Life, Music

What heavy metal music has to do with Donald Trump and our nation’s disaffected working class

You might think that heavy metal music faded into irrelevancy after the big-hair 1980s. That is, if you’ve even thought about heavy metal since then! Well, I have. I’m still a fan, and I still buy the latest music from the bands I’ve liked all these years.

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That’s right: a handful of those loud, hard bands are still at it. My favorite, pioneers Iron Maiden, have been recording and touring for more than four decades now. Their sixteenth studio album arrived in 2015, and a world tour followed promptly. My old buddy Michael and I caught them in Chicago last April. I took these photos from our nosebleed seats at the United Center. This is what a sold-out show looks like.

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It’s not just the geezer bands that keep metal going — new bands have been forming, recording, and touring steadily all these years. Clearly, heavy metal isn’t dead!

But how could it possibly endure? I have a theory.

Metal is overwhelmingly a white, male music genre. When I go to a concert, the audience is easily 80% white men.

Also, metal appeals most broadly to the working class. (At least in North America. Across Europe, it enjoys surprising popularity among the wealthiest, best-educated countries. I can’t explain it, so I’ll just focus on North America.) It’s impossible to be certain of any metal concertgoer’s socioeconomic class simply by looking at them, especially since our “uniform” is faded jeans and a black metal-band T-shirt. But a fellow so clad is more likely than the average man to be working class or close to it, or to have working-class roots (like me).

I think it’s fair to characterize the working class as having roughly high-school educations, working low-status occupations, and earning below average incomes.

I think it’s risky, however, to characterize the working class’s views and ways, as any socioeconomic class contains diverse experiences and viewpoints. But I’m going to try anyway, because given my working-class roots and my involvement in a church that serves the poor and working class I think I have reasonable insight into it. I experience the working class as much more likely than higher classes to view the world in right/wrong, black/white terms. The low-status, low-wage work the working class finds limits their agency, often placing them at the mercy of their employers, their creditors, and even their government. As a result, they are likely to experience the world as stacked against them. The working class is simply more likely than higher classes to experience life as brutal and unforgiving. And working-class people generally don’t understand how the higher classes function (and vice versa), which makes it harder for them to break into higher classes even when opportunity presents itself.

It’s a life that makes one more likely to be nihilistic. If you tread water some or all of the time and daily living is this hard, then what’s the point of life?

And that’s enough to make a fellow angry. Deeply, smolderingly angry. This is where heavy metal music comes in. It’s a fabulous way to release that anger.

It’s what attracted me to the genre. I was a pretty angry fellow, deep down, in my late teens and early 20s. Nothing vented my steam like some blazing metal! Even today, a good headbang deeply presses my internal reset button. And in metal circles I meet other men for whom this is also an acceptable emotional outlet. It bonds us.

It helps a lot that metal’s favorite song subjects tend to emphasize a black-and-white, low-agency life — dystopian futures, the futility of war, the inevitability of death. Or they deal in subjects that provide fantasy relief from that life — stories of sword and sorcery, boats of personal power through might, and glory in drugs or sex or fame.

I think this is what attracts the working class more readily to Donald Trump than to Hillary Clinton. Trump is almost like a heavy metal song, with his black and white rhetoric that effectively labels the current system as dystopian, and with his direct declarations of power and mastery over perceived and real threats.

I think it reaches the same anger that draws white, working-class men to heavy metal music. White, working-class men make up a large portion of Trump’s base. That’s not to say that most of Trump’s base listens to heavy metal, but I’ll bet there’s a strong affinity between metalheads and those voting for Trump.

That’s not to say I’m falling for it, by the way. I find Trump to be horrifying.

Trump becoming President won’t magically resolve this anger. Electing Hillary doesn’t make these disaffected people go away. Our next President needs to work to create opportunities, perhaps even outright create conditions, that let working-class people move from survival mode into greater security and upward mobility. Because they’re righteously pissed, and that’s not going away on its own. If the next President ignores this, the election that follows will make this one look like a walk in the park.

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Music

Driving and Singing: Paul McCartney, “Too Much Rain”

Friday mornings of late I’ve been sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. I love to sing! But as every song ends, so does this series, today. 

2005 might well have been the hardest year of my life. My wife was divorcing me, I got to see my sons only occasionally, I had white-knuckled grip on addiction recovery, and I lived in a one-room apartment in a bad neighborhood while still paying the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again.

I even lost my dog. I’d say I was living in a country song, except that I didn’t own a truck.

