Most of us are born with a hunger for sound, the sound, that will make our young and ultimately old lives comprehensible and endurable. We spend our early childhoods listening to any stray vibrations that enter our ears, and before we even know what it’s called we are drawn into the enveloping experience of music. This was my childhood, and the childhood of countless millions. The experience is as universal and commonplace as it is personal and miraculous.
From the age of three and up, I was an enthusiastic listener of whatever my parents were into. My father, a self-described liberal hawk in the Cold War era, defined his tastes in opposition to the counterculture of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and for the most part gave rock a skip in favor of classical music, the film scores of Ennio Morricone and the ambient space sounds of late-night public radio. He was also an unrepentant fan of Neil Diamond, the perennially un-hip singer-songwriter whose live shows on cable and beta-max were major events, along with Ohio State football games and new episodes of “Cheers.”
My mom was a bit more with it in her twenty-something years, listening to The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Creedence Clearwater Revival before matriculating into dance pop and power ballads (Madonna, Michael Jackson, Billy Ocean, Phil Collins, et al.) of eighties FM radio stations with names like Klassy 100 and Kiss 96.7. Like most people my parents favored consonance and simple melodicism above all else, and this was definitely not a punk or heavy metal household.
For years, I devoured most of my parents’ music. I loved the “The Good, Bad and the Ugly” and “The Empire Strikes Back” soundtracks and most of the pop my mom exposed me to. I had a preternatural distaste for Neil Diamond, and refusing to watch the specials when I was old enough to protest was perhaps my first rebellion against parental taste.
But I was by no means discerning. As with nearly all children, anything that sounded bright, enthusiastic and had a propulsive beat was manna to me. Something as simple and catchy as the “Fraggle Rock” theme song or Limahl’s “Neverending Story” would fill me with almost maniacal glee.
When I was a little older I spent a lot of time in my mom’s car going to and from school and later daycare, and was exposed to an all-you-can-eat buffet of Top 40 pop music, the sort of pleasing soft rock sounds that would quickly decline into the schmaltz of adult contemporary. It was in this automotive crucible of my mom’s Nissan that something like taste began to emerge, a preference for moodier sounds (Madonna’s “Live to Tell” was a favorite) and romantic longing or regret (Human League’s “Human”). For years, I happily pillaged my mom’s cassettes for hit songs, which I would geekily dub into my own mix tapes that essentially replicated the programming patterns on the radio.
I stayed up late on weekends to watch Night Tracks on WTBS, where videos provided a layer of visual information that rendered music cinematic. I was absolutely obsessed with the dreamy dust bowl landscapes of Jefferson Starship’s “Sarah”, the stop-motion eccentricities of the Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, and the vague intonations of abuse in Suzanne Vega’s “My Name is Luka”. Snippets of R-rated movies like “Against All Odds” in the video for Phil Collins’ song of the same name or “At Close Range” in the video for Madonna’s “Live to Tell” provided a window into the world of adult emotion, or at least my foggy idea of it, a foreign place of tears, passion and brutality.
In a way, these videos were the gate-fold album covers of my early music consumption, providing a dramatic visual context for the experience of the song. Far from reducing the music to fashion and sex appeal, these early music videos introduced me to the idea that an album is something more than just music and could be a complete multimedia experience.
The album, with its artwork, liner notes and suite of marketing materials, is a uniquely twentieth-century mass-produced entertainment product, or more charitably, mode of artistic expression. To my prepubescent mind, the synthesis of audio and visual over airwaves was as natural as a piano in a salon in the nineteenth century or an elaborate set in an Italian opera in the eighteenth. All media seemed intertwined and geared toward the goal of total sensory overload, and I loved every minute of it.
The cynicism of the programmers and marketers existed to me in the same alien adult world “Live to Tell” was set in, something vaguely seen in the background, part of the general ambiance of cultural outrage one cannot miss growing up in the States, but basically irrelevant.
Divorcing the Parents
Puberty signals the cataclysmic break between generations, the fraught moment when many a child’s brain goes from developing a theory of mind (“the other apes have thoughts and feelings”) to rejecting it (“fuck the other apes”). For many newly minted teenagers, especially those in troubled homes, the collision of one’s sudden need for self-actualization with the seemingly arbitrary and hypocritical rules of adult society sets off an emotional tremor that cracks their internal landscape, forever separating the continental plates of childhood and not-quite-adulthood. From this rift the raw material of the individual spews forth.
The forging of this self-identity requires defining oneself against all else, especially parents and authority figures. The hunger for music that was once a largely innocent, foot-tapping enterprise for the non-Mozarts among us often becomes the weapon of choice in the war against all. This is especially true when one’s parents’ marriage is collapsing in a black hole of passive-aggressive arguments and secretive gestures, and without boring you with the details, this was precisely the context of my own early adolescence.
Rap music was the opening fissure, the first crack in aesthetic unity with my parents, and one that started rumbling under the surface before I hit adolescence. Unlike everything else I listened to at the time, I was introduced to rap by a peer, a kid who lived in my apartment complex named Doug. His older brother had a sideline in the lucrative hand-me down mix tape racket, and exposed us to Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, 3rd Bass and other late-eighties NYC rap acts.
I had heard some of it before. In a time when even war toy infotainments like “GI Joe” and “Transformers” had characters spitting rhymes, it was hard to miss. But Doug was the first person I knew who was obsessed with it. Perhaps because of the perceived threat that Blacks and Jews talking explicitly about life in the boroughs might have posed to his White Protestant parents, or more likely because rap was the most novel and innovative form of pop music in the 1980s, having evolved all by itself DIY in the ruins of the coked-up disco and funk age that rocked NYC in the seventies and had nothing to do with our parents’ lives.
The music was rough, bombastic, stripped down and dirty sounding, a solid pummeling back beat, minimalist bass, repetitive samples, squealing turntable scratching, and an MC unloading seemingly impossible rhymes into a mic. It threw out the melody of pop music, and replaced it with brutally simple rhythms and vocal acrobatics, an all out assault on conventional notions of musicality that immediately alienated parents everywhere. There was also a lot of grubby adolescent humor, especially with the Beastie Boys, that was immediately appealing to me and Doug, the audio equivalent of finding a stash of Penthouse magazines under a mattress.
It’s worth noting at this point that my parents—whatever their faults—have always been exceedingly tolerant and open-minded about my preferences in music and art, a fact that always made music-based rebellion frustratingly ineffective. But rap furnished a few productive opportunities. The first time I got in trouble because of music was when my mom discovered a rap lyric Doug had written, or cribbed, on a yellow pad, something like: “I got a bitch in my bed, and she gives good head.” My mom thought I wrote it and was outraged. Once she discovered Doug had actually written it I was forbidden from hanging out with him for two weeks, an effective punishment because Doug was the only kid in the complex who owned a Nintendo.
