Another long one, so here goes...
Fred Wilson over at A VC sent me an e-mail link to Mike Doughty's blog where Doughty revisits his past love for heavy metal with the eloquence of a 50 year old novelist. Mike’s a few years younger than I am, but seems to have embraced the same bands and records at the same period in his life that myself and my gang of crazy misfits did. Oh yeah, it’s worthy of mention that he grew up at the United States Military Academy at West Point too. My youngest sister knew him a little and has even bumped into him at reunions and his shows when he’s in town, but I’ve yet to get an introduction. Now that I’ve read his latest blog post, I must place a higher priority on making this happen.
I’ve given a lot of thought to my musical listening evolution over the years and have had a couple of “awakenings” throughout my life so far. My youthful self was a very fixated one, and ripe for pop music fandom. My first rock idol was Elton John. Meaning, his were the first records I plunked down legal tender to buy. This begot a love affair with top 40 AM radio and many trips to Murphy’s Mart to buy .99 cent singles, some of them good ones by my today’s standards, but Elton records were the first long players to be purchased. My devotion ran deep too.
I remember arguing the merits of Elton’s music with a kid named Mike Blue in my fifth grade class in 1975 who was equally obsessed with Alice Cooper (he won, I became a fan myself largely due to his debating skills and persistence). Elton’s records at the time were very heady lyrically and most of it went WAY above my head, but I liked the melody of his music. A short time later, I abandoned Elton for “the harder stuff” of Kiss following the release of Elton’s emasculating duet with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”. “Philadelphia Freedom” I could take, since the Bicentennial celebration was in full swing and everywhere in my life the world was swept up in it, but the utter and total lamness of “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” could not be denied and I’d have felt foolish, and no doubt mocked viciously, if I defended Elton to my classmate Mike after that. The Kiss thing was an inevitability anyway as it was for most males my age during that time.
Kiss began the next great obsession (i.e. I listened to NOTHING but Kiss) and it lasted a year, but I quickly began to realize that there was a lot out there to listen to and limiting myself to a single artist was very foolish and, dare say, childish. While I opened myself up to listening to other bands, other genres were a different story. While there were a few exceptions, at this point whatever it was had to have what I called that “grinding guitar”, the correct term for which I discovered later was distortion.
I was plenty busy collecting hard rock records during this period simply because it was a target rich period for this particular variety of music. Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Zeppelin, etc… It was during this age of my life (1977) that I made the emotional connection between lyrical prose and the music itself (WOW!!!), how it could amp me up while skating ramps and terrorizing the streets. I also became obsessed with the surfer/skater/rocker look too. It was an emersion far deeper than where I’d been before. I think girls had a lot to do with it also. I became far more wild and welcomed any opportunity to try anything above and beyond the mainstream. I drank my first beers, smoked my first joint, got hauled down to the police station, etc… and hooked up with others who liked what I liked. This provided an easy segue to what happened next.
Metal was born sometime during my freshman and sophomore years in high school. We didn’t know it was a genre of it’s own then, but we knew what we liked (most of the time when something can be cited as a genre, the genre has run its’ course). Metal was simply everything, and nothing else was worthy. As a matter of fact, if you weren’t able to religiously commit to the total devotion that was required, you were written off as a pretender and lover of all things lame. We would have suspected and accused you of actually having a secret affinity for Elton and Kiki’s “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” itself. We drew some pretty hard lines back then.
Metal was to us everything Mike Doughty describes it was for him:
“Rob Halford, Vince Neil, and Bruce Dickinson were like outcast heroes, standing against a world of Reaganite conformity (and believe me, growing up among the military at West Point, I knew something about conformity, not to mention deeply buried anguish, and post-traumatic stress disorder). They were the superhero versions of what Paul Westerberg came to mean to me; figures of anger and angst.”
A funny thing happened during the latter part of my junior year and most of my senior your in high school while completely sequestering myself from all those who were naïve enough not to understand the wonder that was metal: I actually figured out that non-metal lovers were also fun to hang out with and more than a few of the girls were pretty hot too. I also figured out if I didn’t ridicule the music they listened to, they might even want to hold a conversation with me. This awakening caused quite a schism amongst my metal friends as my tastes began to widen to more than what Angelwitch’s next record offered. What was also happening was what Mike details in the previous paragraph to the one above:
“What happened? I sought more emotional music as my own emotions became more complex; as I shedded identity after identity, each one I discarded wholly. But as the documentary moved from the Priest/Maiden/Halen years to the hair-metal, Poison/Cinderella power ballad years, I realized that a change in the attitude (and the popularity) of the music alienated me.”
Again, deadly accurate. The music became a marketing juggernaut for MTV and all was ruined (we were incensed for many years that MTV wouldn’t play metal music and when they did, they ruined it). Again I found it hard to defend what it was becoming to the detractors like I had back in fifth grade. I knew it was getting lamer by the day (sitting in a bar listening to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” was like hearing a new version of “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” all over again). I was glad to be reading more books and interested in other music. I even began what would become my life long regret of having not paid more attention in school, and made the ultimate decision to take a crack at going to college. Even so, I mourned the shedding of my metal identity. I loved it so much and was so thoroughly immersed in it that it was worthy of mourning.
It took a while to feel comfortable in my skin as one who was no longer ashamed of enjoying a wide variety of music. I was grateful for never getting rid of ANY of my records and “Madman Across The Water” returned to my turntable as did many other non-metal LP’s. This time I enjoyed the music and the subject matter the lyrical prose had to offer. I've made, as Perry Farell says, "Ocean Sized" discoveries since then and have enjoyed a few obsessions ta boot (heard any Rolling Stones lately?), Hell, I even rediscovered my metal favorites over time just like Mike did recently. But even as much as I might enjoy the Rolling Stones, I don’t think I’ve ever been as deeply devout in the biblical sense as I was during my metal days and have the Iron Maiden tattoo to prove it. It’s old and faded like the rest of me and I don’t really notice it too much anymore, but like the name of a long gone girlfriend, every now and then it reminds me of who I was back then and I enjoy a laugh at my youthful naivety.
While my friend Jackson was a year or two younger, he can share many similar experiences. He recently resurrected the Paul Di Anno/Bruce Dickenson debate himself over on his blog to few peoples notice, even drawing some good hearted mocking. But now I realize how all the Star Wars freaks feel about the ridicule that gets directed at them even from me sometimes. No matter how narrow or simple Star Wars or metal music was it spoke to us, and in my case, was a huge part of who I was back then. I can honestly say, like the roadies Mike Doughty mentions, I can’t help the uneasy sensitivity I feel to comments by the “outsiders” amongst us.
Great post Mike. I sincerely hope that I get a chance to meet you one day.
P.S. Jackson, we will get back to the greatest Aerosmith album debate in due time...