‘Hurt’ is the closing song of The Downward Spiral (1994), which sealed Nine Inch Nails’ status as the most important industrial band of the 1990s. It marks a striking contrast to the rest of the album, which is an explosive mix of scorching fury and disorienting pain. The Downward Spiral paints the soul-splitting torment of someone who sees no end to one’s suffering, remorse, and humiliation, with an unparalleled intensity expressed through a raw yet intricate sonic landscape. Some of the afflictions come from front man Trent Reznor’s frustration with American society as he unleashes a hell-fire of rage against what he sees as American Christian fanaticism (‘Heresy’), and others are about his struggle with a crippling self-destructive impulse (‘Mr. Self-Destruct’). Then, after a thirteen-song-long mayhem, you suddenly find yourself sitting face-to-face with Reznor; quite unexpectedly, he opens up and tells us about his heart-wrenching regret, burning shame, and numbing depth of sadness. It is an account of a man who squarely faces the fact that he has hit rock bottom. It is a guilty plea of a person who damages everything and everyone he comes across through his self-destructiveness. Regardless whether one can relate to darkness of this kind, the openness and authenticity with which Reznor speaks to us is immensely moving. Whilst in many regards this song is one of the best works written and performed by Reznor, it soars ever higher in a version recorded in this live performance, which documents one of the most controversial, yet brilliant, live shows to date: ‘Outside Tour’ (1995), wherein Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie performed side-by-side as peers.
It was a stunning decision for both; when the plan was announced, fans of Bowie as well as Nine Inch Nails (or NIN for short) were bewildered by the thought of them sharing a stage. Yet, it was no April Fool's: NIN was to play an opening act for David Bowie to support his North American tour, who was in turn asked by his label to promote his latest effort, Outside (1995). On paper, the tour had the mark of disaster written all over it. To begin with, Bowie’s new output was eccentric — even to his standard. It was never going to become one of his classics; to this day, it comes across as defiantly experimental, and unapologetically avant-guard. It was also a jarring move from Bowie, who established himself as one of the most popular stars of mainstream music during the 1980s. After a hiatus from his stadium rock show, ’Sound+Vision Tour’ (1990), Bowie returned to the chart with Black Tie White Noise (1993), which assured that he was back in business. It saw the reunion with Nile Rodgers (Let’s Dance, 1983) as producer, and, despite the seriousness of some of the songs (‘Jump They Say’ recounts the suicide of his half-brother, Terry, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia), the overall tone of album was quite upbeat, and thus it did nothing to alter the general perception of Bowie as a mega-pop star. After a decade of being in a business of pop stardom, everyone accepted his place on the pedestal. By the mid 1990s, he was regarded as slick, intelligent, and reliable, if not a bit uninspiring.
Then, out of the blue, he dished out a macabre concept album, wrapped in a cloak of esoteric art-industrial-rock. Unsurprisingly, it was received with confusion, suspicion, and bafflement. It followed an emerging trend in popular culture that began in the 1990s; from David Lynch to Sophia Coppola, and Nick Cave to Pain Killer, we saw a surge of work that expressed a fascination for gory violence such as ritual homicide and physical mutilation which, eventually, became a permanent fixture of our culture. Whilst the premise of his experiment was new and ‘up-to-date’, as Outside followed the story of Nathan Adler, a detective pursuing the case of ritual murder in a future dystopian society, there were some recurring themes from his earlier work. Like in Diamond Dogs (1974), Bowie employed William S. Burroughs’ ‘Cut-Up’ method to narrate a post-apocalyptic world. The return of Brian Eno was an obvious nod to the spirit of Berlin Trilogy, which still enjoys the highest critical acclaim amongst his eclectic body of work. Yet, still more importantly, Outside was not a resurrection of the old; it expressed his newly developed philosophical understanding of the modern human condition, which provided a distinct undertone for his later works such as Earthling (1997), Heathen (2002), Reality (2003), and The Next Day (2013). In short, Outside, despite its outward inaccessibility, was an album that marked the beginning of a new phase for the Starman.