The second time rap got me in trouble was years later in seventh grade, when I had somehow convinced my mom to buy 2 Live Crew’s lightning rod of a provocation, “As Nasty as They Want to Be”, an album I had learned about from one of the countless TV tabloid shows on the air at the time. My nominal reason for acquiring this middle school contraband was to write a paper about obscenity and the First Amendment for my homeroom class. The de facto position of my family was that freedom of speech was essential to creative culture.
I had concocted a very upstanding and enlightened argument for owning the cassette held up by a Florida judge as the most vile, repugnant album in the country. But my real intent was to dub and distribute the tape to my fellow middle school students, and give them little peaks of the row of g-stringed asses that constituted its cover. Unfortunately, in a development not foreign to the world of rap music, someone snitched, and I was ordered by a teacher to hand over the cassette. This same teacher was an alleged fondler (you never wanted to get cornered when his class let out), but seizing the cassette was a fair cop and I found myself once more in my mom’s doghouse.
While not exactly an act of rebellion, I also latched onto any and all song parodies I could get a hold of, especially anything released by “Weird Al” Yankovik. Weird Al offered up the pop sounds of the day with stupid-clever lyrical substitutions designed to appeal directly to a Mad Magazine reading kid’s sense of irreverent fun. As dependably dumb as his jokes and wordplay are in hindsight, many Weird Al cuts have actually aged far better than what he was parodying. His albums “Dare to Be Stupid” (1985) and “Even Worse” (1988) offer up alternative versions of hit songs of that era that have, in my mind, essentially rendered the originals redundant. Who needs “Bad” when we have a perfectly good “Fat”?
Of course I spent a lot of time writing my own song parodies, and to this day I can’t help but sing crassly juvenile lyrics over songs I dislike. One particularly bad early effort at parody was a painfully earnest PSA called “Drugbusters” (you can guess the tune) penned by me and my occult-obsessed friend Brian at First Christian Daycare in Year of Our Lord 1987. That crime against lyricism earned us some serious brownie points with the pathologically well-meaning staff.
As loathe as I am to admit it, most kids did not develop an interest in popular music in the eighties and early nineties without watching copious amounts of MTV. A big part of my development as a music fan and adolescent generally was my immersion in MTV from 5th to 8th grade. Before one rejects MTV, one succumbs to it.
As I wrote earlier, music videos were to my generation an intuitive and natural extension of music, and when it came to music videos MTV was the beating heart of the art form. It was also the vortex all other iterations of mainstream youth culture encircled, the commercial event horizon where everything teens were interested in—pop music, snack foods, soda, celebrities, event movies, entertainment news, and of course sex—went over the edge.
The latchkey kid who started with the relatively subtle commercialism of Nickelodeon graduated to MTV after their first period or mysterious midnight erection. MTV had by this point already abandoned the pretense that music was central to its programming, and added a healthy dollop of overheated sexuality to sell its products, which included music but just about everything else a teenage consumer might want to buy or jerk/flick off to.
At some point between sixth and seventh grade I stopped watching “DuckTales” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and started watching MC Hammer, Paula Abdul, Guns-n-Roses and ever-ubiquitous U2 videos. I was also a huge fan of “The Little Mermaid” soundtrack, but generally didn’t publicize it. Late-night hair metal and pop rap (“Rico Suave” anyone?) videos introduced almost softcore porn levels of un-erotic sexual fantasy into catchy and completely forgettable songs, while the likes of post-Joshua Tree U2 crooned melodramatically about whatever inspiring political notion Bono was into that week.
Videos were approaching their bloated, decadent phase that would peak with such epic audio-visual abortions as Guns-n-Roses’ overblown “Use Your Illusion” cycle, Michael Jackson and Madonna’s various comebacks, and Meatloaf’s bellowing around a foggy Gothic set that would embarrass Andrew Lloyd Webber. One video of the era that I felt compelled to watch was Warrant’s “Sweet Cherry Pie” for reasons no one should have to explain (hint: it wasn’t the music).
I had some exposure to hair metal and L.A. sleaze, but it seemed about as bloated and dumb to me, even as a kid, as WWF wrestling, a lot of fright wigs, squealing guitars and spandexed club girls. The whole enterprise seemed caked on, burned out and washed up a few scant years after it had started.
I watched all this, looking for something and finding little. The occasional rap video would grab my attention. And occasionally I would feel slightly affected by a U2 song, a few of which I’m now slightly nostalgic of—attributable, I think, to my older cousin Jason blasting “The Joshua Tree” and “The Unforgettable Fire” nonstop as he drove me around in his first jalopy.
But music videos seemed, in my emerging adolescence, to be primarily about the video with little to do actual music, a shiny advertisement and demo reel for future feature length filmmakers. This was also true when I was younger, but something had changed in me and it no longer felt natural. Maybe it was because I had started reading my mom’s annual Roger Ebert books where the critic would often complain about how movies had come to resemble music videos, to their detriment.
I wasn’t old or savvy enough yet to see MTV as the crass marketing behemoth it was, but that emotional empty calorie feeling you get when you realize that what you’re seeing is an elaborate commercial for an uninspiring product (similar to a bad Super Bowl ad) was there. It was not the enjoyment of music that kept me watching, but rather a sense of duty to pop cultural literacy and a means of peer bonding.
Before I continue talking about music, it’s important to digress a bit for the purposes of context.
Early adolescence is a weird time for anyone. Sexuality imposes itself with the brutal immediacy of a Cold War-era military dictatorship. The whole world seems to open up as the walls of family are lowered, leaving one feeling very exposed at what seems like the worst possible time. When the average dorky male (full disclosure: I wore a Space Camp flight suit to school in the 6th grade) hits puberty, he mutates into the most grotesquely awkward mammal imaginable, even without the prosaic nuisances of zits, cracking voice, and wildly uneven facial hair.
Limbs lengthen and seem to flail around on their own accord, social interaction becomes an anxiety-ridden affair that drives you to either manically overcompensate or withdraw into the safe confines of the self, an over-enthusiastic geek or a creepy loner. And everything that was weird, slobbery and off-putting about you when you were a kid now seem caricatured and amplified. Perhaps the worst part is that it is precisely the moment you realize that you want the acceptance and companionship of girls that girls decide they want nothing to do with you.
Then there’s the wider world. The U.S. political scene of the early nineties revolved around the presidency of George H.W. Bush and the post-Reagan-era Cold War triumphalism that didn’t fully dissipate until well into the Clinton years. My friends and I shared the general naive pacifism that permeated much of the post-Vietnam culture, but the rhetoric of war was also quite exciting. So sixteen years after the Fall of Saigon, Gulf War I was quite the event.
Me and a cadre of the most out-there nerds once spent a whole lunch hour contemplating a war that in our still-imaginative young minds could be an epic tragedy on par with Vietnam, a conflict that still largely defined the way the country viewed war and the armed forces. Cable news played up Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities during the weeks of build-up.
