‘We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say “I”. This is what we must yield up to God.’
— Simone Weil
‘God break down the door
You won’t find the answers here Not the ones you came looking for.’
— Nine Inch Nails
Photosensitivity warning: Many of the hyperlinks in this essay go to live videos, which feature a strobe light.
I was 10 years old when The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails was released in 1994, and I listened to it more than any other record for the next six years, when everything I knew about myself was disintegrating and becoming unknowable. It lives in my blood memory, the soundtrack to the most formative part of my life. When I think of that time, my memories resonate with those songs, I can’t imagine myself without them, who I would have been. Since then, twenty-five years, I regularly go through periods where the only thing I listen to for weeks, months at a time is Nine Inch Nails, and this locates me, returns me to myself. When you love a band for more than half your life, something happens as their songs come to live in you, they echo through how you remember the past, and fortify how you are legible to yourself in the present.
NIN was the first band that got me in trouble with grown-ups – for this, they have a special place in my heart that no other band will ever touch. For Christmas vacation in 1996, when I was 12, I brought the Broken EP with me when I went to stay with my Catholic grandparents. Broken was packaged in a cardboard ‘digipak’, so my grandmother, rather than struggle with a plastic jewel case, could open it like a book. The lyrics were printed on the inside, though I was singing them aloud all the time too. I think Grandma had the biggest problem with my favourite lyric – ‘Gotta listen to your big-time, hard-line, bad-luck, fist fuck’ – but there was enough offensive sentiment on that record to compel her to gather my family for an intervention. They asked me how I could listen to this violent, raging, blasphemous music. My answer, ‘Because I like it,’ still seems to be the best response to such a question.
The ‘Closer’ video also got me in trouble. It was rarely played on MTV, and since these were the days before YouTubing could satiate fan cravings, I lived in constant, nervous hope that I’d be lucky enough to catch one of its late-night airings, maybe even be able to record it on VHS. One night I did get lucky, but I was at a sleepover birthday party, with giggling girls in pyjama shorts. We were 13, maybe 14 years old. The TV was playing in the background. That electronic beat came on – dum, fft! dum, fft! – animating, via air through tubes, the raw pig heart nailed to the Cherner chair. I squealed, turned up the volume, and sat six inches from the screen. I sang along, knew every word. ‘I wanna fuck you like an animal / I wanna feel you from the inside / I wanna fuck you like an animal / My whole existence is flawed / You get me closer to God.’ I clapped when Trent Reznor, his aquiline profile in silhouette, licked that strange, vintage microphone that looked at once phallic and mammillary. When the shots of him bound and blindfolded came on during the second chorus, I remember swooning and sighing, as if I were watching a boy band. No one joined me. They all hung back. I can imagine this scene now, how they saw me, a person lonely and young and singing to herself, leaning in to that bizarre world on the screen, with its spinning eggs and crucified monkey and apple-mouthed pig and split-open nautilus, the world that summoned something powerful and fundamental in me and told me that, although I felt like it, I was not world-less. Even if the world I’d lived in so far, the very world of this generic, bland, teenaged living room, had been deserted and companionless for me, the world of that video promised that, somewhere, there were people who saw visions like mine, full of nihilism and perversions but also twisted beauty, a kind of gracefulness in all the shit. The birthday girl’s parents called my parents, expressing concern, and banned me from coming over again.
I saved up to buy the VHS tour documentary for The Self Destruct Tour, called Closure, which was released in 1997, when I was 13. It was the first VHS tape I ever owned, and what it contained, what it revealed, about this band felt like I’d discovered the Gnostic Gospels. The grainy image storms with brown light and shadows, and the music they play, on a stage draped in shrouds and scrolls of loose cassette tape, is brutal and desperate. The band destroy their instruments, each other, and themselves. Keyboards are stomped on until the keys look like ribs that have been cracked off their spines. Multiple band members get injured: Trent throws a microphone stand that lands on the drummer’s head, and, with blood pouring into his eyes, the guy keeps playing. The crowd doesn’t just mosh, it tears itself apart, punching each other, crowd-surfing, and clawing their way toward the stage. They grab for Trent while bouncers fight them off. Trent sneers back, ‘Whoever threw that, fuck you.’ It looked like the most exciting live show imaginable. I’d dream of it sitting in class, while the teacher droned on about the quadratic equation. I’d wonder what it felt like to be in that crowd, that room drenched in fury and sweat, with those songs, that music, the most explosive noise I’d ever heard. Around this time, I started playing in bands, and I got to learn for myself how good it feels to turn your amps all the way up and scream until your throat breaks. It instilled a belief in me that I still have to this day: that any spiritual ailment can be cured by playing music at maximum volume in a small, dark room.
The behind-the-scenes shots in Closure are even more infamous than the concert footage. They show the band destroying dressing rooms by heaving couches against walls, staggering around hungover in clothes whose rank funk you can practically smell off the screen. They snigger at Midwest gas stations where they shove oranges up their shirts to look like tits, and howl with laughter during a prank call to a sex worker, where they ask her to ‘Tell me you wanna fuck my nine inch nail’. I remember that there was a lot of ass and genitals on display, most of it male. Jim Rose’s Circus, a BDSM freak show, was one of the opening acts, and we watch one of the performers backstage try to lift an armchair that’s hooked to his limp dick. Marilyn Manson, another opening act, is young and lean and impish, sitting next to a pair of strippers with a look of inebriated glee on his lipstick-smeared face. Buzz Osborne of Melvins is persuaded by a drunken mob of band members to throw a lamp at an EXIT sign that is dripping with beer (this lives on in Tumblr gifsets entitled ‘Buzz, et. al., versus EXIT sign’). NIN begin the tour playing small theatres, and end, two years later, in arenas. Lou Reed comes backstage after a show and says, ‘It was so smart, it was just so fucking smart.’ There is the terrific version of ‘Hurt’ sung with David Bowie and the notorious, mud-covered Woodstock ’94 performance. This was the tour where they wore black leather and latex covered in cornstarch, and Trent was in short-shorts with garters, dripping in sweat and blood. He careens around the stage, jerking off his microphone stand, and knocking over his bandmates by roping his mic cable around their feet, or sometimes just outright tackling them.
Some of the most exhilarating scenes – not only in Closure but in most of their live videos from the tours of the 1990s – show how Trent particularly enjoys attacking the lead guitarist, Robin Finck. Trent gropes him, leaps on him, twists him to the ground, shoves him off the stage into the surging crowd, and if it’s not a tackle, it’s an erotically menacing embrace of an arm around Robin’s head, bending his neck back and stroking his forehead, or pushing up against him from behind. On YouTube, there are several fan-made compilations, with titles like ‘Trent Reznor vs. Robin Finck (Part 1)’, that give a sense. There is also a sequence on Closure’s ‘bonus materials’ where a nearly-naked Marilyn Manson appears onstage and shoves Trent to the ground while kissing him. Along with the ‘Closer’ video, these scenes constructed a world where sex converged with rage, encapsulating the turgid passions of puberty in a way that no other band at the time did. Gruff, melancholic Pearl Jam could not get close to the feeling that being inside the belly of the beast of lust is warm and wet but also suffocating. More than anything else in his repertoire, Trent has had to account for these boiling, carnal eruptions in interviews. (‘I don’t walk around throwing mic stands when I’m eating dinner,’ he pointed out in an interview with MuchMusic.) In 1995, at age 11, I remember reading a particularly lurid article in the magazine Details, which bloomed in my fantasies for years after. The interviewer asks Trent the five words he associates with sex. Trent replies, ‘Taste, sweat, lick, come, bite,’ and is then asked if he’s into masochism and whether he associates sex with pain. He says yes. As I would experience in the next few years – making out awkwardly in closets and cars, bumping teeth and wincing at too-long fingernails, not to mention being confronted with the banal brutality of young desire – not only were sex and pain linked, but they felt like the same thing. Masochism was not a choice or a kink. It was how sex felt all the time. All you could do was submit. This was especially compounded for someone, as I was, assigned female at birth. Growing up, I was told not just by adults, but by so many depictions of erotic love in movies and TV, that if a boy called you names, insulted you, ignored you, and even (or especially) when he hit you, it was because he liked you. To be wanted was to suffer. And to want was to be monstrous.
