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.

When “Weird Al” Yankovic Asked Kurt Cobain for Permission to Parody "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Erik Voake/Stringer/Getty Images
Erik Voake/Stringer/Getty Images

"Weird Al" Yankovic has gotten plenty of rejections throughout his career. Prince, Jimmy Page, and Paul McCartney have all denied the musical comedian the right to turn one of their hit songs into an irreverent parody. Even so, Weird Al was hesitant to ask for Kurt Cobain's permission to skewer the Nirvana chart-topper "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the early 1990s.

“I was very nervous, and I didn’t know how he would take my requesting the parody," Yankovic told Loudwire in 2014. The phone call would have been especially nerve-wracking because he wasn't planning to write a spoof that was divorced from the original artist, as was the case with previous hits like "Eat It" and "Like a Surgeon." His parody "Smells Like Nirvana" was going to make fun of the fact that no one could understand Cobain's incoherent singing.

But, as Yankovic recounted decades later, he had no reason to worry. "I explained it’s about how nobody could understand his lyrics. There was probably half a beat on the phone, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sounds like a funny idea.’”

Cobain would have been sympathetic to Yankovic's sense of humor. The Nirvana frontman had a reputation for being a serial prankster, pulling stunts like taping an upside down cross onto the drive-through window of his favorite fried chicken place. Other stories tied to the band's antics involved lighting tour bus curtains on fire, giving out a friend's phone numbers in a live interview, and inviting the audience on stage to escape security.

"Smells Like Nirvana" debuted in 1992 and it was an instant success. It topped the Billboard charts and earned a platinum record, and Yankovic credited the track for revitalizing his career after a brief slump. You can watch Weird Al channeling Cobain in the music video below.

[h/t Loudwire]

The Full Names of 37 One-Name Celebrities

Rihanna and Madonna attend the Tidal launch event in New York City.
Rihanna and Madonna attend the Tidal launch event in New York City.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images For Roc Nation

A rose by any other name probably wouldn't smell as sweet, at least not in the cases of some of these one-named celebrities. From A-Z, here are the full names of some of your favorite mononymous stars, and the reasons they dropped the rest of their names.

1. Adele

Singer Adele performs
Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images

Real Name: Adele Laurie Blue Adkins

As far as we can tell, Adele’s first name is simply distinctive enough to stand on its own. Plus, “Adele Adkins” sounds a bit like she should be playing at the Grand Ole Opry (which would be lovely, but not quite the sound she’s going for).

2. Awkwafina

Awkwafina attends the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California.
Awkwafina attends the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California.
MATT WINKELMEYER/GETTY IMAGES FOR CRITICS CHOICE ASSOCIATION

Real Name: Nora Lum

“There’s really no great, symbolic story,” Awkwafina told Cosmopolitan of her chosen moniker. "I just really thought it was funny when people try to subtilize products like Neutrogena," she said. "Because I just imagine someone sitting there thinking about all these weird names, especially the water names. But anyway, I just came up with it when I was 16 and thought it was really funny. And then I eventually adopted it."

3. Beck

Musician Beck attends the KROQ Absolut Almost Acoustic Christmas 2019 at Honda Center on December 07, 2019 in Anaheim, California
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Real Name: Bek David Campbell

He added the “c” to his real name, hoping that it would prevent people from pronouncing his name as Brock, Breck, Beak, or Bic. Fun Fact: Beck's mother is Bibbe Hansen, an original Warhol superstar.

4. Bono

Bono of music group U2 performs onstage at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on September 23, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Real Name: Paul David Hewson

Without a doubt, Bono is the only rock star in the world named after a hearing aid. His school friends in Dublin all gave each other nicknames, and his was "Bono Vox," Latin for "good voice," based on the Bonavox hearing aid store. Eventually he dropped the "Vox" and became the Bono we all know today.

5. Charo

Pop music icon Charo attends "Dancing with the Stars" Season 24 at CBS Televison City on March 27, 2017 in Los Angeles, California
David Livingston/Getty Images

Real Name: Maria Rosario Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza

I mean, Charo is 31 characters (not including spaces) shorter than her real name, so you can see why she decided to shorten things up. But why “Charo” instead of “Maria” or even something more distinctive like “Rosario”? As it turns out, “Charo” is actually not an uncommon nickname for “Rosario.”