It’s easy to make light of it now because I’ve recovered and my life is on a good path. In every way, those days made me a much better man, and I’m grateful for that. But it really was an awful, crushing time. I sought every lifeline and clung desperately to each one.

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One lifeline came from out of nowhere, thanks to Paul McCartney. I’ve written before of another time his music kept me from going over the edge, and a song he released that year did it again. The CD it is from, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, could well be that committed optimist’s most introspective and brooding work. And I was absolutely in an introspective and brooding place then, so it worked for me. But then there was the song “Too Much Rain,” which stood in counterpoint:

Laugh when your eyes are burning
Smile when your heart is filled with pain
Sigh as you brush away your sorrow
Make a vow, that it’s not gonna happen again

It’s not right, in one life
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I’m not an optimist. But once again McCartney’s optimism reminded me that there’s a path out of every dark time. And so I looked for reasons to laugh, smile, and sigh, even though my life was a painful mess. It wasn’t easy. But soon I found myself on that path toward happier days.

Click Play to hear Paul McCartney sing “Too Much Rain.”

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Music

Driving and singing: Heart, “My Crazy Head”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

Kristen was my first girlfriend. We’d been friends since we were six and eight, but in middle school we tried our hands at what passed for dating for two so young. Our first date was to a lunch counter at a five and dime; she made me ask her father before she’d consent.

But mostly, we hung out together and talked on the phone. My favorite Kristen memory is riding along while her dad ran some errands one day. He drove a two-door Volvo, strange and exotic in the staunchly drive-American Midwest. At every stop, Kristen and I stayed in the car listening to the radio and talking. At one stop, Heart’s early hit “Magic Man” came on, and Kristen started singing it out loud. I was surprised by her voice, lush and smoky, as it resonated within the cabin. She could sing! I couldn’t help but join in even though I didn’t know the lyrics very well. It was a few moments of real joy, and a memory I’ll always keep.

The album that song came from was released 40 years ago this week, and it put Heart firmly on my radar. Later I started buying their old albums. For a kid who mostly listened to the Beatles and the Carpenters, Heart’s music was my first real step into rock.

The 80s were a rough time for rock music. Crossover country, syrupy love ballads, dance, and new wave all pushed rock out of the spotlight. What sold in the 70s just wasn’t working anymore, at least not on the same scale of popularity.

Heart definitely felt it — their new albums just weren’t selling as well and their singles weren’t charting as high. So they shifted with the times, making albums full of radio-friendly pop power ballads. And where they had always written all of their own songs, they started recording songs by other writers.

I still listened, still bought their albums, at first. Self-titled Heart was a serious departure from their earlier material, but it was well made. Next came Bad Animals, which moved even more toward power pop. I didn’t enjoy it as much, but when I got my chance to see them play live in support of this album, I didn’t hesitate. We got nosebleed seats; I couldn’t see the band’s faces even if I squinted. But I couldn’t miss the giant set they played on and the elaborate costumes they wore to go with their new pop image. They came out playing all of their recent hits. But once that was out of the way, they gave an all-out rock show, vigorously playing all of their ’70s hits. They came back for an encore that included a couple Led Zeppelin songs. What a great show!

And then Heart released Brigade and led with the single “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You,” a syrupy little heartstring tugger that turned me right off. Seriously disappointed, I decided I was done following Heart, and that I would just enjoy their ’70s albums and move on.

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In the early ’90s I worked part time for a rock radio station. I went in for my shift one day to find that a brand new Heart song was in rotation and on my playlist. It was a surprise, as they’d released nothing new since Brigade four years earlier. And when I played it — oh my gawwwwwwd it was rock!Back on Black II” was the song’s odd title but make no mistake, it was a return to form. I snagged a copy of their new CD, Desire Walks On, from the closet where we kept our giveaway CDs and popped it into the car and kept it on repeat for weeks. Heart was back! Back! Back to writing their own songs and back to rocking out.

Another fabulous benefit of working at the radio station was free concert tickets, top shows and great seats. The station sent me to see Heart in Indianapolis at Clowes Hall, a wonderful theater at Butler University. I had a commanding view from my seat in a box just above stage right. Heart did a stripped-down show, no costumes, no elaborate sets, no nonsense. They played songs from the new album, a ton of songs from the 70s,  and only a couple songs from the 80s. And there I fell in love with Heart all over again.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Heart is how I can sing almost all of their songs. Vocalist Ann Wilson is famous for a five-octave range, way more than I could ever hope to reach. But she seldom stretches that far in one song, and their songs are almost always in keys that allow me to sing without stretching beyond my vocal range. And Ann loves to belt out a tune. Belting is my favorite way to sing!

