Saturday morning, and I woke up spontaneously at 8:30 due to a pressing bladder event, an after-effect of beer at the bowling alley with my neighbors. I bowl poorly when drunk; latest discovery.
I briefly contemplated going back to sleep, but while in the bathroom I got involved in this Harper’s article about the industrialization of China. Started out good but eventually got into hating on the US, and for a while there it seemed to be arguing that it’s OK for China to pollute all it wants, since it’s got so many people and on a per-capita basis the pollution will never equal ours. So that was aggravating. But still, an interesting article.
Then I read a story about this guy who got a tattoo of his Dad’s initials. He had two, one who died when he was a young boy, and a stepfather whom he knew for much longer and was more like a real Dad. It was interesting, if a bit more navel-gazey than I prefer. I like to do my own navel-gazing, thanks very much.
Having tired of endless Harper’s articles, I’m lying in bed watching a concert from 2004 on VH1 Classics. It’s Judas Priest. I’ve never really listened to them aside from knowing the main riff from “Breaking the Law”, like everybody else, and I’m sure I learned that from Beavis and Butthead.
Rob Halford, the gay frontman for this group, kind of stalks around the stage with his head mostly bent down, yelling into the microphone. I think he must have scoliosis or something, because he apparently just can’t pull his head up. Occasionally he’ll raise his hands in triumph.
The crowd, by the way, is going in-fucking-SANE. They love everything about this group and what’s happening on stage.
Halford just drove onstage on a chopper, totally dressed up in shiny leather biker gear. He’s like an honorary member of the Village People: Bondage Dude. He drove onstage with his head down. All a prelude to “Hellbent for Leather”.
The music is ridiculous to me. It’s flashy guitar licks, and the kind of tough-guy lyrics that it seems to me like you’d have to willfully subsume your intellect in order to take seriously. Unless you’re being all ironic n’ shit. But that’s way more irony than I can stomach, and I have a large appetite.
Now they’re playing “I’m a Rocker”. Halford actually pumped up the crowd with some kind of speech, ending with the title of this song. You know how bands do that? I hate that.
I’ve always wondered at the whole musicians-as-tough-guys phenomenon. I can understand the impulse on the musicians side well enough. When I was in college, a group of us he-man music majors decided to go play football on the band’s practice field. Tackle football. One of us was subsequently hit hard enough to black out for a second. Fuckin’ morons, all of us.
But we had something to prove, just like musicians who play any kind of aggressive style of music. They’re musicians. Their passion is for something inherently intellectual. The Judas Priest style of metal is especially so; I’m speaking musically not lyrically. The guitar solos are full of modal shifts and incredible technique, lightning-fast runs tenuously connected to the key of the song.
To me, there’s a disconnect between the image of a rocker as tough-guy and the actual act of being a rocker. If you’re the singer in a rock-n-roll band, you make your living SINGING. You’re a communicator. Tough-guys don’t communicate. No matter how hard you try, you’re not gonna be tough.
I’m not speaking of the glam-rockers or the hair-metal jackabramoffs. Those guys were invested in drugs, girls, and image. I don’t think they were ever doing anything other than exploiting a moment; they weren’t trying to be tough. They were being ambiguous. “You’re in Love” by Ratt, for example. Lots of makeup, tight pants, etc. Just kinda shouting a metaphoric “FUCK ME, PLEEEEZ FUCK ME” to the audience. The hair-metal bands were almost parodic of the conventions of heavy metal, crossed with the uncritical emotionalism of classic rock.
Picture Sebastian Bach singing “Remember Yesterday”, his lower lip trembling with each warble of vibrato. He’s wearing lip gloss. Sebastian later went on to star in Jeckyll & Hyde on Broadway. Not very metal. He sure was pretty back then. Long hair, but shaven, accentuating the androgynous femininity of that whole scene.
It seems somewhat different for punk. Old-school punk that is. Musicianship was less of a focus, the music served as an outlet for social angst. They didn’t seem to be trying to be tough, so much, I mean except the skinheads, or straight edge (talk about fucked up) kids. I think Henry Rollins has a bit of the tough-guy complex, just like ol’ James Hetfield. TGC.
