Saturday, March 19, 2016

THE PERSONAL IMPORTANCE OF NINE INCH NAILS: Or, Why I Despise the Song, "Closer" (Guest Post)

Or, Why I Despise
the Song, "Closer"

First-time Show Biz Guru
contributor, Chad Laston,
gets nostalgic  dishing
unique insights regarding
his favorite band, and his
least favorite song.

I grew up in Toledo, Ohio during the 1970s and '80s. It was a great place to live back then and a good town to grow up in. Of course by the time I reached 18, I couldn’t wait to get out of that town. But I can look back now and see that it was generally a good city and a great period of life. Our neighborhoods were pretty safe back then. School was pretty safe and I spent most of my time doing kid stuff: playing Star Wars and G.I. Joe outside, riding bikes, trying (and failing) to skateboard, going to the park, doing homework, delivering papers on my route and going to church on Sundays. We didn’t have cell phones. E.T. on the Atari 2600 was cutting edge graphics. We didn’t have the Internet yet, and cable TV was just in its infancy. I didn’t realize it back then, but life couldn’t really have gotten any better.

Mom worked at the hospital and Dad was a firefighter. We were not rich but we didn’t want for anything. I still remember when they ordered the cable TV box that was installed on the basement TV. That was such a big deal, man! Overnight, we had easily five times as many channels as the day before and it seemed like it just kept expanding every month or so, with more channels going live all the time. The cable box had an “A” and “B” selector that we could get up and manually slide over to go to a whole new world of TV shows. The “B” selector soon became my favorite switch option because THAT was where MTV landed. The early days of MTV were magical times with artists, bands and producers experimenting with videos in every way imaginable. People didn’t care if a video told a story or made no sense at all. It didn’t matter. It was a new art form and it was spectacular! It was the dawn of MTV and whether I was watching the "Moon Man" jumping across the lunar surface to that familiar MTV theme song, watching the golden mane of Adam Curry as he delivered the music news or watching Van Halen's “Jump” for the 333rd time – it was by far my favorite channel of all the options on cable TV.

MTV: One giant leap for mankind!
As more and more bands came to MTV, I began to really like some of the more obscure artists with great songs, such as “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo and “Don’t Pay The Ferry Man” by Chris de Burgh (sorry... I liked it). As time passed, the newness of MTV and the bands playing on MTV quickly started to tarnish and weather. Music had really started to become mundane and less than exciting to me. It picked up a bit when 120 Minutes started on MTV, but it was always on late at night and I seldom saw it, so I remained somewhat segregated from many of the more alternative bands that were emerging. During my junior year of high school, I came across Bob Marley while on Spring Break with my family in Clearwater, Florida, and my island vibe phase set in for a bit. I wasn’t into the metal bands at the time. Ozzy didn’t do it for me. Although Eddie was really cool-looking, Iron Maiden Nah, I wasn’t into them either. I kept on with my reggae kick and just dreamed of living somewhere warm and sunny. Everything changed in the last half of 1989 and the onset of my senior year of High School.

I didn’t get to see my aunt and uncle and cousins from South Carolina very often, so it was always a special treat when they came up to visit. I was always excited to see my cousins; especially Nick, the only boy cousin from this side of the clan. Nick was a cool guy! In my book, he was everything that I wasn’t. Nick had a cool southern accent. He was a surfer with that surfer hair style that can only be created through repeated abuse from prolonged exposure to the sun and salt water. He had the golden surfer tan and he wore killer surfer clothing with names like Billabong and Rip Curl. Nick was the type of guy that I wished I was, but didn’t know how to be. He had an edge about him that I clearly was lacking. Nick was living that island lifestyle that I wasn’t living in Toledo, Ohio.