The lyrics of Nine Inch Nails, so simple and vulnerable in their angst, in their need, in their defeat, offered articulation and insight into this rough new world. They were embarrassing as hell to sing along to – so bald and filthy! so corny! – but that’s exactly what made them meaningful. They explained the stuff that embarrassed you, gave it shape, cause, and expression, and validated it as true. In that same interview from 1995, Trent says, ‘Every day I’m saying the most personal thing I could ever say… But one of the prices is that there’s an open raw nerve that I’m letting everybody look at. There’s a hole in the back of my pants with a bare asshole showing, and you can see right in there. And sometimes I wish I hadn’t.’ Here, he could be describing having to endure one day of high school when you’ve got a crush on someone who doesn’t know you exist and you’ve just gathered your courage to say hi. NIN was the perfect band, especially for a goth, for an adolescence of gender confusion and the violence of craving. Lain over the harsh, wrathful quality of the music, you could scream and thrash and flail around to the huge sounds, but still be talking about how small you felt. I remember so many days of shuffling through the hallway at school, chewing my own tongue, my body crawling with thirst, and my only relief would come when I got home after school and cranked NIN up on my Walkman. It was transcendent in a basic way that I’ve never experienced since. As an adult I listen to a lot of hardcore, metal, and noise – bands that make angry, desolating music about being angry and desolated – but I keep returning to NIN precisely because of those naked lyrics about want. Let’s be real: you can’t sing along to Merzbow.
Along with satisfying the untamed needs born in that vortex of sex and rage, one of the reasons I’m so unabashedly a NIN fan, and have been for so long, is because they’ve never humiliated me as they’ve gone through the years, like nearly every other mainstream band I loved growing up in the 1990s. I can declare my love for them without having to suffer the scorn that so many of those bands now deserve for selling out in various, pathetic ways. Indeed, it’s recently felt as though all these years of cult devotion are being validated in a populist way, as NIN re-emerged in the late 2010s as a singular bastion of uncompromising artistic vision, the last men standing. Billboard recently declared us to be in the midst of a ‘Reznorssance’. After winning the Oscar for Best Score for The Social Network, and going on to score Waves, Watchmen, and the new Pixar film Soul, a meme went around stating that ‘From now on all good movies will be scored by NIN.’ The band appeared, as ‘The’ Nine Inch Nails, in the new Twin Peaks, and they looked and sounded fucking amazing. Miley Cyrus sang a warped version of ‘Head Like a Hole’ on Black Mirror, turning it into a capitalist nightmare of so-called feminist empowerment, which Reznor celebrated by releasing a T-shirt with the hilariously uncanny lyrics: ‘Head like a hole! I’m on a roll! Riding so high! Achieving my goals!’ At the end of the episode, Miley sang the real lyrics, which were as clarifying and articulate in 2019 as they were in 1989. The many years where the band’s popularity receded from mainstream success are now seen as evidence of their integrity. NIN has always foregrounded politics, not only before it became cool and trendy to do so, but at a time when it was likely to harm one’s career. During the record-industry crisis brought on by the internet – the one that made many artists turn into assholes whining about their bank accounts – Reznor released a new record, not as a pay-what-you-want download, but for free, saying, ‘This one is on me.’ When NIN won the Webby award for it, Trent’s entire speech was, ‘Wait. We didn’t charge anything.’ Last week, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, they released two new albums for free, with a statement that read, ‘It made us feel better to make these and it feels good to share them. Music has always had a way of making us feel a little less alone in the world… and hopefully it does for you, too. Remember, everyone is in this thing together and this too shall pass.’ After the 2016 US election, Trent declared that if you voted for Trump, he didn’t want you at a NIN concert, and during NIN’s world tour of 2017-18, while playing outside of the States, he consistently apologised for his country. ‘Please, forgive us,’ he said. This during the same year the Smashing Pumpkins staged a ‘reunion tour’ where Billy Corgan monologued every night that he didn’t care who you voted for, what mattered most was that you were here – or, in other words, that you liked his band.
Beyond politics, something elemental about what NIN did for me as a kid has remained central to who I am as an adult. My precious VHS of Closure and the band it depicted represented everything I wanted, and still want, the world to be: chaotic, feverish, ungovernable. It had the power (maybe not literally, although it was thrilling to think so) to blow up the walls around me, the ones that kept me inside those bland generic rooms, lorded over by lifeless adults who insisted I obey rules that had no meaning beyond control. Watching Closure as an adult cracks me up with its childishness, how adolescent all those boys are, snickering at their dicks out and their rowdy tantrums. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some nostalgia.
Adulthood has sobered me on the actual political impact of rebelliousness. I know that flipping off cop cars doesn’t actually do anything to dismantle oppression, but it sure as fuck still feels good. It will always thrill me to shout ‘Fuck you!’ to teachers, parents, bosses. To spit on the door of a bank, to crush a cigarette into the face on a politician’s sign. What a feeling of liberation to go to my high-school campus on a weekend and piss on the office door of the chemistry teacher who was giving me a D-. When I see young goths and punks sitting in piles of each other outside drugstores, smoking their clove cigarettes in their Dr. Martens and writing lyrics on their fragile skin in ballpoint pen, I will always smile and nod and want to lean over and tell them to try to stay romantic about all that acrimony for as long as they can, because the romance of it is what will help the most.
NIN is the purest expression of fury in music that I’ve experienced, and I love them most for how they femme-ed it, made it queer. It wasn’t just that they wore lipstick while they broke themselves. It was the excruciating nakedness of the lyrics paired with the visceral embodiment of their performance. Though their performances proposed the body as something to hope to transcend, they only revealed and articulated this hope as false. Such transcendence was not, in fact, possible: the body was not something from which you could escape, you’ll always have to drag it along behind you. Rather than this feeling like a punishment, however, a live NIN show was a testament to the fact that this embodiment could still feel enraptured, generative, even mystical.
This is because NIN is the band who most corroborate the fact that there can be a mysticism of fury. There are different kinds of mysticism, but all are primarily defined in terms of ecstasy, which comes from the Greek ekstasis, ek meaning ‘out’ and stasis meaning ‘stand’. Ecstasy is the standing outside of oneself, an experience that requires a total transformation of self, one that also transforms where (and through what) it can stand. We usually understand ecstasy as being conjoined with joy, affording an escape by catapulting you in sweet relief outside of your confining, earthly body of pain and frustration. But ecstasy can also be understood in terms of fury, rooted within, and because of, the bounds of your own skin. From this place, and only ever bound to it, implosive rather than explosive, fury mutates those bonds. Think of being throttled with rage: how your body shimmers with it, how you are changed. Think of the Furies, the ancient goddesses of vengeance and justice (which is where we get the word; the Romans invented it to translate the Greek name Erinyes), who are prescribed by their transformations: when an injustice occurs, they morph into human-shaped birds with blood shooting out of their eyes. They torment the perpetrator, shrieking at him, until he is brought to justice, and then they shape-shift again, this time into mourning old women, cloaked and heavy with despair at the fact that they’ve had to metamorphosise at all. Crucially, the centripetal collapse of fury, its core and border within the body itself, can be understood both as feminine and subordinate, because the oppressed – women, slaves, the disabled – have historically been equated with the body, reducible to and by it. Rage at such bondage is both liberation and limitation. Like the Furies, what fury produces is catharsis, a totalising change, but the thing that is altered is not the external world itself, but the bodies of those who are most affected by that world’s perfidy.
Fury can never be asked for more than what it is at its most pure – and the same could be said of joy. Both are primordial, basic materials, the raw stuff of life. Depending on your worldview, either one or the other is what’s required to first kindle anything at all. Obviously, I’m of the mind that fury is the OG ingredient. To begin anything we need a spark, a flame, a big bang, a fist punching through a wall. Although joy extends outward (to stand outside of one’s self), fury expands what is interior. It tunnels into the deepest redoubt of your being, excavating a violent, primordial place made of need and want. A definition of fury could be that it is the near-unbearable reckoning with how you didn’t get what you needed or wanted. This, necessarily, must take place at your tender, wounded pith, which means that the transformation fury offers, though it uncovers an infinite space within yourself, stops at the edges of your own skin. NIN’s fury, especially onstage, reaches this limit quickly. It produces a storm of ferocity, throwing the band members against themselves and the crowd, hurling the music forward in rapture and rupture. But if this storm was all their performance contained, the band would not be as powerfully purgative as they are. If they began and ended at fury only, the transcendent capacity delivered at a NIN show would stay grounded within the material perimeter of the body, circumscribing how lonely it is to live there, that place, that thing, which is all, in the end, that one has. But it doesn’t stop at this – because NIN has, as its touring guitarist, an actual ecstatic mystic on their stage: Robin Finck.