One of my favorite songs from this album is a light rocker called “My Crazy Head.” There’s something about how I have to wrap my vocal cords around Ann’s notes that makes my whole body resonate. But while I love to sing along to it, I feel kind of silly doing it. The song tells a woman’s experience of being loved. A lot of Heart’s songs do. Obviously, those are feelings I can’t reach! But I ignore what the lyrics mean and just sing out, because it feels so good.

Click Play to listen to Heart sing “My Crazy Head.”

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Music

Driving and singing: Paul Simon, “Peace Like a River”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

When I was a boy, even a teen, Paul Simon was my hero. I didn’t know anything of him personally, and except for one appearance on late-night TV — was it Saturday Night Live? I can’t remember — I’d never seen or heard anything of him but the songs he recorded. But his songs so often went straight to the heart, to things that mattered, and I loved him for being able to write so truthfully and articulately about relationships and the inner life.

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My college years coincided with the introduction of the compact disc. Lots of people were selling their records to buy CDs, and like a gleaner in the fields I followed along behind them hoovering up great records on the cheap. I bought the entire Paul Simon catalog that way, including his self-titled solo debut, fresh from the breakup from Art Garfunkel. Unlike the lush, highly produced work the duo produced toward the end of their career, this album sounded spare and a little unfinished, from songwriting to instrumentation to production. Still, it produced the hits “Mother and Child Renuion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.”

But my favorite song from this record is “Peace Like a River.” I don’t know why this song resonates with me and I can’t even figure out what this song is about. But I love how the beat and guitar work create a dark mood, and I love the raw emotion I hear when he sings “I’ve seen the glorious day.” It brings tears to my eyes. And I sing aiee-e-e-e right along with him right out loud, sometimes shredding my vocal cords if they’re not warmed up.

I would die to hear Paul play this live. The closest I’ve come was a few years ago when Paul did a concert in Bloomington. I don’t remember why I couldn’t go. But local radio station WTTS broadcast the show live and I listened to it all. Unbelievably, he played this song. I just cried. I couldn’t believe it. Such an obscure old thing, but a song that has always moved me for reasons I can’t reach.

Click Play to hear Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River.”

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Music

Driving and Singing: Megadeth, “Addicted to Chaos”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

I was a metalhead in the 80s. Even looked the part, with the long hair and the black concert T-shirts and the worn-out jeans. I looked way meaner than I was.

But apparently I looked too mean for a professional job. So I cut the hair and dressed business casual, and my career promptly took off. But I was still metal inside, or at least I felt that way in 1994 when one of my favorite metal bands, Megadeth, released their sixth CD, Youthanasia, full of punch and power and melody. It was in heavy rotation on my car’s CD player for years.

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And that’s all I thought about it until after my wife divorced me. Long story short, during my divorce all my records and CDs were lost. As I rebuilt my life, I bought my favorite CDs again one by one. Soon enough I came to this disc. And when I really listened this time to the second song, “Addicted to Chaos,” I was flattened. Poked right between the eyes. Pierced through the heart. Because through the crunchy guitar and the growling, wailing vocals, I heard my own experience.

Megadeth’s founder Dave Mustaine was famous in the day for abusing alcohol and drugs in stupefying quantities — and for raging and fighting with anyone within reach while drunk or high. He did rehab something like 15 times, even lay briefly dead of an overdose and was somehow revived at the hospital. At some point, he got himself clean. He even found God and says he’s a Christian now.

I know what it’s like to be addicted — I had my own monkey on my back in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Those chaotic, destructive days contributed directly to my marriage failing. It is impossible to have a healthy relationship with an addicted partner.

My marriage a shambles, headed for divorce, unable to stop using and hating myself for it, I finally hit rock bottom. I found a 12-step meeting and kept going back, and slowly got clean. It not only restored my life to sanity, but let me finally truly come to not only know God, but see that he has my back. Recovery is where my faith in God began. I never want to go back to those awful days, but I’ll always be grateful for the blessing they led to.

