Reptile (Nine Inch Nails).
Reptile (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Reptile (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hurt (Nine Inch Nails).
Hurt (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, first live performance).
Hurt (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Complete Bowie/NIN “transition” sequence (live, 1995).
And remember, with all original numbers the audiences are hearing numbers they’ve never heard before—so this makes for a varied stage act. It’s risky, because the kids aren’t familiar with the tunes, but I’m sure it makes their musical life more interesting.
David Bowie, Melody Maker, February 1966.
He didn’t want to tour again. Each of the last three times had been unhappy in its own way: Glass Spider had exhausted him; Sound + Vision had been soul-eroding; the Tin Machine “It’s My Life” tour had been soured by a bandmate’s addiction. But Virgin Records believed Bowie finally had something with Outside—pre-orders were starting to pile up and the reunion with Eno was getting press—and urged him to consider at least doing a short promotional tour.
So in May 1995 he began rehearsing for a provisional half-dozen shows. He retained the core Outside group of Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson and hired a new rhythm section. Sterling Campbell had the chance to join a band (unfortunately it was Soul Asylum), so he begged off and recommended his friend Zachary Alford, who had drummed for the B-52s and Bruce Springsteen. And Erdal Kizilcay, after having served as a bassist/Johnny do-it-all since the mid-Eighties, was unceremoniously cut loose, for good. Bowie’s new bassist was Gail Ann Dorsey, a busy session musician and occasional solo artist, who Bowie had first seen playing Bobby Womack’s “You’re Welcome, Stop on By” on The Tube.
Pleased with his band and intrigued to play his new Outside material, Bowie agreed to expand the tour: six weeks in America and another four months, off and on, in the UK and Europe. Bowie hired a keyboardist, Peter Schwartz, to serve as musical director. As Paul Trynka noted, this was a political move, getting Bowie off the hook, as he didn’t have to choose a “favorite son” among Garson, Alomar and Gabrels, all of whom had been directors in past tours.
I really want, for the rest of my working career, to put myself in a place where I’m doing something that’s keeping my creative juices going, and you can’t do that if you’re just trotting out cabaret-style big hits.
With “Sound + Vision” as the template for what he didn’t want to do, Bowie crafted a fairly radical set: over half of the songs were from a record that, for the first few weeks of the tour, hadn’t been released. (And were still fresh for Bowie: a reviewer noticed him cribbing lyrics from sheets of paper.) Bowie claimed his revived songs were “obscure even to my oldest fans,” a bit of an overstatement. But even those who knew the likes of “Andy Warhol” (its inclusion owed to Bowie’s recent portrayal of Warhol in Basquiat) may not have recognized them at first: e.g., the trip-hop reclamation of “Man Who Sold the World,” with its signature guitar riff erased. Many younger attendees thought Bowie was covering the late Kurt Cobain.
Some old songs were included for thematic or sonic ties to Outside: “Joe the Lion,““My Death” and “Nite Flights.” Bowie mainly harvested from his late Seventies works, an acknowledgement that the “Berlin” records had become the hippest Bowie albums of the Nineties and that he was bored with glam-era standards. “I compile cassettes of the obscurer stuff for the car. It would be wonderful to play live stuff I want to hear myself. Before I tended to pander to the audience,” he said.
So the “Outside” tour included a pair from Low (“What in the World,” “Breaking Glass”), a trio from Lodger (“Look Back in Anger,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ”) and, for an occasional closer, the live debut of “Teenage Wildlife.” A few concessions came later in the tour, when Bowie brought in “Under Pressure” as a duet with Dorsey. When he moved to the UK and Europe, he occasionally played “Moonage Daydream” as a closer and “Diamond Dogs” as a mid-set booster.1
Bowie’s gambit was choosing Nine Inch Nails as his opening act for the US leg. He had never done anything like this before: having a younger, hungrier band open for him. (“The most aggressive band ever to enter the Top Five,” Bowie crowed to the New York Daily News.) He risked being blown off the stage, being made to look old.2
But he needed to upgrade the brand again. His management team had commissioned a survey of teenagers in the summer of 1995 and found the kids had “a brutal disregard for history and legacies.” When asked what words came to mind when they heard “David Bowie,” responses included “gay” and “Let’s Dance.” As per David Buckley’s bio, the survey writers suggested a radical revision of the Bowie image, such as making “a new-blood hip hop and rave album of new workings of old songs.” (Another suggestion: collaborate with DeVante Swing).