Robin Finck. He is the biggest reason I am a NIN fan, but he is also something more, someone I’ve followed for 25 years, who has shown me the way to places I never thought existed, let alone imagined that I’d one day go to. It’s not enough to say that he is my favourite guitar player, or one of the first rock stars who I wanted to be. What he’s revealed to me has felt less like a veneration and closer to a kind of communion with another world. First it was how he looked, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, not entirely man, or woman, and which revealed the way to a world beyond gender and the regime it imposes on the body – making his kind of ecstasy the sort that stands outside. As a dreamy queer kid on the brink of puberty, such a guide was life-changing and life-saving. But then, it was so much more: it was how he played his instrument, which is signatory for its refusal to conform to the context in which he exists, and his performance while playing, whose fundamental characteristic is of someone with bottomless presence who is also entirely gone from this world. He is the strangest guitarist I can think of, not because his style of playing is the strangest, but because of the choices he makes for the kinds of stages he plays on. What he does – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, what he refuses to do – produces a kind of radical negation of presence. Such a negation deviates from the world of rock, which is almost ontologically about the exaltation of the performers’ presence. Robin never does what you think he will, what you’d expect from someone in his place. Robin’s also the strangest celebrity I can think of: he’s played on some of the biggest stages in the world with NIN, and for a decade as Slash’s replacement in Guns N’ Roses, but his career is a demonstration of the refusal of celebrity. He’s given only a handful of interviews in twenty-five years – the first on-camera interview focusing on only him just appeared in 2018 – and when he does speak, he is extremely self-effacing. When asked to introduce himself in a feature on NIN, he said, ‘I’m Robin Finck, one of the guitarists in Nine Inch Nails.’ This, from the guitarist in Nine Inch Nails. (There have been other guitarists in Nine Inch Nails when Robin didn’t play with them, but, no matter how good they are, I consider them interlopers next to Robin Finck.) I’ve heard from a fan who waited for him outside the venue for hours after a concert that when he appeared, he introduced himself to her. ‘Hi, I’m Robin,’ he said. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I know very well who you are.’ It took many years for all of this to synthesise into something that made sense, and only now in my mid-30s, after watching him for more than two decades, do I understand that he has been a role model for me, not in terms of how to be a musician, or a performer, or an artist, or even a person. Rather, Robin Finck showed me how to be a mystic.
Despite its reliance on ecstasy, I can’t explain what exactly mysticism is – no one can, that’s the point. Mysticism is a state, an experience, where language can’t go, and this ineffability is precisely what defines it. Another way of saying this is: if you can define it in words, it’s not mysticism. The root of the words ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystery’, myst, comes from a Latin word for ‘secret rite, worship, or secret thing’, which originated in a Greek word that meant ‘to close, shut’, as in, closing one’s lips in secrecy, or shutting one’s eyes so as not to see. The secret, unknowable-ness of it is the only way to define it. What this means is that mystics as such are ultimately unknowable. The closest we can get to them is some sort of reading and writing that cannot be hermeneutical, cannot be oriented toward definition. An explanation of mysticism will only ever fail, so a circumscription of that failure, an account of the unknowing, must be the point.
It took me a year into writing this essay to understand that I am actually writing a hagiography: a writing of the lives of the saints. ‘Hagio’ is a Greek word that means sacred, holy, and devoted to the gods. Hagiography was, during the Middle Ages and into the Medieval period, the primary literary genre of Western civilisation, because it was the kind produced by the Christian Church. For several centuries, the only literate people were priests, and so they wrote for each other the stories they deemed worthy of being written, and the ones they wanted to read. Before I was able to articulate that I was following this lineage, I explained why I was writing this essay by saying that I’m just a really, really big fan. But fandom, which is perhaps one of the primary literary genres of our current time, is different to hagiography in that, for the latter, your subject might as well be dead. In fact, for hagiography it’s better if your subject is dead, because it requires idealisation, a certain amount of romance and fantasy. It asks both writer and reader to devote their time to that which is no longer alive, proposing that through the hagiography the subject can live on, an eternal life. It also insists, since the text’s subject is dead, on making an account of someone who can no longer account for themselves. Amy Hollywood, in Sensible Ecstasy, writes how the task of the hagiographer is to interpret not only the life, but the very body, of that which is beyond interpretation. This is especially true with women saints, and has significant political consequences: to write their lives, literate male priests attempted to clarify behaviours that they found incomprehensible. The result of this was that so many Medieval women saints were said, by their hagiographers, to do bizarre things as expressions of their mysticism: some can fly, some weep until they Biblically flood the village, St. Catherina of Siena was said to have worn Christ’s foreskin as her wedding ring when they married. The list goes on. If one cannot hope to know the unknowable, then hagiography is perhaps a coming-to-terms with this. People cope with unknowability and that which cannot be known in different ways; sometimes I think mysticism is simply the experience of living for, because of, and within this coping.
Crucially, hagiography is a solitary genre, both to read and to write, but it is necessarily and fathomlessly solitary for the writer. To write a hagiography is to bear the knowledge of just how small you are, a small thing reaching out to a vast, unknowable heaven. My hagiography began as an email to a friend: I’d invited them to a NIN show, and they said they’d of course love to join, but they never got into NIN, what was it that I liked about them? I started typing bits of answer, as if I were a priest hunched over my scroll, writing by candlelight, to say, let me show you what has given my life purpose. After my email swelled past 2,000 words, I thought, maybe I ought to move this to a Word document and take it seriously as a piece of writing. This felt strange; I’ve never before been compelled to write from a place of enthusiasm. It was hard to justify, I’m so used to needing critique – or fury! – to be my reason. Eventually, I turned in a 7,000-word version to my agent, who, a little bewildered (all year, I’d been turning down paying gigs in order to write this thing that no one had asked for), told me I’d probably need to cut it by several thousand words for publication. I took all of her other edits, but not the one about the length; instead, I added 8,000 more words. It wasn’t that I was obsessed with Robin Finck: it was that I was obsessed with writing about Robin Finck, which kept seeming like an impossible task. As my essay’s word count still climbed, I understood that a part of me was surrendering to something I couldn’t explain at all, and although an essay, etymologically, is an attempt at some sort of explanation, I realised that as I got close to definitions, I simultaneously got close to paradoxes, that as I made my way towards the shore of perceptibility, I was also becoming drenched in the incommunicable. This, then, was how I realised that I was writing about mysticism.
For me, the way mysticism feels in practice has to do with a paradox: it’s where you can feel the edges of your body as they are being annihilated by, and into, something greater than you. In order to encounter anything, you first need a body to experience it. The enigma comes at this place of simultaneous existence and obliteration: to feel something being destroyed, you first have to feel its intactness. How else will you feel your edges burning away? Don’t they have to remain, somehow, as edges? But how? It’s so illegible a feeling, and yet it still happens inside your skin, or very, very close to it. It opens up an alien world, and yet that world seems to still be located in your body. It troubles the understanding of ecstasy as something that forces you outside of yourself – in a way, it asks if the transformation that mysticism produces is happening to you, or the world, or both. Or, something else that neither of those two are – yet.
Music, perhaps more than any other art, produces this simultaneous feeling of something happening very close to you, alongside, or within, while feeling something much bigger than yourself, which you can’t see or touch, overwhelm and engulf you. At least this is where I’ve experienced mysticism, when playing my own music and being in the audience of others. There are plenty of musicians I like who seem like mystics in more obvious ways than Robin Finck, but it’s precisely because he doesn’t seem like one – that paradox – that pronounces it for me. From a hagiographical point of view, Robin Finck is not dead, but – with his unknowable-ness, with how he mystifies me – he might as well be.
Like most frontmen and lead guitarists, Trent Reznor is a god, but Robin Finck is a demon. Reznor is plenty diabolical, but Finck has a serpentine energy, Medusa hair, and it feels plausible that, at some point in his life, he made a deal with the devil for the superhuman ability to excel at a wordless, subterranean language. On stage, he moves as if no one’s watching him, as if he’s conferring with an oracular force that feels as interior and intimate as it does radically extrinsic. I can’t say this about any other lead guitarist of Robin’s stature. He’s definitely classifiable as a rock guitar god – a category whose tautology is its ostentatious flamboyance – but because he refuses to perform the choreography attendant to this category, something important is revealed about how he positions himself on these rock-star stages, what he takes from them, what he gives. Despite this rejection of the spotlight, or maybe because of it, he is one of the most captivating performers I’ve ever seen, and this is saying something, since he’s sharing the stage with Trent Reznor. My friend, who knew nothing about NIN, grabbed me about halfway through the show to shout, ‘I cannot stop watching the guitar player!’ At that moment, Robin’s head and shoulders were bent over as if in a pillory, and he was trembling, almost motionless, like a Butoh performer. When he performs, I mainly feel as if I shouldn’t be watching him, that I’m invading his privacy, bearing witness to a secret act that just happens to be taking place on a stage in front of 20,000 people.
