"Here's a song that isn't mine anymore," Trent Reznor told the 1,800 fans in the Reno (Nev.) Hilton theater as he began singing "Hurt." It's an expression of isolation and self-loathing from his "The Downward Spiral" album -- and a song that makes Kurt Cobain's tales of alienation seem almost cheery.
Reznor fell into his own downward spiral shortly after recording that song a decade ago, and millions of people now know "Hurt" more from Johnny Cash's unbearably bleak interpretation in an award-winning 2003 video.
Onstage in Reno, though, Reznor made the final lines of the song sound like a statement of survival:
If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way.
Reznor's rousing vocal was more than the sign of a man reclaiming his song. He's also reclaiming his career, maybe even his life.
In an interview before the concert, Reznor, who tours and records under the band name Nine Inch Nails, spoke for the first time about his troubled decade, outlining in detail how he let alcohol and drug addiction strip him of his confidence and vision.
The low point was waking up one morning in London with a hospital tube in his mouth and not knowing where he was. He had overdosed on heroin in his hotel room and had been taken out through the laundry room by aides who were trying to protect his privacy.
That was after Reznor came out with his follow-up to "Spiral," 1999's aptly titled "The Fragile" -- an unwavering portrait of psychological helplessness that felt both frightening and sad. Sales were disappointing, and even admirers in the music industry wondered if he would make another album.
But Reznor has surprised the rock world by returning with a new album, "With Teeth," due May 3. The CD recaptures the accessibility and command of his best work, combining the savage force of "Downward Spiral" with a new, revealing sense of vulnerability. In the rock world, where visionaries with the ambition and craft to appeal to a mass audience are rare, Reznor's resurgence is welcome news indeed.
Backstage after the concert, the 39-year-old pop auteur was all smiles. On a great night, rock bands can give you chills, and this night was one of them -- on both sides of the stage lights. Reznor was touched by the Reno audience's warmth. But touring also reminded him of the bad old days.
"There were nights when I used to be so depressed that I would look out at the audience and resent them, because they got to go home and have a good time, and the show was the only time I had any fun," he said. "I'd go back to the hotel room and have panic attacks. I totally lost my soul."
Six years between albums can be an eternity for an artist, and Reznor worried about whether there would still be an audience if he made another album.
That question won't be fully answered until the new album hits stores, yet the evidence so far is encouraging.
Rock radio stations around the country have put "The Hand That Feeds," the first single from the album, in heavy rotation, and tickets for nearly 40 stops on a U.S. and European theater tour were all sold in minutes.
As the band left the stage in Reno, it was easy to think back to the 1990s, when Reznor and Cobain boldly brought raw honesty and emotion to a rock world that had become increasingly hollow and timid.
In the worst times, Reznor said, he thought about how Cobain killed himself with a shotgun and wondered about his own future.
"I wouldn't buy a gun, but I could see where the drinking and the cocaine could lead. You get to a point where you just don't care. When I wrote 'Hurt,' I was thinking about my own pain, but I was also trying to imagine the emptiest a person could feel. But 'Hurt' became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wasn't flirting around the rim of darkness anymore. I was right down at the bottom of the despair."