someone take these dreams away
that point me to another day
a duel of personalities
that stretch all true reality
In the early to mid 1990s, there was a period where the soundtrack album was an excellent way to discover new music. Film directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Cameron Crowe were using so much popular music to score their films that there was hardly any traditional score at all. And because of that, the albums that came out to accompany the films were often little slices of musical heaven. The soundtracks to Tarantino’s films in particular, with dialogue from the movies spliced between songs, are albums I remember quite fondly.
Eventually, there came a time when soundtrack albums went from exclusively “Music from the motion picture” to “Music from and inspired by the motion picture,” and when the record companies added that “inspired by” you knew it was all over. Soundtracks were suddenly nothing more than marketing tie-ins. Sure, they included the couple of songs that had made it into the film itself, but the bulk of the tunes said to be “inspired by” the motion picture were album cast-offs, songs the artist hadn’t deemed worthy enough even to be B sides.
Before it all went to hell though, there was one soundtrack that saved my life. Sometime in 1994, my brother John bought a copy of the soundtrack to The Crow, and my musical life was forever changed for the better.
I had always been a fan of pop music, and of classic rock. I listened to bands like Aerosmith, because my father had a copy of their greatest hits tape, and Heart, because their big 80s album seemed to be in constant rotation on our car stereo during summer vacations. I asked my father to order cassette tapes through his Columbia Music House membership from artists like Janet Jackson and Sheryl Crow. The first CD I ever played in my first CD player was a copy of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven on Earth album that I borrowed from my friends down at the local comic book store. And one of the first CDs I bought for myself was a copy of Wilson Phillips’s self-titled debut. To say that my brother was right when he described me as “lame” would be a mild understatement.
But the truth was that, until 1994, I was a happy-go-lucky kid, and I liked happy-go-lucky music. To paraphrase Reel Big Fish, the radio played what they wanted me to hear, they told me it was cool, and I sure believed it. Then, sometime around April of ’94, while my schoolmates were grieving over the passing of Kurt Cobain (I grieved a little, but, to be honest, I only liked the songs I’d heard on the radio), I, like them, began to understand, for the first time, that life wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Both of my surviving grandparents were in the hospital. My grandfather was recovering from a popped hernia (if I’m remembering correctly), and probably dealing with complications from the cancer he wasn’t telling us about yet. And my grandmother was recovering from a stroke she’d had immediately after an operation to remove a large benign tumor (or something like that) from her abdomen. I had never had to face death head-on before, and when I turned to music to comfort me, as teenagers often do, Brian Wilson’s kids, former Go-Gos, and Miss Jackson (if you’re nasty)… well, they just weren’t speaking in my language anymore.
Later in life, I’d come back to the pop music that I’d grown up loving. But now, now it was time for something else.
My brother was always the first to discover something new, something cool, something interesting. He was into comics before I was. He could somehow kick my ass at any video game we played together by the first time I sat down to play. And, of course, he owned every cool album I would ever buy at least six months before I did. The soundtrack to The Crow was no exception. I’d seen the movie, partly because it was a comic book movie, but mostly because I’d been hearing about Brandon Lee’s death during filming, and I was morbidly curious about seeing the scene where he’d been killed. And though the atmosphere set by the music in the film was a big part of the film’s success, I hadn’t yet had the desire to buy a copy of the soundtrack. Plus, my brother had a copy, and though he hated me most of the time, I was sure that he would let me borrow it if I asked real nicely.
By the late spring of ’94, after Kurt, after the hospitalizations of my grandparents, and after seeing the movie and longing to see it again, I decided to give the soundtrack album a few serious lessons. It was the best we could do back then, before the advent of P2P and BitTorrent made watching a movie between its theatrical release and its video release a possibility.
I was drawn back into the world of the film right away. It’s the kind of soundtrack you want to close your eyes while listening to, so that you can recall the visual world it’s trying to recreate. It opens with one of my favorite Cure songs, “Burn”, which I suppose I love because of where it falls in the film (it comes on just as Brandon Lee’s character is realizing what’s going on, just as he’s putting on the Crow make-up for the first time and just after he’s smashed a mirror apart with his bare fist). A couple of songs later, we get “Big Empty” by Stone Temple Pilots, which was the “big hit” from the album. There’s a Rage song in there, something from the Violent Femmes, the Rollins Band, a great track from My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, and “Golgotha Tenement Blues”, an absolutely flawless song by Machines of Loving Grace. It closes with Jane Siberry’s beautiful, haunting “It Can’t Rain All The Time”, which, along with Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy With Rains”, released in 1995, would sum up the next few years of my life nicely. But the song that really makes the album unforgettable for me is the Nine Inch Nails cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls.”