He most resembles one of those inflatable, dancing tube-bodies in front of car dealerships, whose limbs unfurl and elongate, keeping a time that seems like breathing. He convulses hypnotically, as if in a trance, lifting his arms up and away. He often falls. He is very awkward. When he steps in time, he lifts his knees high, like a marionette puppet. He’ll hook his neck around his microphone stand and rock back and forth with it, or grind against his amp, not in a sexual way, but as if it’s a door he wants to go through. At the end of playing the bar, his spine often curls over, guitar touching the ground, like he’s exhaling his whole being. He does a lot of crouching at the side of the stage, hidden behind the speakers. He’s the only one other than Trent who leaves his designated area, climbing up the platform where the amps are, lurching back and forth in front of the drums, though this never has the practised sweep that Trent’s has. Robin looks more like Frankenstein lumbering around. When not in a swoony reverie, his expression is set to a haunted, grimacing frown. Sometimes he’ll stop playing his instrument altogether, stand eerily still, and peer out into the audience, as though looking beyond but also through them, into some other depth. In bzarektah36’s description of a YouTube video where this is featured, we are warned: ‘Be on the lookout for Robin’s death stare.’ The entranced inelegance of his movement is interrupted by the moments when he explodes with violence, though he never harms anyone else as Trent does, and this makes it seem less like violence and more like a part of himself is breaking open. There are fan videos online of Robin smashing, breaking or throwing his guitar, knocking over microphone stands, and leaving the stage in the middle of the song if something doesn’t sound right. But perhaps because his entire affect is of someone not entirely in or of this world, you get the sense that when he exits the stage, he is exiting this plane of reality, going to a place no one can follow. In many songs, when it’s not his turn to play, he disappears from his spot on stage left completely, reappearing only when it is – often, magically, from stage right. I don’t know where he goes.
I first saw him in the ‘March of the Pigs’ video, from 1994, when I was 10. I somehow managed to download it – over dial-up! – and would watch and rewatch the 200-pixels-wide file because it felt like it contained clues for how to live. This first encounter with Robin Finck changed my world. It was how he looked, how he moved, and what that seemed to mean – or, maybe it’s more accurate to say, the meaning it resisted. He was different from anything I’d ever seen, and also different from the video itself, a tension that dilated the world of what NIN promised. Standing next to the other guitarist, Danny Lohner, who had the goatee and unmistakable aggression of a straight white boy, Robin looked alien, femme, a future gender. His face was childlike and open, Caravaggio beautiful, with pouty lips, shaved eyebrows, and big, moony eyes. He seemed possessed, swinging his feet around in graceless arcs and grimacing in time to the harsh sounds. He didn’t have a recognisable gender, but it was more than that: maybe he wasn’t even human. ‘You can do that?!’ I remember thinking, which was another way of saying, ‘You can be that?’
About every great rock band ever, it has been said, as a high compliment, that girls want to fuck the singer and boys want to be the lead guitarist. Categorically, I’ve always been in the boys’ camp – I never wanted to fuck Trent Reznor, I wanted to be Robin Finck. I could understand the sex appeal of these frontmen, but it absolutely diminished when compared to what the guitarists represented. Frontmen embody a kind of divine charisma, strutting across the stage and mesmerising the crowd with their god-like powers, like preachers who can open up the kingdom of heaven for you. They are the ones front and centre, their hearts on their sleeve, spreading their arms up and out and singing the lines that will lift everyone into the sky. How clichéd, but still, how you want to go there. Off to the side are the guitarists. They don’t smile at the crowd, or talk, or sing, and if they do, it’s backup, turned down in the mix. They hold their instrument close, intertwining their bodies around it. They seem to have gained access to a place hidden from our world, ferrymen on the river Styx.
The fuck vs. be configuration of rock-star fandom has never made much sense to me. Rock music elementally is about how wanting to fuck someone converges dangerously and deliciously with wanting to be someone. The maxim is meant to explain how much desire has accumulated around the band, not only in terms of how we lust after them, but in terms of something that cuts closer to how we desire ourselves. Audiences, as much as they are fans of particular figures, want to see themselves reflected back through those figures. All good rock stars have a bewitching power that goes straight through the sternum and touches something quivering and central in the gut. It’s the feeling that you can find yourself, or who you want to be, in one of the musicians onstage. In psychoanalysis, this would be called projection, the transfer of your desires on to another person. But a more ancient way of explaining it is through the spiritual idea of communion, which has to do with an unspeakable sense of connection with something that both lives in your body and beyond it.
Watching a rock star onstage, using their body and face to express something interior now made into flesh and sound, can show you all kinds of things: where the edges of your body are, and how they can be dissolved; how you can feel connected to other bodies around you, and also to something you can’t see or touch, but which you can hear and feel. It can help you understand what you feel, by affording you the sense of recognition: you can hear your feelings and thoughts emerge from someone else. But it also shows you what is possible to feel, by letting you see what someone else has done with those same feelings. This is what connects you to that thing that is both in your own body and beyond it. Because connection has to do with desire, all of this can point toward how you want to feel, which is to say, how to get to the self you want to become. You can do that. You can be that.
But upon first seeing Robin in the ‘Pigs’ video, he confused me: he was as delicate and lissom and ethereal as he was scraggy and agitated and wild. There was his long, lithe, snaky body and narrow hips, and his soft, feminine face. There was his grimace, that mesmerised look of being taken over, and the wrecked sound of his guitar. He seemed at once lost, out of place, and exactly, perfectly fitted to where he was. Although the camera, in one charged take, fixates on Trent, who pummels around the sound stage and rubs the crotch of his oxblood-red leather pants, it is Robin who is a personification of the song itself, which goes from its thrashing 7/8 time signature and hammering screams – ‘Bite! Chew! Suck! Away the tender parts!’ – to a major-key piano breakdown where the melody lilts and the vocals entreat, ‘And doesn’t it make you feel better?’ Robin stands behind Trent and the camera only catches him in the frame sometimes. He curves his neck and tosses his hair and plays his guitar as if he’s in a different room, and even world, to the rest of the band. This air of displacement, of existing somewhere else while you are also right here, which has continued to mark his stage presence, reached into me as an explanation for the strange dislocation I’d felt in my body and its place in the world so far. I’d never felt comfortable in my own skin, not because of the skin itself, but because of what the world said it signified. When I looked at myself, I saw one thing – I was a dragon, I had snakes for hair! – but when the world looked back, it insisted that it saw another, something that was supposed to be docile, pretty, manageable. You’re a girl, it said. A what? I said.
The confusion Robin instigated felt somehow familiar, and at some point, it made me wonder if I was looking at something queer. ‘Queer’ was a term I’d heard about but not known exactly what it meant – it was thrown around by kids my age as well as adults, along with ‘gay’, as both an insult about a deviant form of desire and a marker of something consummately strange. When I saw this person, embodied it seemed in multiple worlds, some made of the recognisable world around me, some from nowhere I’d known before, I understood how the word ‘queer’ means things that are not articulable, that cannot be contained according to conventional laws of meaning. It made me realise not only that ‘queer’ could describe me too, but that I wanted it to. It activated that experience of communion. There was a reverberation of recognition that told me the quivering thing in my gut was not alone – this is what I could be, what I was – but also that there was a place beyond what I knew so far about myself, outside it, and maybe it was populated with others who felt the same way, and this was how to get there.
