NIN Oeuvre Blog: Happiness in Slavery (Woodstock)

There are two recordings of the Woodstock version of “Happiness in Slavery” in my iTunes library. The first comes from a bootleg (When the Whip Comes Down) that I purchased at the old Rockit Records in Nashua, New Hampshire. As near as I can tell, it’s a straight-up rip of the audio broadcast via pay-per-view on the day the concert actually happened. The second comes from the official Woodstock 94 CD, and it’s that polished-up version that won the 1996 Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance. But what I’m here to tell you is that, if you’re interested in an authentic souvenir of the NIN sound of that period, the bootleg is the far better way to go.

Ever since I brought the two-disc Woodstock 94 compilation home from Newbury Comics back in the day, I’ve been bothered by how sanitized its version of “Slavery” is. Maybe Trent had control over it, or maybe he didn’t. But whoever had control ripped out the essence of what made that performance great.

What really makes the Woodstock 94 version so astounding to listen to is that, in its purest form, it is the most perfect sonic embodiment of the Self-Destruct Tour aesthetic available. Nothing on the live portion of Closure even comes close, at least to my ears. What you have in the middle section of the Woodstock version of “Slavery” (at least on the bootleg recording of it) is a song falling apart. The keyboards are failing, covered now, at the end of the concert, with the mud the band had caked themselves in prior to arriving on stage. The sounds issuing forth from them are less music than noise. You can hear the frustration as each keyboardist tries his damnedest to rip an actual note out of the things. And yet, all of this confusion, all of this insanity—it actually works. There is still a rhythm to the chaos, and that gets us as listeners through to the other side. The breakdown becomes an actual breakdown, but the band manages to put itself back together and finish out the show. They smash keyboards into stage walls, throw them onto the stage floor, and then they focus their energies into making the guitars do the heavy-lifting for the last few songs. It’s a mess, but it’s magical.

In an interview conducted some time later—I think this is available on Closure, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I’m not sure—Trent talks about his conflicting reactions to the show. When they first came off stage, he thought that the Woodstock 94 performance had been one of their best ever. He had felt a real connection with the crowd, something he hadn’t thought would be possible, given the size of the venue. But later, when he listened back to the recording, he decided that it was horrible, the band at its musical worst.

In case this post didn’t clue you in, I believe that initial instinctual reaction was the more valid one. The Woodstock 94 performance as a whole was what hooked me on Nine Inch Nails. A band that could teeter so close to utter disaster and yet pull itself back from the abyss just in time? That was the band for me. Still is. Probably always will be. I felt the connection that night, even from the safety of my living room couch, hundreds of miles away. And I feel it still.