By the summer of 1995, Nine Inch Nails had become the most popular “industrial” band in the US: The Downward Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine were both certified platinum, “Closer” was a constant on MTV and NIN had been touring almost non-stop for a year. Introduced to NIN’s music by Reeves Gabrels during the Tin Machine tours, Bowie also was flattered to read interviews with Trent Reznor in which Reznor had praised him, saying he’d listened to Low daily while making Downward Spiral. He was also taken by Reznor’s melodicism, finding that the man who howled “I wanna fuck you like an ANIMAL!” in arenas each night was a secret rock classicist. “Once you get past the sonic information, [his] actual writing abilities are very well grounded…every era of rock is actually in there, even though it’s in this guise of apocalyptic music,” Bowie said of Reznor. “There’s actually Beatles harmonies in there.”
I think [Reznor] is a keenly intelligent young man, very focused, and quite shy. I guess people said that about me as well.
Bowie, Hartford Courant, 1995.
Although he was exhausted from touring, Reznor agreed to support Bowie. He later said he was terrified of Bowie at first, that he would inwardly recoil when seeing him backstage, not wanting to talk to him. I felt I had to impress him. I had to impress his band. I couldn’t just let my hair down. (That said, this interview with MTV’s Kennedy, shot the night before the first concert, finds Bowie and Reznor being goofy and self-effacing, and seemingly comfortable with each other.)
Their lives had parallels: both had been suburban misfits and dreamers (although Reznor, who came from Mercer, Pennsylvania, had a far more isolated childhood, culturally), both had done time in the minor leagues. Bowie’s journeyman Sixties were similar to Reznor’s Eighties, where he bounced between bands, got bit parts in movies (he’s in the Michael J. Fox “rock” movie Light of Day), worked as a janitor/engineer at a Cleveland studio.
And Reznor in 1995 was where Bowie had been two decades earlier: famous, controversial, cracking up, hooked on cocaine. On the Outside tour, Bowie quietly served as a grounding point for Reznor; he offered, in his music and his performances (on and off stage), the potential of a future. His main vice now was chain-smoking Gitanes. He seemed comfortable in himself, but he wasn’t self-satisfied; he wanted a new audience, and was willing to work for them; he was confident enough, or unhinged enough, to risk embarrassing himself by howling about Ramona A. Stone on stage instead of playing “Changes” again. (Well, perhaps Bowie had become a bit stodgy: NIN’s dressing room was a haven for some of his band, who, according to Reznor, “didn’t want to sit around talking about fucking German art movies. They wanted to hang out.”)
Bowie and Reznor designed an interim sequence to bridge their sets. There would be no NIN encore. Instead Bowie, then his band, would join NIN on stage, then NIN would depart, leaving Reznor singing with Bowie’s band. The sequence also worked, thematically, as a lead-in to the Outside songs. The inter-set began with “Subterraneans” and “Scary Monsters,” the latter ret-conned into a song about Baby Grace. Then Bowie, in a duet with Reznor, sang NIN’s “Reptile.”3
[Adolescents] go through a grimly day-to-day existence. There doesn’t seem to be the bounce that I remember when I was the same age.
Bowie, ca. 1995.
The Downward Spiral, Reznor said, was a 14-track document of someone who was systematically purging himself of anything that tied him to humanity. The record is sequenced to build to “a certain degree of madness,” climaxing with “Big Man With a Gun,” whose lyric was later cited by the likes of Bob Dole and William Bennett as being so morally degenerate that Reznor’s record company should have dumped him for making it. (The furor was one reason Time Warner sold its shares in Interscope, Reznor’s label, in late 1995.)
Two tracks later was “Reptile,” where alienation has corroded even the idea of sex, the singer equating ejaculation with contamination, his girlfriend with a reptile, a whore, a succubus. She spreads herself wide open to let the insects in…seeds from a thousand others drip down from within. The singer turns the blade on himself in the second verse: he’s worthless, vile, a corrupter corrupted (“Reptile” can seem like Reznor’s sideways sequel to “Scary Monsters.”)
The NIN cut began with pizzicato string loops set against clanking mass production noises, its verses sung over a percussion battery that was punctuated by what sounded like piston/carriage returns. But Reznor countered this mechanical ominousness with glimpses of tonality, still moments of beauty: take the interlude (5:14) marked by a whole-tone rise on keyboard from D to A-flat, reminiscent of a Low Side B instrumental. This had been Reznor’s trait since he started Nine Inch Nails: he humanized the societal indictments of classic industrial music, leavened the industrial sound with, as Bowie pointed out, classic rock melodies and chords. As Alec Wilkinson wrote, “industrial music insisted that modern life had become a shipwreck. Reznor made the ruination specific to a single person.”
Playing “Reptile,” Bowie and Reznor traded off lines in the verses (Bowie, still in character from “Scary Monsters,” gave his best Mockney to lines like “leaves a trayyl of hunn-eey“) and harmonized in the chorus. Reznor kept the big dramatic vocal moments (“REPTILE!” or the howled “LOVELESS!”), while Bowie, when he wasn’t singing, swayed and kept upstage, as if being buffeted by the noise the two bands were churning out.
