Friday, May 9, 2014

Nine Inch Nails @ The Agora

Trent Reznor
Twenty years ago today Nine Inch Nails played the Agora.

This was a dam-bursting moment. Maybe six people in Cleveland noticed when Pretty Hate Machine was released in 1989. In the months and years that followed, as the record gained recognition and momentum, the people of Cleveland began to claim Trent Reznor as one of their own (he's actually from Pennsylvania.)

The radio station The End trumpeted the impending release of Broken in 1992, but then never played anything from it because, as DJ Maria Farina told me, it wasn’t “radio-friendly”. However, no one could ignore The Downward Spiral, and it was universally lauded when it was released March 8, 1994.

Except in Cleveland, where Scene Magazine queried, “how many times can you rhyme ‘hole’ with ‘soul’, after all?”
“All this nihilistic, self-loathing, misanthropic, suicidal posturing is getting to be a bit much, Mr. Self-Desruct. Either jump or come in off the ledge.”
- John Soeder, Scene Magazine
Rolling Stone would eventually rate the album as the 32nd best of the 1990s, between Dylan's Time Out of Mind and The Slim Shady LP. But, you know. Opinions.

The day tickets went on sale for NIN’s first concert in Cleveland since they broke nationally, due in large part to their performance in the original Lollapalooza in 1991. The Agora sold out in less than ten minutes. I didn’t have a job and so was on the phone (because that’s how we used to order tickets) and bought two moments after the lines opened, unaware of my great fortune.

Opening acts include an entirely forgettable warm-up who I remember had some kind of non-lesbian, girl-on-girl thing, followed by a terrifying, horse-faced clown in a tall, pointed witches' hat who began his set by reciting the Wondrous Boat Ride poem from Willy Wonka. That would be the first time I had seen or even heard of Marilyn Manson.

Diana and I had arrived early enough to get great seats in front, you could see the band perfectly over the crowd on the floor. The place was completely packed by the time the headliner began their set, and what little moshing had started during the opening acts got crazy.

I think I stayed in my seat until they played Closer, and then I couldn’t handle it anymore, I wanted to be down there, not sitting. I gave Diana a little apology, handed her my glasses and shoved my way onto the floor.

 Set List 5/9/94
Terrible Lie
March of the Pigs
Something I Can Never Have
Suck (Pigface)
The Only Time
Get Down, Make Love (Queen)
Down in It
Big Man With a Gun
Head Like a Hole

Dead Souls (Joy Division)
Help Me I Am in Hell
Happiness in Slavery
Once upon a time (because I cannot speak for today) being in a mosh pit was not actually dangerous. Maybe I’m kidding myself. But pushing and jumping and picking people up and moving them around is a very exciting way to enjoy a loud, fast concert.

First time I did what your father used to refer to as “slam dancing” was seeing The Replacements at Mem Aud in 1987. At one point I was body surfing and suddenly they were all gone and I landed flat on my back. About a half a dozen hands reached down and helped me right back up - wind knocked out, suddenly upright. Dizzying. Transcended. Stupid.


The Agora show was my penultimate mosh pit. My last would be exactly eight months later, when against my own better judgement I attended NIN's return to Cleveland at the behemoth CSU Convocation Center on January 9. I ran into Diana and her co-workers, and that was awkward. She had moved out a few days earlier. Previously, I was a svelte, 25 year-old member of an underground theater troupe. Now I was 26 and gaining weight, waiting tables in a chain pizza restaurant, and getting divorced.

Exiting the pit that January in 1995, I had a bad feeling in my abdomen. Two months later I would have a hernia operation. Limping out, I stopped an old lady, incongruous in the surroundings, but recognized her, and assumed she must be a friend of my mother's.

"Oh, hi!" I shouted. "Good to see you!" She blinked her eyes at me, blankly. I had made an error. That was Jane Scott.

At the Agora show, Reznor did not say much, if anything, between numbers. At one point he asked, "Anybody like Scene Magazine?" The audience response was comically uproarious. Then he added, "Yeah. I like to wipe my ass with it."

Scene's Pete Chakerian reviewed the show as the success it was, however.  Reznor "seized the crowd" and "stalked the stage with reckless abandonment."
"You could just smell the sweat in the air ... the rest of the evening kept the same breakneck pace ... Spectacular ... Reznor started tearing up the joint."
- Pete Chakerian, Scene Magazine
If the editors were embarrassed by the gushing of their critic, they tried to make up for it with a photo in the gossip column featuring a fluffy-haired Reznor with his former 80s synth-pop trio Exotic Birds with the caption, PRETTY Hate Machine.

After just a few songs I was back, seated with Diana … the first song in the encore left me shocked and confounded, because I knew every word of the song and couldn’t for the life of me know from where. NIN had recorded Dead Souls for The Crow soundtrack and like a lot of other folks my age we had “discovered” Joy Division in 1988 when they released a singles collection (more nerdy shit: This is why it makes sense that they are playing Love Will Tear Us Apart in the party scene in Donnie Darko.)

What lingers is the memory of a girl in the mosh pit who was near me for just a moment. She shouted, OH FUCK because she’d dropped her cigarettes, I saw them on the floor about to be dashed to bits when I threw out an arm and shoved this big guy to one side, she didn’t miss a moment but swooped her hand down and caught her smokes.

She threw an arm around me, kissed my face and intimately screamed, “I LOVE you for that!”

1 comment:

  1. I remember this show so well - it altered my life and the way I looked at music. I was about 15/16. The girl "lesbian" band came out and introduced themselves as "we are nine inch nails inside of us". When Manson started and sang "I am the god of fuck" I knew I was seeing something miraculous. I was so young that I hadn't even heard of Joy Division. I was pushing people in the pit and hit a guy in the face by accident. He turned around to sock me, and then turned to his friend "Look how young this kid is!". I just realized after looking at the set list that they played Dead Souls. What a night. Somehow I got a free ticket to this show, and it changed my life. Thanks for this awesome article and clearing my vision.