His understanding is that, following the revolutions in physics, psychology, and philosophy from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, humankind came to see itself as the flawed replacement of God: our most significant achievement was to invent ways to facilitate genocide. In the wake of two World Wars and the stark shadow of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) that followed, humankind sought to find refuge in new religions, or resurrect old ones, in order to fill the spiritual void created by the alleged ’Death of God’. He observed that, as humanity rushed toward modern idol worship, pagan rituals were on the rise again. Physical mutilation, sacrificial rituals, and aesthetic obsessions of blood and homicide in literature, cinema, and music, according to Bowie, are manifestations of our desire to replicate the worship of Gods. Whilst fascination toward ritual violence has always existed within us and survived in secular disguise (e.g., ritualised violent sexual acts such as S & M), in the 1990s these previously ‘hidden’ phenomena started to invade mainstream culture and finally took hold of the imagination of the masses. If he is right, then, despite our ‘progress’ so far, humankind is not out of the woods; we are as savage and violent as our (more traditionally) religious ancestors, except that we are more efficient in killing greater numbers of people, and more conscious of our spiritual void. Regardless of the correctness of his assessment, Outside offers insightful, if not cryptic, observations of life under industrial materialism and confronts its Geist through art.
The trouble was: Nobody wanted to expect the unexpected from Bowie in 1995; he was already an icon enshrined (or entombed) in the Hall of Fame. During the 1970s, Bowie was a vanguard who was in constant process of charting new territory for himself. Relative to more established names such as The Rolling Stones, Bowie was still a recent phenomenon, a sweeping yet unpredictable force, a star in the making, and, for this reason, audiences were captivated by every move he made. In the 1990s, Bowie found himself in a very different context. The general consensus at the time was: Bowie became a legend, that is, someone to be worshipped for his past accomplishments. Therefore, unlike in the 1970s, Bowie's latest attempt to break free from stifling expectations was not going to be received kindly. In short, Outside never had a chance to be appreciated for its worth, and a tour featuring many of its songs was never going to be welcomed by his existing fans. And, of course, Bowie had to push it all over the edge by deciding to tour with Nine Inch Nails, whose sound and vision were not obviously compatible with that of his own. As Bowie himself recalled later, it was the surest way to commit commercial suicide. His fans were not going to be happy with his latest album, and they were not going to mix with the fans of NIN.
As for NIN, given their popularity and the general trend of the music scene at the time, it was a remarkable decision by them to settle for the supporting role. And, with an extraordinary show of integrity, they took full responsibility of their decision and faithfully fulfilled their role throughout the tour. Since their styles weren't compatible or complimentary with Bowie’s, and as they were the ones with momentum and youthful aggression on their side, they could have become a de facto leader and literally blown their counterpart off stage. Given the conspicuous rise of NIN and their prominence, and the perception problem Bowie was experiencing at the time, if they had adopted the conventional two sets for the tour, they could have lost control of the show from day one. If the events took this turn, it would have been quite damaging for both artists. Bowie would have lost all his credentials for good; as for NIN, given Reznor’s crippling struggle with their sudden rise to fame, crushing the tour would have pushed him over the edge with overwhelming feeling of guilt, rage, and bitterness. It would also have had long-term damage to NIN’s creative path. This tour offered a rare opportunity for a new band to collaborate with one of the most unique artists in the history of modern music. If NIN were to escape the fate of the punk movement, sooner or later Reznor would have to broaden his musical language and take considerable creative risks by evolving his style. Bowing to the audience’s demand and taking over the tour would have pigeon-holed the band to one category, i.e., an industrial alternative, and thus would have had a restricting effect on Reznor; he would have been denied fully harnessing his rich and expansive talent. Interestingly, Reznor’s resolve was put to the test even before the tour began; prior to the tour, there was a discussion as to who should actually play the main set of the tour; quite surprisingly, Bowie was open to the idea of ceding it to NIN. Reznor adamantly refused to consider such a possibility, and steadfastly played a supporting role for Bowie. Whilst I don’t think for a moment that the concerns above were the motivation for the way they staged the tour, understanding the risks they accepted, consciously or otherwise, reveals just how daring this project was.