During Nick’s visit he pulled out a cassette tape that he had obviously recorded himself. On the tape label was scrawled, Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine. Nick asked me if I had ever heard of this before. But this wasn’t anything that I had yet seen on MTV and I was pretty sure that I was aware of most of the bands out there. Nick handed me the tape and I lifted the clear cover of the cassette player. I inserted the tape, snapped it into place and closed the lid. I pressed the play button and as the player engaged, it began to hiss. I sat in anticipation within that brief moment of silence at the start of every cassette – waiting for the tape leader to clear and the actual music to play. And then… it began.

And then... it began.
From the very first sounds that hit my eardrum, I knew that there was something different about this music. This was certainly NOT Bob Marley or Peter Tosh. There was little that I recognized about the very feel and soul of this music that was playing. It was mesmerizing. The first song was titled "Head Like a Hole." The lyrics started “Bow down before the one you serve! You’re going to get what you deserve!” The words came out of the mono speaker and hit me hard between the ears… “Head like a hole! Black as your soul! I’d rather die than give you control!” The synthesized beats and loops coming out of my tape player traveled straight into the pit of my stomach and stood the hair up on the back of my neck. This was music that was unlike anything that I had ever heard before. There was nothing like this on the radio and I had never seen it on MTV. The music was poor fidelity on this copied tape, but the fact that it was copied in such poor quality, in addition to the harshness of the music itself, made it feel even more raw  and more dangerous. At the time, you simply couldn’t find this kind of music anywhere if you wanted to. No one at school was listening to this, and now it would be mine. Oh yes – it would be MINE! I was now officially a NIN fan.

High school meandered to its non-climatic closure that year and soon it was time to go off to college for the next phase of my life. With newly discovered music in hand, I was off to a new world – a whole 30 minutes away from Toledo, in Bowling Green, Ohio. Far from being my the island dream, I would have to settle for the corn fields of the Midwest. Even though it was only half an hour away from home, college really was a different world – full of all new faces and experiences. The internet was in its infancy but it was rapidly opening up an entirely new world of musical discovery that quickly drew me in. NIN, Jane's Addiction, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers quickly became some of my favorites. I sought out anything that was different from what was playing on the radio at the time. I didn’t want to be like everyone else and I didn’t want to listen to what everyone else was listening to on the radio. I didn’t want to be like them, think like them, pray like them… I just wanted to be different.

Grey would be the color… if I had a heart.
I didn’t really have to try and be different. I was different. My social skills through high school left much to be desired. Ok, I'll be honest… I had zero social skills. I was an extraordinarily shy kid all through school. I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school and I didn’t go on dates or to dances or proms. I was that shy, awkward kid that just kind of did his own thing. I still am that same guy at many levels, but not at the awkwardly weird “paralysis” level of shy like I used to be. Because of being so shy for so very long, I felt very alone and segregated from the world all through school. College was, however, my chance to try and reinvent myself. It can be hard to escape who you are in your attempt at reinventing, but I tried like hell and NIN was one of the catalysts that kept the transformation going. The song lyrics on Pretty Hate Machine were able to express all the feelings and emotions that I had at the time, but was unable or unwilling to express. The album had its moments of pure aggression and the next second could transition and drop you to your knees in emotion. I don’t remember listening to any album at the time that could make me think, I’m so pissed off right now I could take on the world… wait a minute… what am I crying for?! I’m so mad that I’m crying right now… I’m even more pissed off!” I must have listened to Pretty Hate Machine  hundreds and hundreds of times, and pretty soon I knew every lyric, every beat and every breath of that album. I felt every lyric as if they were my own. It seemed as if some of the songs were written specifically for me, just so that the lyrics could fill the holes that I carried inside. With song lyrics that proclaimed Grey would be the color… if I had a heart, this album gave me license to know that I wasn’t the only person that felt like this and it gave me a way to release all the crap bottled up inside.