Bowie delighted in singing the type of lyric that would be cited by the PMRC in press releases as a sign of cultural decay and the “seedy artist” persona that he favored for the early Outside shows also suited the song. Bowie added a necessary theatricality to performances of “Reptile” that otherwise veered towards the bludgeoning—the melodic/industrial tension of the studio “Reptile” was often diminished live in favor of a thudding, corrosive power.
[“Hurt”] sounded like something I could have recorded in the 60s. There’s more heart and soul and pain in that song than any that’s come along in a long time.
That song came from a pretty private, personal place for me. So it seemed like, well, that’s my song…Here’s this thing I wrote in my bedroom in a moment of frailty and now Johnny Cash is singing it. It kind of freaked me out..It felt invasive. It was like my child. It was like I was building a home and someone else moved into it…[But] I haven’t listened to my version since then.
Trent Reznor, on Cash’s version of “Hurt.”
After “Hallo Spaceboy,” the NIN/Bowie sequence ended with a performance of “Hurt,” the closing track of Downward Spiral. Where “Reptile” was bluster and comic vileness, “Hurt” was a kid alone in his bedroom, staring at a wall, rubbing the barely-scabbed scar on his wrist, too numb to even hate himself. The song was a “valentine to the sufferer,” Reznor later said. There’s a defiance in Reznor’s singing on the studio track, moving from the steady whisper of the early verses (suggesting that if Reznor had taken up guitar instead of keyboard, he would’ve sounded like Elliot Smith) to the bravado of the chorus: the kid delights in still being able to hurt someone else.
In 2002, a dying Johnny Cash recorded “Hurt” for what would be his last album. Rick Rubin had given Cash a mix tape of potential covers, including the Cure’s “Lovesong” and Reznor’s “Hurt.” Cash was struck by the latter. He sang it “100 times before I went and recorded it, because I had to make it mine.” Cash’s “Hurt,” with the cold gravitas he gave to Reznor’s words, the way he seemed to inhabit the song’s plaintive melody, made Reznor’s original seem like an imitation. It was an old man sacking a young man’s lament, taking up residence in the ruins.
Cash’s “Hurt” rebuked the future that Bowie had offered Reznor in 1995. A dying old man tells a teenager that no, it really doesn’t get better, that your losses and your miseries only deepen with age, that life is, at its root, catastrophic. But it’s still terrible when you have to leave it behind. A teenager cutting himself in his bedroom at least still has his premises; death still has an air of romance. Cash, in “Hurt,” just has shot memories that aren’t worth the price of salt. Cash took “Hurt” to its serest limits, singing it as if Cormac McCarthy had written it for Blood Meridian. Take the power with which he sings Reznor’s chorus, the best lyric Reznor ever wrote, Cash’s steady roar paced by the repeated staccato piano note:
What have I become,
My sweetest friend.
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end.
Cash grew up Pentecostal and he never deserted Christianity, though at times it seemed that his relations with God were like Tolstoy’s (“two bears in the same den,” as Gorky said of the latter). Cash’s “Hurt” is a broken Calvinism: we are mostly damned, mortal life can never provide transcendence. If there’s another life, well, maybe there’s meaning there, but this one’s shot. Then, the last verse: Cash wonders if he could start again. He considers a resurrection somewhere else, he’s so emptied of his life that he’s finally entertaining hope.
Bowie, in his performances of “Hurt” with Reznor, stood at a remove from the Reznor’s original adolescent misery and the valetudinarian misery of Cash’s. As with “Reptile,” he slightly burlesqued the song, intoning the opening verse in the Dracula-is-risen voice he’d used for high camp moments like “Cat People.” In 1995, standing in the middle of life, his pains behind him, Bowie got a kick in trying on an adolescent’s garb again. He took “NIN’s nihilistic anthems and twisted them into perverse serenades,” wrote the critic Ken Bogle, who saw the Seattle gig. Compared to the Cash cover, Bowie’s performances of “Hurt” can seem flimsy, grandiose. But he’s also reassuring. In his chorus duets with Reznor, Bowie has authority, taking the higher harmony, with Reznor sounding like a kid singing along (flatly at times) to a record. In his odd way, Bowie’s an embodiment of hope here. The young and the old can become so dedicated to misery; Bowie makes middle age seem like a lark, the only time when we have the freedom not to be serious.
I’m playing to a hardcore Nails fan between the ages of 14 and 22…they can often be found body-surfing during my version of Jacques Brel’s “My Death.”
