Tuesday, July 20, 2010


A Conversation (Introduction)

In the 20 or so years that we’ve been friends, my buddy Mike and I have had more than our fair share of memorable conversations. But the conversation we had at the beginning of June was truly one for the record books.

First, a bit of context. Like the girl in “Teenage Dirtbag,” Mike had two tickets to Iron Maiden – one for himself and one for me. The only thing I had to do to claim it was get to Dallas. Not a problem. After waiting more than 15 years to see Maiden in concert, I would have flown to Alaska. As Bill and Ted once put it, oh so eloquently...

There was just one little complication: Mike’s wife Rebecca was 9 months pregnant at the time and could potentially have gone into labor at any moment. And thus, the memorable conversation…

J: Dude, I don’t wanna sound callous or whatever, but Rebecca’s not gonna screw this up for us, is she?

Mike: Nah, dude, she’s cool. She said she wants us to have a good time and she can’t wait to see you again.

J: No, I mean with the baby.

Mike: Oh, that. Yeah, I was worried about that too. But, no worries. I've got it under control. I talked to my mom, and she said she’ll go to the hospital with Becca if she goes into labor on the night of the concert.

J: (sigh of relief) Rock the fuck on, dude. I hate to admit it, but I really was worried about that. Seriously, can you imagine? What if the first thing this baby ever did was mess up your chance to see Maiden? Talk about starting off on the wrong foot.

Mike: Oh, I’d never let her live that shit down. She’d be like, “But why, Dad? Why can’t I borrow the car?” And I’d say, “Shut up! I missed Iron Maiden because of you! Now go clean your room!”

J: (laughs) You think Becca’s gonna be upset with you for not going?

Mike: Not really. I mean, I told her how long we’ve been waiting for this, so she understands. And plus, we’re gonna have more kids, so I’ll just be there for those.

So what was it about this concert that made Mike so willing to miss out on the birth of his third child if necessary? Well, the simple answer is that it was Iron Maiden. Maiden, as some of you may know, is one of those enormously successful bands that have been around for over 30 years but which, for some reason, rarely tour the States. They're heavy metal royalty, but the only way their American fans usually get to see them is by watching concerts filmed in Brazil, Chile, England, or Germany. So you can see why I hopped a plane to Dallas as soon as I heard they were coming. Basically, it's a cardinal rule among metalheads: when you have the chance to see Iron Maiden, you take it.

But there's a more complicated answer that can be summed up in a single word: metal. I know how lame that sounds to everyone who’s not into it, but trust me, there’s more to it than you realize. Allow me to explain...

Metal: Music to Build a Community On

By definition, metal music, in all its forms, is a very special thing - the kind of thing you can’t find just anywhere. You don’t see it on MTV. You rarely, if ever, hear it on the radio (and when you do, it’s usually that crappy new Metallica stuff). And in the few places where they still sell CDs, it’s getting harder and harder to find. So, if you want to listen to it, you first have to put some effort into looking for it. This is why many metal fans often say they’re “into metal” instead of simply saying that they “listen to metal.” You listen to the radio. Metal requires devotion.

It probably goes without saying that this devotional aspect of the metal scene produces a unique relationship among fans. I won’t use the tired cliché that the scene is “like a big family,” but I know for a fact that liking metal is an incredibly significant thing for two people to have in common. More often than not, it implies a wider range of interests that those two people probably share. Or, to put it another way: it’s not just a shared musical preference; it’s a mutual hobby.

Just a few examples from my own life:

* My friend-since-childhood Victoria was surprised when she saw how well her husband Josh and I hit it off after we were first introduced at the Hard Rock Casino. She even admitted that she’d talked to him about me before they’d left the house that night. “It might take you a while to get used to Jason,” she had told him. “He’s kind of an acquired taste” (her words, not mine). Instead of spending time adjusting to one another, though, Josh and I spent several hours discussing whether Ozzy was better with Black Sabbath or as a solo artist. And which Iron Maiden album had the coolest cover art. And which lines from Spinal Tap were the absolute funniest. Since then, we’ve partied together for Christmas and the Super Bowl – proof that metal is truly the tie that binds.

* One day back in 2000, I went driving around Oxford with my friend Crystal. We’d been friends since high school, and she was definitely cool, but I always thought she was kind of a preppy girly-girl at heart. Anyway, I don’t remember how it came about, but for some reason I ended up playing Pantera’s “Regular People (Conceit)”…and that’s when Crystal surprised the ever-living crap out of me by saying, “Oh my god, turn it up! I love this!” We blew through the entire Vulgar Display of Power album that day, and when I dropped her off I told her how amazed I was by the whole experience. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you’re shallow or anything. I just didn’t think you’d be into music about brute force and violence and serial killers.” Crystal gave me a confused look and said, “J, I’m a Psych major. Serial killers are part of my job description.”

* One of my co-workers at Chaffe-McCall had a badass biker husband named Larry who’d sometimes come to visit her on the job and take her out to lunch. Her desk was right next to mine, and one day, with Larry standing there, I cranked up Slayer’s Reign in Blood. Next thing you know, Larry turned to me, nodded, flashed me the horns, and said, “Hey, dude, you wanna go to lunch with us?”

* Among metal fans, there are two bands with reputations for being especially sucky. Winger is one. Poison is the other. When I was in high school, my buddy Dale (another friend I made because of metal) was in a hardcore death metal band, and at the beginning of one of their shows, he plugged in his guitar and played the opening of Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me.” Then he walked to the microphone, pointed me out in the crowd, and said, “That was some Poison by request for my boy J over there.” Yes, Dale thought he was really funny until the laughter died down and I asked the obvious question: “Why do you know how to play ‘Talk Dirty to Me,’ Dale?” *crickets*

Yes, for all the embarrassing pictures and videos my love of metal has produced over the years – most notably the notorious “mullet picture” –
it’s also provided me with some of the best times of my life.