6. Common

Rapper Common performs on stage at The Moore Theatre on July 14, 2019 in Seattle, Washington
Mat Hayward/Getty Images

Real Name: Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn

Lynn adopted the stage name "Common Sense" at a young age, then shortened it to Common after he was sued by a band using the name handle.

7. Drake

Drake accepts the Top Billboard 200 Album award for "Views" during the 2017 Billboard Music Awards at T-Mobile Arena on May 21, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Real Name: Aubrey Drake Graham

Drake is a better rapper name than Aubrey. Back when he was an actor on Degrassi, though, Aubrey served him well.

8. Eminem

Eminem
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MTV

Real Name: Marshall Bruce Mathers III

The rapper’s stage name was originally M&M, a reference to his initials. He eventually began spelling it phonetically instead.

9. Enya

Singer Enya attends the Clive Davis annual Pre-Grammy Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Real Name: Eithne Ní Bhraonáin

Because she knew that most of the world would scratch their heads when presented with the Irish “Eithne,” Enya changed her name to the phonetic spelling of her real name. Yep, “Eithne” = “Enya.”

10. Flea

Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers performs in concert during The Getaway World Tour at the AT&T Center on January 5, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas
Rick Kern/Getty Images

Real Name: Michael Peter Balzary

The itchy moniker goes back to Balzary's high school days, when friends called him “Mike B the Flea.”

11. Gotye

Musician Gotye, winner Best Alternative Music Album for "Making Mirrors" and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for "Somebody That I Used To Know", poses in the press room at the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10, 2013 in Los Angeles,
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Real Name: Wouter “Wally” De Backer

It’s the French version of his real name, Wouter. "Wouter translates into French as 'Gaultier,'" Gotye told Interview Magazine. "When I was in my early 20s, I wanted a name for my project that was kind of personal and similar to the way that I felt about my music: using the past to broaden into the present. I called her up, and she reminded me of that name. I decided how to spell it as a kind of jumbled surname, Gotye. I wanted a name that had passion. I came up with my own spelling for it, and that’s where it comes from."

12. Hammer

MC Hammer attends the premiere of Lionsgate's "All Eyez On Me" on June 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California
David Livingston/Getty Images

Real Name: Stanley Kirk Burrell

Yeah, if you’re of a certain age, you probably know him as MC Hammer, but he dropped the Master of Ceremonies a while back. The “U Can’t Touch This” rapper and former batboy for the Oakland A's received his nickname from an unlikely source: Pedro Garcia, then of the Milwaukee Brewers, who thought a young Burrell was a dead ringer for Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. (Reggie Jackson has also taken credit for the nickname.)

13. Ice-T

Ice-T performs onstage at the Premiere Ceremony during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Real Name: Tracy Lauren Marrow

The name is a tribute to Iceberg Slim, a reformed pimp who later wrote novels. “I’d taken my name as a tribute to Iceberg, and then it hit me one day—dude is a writer. I thought he was fly because he was a pimp, but I realized that I really admired him because he was a writer,” Ice-T wrote in his autobiography.

14. Jay-Z

Shawn "Jay Z" Carter makes an announcement on the Steps of City Hall Downtown Los Angeles for a Labor Day Music Festival at Los Angeles City Hall on April 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Real Name: Shawn Corey Carter

There are a few theories as to where Jay-Z came from, including that he was paying homage to his mentor, Jaz-O, or that it was a nod to the spot in Brooklyn where the J and Z trains meet up. But Carter maintains that it’s just a variation on his childhood nickname, “Jazzy.”

15. Ke$ha

Kesha attends the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada
John Shearer/Getty Images

Real Name: Kesha Rose Sebert

Kesha is her real name, but the dollar sign was part of her party girl image. She’s actually just Kesha now; she dropped the symbol several years ago. In a discussion at SXSW, Kesha told Refinery 29, “I let go of my facade about being a girl who didn't care. My facade was to be strong, and I realized it was total bullshit. I took out the $ because I realized that was part of the facade.”

16. Liberace

Liberace in the back seat of a limo
Terry Disney/Getty Images

Real Name: Władziu Valentino Liberace

It's just his last name. After using the stage name “Walter Busterkeys” for a time, Liberace decided to go by his surname only as a nod to his idol, pianist Igancy Paderewski, who did the same.

