Another generation of heavy metal has taken over, and — sorry — it ain’t just about strippers and dope. Okay, it’s partly about strippers and dope. And we’ll get around to that. But more and more, as metal evolves into a huge international music that belongs to everyone, it has gotten to be something weirder. It’s become a guardian of morality — not church morality; real morality. Praise be: Given the void in responsible behavior among governments, police, educational establishments and religions, the task of guiding our youth down the path of righteousness has fallen to .?.?. Satan.
This hit me again about a year ago, when I was sitting on the interview throne for Heavy: The Story of Metal, which airs in four parts May 22-25 during VH1’s Metal Month. I don’t know if they’ll use any of my footage, because network programming V.P. Michael Hirschorn had originally asked if I could come up with amusing anecdotes of decadence and depravity in the style of Behind the Music. And as I talked, I kept realizing instead how deep-down healthy and even admirable the whole scene is. Especially, I was recounting one recent Ozzfest tale: A drunk and slamming metal fan accidentally bowls over a skinny little immigrant who’s cleaning up the site with a dustpan — then picks him up and offers the sincerest apology I’ve ever seen. Thinking about the unglitziness and essential brotherhood of that, I choked up and nearly bawled like a baby. So, in honor of Metal Month and the calendar’s upcoming 6/6/06, I thought I’d offer up a few of my own Most Metal Moments. Ready for prime time or not.
Modern metal, in contrast with its glammier ’80s Sunset Strip incarnation, has followed the lead of Metallica and Megadeth into ever-darker regions of protest and penance. If it still identifies with the Adversary, that’s only because fundamentalists the world over have succeeded in selling the image of a God who really sucks. Over the past decade, as pious citizens have shuddered at metal’s devil horns and tattoos, Korn, Marilyn Manson and Dio have extended a claw to the kids who were being abused, rejected and driven onto the streets. Lamb of God have scientifically demolished the patriotic oaferies of militarism. Cattle Decapitation have bellowed about the trashing of the Earth.
Consider the artists’ visual/conceptual themes: Man’s Son self-crucified, Lamb self-sacrificed, Cattle self-immolated. Words, delivered in unintelligible croaks, are often about slaughter, disease and rot. Since metal’s pentacle and cross hang upside-down, what do you think death metal, currently sweeping the planet like a bacillus (while ignored in the media), is really about?
The opposite. The victims of Wal-Mart World feel hopeless, worthless, dead. They want life, to paraphrase an old Black Sabbath song, and they kill themselves to get it.
Everywhere I’ve looked at Ozzfests the last few years, there’s been more evidence. I saw that it wasn’t enough for these beasts to stand several hours in the 100-degree heat of greater San Bernardino; they had to beat the shit out of each other, too! No living greenery relieved the spectacle — as they marched cyclonically and bashed each other in tribute to the raw retch of DevilDriver or the murder masks of Slipknot, a vast cloud of brown dust rose into the pale-blue sky.
One by one, gasping pit bulls fled to the only shade, a foot-wide strip cast by the perimeter fence, their eyes, noses and mouths packed with grit. There was no plumbing, and a 20-minute wait for a $5 cup of ice water, which the purchaser was likely to end up just hurling at somebody — what the fuck! People were trying to spit, and they couldn’t.
So I was watching. Ever the provident adult, equipped with four bottles of designer H2O, I gave one to a grime-encrusted kid. He applied a tiny amount to the most afflicted area, the eyes, and passed the bottle around to some other refugees. A few minutes’ breather, then: Okay! Back to the pit!
The First One I Hit
The slamming thing is kinda peculiar. Here’s another scene, after a Behemoth show at West Hollywood’s Key Club. I was in a parking lot among a few stragglers when a guy walked up, pointed at me and announced to everybody, “What do you think, should I beat the crap out of this dude?” A 30-year-old black-shirted Latino about 5 feet tall and 4 wide, he had probably culled me for sacrifice because I looked old and insufficiently metal. But he seemed genially shit-faced rather than dangerous. So I thought I’d talk to him.
“Hey, who did you think was best tonight?”
He leaned in, put his arm around me and breathed beer in my face. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “the first one I hit.”
I soon realized Hit Man didn’t have a clue what bands were playing. But knowing it was death metal, he said, he’d extracted his last buck just so he could get into some pit slamming. He was looking for .?.?. a connection. He assumed I was rich and therefore incapable of identifying with his situation, but he wanted me to understand that he was a good guy. All he hoped for, he mumbled, was to work hard, to provide his kids with a good example, and to offer them better opportunities than had come his way. He seemed rather happy. I hope he made it home all right.
Hit Man was one among many whose loyalty belongs to the concept and the music in general rather than to a particular band. Which explains why, despite millions of fans, there are few death-metal superstars. It’s kind of a contradiction in terms.
I walked into Murderfest at the Knitting Factory a couple of months ago — three days, 80 groups. A severe slam-o-rama was transpiring, with participants thrusting arms in a kung-fu fury I hadn’t seen before. But if you looked, the actual contact was at torso level, pretty safe. Metal brotherhood in action. Then a frail femme twirled herself into the middle of the man-swarm, found a space — and survived. A brother-and-sisterhood.
I liked the band that was playing, so when they stopped, I went over to a dude who’d been scrutinizing them at close range, sitting right on the edge of the stage. When I asked him who they were, he shrugged: “Hell if I know.”
An extended-family picnic, with attitude at a minimum. Another Murderfest band later introduced a recently conscripted member. “This isn’t our original bassist,” proclaimed the vocalist, “this is his father!”