On the surface, Robin was an exemplary figure of the 1990s era of rock-star gender-fuckery, especially the goth section of it, when Kurt Cobain wore dresses, Marilyn Manson looked like a woman, and PJ Harvey’s voice sounded like a man’s. It was fabulous. All that mesh and black lipstick was our generation’s Bowie-inspired glam moment, and Robin embodied it perfectly. Robin’s squirming presence during the muddy Woodstock performance is the one people remember next to Trent’s. (One of the first sentences of his entry on the NIN Wiki reads, ‘His appearance, particularly during The Downward Spiral era… has arguably made him one of the most iconic members of NIN other than Trent Reznor.’) At the time, being 10 years old, my identification with his look as something queer had less to do with sexuality, per se, and more to do with the way a body looked and moved, and how it did those things by either conforming to or breaking the rules. Encountering Robin Finck was a concurrence with someone whose embodiment was capacious enough to contain many seemingly disparate parts, and it appeared that, despite this (or maybe, perhaps, because of it?), he lived in his skin comfortably, which was the first time I’d ever seen that such a state could be possible for someone who looked the way I wanted to. But even as a child, before I’d started to think about mysticism and what, exactly, it was, something about seeing Robin Finck had more in it that pointed me towards a standing outside of myself, which was an order of magnitude bigger than the usual celebrity worship and the feeling of being a fan. The feeling of my own body compelled me toward thinking about mysticism because, for the mystic, the body has to be simultaneously felt and exploded. The feeling that dominated me, and still does, is that I wanted to live outside of my body, without and beyond it. I didn’t know how to do this, or if it was even possible, but watching Robin Finck, slipping out of the roles that the world tried to put him in, showed me a way.
Despite being in two of the biggest rock bands of all time, very few people, even fans of those bands, can tell you who Robin Finck is. Trust me, I’ve asked. He’s perhaps of the same species as Blixa Bargeld, whose own band is the magnificent Einstürzende Neubauten, but who’s most well known for playing guitar and singing backup with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in the 1980s. Blixa has currency among Bad Seeds fans as much for his bulging, insectoid eyes and ur-punk mullet hair as for his brutal scream and guitar sound – but what makes him so beloved is the very fact of his sidekick status. Similarly, because Robin Finck has stood to the left of Trent Reznor and Axl Rose, some of the greatest frontmen of all time, he attracts the attention of those who prefer to look towards the liminal rather than at what’s at the centre.
Born in 1971 in New Jersey and raised in Georgia, most of Robin Finck’s biography is unknown. He’s given few interviews and, when he does do press events with NIN, he sits silently at the edge of the band. He is especially committed to maintaining his anonymity, even for public work. In my research for this article, I encountered more stories of him intentionally removing his name from projects than projects themselves. When I interviewed Kelly Kalman, who runs the Facebook fan page Finck Yourself (which currently has 305 likes), she told me that she started the page specifically to keep track of him, but it’s been slow going. The only public performance he did in 2019 was as one of a dozen performers at a charity ball for an animal shelter in Sonoma County. Following his hashtags on the internet, Kelly learned when tickets went on sale and bought two, travelling across the country for the concert. She said she had no idea that it would be as intimate as it was until the event organisers emailed her to ask what she’d like for dinner. It was set up in a tent outside a farm for 300 people; she said the stage was about as large as a king-sized mattress. Sitting at her table, she was literally bumped into by Robin Finck as he walked past. She described how he recognised her (she’s the same fan who waits for him outside venues), how his eyes darkened. He gently led her and her friend outside, and said he was happy to take photos and sign autographs there but that, once inside, they had to promise that they wouldn’t draw attention to him in any way. ‘I’m here to support my family,’ he explained. (The performance was directed by his wife.) Kelly said her stomach dropped then, worrying she’d overstepped some boundary, despite it being a public performance for which she’d bought tickets. In general, she said, she worries about being creepy, since following him demands a certain persistence, as there is hardly any trace of him in the world.
In 1989, he briefly attended the Berklee College of Music, and we can confirm this because a photo of his student ID card exists on a fan’s Tumblr. In the 1990s, between NIN and GNR, he toured as a guitarist with Cirque du Soleil, where he met Bianca Sapetto, a choreographer, acrobat and trapeze artist, who became his wife. They have two children together, and have collaborated on projects like LedZAerial, where he plays in a Led Zeppelin cover band while she and other performers dance suspended from the ceiling. For most of his career he has worked as a touring musician, and since NIN and GNR don’t tour often, he is out of the spotlight for years at a time. The only music of his own that he’s released was a collaboration in 2015 with a Portuguese electronic artist named Wordclock, for the instrumental soundtrack of a horror video game called NOCT. Occasionally he’s released a collaborative track, and by occasionally, I mean a total of three times, and these have been for the trailers of video games or films. He has appeared on several NIN and GNR records, but not all of them, and only on certain tracks. Kelly pointed out that Robin refuses credit for his work on the GNR album, Chinese Democracy, which is notable because Axl Rose, who Kelly says is ‘the man who loves to take credit for everything’, insists on citing Robin’s contribution.
For a short time he maintained a web presence by answering fan questions via his website’s message board in terse, enigmatic sentences. When asked, ‘Robin, do you think time will end?’ he replied, ‘with every blink’. When he has had accounts on social media, they’ve been similarly short and baffling, as in 2010 when he tweeted 126 times to say things like, ‘A course amid the smoke and silt, is there if look for finding wilt.’ At the start of NIN’s Cold and Black and Infinite tour of 2018, he began an Instagram account, but mainly posts collages of the sky with no captions; if he posts a selfie, he edits it to make his face look deformed. In 2018, he gave his first of two video interviews ever, one of them a rig rundown with Premier Guitar, where his long silences and awkward rhythm with the interviewer compelled YouTube comments like, ‘Oof…brutal! I’d rather hear gunshots coming from my Grandma’s bedroom then continue watching this,’ and ‘I had a root canal on Wednesday and that was easier to get through.’ (When asked what he likes about a particular guitar, the silence hangs until he can muster, ‘I just like the way it feels.’) Some comments defended him, with suggestions like, ‘This is a great unintentional ASMR video!’ and ‘David Lynch directed this rig rundown. Love it!’
Until 2018, the Closure documentary from 1997 was the longest screen time he’s ever had. In it we get only a glimpse, but in that glimpse, his archetype was established. He wears black nail polish, a leather slave collar, and fingerless metallic silver gloves. This look, more than any other, comprises the Patronus of my gender identity as a teenager. In a black unitard thing with booty shorts and ripped stockings, he could be mistaken for a tall, broad-shouldered woman, though once or twice he wears a codpiece made of glittering chain mail. (Before NIN, he had a brief stint in a band called Impotent Sea Snakes, which performed in drag; Robin’s persona with them was ‘Queenie’.) He’s 23, 24. He’s quiet and aloof, not one who throws couches. He has shaved eyebrows and paints white Kabuki-style slashes in their place, and we watch him carefully draw lines on his nostrils with black eyeliner and put a dot at his third eye, for reasons we shall never know. He opens his make-up box and compact, saying proudly to the camera, ‘See how fast I can do that?’ He has a reedy, gentle, almost girlish voice, which clashes with the shredded-sounding screams that come out of him onstage. In almost every backstage shot of him, he’s doing his make-up in the background or briefly pushing his face into the camera (if I were that pretty I would too), and his ass, in those booty shorts, is one of the ones on display. As always, he rarely speaks. Another fan-made compilation is ‘Robin Finck Talking’, only two-and-a-half minutes long. An article once strutted the title, ‘CONFIRMED: Robin Finck Has a Speaking Voice.’
And of course, there is that hair, that Robin Finck hair. The first suggestion Google offers when you type in ‘Robin Finck’ is ‘hair’. Shaved to the scalp on the sides of the skull to accentuate the long wisps of sideburns, the creation’s focal point is the mullet-y back-patch of dreads that go past his shoulders. In the ‘Pigs’ video, Closure documentary, and Woodstock show, a kind of half-ponytail sprouts from the crown of his head. It looks like a rotting palm tree. It could be said to be a precursor to Ariana Grande’s signature half-ponytail, in the way that the dire wolf is the prehistoric mother to the Chihuahua. Over the years, Robin’s mullet-dreads would be topped with various arrangements: a Mohawk- shaped stripe, a widow’s-peaky spike, and, sometimes, incongruously soft bangs. On the Fragility tour he is shaved bald or Mohawked, the sideburns fluffy curls at his ears, with make-up reminiscent of Kembra Pfahler’s The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. When Robin toured with GNR, his hair was remarkable too. First, in 2002, he wore a monk-like tonsure, the front half of the crown shaved, with the hair long and loose in the back, as if he’d dipped his bald head into half a wig. In 2006 and 2007, he grew out his mane and beard to look like a homeless beach bum (completing the look with a shirt made of garbage bags). Around 2013, with NIN again, the dreads left, replaced by a rat-tail-looking swatch, but the long sideburns, shaved sides and top-spikes are still there, and in any live video you watch of NIN since then, someone in the YouTube comments section is going apeshit for Robin’s hair (YouTube user LetsGetHighonMorris regrets: ‘Too bad I’m not man enough to wear my hair like he does.’).