Fortunately, both Bowie and Reznor had their heart in the right place; they were focused on the creative and artistic side of their collaboration. Having decided to work together, they wished to find a way to create a coherent aesthetic experience for the audience. Thus, they rejected the convention of having two distinct sets to divide the show, which could compartmentalise, or potentially alienate, each other. The motivation behind their decision was their mutual respect; Reznor went on record to credit Bowie, especially his work during the Berlin era, for inspiration, and Bowie in return praised The Downward Spiral as an exceptional work. It speaks volumes when one considers the fact that Bowie never went this far to create a cohesive set with another artist with a distinct style from his. He neither saw nor treated NIN as a mere opening act for him; they decided on everything jointly, on equal terms. If not for their mutual respect for one another, and the desire to work together, neither of them had strong incentives to do another tour at this particular moment in time. In his conversation with Susan Sarandon earlier, Bowie already spoke of his distaste of live-tours. As for NIN, they had just concluded a successful year-long tour, and were completely exhausted. It was the creative challenge that motivated them to go forward with this seemingly impossible idea of conducting a joint tour. Both were critically aware of their differences; as seen in a joint interview with MTV, while Bowie excitedly spoke of their differences as ‘yin and yang’, Reznor described the challenge of having Bowie on his set to perform NIN numbers. As he initially found it intimidating to sing along with Bowie, he was also clearly trying to find a way to perform each others’ songs without losing individuality, and to preserve the aesthetic integrity of each song they performed together. Yet what they came up was innovative and, quite frankly, nothing short of a minor miracle.
They divided the show into three segments in order to create a coherent aesthetic experience for the audience without compromising the distinct characteristics of each artist. Out of twenty-nine songs, NIN played twelve, Bowie seventeen, and they played five songs together. NIN opened the night by playing ten of their songs. Then, they merged the two bands for a part of the middle segment consisting of five songs: three written by Bowie and two by Reznor. This middle segment was opened by Bowie’s ‘Subterraneans’, which was led by Reznor’s saxophone. Subsequently they switched back and forth with each others’ numbers; a few of them were performed by the two bands together. Whilst most of the songs were performed with only minor modifications, the last song of this section, ‘Hurt’, saw a significant reinterpretation, and the result is absolutely stunning. It begins with a mesmerising guitar solo by Reeves Gabrels, perfectly accentuated by the heavy guitar riff by Robin Finck over the loop. It is an imaginative blend of Bowie’s Low (1977) and Nine Inch Nails’ heavy industrial sound. This rendition of ‘Hurt’ is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of their collaboration from ‘Outside Tour’, and marks the beginning of their fruitful creative relationship, which saw many remixes of Bowie’s songs by Reznor, the most famous and important being Reznor’s take of ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’; it was chosen over the original version for the production of its music video, which also featured Bowie and Reznor together. Performing ‘Hurt’ with Bowie was particularly rewarding for Reznor; he later recounted that it was one of the most important moments in his life. His admiration for Bowie, the Berlin trilogy in particular, was such that he was listening to Bowie’s Low daily during the recording of The Downward Spiral. And, more importantly, working with Bowie and his band to render his most intimate song into a new form provided a touchstone for his future experiments, which saw many bold and exceptional results. Upon Bowie’s death, Reznor spoke openly of Bowie’s influence as a reference point; he thinks of the way Bowie betrayed expectations and the risks he took, and uses his example as the way to constantly challenge his own creative path.
Collaborating with NIN and reinterpreting a NIN classic was equally vital for Bowie; it showed different ways to understand his musical language and apply it to a completely different style of music, and thus expanded his creative vision. Like in the 1970s, the 1990s was the decade of adventure for Bowie; it saw many drastic experiments, which includes Jungle beat of Earthling (1997) and Hours (1999), which was not as musically daring, yet quite bold in the sense that it was a part of Bowie’s experiment with cyber world and digital technology. As in the 1970s, his work in the 1990s created some great songs, while some, like Outside, were received with bafflement; we saw a similar reaction to his earlier experiments such as Diamond Dogs (1974) and Young Americans (1975). All the basis for this further development, which culminated in his second golden years starting with Heathen (2002) to his passing in 2016, was laid in his collaboration with Trent Reznor during this tour; by taking up unthinkable, and seemingly unnecessary, risks, Bowie was able to clear the ground for himself to retain his creative freedom. And thus, the significance of this particular reinterpretation of ‘Hurt’ for both artists cannot be overestimated; it crystalised the spirit of the collaboration that marked the new chapter for both of their lives.
