The mid-Nineties were the peak of Trent Reznor's worldwide fame with Nine Inch Nails, marked by massive ticket sales and unimaginable fame that led to a difficult decision when his idol David Bowie reached out and wanted to tour with the industrial-rock giant: Who should headline and in what order should they play? Reznor has spoken at length, both before and after Bowie's death, about his love and obsession with chameleonic rock star and his ever-morphing output.
"Scary Monsters was the first one I related to. Then I went backwards and discovered the Berlin trilogy, which was full-impact," Reznor told Rolling Stone in a reflective op-ep penned just weeks after Bowie's 2016 passing. "I read into all the breadcrumbs he'd put out — the clues in his lyrics that reveal themselves over time, the cryptic photographs, the magazine articles — and I projected and created what he was to me. His music really helped me relate to myself and figure out who I was."
That said, by the time the two were set to hit the road together, NIN were out-selling Bowie in North America; even so, Reznor refused to let his ultimate influence open for his band — such blasphemy would not stand. "We found out a way to do the show that made sense, where it all felt like one experience," he said. "We'd play stripped down, then David would come out and he'd do 'Subterraneans' with us, and then his band would come out and we'd play together, then my band would leave."
One particularly moving moment during the set came when Bowie joined NIN onstage to sing with Reznor on the band's classic "Hurt." "I was outside of myself, thinking, 'I'm standing onstage next to the most important influence I've ever had, and he's singing a song I wrote in my bedroom,'" Reznor recalled. The video above shows one of those iconic duets, featuring an always-charismatic Bowie clad head-to-toe in white delivering the first few lines in his deep, husky tones before Reznor's lanky figure emerges from the shadow, clad in all black. The two icons' interplay as dark and light on the blue-lit stage proceeds in a gorgeous ceremonial manner, as the duo seem aware of the rock history they are creating. Neither competes for the spotlight, but work in harmony to create something greater than themselves.
This elation in their partnership is seen clearly in the classic 1995 interview above, as well, where both artists are in high spirits as MTV VJ Kurt Loder asks questions about their collaborative process and how the two came to be aware of one another. Reznor's awkwardness is endearing next to Bowie's stalwart composure, and considering the former's elder-statesman assuredness these days, it's easy to see how formative and valuable a pairing this was for him.
Reznor and Bowie's work together was far from over, though — the two teamed once again in 1997 to make the collaborative single and video "I'm Afraid of Americans." Bowie died suddenly in 2016 after releasing his final album Black Star, which Reznor continues to draw from in current Nine Inch Nails performances as a tribute to his friend, hero and partner in art.