In the end of course, driving Hussein’s forces from Kuwait was relatively easy, and the worst immediate impact of the war from the US perspective was the ecological catastrophe of the Kuwaiti oil fields burning. But it stands out as the moment, along with Bush’s ouster of our once willing puppet Manuel Noriega in Panama, when I realized that there really was a wider world out there, and for better or worse my country was very much involved with it.
The next big news event had a much bigger impact on how I thought about this very real adult world now fully visible to me: the Rodney King beating, the non-trial of the LAPD officers responsible, and the Los Angeles Riots.
Elementary school had drilled the idea into my head that the Civil Rights movement had been a smashing success and that, while bigotry was still an unfortunate blemish on the country, the big fight had basically been won by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the criminality of the Jim Crow system was now universally understood to be unqualified evil. You heard about things like poverty, AIDS and crack cocaine arrests in poor black neighborhoods, but without being taught about economic inequality or structural racism, a white kid isn’t going to really understand how all that wraps up. The events in L.A. revealed that the feelgood story about the civil rights movement vanquishing racism was basically untrue, and worse, an out-and-out lie.
Rocky, the most politicized kid I knew at the time (he would actually wear a Malcolm X “By Any Means Necessary” t-shirt to school), gave me his perspective on the beating, subsequent riots and how white police officers treated the black community through a first-hand account of the racism he had encountered for much of his life. His perspective contrasted with the reactionary narrative that was also forming around the schoolyard story, courtesy the parents of my white peers, the one about “black responsibility” that tried to cravenly blame Rodney King for the brutal misconduct of the cops.
Rodney King was just another “out of control” black guy who didn’t register as a human being to the cops who beat him, and the courts upheld the LAPD’s assessment. The riots, of course, were ugly, with attacks on Korean and other Asian businesses, and the severe beatings of Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez carried out by angry crowds. Helicopter footage made it look like Los Angeles was being burned to the ground, though it was mostly contained in the sprawling poor and lower-middle-class neighborhoods that housed minorities and immigrants.
Though I only half-understood it at the time, the beating and the riots radically altered my entire perspective on the United States and the larger world. I lived in Las Vegas, which had its own smaller riots on the far side of the valley in North Las Vegas, and knew kids who had bused in who were directly impacted by it. The real world out there was actually uglier than the images I glimpsed in music videos, more complicated, more messy. Suddenly in eighth grade, in my mind, the country had problems, big problems, and the idealized vision fostered in my liberal Cosby-watching household seemed illusory.
This realization came to me in the throes of puberty and all-new adolescent social anxiety that would later curdle into depression, in the wake of my parents’ separation in the melancholy summer between seventh and eight grade. A great self-destructive anger began to well up inside of me, an acknowledgement that much of my life had been framed in mythology, lies and entertainment culture. My family structure was hollow, and so were America’s social institutions, like police departments, the courts, and public schools.
This, of course, was a very simplistic view, but when you’re a sexually frustrated kid living in a dumpy apartment because your dad kept the house, the world can seem pretty black and white. And the way I constructively processed all this angst and anger, when I wasn’t actually stealing, fighting, ditching school or destroying property, was through music. It’s something of a cliche to hold up the positive life-changing influence of music, but without it I would have likely lost control of my aggression and landed in jail once I grew tired of petty crime, pot smoking and squabbling with other teenagers. I really believe that. And I believe that’s true for a lot of kids.
In sixth and seventh grade, rap was still the rebellion music par excellence. My friend Curtis introduced me to the Houston gangster rap legends Geto Boys, who despite their complete disregard of basic standards of decency were one of the most purely entertaining music entities I’ve ever encountered.
A lanky black kid from H-Town, Curtis lived down the street from my parents’ house during my short-term residency in single-family suburban Vegas. Despite being the son of a vice cop, he was my partner in crime when it came to teaming up to beat Nintendo and Genesis games, stealing Penthouse magazines from the local bookstore, and domineering (low-intensity bullying really) the other kids in our tract throughout sixth and seventh grades.
Curtis was keyed into the late-night BET video rotation, and hooked me on a whole lot of music I never would of heard if left to my own devices. One item he introduced me to was straight outta NWA Ice Cube’s “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted,” an album that served as a foreshock to the 1992 earthquake that was the LA Riots, a litany of the Black community’s most pressing grievances married to west coast gangster romanticism, set to some of the funkiest, danciest tracks produced by the Bomb Squad. Of course, his songs were also thick with the clouds of toxic sexism that permeated virtually all the commercial rap I listened at the time. This was long before I encountered the more progressive hipster-bohemian strains of Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde.
Meanwhile, Rocky introduced me to the incredibly smoothed-out Bay Area sounds of Too $hort (cartoonishly pimping and preening) and the brutally rapid-fire, on-point Ice T, whose topically wide-ranging yet aggressively targeted “Original Gangster” remains one of my all-time favorite rap (and rock if you include the song “Body Count”) albums. Rap music was certainly fun and hard to avoid, but it started to feel very limited, too tied to the rules that seemed so fresh when they were first established. I wanted more.
Around this time, parental supervision and bedtimes were a little looser due to the deterioration of my family structure, and I began to explore some of MTV’s later music video programs, especially 120 Minutes, where I was exposed to guitar-oriented rock music that wasn’t hair metal, leftover new wave, or pop rock, music that was often bathed in loud guitar distortion that seemed oddly disinterested in sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, though these were assuredly a part of it. The videos seemed more abstract and less grossly, or glossily, commercial. My overall memory of it is as hazy as the shoegaze riffs that somehow found their gauzy way into rotation.
The other show I started to notice was Headbanger’s Ball, which managed to fit in the occasional thrash or early death metal video in otherwise hair metal and New Wave of British Heavy Metal dominated sets.
In truth, I had no idea what to make of it all. The thrash and death metal musicians looked scuzzier than the average rock or pop artist, more blue collar and rust belt than anyone I had ever seen with an actual record deal. From the perspective of a kid it actually seemed very much embedded in the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll tradition, more so than most of what passed for commercial rock music at the time, and almost paradoxically more reality-based than what the adults were listening to.
Faith No More’s “The Real Thing” was the first metal album that caught my attention. Initially the music wasn’t that much of a pull; it was the music videos MTV put into heavy, unmissable rotation. The video for “Epic” is justifiably famous, with the rain and lightening bearing down on the band while Mike Patton rap-sings over Jim Martin’s thunderously, and appropriately epic, riff, and of course the melancholic fish flopping piano finale.
I was actually more entertained by the spastic, crazed and laugh-out-loud video for “Falling to Pieces,” with its disembodied hands, explosions, gaudy colors and clown costumes. Having recently discovered the pleasures of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Falling to Pieces” seemed of a piece with the British comedy troupe’s anarchic sensibility, snottily gauche and outrageously smart at the same time, hinting at the band’s self-deprecatingly snide intelligence. And the riffs stuck, the first metal hooks I had heard that I genuinely liked.
