This is really several pieces mashed together into a collage of different threads and narratives which demand more attention than I’ve given here. So this is a compendium of fragments, more rumblings to the tune of future works. Or something.
A Guitar tech tests a majestically evil-looking guitar while the crowd mills about, joking, posturing awkwardly, cheering on the tech sarcastically. The venue is small. Dingy would not be an understatement, and we can feel that we are in gritty Worcester, Massachusetts.
The crowd is filled with an unusual assortment of people. They are mostly men, and mostly white. Some have girlfriends or wives by their sides. The whiteness of the crowd is accentuated by the blackness of their attire; black shirts, black jeans, black jackets, long black hair. There are a few latinos, and one black man. Maybe. If he is there, people come up to him with curiosity and congratulations for upending the stereotypes of those who revel in subverting stereotypes (yet never really escape them).
* * *
It all began some time between the third and fifth grades. I seem to remember things from this period by grades, if at all. Each year is divided by that one major change—moving to the next level in school. There is no clear beginning or end. I saw the music video for the Smashing Pumpkins’, Tonight, Tonight and was, for some reason, struck by it. Logically, I went out and bought the CD, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I wouldn’t understand the title of the album for at least five years. At least, I wouldn’t know that I’d understood the title. The meaning is a bit hard to miss when you hear the music. The album was released on October 24, 1995; so I was around 10 years old. Which is like, third grade, right? I always have to recount from the beginning to figure that out. So I bought the CD, a double album, despite the fact that the one song I knew was nothing like anything else on the album. Yet I don’t remember realizing that, or particularly caring at the time. But the songs I listened to most where the heavy ones. Like the buzz-sawing, Zero; the crushingly distorted Bodies; the ever-classic, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, with the timeless chorus, ”Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage“. Etc.
The most random segment of the story; I saw the music video for Breakfast at Tiffany’s before a movie at the local theater. I liked the song, and borrowed the CD from a friend/babysitter. I distinctly remember the chill I felt upon realizing just what it was about the songs on the album (by Deep Blue Something) that spoke to me. The aggressive distortedness.
* * *
Jesper was 16, I was 14. When you’re 14, 2 years is a bigger proportion of your life than it would be to me now, at 22. By exactly 4/77 times. Don’t ask me why that is important, it just is. So Jesper was from a band called IN Flames, from Sweden. I would later learn that Sweden is the second most metal country in the world. (Data forthcoming). Though he was from Pennsylvania. He had long dark brown hair and a dry, caustic sense of humor. He owned a stunningly shaped guitar: a red Gibson SG. Why is the shape of a guitar so important? So Jesper started a band and recorded a song with them. I tagged along and gained my eventual nickname, ”roadie“. The next summer Jesper showed up with a CD and a story. The opening song on the CD (see below), captured my heart in an instant. The riffs were magical in their brutal beauty. It remains one of my favorite songs. And of course he had used the same main riff in the song he recorded the previous summer. There he was in the liner notes, Jesper Strömblad. But the picture didn’t quite fit. The Jesper Strömblad in the liner notes had long blonde hair and was… a different person. Our Jesper told us about the strict Swedish laws — that prohibited minors from publishing music, thus forcing the band to use a stand-in for the photos (and live shows? So he could goto school or something?). In any event, it’s unlikely I believed him then. I believed parts. I wanted to believe. I also don’t remember when, exactly, the illusion dissolved and he shed the identity of Jesper, but at some point he resumed his identity. But never lost that aura. He now sings for a leading death metal band in England. Or so he says.
For me, the path that led to this music was far from straight, and yet was strangely inevitable. Art to appeals to an us that is raw, emotional. In my current context, one where metal is an extremely strange and alien concept, most of the people with whom I interact don’t see much of that emotional core. Finding out that I <3 metal can come as a bit of a shock for those who don’t already know a bit about me. But we all have our ways to excise the demons the world inspires within us. So I wonder, is that all this music serves to do? Does my love for metal extend beyond the realms of negativity?
* * *
My friend bought it. Someone brought it into school on their discman. I was intrigued. So I bought it. Smash by the Offspring. It 0wn3d me. It still does.
* * *
I search for a definition of Metal. I could qualify it endlessly: Death, Black, Power, Progressive, Avant Garde, Symphonic, Viking, Doom, Folk, Nü, NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), Pagan, Christian, Shred, Neo-Classical. It becomes absurd if it wasn’t already. What remains when the modifiers are removed?
* * *
10 more minutes of standing, shuffling for a better spot, and fighting valiantly to protect the spots that are already had. A restless whisper rises throughout the room, it is not clear where it starts, or to what it refers. The stage is now dark. Necks crane and eyes strain to make sense of the fresh, shifting darkness. The shapes on stage begin to congeal into outlines, and the murmur of the crowd grows louder.
The music begins with a soft, symphonic scape of oscillating synthetic tones. The darkly peaceful chords weigh down on the restless bodies, which grow quiet.
* * *
There are several major rock stations that are receivabble over FM radio broadcast in the Greater Boston Area (JOB?). Each tries desperately to define itself as THE definitive source of rock in the area, no matter how similar their mindless blathering DJ’s, or commercialized programming. But it was a start. And WAAF isn’t so bad. Or wasn’t so bad. Dunno about nowadays. There is no metal radio in Boston. Will there ever be? The metal scene is quite lively, especially out West in blue-collar Worcester, and I’m told in the Merrimack Valley as well. So I spent my middle school years listening to crappy alternative rock/Hard Rock radio, searching for my musical identity. I found, and would later reject, for right or wrong, some bands: Sevendust, Tool, Powerman 5000, LImp Bizkit (the first step is to admit, right?). Then I went to summer camp and met ”Jesper Strömblad“.
* * *
Can you be Buddhist — live a life filled with compassion and happiness, and listen to Death Metal? Does spirituality satiate the same urge, the same hunger, as music? Some Christians would have us believe so. I heard a sermon in a Mongolian Evangelical church where the pastor lamented the youth’s finding God in ”fun“ things. He used music as his prime example and mimed it out for the crowd.l, hands cupping imaginary headpohones and head bobbing to an imaginary disco beat, he grinned absurdly and continued the service, ”Xogjim sonsdog…!“ the service concluded with the parish band resuming their places on stage and leading the crowd in yet one more enthusiastic round of Jesus-loving song. But their needs were being filled by the Jesus part, not the music, right? Then why are there Christian death metal bands?
* * *
tss… tss… ts ts ts tsh
six taps of a hi-hat later, the destruction begins.
* * *
I’d sign – a contract with the devil
I’ve tried – for so very long
I’d die – to become immortal
that’s why I sing this song
Am I a wannabe? – have I no dignity.
Who’d give up all my life, to be…
In the book of heavy metal —— METAALLLL!
In the book of heavy metal
—Dream Evil, ”The Book of Heavy Metal (March of the Metallians)
* * *
What is the meaning of a wrathful Buddha? We see all these wrathful images of Buddhas (gesturing around the temple). But in truth wrathful Buddhas have nine qualities. Their bodies are wrathful, heroic, and frightening. Their voices are laughing, threatening, and fierce. But mentally they are loving, peaceful, and powerful. Like all enlightened beings, their minds are peaceful, compassionate, joyful, and wise. If a being is wrathful on the outside and also angry in its heart, then it is a real monster — not a Buddha. Wrathful Buddhas look wrathful for a purpose: for pacifying, for taming negative forces.
* * *
Would Buddha listen to metal if it touched his soul? Were I to become Buddha, would it cease to have meaning to me? The music excises the demons; so without the demons, can there be the music? Isn’t it all about the music?