Metallica as a whole has TGC, definitely. That lead guitarist has the least of it, I’ll admit, all balding and nerdy. But Lars, stop making those faces, you’re a drummer. Yes it’s physical, and even sort of violent. But I bet you could go on at length about padafluflahs, paradiddles, how to tune a drum, what kind of sticks you use, the nuances of different kinds of hihats, and on and on and on. I know drummers.
Metallica basically sacrificed any tough-guy cred their loud amplifiers had built up when they let a filmmaker capture their therapy sessions for the “Some Kind of Monster” documentary. Ok, you pussies, tough-guys don’t go to fucking THERAPY for fuck’s sake. Not very metal. But when you’ve got more money than God I guess you might stop caring quite so much about your image. Until you’ve made the sacrifice and realize that you probably value that image more than the money. Look for Metallica, at some point, to start making a big point about how tough they still are. “Our new record is the most hard core we’ve ever made. It’s more raw.” Bands are always saying their new record is more raw.
Ok Alice, go play with some snakes.
Motley Crue split the diff between punk, metal, and the faux-metal jackabramoffs. They acted out like punks, they put on airs like metalheads, and they played up their androgynous style like every other 80’s band and got lots of pussy for it. “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” should be enough evidence to forever cement Tommy Lee’s image at the bottom of the “big pussy” vat. Enormous penis notwithstanding. Did you ever notice that nobody ever cums in those celebrity sex videos? Ok, keep pretending you haven’t watched at least a little bit of them.
Rob Halford is now going “whoauohhuohhyeah” repeatedly, in a call-and-response with the audience. The congregation rather. It’s a little scat thing, nonsense words shouted back and forth in tune. The congregation has a pretty damn good collective voice, actually. I’d like to hear this Judas Priest crowd sing a hymn. Hell, they’re actually more in tune than Rob at points. Holy shit, how long is this going to go on? It’s not faintly ridiculous, it’s a clear, brightly-shining ridiculosity. The Pompeii of ridiculous. Krakatoa. Dear Lord.
Oh wait, it’s at the Budokan, in Tokyo Japan. That explains… something. At the very least it explains how in 2004 Judas Priest can fill a stadium. Is the music and the whole show so foreign to other countries that it just never loses its appeal? It’s like they can’t recognize the stale stench of just-out-of-date American pop-culture. At the same time, Japanese trends fall faster than sparrow-tipped dominoes.
50,000 Japanese Judas Priest fans singing “Amazing Grace” in four-part harmony. It would be beautiful.
I think the ambition to tough explains a lot of bad behavior. They’re embarrassed to be musicians. To make a living with their fingers, their fine muscle control, their grasp of music theory, their ability to line up tropes and melody in a way that sounds natural. It ain’t easy. They sing, they manipulate electronics, they talk about things they, and their audience wish they could accomplish or experience. These aren’t things tough-guys do. They relate their impression of the world to other people. They’re minstrels. Minstrels aren’t tough. Minstrels get beat up. Especially gay minstrels like Rob Halford. And they don’t take it like a man.
Those Scandinavian Black Metal bands, for example. They’re wrapped up in this imagery they’ve created, and they can’t get out of it. So amorous of the tough-guy image, so desirous of living the part of an evil being, they do stuff like set each other on fire or cut each other’s heads off and throw body parts in the stewpot. Evil things. But they’re still musicians, even if they’re more fucked up than usual. And musician, I’m sorry but it’s true, equals pussy. Whiny, devil-worshipping, cannibalistic pussy. The sequel to C.H.U.D.
I think Hemingway might have wrestled with some of these issues. By all accounts, he was a tough guy. But he was a writer, foremost, making a living by telling stories, by THINKING. Could the war between being a man of the world, of physicality, and being a man of the mind have contributed to some of his antics? Fighting in the Spanish civil war (I think that’s him, right?) Running with the bulls? Shooting sharks with a Tommy gun from the deck of his boat? Commiting suicide via shotgun? A manly way to go, but still. You’re a writer, dude. You and William Burroughs, peas in a pod.
Rob just said “sayonara”, and has deigned to lift his head to say goodbye. The closing music, played over the sound system as the priest boys take a bow, is some song with the lyrics “United united united we stand, united we never shall fall.” In leather, with spiked collars.
