Confessions of a Fearful Metalhead
I went to an all-boys Catholic high school that was approximately 40 minutes from my house. Getting there involved a bus ride, provided by the school. The bus picked me up with nine other kids, all but one a year ahead of me: brothers Tom and Doug Hanson, Mark Sexton, Dave Tozeski, David Kilkenny, Scott Dudridge, Ray Thomas and two more super-nerdy brothers who never said a word to anyone and sat up front, out of fear.
I never spoke either, but I did sit toward the back, at least close to the rest of the group, but still terrified. This was a tight-knit crew of sophomores: they could turn on me as a braying, merciless gang at any minute. They wore denim jackets covered with satanic Led Zeppelin patches, sneakers and corduroys (everybody changed into the dress-code-mandated suit coat and tie at their lockers). The best course of action was to become invisible, which I did, for two years. There were also a pathological liar named Mark Holmberg ("I fought a six-foot tall rooster yesterday!" "Huh?" "Six feet tall! I swear!") and a chew-spitting hockey player named Dennis, but they weren't there all the time.
Scott Dudridge brought a boom box with him every day (when he didn't skip school to go drink peppermint schnapps and smoke dirt weed or whatever you do when you're 16). Dudridge was definitely the troublemaker in the group. Most days were a struggle of wills between him and the 55-plus-year-old bus driver, addressed by all as "Mrs. Bus Driver." She would let Scott play the boom box until it got too loud, at which point she would pull the bus over and yell from the driver's seat, glowering at us in the mirror. She also did this any time she caught him smoking, which was almost every afternoon. The poor woman. A full-length bus with 10 kids on it, cranking Dio at 8 A.M.
They played heavy metal exclusively. AC/DC, Sabbath, Ozzy, Dio, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin. There was also a lot of Rush, but it was all heavy metal to me. I had first heard the term "heavy metal" in 1981 (this was '84), when the movie Heavy Metal came out and the trailer was about the craziest thing I'd ever seen. But this was my first real exposure to this clearly evil thing (my brother and sister had been Deadheads), and I was scared. Honestly, I thought just hearing Dio's "The Last in Line" would bring the devil into my life.
I've mentioned here before that I was a pretty devoted Christian as a teenager (daily mass, prayer meetings -- my Teamster father hated it). The idea that Ronnie James Dio would use scripture for his own purposes -- I thought "The Last in Line" was a reference to "the meek shall inherit the earth" -- was unfathomable. I was way off with the meaning there, way off. But that song, and everything by AC/DC, was so loud that it just had to be evil. The thing is, I didn't hate it. I secretly loved this music, even though it'd be years before I bought any AC/DC or Sabbath of my own. I'd stare out the window from my seat hoping they'd play "The Number of the Beast" or "Kashmir" or "The Last in Line" or, especially, AC/DC, anything by them.
Today "heavy metal" is really just "metal," and has broken off into a shattered windshield of subgenres. but I grew up in a world where it was the province of bad kids, ignored by hipsters and feared by Christians. For my part, the only cool kid at my lunch table, named Rick, played The Velvet Underground & Nico and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn for me sophomore year, and I dove into punk, pre-punk and classic rock, then indie rock when it emerged.
I don't know how much it had to do with finding out I was the only 19-year-old virgin in my teen prayer group, but when I was 21, I bought the Sabbath comp We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll because I needed to hear "War Pigs" 50 times in spite of the fact that the out-of-focus, inscrutable cover of their first album used to totally give me the creeps. No, really, I learned there was a big difference between being "religious" and having a connection to whatever it is that makes olives taste so damn good, and the idea of any music being "evil" became silly. The truth is Husker Du's "I'll Never Forget You," the Butthole Surfers' "Sweat Loaf" and Dinosaur Jr.'s You're Living All Over Me brought me to metal more than anything, but it wasn't until a few years into this job that I began to see it for what it is.
At the time, I was Rhapsody's rock editor, and as such it was my job to build all the "key artist" and "key album" lists for each subgenre (there were a lot), write five one-sentence blurbs for as many artists as I could, cover their important/latest albums, add similar artists, assign styles -- all that metadata on our site that makes it so you can start with Neil Young and get to Charles Mingus (in theory anyway -- no one's really tried it). Anyway, amid this Sisyphus-ian task I decided it'd be cool if we had the most thorough metal section on the Internet even though nobody -- nobody -- was playing metal on the service (people really dug Britney back then). And so I basically researched the hell out of it. I knew the terms enough, but didn't know the difference between black and death metal. I could identify symphonic black metal, but melodic death metal? That was some kind of joke, right? This is why some of the similar artists may seem a little iffy to snooty metal scholars (puke). Pretty sure I assigned Deicide to almost every black or death metal band I did assets for in the beginning. Sorry. I did learn, though.
Two things blew my mind: Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse (they swing! and what a voice!) and this video. From there it was on. Pig Destroyer, Slayer, Pantera, Eyehategod, Darkthrone -- I learned metal could be super math-smart, expressive of psychic pain, intentionally hilarious (see the song titles on Carcass' Reek of Putrefaction), as in-joke-y as indie rock, etc.
Metal is one of the most -- if not the most -- vital and constantly evolving genres of music today. Black, death, power, progressive, thrash, speed, grindcore, experimental, doom, goth, metalcore, emo, folk, pirate, technical death, blackened death, deathgrind -- the list goes on and on. There are probably some a-holes in Williamsburg coming up with fantasy baseball metal right now. The fact is, metal is more popular both commercially and critically than it's ever been. There have been plenty of times when it was this popular commercially, but it's never been both.
This widespread acceptance is both good and bad, but mostly good. The insular nature of experimental metal -- think Sunn O))) and all those "art-metal" bands -- may cut out the pissed-off-and-alone teenagers Judas Priest were playing for, but there has also been a lot of awesome, super-heavy music as a result.
About the title of this piece: I'm not really a "metalhead." I didn't grow up listening to KISS, so I don't rate. It should read "Confessions of a Metal Lover," but that sounds goofy. Sadly, with all these four-eyed hipsters running around downloading Powerslave to their e-phones, there probably aren't any real metalheads anymore anyway.
This playlist above is made up of songs I heard either on my grammar school playground (a rutted parking lot, long story) or on the bus to St. John's. They were all heavy metal to me. It's weird how crappy Sammy Hagar's "Three Lock Box" sounds now -- it was really heavy when I was a kid. Also, this should have Def Leppard's "Rock of Ages" on it, but we don't have the rights. Dammit.