“Epic” in particular had an almost film score grandeur, a bigger-than-life bombast (courtesy the centerpiece riff backed by Roddy Bottom’s keyboards) and the band had the gumption to let the huge riff they had concocted fade into a quietly delicate, and highly memorable, finale.
Faith No More, of course, was never a pure metal band, never wanted to be one, and always carried the faint whiff of geeky band kids on the make. And it was precisely the non-metal character of the band, the rejection of the metal scene’s uniform leather-and-denim aesthetic for something more eccentric and idiosyncratic, that made Faith No More the ideal gateway into heavier music.
There is one cliche that is basically true: there are certain pivotal moments in one’s life that seem trivial when you first experience them, but take on a kind of momentous, life-altering weight when you look back on them.
Middle school for me was one such period, a time when the larger world came into focus, when a hypercritical mindset I would never lose began to take shape, when adolescence was waving around a big stick of “fuck you” in every direction, when my parents’ marriage finally rolled like a decommissioned bus into its terminus point, and when I started to tentatively wade into the subculture-dominated late night murk of MTV. The direction of my adolescence, and even my adult life, took shape then in a muddle of intellectual confusion and emotional malaise, my emerging teenagerdom. And it was at this time I met James Meehan.
Given its origins in the oral storytelling traditions of folk and blues music, it is not surprising that most popular music fandom is transferred from person to person, group to group. Like the blues men of old, one music-obsessed adolescent is a social disease vector, spreading the pandemic of music fandom to anyone close enough to catch it. Or if you prefer a more ennobling metaphor, the adolescent music fan is like an early church proselytizer spreading the good word, promising redemption and a straight shot at paradise to all who will listen (to the right music).
James Meehan was my proselytizer, and we would spend our adolescence and much of our early adult lives pushing each other in new musical directions.
At the start of seventh grade, I had made a halfhearted attempt to court favor with the so-called preps, an elite corps of fashionable kids who wore baggy Stussy and Z. Cavaricci clothes and used copious hairspray to freeze-dry their hair into stiff pompadours and waves. Many listened to commercial rap (MC Hammer, Tone Loc, Vanilla Ice, etc.), but a few of the more discerning ones were into darker, gloomier pop sounds. The Cure and Depeche Mode were reliable favorites.
I spent a few months in the prep ranks (they were HQ’d in the cafeteria), prepping the look and trying my best to signal interest in the girls who subtly drove the whole thing, but my heart was never in it. I was too weird, too creative, too awkward to really advance in the rigid prep hierarchy. In retrospect, this was probably my last failed bid at normalcy before fully embracing to an exaggerated degree my outsider status.
The nerds, geeks and band kids who hung out by the portables had what I really wanted in life: comic books, trading cards, figurines, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons source books, and anything else that looked cool and could be sold or traded. An unregulated market economy sprang up among the portable nerds, and even preps, sneaking out of the cafeteria in embarrassment, would come out to purchase and trade incredibly lucrative Marvel cards and other contraband, such as Dark Horse comics, chewing gum and black market pencils.
This was before “geek culture,” aided by the rise of the Web and newly minted Internet billionaires, became a dominate pop cultural force in the U.S. Back then it was where smart, imaginative and bookish middle school kids involuntarily ended up when their peers rejected them, and a kind of youth incubator for high school subcultures and academic clubs. Most of my neighborhood friends resided in this world, and a group of us quickly formed and established a small trade empire, a kind of Hanseatic League for social outcasts. We took to hanging out behind the band portable, where we could engage in what we imagined were illicit trade activities in privacy.
The core member of our group was Sean, an unapologetic geek with an incredibly sharp mind who was raised mostly by his grandparents and collected baseball cards, Tandy games and comics with a methodically obsessive zeal he would later apply to movies and books. Then there was Kurt, a kid who had transferred into seventh grade from private school, and lived in one of the sprawling ranch houses that characterized the Vegas outskirts before the wholesale arrival of master-planned communities. Kurt was a war game and Dungeons & Dragons guy who shared my fascination with the ancient world and what we thought of as heroic ideals. There was a also a range of more peripheral figures from Sean’s neighborhood, like Geoff and Roger, whose alliances endlessly shifted based on who had the coolest toys.
Just before the summer of my parents’ divorce, a new kid began to appear behind the band portable, a shy but bitingly sarcastic San Antonio Spurs fan from Texas with bright red hair who was absolutely obsessed with music. He lived in a neighborhood next to mine, where most of my middle-school crew resided, and was quickly accepted into our ranks. All you had to do was show up really. In our first conversation, we immediately bonded over 120 Minutes, Faith No More and the recently released Super Nintendo.
Jim was the first kid I met who owned a CD player and an actual receiver. On my first visit to his house in the fall of 1991, I laid my hands on compact discs for the first time, gleaming like mithril in their jewel cases. The compact disc format itself was incredible to me (no moving parts! smaller than records!), looking very much like science fiction technology. The infernal CD bugaboos of scratches and song-destroying skips still lay beyond the veil of ignorance when I first grasped these objects in my hands.
The true beginning of my musical obsession can be traced back to the stack of CDs he owned: Faith No More’s “The Real Thing” and “Introduce Yourself”, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magic,” and “Mother’s Milk”, Jane’s Addiction’s “Ritual de lo habitual”, Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger”, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and “Bleach”, Scatterbrain’s “Scamboogery”, and, most improbably, Mr. Bungle’s self-titled debut.
Some of these albums have aged far better than others, and some have entered the storied halls of overrated pop classics, but this was by and large an incredible horde of guitar-oriented rock music for a couple of kids who had only skimmed the surface of alt-rock and alt-metal bands on MTV. Jim also had a shoe box of hand-me-down cassettes from his stepfather Jose, including several Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Rainbow and Rush albums–but the brand new CD’s distracted us, and the tapes were left largely unexplored until high school.
Mr. Bungle was far and away the most unhinged and out there item in the collection, a spastic mind-melting pastiche (“Naked City” era John Zorn by way of Zappa-esque funk metal) with enough obnoxious juvenile humor to keep a couple of kids on a sugar high amused for months on end.
“Mr. Bungle” is an ideal formative album because it presents so many wild ideas, so many genre leaps, such phenomenal musicianship that it leaves the young listener hungry for alien, complex and downright entertaining sounds, ricocheting through genres they never knew existed before their tastes have become ossified and resistant to the new. It’s an album that pries open minds. And like Mr. Bungle’s cousin band, Faith No More, it packs in a lot of knowing, smirking humor that practically congratulates the too-smart-for-their-own-good teenager for listening. If you start with this album, your music tastes could end up anywhere.
Most of the other albums don’t require much in the way of introduction. Nirvana and Soundgarden are legends to an extent that it’s hard now to consider them in their pre-mythic, pre-grunge-appellation purity. In our minds, the sound—especially Soundgarden’s—was pretty much just heavy metal. We had not heard the post-hardcore of the Pixies or Husker Du, and were not yet aware of sludge acts like Melvins and Earth. What we heard were simple, heavily distorted riffs and raw, moody vocals, and their hooky, kick-ass brand of doom, gloom and, in the case of Nirvana, resignation sounded glorious after years of rap and hair metal. Soundgarden’s riffs called back to the heavy metal of the seventies, but without the hyper-sexual ooze of acts like Aerosmith that had somehow survived the eighties with their seventies sensibilities in tact.