Perhaps the problem is that it’s difficult to live up to that tough-guy image created by movies and novels. In real life it’s hard to get the lighting right. It’s hard to conjure up a black-and-white situation in which to act. If you’re a real tough-guy you’re most likely inclined to things the average person with a tough-guy complex would find repellent. Live in squalor, for example. Take a beating. Be dirty.
Plus the average person doesn’t have the style chops to be a tough-guy. That calculated tough-guy image is very style-conscious. Which is definitely not something a tough-guy thinks about. So there’s another aspect to the heavy-metal exercise that flies in the face of their apparent goal– metal has that whole black/leather/spikes bullshit going on, which obviously takes a lot of sartorial thought, misguided though it may be. And that kind of thing isn’t very tough.
VH1 follows the Budokan concert up with a couple Priest videos. One called “Love Bites”, from when Halperin had hair and no goatee. And now some concert footage– ooh, Rob just floated up onstage via some kind of lift in a trap door. Very slick. This concert video is “Here Comes the Revolution”. Heh, Halperin in shades makes me think of Cartman shouting “Respect mah authoritah!”
The crowds always eat it up, of course. They love their Judas Priest. They love those album covers, they love to thrash their heads, raising their fists or a single pointed finger to the sky. Apparently a good number of them like to wear their hair long, but with copious facial hair. Is the facial hair an attempt to offset the feminine aspect of having long hair with visual proof of your manly potency via an unkempt mass of scratchy hair climbing down your neck? You don’t want to look like Sebastian Bach, not if you’re metal.
Anyway, I just don’t get the whole metal tough-guy thing. I’m sure they’d kick my ass for saying so, but I’m not trying to be a tough-guy. I’m a writer. I’ll kick your ass on paper, but that’s about it. Hmmm… a lot of these metal guys are tenors, too. There seemed to be a competition beetween the heavy metal lead singers to see who could sing the highest and hold the longest note. Yo dudes, I think Mariah Carey would win. Oh, and the makeup, like KISS. It’s makeup, yo! That’s not tough. Clowns wear less. Plus, you’re on fucking VH1 for crying out loud. Even if it’s a bastard child of VH1 like “VH1 Classic”. That’s not tougher, it’s just more obscure.
It’s all very Spinal Tap. They were huge in Denmark, I hear. Heh, this whole blog post can be boiled down to Harry Shearer, the bass player for Spinal Tap, trying to go through an airport metal detector with a foil-wrapped cucumber down his pants. And then later, in interview, smoking a long Sherlock-holmes style pipe.
If you want tough music, try “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” by Penderecki. But it’s made by artists, not tough-guys. Art music, though, is a different breed of tough. It’s an expression with artistic intent. Or emotional intent. Somewhat like punk, I think. Somebody should write a thesis about that.
I’m not immune, obviously. I was in the middle of that music-major football game, even as I was thinking how fucking stupid it was. I had something to prove too. I’m sure I still do. It serves a human need, I think, letting tech writers, MBAs, system admins and accountants pretend they’re tough for a few minutes, even if it’s completely foolish.
I like cranking System of a Down in my car. I admit it. I crank other “loud” stuff, like The Weakerthans or Hole, but they don’t make me feel tough. They make me feel better, or happy, or sad. SOAD lets me feel tough (and righteous), pounding on my steering wheel after a long day of typing on a damn computer about which kind of CD-R people should buy, or how to use your Web browser.
The lead singer of the Scorpions kind of looks like Michael Bolton.
So as much as I revel in the stupidity of musicians striving to appear tough in the eyes of fans, or taking advantage of the public’s desire for pop music combined with larger-than-life Sensitive Men Who Don’t Take Crap From Nobody, I’m a sucker for it myself. It’s ridiculous, but also ridiculously entertaining. In moderation. The days when the music that’s on VH1 Classic right now was the only thing you could hear on the radio were just fucking TORTURE. The recent phenomenon of “nu-metal” was just as torturous, and the latter days of Grunge weren’t any better. For every Nirvana we had thirty Candleboxen. Gah. I hope in twenty years I’ll be able to listen to that terrible, terrible Candlebox “song” and find it as amusic as “I’m a Rocker” by Judas Priest.
But I doubt it, ’cause it’s been 16 years since Stevie B’s “Because I Love You”, and that song still makes me want to dig my eardrums out of my head. With a rusty nail, because I’m a tough-guy.