When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor

Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

11 Things You May Not Know About John Lennon

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You know that John Lennon, who would have turned 78 years old today, was the leader and founding member of The Beatles. Let's take a look at a few facts you might not have known about him.

1. HE WAS A CHOIR BOY AND A BOY SCOUT.

Yes, John Lennon, the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast, was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

2. HE HATED HIS OWN VOICE.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

3. HE WAS DISSATISFIED WITH ALL OF THE BEATLES'S RECORDS.

Dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

4. HE WAS THE ONLY BEATLE WHO DIDN'T BECOME A FULL-TIME VEGETARIAN.

John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of the Beatles plays the guitar in a hotel room in Paris, 16th January 1964
Harry Benson, Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

5. HE LOVED TO PLAY MONOPOLY.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

6. HE WAS THE LAST BEATLE TO LEARN HOW TO DRIVE.

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

7. HE REPORTEDLY USED TO SLEEP IN A COFFIN.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

8. THE LAST TIME HE SAW PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS ON APRIL 24, 1976. 

Paul McCartney (left) and John Lennon (1940-1980) of the Beatles pictured together during production and filming of the British musical comedy film Help! on New Providence Island in the Bahamas on 2nd March 1965
William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO SING LEAD ON THE BEATLES'S FIRST SINGLE, 1962'S "LOVE ME DO."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

10. "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE" WAS THE BEST LYRIC HE EVER WROTE.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

11. THE LAST PHOTOGRAPHER TO SNAP HIS PICTURE WAS PAUL GORESH.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

The Stories Behind 7 Famous Songs about Smiling

Povareshka, iStock
Povareshka, iStock

World Smile Day (celebrated on the first Friday in October) was founded to honor Harvey Ball, the commercial artist who created the iconic yellow smiley face image in the 1960s. It's no wonder that the happy image took off—humans have evolved to be attracted to smiles. So it's also no wonder that we sing about their charms as well. Here are the stories behind seven smiley songs, from upbeat crooners to cheesy power ballads.

1. "SARA SMILE" // HALL & OATES

In 1975, "Sara Smile" was Hall & Oates's breakthrough single—their first to hit the Top 10—and its namesake influenced countless other songs by the duo. Daryl Hall's longtime girlfriend, Sara Allen (they were together for 30-some years), would later help pen many of their hits, like "You Make My Dreams," "Private Eyes," and "Maneater." But for this sweet ballad, Hall later said that it was a sincere appreciation about "the essence of a relationship … It's a heartfelt story. It's the real thing."

2. "A WINK AND A SMILE" // HARRY CONNICK, JR.

The easy swing of "A Wink and a Smile" may sound like an old jazz classic, but it was written specifically for the Sleepless in Seattle (1993) soundtrack by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Ramsey McLean. Shaiman and director Rob Reiner were big fans of Harry Connick, Jr.—he'd been scouted to do the entire soundtrack for When Harry Met Sally… four years prior; that album was hugely successful and won Connick his first Grammy—so when they needed a jazz pianist for a key song for Sleepless, they knew where to turn. "Wink" was nominated for Best Original Song at that year's Oscars but lost to Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia."

3. "YOUR SMILING FACE" // JAMES TAYLOR

It's been speculated that this sunny song was written about his then-wife Carly Simon, but according to a 2009 biography on Taylor, the song was about their young daughter, Sally. Imagining the "pretty little pout" of a toddler turning a proud dad "inside out" might just push this saccharine song into unbearable cuteness territory.

4. "YOU'RE NEVER FULLY DRESSED WITHOUT A SMILE" // ANNIE

Written by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin for the 1977 Broadway musical Annie, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" opened the second act with an upbeat Depression-era radio song meant to cheer the downtrodden public. For the 2014 remake of the movie starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Sia released a cover for the soundtrack that upgraded some of the more dated fashion references (like replacing "Chanel, Gucci" for "Beau Brummell-y") and made it an empowerment anthem as opposed to a 1930s radio jingle.

5. "SHE SMILED SWEETLY" // THE ROLLING STONES

"Here, Mick Jagger significantly tones down his approach to women," the tome The Rolling Stones: All the Songs declares. "There is no misogynistic double meaning." However, misogyny (or lack thereof) aside, it's still unclear who—if anyone—this ballad was about. In 1968, the year after "She Smiled Sweetly" was released, Jagger told Rolling Stone that their numerous songs centered on women were about "Different girls. They are all very unthoughtout songs." And though many, including music biographer Stephen Davis, pointed to Jagger's late-'60s relationship with singer Marianne Faithfull as being the muse for "the first real love lyric Mick wrote," Jagger later told NME that the song was meant to have religious connotations. "It was he smiled sweetly, but someone changed it," he said.

6. "WHEN YOU'RE SMILING (THE WHOLE WORLD SMILES WITH YOU)" // VARIOUS

This American standard was written in 1928 by the trio of Shay, Fisher, and Goodwin and released that year by Seger Ellis, a jazz musician from Texas. Ellis's early recording included an intro verse ("I saw a blind man/he was a kind man/helping a fellow along // One could not see/one could not walk/but both were humming this song") that was cut from the popular subsequent versions by people like Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra.

7. "WHEN I SEE YOU SMILE" // BAD ENGLISH

In the late '80s, a supergroup of Babys and Journey musicians teamed up behind lead singer John Waite to form Bad English, a band SPIN once called "music for the masses who like their rock 'n' roll lite." Waite and company (including longtime Journey guitarist Neal Schon) started putting together their eponymous first album, and according to Waite, the band was opposed to doing any outside songs. Their label had sent them a Diane Warren power ballad though, and Waite insisted on using it; "When I See You Smile" is one of only two songs on the album that Waite doesn't have a writing credit on. He recorded the vocals in two takes, and the song hit No. 1 for two weeks in November 1989.

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