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Heavy Metal Music Will Save Your Life

ISSUE:  Summer 2005

I spent three years as a rock music critic in El Paso, Texas, which was where I lived at the tail end of the eighties and where I came of age, in a sense—grew old enough, that is, to recognize that heavy metal was, essentially, tribal in nature and that it had everything to do with rhythm and aggression and desire and conquest and physical release and death, which is to say, with sex.

But I’m not here to lecture on sex, or The Social Mores of the Headbanger Subculture, circa 1989. My job, as I understand it, is to suggest how heavy metal saved my life, which it surely did, and not by inspiring me toward complex thought, but by the opposite process: the complete annihilation of thought in favor of instinct. To live dangerously, absurdly, even fallaciously—this was the legacy of my metal days. To believe one might get laid, sucked off, gulped down, on any given night, anywhere on earth—a hidden stairwell, a crowded bathroom, your neighbor’s porch, anywhere.

But please don’t ask me, did it happen and how and what did she smell like, because you’re missing the point. It isn’t the facts I’m speaking of here, but the desire. Not the deed, but the possibility. What is a piece of art, after all, but the possibility of a particular truth? And what are artists but suckers talented enough to win a few converts?

So there it was for me to grab on to, once a week. Metallica. Slayer. Cinderella. Poison. Vixen. KISS. Winger. Queensrÿche. And there I was in my reporter’s garb—off-brand chinos and the white button-downs—scribbling down song titles and adjectives in the dark, while 10,000 kids, skinny boys mostly, surged and howled around me.

There were girls, too. Metal chicks. Always with the big tits, the swirling tits—no bras!—the tops pushed over their collars like pale fruit and bouncing like crazy on the balls of their feet, or up on some boy’s shoulders, calling out for more, louder, harder, with their red red lips.

I was sure metal chicks knew how to screw, could have screwed me into the ground, and I screwed hundreds in my mind, thousands maybe, pleasuring myself in one or another of the lousy apartments I lived in back then, the basement jobs with lousy plumbing, until the sweet guilt of completion softened me.

Hell yes.

Went to see Ratt headline a triple bill, with Britny Fox and Kix, and wound up baked out of my mind because someone, some young vato with one front tooth, handed me a joint. I was just standing there taking notes and the joint appeared and I did my civic duty. This was in the El Paso County Coliseum, where they held the rodeo, and the place still smelled of rodeo—the burnt popcorn and the sweet, earthy reek of manure—and Kix rocked the place pretty good (far better than one might expect a band that shares a name with an obscure cereal brand might), and then Ratt came on, and they had the drums rigged so that every time the drummer took a whack, the stage lights changed configuration; I was sure I was watching a giant pinball game.

That show was just one of many, part of something larger, what I would now refer to, ingloriously, as a lifestyle.

Not that I got myself all snagged up in the trappings—the clothing and the albums themselves and the lighters—because I was, after all, a good suburban kid from a progressive California city, with a couple of parents who had dabbled in hippiedom and raised me up on a steady diet of Beatles and Stones, a kid who had thrown his lot in with The Police and The Smiths and The Fixx, who dabbled in prog rock (Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!) but remained, officially, an acolyte of New Wave, which seems somehow more embarrassing to admit than anything else I’ve told you.


The point being that I thought of myself as slumming. Observing El Paso’s metalheads as they thrashed and banged against their own bleak prospects, as they closed their eyes and hoped for a way out through the music—all this was a matter of professional duty.

But I was more like those kids than I would have ever admitted to myself, as insecure about my manhood, as desperate for affirmation, as hungry for touch. Didn’t matter that I wore skinny thrift-store ties and wingtips, or carried around business cards with my name printed on them. Didn’t even matter that I had a girlfriend who read Nietzsche.

What mattered was my insides, which were in a state of continuous, riotous want.

Did I mention Tesla?

They were my favorite metal band, probably because they weren’t even really metal, just five burnouts from Sacramento who knew enough to play loud. The lead singer, Jeff Keith, grew up eating government-issue cheese in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. Before he joined the band, he drove a septic truck. His job was to transport rich people’s shit around. He was a shit transporter. You don’t think this guy knew his way around wish fantasy?

The rest of the guys, they were all shit transporters of one sort or another. They lacked pretense, because they lacked access to the world of ideas, which is the laboratory of pretense. What they knew was that life sucked most of the time but that music (along with sex) was the only sure path to joy.

I got to see Tesla only once, opening for Whitesnake. Went to see the show with my pal Will, a lawyer at one of the big downtown firms. We got us a bottle of MD 20/20—pink grapefruit, as I recall—and drank the whole thing sitting on a curb outside the arena, Will still in his dark suit. We also smoked a big, fat blunt. Shit yeah.

At one point, a Latin woman walked past in jeans so tight that we could see everything, and Will said, “Jesus, man, that’s one of our paralegals.” He couldn’t believe that she was dressed like that, right out in public.

Sometimes, you had to explain this kind of stuff to people like Will, because they wanted to believe that El Paso was pretty much what they saw: a dried-out suburb with chain restaurants and a friendly, brown underclass. This was easier than facing the city as it actually existed: a head-on collision between the First and Third Worlds, the sort of place where the day maids had to sneak across a toxic river every morning at six a.m. Where, if you got up early enough, you could watch the whole sad drama, the Border Patrol agents cruising around in puke-green vans, deciding who to deport back to the insatiable hunger of Juárez. Though actually, El Paso was what all cities are (only more so): a factory of lurid dreams.

All I could think of, as this woman walked past us, was how much I wanted to strip those jeans off—I knew it would take some doing—and hump her on the fine leather chair in Will’s office, squeak-squeak-squeak.

This night I’m talking about was, if memories serves, a Friday in early spring of 1989, and Will and I were juiced up on sugary wine and downtown brown, and we streamed into the arena just in time to catch Tesla wailing through “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out).” No one was listening that carefully. They were just the opening band, relegated to the front third of the stage, looking a little naked, almost earnest, up there without the fancy costumes and fireworks. But it was a beautiful thing to hear the sweet clamor of all that art.

And I did manage to have sex with that paralegal.

Or no, maybe it wasn’t her exactly, but the teller from the bank with the same dyed ringlets of hair. What I remember is the lovely curve of her in the moonlight and the desperate mashing of our wine-soaked bodies.

Now, as a grown-up, well into my reasonable thirties, it would make sense enough to disown the excess of metal, the dopey hairstyles and costumes and tragically stupid lyrics. I don’t listen to the stuff anymore, aside from Tesla. Never did listen to it much.

But what I can’t rid myself of is the yearning, the dumb yearning of the body and the heart’s frenzy, that sense of what might happen at any moment, the sex that might happen at any moment, the skin and the wet parts, the utter absence of shame.

Metal was always about this—shameless hope—and this seems in keeping with the best spirit of rock and roll. I find it hard to get turned on listening to the minor-key bombast of grunge (which sells us self-indulgent misery) or hip-hop (which sells us black self-immolation in a thin, shiny wrapper of self-celebration). But I still stiffen up at the sound of a good, overblown power chord. I still look around and try to spot any stray tits in the room, and later, in the privacy of my own quarters, whether alone or with company, I quite happily conduct my business.


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