Stories Told

Into the mosh pit

The mosh pit formed around me. Suddenly I was being shoved about like a rag doll.

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Scott Ian and Joey Belladonna of Anthrax

I am both amused and thrilled that at age 50 I can still go watch many of the heavy-metal bands of my youth perform live. When I was 20 I never imagined that this music genre was in it for the long haul, that it would keep finding new audiences well into the new millennium. Yet it is, and it has, and there I was in a crowd that skewed at least 20 years younger than me.

Looking about, I noticed a handful of men near my age. We were easy to spot for our ear plugs, blue, orange, and green.

The audience was easily 80 percent men, and while it’s hard to tell by looks alone I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them worked blue-collar or service-industry jobs. Metal is an aggressive form of music that appeals to men with few sanctioned outlets for their anger. I get it: even at my age, a good headbang is excellent release.

These photographs are of the headliner, thrash-metal pioneer Anthrax. I’d seen them twice before — in 1988 and 1989! I’d not heard of the two opening bands, Havok and Killswitch Engage. But it turns out they’re established and well known, having been founded in 2004 and 1999, years I was consumed with raising my young children.

I would not have been there at all were it not for our youngest son, aged 17. He loves music from many genres and has lately added metal to his repertoire. He’s not just got an ear for the stuff, but he plays several instruments himself and has studied, all on his own, music theory and composition. When I share with him some of the metal of my younger days, he usually tells me things about the songs’ structure that I never knew, and describes the classical elements after which some of the riffs are modeled.

At any rate, he came to me not long ago and said, “Anthrax is coming to town. Would you like to go?” Hell yes.

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Belladonna wailing and Ian shredding

But about that mosh pit: It’s tradition at thrash-metal shows that, near the stage, the audience forms a circle and men run about in it, smashing into and shoving each other. I have never understood the appeal. I remember the first mosh pit I saw, at that 1989 Anthrax show. Looked like chaos; looked like needless pain. I was glad the pit was way across the room from me so I could steer clear.

No luck this time, though. The pit formed around me, and I was furious. I didn’t ask for this! And I’ve been undergoing extensive chiropractic treatment. This had better not undo all that good work!

Oh, those thoughts were so not metal.

I fought my way to the edge of the pit. I tried to push in deeper, but the thick crowd resisted me. So along the edge I stood, a skinny geek among burly men. Quickly I learned that we had a job: to push moshers back in before they broke into the crowd.

That’s where I saw the etiquette in the melee. It began with us men around the edge, protecting the crowd behind us. But even among the moshers there were surprising unspoken rules. Within the pit, nobody’s hands were raised higher than chest level. Hands remained open and were used only to push others. Feet remained on the floor. And, astonishingly, when a man fell the men around him immediately stopped, pushed other moshers away, and picked him up.

At one point a man in a wheelchair joined the moshers. He was able to get in some good pushes, and the jolts he took were not any kinder just because he was chairbound. The fellow was also good and drunk, though. When other moshers saw that he wasn’t sober enough to be there, a couple men wheeled him back out. I didn’t see them come back; maybe they bought the man another beer.

There were rules of engagement here. And on this night, everyone I saw played by them.

Later, a gap formed behind me in the crowd. I was happy to fall back into it and just listen to the band and let others do mosher-goalie duty.

The next morning I was unbruised. But I was quite sore, and stayed that way for a week. Moshing is not for the middle aged.

It’s not enough to deter me from more metal shows, though. We are going to see another thrash-metal pioneer, Slayer, on their farewell tour in May.

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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: 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

Rock shows

I’m going to a rock concert tonight, my first in five years. I’m going to see heavy-metal patriarchs Iron Maiden, who are still rocking hard even though the band members are all in their 50s. Their music has evolved from straight-ahead metal to progressive rock, which means it’s grown up just as I have. So I’ve never stopped being a fan. I haven’t seen Maiden play live in twenty-four years, meaning I’m way, way overdue.

A long time ago I wrote this post about all the concerts I’ve been to. It seems appropriate to rerun it today.

Dokken must have had wicked hairspray bills.

Who have you seen in concert? Something the disk jockey said on the radio this morning started me thinking about the concerts I’ve been to. I was surprised that I couldn’t remember them all! It’s not like I’ve seen that many shows, and I certainly wasn’t smoking any dope at them to fog my memory. I wrote down what I could remember and Googled to fill in some blanks. You would not believe the detailed tour information people have cataloged on the Internet! I was shocked to learn that I’ve seen Dokken. Good Lord, shoot me now.

