Formation of a Metalhead

Fellow metalhead/filmmaker Sam Dunn set about the world in his documentary “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” to answer the question “what makes us metalheads?” I am not sure I have an answer but I’ll give it a go. His footage shows that the love for heavy metal music transcends countries, languages, and religions. Kids identify with the aggressive sound even without understanding the words. So it’s not always about the message. It’s about the distortion. It’s about the dark, heavy, bowel-twisting, eardrum-piercing, ugly music.

Ugly you say? Yes, ugly as fuck. For example, compare songs like The Fixx’s “Saved by Zero” with Slayer’s “Chemical Warfare.” The refined nuances of the first song are soothing, almost angelic; the arrangement, divine. One feels like floating like a feather. In stark contrast, the merciless wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am pounding of the second song forms a cacophony made from destruction and chaos, at least to the untrained ear. Think of metal as a pug: damn ugly but you can’t help but love it. The only time I called my friend’s pug ugly it sneezed on my face right on cue. Now I’ll sit tight and wait on metal’s reaction to my name-calling. But I digress.

Listening to metal was an outlet to express my anti-social sentiment. Growing up in a male dominated macho culture pissed me off. I did not understand why women in general were expected to be submissive. The gender roles were clear. Men brought home the bacon (and could mistreat their wives); women had babies and took care of the household (and shut up and took it.)

To give you an idea of what it was like to be a female in Venezuela, there is a saying which usually applies to unwed married women in their mid-to-late twenties: she se quedó para vestir santos (is only good to dress saints – the statues in Catholic churches.) The jokes were usually on women. Local comedy programs portrayed them as stupid, irrational and hysterical.

Older women in an effort of pretending to bridge the gap between generations said things like “so-and-so is almost 30 and not married but that’s OK, times are different now.” But I wasn’t fooled. A woman had better found a “man to represent her” by the time she was 25 or she would elicit pity from friends and family. That however didn’t faze me. I wasn’t gonna wash some dude’s underwear until the day I died. Marriage could suck it.

But being a woman in a chauvinist society was not the only thing that wore me out. Being held at gunpoint several times did the trick too. My car got broken into many times, so were my friends’. There were nearly no international metal acts touring our country. Traffic was backed up always and everywhere (not an exaggeration). I had mediocre university professors whose purpose in academia was to flunk as many students as they could. I’d blow off steam by getting together with friends, blasting metal, singing along at the top of our lungs, getting drunk and passing out. It worked! After a headbanging escapade, we were ready to fight another day.

So if Mr. Dunn asked me why I became a metalhead, I would respond it was to drown the external voices of the status quo, to seek solace among an open-minded group of people. To vent. To escape. But why am I still a metalhead after all these years? Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that I get goose bumps when I hear a great metal song old or new. I feel renewed after hanging out with fellow metalheads at metal shows, they are the best people one could ever meet. We are part of a tribe of sorts linked by energy. To quote Diamond Head: “It’s electric!” Or something like that.

Up the Irons!Image


A Crush Leads To Rush

There is something factual to be said about puppy love: it may lead to a lifelong relationship with… a rock band?

The year was 1984. The place: a neighborhood birthday party.  The boy I liked was there. We had known each other in grade school and hadn’t seen one another in years. Our conversation was probably awkward at first, as we were both 13 years old, but soon it veered to music. He told me he played drums and his influence was Neil Peart, from the band Rush. I may have said “who?” because his eyes widened and his demeanor changed. He turned into a Rush salesperson, speaking lively about the history of the Canadian trio formed by Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson, selling me on how they were the best band in the world. He was very excited about the opportunity to indoctrinate a pair of Rush-virgin ears. We agreed we would get together and listen to the albums in the near future.

A few weeks dragged on before the boy I liked and I met again. He brought to my house a handful of Rush albums: 2112, Fly by Night, and Moving Pictures. I placed the 2112 LP on the turntable, pressed “Rec” in the tape deck, and dropped the needle. The music was delicate, sharp, fierce, and very different from anything I had heard before. I was impressed. What didn’t impress me very much was the way these guys looked. The band photo on 2112 is like a car wreck: it’s ghastly but you just cannot help staring. Alex’s pants are so tight, you can see his male anatomy very clearly indeed. We both laughed hysterically analyzing the photo and tried to figure out what the costumes represented. Maybe hidden clues to decipher the twenty-plus minute song on side A? Since he didn’t speak English, I translated for him, which did not necessarily mean we “got it.” For example, take this bit of “By-Tor and The Snow Dog” from the album “Fly by Night”:

Across the River Styx, out of the lamplight

His nemesis is waiting at the gate

The Snow Dog, ermine glowing in the damp night

Coal-black eyes shimmering with hate.

I imagine I looked up “nemesis” and “ermine” and I probably thought the River Styx was a real river in Asia. But no matter the language barrier, the music flowed through me with ease. I was not pretending to like it to impress the boy. I was almost obsessed with this newly discovered music. For over a year Rush music rocked me to sleep. Sometimes I would replay “Red Barchetta” three or four times. The visuals of the song made a fantastic bedtime story.

Around that time the LP “Grace Under Pressure” came out. Soon after, my mother drove to the mall and I tagged along to visit the record store. I finally got my little hands on it. (To give you an idea of what I listened to, I also picked up Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry,” and two soundtrack albums: The Karate Kid and Ghostbusters. Don’t hate.) The first song of Side A was “Distant Early Warning.” I was familiar with that song. I recorded the video a few weeks before. I played it over and over, in awe as to the ability these musicians had to compose such a song. Why was it mesmerizing? I tried analyzing it. The music was delicate during the verse, but the words were nothing short of piercing. The buildup to the chorus was chaotic. And the ending was an explosion of epic proportions. The keyboard built tension along with the vocals and other instruments. This was like catnip to me. The thought of playing bass appealed to me even more now that I had Geddy Lee in my life.

From then on I would hunt Rush albums. As a mere 14-year-old girl I couldn’t afford to buy all the albums or tapes. I relied on my neighbors, schoolmates and my girlfriend’s older brothers that loved music. I borrowed Caress of Steel, which became my favorite Rush album (it still is.) I kept stumbling into more albums: Exit… Stage Left, Hemispheres, Rush, and with every new album, a new window to the world would open. Big English words would enter my vocabulary. I would know things then that in the future I realized I had known thanks to Neil’s lyrics.

In sum, the boy I liked and I never had a romantic relationship. Our friendship remained ingrained in music. Now he is a mere memory of my teen years. But he left an indelible mark in my metal life by introducing me to one of my favorite bands in the world. Puppy love may lead to a love affair with a rock band, indeed.

Jeff Hanneman passes away

It is with a heavy heart I deliver this news: Jeff Hanneman, founding member of Slayer and one of the best shredders in thrash metal history, passed away today from liver failure. I can only assume this is directly related to the spider bite he suffered a few years ago. This is a devastating loss for the heavy metal world. He co-wrote classic Slayer songs like “Raining Blood” and “Angel of Death.” I held hope that he would join the band as soon as he got better. This is just a shock.

Rest in piece Jeff Hanneman. We love you. Thank you for the music.