Recovery was hard work, and never a straight line — and I played it out against turmoil and anxiety as my marriage finally ended in a bitter, protracted divorce. It was in the midst of those crushingly stressful days when I picked up my new copy of this CD. And then I heard Mustaine sing:

Monkey on my back, aching in my bones
I forgot you said “One day you’ll walk alone”
I said I need you, does that make me wrong?
Am I a weak man? Are you feeling strong?
My heart was blackened, it’s bloody red
A hole in my heart, a hole in my head

I felt like I’d been slugged in the jaw. My emotions went right back to the addicted days, overpowered and outmaneuvered, lost and trapped, weak and shamed. I could feel it: the “you” of which Mustaine sang was the addiction. I always knew mine was going to turn on me and do me in.

But in the second verse, Mustaine sang of having turned the corner.

Light shined on my path, turned bad days into good
Turned breakdowns into blocks, smashed them ’cause I could
My brain was labored, my head would spin
Don’t let me down, don’t give up, don’t give in
The rain comes down, the cold wind blows
The plans we made are back up on the road
Turn up my collar, welcome the unknown
Remember that you said, “one day you’ll walk alone”

Turn up my collar, welcome the unknown. Maybe you have to have been through this to understand, but for me that line is the center of the song. I had tried to salve my fears of life and ended up addicted. But thanks to recovery, I need fear nothing. Life? Bring it on. No need to hide! Such a joy and blessing recovery gave me.

And then it turns out I wasn’t interpreting the song right at all. Mustaine explained it in several interviews; here’s what he said in one of them:

…The subject of it is my drug counselor who got me sober. When he said that I would walk alone, it was after counseling me for a period of time, and he said “You know I’m gonna have to cut you loose some day.” The finality of it was two puncture wounds in his arm and an overdose on heroin. My drug counselor died.

No matter. I still hear my own experience in Mustaine’s words. And today, going on thirteen years sober, singing this song out loud does two things: it tears up my voice, as I can’t keep up with Mustaine’s growling and wailing vocal — and it makes me cry.

Click Play to listen to “Addicted to Chaos.”

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Music, Stories Told

Driving and singing: Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

Grandma and Grandpa retired to a small lake, or rather a big pond, among the cornfields and hog farms in southwest Michigan. It was my favorite place in the world to go. Sitting in the gazebo overlooking the lake, staying up too late listening to stories of the Great Depression, and just running around here and there in Grandma’s big Chevy Blazer; it was a relaxed life. When we were out, we inevitably ended up at a bar for lunch. I guess in 1970s Michigan it wasn’t any big deal for children to go into bars, because I surely spent a lot of time in them.

We usually visited The Inn Between, a little joint on the highway at the end of their gravel road, “in between” two villages that highway linked. It was dim inside, with square tables with laminate woodgrain tops, brown padded stackable chairs, a wooden bar with a handful of stools, PBR and Budweiser signs on the walls, a jukebox in the corner. There was a menu, there was beer, there was probably whiskey but I didn’t know much about such things when I was that young.

Everybody at the Inn Between knew my grandparents. They’d walk up to say hello as we sat, calling them George and Kath-ern, which apparently is how Kathryn is pronounced in Michigan farm country. A fellow who must have run the place always came over to chat and take our order. My brother and I would order cheeseburgers, and I always got orange Crush, which in my earliest memories still had real orange pulp in it. The fellow would tease my brother and I a little, asking us if we’d like to try the frog legs instead. Our chorus of “ick, ew!” always made the fellow smile, at least until Grandma finally said, “You should try them. They’re delicious.” So we did, and they were, and we ate them often.

The Inn Between was on the same lake my grandparents lived on, so sometimes we’d motor over there for dinner on their little pontoon boat. We’d linger. Grandma and Grandpa would chat with the other customers, mostly neighbors, all friends. Grandma made sure our red plastic tumblers were always full of icy Coke, and fed us quarters for the jukebox.

In those days, country music was crossing over to the pop charts, and the jukebox was loaded with those songs. It’s where I first heard Olivia Newton-John and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I played them all, but I liked Glen Campbell the best. I played “Galveston” and “Country Boy” but leaned extra heavy on “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Everybody drinking their beer at the Inn Between must have been glad when we left so they didn’t have to hear it again.

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But really, I have always favored the sad songs, and so my favorite Glen Campbell song is “Wichita Lineman.” And I have a bonus memory of my dad around this song. I couldn’t have been 10 yet. We sat in dad’s white Matador in the shopping-center parking lot waiting for Mom to come out of the store. The AM radio played the local music station. This song came on, and Dad sang the chorus low, mostly to himself. Dad can carry a tune. And I sing this song when my iPhone serves it up in my car, too, doing my best to channel Glenn Campbell. But I belt it right out, because it feels so good.

Click Play to listen to “Wichita Lineman.”

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