My first show was Al Stewart at the Westport Playhouse in St. Louis. You know, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages.” My second show was Iron Maiden at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. You know, “The Number of the Beast.” Talk about a change of pace! The Iron Maiden show was so loud that my ears rang for three days. I’ll never forget the newspaper review the next morning: “About as subtle as a baseball bat to the forehead. But to these kids, all zonked to the rafters on Clearasil and beer, it was probably poetry.” It was.

The best performance I’ve seen was Eric Clapton on his 1994 blues tour. His guitar work was as skilled as you’d expect, but it was also unexpectedly emotional. The best show I’ve seen is, believe it or not, Ozzy Osbourne. He may have only three functioning brain cells, but he sure knows how to work his audience. It’s hard to call the worst show I’ve seen, but Ringo Starr and Van Halen totally phoned in their performances, and Metallica was badly off their game when I saw them play in the rain in 1994.

I’ve seen Iron Maiden, Rush, and Eric Clapton twice; Metallica and Heart four times. I’ve seen Paul McCartney, my favorite, just once and wish I could have seen him again and again. But last time he toured, tickets were outrageously expensive and I just wouldn’t pay it.

Here’s the list I’ve pieced together, in chronological order. Headliners are listed first. You’ll see that I gravitated toward heavy-metal shows, and then gave up on concerts altogether for nine years while I was busy with my young family.

1986: Al Stewart

1987: Iron Maiden, Waysted | Eric Clapton, The Robert Cray Band | Heart, Mr. Mister

1988: Iron Maiden, Anthrax | Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, Kingdom Come | Metallica, The Cult | Grim Reaper, Armored Saint

1989: Helloween and two bands I forget

1990: Motley Crue, Whitesnake | Paul McCartney | Rush, Mr. Big

1992: Ozzy Osbourne, Slaughter

1993: Heart | Aerosmith, Jackyl

1994: Rush, Primus | Metallica | Ringo Starr | Eric Clapton

1995: Megadeth, Korn, Flotsam and Jetsam, Fear Factory

1997: Metallica

2006: Heart

2007: Heart, Head East

I’m sure I’m still overlooking a band or two. But now tell me who you’ve seen! Leave a comment, or blog about it and link back here.

I got to meet the members of Heart once.
Read that story.

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Stories Told

Rock shows

Who have you seen in concert? Something the disk jockey said on the radio this morning started me thinking about the concerts I’ve been to. I was surprised that I couldn’t remember them all! It’s not like I’ve seen that many shows, and I certainly wasn’t smoking any dope at them to fog my memory. I wrote down what I could remember and Googled to fill in some blanks. You would not believe the detailed tour information people have cataloged on the Internet! I was shocked to learn that I’ve seen Dokken. Good Lord, shoot me now.

Dokken must have had wicked hairspray bills.
Dokken must have had wicked hairspray bills.

My first show was Al Stewart at the Westport Playhouse in St. Louis. You know, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages.” My second show was Iron Maiden at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. You know, “The Number of the Beast.” Talk about a change of pace! The Iron Maiden show was so loud that my ears rang for three days. I’ll never forget the newspaper review the next morning: “About as subtle as a baseball bat to the forehead. But to these kids, all zonked to the rafters on Clearasil and beer, it was probably poetry.” It was.

The best performance I’ve seen was Eric Clapton on his 1994 blues tour. His guitar work was as skilled as you’d expect, but it was also unexpectedly emotional. The best show I’ve seen is, believe it or not, Ozzy Osbourne. He may have only three functioning brain cells, but he sure knows how to work his audience. It’s hard to call the worst show I’ve seen, but Ringo Starr and Van Halen totally phoned in their performances, and Metallica was badly off their game when I saw them play in the rain in 1994.

Here’s the list I’ve pieced together, in chronological order. Headliners are listed first. You’ll see that I gravitated toward heavy-metal shows, and then gave up on concerts altogether for nine years while I was busy with my young family.