In one of Closure’s most memorable scenes, Robin shaves his trademark hair. Trent helps, leaning over him and asking, ‘You wanna leave the little sideburns?’ As they head to the stage, Robin tosses on a long black wig, and calls ‘Trent!’, then hurries to follow him. It’s a moment that feels slightly erotic, but more companionably intimate, with a whiff of care. In a film that rejoices in self-destructive delirium, here we have a moment of trust. Anyone getting their head shaved to the skin by someone else is in a vulnerable position, but there’s something deeper here about what Robin incites people to do, to feel. Trent and the camera, and us by extension, are all helping this young man achieve the odd vision for how he wants to look, though what that exactly is, we can’t say.
Any witch will tell you that hair is everything, the container of your power. If your hair is right, your confidence, your command and your sense of self are secured and definite and indestructible. Your hair is who you are – and, as any queer kid will tell you, if it’s not yet, you can get it cut to be that way. Getting your hair cut is a sacred ceremony, and when it goes wrong, the results are disastrous. I once wound up in the hospital with suicidal depression after a particularly atrocious haircut, and I’m only half-joking. Rock stars live and die by their hair. In Just Kids, Patti Smith acknowledges that the minute she got her iconic cut, the world started to notice her and her career began. It’s certain that Robin Finck wouldn’t be where he is today without that hair. There’s never been a sustained review of Robin as a musician, but in nearly every article where he is mentioned, this one included, the writer will remark on his hair. Robin’s hair seems to signify everything notable about him: his strange-ness and out-of-place-ness, something only he can pull off.
Offstage (and sometimes on) Robin has a penchant for wearing feather jewellery, chokers, shawls and clogs, and this also makes NIN that much more voluminous for his inclusion in a band of guys dressed in black jeans and T-shirts. In every candid and behind-the-scenes photo and video I’ve ever found of him, he’s wearing clogs with notable socks (pink stripes are a favourite). It appears he has several well-loved pairs of clogs, including white ones. My friends must be quite tired by now of me sending them photos of Robin in his clogs, and I’ve heard Trent give him shit for it, in videos of soundchecks. ‘Robin’s out here… he’s got clogs, he’s got red socks,’ Trent laments. During performances, Robin replaces his clogs with sneakers, which is sensible, it’s easy to sprain an ankle by jumping around in clogs.
These fashion choices may seem superficial things to dote on, but they substantiate for me why Robin’s presence is so amplifying to NIN, and so noteworthy in the world of rock stars. It’s not just his queer – in all senses of the word – comportment, but how indecipherable he is. The most common word I’ve seen used to describe him is ‘weirdo’, and that’s by fans. His only mention in the fan-made NIN Drinking Game, to be played during concerts or while watching live footage, is to drink ‘when Robin does something weird’. Robin himself remarked upon this in the only interview of substance he’s given about his background, which was with Ultimate Guitar in 2014. When discussing his audition with NIN in 1992, he said, ‘My kneejerk reaction was, “Nine Inch Nails? Isn’t that a lot of black hair and synthesisers? I’m really not sure where I’d fit in.”’
This inexplicability of how he managed to have a place in the world of mainstream rock, and the way he occupies that place, is why I care about him so much. I don’t pay much attention to mainstream rock, other than to know that almost all of it is not for me. And I sometimes hesitate to call Robin Finck my favourite guitarist over Japanese musician Keiji Haino, because Haino-San’s music is the kind I listen to on a daily basis and go to see live and try to make in my own work, and Robin’s is not. (And if we’re talking hair, I’m definitely going for Haino-San’s.) But despite the fact that Haino-San is an unearthly, shamanistic creature who conjures new universes of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard (in 2018, NPR called him the ‘dark wizard of the avant-garde’), I find Robin the more perplexing of the two. Haino-San is the premier experimental guitarist and, in my opinion, has the best hair of any musician of all time. He is also absolutely otherworldly – but he is legible as being of this otherworldly world. When I say that Keiji Haino is a mystic, it’s obvious. Of course he is.
Calling Robin a mystic, however, is not at all explicit, and it’s taken me years to realise that this was the role he played in my life, that by watching him slip in and out of legibility, I was not necessarily watching an individual, but what was coming through that individual. Sometimes he seems made of flesh and bone, within grasp, sometimes he’s on another planet. Here he is onstage with NIN as Trent blasts around the stage and breaks shit, but Robin is off crouching in a corner with his head down. Here he is listed as performing at a public, ticketed show, but he is disturbed when a fan actually comes to see him there. Here he is playing the beloved guitar solo in ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, but he’s doing it while wearing a white satin Pagliacci suit and standing motionless, looking with a blank face, not at the sea of screaming fans before him, but off into another dimension. This incongruity is more intense in GNR than NIN. Where GNR glories in its hyper-masculine instrument-stroking, Robin seems to glory in nursing an oddly beating heart to aural life. In every video I’ve seen of Robin onstage next to Axl Rose, I think, who let this poetic, sonic-seamstress freak on to the same stage as a bunch of goons?
The thing about playing the guitar is that it is a body, in and of itself, and so you have to meet and understand it with your own. As with any lover, it requires that you invent and share a language together, which only the two of you speak. To play it, you have to hold it close, carry it on your shoulder, use your whole body, both hands, you feel it vibrate through your bones, the skin of it rubs against yours. It has its own smell that mixes with your sweat, and you have to wipe it off when you’re done.
Robin has said that he plays an instrument ‘you can carry’, and this is key to understanding his role in a band like NIN, whose catalogue is constructed out of synthesiser-based sounds, the ‘only constant’ of which, Trent’s said, ‘has been [the archetypal synthesiser] Moog’. In one of those two interviews of 2018, Robin explained why he chose the guitar, ‘I just like the push and pull of it. That’s one thing I like about the guitar, is this, is this thing here.’ He moves his left hand up and his right hand down. ‘There’s not a lot of instruments where you have a push and pull, with such a nuanced articulation, of both hands hitting the same string, but in all these different distances, but at the same time… It’s all right here, it’s the strings, and it’s the chords, and – they’re really close to my body.’
The reason why guitarists seem more likely than singers to have made deals with the devil is because the devil and the power he possesses, what he’s selling, can’t be contained in an ordinary human body part like the throat, and it can’t be something as democratic as words, these common things used by so many people to communicate boring shit like what you need to buy from the store. And yet, for all its transcendent power, sound is material. It needs matter to exist, it needs ears and a brain and a heart to hear it, flesh to resonate through, a body to hold it. In the case of the guitar, though, this flesh has been possessed by something else. Singers inevitably lose their mojo because the throat ages, but guitarists, as if propelled by a kind of sorcery, get better with time (just look at Keith Richards). If you play the guitar, you’ve consented to let this magical, unworldly force burrow into your soul, claim it, coil up in your gut, that place that quivers, it lives there now. It changes you, from the inside out. As Robin says:
It’s a superpower. It’s an invisible cape. It’s a magic trick. It’s a tenuous operation of unfathomable nuance. It’s an ever-evolving stream of happy accidents. It’s a culture made up of weirdos and rule breakers and geniuses of design and beach freaks and brainiacs and cavemen and crooked little flowers. And it’s been a huge part of my identity for as long as I can remember.
This is why it’s so disquieting to watch a guitarist destroy his guitar; it’s like watching someone break his own arm.
I prefer the live versions of many NIN songs just for Robin’s guitar. Unlike the albums, it gets to snarl and growl, and in the mix, the guitar is pushed forward, loud, abrasive, the highs right on the edge of making you wince. NIN songs build for a while, with a heavy groove, a bass line that anchors as it throbs, layered soundscapes of noise, and Trent’s singing, always more melodic than you expect. By the time the guitar comes in you’re a little hypnotised, lulled into submission and singing along. The guitar cracks the song open. But it doesn’t wail with masturbatory rock-guitar-god moves. The way Robin plays, how he encounters this other body with his own, can be heard in his choices. There are hardly any guitar solos, in a traditional sense, in Nine Inch Nails. (This is borne in the songwriting: Trent has remarked that it matters more to him that his songs make people feel seen rather than incite a few nerds to go, ‘Cool guitar solo.’) Instead, the guitar cycles through orchestral chord progressions, bent, strident, or one riff, repeated over and over, which Robin plays with more upstrokes than down.