I remember waiting outside of the local record store, Mad Hatter’s, for the midnight release of NIN's Downward Spiral and listening to the freaks and geeks pontificating on how ground-breaking this new CD was going to be, and how we were in the elite crowd that would have it at midnight. True superfans! There was no Amazon to deliver it next day, or downloading the song from iTunes. If you wanted it first, you were going to wait in line all night long if need be. Once in-hand, I raced back to the apartment to put the CD into the player and I listened to the tracks over and over all night long. I remember the lyrics to the song ‘Heresy’ stating that, God is dead and no one cares! If there is a hell… I’ll see you there! and I believed it at the time. We were a small group of lost souls looking for our niche in the word, desperately striving to figure out why we felt different from other people. We found solidarity in NIN and we found an outlet in our preacher and teacher, Trent Reznor. I can say that when Downward Spiral came out, NIN was without question my favorite band!!

My love affair with NIN would soon end tragically.
About a month later my love affair with NIN ended tragically. The song ‘Closer’ had been picked up on the radio in a ‘clean edit’ version and was now blaring from every third vehicle driving down the street. Worse still, every frat boy and sorority girl had selected this song as their default mating call theme song. I remember watching in horror as drunken frat boys, double fisting draft beers from the 2-4-1 happy hour at the bar, would grind against the closest willing female on the dance floor. The couples would ooze up against each other with perfect knowledge of the songs rhythm and drunkenly sing out the lyrics word for word. That was the evening that Nine Inch Nails died for me. I never traveled past the ‘Downward Spiral’ in my relationship with NIN because of this traumatic scene that is still burned into my cranial synapse. I wasn’t trying to be elitist or a scene snob or anything like that. It was just at that moment I realized that this particular music no longer belonged to me anymore. It now belonged to the masses. It was now officially commercialized and I was breaking up with NIN. It was now normal and the mysterious aspects of the band that made them so dangerous and unique were now gone forever – and I was genuinely upset about it.

I moved on from that point further down the musical relationship rabbit-hole to bands like Skinny Puppy, :wumpscut: and Unter Null, in my quest to be different and to recapture that magical feeling of hearing NIN for the first time. I can say that Skinny Puppy was my rebound relationship after things with NIN ended, and they are my favorite band to this day. BUT, I don’t think I ever duplicated that first listening experience I had with NIN and PHM. I have not listened to Nine Inch Nails much over the past ten years because of their ‘not cool’ status. I might watch the news from time-to-time and get so irritated that I play “Burn” and “March of Pigs” just to blow off some mental steam, but I had not listened to the entire Pretty Hate Machine album in many years. As I sat here listening, all of these memories came flooding back and prompted me to write this post. While the magic of that time back in 1989 can’t be repeated, the album still elicits many of the same feelings and emotions. It’s amazing how music can act as a time machine and instantly transport us back in time and memory, by just pressing the play button.

My musical rebound relationship.
Something is different now in how I look back on this history. I’m 44 years old, and I’ve had 26 years of life between now and that first listening session with Trent Reznor. I've changed and grown in so many ways. I often have expressed my disdain for my hometown of Toledo; just as I have for NIN after “Closer” came out (oh how I loathe that song). But I sit here now, recalling all of this through aged eyes and I can really see the truth of those days. Toledo was a damn fine place to grow up, the '80s and '90s were great years, and Nine Inch Nails was a damn special band at the time – one that had a profound impact on me as a person. I can’t say that the path the music took me down was the best path, but it was my path. And it was the one that God placed before me. I came out of this path having a very eclectic view of the world and many experiences that most “normal” people will not have experienced. I came out of the path much wiser knowing that God isn’t dead, people do care, and I don’t plan on seeing any of you in Hell. I also came out recognizing that the all of the ingredients of the place, the time and the music of the day, combined into a mystical moment in my life that can never be repeated.

So, I say to Trent Reznor… Thank you for NIN (except for “Closer”). Thank you for making the music that you did and thank you for that moment in time. Thank you for making music that can transport a 44-year-old guy back to 1989 and unlock the mind to all of these memories that I forgot were still in my mental floppy drive. Thank you for taking me back and giving me the opportunity to re-evaluate the past from a new and wiser perspective and the truth that… those really were the good ole days, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

-Chad Laston
(March 2016)


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