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

How Kiss Started it All

The first signs pointing to my future love for heavy metal began showing when I was a pre-teen girl in the seventh grade, living in my native land of Venezuela.

I have loved music since as long as I can remember. I also loved watching music videos so to keep abreast of the newest ones, I programmed my dad’s Betamax to record the daily video show at 11:30 a.m. aired in one of the four local TV channels. I’d come home from school every day straight to my parent’s bedroom to check on the day’s recording, and mom would be calling me to the table for lunch, annoyed that I still apparently didn’t understand the lunch routine.

Most of the videos shown were of popular songs of the day. But once in a while the video jockey, Musiuito, would play something completely out of whack and by doing so, he changed my musical life.

The video in question was Kiss’s “Love it Loud.” I had not heard a song that heavy before, with such force, and so rhythmic at the same time. The video began by showing a family quietly eating dinner in a nice suburban home. There was no music at this point. Suddenly a loud thud engulfed the home, it was the brutal bass drum pounding mercilessly, shaking the entire home, threatening to detach it from its foundation. The teenage son got up, walked to the TV, kneeled in front of it and the singer’s face – painted black and white – along with his long, red tongue covered the screen, his evil looking gaze connecting with the teenage boy’s eyes, and with mine.

I played the song intro over and over again. I couldn’t get enough of the initial drum sound followed by the almost religious mantra-chant “yeh-eh-eh-eh-yeah, ye-eh-eh-eh yeah” which pulled me further into the core of the hypnotic sound. Then I noticed the singer was playing an axe and for a minute I cringed, I was a little scared of these evil-looking old dudes. The video finale showed scores of teens walking toward the camera, eyes glowing, mesmerized by the calling. I felt like one of them.

As I replayed the video I increased the volume. The small TV speaker shrieked and the front panel of the TV shook and emitted a buzzing sound created by the panel door vibrating violently. I simply sat there frozen at the edge of the bed, eyes glued to the TV watching the Kiss guys do the thing they do best: kicking ass on stage, maneuvering their instruments amidst fire explosions and deafening sounds, all behind masked faces. A sudden feeling possessed my body. I felt that I wanted to be close to them. I wanted to befriend teens like the guy in the video. I wanted to be a part of whatever this was.

Soon after, either a neighbor or a schoolmate let me borrow the Kiss album Creatures of the Night; which contains the aforementioned song. Album in hand, I hurried home giddy from anticipation. Once in my room, I turned on the old three-in-one radio/cassette/LP player, opened the plastic lid, carefully removed the album from the cardboard cover and from its plastic sleeve, placed the LP on the turntable on side B, set the needle with surgical precision in the groove right before the first song, and cranked up the volume. I was about to experience “Love it Loud” through real sound speakers. I was so excited! My heart jumped at the first boom of the drumming. So I turned it up even more. I loved the how all the instruments blended together to create a concoction of sound, which mixed distortion, fire, mayhem, balls and awesomeness. I felt like I was the coolest kid on earth. The song faded out… but it didn’t go away. It faded back in again, the “yeh-eh-eh-eh-yeah” chant reappearing from the depths of hell to haunt my young ears.

I wanted to be on stage. I wanted to wear the singer’s boots and play an axe-shaped bass guitar. And I wanted to play music loud enough to make my parent’s coffee cups explode, just like in the video. I got stung.

Little did I know I had taken my first step into the “metaldom,” a heavy metal kingdom I would forever be a part of.