In retrospect, I think the grunge revolution has been wildly oversold, and that widening the context to include its influences makes it appear more like a distillation of older, more underground sounds than something new. But I also understand why people of a certain age have enthroned it as generation defining: it briefly threw the doors open on the narrow programming of prime time MTV and top 40 radio, and to young, inexperienced ears it was like a lightning bolt out of the blue, a welcome intrusion of unpretentious rock music, and a cultural pallet cleanser after years of cock rock dominance in the charts.
Jane’s Addiction and Scatterbrain have changed places for me. At the time, I absolutely adored Scatterbrain’s silly brand of comedy thrash and couldn’t care less about Jane’s Addiction—the gonzo video for “Been Caught Stealing” was both a minor amusement and irritation on MTV. But over the years, Scatterbrain’s appeal, an aggressive need to project intelligence and mirth (a kind of overly self-conscious metal version of They Might Be Giants), was completely lost to me, while the jagged meatiness of Jane’s Addiction’s riffs and their overall songwriting came to earn my respectful admiration, if not exactly adoration, after years of exposure to seventies rock.
I’d like to take a moment to extend some charitable words for Red Hot Chili Peppers, who almost in spite of themselves, managed to churn out an occasionally amusing, rhythmically spastic funk rock song that could hold my attention. “Mother’s Milk” and “Blood Sugar Sex Magic” certainly had their inspired moments. But even in their younger, hungrier, more volatile phase, RHCP always struck me as an L.A. band that had sucked up everything I didn’t like about L.A. They were hard-working, energized and had an undeniable swagger, not to mention a certain early-nineties Venice Beach scuzziness, but once you stripped away the beach trailer gaudiness and Flea’s slap bass, they were a bit bland, if not yet the jokey self-parody they’d later become.
Around this time, I encountered another kid who had a significant influence on my tastes, a Thrasher-reading skater from California named Eric, a kid who once got thrown out of an art class for sculpting a life-like penis, and probably the only person in eighth grade who was more of a fuck-up than me when it came to acting out.
Eric would over the span of a few years introduce me and a whole lot of other kids to the political punk rock of Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion and NOFX, and more importantly for me at the time, crossover thrash bands like Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, Stormtroopers of Death and MDC, outfits that were blindingly fast, stupidly aggressive, and obnoxiously punk in their rejection of conventional metal musicianship in favor of raw power and authority figure-flouting lyrics. They were just about the perfect soundtrack for the angry, angsty adolescent male to scream, chaotically flail around and punch holes in drywall to. Eric had a boombox and a stack of cassettes he would blast while doing ollies over shopping carts in the back of a Albertson’s. While nothing truly life-changing came out of my ultimately short friendship with Eric, he managed to nudge me and Jim in a more aggressive direction.
The Full Hesher
There was an incident early in the eighth grade that I have since built up and mythologized as the moment I gave up on mainstream rock music. One day I was wearing a Nirvana t-shirt I had recently purchased, the one with the phrase “Fudge packing, Crack Smoking, Satan Worshiping Motherfucker” on the back, obscured from school authorities with suddenly fashionable flannel. By this time, heavy daytime rotation of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV had done its job, and a band I felt intimately connected to was now intimately connected with millions of people.
As I exited a morning class I was brought short by a fashionably appointed girl from prep circles, who looked at me disdainfully and then pointedly told me, “Nirvana? You’re not cool enough to wear that shirt.” I don’t remember who the girl was or what my immediate reaction was to such a load of bullshit, but five years later I’d still get worked up just thinking about it. I came to identify this moment as my big break from MTV, commercial radio and pop music.
In reality, of course, an incident like this isn’t so traumatic as to change the entire trajectory of one’s musical tastes and I’ve made something of an apocryphal story out of it, but it did help solidify a line between “mainstream” and “underground” culture that I held well into my adult years. Underground music was for real music fans whereas mainstream rock and pop music was primarily a fashion show and marketing scam. Fair or not, this informed my view of popular music for several years.
Ironically, it was an MTV show that really sent me down this path: Headbangers Ball. Jim and I started making a concerted effort in the summer of ’91 to stay up and watch it despite the fact that they were still pushing power ballads and what was left of hair metal. This was the summer when Metallica released their first “Black album” video, “Enter Sandman.” As much as I’d like to lie to shore up my metal cred, this was my first Metallica album.
I would discover their old thrash records in the following year, but to my virgin ears, the “Black album” was a complete juggernaut, though one I tended to make fun of due to Hatfield’s overly theatrical, almost country-inflected vocal performance. Has any rock singer ever made “heh! so central to their vocal style? Nevertheless, the not-all-that-great-in-retrospect “Vagabond” was probably the first full-on metal song I completely adored, mainly because it was my first run in with the genre’s tendency toward the hard-driving epic. It felt like a road trip before I was old enough to drive.
I think Jim, who had heard “Ride the Lightning” courtesy Jose, was considerably less impressed. But there were other albums we encountered in our 1991-92 Headbangers Ball sessions: Corrosion of Conformity’s unusually polished “Blind,” Slayer’s surprisingly atmospheric but still incredibly fast “Seasons of the Abyss,” Judas Priest’s razor-sharp “Painkiller,” In Living Color’s smart and melodic “Vivid,” Alice in Chain’s groovy and caustic”Facelift” and Motorhead’s characteristically direct “1916.”
Pearl Jam’s “Ten” also somehow found its way into rotation on Headbangers Ball, and became something of a sleeper hit with me despite its relatively light, plaintive, and decidedly un-metal approach to songwriting. Though I would cynically mock it in later years, the video for “Jeremy” was actually pretty shocking the first time I saw it, surprising in a way that’s now hard to imagine in a country where school shootings ending in suicide are now almost commonplace.
Not all of these bands clicked at first, but with the exception of Pearl Jam, they felt new and dangerous: heavy, ugly and almost deliriously pessimistic. They reflected my emerging sense that the world was a cruel, unjust place where life was anything but fair, and despite their theatrical excesses they seemed more grounded in reality than the artists behind the ballads, dance hits and silly pop rap confections audible across the radio band.
The metal bands were also less dreary, earnest, and dare I say “self-serious” than the post-Nirvana grunge rock that was beginning to permeate the rest of the culture—this was just before the plethora of silly pop punk bands arrived on the scene with a somewhat jokier frat row take on rock.
An Informal Trilogy of Targeted Aggression
Metal may have scratched a new itch, but it was an informal trilogy of “extreme” metal albums that really hooked me: Pantera’s “Vulgar Display of Power”, Sepultura’s “Arise”, and Entombed’s “Clandestine”.
