18- and his nightmarish
exertions have lost none of their fury. "It's good," says Chicago fan Davis, "to see
Trent back in hell, where he belongs."
* Steve Dougherty, Bryan Alexander, Tom Nugent and John Hannah. People
Magazine, February 6th, 1995
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