“Dead Souls” was my introduction to the band that would provide the soundtrack to my life, or, at the very least, my life as I saw it. In the coming years, I would blast “That’s What I Get” in my dorm room whenever a girl I liked shunned me, quickly followed by an even louder blast of “Something I Can Never Have.” I would spend a whole lunch break driving to a record store to pick up my copy of The Fragile the day it came out, and I would listen to the whole double album at least two, maybe three times that day. My first concert would be a NIN concert, and I’d go on to see them four more times. To say that I became obsessed Trent Reznor’s little one-man band would be yet another understatement. And it all began with “Dead Souls.”
In a way, “Dead Souls” is the perfect point of entry for a pop music fan who’s just getting into darker, heavier things. The lyrics are simple and repetitive. The orchestration of the song is laid back and non-threatening at the beginning, only building toward chaos and noise at the end. It draws you in, this song. As Trent sings, “They keep calling me,” I feel as if he is calling me. “Come listen,” this song says to me. “And you will find what you are looking for.”
I did come listen, once I’d heard this song. I recall local alternative rock station WFNX doing a Nine Inch Nails A-Z night around this time, or maybe a little later, and listening for a good long while. I know that I heard “Terrible Lie” at least a few times while driving around with Jon, thanks to the Econo Mix. And then there was Woodstock ’94. And that’s when they really got me.
I’m not sure when I finally bought my copy of The Downward Spiral, but I think it might’ve been NIN’s performance at Woodstock ’94 that might have finally driven me to do so. I watched some of it live that Saturday night, mostly because I was waiting for Metallica and Aerosmith to come on afterwards (they’d both come on long after I went to bed), but it was on repeated viewings (my dad was taping the whole thing, or at least most of it) that I really came to appreciate what was going on there.
Trent has gone back and forth over the years with his opinion of the Woodstock show. In an interview held immediately after the performance, he raves about it. But when interviewed later, for the Closure documentary film, he tells the story of finally hearing the tape and realizing how awful it was.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think the success of the Woodstock performance can be directly attributed to how chaotic it sounds. The band was in the middle of the Self-Destruct tour. Their whole aesthetic involved the destruction of equipment, the noise of malfunctioning instruments pushed beyond their limits. You can hear it best on the bootleg recordings of the original performance, especially in comparison to the cleaned-up version of “Happiness In Slavery” that appears on the official Woodstock ’94 compilation — the band is a mess, a disaster. By the end of “Slavery,” Trent’s mic cuts out, the keyboard is generating nothing but distorted clicking nonsense, and the guitars are way out of tune. But they were, as Kelly Clarkson would say, a “beautiful disaster.” And they were exactly the kind of band that a confused teenager, dealing with the cold realities of life for the first time, needed to help himself get through.
The day after Nine Inch Nails played Woodstock ’94 was the day I saw my grandfather for the last time. My mother and I drove out to see him at his house a half hour away, and he and his next door neighbor shared baffled looks as they peeked underneath the hood of my mom’s new Dodge Intrepid. I don’t recall him looking particularly sick, though I do remember my mother and I talking about the cancer on the way home (we wouldn’t know how bad it was until after he died, but we knew that it was there by now). What I do remember was that it was hot, and that the visit felt significant to me, though I wasn’t sure why yet. We went home, watched a replay of Green Day’s infamous “mud-fight” performance, and went on with our lives.
A couple of weeks later, my grandfather died. And it was around then that pop music pretty much disappeared from my playlist for a few years. I was in a darker place, and I needed a darker soundtrack. And though the music made me melodramatic at times, though it probably fueled my depression more than it eased it, there were times when listening to Trent Reznor’s plaintive, angry songs made me feel less alone. There was someone out there who was in as dark a place as I was, maybe darker. And he was making it through, somehow. And if he could, then why not me?
Here’s a clip of the Woodstock performance of “Dead Souls”. It remains one of my favorites.