I just returned from spending the better part of the week in Mexico City. On the flight, I shared the plane with a lot of people in heavy metal T-shirts, who I assumed were headed to the Foro Sol, a 62,000-capacity outdoor venue where Metallica would be playing three sold-out shows with Iggy Pop supporting.
As my taxi closed in on the Marquis Reforma Hotel, I thought about the practicalities of spending several days in a country whose citizens comrade Trump has all but demonized and seeks to wall off. I’ve traveled outside our borders through every administration from Reagan to now, and it’s always a more hospitable environment when there isn’t a Republican in the White House. An American in Mexico isn’t unusual but, things being what they are, I didn’t know what to expect. I understand the anger that can arise from being insulted and belittled. Coming from a lightweight such as Trump, it might make me want to unload on a perceived sympathizer. I hoped for the best but kind of knew that I would be OK.
The morning after arrival, I met up with Iggy’s band in the lobby to head to the venue, where, due to traffic and security logistics, we would spend the hours leading up to their set at 1930 hrs.
In the blazing sun, I stood on the stage with the band as they ran through songs at soundcheck. The size of the operation is truly impressive. To put on a Metallica show requires literally hundreds of people. As the band banged away, I watched large groups of security and staff receive their briefings in the massive area in front of the bleachers. The songs sounded ridiculous in this setting, as the booming echo made it sound like they were waging war with silence.
The setup was epic yet utilitarian. At the rear of the stage, a high wall, which was actually a screen, ran its entire length. A camera suspended by cable could cover the action and send the images to the screen. Without this, the people seated nearly a city block away would see only small dots onstage. For them, it would be a live documentary — rock & roll pay-per-view, with great sound.
After soundcheck, I sat in the windowless, rectangular room for the band and tripped on the seeming impossibility of playing on a stage you could get lost on, and trying to connect with a huge audience, who will basically watch you loom over them, the images selected by the camera operator. I wondered if, in the case of Metallica, who have been playing arenas and stadiums for about 30 years, it influenced their songwriting. There’s definitely a mindset you need to be in to fill up a stage that size. You don’t necessarily have to be an egomaniac, but you need to be able to bring it in an epic fashion.
I have seen more than one band who got very big but were never able to grow into the venues required to accommodate their audiences. The Beatles are a perfect example of one of the biggest bands in the history of music who looked microscopic on every stage they played on after they hit the big time. Then there’s The Rolling Stones, who seem to dwarf every stage they ever set foot on.
Punk rock got me out of the arenas and into the clubs, often a few feet or less away from the bands I went to see. The transition didn’t make me look back with contempt at what I had just left, but made me realize there was a loneliness to it that I was happy to have behind me.
I was fascinated to see what Iggy and his bandmates would make of a stage with that crazy circular runway thing enclosing a group of people, like fish in a barrel, looking up at them. During the three shows over five nights, I got a good chance to find out.
In the tradition of all great frontmen
Iggy Pop was made to be seen. In the tradition of all great frontmen, he does everything possible to make you forget there is anyone else in the world you should be thinking about. He’s real damn good at it, too. It was a Metallica crowd and, as with any band with such devoted fans, they are not always hospitable to the openers. But Iggy had ’em immediately.
I watched all three shows from the soundboard. Even as close as I was, I found myself watching the images of the band on the video monitors. I was at a live show but watching a screen, and though the strangeness of that was ever present, it made the overall oddly impactful. The band played great and Iggy, probably unknowingly, shrunk the size of the place as he loomed larger than life over us.
There were moments that were almost hypnotizing. On the second night, he spoke the first verse of “Some Weird Sin”: “Well, I never got my license to live/They won’t give it up/So I stand at the world’s edge/I’m trying to break in/Oh, I know it’s not for me/And the sight of it all/Makes me sad and ill/That’s when I want some weird sin.” Then the band came right in and at that moment, the whole place seemed perfectly suited for him.
Several minutes later, Metallica hit the stage and it was a different thing altogether. The crowd roared and thousands of cellphones, the new lighter, created a beautiful sea of waving stars as the band totally smashed it to pieces.
It was a truly awesome thing to witness, and one of the more eclectic pairings. I think Bill Graham would have been proud.
More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
White America Couldn't Handle What Black America Deals With Every Day
Bowie's Blackstar Is on the Level of Low and Heroes
No Matter Who Wins, America Is Only Going to Get Angrier
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