The first two were acquired on my maiden trip with Jim to an actual record store, Sam Goody in the Meadows Mall, then the go-to indoor mall on Vegas’s west side. Sam Goody was far from anyone’s Platonic ideal of a record store at this late stage in its history, a generic cookie cutter chain strewn across malls and shopping centers throughout the U.S. But being suddenly surrounded by thousands of CDs, sorted into genre and worked over by heavily pierced and goateed twenty-somethings, was overwhelming and a little intimidating to me, like stumbling into a Toys-R-Us for the first time when you’re seven years old.
Compact discs were still packaged in large cardboard boxes, stressing the relative largeness of CDs compared to cassette tapes and showcasing eye-catching art design, an aspect of music marketing that had diminished since the decline of the LP age. We wandered the rows, looking for bands we had seen on Headbangers Ball or read about in magazines (Metal Maniacs or Rip) at the grocery store. Jim purchased the two albums with allowance money after we thumbed through their back catalogs.
The artwork on these albums represented two major themes of nineties metal: brutality and horror. The cover image of “Vulgar Display of Power” was simply a fist punching a head in black and white, a stupidly literal yet cathartic visualization of the album’s title and musical content. “Arise” featured Pre-Columbian ruins rising out of a tar-black sea overgrown with a mass of fleshy ichor, disembodied eyeballs and what looked like an irate king crab with a brain stem discharging what I presume to be lost souls in a plume of rising smoke.
Musically and lyrically, Pantera was all testosterone-pumping white trash Texan anger wound up into tight, groovy little numbers that didn’t so much ebb and flow as explode with machine-like guitar and snarling vocals. Septultura’s approach was more thoughtful and drawn out, with extended atmospheric intros that created a sense of mounting dread before giving way to incredibly speedy thrash and doomy mid-tempo riffs that suggested in my mind the end of the world. Societal and ecological collapse were major concerns of the Brazilian band at that time (they would later explore human rights, economic justice and indigenous issues), and you could hear it in every bleak chord progression and forlorn growl.
With Sweden’s Entombed, I discovered another aspect of metal: its penchant for wildly entertaining songs. Entombed were officially a death metal band at the time, but their material offered ridiculously catchy rock-n-roll songwriting, bluesy guitar solos, actual melodic interplay between instruments, and silly b-movie and Lovecraftian horror-inspired lyrics that invited the listener to laugh along.
I’d learn many years later that a major underpinning of the Stockholm sound, as it was called, was the d-beat punk rhythm imported from the UK, a simple, fast and propulsive beat that a band could groove around on for hours. Unlike the other two albums, “Clandestine” didn’t pound me over the head the first time I heard it, but it reminded me that bands could still be heavy and retain a sense of fun and musicality, which in later years became more important to me than any face-punching tough guy antics.
My thoughts on these albums have changed significantly over the years, but I can still remember how I felt when I first encountered them, like hearing a volcano erupting under a glacier and inundating everything in its flow path with a torrent of destruction. Hard driving drums, crushing heaviness, tempo changes that seemed simultaneously chaotic and laser precise, and unusually groovy riffs made these albums feel like pure distilled energy. “Feel” is the key word here. I didn’t listen to their songs so much as channel them through my whole body. This was “turn it up to 11” music.
As my feelings of alienation and anger grew more pervasive, this sound did two seemingly contradictory things for me at once. First, it reminded me that other people felt the same way about the world, that I wasn’t alone trapped in a solitary experience, and there was a general awareness in certain segments of the global population that things were far from perfect, incredibly fucked up in fact.
And second, it was a loud and ferocious enough to temporarily shut out the rest of the world, preventing me from wallowing too deeply in my raging and maudlin moods. It was like being hooked into a battery and if I needed to recharge I could plug right in, like taking a shot of endorphins directly into the pleasure centers of my brain. And the more “kick-ass” and exciting the riffs, especially those that surprised me by seeming to come out of nowhere, the more pleasurable the experience.
Metal tends to sound rigid because the bands emphasize control and mastery, working to draw recognizable melodies out of raw guitar feedback, a discipline that isn’t fully appreciated by fans of less high-powered music. Metal may be noisy, but it’s generally tightly structured with vast variations in tempo and time that always feels like it’s either building up or releasing energy. It also rewards the active listener with subtle interplay between instruments not entirely unlike jazz: a unique drum fill, a one-off bass solo, a subtle addition of an off-time snare drum, all in the context of incredibly varied song structures.
Of course, I wasn’t much of a close listener in those days. What I really liked about it then was that the pounding, emphatic drums and oatmeal-thick guitar made it sound all-encompassing and impossible to ignore or place in the background in the way you could with mainstream pop music. You could either resist or succumb, but you couldn’t shut it out. This aspect, as I would discover later, was not in anyway exclusive to heavy rock music like metal or punk. There are other ways to be loud, and command the listener’s attention.
I also loved the fullness of sound and the absence of silence, which felt vital to me in a way that nothing could match, and would arguably become the overarching aesthetic in much of my music taste. Whether shoegaze or symphonic music, ambient soundscapes or jazz, that sensation of sinking into a sea of aural waves and deep rhythmic undercurrents has always made me feel exceedingly alive.
Even when I listen to quieter music like folk or minimalist jazz, I tend to think of what I’m hearing as an absence of sound, a subtraction of noise and volume. It the end this sensation may just be a mundane interaction of sound waves and brain chemistry, but it’s what keeps me coming back to music. And it all began with metal.
Metal itself began as the hopes and dreams of the 1960s died on the shores of 1970. The first official heavy metal band, Black Sabbath, crawled out of the gray industrial murk of post-war Birmingham, UK. Four alienated, angry working class youth created music that was like a funeral dirge of the counter culture, of a Anglo-American generation waylaid by assassinations of its best and brightest, burned by a failed dream of lasting change, and ground into dust by the mechanized horrors of the Vietnam War.
Black Sabbath sucked all that negative energy out of the ether, processed it and blasted out a furnace of wall-of-sound distortion and plodding, dissolute numbers about the occult, recreational drug abuse, lost love and corruption at the highest levels. And in doing so, they created an enveloping, potently heavy and utterly intoxicating experience for disaffected youth and lost seekers looking for something headier, and heavier, than psychedelia. They were a simple, direct strain of sensory overload, and a comfortable release valve for a world at its wits’ end.
Academics and cultural critics have described the alienation from mainstream culture shared by many fans of heavy metal as well as the feeling of tribal solidarity that exists in the metal scene, but for me it was always an intensely personal experience. I was and remain quite happy to share my appreciation of the music with a few close friends and fellow travelers. I never fully embraced the metal subculture, but found joy and comfort in the music and the imagery. The negative aspects of the scene and the idea that societal rejection is the chief driver of the music have been oversold in the subculture-obsessed, pop music-demonizing US.
There’s a lot more to metal’s appeal than hyper-masculine heaviness and virtuosity. But it would be lying to say, at least in my case, that these factors didn’t play a role.