For Reznor, his collaboration with Bowie would have a deeper, and more personal, effect: it was also the beginning of his effort to liberate himself from substance abuse. In his response to Bowie’s passing, Reznor graciously recounts how Bowie helped him become sober. During the tour, when they were alone, Bowie would tell Reznor as someone who went through hell: there is a better way, and all this struggle does not have to end in suicide. According to Reznor, the situation was getting out of control during the tour. The worst part was that he was not aware of just how desperate it was becoming. Yet, Bowie clearly saw this, and he reached out to Reznor. Eventually Reznor came through with his effort to overcome addictions, rebuilt his life, and has expanded the scope of his creative output; not only has he evolved his style, but also has adopted different approaches to his music. In the early years, NIN is primarily known for the intense expression of Trent Reznor’s personal truth. Yet, over the years, NIN has adopted diverse approaches to music; whilst the emotional engagement has not lessened, his subjects are no longer limited to his personal, subjective, truth. He has created a post-apocalyptic concept album (Year Zero, 2007) which expresses a powerful political statement against the current US policy on the environment, foreign affairs, and economy. In this album, he made educated speculations on the catastrophic consequences if the liberal capitalist US policy would be allowed to continue for another two decades. He also made an album consisting only of atmospheric instrumental pieces (Ghosts, 2008), not the style for which they are known. He also started to write scores for select films, such as The Social Network (2011), where his joint effort for this film as a co-composer was rewarded with an Oscar. As opposed to early works such as The Downward Spiral wherein the emphasis was on his state of mind rather than the subject of the songs, his more recent work draws the audience’s attention to the subjects themselves; emotional intensity is still there, yet it is a means to convey his message, rather than the end in itself. Reznor’s shift from expression of subjective truth to one of an objective approach toward chosen subjects draws a parallel to Bowie’s development; whilst his classics from the 1970s draws more attention to his state of mind, his later work is more objective, despite that none of the poetics of his earlier masterpieces have been lost. Whilst the former approach expressed his existential angst originating from his alienation to the world burdened by problems of catastrophic proportions such as MAD, the latter is less about his personal feelings regarding the problematic world; it is more focused on expressing his view and understanding of Zeitgeist in a proper sense. Both Bowie and Reznor left subjective, and paranoid, modes of expression in favour of a more objective assessment of the world. And, interestingly, these shifts coincided with overcoming of substance abuse.
After all is said and done, the most beautiful aspect of their collaboration is its uncanniness; when their paths crossed for the first time during the tour, neither Bowie nor Reznor were in a position to realise what their encounter would mean to them. Still, Reznor saw Bowie as an inspiring, though still distant, example; if he were to rescue himself out of the maelstrom of rage and despair, he might, in the future, establish himself as an artist who can withstand all the challenges and burdens that accompany his vocation, and build a meaningful life for himself and others dear to him. It was the first occasion that Reznor saw a faint glimpse of hope in his chosen path. As for Bowie, he clearly recognised Reznor’s struggle and reached out to him. In their joint performance of ‘Hurt’, the aspect of Bildung is all there to see, and is responsible for the sublime height their collaboration achieved: in one of the most cinematic moments of the tour, the set presents its uncanny resemblance with the scenes from Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987), wherein angels dwell amongst lonely souls in a Berlin nightclub filled with longing, fantasies, and despair. Here, on stage, Bowie appears as if one of Wenders’ Rilkean angels; he is a guardian watching over his fellow artist who struggles to stay above the abyss of self-destruction. He is no longer ‘an alien’ who fell to the hostile world only to become a captive. He is here to reach out to a suffering soul while learning from him as an artist. Whilst his presence is visibly distinct from the rest, he is not separated from them. His voice is as deep and luminous as ever, yet he is here to support Reznor and his song to reach a soaring height. His cool and controlled demeanour is not the result of psychological detachment from the moment; it is his way of being in the moment by giving what he can offer while staying out of the way as needed. It is indeed a small miracle to witness the man who fell to Earth, the one always on the move and who stands apart from the rest, offering a genuine spiritual act of mindfulness, generosity, and compassion while performing a song of guilt, shame, and suffering through self-destruction. For this reason, this act must be remembered not only for its brilliant rendition of one of the most intimate songs by Trent Reznor, but also for its uncanny cinematic resemblance with Wings of Desire: this is one of the rare moments that Wenders’ fairytale is enacted in real life, not only aesthetically, but in its spirit. It is a precious testimony that minor miracles indeed occur.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfTAQG9raQ4, a live performance at Shoreline Amphitheatre at Mountain View, California.