Reeves Gabrels described the audiences at the NIN/Bowie shows as a changing of the tribes. When NIN was playing, most of the Bowie fans were in the lobby; when Bowie was on, the NIN fans went to the lobby, or just left. So Bowie had keep up the momentum of the NIN sets or he’d soon face rows of empty seats. At times it didn’t work: only half the audience remained by the end of one Meadowlands show, and in Seattle “most of Bowie’s newer stuff left the crowd arm-crossingly bored,” Bogle wrote. Bowie tightened his performances, pushed his band. “We had to adjust emotionally to the fact that we were going to be challenged every night,” he said. “It did help me understand a certain aesthetic that was needed to do live performances in front of younger crowds.” Alford recalled to Marc Spitz that this tension is what “made it seem real for David…not knowing what the audience would do at the end of each song.”
The Outside tour generally got fair to poor reviews. Hearing the likes of “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” and “I’m Deranged” for the first time on stage, some reviewers found the new songs incoherent and unmemorable. The Philadelphia Inquirer: Charged with bringing life to his dim new works, Bowie looked like a stiff, robot-ish shell of his former self. This was…the sound of a lost soul, an artist so determined to position himself “ahead” of the culture that he’d neglected the basics. Like songwriting.” The New York Times: “His new songs are oddly made, as if designed to envelop the listener rather than to leave catchy memories…[Bowie] was trying to hold together songs that seemed to dissolve before they ended.”
When the tour moved to the UK in November 1995, with Morrissey now (briefly) the opening act, Bowie’s fight against nostalgia grew more pitched, as he lacked the potential young converts the NIN gigs had brought him.4 Christopher Sandford, attending one of the Wembley gigs, recalled seeing businessmen in hospitality suites, drinking wine and networking, while a raving Bowie performed below them. Fans came dressed as Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack and got “Small Plot of Land” instead. The UK papers were often harsh. The Times: an uphill slog…Bowie appeared from behind the drum kit singing and walking as if in his sleep. Or the amazing splenetic rant by Simon Williams in the NME: “El Bowza’s latest lurch away from reality is entitled Outside, which is kind of about ‘outsiders’ and involves all these strange neo-futuristic characters running around El Bowza’s head and it’s sort of a concept album blah blah bollocks blah blah ARSE!!!!!!!”
All that remains are the recordings of the shows. Here, removed from the din of expectations and resentments and bewilderments, is Bowie in fighting trim, backed by one of the finest stage bands of his career, remorselessly blasting through one of his most adventurous sets. It’s fair to say that posterity backed Bowie’s play: the Outside tour was a marvel, with Bowie at his most alive and shameless.
1: Consider the Outside tour the one Bowie never gave after Scary Monsters. The set lists were fluid throughout the US leg (14 September-31 October 1995). The “pre-release” shows in September often opened (after the NIN hand-off) with “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson.” Bowie front-loaded the Outside songs until, triggered by “Jump They Say,” he closed with a run of older pieces (often with “Nite Flights” or “Wildlife” as a set-ender). By mid-October, sets were starting with “Look Back in Anger” or “Architects Eyes.” Reeves Gabrels opened before NIN but eventually gave up after being worn out by the collected indifference of NIN fans.
The UK/Ireland shows (14 November-13 December 1995) had a more stable setlist. No longer having to slot uptempo songs first to keep momentum going from the NIN sets, Bowie was free to begin moodily, and he did: “The Motel” and “Small Plot of Land” were usual openers. This leg is where “DJ,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Daydream” were incorporated into sets. Bowie’s live staple “White Light/White Heat” turned up in some of the last European shows (17 January-20 February 1996) and would appear during the 1996 festival tour (see “Telling Lies”).
2: Sure, Duran Duran had opened for some dates of the Glass Spider tour in 1987, but they were past their peak. NIN opening for Bowie in 1995 was as if the Clash had opened for him in 1978.
3: This is how the sequence worked, at least in the early shows, but as seen in the “complete” clip above, the Bowie band and NIN were playing together on “Scary Monsters” at some point.
4: It’s telling that Bowie chose not to attend his induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in January 1996, instead playing a gig in Helsinki that night. (Madonna and David Byrne inducted him.)
Sources: Reznor & Cash quotes on “Hurt”: Anthony DeCurtis, In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work; on Cash and “Hurt”: Graeme Thomson, The Resurrection of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption and American Recordings; on “Reptile”: Mitchell Morris, “Musical Virtues”; on Reznor: Alec Wilkinson, “Music From the Machine,” New Yorker, 12 December 2012. Bowie quotes are from various interviews of the 1995-1996 period, mainly compiled by Pegg, Thompson, Buckley, Trynka and Spitz.
Top-bottom: shots from various Bowie/NIN shows, September-October 1995.