When I talk about Robin to other guitarists, I get my whole point across by describing him as ‘the motherfucker who upstrokes his way through ‘Wish.’ That song – thrashing, belligerent, with my favourite ‘fist fuck’ lyric, and one of the most hostile riffs there is – is the last place you’d think an upstroke would work, but Robin bobs his hand through it with the pluck of a polka. Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age, has described upstrokes as ‘like yanking a feather out of a chicken’, noting that ‘you can’t upstroke your way to toughness’. Upstrokes are not common in rock, because downstrokes feel so good to play. They’re like stepping down hard on the gas pedal, or punctuating a sentence with an exclamation mark. (Punk is an entire genre played in downstrokes; while funk flourishes with ups, mainly because they fit so well in the pocket of the downbeat, those little breaths between the kick.) If you’ve never played guitar, I don’t know how well I can communicate the feeling of playing down. It’s orgiastic, it stomps and punches, as gratifying (I would imagine, and, O, how I love to imagine it!) as breaking the windshield of a cop car with a baseball bat. But where downstrokes are a declaration, upstrokes are an inquiry, which makes them more interesting because they complicate, rather than simplify, what you’re playing. If you think of each bar as a sentence made up of words, strung together by a series of commas, and gathering momentum as the sequence starts to coalesce into an idea, upstrokes are like a colon, setting up the thought of the downstroke to be conclusive: bam, this is what that means. Or, they can be a question mark, opening the sentence upward, a petition to the heavens. They ask – what goes up – and then they wait for the answer, needing the next stroke to bring it – must come down. It’s like an inhale waiting for its release.
Robin is a master of the upstroke in a field of players who tend toward the down, and this disregard for what is considered acceptably tough in rock music is a hallmark of his playing. He often starts the riff up, making the whole thing feel catapulted upward by its own velocity, as though he’s stepped on a landmine (like the verse riff in ‘Head Down’). Even when the other musicians, including Trent, play the same riff alongside Robin with only downstrokes, Robin goes up, slapping at the strings, flicking his hand away and sideways and around his head. He often wields his whole right arm like a violin bow, tapping the strings and letting them reverberate while his left hand does hammers-on and pull-offs (here’s a good example of this). I guess it makes sense, if you already live in the underworld, to make moves that pull you skyward.
It’s not just upstrokes that make his playing what it is, though: it’s the entire universe he conjures with his right hand. The left hand is often the star for guitarists, how their value is measured. Bring up any YouTube video of a ‘best guitar solo’ and watch the camera pull a tight focus on the left as its fingers dance around the fretboard, and not stray once to the right, as though the player were one-handed. But a guitarist is only as good as his right hand, because that is where the notes being played by the left find their voice. You’re playing an E chord with your left, but is your right hand chugga-chugga-ing because you’re in a speed metal band, or is it oompa-oompa-ing because you’re in a bluegrass band? Are you screaming the phrase ‘I want to die’, or are you moaning it, mewling it, weeping? Are you saying ‘I love you’ as a plea or as a threat?
I can’t think of another rock guitar god of Robin’s calibre who smuggles in such weird shit with his right hand. It’s like he’s carrying a little bomb of subversive sound, letting it explode within the verse-chorus structure of a pop song. He has cited more textural guitar players as influences, with, as he puts it, ‘lots of right-hand funny business’, and says that he’s ‘always liked guitar players that play in phrases, maybe like a horn player who needs to take a breath.’ Similar to wearing clogs in an aggressive industrial rock band, playing lead guitar in terms of texture and breath situates him askance. Yep, he’s a weirdo. This could make him one of those arrogant noise boys, flagrantly displaying his skill with weird chord voicings, and drawing attention to himself via obnoxious clamours from a colossal pedal board. But I’ve never heard him cited by, or claim, this crew, and I don’t think he really fits there, simply because he doesn’t permit himself to go on too long. On the other end of the spectrum, conventional rock fans complain online that he is ‘untalented’ because he ‘cannot phrase licks properly’. In a way, these complaints can be forgiven, because he doesn’t, say, arpeggiate his way into bombastic lead guitar land with gasconading wailing. This makes it impossible to locate him in one place – he’s neither all the way in the land of avant-garde guitar-noisemaker, nor is he reigning over the territory of the rock guitar god. He has the dexterity and range to take him to both those places, but he doesn’t linger in either one. He’s here, he’s there, but then, he’s not, he’s somewhere else.
There are plenty of adroit, eclectic guitarists out there, but what’s different about Robin is the stages he plays on. It’s not hard to find a trickster guitarist playing in a math rock band at your local art bar. It is hard to find one, however, on a stage in front of 80,000 people, playing in a band not known for being weird. Those kinds of stages are the places where you find guitarists whose rock licks and screaming solos communicate just a couple of ideas, and almost all of them have to do with ego. When I interviewed Kelly Kalman (who runs the Facebook fan page), I asked her if she could explain her devotion to Robin. She said, when people ask, she accounts for herself by playing a four-minute live video she took of him on the 2018 tour, playing the song ‘The Background World’. This is remarkable because practically nothing happens in this video. Robin plays just a few sustained notes and hardly moves, only swaying a little. His eyes are closed and his mouth is open; sometimes he winces. He even plays a wrong note. Kelly said, ‘He’s expressing a different part of his ability than speed. It’s not, “Look at this sick solo this guy can do, no one can do that.” Maybe someone else can do this, but no one does.’
You can also tell a lot about a musician’s personality, or, if you will, his soul, by how he moves as he plays his instrument – the meeting of these two bodies together produces a specific sound, their shared language, as well as a specific way of being embodied within the sound. Watching how a musician moves is similar to witnessing what gets displayed when a person dances: you can guess how he fucks, how he rages, how he cries and laughs, how he sees himself and his place in the world, what he’s like when he needs something. A good guitarist will move his whole self, not just his body, while playing. Or, let his whole self be moved. Think of Jimi Hendrix’s knee-bends while he strangles the neck with hammers and pulls, almost as if standing were too strong a stance to take in the presence of such sound. Think of Prince, at the end of the bar, shooting his thumb all the way down the E string, as though he were resetting the fretboard in a kind of ablution before attacking it again. If someone moves as if they think no one’s watching, especially someone onstage in front of tens of thousands of adoring fans, something integral gets revealed about how they envision themselves in relationship to the world. It’s about what they think they deserve from it, and what, if anything, they think they ought to give it. Watching Robin play, he doesn’t bend the guitar to his will or use it as a means to showcase his talent. Instead, he makes his whole body writhe with it, like they are breathing into each other’s mouths. At, for, the guitar, he keeps vigil. A guitarist who’s consented to be possessed by the guitar is, in a way, consenting to let his entire body become the throat for the guitar’s voice. This is why his body’s movement is so important in carrying the sound, because it lets the guitar sing.
As guitar nerds know, the best guitarists are identifiable by their guitar tone, which is as specific and individuated as a singer’s voice. And speaking of guitar tones, oh mama (when Robin finally did that Rig Rundown interview, in 2018, it propelled me to spend hundreds of nerd hours in Reddit forum holes, not to mention hundreds of dollars, in order to mod my Tele to sound like his, but that story is for another hagiography). Robin’s tone is created by technical wizardry but shaped with an ear for the visceral; he often removes pickups from his guitars, playing only through the bridge pickup, which, rather than thinning the sound to be emaciated, hones and sharpens it, like a shaved spike of metal. He gets his guitar to sound like a rusty zipper being opened and closed (‘Discipline’), or a big-toothed saw scraping to life (the verse of ‘Letting You’), or a deranged voice howling through a wire (take your pick, but the live version of ‘31 Ghosts IV’ is a good one). And when he wahs, my god – it’s like what comes through satellites in sci-fi movies when the aliens attempt communication. The distorted fuzz that Robin gets from his guitar tone feels less garage rock and more corroded, like the signal is being pumped through an old computer, spitting out digital decay. It’s partly the Les Paul, his main model, which always sounds a bit shimmery, with bright high- and mid-tones, but lots of guitarists play this guitar and none of them sound as damaged, as gone, as Robin.