Life Goes On
By time I was half way through eighth grade, my life had changed considerably. My mom and I had moved out of our four-bedroom home in a leafy residential area into a drab if functional apartment complex near the then sleepy intersection of Rancho and Cheyenne on the border of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.
Within a few months of living there, I was forced to give away the black lab Anna my family had adopted a few years back because a neighbor ratted us out on the “no dog” policy. Giving Anna away remains, even after years of lost friends and relatives, one of the most emotionally fraught moments in my life. I still remember hugging her for the last time.
My mom now had the thankless task of raising me alone, and for my part I embraced the rebellious teenage role with zeal, having decided during my parents’ separation that I was entitled to raise unholy hell. I ditched school on a regular basis, shoplifted anything I could get my hands on, and watched my grades plummet like cluster bombs into the D and F range as I blew off school assignments. Somehow high scores on aptitude tests landed me in mostly AP classes in high school, where I began the academic death spiral all over again.
To be perfectly honest, despite the all the anger and antisocial histrionics, I was sort of having a blast. In a cocoon of white privilege (let’s face it, Rocky didn’t have the margin of error I did), acting out felt like low-risk recreation to me. But my behavior was symptomatic of a deeper problem. I had lost faith in my future, or any future really, and wanted to lay waste to everything around me. I generally ignored the implications of that feeling, the deep wellspring of anxiety and depression that fueled it, but in later life it became unavoidable.
My close cadre of lunchtime friends—Jim, Kurt, Sean, Tom and few hanger-on kids—had by this time abandoned the band portable and were now situated in the far-flung basketball courts almost a tenth of a mile from the rest of the school’s population. This we did in part to reinforce our rejection of both teachers and peers, but also because it made sneaking off campus to attain AM/PM chimichangas for lunch much easier. Other kids would pay us to make illicit junk food runs for them, and the most productive smuggler in our ranks, Kurt, was making an absolute killing.
I imagine that by this point our classmates probably thought that we had gone off the deep end. There were whispered rumors that we were weed-smoking, glue-sniffing, animal-sacrificing Satanists. Nowadays, we’d probably be profiled as school shooters, and expelled. But really we spent most of our time on the basketball courts talking about role-playing games (Dungeons & Dragons and Rifts), fantasy and science fiction novels, PC adventure games and movies. We were still basically nerds, but with threatening outfits featuring lots of skulls, pentagrams and flames.
We were also diverging in some key ways. Jim, while prepping an alt-rock skater look was moving into heavier bands, brutal death metal and so-called gore grind of the mutilated baby variety. Kurt was getting seriously into eighties thrash and NWOBHM, and started to dress like a paramilitary recruit with short-cropped hair, fatigues, jungle boots and Metallica and Megadeth shirts. Sean, never much of a joiner, rejected the metal uniform and didn’t have much interest in the music either, but more or less went with it at the time.
I still had the Pacific Northwest hesher look with ripped jeans, biker boots, plaid flannel (in one of the hottest cities in the country no less) and a lot of Sepultura and Slayer shirts. Most of us were seeking out our own little corners of heavy music, sort of developing our own aesthetic preferences and fashion statements. None of us really looked very similar. We all sort of fit together in the “Other” category.
In truth we didn’t know much about metal’s history or anything else at this point. I’d buy Iron Maiden shirts simply because they looked cool, not because I had developed any real connection with the band. But what was clear was that we had self-consciously removed ourselves from what was considered normal and well-adjusted in middle school. We embraced a certain exaggerated outsider role, rebels without causes, defining ourselves in opposition to whatever it was “the masses” (as we now snottily called “well-adjusted” people) believed.
This was not an altogether healthy attitude to have if you wanted to have a normal teenage life of “going steady,” inviting someone to prom, volunteering for extracurricular activities, performing well on SATs, selecting a good college, etc. Of course, metal music didn’t necessarily make us this way, but it provided a pretty neat soundtrack and look for the experience. We weren’t victims of society. We knew exactly what we were doing.
My mom was an enthusiastic supporter of my burgeoning interest in music, in part I think because she felt it might mitigate the more antisocial tendencies surfacing in my pimply adolescence, but also because she had always supported my love of the arts. I was from a young age intensely interested in creative writing and drawing, though both pursuits were by this time fully committed to ultra-violent, usually pretty funny comic books and sub-Dragonlance (which is really pretty sub) high fantasy adventure. In the eighth grade, I hunted-and-pecked out a 90-page fantasy novella on a typewriter and created an assortment of illustrations, maps and diagrams for a D&D fantasy setting of my own devising.
In a flattering display of corruption, my health sciences teacher had accepted some of my more gruesome drawings and stories for grades. This same teacher, an overgrown class clown with a mullet who commuted to work on a Suzuki crotch rocket, later served jail time for statutory rape of three of my female classmates. Inappropriate sex acts with minors seemed to be a recurring theme in my middle school.
By the time I entered high school I had amassed a respectable starter collection of cassette tapes. To encourage my music fandom, my mom bought a boombox that played both CDs and cassettes. CDs were a bit pricey so I had to be very selective about any purchases I made with my parents’ money.
As for cassettes, well let’s just say that Columbia House’s promotional offer that gave away free tapes in exchange for membership was incredibly easy to defraud. Three or four assumed identities later and I was the proud owner of more than 40 new cassettes, covering the spectrum of whatever heavy metal and rap, mostly thrash and alt-metal, Columbia House included in their catalog. Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Infectious Grooves, Suicidal Tendencies, Ice-T, Prong, and a host of others.
Around the same time, a Manowar cassette was also making the rounds courtesy of Roger, a peripheral figure in my circle of friends. I can’t remember what album it was (probably “Kings of Metal”), but it brought me into contact with metal’s goofier, more flamboyant and embarrassingly sexist side. Manowar might of been a bunch of macho blue collar guys in loincloths from upstate New York, but unlike their Northeast thrash contemporaries their affect was less rust belt misery and more medieval on the cheap, with a big mid-tempo drum sound, squealing guitar solos and the high falsetto vocals of Eric Adams bellowing and screaming about international metal solidarity, challenging the poseurs and other assorted wimps who didn’t get it.
Much of Manowar’s banner-waving, sword-wielding, muscle-squeezing antics seem pretty laughable now, and were to be honest pretty laughable then (we’re talking grown men in loincloth here), but there was a certain greasy pageantry to the music I could grudgingly respect.
In the fall of 1992, I attended the event that would solidify my emerging music fanaticism: Danzig, White Zombie and Kyuss performing at the Huntridge Theater. None of these bands were favorites of mine (Kyuss would become so over the years), but it was loud heavy metal music in a live setting, a ritual that concert videos and 1992’s hit comedy “Wayne’s World” had instilled with quasi-religious significance, and so when Kurt proposed that we go I had no recourse but to agree.
