Booking a Room with a View

Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Becoming a Panhead: Part One

Between the ages of 11 and 15, heavy metal got me through the hardships of adolescence. I was in no way a reader during that chapter of my life, and films were nothing but excuses to hook up with friends and gossip in the back row of the Lincoln Theater balcony. I was a religious young man, in my own way, but understood a life of faith only as well as a teen might, which is to say not well at all -- and so religion did little to buoy me up in the storms of youth, except where it dovetailed with rock 'n' roll. So whereas my turnstile of favorite bands in those years included the secular acts Europe and Warlock, I also listened to various Christian acts: Altar Boys, Petra, Stryper, Bloodgood, Leviticus, others. I wore out my cassette of Petra's This Means War during a family vacation to South Dakota one summer. I thrilled at the notion of sacred mystery meeting social taboo in the lyrics of Bloodgood's pulsing "Eat the Flesh" from their album Detonation. I grit my teeth through the gross overproduction on Stryper's In God We Trust and Petra's On Fire because the songs were good, for the most part (Stryper shot clean off the rails with their next album, while Petra corrected beautifully thereafter with Beyond Belief, for my money their best record).

But as often happens in adolescence, turning the page as a young man was attended by turning the page on one's musical tastes. It just works out that way. Pearl Jam came along, and heavy metal, in all its 80s iterations, felt less novel than novelty. (My religious life, such as it was, waned in my late teens, too, giving way to a flirtation with atheism into my early 20s. Atheism was short-lived in me, however. Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ saw to that. But that's the subject of another blog.) With the release of Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes and Sophie B Hawkins's Tongues and Tails, everything changed for me. I still remember seeing, for the first time, just a snippet of the video for "Silent All These Years" on an MTV commercial and wondering: what is this...? So began my musical obsession with what my brother, in college, would disparagingly refer to as Chicks with Feelings -- an obsession that continues (and evolves) to this day: Tori Amos, Loreena McKennitt and Sarah McLachlan were the first, followed by Bjork, Belly, Indigo Girls and 10,000 Maniacs -- and followed still later, in college, by Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris. (I flew to Seattle a year ago expressly to see Belly on the last leg of their reunion tour.) Florence + the Machine, Chvrches, Offa Rex, Regina Spektor and Of Monsters and Men might be considered the most recent additions to this musical diet of mine. Still on the fence about Wolf Alice.

Belly at the Neptune Theater, Seattle, Washington, August 28, 2016

But do I still listen to hard rock and heavy metal?

I sold all of my metal albums in my 20s, eventually repurchasing a handful: a Scorpions greatest hits, Fates Warning's Parallels, Iron Maiden's Somewhere in Time, Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime, Judas Priest's Painkiller, Leviticus's Setting Fire to the Earth. (During the 2016 election, I'd drive around town with "Revolution Calling" cranked up in the car, like the good Bernie Sanders supporter I was.) I hope to further remedy that rashness by reacquiring magnificent albums, including Impelliterri's Stand in Line, Yngwie Malmsteen's Eclipse and Savatage's Gutter Ballet and Streets. Each of these more than hold up, musically, lyrically (unlike most of those I scrapped); I've listened to Impelliterri, Malmsteen, Savatage and a few others (thanks to YouTube and interlibrary loan) with ears that have grown more discerning and sophisticated over the years, and they don't disappoint. Most hard rock and metal from the 80s and 90s is embarrassingly dated -- not merely the on-stage aesthetics, either, but the songs themselves. Likewise, most of the new rock I've heard from the mid-90s on is a joke: bull-in-a-china-shop music with little sense of structural surprise or lyrical invention. I've purchased no new release rock since Evanescence's The Open Door.

Until, that is, these last three weeks, during which I bought Skillet's Comatose and Rise. I'd never heard Skillet before this last summer. I walk by a signed concert one-sheet of theirs every day at the radio station, but had never actually heard their music until maybe two months ago. How, you ask, can I have lived on Earth and not heard "Monster" or "Hero," regardless of how I might have felt about them? Good question...

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