The Downward Spiral At Twenty-Five.

The Downward Spiral cover
The album cover that graced countless adolescent CD collections in 1994. 

Happy 25th birthday to an album that defined my adolescence and gave voice to my tween angst. I bought this record the day it came out in 1994. My father had died very suddenly just under two months prior, and it was the coldest and snowiest winter Pennsylvania had seen in something like 50 years. The snow kept falling, making a mess of the roads in the rural town where my mother and I lived; cancelling school for days at a time. We lived in a small housing development at the edge of town, and I didn’t have a lot of friends.  I found myself alone in the house a lot with my mother spiraling into an abyss of grief from which she would never really crawl out of.  I would hang out in my room for countless hours, listening to this album.

I was a lonely and weird kid with not a lot of social skills (this hasn’t necessarily changed) and cheesy and cliché as it sounds, while I had not yet lived enough to fully understand some of the themes and concepts Trent Reznor was exploring in this record, this album did keep me company during a pivotal period when so much of my young life was defined by chaos and isolation. I will always be grateful for that company. I know I’m not alone in this gratitude, considering just how many copies this record has sold.  As an adult, I would argue that this speaks more to the loneliness and isolation that we collectively feel as a culture, but at 13 years old I didn’t really quite grasp such concepts.  I just knew that I was hurting and lonely a lot, and this record gave voice to that hurt.

I played this album heavily for a few years, all the while immersing myself more fully into the punk and goth subcultures, searching out more obscure bands and ways of being. This record served as a starting point for that immersion though. Everyone talks about the band or record that introduced them to the underground, that made them want to dive in and see what else was down there.  For a lot of people my age, it was Nirvana.  For me, it was Nine Inch Nails.  There was just something so much more honest and real about this band for me, much less silly.  Where Kurt Cobain used clumsy metaphors and thinly veiled references to express alienation and pain, Trent Reznor just bluntly put it out there for the world to take or leave.  A year later, I would come to associate this mode of expression with punk and hardcore when hearing Black Flag for the first time hit me like a ton of bricks.  I see now how The Downward Spiral primed me for the world of punk rock.

Despite moving on, I remained a quiet fan. I listened to the new records with a polite detachment; more connected to nostalgia than anything else, connecting with a song here and there, but nothing quite recaptured the significance of this record.  It remains a time and place piece for me.  Had I not come across this album when I did, and where I did, I think my entire life would be very different.  I’m not always sure if this a good thing or bad thing.

Revisiting this record as a maladjusted adult, I still wince at the rawness and vulnerability of this album – documenting your own descent into self-hating annihilation with but the faintest glimmer of hope for crawling back out at the end of the record. There is a subversive power to all that vulnerability and transparency.  I see the influence in my own life and art (ha!) of just sitting with naked pain and transforming it into something so ugly and beautiful all at once.

 

Advertisements
The Downward Spiral At Twenty-Five.

Diagram of a busted mouth.

Fig. 1

Sitting in a chair at the dentist’s office
Steel toes tap together in nervousness
Dressed in bravest black, winter 1996
Drill bits scrape the mess
Growing in my mouth for the first
(of many) times in my young life
Stare out the window
Catch a lone small town
Punk rocker on their
Way somewhere else in the snow
Footprints sunk into the white
Show where they been
But offer no hint
Of where we’re going.

Fig. 2

First dentist trip in three
And a half years
Mental illness met poverty
Long enough for fifteen cavities
To carve their way in
To a mouth well on
Its way towards rotting
Digging in for the duration
As childhood ends
Sugar coated swath cut
Through enamel and dentine and pulp
Floss and rinse and dig
And brush and drill
Scrape plaque away
With a mad desperation
But never reach the
Source of the rot.

Fig. 3

Sipping black coffee
Burning belly filled:
One part all hell
Ready to break loose at any moment
One part bag of peanut butter pretzels for breakfeast
Bought with food stamps and pocket change
Basking in the glow of
Spring’s latest lover
One morning in the sun
Spinning
Blissed out on three hours
Of sleep weighing down
Eyelids pried open
By caffeine and lovesickness
Frantic need for connection
To fill every hour with
The sweetness and agony
Of feeling it all
Feel a sickening snap
Cracking in the back of my mouth
Reach a finger still warm from last
Night’s lust in and wriggle part of a molar out
Shrug like you can’t win ‘em all
Put the blackened tooth chip
In my pocket, like a keepsake.

