The Great Catharsis: A Return to Live Music

aka My love affair with Nine Inch Nails

Photo by Artem Ka on Unsplash

I’ve become well-versed in waiting for the so-called “other shoe to drop”. I can’t pinpoint how this defense mechanism evolved, but when you set your expectations low, it’s easier to cope with disappointment. I often find myself entering a state of disbelief that an event will actually happen until just before or right as it’s starting — not always, but usually with something big. It’s probably a trauma response that is best addressed by my therapist…we’ll get there eventually.

Last week was no different, though it could’ve been argued that there was justification in having doubt. The moment had been decades in the making. Finally, I was going to see my favorite band, Nine Inch Nails — not one, but two nights in a row.

As we continue living through a pandemic, uncertainty has become an unfortunate standard. Last year, signs of normalcy peered through when NIN announced a couple shows. I was fucking ready to unleash a lifetime of emotions and escape reality for a few hours. Then it was canceled.

I grew up with music videos abundantly playing on MTV. The tube television in our wood paneled living room broadcast music from all genres to my eager eyes and ears until well after my proposed bedtime. By the time I was 10/11 years old, gone were the days of wishing to be the next Debbie Gibson as I entered an unfortunate phase of early puberty (hello, PCOS). It felt an awful lot like my hormones were doing everything in their power to fuck with me. I’d gone from pondering which New Kid On The Block I was going to marry (obviously Joey) to worrying about maintaining whatever low level of self-esteem I’d developed. Displaced anger and what I’d later in life realize to be depression, I had a bone to pick, but with who?

Enter: “Closer”, by Nine Inch Nails.

Now, I can’t pretend to perfectly recall each moment of my childhood, but I can vouch that I remember feeling confusion, awe, and being downright mesmerized by the Mark Romanek directed video. I spent way too much time wishing that I too could defy gravity and float, spinning endlessly in the center of my living room. The implied swears were an easy sell. The avant-garde imagery sucked me in. This guy — Trent Reznor — was weird, and I loved it. “Closer” was the coolest thing I’d seen or heard in my short life.

I bought a copy of The Downward Spiral from Circuit City when I was 11 or 12. I could purchase anything with a parental advisory label without question due to looking older than my actual age — an odd perk of early puberty, which I relished in. The album was a game changer. While I’m sure Trent didn’t have an angsty 11 year old in mind when he wrote “Mr. Self Destruct” or “I Do Not Want This”, those words sure felt tailor made for me. That was when I truly discovered the complexity and beauty of music.

First came NIN, then came Marilyn Manson and nu-metal pioneers, Korn. I found comfort in anything loud and aggressive despite my meek, introverted nature. Sure, Manson and Korn were good to scream along with, but there was always an air of sophistication with the artistry of NIN. Trent was the sensitive, tortured artist that teenage me longed for. Instead, I got a faux goth boyfriend who collected all of the NIN Halos, and played second-string on our high school football team. Close enough.

Music morphed into a coping mechanism for each moment of torturous teenage woes. Loneliness, heartache, and aimlessness funneled into hours of music blaring into my poster plastered bedroom walls. This music reached into the depths of my inner being, promising never to let go. It led me to question beliefs and systems I’d always been taught to be true, allowing me to find my own voice despite never figuring out exactly where I fit. Physically I was awkward, but after a wardrobe overhaul, some hair dye and a tube of silver lipstick, I felt more like myself than ever before.

Somehow, my parents encouraged this passion for loud, aggressive music since (with the exception of minor bumps) I was a good kid who stayed out of trouble. A verbal agreement was established, allowing 15 year old me to start going to concerts as long as I went to school the next day. I was in heaven. A huge upgrade from sitting in my bedroom blaring my stereo for hours, live music became my drug.

Around 16 years old, I developed interest in photography. I decided to start a sad little web zine in an attempt to gain enough experience for Spin magazine to someday hire me. I researched PR reps for various record labels and found myself on mailing lists, receiving packages almost daily, but the best part was landing on guest lists and having press passes. For a while I thought I was “the shit”, and I kind of was.

When NIN’s The Fragile was announced, anticipation was overwhelming. Collecting every interview and magazine featuring Trent, I longed for another album to help process my feelings. At that point, I hadn’t connected with Pretty Hate Machine or the Broken or Fixed EP’s, so all I had was The Downward Spiral etched deeply into my brain. The Fragile had gigantic shoes to fill.

On the cusp of The Fragile’s release, I received a package from Interscope Records with promotional posters and two copies of the album. Seconds into the first track, “Somewhat Damaged”, I was hooked. Why yes, Trent — I also was “…too fucked up to care anymore.” The Fragile helped me express feelings I didn’t know I could, and I attribute my survival through those murky years to it. It’d be another three years until I was formally diagnosed with depression.

When the Fragility tour was announced, a date was scheduled about an hour away from me. I put in my request for a photo pass and waited patiently for a response. Now, I can’t recall why I didn’t purchase tickets because that would’ve been an easy solution with prior planning, but given that I was a full time high school student essentially feeding my live music habit by obtaining guest list spots, the question of funds seems right. So you can understand how absolutely crushed my heart was when I received an email confirming a spot on the list (no press pass) just hours before the show. I had no license, no car, no one to bring me. Instead of being wedged between a pit of sweaty dudes and the barricade, I moped in my bedroom attempting to drown out disappointment by listening to the album front to back, then once more for good measure.

Somehow a NIN show never felt like it was in the cards for me (they didn’t come close by often). Instead, it evolved into this mystical force that I was seemingly destined to experience solely through my bedroom stereo.