After You, Beelzebub
You will nearly always find a gentleman in a Dreams of Damnation T-shirt to be helpful and polite. An example: the scene at a metal fest in a Whittier ballroom a couple of years ago — unhassled as usual. Latinos constitute a large proportion of the SoCal metal scene, and here more than half the audience and bands were brown-skinned men and women with black hair, black T-shirts and black jeans, the coolest of the cool. I don’t mean cool like Axl Rose; I mean cool like Robert Trujillo, the hulking, down-to-earth guy who plays bass for Metallica now.
There was no elbowing at the bars or in the food lines. There was no urinating in bathroom sinks and wastebaskets. The slamming, though typically vigorous and sweaty, produced no injuries. A guy heard me talking about calling home and offered me his cell phone.
Nevertheless, a couple of attendees got thrown out. They happened to be white guys. No muscle was applied; the security guards just said, “There’s the door, please leave.” But in this whole underworld Garden of Eden, there was one touch of evil: The offenders were ejected for smoking pot.
The Dope Show
Now, isn’t that a little like kicking Seamus and Brendan out of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration for enjoying a pint? Or maybewearing green? Sure, marijuana is illegal. Kind of like making a rolling stop at an intersection is illegal. But the authorities should thank God for ganja, not bust people for it: Weed is the only thing that cools our rage enough to put up with the bullshit. Personally, I think we should all stop smoking dope and alter or abolish the government. Look around you, Steroid Arnie: Do you see all those black, brown, poor and youthful faces at hip-hop convocations, metal blasts and reggae fests? Those are the hordes who could very easily be tearing down your gates. So give them each a spliff when they come in the door, and make damn sure there are plenty of Bics to go around.
While Snoop Dogg strolls onstage at the Arrowhead Pond with a blunt on his lip, I saw people at Ozzfest, for pity’s sake, getting rousted for puffing. At Murderfest, where cannabis captains Cephalic Carnage headlined the final night, I watched a kid streaking out the door with six security goons in hot pursuit, and I bet it wasn’t ’cause he grab-assed a barmaid.
The Strip Show
“Amid the rigorous gestalt of modern metal, the music’s persistent association with ecdysiasts and pornographic performers can seem anomalous.” Immanuel Kant wrote that in 1799, and I agree. I was recently compelled against my feeble will to think about strippers at a Key Club show featuring Nile (sample song title: “Masturbating the War God”) and Hypocrisy (the name speaks for itself). At this tough-minded event, I found myself seated in the balcony adjacent to a young woman whose attire was cropped and tightened in every conceivable way to accentuate her surgically acquired gifts, which, when she leaned over the railing, extended halfway to the floor below.
I had expected as much a few weeks earlier at a House of Blues engagement by Whitesnake. This was old-guard ’80s metal; a still-strutting David Coverdale offered introductions like “This song is all about tits!” while toweling his glutes with an audience member’s black brassiere. Crowded between a bar and a rail, I endured constant buffeting from a parade of unforgiving female saline equipage — whap! whap! whap! Help, officer, I’m being brutalized! Yeah, Motley Crue, Poison, Pam Anderson, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” I’m old enough to remember.
But at the Nile gig, I hadn’t figured on encountering any of that, even if it was on the Sunset, uh, Strip. And there was definitely less fake boobage; I’m pretty sure the metal-porn alliance is on the wane in these darker times, despite enthusiastic preservationism in the latter-day pop-metal wing (which really doesn’t count). Still, there are reasons for the connection.
The first excuse is that metalers and pornsters operate on the extreme edges of show biz. Traditionally, both like to dress up, and both frequently remove items of clothing as the house gets hotter. The link is weakening within the noise-grind accelerations of death metal, where most performers wear baggy T-shirts, sexual ostentation is lo-pri and svelteness is not de rigueur, but it remains strong in somewhat more melodic, keyboard-permissive black metal, where everybody’s gothy.
As outsiders, strippers also gravitate toward metal as background accompaniment, especially if it’s slow, or so I have read. (Blast beats are ungroinly.) I fondly recall driving along, blaring a Marilyn Manson “ballad,” and receiving the sidewalk thumbs-up from an obvious professional — Manson’s recent marriage to stripper Dita Von Teese was a natural.
Among the lower echelons of metal, it’s a marriage of convenience: A metal dude prefers a woman with a reliable source of income. I once inquired after the well-being of a metal guitarist known for his erratic career.
“He’s not doing so good,” came the bulletin. “He’s back on heroin, and his girlfriend’s stripping at Jumbo’s again.”
But at least he had backup.
In conclusion, let me say that metal, especially death metal, is the furthest thing from dead. Hollywood’s Amoeba Music devotes an entire aisle to black metal and death metal. That’s about 25 rack feet of Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Cradle of Filth, Gorgasm, etc., etc. Jason Moore, who has been stocking the section for four and a half years, says his sales keep going up and up; his inventory has about doubled; he can hardly keep track of all the new bands.
You’d never know it from the music’s cultural profile. In Los Angeles, the radical edge of metal is way underground. There are more places to play in O.C. and San Diego. The press ignores it, and that’s fine with the fans.
Ask Zakk Wylde, who bridges the span of metal better than anyone else, shredding guitar in both Ozzy Osbourne’s semimainstream band and his own more punishing Black Label Society. He hardly shrinks from publicity, but he can also speak for modern metalheads’ belief that the word will come to those who need it; the remainder may abstain. Last October, talking to the Boston Herald, Wylde unblinkingly claimed he once went 77 days without brushing his teeth. Yes, this resulted in bad breath.
“But so what?” he said. “Then no one wants to talk to you. Good. Don’t talk to me.”