Fig. 4

Oh, good. You’re awake.
Do you remember where you are?
You were crossing the street
When you walked into the path of an oncoming car
The good news is your spine isn’t broken
You are bleeding internally
But your organs did not rupture
And your shoulder will heal
And even retain most of its mobility
The bad news is what’s left
Of three of your teeth
Have to come out now
The force of the pavement
Rushing up to reshape your face
Left your teeth shattered
Rammed the remaining roots
Back into your jaw
You are in shock
And heavily sedated
You probably won’t
Even remember this
Or feel it.

Fig. 5

It becomes an identity
A way to laugh at the pain
Taking a mouth full of
Broken teeth as my name
Example:
The words
“busted teeth, broken heart”
Inked forever into my skin
Or it’s a cute party trick
Like the time I decided
To spit my new set
Of fake plastic teeth
Out of a mouth, healed
But still fresh enough with phantom pains
That come when the weather changes
Into my best friend’s
Glass of wine at
A fancy restaurant
Oh sorry. You were drinking that?
I guess I’ll just finish it.

Fig. 6

The nerve pain wakes me
Up one morning in summer
Shooting through my jaw
I call out of work
And spend the day at home
Part of it on the phone
With the same best friend
Seven summers later
Holding an icepack to
The side of my head
“I’m paying the price now
For never quite taking care
For always living with
A low intensity self-loathing.”

Fig. 7

Floss and feel
The very last piece
Of my very first root canal
Come loose from its molar mooring
Spit silver and blood and mercury
Into the sink
Pick up the piece
Bury it in an
Unmarked backyard grave
“Here lies my last self-destruction”

Fig. 8

A piece of my broken tooth hurts
So I do what any person would do
Reach into my mouth
Wiggle the last shard back and forth
With a single-minded determination
And pull it out on my gums
Throw it in the trash
Without ceremony
Or reverence
Having long since
Grown used to this
Saltwater. Rinse. Repeat
The hole closes up.

Fig. 9

You used to do meth, right?
No, why?
I don’t know. I just thought you did.
Did you think I used to do meth
Because I’m missing my three front teeth?
No! I swear! I just thought you used to do meth
Like, I thought you said something about it once
Fact: I’ve never done meth.

Fig. 10

I hate it when my friends
Call me “Creepteeth”
Except maybe I bestowed
That nickname on myself
Making an identity
Out of pain again
Or as a way to make peace with a
Self-conscious smile
I can’t remember now.
I just always knew something
About standing in the shadow
Of so much beauty
I could never ever know

Fig. 11

Morning routine of brushing
Serves as a reminder
Of roads to ruin raced
I have long since
Gotten used to the taste
Sour mouth, brown spit
Washed down the sink
Followed by the reprieve
Of toothpaste and blood-spit
Swirling down the drain.

Fig. 12

A dissolute pain
As company for
The past 8 days
With yesterday spent
Entirely within the confines
Of a borrowed twin bed
This isn’t even my room
And I’m tethered to it
Anyway
Every time I move
Nausea rushes in
Making the world
Sickeningly spin and spin…

Fig. 13

Not a single shred
Of solace to seek
Beneath a gray sky
Sighing with rain
While hours crawl
Into another lost day
Shuffled through in
A nauseated narcotic daze.

Fig. 14

I write from my sickbed
Good reasons to
Just stop feeling
Anything at all
The numb warmth
Creeps through my limbs
Like crawling skin
Filling the void
Ever writhing within
This tired body
Spreading outwards
Beneath my skin
I get why people get addicted
To this shit
There is an elusive beauty
Found within numbness
And I hate it all the same
Just like I hate that
Someone somewhere out there
Learned they could line their pockets
And the pockets of their children
And their children’s children
Selling the cure for pain
Then selling the cure
For addiction
Or the punishment
For those deemed unworthy
Or unable to afford
The cure
Somewhere
Someone owns all of this
And I wonder what it would
Be like to rip his throat
(Yeah, I’m making an assumption here)
Out with my jagged teeth
But then again
The thought of strange blood
And bacteria in my mouth
Fills me with an unquiet revulsion.

Fig. 15

I write a litany to numbness
To later be forgotten
In an overpriced notebook
That I paid $20 for
Instead of stealing
Somewhere along the
Road that always led nowhere.

Fig. 16

I listen to a tinny
Clash bootleg and feel
My spirits wanting
To soar like so many songs
Long since sent into unsuspecting airwaves
I write my way down
Every road back home
And write down reasons
To convince this body
To keep breathing
And greet another day
As a blessing
On the outside
Where the beautiful
People are ugly too
I want to live long and strong
With that invincible
Heartbeat as the backdrop
Sometimes I just think
That a set of invincible teeth
Would also be just the kind
Of company I would like to keep.

Diagram of a busted mouth.