One of the most remarkable things about Trent is his ability to transcend far above and beyond his peers. While other bands from my formative years failed to evolve or hang onto my interest, I feel as though I can’t imagine a life without NIN — we’ve grown up together. Admittedly, I fused myself to The Downward Spiral and The Fragile for an excessively long time, and they remain two of my favorite albums. The rest of NIN’s catalogue filled gaps along the way, and the evolution of Trent’s artistry continues to make me eternally grateful for his existence.

Even when I felt stagnant, songs like “Various Methods of Escape” from Hesitation Marks, “The Line Begins to Blur” off With Teeth, and “Head Down” from The Slip managed to strike chords at times I needed to hear them most. In a sense, they were complete strangers embracing me as if we were old friends.

During quarantine, I leaned heavily on the EP trilogy of Not The Actual Events, Add Violence, and Bad Witch, zoning out while looping “The Background World” on numerous occasions. I often found myself listening to various tracks from the Ghosts albums while drifting off to sleep. In times of anxiety or fear, music has been the companion holding my hand. Facing the uncertainty of a pandemic was the most trying test — far worse than early puberty.

In early 2021, NIN announced two shows in Ohio — not terribly close by, but an easy drive. The stars aligned within an hour of the dates getting posted online. I submitted a PTO request, it was approved immediately, and the presale began roughly an hour later. Tickets obtained, I ran to my coworkers to share the excitement with tears in my eyes. It was impossible to convey the magnitude of waiting over twenty years to see a band that means the world to me — they had no idea how involved the relationship has become.

Naturally, my aforementioned defense mechanism kicked in, convincing me something would crush my now 37 year old heart. Of course, factoring in a global pandemic this time, the odds were pretty good. A couple months before this magical night was to take place, the band announced they had canceled all shows for the remainder of the year. While it was justified and understandable in the face of uncertainty (we’d seen an uptick in cases), it was soul crushing at the same time. Hell, I didn’t know if I was ready to be around thousands of people in the midst of a pandemic, but the promise of catharsis overshadowed any fears.

For those keeping score, I was now 0–2.

photo provided by writer

Around this time, my mom had begun cleaning out her basement and stumbled upon a cardboard tube. She and my father always kept shipping materials “just in case”, so that alone didn’t phase me. However, this happened to be the tube that Interscope had sent decades ago, filled with The Fragile promotional items. Jammed in the bottom sat a crumpled up NIN t-shirt. For over twenty years it sat unwashed, unworn, and too small for me. Like rubbing salt in this wound that refused to heal.

The tides turned this year as NIN announced tour dates. Third times a charm, right? After a presale shitshow and bargaining with my boss to take partially unpaid time off (gotta love those PTO accrual rates), the dream was another step closer to becoming reality. Two back-to-back shows five and a half hours away in Philadelphia were going to happen, and I allowed myself to get excited — just a little.

photo provided by writer

Pulling up to The Met — a beautiful opera house in Philadelphia, I was greeted by a brightly lit marquee, and sidewalks lined with folks in black t-shirts. A place I’d never been before, yet I felt at home. It’d been so long since I attended any show, that the sheer sight of so many people made me simultaneously anxious and excited. While my younger years were spent making sure I was front and center, I welcomed the calmness of having seats both nights versus worrying about getting kicked in the head by a crowd surfer or inadvertently sucked into a mosh pit. Maybe next time.

The opener, 100 gecs finished. The venue began to fill with fog, lights bathed the stage in an electric shade of purple, and a beautiful cover of David Bowie’s “Subterraneans” began pulsating through the entire place. Goosebumps, chills, tears. Even though I’d waited anxiously, there was no way I could’ve prepared how to process that moment. Add in Trent playing the saxophone from backstage? My brain was somehow not comprehending this was actually real.

Nothing compares to being in a crowd of thousands singing along to songs like “March of the Pigs” that I’d listened to countless times over the years. The first night vastly spanned their catalogue, and I found myself fighting tears multiple times. “Every Day is Exactly the Same”, “The Big Come Down” and “And All That Could Have Been” are among my favorites, but to experience them live was overwhelming in the best way possible. I knew going into these shows I’d be happy with whatever they played, and that held true. I felt complete when the night was over, and couldn’t fathom how they’d ever top it 24 hours later.

photo provider by writer (bad photo, not bad seats)

The first show was an elaborate therapy session accompanied by copious amounts of fog and strobe lights, while night two was everything 16 year old me could’ve wanted. “The Frail” followed by “The Wretched” before launching into a beautifully reworked version of “Sanctified” that played on repeat in my head for several days afterward. A block of The Downward Spiral tracks beginning with “Heresy”, rounded out by “Closer” felt weirdly sentimental. There was hardly any overlap, which meant I got to experience a lot of songs I’d been dying to hear live. Sitting through “Hurt” without turning into a blubbering mess the first time was difficult, but on the second night I was borderline ugly crying as I latched on to each word while the reality that our time together was nearly over began seeping through.

There was no third night, and I was faced with the brutal reality that these escapes, like most things, were temporary. Catharsis that not even years of behavioral therapy could provide, over 20 years of anticipation released over the span of two evenings somehow left me content while still craving more.

While a small part of me will always be just a little bitter about missing the Fragility 2.0 tour all those years ago, the relationship I’ve cultivated with Trent’s music is much deeper and meaningful now in my late 30’s than at 16. Perhaps what I’ve learned through all of this is that that you can find happiness in persistency.

I can’t wait to do this all again.

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