So What’s the Appeal?

Aside from the sheer intensity of the music, I’m convinced that the real appeal of metal, the thing that drives so many interesting people to listen to it, is the fact that it’s really about something. Most music is, in one way or another, about relationships. Being in love. Being heartbroken over love gone wrong. Being horny as hell. Being catty towards a former flame, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. After all, Love is one of the three major themes that creative works usually revolve around. But it gets a little repetitive after a while, and sometimes you just want to hear something that deals with the other two major themes, God and Death…This is where metal comes in.

Obviously, there are some metal bands that have done songs about love. That goes without saying. And some of them have built entire careers out of songs about sex (Motley Crue, anyone?) But for the most part, metal tends to be more concerned with matters of freedom and individualism. Even the Satanic imagery often associated with metal – pentagrams, inverted crosses, and of course the famous horns (demonstrated by my friend Tara in the picture below) - is rooted in these two things.

Satan, you’ll remember, has long been a symbol of independence and defiance – the headstrong goat among the mindless herd of sheep. The Romantics in particular were very fond of him, viewing him not as the ultimate incarnation of evil, but as an angel who rejected the notion that he had been born only to serve. Thus his famous utterance in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “’Tis better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” In this sense, anyone who refuses to bow to authority is exhibiting a Satanic attitude. Clearly, a lot of metal bands have taken this idea and run with it. Understand, this doesn’t mean that they actually worship Satan. (Even Satanists don’t worship Satan.) It means they’re their own bosses. In the words of an Iron Maiden song: “I’m not a prisoner. I’m a free man. And my blood is my own now.”

This innate anti-authoritarianism also carries over into the metal scene’s take on politics. Make no mistake, dear readers, metal was anti-government long before the Tea Party crowd took to the streets. Consequently, it’s extremely popular in countries like Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, where the governments are largely detested. (You probably won't be surprised to learn that there's also a metal scene developing in Iraq.) Take a song like Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction,” for instance. It’s basically just Lord Acton’s legendary maxim – “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – set to music. In a similar vein, Slayer’s “Blood Red” bashes Soviet Communism, with its “primitive sickle” and “oppression ruled by bloodshed.” Judas Priest lashes out in all directions with their chant-anthem “Breaking the Law.” And let’s not forget that Metallica’s last great album (and probably their most famous album artwork) was loaded with commentary about the corruption of the American political system.

Then again, metal is loaded with all sorts of commentary. Pound for pound, I would venture to say that it probably contains more literary, cultural, and historical allusions than all other types of music combined. Iron Maiden alone has songs based on everything from the Book of Revelation (“Number of the Beast”) to Greek mythology (“Flight of Icarus”) to Edgar Allan Poe (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”) to Robert Heinlein (“Stranger in a Strange Land”). Morbid Angel borrows a good bit of their lyrical content from horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Rob Zombie samples old science fiction and B-horror films. Slayer has a thing for Nazi Germany (their fan club is called the Wehrmacht, “Behind the Crooked Cross” is about being brainwashed by Nazi ideology, and their signature song, “Angel of Death” is about Josef Mengele). And, like the Jacobean dramatists before them – which is appropriate, given that metal is largely theatrical -- nearly all metal bands are into bloodshed, skulls, and death. Why? Because one of the most important things a person must do in life is accept the fact that they will not live forever. Chew on that for a while.

What Made Me Want to Blog About This?

The reason I’m putting all this down today is because I’ve started to notice something of a metal resurgence over the last year. On a local level, I can’t seem to go to Wal-Mart without spotting at least one teenager in a Metallica shirt. That always surprises me, because I just always expect kids these days to be listening to rap (how old did I sound with that statement?) Nationally, it’s also starting to pop up in places where I wouldn’t have thought to look for it, like VH-1 Classic. In addition to keeping the excellent That Metal Show in constant rotation, VH-1 Classic also plays Metal Mania, a daily block of metal videos that goes on for two or three hours at a time. Watch Adult Swim and you’ll see an animated show called Metalocalypse mixed right in with Family Guy and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. And the thing that really got my wheels spinning on this was a YouTube video that was sent to me by the lovely and talented Loren Hankins. Apparently Slayer has officially gone viral:

How to explain this resurgence? Well I’d hate to over-speculate, but I have to assume that it’s at least partially related to the situation in Washington. Between our last and current president, the government has really overstepped its bounds in recent years. And, like I said before, where there’s authority, there’s metal standing in defiance of it. I'm sure there are other reasons as well, but that's the one that most readily come to mind.


But the real reason I’m writing all this down is because, simply and honestly, I love this stuff. Though I've long since cut my hair, metal's influence on my personal flavor lingers on. My penchant for wearing black, my tendency to flash the horns whenever I find something cool, my habit of saying "rock on," my predilection for black-haired women -- these are all symptoms of a metal-fueled life. Give me a hard-driving brand of music that questions authority, explores the timeless themes of religion and mortality, references historical events and great literature, and promotes anti-government dissent, all while channeling the Romantics and Jacobeans, and I’m there. Be still, my nerdy little heart.

I don’t know if it’s worth skipping the birth of a child for, but it’s definitely worth a trip to Dallas. And in fact, I'll be there again in September to witness the launch of the American Carnage Tour.

Hell. Yeah. Horns up. Rock on.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ted & CJ here - never underestimate the influence of Guitar Hero and Rock Band ;-) I'd never listened to any metal until a buddy showed me those games, and it was fascinating to experience what I'd avoided through the years.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Rayman said...

Hell yeah. you really rock up... I like your story here... keep rocking..

8:51 PM  

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