In 2009, NIN played The Downward Spiral in its entirety to a flabbergasted crowd at NYC’s Webster Hall, two shows of the first song to the last, the only time they’ve ever done this (you can watch it on YouTube, or download it from the long-running fan website NINlive.com; worthy of mention is the fact that NIN are officially okay with fans audio- and video-recording their concerts, which has meant nearly every concert they’ve played since 1988 is archived). People shout at each other: ‘Oh my GOD!’ ‘I’m amazed! I’m amazed!’ ‘I’ve died and gone to hell!’ The version of ‘Ruiner’ at these shows, rarely played live, has one of the closest instances we get to an epic guitar solo, albeit a defiantly NIN guitar solo. After the second blasting chorus, all the sound diminishes except for the bass. Then Robin’s guitar comes in like a drill and makes a ragged, tearing sound. He has the stage for a full minute. His body twitches like an eel, and he stretches each note out for what always feels like a few beats too long. Online wimps would gripe about the improper lick-phrasing, no doubt. He swings his feet around in stomps and kicks, just like he did fifteen years before in the ‘Pigs’ video, though they seem to be off time, swinging during silences. Toward the end, he lets the distortion deflate, muting the strings with his right hand while his left goes up the neck – a deft, if unusual, choice, which punctuates how this was not really a rock guitar solo, but something that, instead of dominating with his own control, he let slither away.
It has long been said by musicians that you can tell a good one by what he doesn’t play, by the notes he chooses to leave out. It reveals his understanding of the song as a structure, and how his decisions not only hold it up but give it space to breathe, let it live its own life without him. It also shows how self-confident he is as a player, knowing that he doesn’t have to blow his load over everything to leave a mark. Of all the rock gods, Robin is the only one I can think of who lets one or two notes do for him what the rest of the guys use dozens for.
Look at the video of GNR guitarist Richard Fortus and Robin playing an instrumental cover of Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’. Fortus starts with a cascade of noodling. He’s a fine player, and I have nothing against him, but when Robin starts playing, you can see what is soul, and what is not. It has to do with Robin’s timing, his choices about what not to play. Remember that he thinks of the breaths between phrases, like a horn player, so he doesn’t fill all the space with wiggly notes, showing off how quickly he can go through scales. He lets one note sing, really sing, and there are as many soundless pauses as there are notes. At around two minutes, he starts to play rhythm so Fortus can have his turn to solo. Listen to the difference. The spacing becomes rapid and crowded, which indicates rock-guitar expertise, and draws the focus to Fortus as a player, but pulls the focus away from the song. It’s like Fortus has something to prove about himself that doesn’t include the song, whereas Robin is content to let the song be bigger than he is, which it is.
Because he seems driven to let himself be annihilated so as to make space for something bigger, I think of the Medieval women mystics (many of whom, notably, were autohagiographers), like Marguerite Porete, Julian of Norwich, and Hildegard von Bingen, who spoke of letting themselves become nothing so as to let God in. I think of Anne Carson’s essay ‘Decreation’, where she quotes Simone Weil: ‘We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say “I”. This is what we must yield up to God.’ Mysticism is different from spirituality and most religious practices in its insistence on this radical yielding. Religions, the institutions of them, are structured as hierarchies, with a divine force being worshipped and served by its disciples. Mysticism, on the other hand, is the total inverse of hierarchy: it’s structured by nothingness, and, if there is a hierarchy, it’s the idea that the first thing that needs to be obliterated is your self. But this kind of obliteration is not a harmful one. What happens during mysticism, as Anne Carson’s essay suggests, is decreation, rather than destruction. It has to do with love, the most daring kind of it: ‘For when an ecstatic is asked the question, What is it that love dares the self to do? she will answer: Love dares the self to leave itself behind.’
This yielding is what I see when I watch Robin perform. It’s not just that he yields the centre of the stage to the frontmen, and it’s not just that he plays fewer notes so as to yield to the song. It’s that, in his hermeticism, his demeanour onstage and in the press, and his choices about what and when and where to play, he seems to yield his entire self toward the goal of making music with what he can, and no more. The humbleness of him is so absolute it feels an order of magnitude bigger than someone being modest. (I’ve heard some compare him to Jonny Greenwood, another famously reclusive, brilliant guitarist standing to the side of the stage. But Greenwood’s prolific career as co-songwriter of Radiohead, not to mention all his solo film scores, and the ample adoration he enjoys among fans, put him in an arena of visibility, and choices made in favour of that visibility, that Robin is definitely not in.) A note of this yielding of the self can be found in Robin Finck’s few public statements, as when he wrote on his website, ‘i’m not interested in saving music. i’m here to serve music.’ When asked what kind of music he enjoys, Robin replied: ‘an open window. two hawks circling out there up there somewhere. the white blue sky. ana’s piano in my kitchen. early mornings. the rush of a freeway in the distance.’
While writing this essay, my agent urged me to contact Robin for an interview. But that’s not what I want from him, or what this essay is about. (I did email his manager, asking for his birth time, to cast his natal chart, but, obviously, never heard back.) So much of fandom is about belonging to a community of fans, but meeting Kelly was the first time in my life I’d ever met another Robin Finck fan. No, this is a hagiography, a profoundly solitary genre: I am trying to account for someone who is unaccountable. He showed me how to get to a world where language made of words can’t go; I can only report back about how he first guided me toward the gate. I can’t explain what happens once you pass through the gate, and I doubt Robin could either; here I am, coping with the unknowable. When I considered which questions I’d ask if I were given the chance, I first thought I should ask about how he gets to this other place. ‘Where do you go?’ I thought would be a good one. But then I realised that no one who’s been to that other place is able to answer such a question. If there were an answer, it would be something like, ‘Nowhere.’ A better question might be, ‘How do you stay? What ways do you manage to inhabit this material plane, with the rest of us?’ Although I imagine the answer to this would be, ‘I don’t know.’ After our interview, I sent Kelly a draft of this essay, and she highlighted this point, writing: ‘There’s not much to ask him – because that’s like asking somebody to interview music. What would you say to music if you could? I can’t think of a thing; I just have to let music be what it is, and that is what Robin is.’
When I suggested that he might be from another dimension, she agreed instantly, and told me how she’d once asked a friend of hers, who is a spiritual medium, to read him. The friend said, ‘I don’t mean that his body is extraterrestrial, although it is quite unusual, but his soul energy.’ (I told Kelly that I explain it by the fact that Robin shares a very specific astrological signature with Simone Weil.) Kelly pointed out that every Robin Finck fan she’s met (‘there are few of us but we’re all like this’), including me, has no sexual interest in him. She said this after I’d explained my mysticism argument, and it reminded me that mysticism, despite its deep enmeshment with the body, is often thought of as asexual. But then, I think of the queerness of communion: the desire to eat your god.
I worry that by writing this, I’m going to anger Robin, or make him uncomfortable. I’m certain I will never meet him, never hear from him. That’s not why I’m doing this. As a hagiographer, my task, my work, is one of devotion. Here I am, a small thing, hunched over my text, hours and hours and hours, trying to cope with the unknowability of someone who has meant this much to me. I think of another Simone Weil quote: ‘We cannot take a step toward the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us.’ I hope my labour, this text, this time I’ve spent, is a small gesture of care to him, and for something so much bigger than me, music itself. I’ve only ever wanted to be a humble servant to a craft: Robin, more than any other guide, has shown me how. I think of how Kelly works as a nurse. In astrology, nurses are ruled by the house of care, which is also the house of devotion and service, and includes nuns. Also known as the house of ritual and work, some astrologers, including myself, explain it as the house of magic – the ritual labour that one must do every day in order to make the most powerful magic there is, staying alive.
Sometimes I think there’s no difference between mysticism and magic. Both have to do with that paradoxical convergence of materiality and immateriality, when one transforms into the other, and yet, somehow, both stay intact. That disintegration I felt as a teenager, when NIN first rescued me, it transformed me totally, but my body didn’t disappear, my materiality didn’t cease to exist. It had just changed form. As death does to life. As communion does with your god. This is how magic works and how mysticism works. It’s also how music works. Without logic or language, it takes you somewhere not here, not on earth, maybe above it, maybe below, a place, or a state, where the rules and bounds of your materiality no longer hold. It defies gravity, and time, and space, and words. It gets you out of your head, your body, your self, and lets you feel, if only for a moment, somewhere, someone, something else. But despite whatever transcendence it offers, it still happens here, in your bedroom, your kitchen, your little life, within the bounds of your skin, and it changes those material conditions. It lives in your body, but then it also becomes your body. This is why it helps so much. It’s got enough magic to bring you through the gate to that other dimension, but more than that, it’s what makes being here bearable because it is ultimately your companion in this world. Take me away, for where I’m going and how I will get there, but also, for where I live, for where I always am, here, right here. Give me something I can use to feel the scintillating spark of what it means to be changed.