This would be my first concert, my first taste of live music in a intimate venue, downtown and without parental supervision. The two-week countdown to the show was nerve-wracking. I was both excited and vaguely terrified of the mosh pit, but agreed to participate at Kurt’s urging.
The Huntridge is Vegas’s perennially rundown historic art deco theater, and at the time the venue du jour for touring bands on budget. It has long since been closed, renovated, listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, and made the center of an ongoing and contentious debate about historic preservation in Vegas, a topic that is usually of no particular interest to anyone in Vegas. At the time it looked like it had been left out in the sun too long, with cracked orange-beige paint and a worn down facade that only vaguely hinted at the building’s jet age heyday in the 1950s. It was pretty beat up, though not yet in near ruins.
For a relatively sheltered thirteen-year-old kid living in the suburban outskirts of Vegas, the audience looked like a pretty tough crowd. It would not be too reaching or condescending to say that the scene outside could have been an outtake from Heavy Metal Parking Lot, with several clusters of teens in pleather and denim sucking drags off their cigarettes and tattooed twenty-somethings loitering on and around the bumpers of their cheapo cars or in the backs of old pickup trucks.
There were only a few women there, who we no doubt wrote off as groupies and “rocker chicks.” One did not often encounter women at non-hair metal shows in the early nineties, and we were probably too young and dense at the time to realize that the women who did show up were true stalwarts, fanatical about the music and too confident and tough to be discouraged by the occasional sexist cretin that invariably blew through shows in a highly intoxicated state.
A few minutes after Kurt and I were dropped off by my mom, an older guy with a scruffy circle beard and a patch-laden jacket approached us with a shifty expression and tried to trade us his butterfly knife for tickets, even performing some flashy demonstration moves. Looking back on it, the proposed trade was of course completely harmless (teenage dudes were always trading throwing stars and cheap knives), but at the time it seemed delightfully dangerous to be offered a “street gang-grade” weapon in a dilapidated parking lot, and the perfect schoolyard anecdote.
After some confusion at the door and our first awkward pat-downs from two ginormous bouncers, we found our way in past the cordoned-off bar section where the older fans sipped cheap beer out of drip-chamber-colored plastic cups. Inside the theater itself, most of the front row seats had been temporarily removed for the pit.
All the hallmarks of the rock show setup were in place: another band’s album blasting over the PA system, the roadies running back and forth on the stage to set up the drums, amps and mic stands, the occasional random vocalizations to test the mics, the arcane words and hand signals from the stage hands to the guys in the sound booth, the rare couple sucking each others faces by the restrooms, the already snaking restroom lines, the little nodes of friends scattered around the floor laughing and providing pre-show color commentary connected by a thin lattice of solo concertgoers, all of whom would close tightly together by the stage and pit like a Hoberman sphere when the lights went down. It was all so new and alien to me then, these details that are so immutably commonplace that you could simply call them The Show.
Then came the wait, that indeterminate period of time between the setup and the band taking the stage that seems to stretch on for hours. I remember feeling incredibly nervous, standing in different positions and fidgeting, worried that the bands wouldn’t perform well and regretting my promise to mosh. I was just a kid and didn’t really know what to expect, but that tension has stayed with me at every concert since, the feeling that anything can happen in a live setting. I stood there, shaking slightly, waiting with anticipation and horror. And then the lights went down and the first band, Kyuss, took the stage.
From that point on, everything was a blur of noise, energy and nerves as each band took the stage and laid down blaring riffs at volumes beyond anything I could of imagined. Musicologists have described heavy metal as the “aural equivalent of war” but to me it was like a purification ritual, a complete emptying of all my anger, fears and doubts as soundwaves, discharged from stacks of amps, washed over me. At some point during White Zombie’s set, Kurt led me to the pit, and suddenly we were both thrown into a chaotic arena of bodies bolting and flailing and skipping by.
While I’ve never been a big fan of the pit generally, this tentative experience was wholly positive, a rare moment of tribal solidarity I rarely seek out, of bodies just swaying and hurling and crashing into each other to the rhythm belted out by competent human beings playing notes and chords backed up with massive amounts of volume and distortion. At some point, a large body knocked me to the ground, and I was pulled into a dangerous undercurrent of converse sneakers and combat boots. A hand belonging to a buzz-cut punk grasped mine and pulled me back up out of the pit. We exchanged brief nods, before flying back into the frenzy. At that moment, the sound was my god.
I had a number of memorable experiences that evening. Raised hands in the crowd trying to catch guitar picks and drumsticks that White Zombie tossed from the stage. The swaggering, sweaty banter of Glenn Danzig holding court between the songs. The feeling that, after all the waiting, the show might as well go on forever. But it ended, and Kurt and I went home with broad smiles and ringing ears. Ear plugs were not a concept I was acquainted with in those early, heady days.
For days on end, all Kurt and I talked about with each other and our friends was that show. Jim was envious, but there would be plenty more shows to attend. For me though, that was the first, and the beginning of my total obsession with music which, along with film, literature and politics, would be the defining central focus of much of my life. The show was in some ways the first time since early childhood where I finally felt like I knew, if only for a moment, who I was and who I wanted to be when I grew up.
In the years that would follow, Jim and I would scour every bin in every new and used CD store in Las Vegas, hitting the Record City chain especially hard, looking for anything new, novel or interesting, always hungry for something we had never heard of. This started with just metal, but very quickly expanded to include anything strange, obscure or different. An interesting band name, label or cover was enough to justify plunking down a few bucks. We could always resell.
The sound would soon become the sounds, and what started as rabid metal fandom would drive us both into exploring every corner of popular as well as “art” music, desperate to hear anything that brought back that euphoric feeling we had sifting through Jose’s box of tapes, the anticipation we felt as we listened to the opening lick of “Rusty Cage” the uneasiness we experienced during the intro of “Arise,” or the childhood giddiness that seized us the first time we heard a squeal of a turntable on the radio.
And while we would both go far and wide—ambient, classical, jazz, folk, soul, funk, progressive rock, post-punk, industrial, kraut, Afrobeat, glam, etc.—we would always return to metal because that’s where the passion was first ignited, the feeling that this music is for us.
Everyone who calls themselves a lover of music came into it their own way. They all have their own stories. Often, though not always, they begin in early childhood with their earliest memories of the music listened to by the people who raised and nurtured them. In adolescence, as they work to define themselves and their place in the world, they either accidentally discover or seek out music that they can call their own to help them navigate life’s difficulties, make sense of the world, form social bonds, and feel alive. That experience stays with them until they die, informing their every experience. It is not an aspect of life, it is life.
Music isn’t just a soundtrack for a series of events. It’s intrinsic to who we are. This is true in the wealthiest nations on Earth and in the most dispossessed, it’s true under liberal capitalism or state socialism, in war zones and boring suburbs, across any and all cultures deserving of the name. My story has its unique details, its drum fills and variations, its tones and chord progressions. But it’s just one version of a story told millions of times, like a cover of an old standard.