17. Lizzo

Recording artist Lizzo performs at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on October 25, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada
David Becker/Getty Images

Real Name: Melissa Jefferson

Contrary to popular belief, Jefferson swears that her moniker was not inspired by the Jay-Z song “Izzo.” It came about in middle school, when she and her friends created nicknames by adding “O” to the end of their names. “You would be Gayle-O,” she told Gayle King. Because the musician went by Lissa at the time, she became Lisso, which eventually evolved into Lizzo.

18. Ludacris

Rapper Ludacris performs in concert during So So Def 25th Cultural Curren$y Tour at State Farm Arena on October 21, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Real Name: Chris Bridges

"Ludacris' is something that I made up," Bridges told MTV News in 2000. "It just kind of describes me. Sometimes I have like a split personality. Sometimes I'm cool, calm, and collected, and other times I'm beyond crazy. I'm ridiculous, I'm ludicrous. Plus my birth name is Chris, so it kind of incorporates that.”

19. Madonna

Madonna performs a tribute to Prince onstage during the 2016 Billboard Music Awards at T-Mobile Arena on May 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Real Name: Madonna Louise Ciccone

While we're in the M section: Madonna's given name is, in fact, Madonna.

20. Moby

Moby performs onstage during The Last Weekend Kickoff LA Presented by Swing Left at The Palace Theatre on November 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Real Name: Richard Melville Hall

“The basis for Richard Melville Hall—and for Moby—is that supposedly Herman Melville was my great-great-great granduncle,” Hall once explained.

21. Nenê

Nene Hilario #42 of the Houston Rockets reacts on the bench during the second half against the Washington Wizards at Toyota Center on April 3, 2018 in Houston, Texas
Tim Warner/Getty Images

Real Name: Maybyner Rodney Hilário

Nenê is one of the few mononymous people in the U.S. to have legally switched to a single name. The Brazilian basketball player, who most recently played for the Houston Rockets, was called “Nenê” as a child because he’s the youngest kid in his family and nenê is Portuguese for “baby.”

22. Pink

Recording artist Pink performs on stage during Pink at Nomadic Live! at The Armory on February 2, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Real Name: Alecia Beth Moore

According to the magenta musician herself, it was a cruel childhood nickname: "It was a mean thing at first; some kids at camp pulled my pants down and I blushed so much, and they were like, 'Ha ha! Look at her! She's pink!' And then the movie Reservoir Dogs came out and Mr. Pink was the one with the smart mouth, so it just happened all over again."

23. Prince


BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Real Name: Prince Rogers Nelson

The artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince was, indeed, born Prince Rogers Nelson.

24. ?uestlove

Questlove of music group The Roots performs onstage during the 2016 BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter/BET/Getty Images for BET

Real Name: Ahmir Khalib Thompson

Before he was ?uestlove, the former Ahmir Khalib Thompson wanted to be plain old ?, which he meant to mean “anonymous.” When people started calling him “Question Mark,” he changed his name again to “B.R.O. the R. ?” That didn’t work either: fans thought his name was Brother Question Mark. He finally arrived at ?uestlove because “in the old days, your name ended in rock, ski or love. ?uestrock was not happening and neither was ?uestski. So ?uestlove became my new old school name, ’cause I’m so old school!”

25. Raffi

Real Name: Raffi Cavoukian

Because when your name is actually Raffi, you don’t need a surname.

26. Rihanna

Rihanna attends the Queen & Slim at AFI FEST 2019.
Rihanna attends the Queen & Slim premiere at AFI FEST 2019.
FRAZER HARRISON/GETTY IMAGES

Real Name: Robyn Rihanna Fenty

The singer/actor from Barbados goes by her middle name professionally. "I get kind of numb to Rihanna, Rihanna, Rihanna," she told Rolling Stone, noting that her close friends and family still call her by her first name. "When I hear Robyn, I pay attention."

27. Sade

Singer/songwriter Sade performs at the MGM Grand Garden Arena September 3, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Real Name: Helen Folasade Adu

Though her given name may be Helen, no one has ever referred to the velvet-voiced singer as such. Her parents called her Sade, a shortened version of her middle name, from a young age.