1986: Al Stewart

1987: Iron Maiden, Waysted | Eric Clapton, The Robert Cray Band

1988: Heart, Mr. Mister | Iron Maiden, Anthrax | Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, Kingdom Come | Metallica, The Cult | Grim Reaper, Armored Saint

1989: Helloween and two bands I forget

1990: Motley Crue, Whitesnake | Paul McCartney | Rush, Mr. Big

1992: Ozzy Osbourne, Slaughter

1993: Heart | Aerosmith, Jackyl

1994: Rush, Primus | Metallica | Ringo Starr | Eric Clapton

1995: Megadeth, Korn, Flotsam and Jetsam, Fear Factory

1997: Metallica

2006: Heart

2007: Heart, Head East

I’m sure I’m still overlooking a band or two. But now tell me who you’ve seen! Leave a comment, or blog about it and link back here.

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Stories Told

Honoring my inner longhair

When I was a teenager, I kept my hair very short. Mil spec. People sometimes asked if I was in ROTC.

Then in college I developed a used-record habit that Harold, my supplier at Headstone Friends, was happy to support. I skipped haircuts to buy more records. At first, when I’d go home on break Mom would hand me ten bucks and send me to the barber. But soon Mom got wise and so my hair grew out. When it started looking shaggy, people started asking when I was going to cut it. Now, I had come to enjoy my hair, especially how it felt when it brushed against my skin. But the more people suggested it needed to be cut, the more I became determined to let it grow.

Growing out my hair, 1987

When my hair reached my shoulders, the handful of other longhaired men on campus started to acknowledge me. I had discovered the unspoken Longhaired Brotherhood, even though my hair was the shortest of the bunch and I didn’t play electric guitar like they all did. One of the guys invited me to sing with his band. It turned out to be an audition, which I failed because the band’s leader thought my rendition of Iron Maiden’s The Trooper lacked guts. I got over it when, at a party, a lovely young woman couldn’t keep her slender fingers out of my hair. We were an item for two years.

I dressed the longhair part, with faded jeans and black concert T-shirts. I even got my ear pierced. My look brought challenges. Once when I was on the street, some scraggly shirtless guys in a rusty and dented old pickup truck slowed down, called me a faggot, and then sped off. Another day I showed up at a new stylist’s for a trim, her first appointment that day. The stylist wouldn’t unlock the door for me until another stylist arrived. Turns out she was intimidated by my look and didn’t want to be alone with me. She later felt bad, she said, because I turned out to be “such a nice guy.” Then I worked a summer job for the state of Indiana, and our agency was being audited. The auditors had to pass behind me through my narrow office to get to their room. Every day, I heard the two women chattering happily in the hallway as they neared the office. When they entered, they very obviously hushed themselves, passed silently, shut their door, and then (I could hear through the wall) murmured about me. As they squeezed past on their last day, one of them stabbed her hands into my hair at the base of my neck. She exclaimed, “It’s so clean!” I whirled around in surprise, but they moved on without looking at me.

The day I cut my hair off, 1989

As I neared graduation, I was having trouble finding a job, so I cut my hair off. I figured this was the cost of growing up. Years later, when the woman who would become my wife saw my old college photos, she excitedly asked me to grow it out again. Recognizing that one wife in a thousand would be this excited over long hair, I obliged her. In the winters I even grew a beard because she liked how rugged I looked. But by my early 30s, I felt like I looked more like Grizzly Adams than a metal god. And because I had become a family man and had ascended to management in my career, I thought that maybe it was unseemly to have long hair. So I went to the barber and got a flat top. When I came home that night, my two-year-old son came into the living room to greet old Dad – and screamed! It was twenty minutes before he’d let me come near him.

Longish hair, 2007

After my divorce and as I pushed 40, the propriety of my 30s faded. I just wanted to do what made me happy, so I let my hair grow again. If this is my midlife crisis, I’m glad I chose this instead of a sports car or a string of bimbos. As my hair grew out, once again people commented about it. I was surprised that most told me it looked good, and only a few wrinkled their noses. Encouraged, I let it come barely to my shoulders – long enough to feel good and frame my face, short enough for relatively easy care.

While I first grew my hair mostly to thumb my nose at people and I next grew it mostly for my wife, this time I’m doing it purely because I enjoy it. I think that my inner longhair has always wanted to come out, but it’s only as I pass into middle age that I can acknowledge him honestly.

I find greater acceptance today than 20 years ago. It probably helps that my hair’s not quite long enough for me to be in the Brotherhood, that the heavy-metal T-shirts have been replaced with Oxfords and polos, and that many men wear earrings now – in both ears, even. The most backlash I get is the occasional woman who says, “I just couldn’t date a man with long hair.” And that’s fine with me. My ideal mate’s fingers will love spending time in there!

ReadMore Headstone’s is still there, and they still have some records in the back.

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