28. Sinbad

Sinbad attends Pilot Pen & GBK Celebration Lounge - Day 2 at LÕErmitage on September 15, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for GBK Productions

Real Name: David Adkins

Adkins thought using one distinctive name would help him stand out in the saturated world of stand-up comedy. He chose Sinbad after the mythological seafarer, telling Ebony magazine: “Sinbad was a leader. When monsters would show up, the men would scream out Sinbad’s name. He wasn’t the biggest guy, but he was clever and resourceful. He was a loner and lived life as a journey.”

29. Skrillex

Skrillex performs during the SnowGlobe Music Festival 2019 at Bijou Park on December 31, 2019 in South Lake Tahoe, California
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Real Name: Sonny John Moore

Here’s another case of a high school nickname that got carried over into adulthood. “Throughout my teen years my friends would call me Skrillex or Skril or Skrilly. Just became a stupid nickname that came out of the social online networking handles," Moore explained. "Really means nothing.”

30. Slash

Slash performs onstage at the GIBSON NAMM JAM Opening Party 2020 at City National Grove of Anaheim on January 16, 2020 in Anaheim, California
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Gibson

Real Name: Saul Hudson

The Guns N’ Roses guitarist credits a rather surprising source for his badass nickname: character actor Seymour Cassel. Slash was friends with Cassel’s son, and after observing him always running around “in a hurry, hustling whatever it is I was hustling at the time,” Cassel dubbed him Slash.

31. Twiggy

Twiggy Lawson attends a private screening of 'The Boy Friend' hosted by Twiggy at Kings Cross Everyman Cinema on October 23, 2019 in London, England
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Everyman

Real Name: Lesley Lawson (née Hornby)

When the fashion model was just a girl, kids at school referred to her as “Sticks” because she was so thin. Her boyfriend later gave her a slightly nicer (?) version of the nickname, which became her name when she hit it big. “Twiggy is a stupid name for a woman in her 40s,” she once remarked, “But it would be hard to drop.”

32. Usher

Usher performs at the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California
John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Real Name: Usher Terry Raymond IV

Let’s just say it’s a good thing Usher didn’t go the route of Drake and other celebs who eschewed their first names for their “cooler” middle names.

33. Voltaire

Portrait of French writer, essayist and philosopher Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778), author of "Candide
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Real Name: François-Marie Arouet

Is it any surprise that Voltaire liked wordplay? The Latinized spelling of his surname is “AROVET LI,” and “Voltaire” is an anagram of that.

34. will.i.am

Will.i.am attends The Voice UK 2019 photocall at The Soho Hotel on December 16, 2019 in London, England
Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

Real Name: William James Adams, Jr.

“I liked playing with words. I noticed that my name was a sentence, meaning one with will, who is strong-willed. And so I called my mom and said, ‘Hey, Mom, do you mind if I call myself Will.i.am?’ She was like: ‘Whaaa? You’re crazy.’ She was cool with it.”

35. Yanni

Yanni performs at The Greek Theatre on June 9, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Oliver Walker/Getty Images

Real Name: He was born Yiannis Chryssomallis, though that's sometimes Americanized to John Yanni Christopher.

See “Raffi,” above. Actually, Yiannis is a very common name in Chryssomallis's native Greece. He was known as “John” to his classmates at the University of Minnesota. Yanni is a just a slight variation of his given name.

36. Zendaya

Zendaya attends the Bvlgari B.zero1 Rock collection event at Duggal Greenhouse on February 06, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York
Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Real Name: Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman

Zendaya is her real name. She’s never used her last name professionally, though, because her first name is so distinctive. “I [dropped my last name because I] just thought it was cool, like Cher or Prince,” she told Allure.

37. Zucchero

Zucchero Sugar Fornaciari attends the 70° Festival di Sanremo (Sanremo Music Festival) at Teatro Ariston on February 05, 2020 in Sanremo, Italy
Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images

Real Name: Adelmo Fornacirari

Zucchero is the Italian word for sugar, a name given to him by one of his elementary school teachers. It’s also an apt description for his sweet, sweet music: The Italian musician has worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Pavarotti and has a couple of World Music Awards and a Grammy nom under his belt.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER