–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Growing Up Metal

by | May 28, 2024

Though not really Metal, my first love for hard rock music came when I was in the third grade, in the form of the band KISS. 

It was 1976, and KISS could be counted on to be hated by parents, and while their style was not entirely new – the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper were doing something similar earlier – KISS brought a level of spectacle that was unmatched at the time, aside from Prog Rock acts. For an eight-year-old like me, the sex-drenched lyrics, striking makeup and provocative presence, and the killer riffs and solos coming off of Ace Frehley’s guitar made for an intoxicating experience. That I was introduced to the band by the class delinquent and local tough kid only lent the whole thing an even greater appeal.

This “allure of the heavy” is something I’ve been wondering about lately. What about heavy rock music spoke so strongly to me and to other boys my age? I’m not suggesting for one second that there are no female hard rockers or hard rock fans, as nothing could be farther from the truth. Going as far back as Suzi Quatro, whose first album was released in 1973, acts like The Runaways, Girlschool, and more recently, The Donnas have demonstrated that the girls can and will rock out as hard as the boys.

Joan Jett and Lita Ford of the Runaways

The point is that Heavy Metal is masculine in its energy and affect: the grandiosity; the epic themes; the brazen displays of technical prowess; the fist-pumping anthems; the naked aggression and force; delivered by way of pounding rhythms, heavily distorted guitars, big chords, and wailing, sometimes even operatic vocals. All represent ways of showing off and acting out that are most common among males, and most importantly — and unlike Punk — Metal was un-ironic. Many boys don’t like their fantasies messed with, and at the time, to me, Metal was the ultimate power fantasy.

Later, when I reached an age at which girls became an object of serious, rather than merely voyeuristic interest (in my case, around fourteen), this music was the first thing that had to go. The number of Metal girls – or even Metal tolerant girls – in my high school was just too small, so I needed a serious music/style/friends makeover. Given the times and the kinds of girls I was into, this meant a New Wave/New Romantic renovation on my part. It was only a partial concession, as a substantial portion of the New Wave included some pretty hard rocking music, being created as it was by former Punk musicians. (Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell (1983) was a personal favorite, as well as the favorite of a punk/New Wave girl on whom I had a crush and with whom I went to see Idol live at the Beacon Theater in 1984). But if I ever listened to bona fide Metal back in those days, it was in private. I would only openly display my love of Metal again years later, after college.

But, back to KISS. By 1977, I had all of the records up through Destroyer, whose “Detroit Rock City” had become my personal anthem (the fatal drunk/stoned driving incident that is the subject of the song’s lyrics went completely over my head), and I was dying to see them live. My father, to his eternal credit, secured tickets for a show at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island, not far from where we lived (and where my mother still does), and took me to it, as I obviously was too young to go by myself. While KISS’s music and image made me feel cool at school and at home (I would dress and make myself up like Paul Stanley and leap around my living room, playing air guitar to their records and even posed for my school class photo, with my lips visibly pursed, in solidarity with the Hottest Band in the Land), once at the concert, I quickly realized that neither the music nor the band were really meant for kids at all. Aside from my father and me, everyone at the show was big, long-haired, and tough-looking. The entire arena reeked of marijuana (I had no idea what it was at the time, of course), and everyone was drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. During the most popular songs, girls were pulling off their shirts and climbing on guys’ shoulders to shake their tits at everyone. I was thrilled beyond measure and scared to death, and clutched my father’s hand throughout the whole thing.

In my later childhood and “tween” years, I got heavily into science fiction and fantasy literature and films. In the fifth grade, I began playing Dungeons and Dragons, which had come out in 1974 and offered a level of immersion in fantastical environments and narratives far beyond anything possible in books or film. This also helped feed my interest in hard rock and Metal, whose lyrical content and musical atmosphere often drew from the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres, and this led me to a local band, Blue Oyster Cult, founded by a bunch of guys at SUNY Stony Brook. Their sci-fi/fantasy inflected hard rock music was played regularly on 70’s and 80’s FM radio (BOC’s 1976 song, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and 1981’s “Burnin’ for You” were hits), and the band even invited legendary science fiction and fantasy writer Michael Moorcock — whose books were among my favorites at the time — to contribute lyrics, as in the song “Black Blade,” which is about Moorcock’s most famous character, Elric of Melnibone.

This love for genre literature and film also brought me to Black Sabbath, although at first it was to the brilliant though short-lived incarnation with ex-Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, between 1980 and 1981, rather than the band’s classic 1970’s Ozzy-Osbourne era music. The two records Sabbath did with Dio then — Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981) — included some of the heaviest, most distorted guitars Iommi had produced yet, and Dio’s lyrics ranged across the full spectrum of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. I loved it.

It wouldn’t be long before I was a fan of the classic era material too. After all, given the kind of boy I was, there was no way I wasn’t going to love a band that had albums with covers like this.

Black Sabbath’s, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)

In the sixth grade, I even got a t-shirt with this image on it and “The Mob Rules” added in iron-on letters on the back. To this day, I’m amazed that my parents bought the thing for me.

Ozzy-era Sabbath channeled horror more than fantasy, and their first album was so atmospheric and heavy that it created a new genre, “Heavy Metal,” a negative image of the Flower Power that had dominated the music of the previous era and which, post-Altamont, seemed out of touch. There had been hard rocking bands before — The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Blue Cheer all had songs with heavy beats and distorted guitars — but nothing even in the same universe as this. And while the album is steeped in the blues, this would be less and less true over time, and eventually would be abandoned entirely when Metal “purified,” in the years that followed.

In Junior High and early high school (1980-1983), I was friends with a bunch of metalheads. Not the most extreme variety — our local “greasers” (yes, we actually called them that) were into early thrash Metal and bands like Venom that represented a Bridge Too Far for my friends and me who, for all of our Metal-ness were still pretty bourgeois  — but with all the characteristics and accouterments of the typical Metal fan. Denim jackets covered with patches of our favorite bands, sometimes even with album covers meticulously painted on the back panel. Long hair. Aviator sunglasses. Fantasies of toughness and manliness expressed through a love for violent action movies like Escape from New York (1981) and The Terminator (1984) and juvenile enthusiasms for ninjas, mercenaries, and Soldier of Fortune magazine. Add my then-newly discovered and favorite radio station, WCWP (broadcast from the campus of Long Island University), which hosted a show devoted entirely to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that had roared onto the scene in 1979 with Saxon’s debut, and my quest to becoming a young albeit somewhat mainstream Metalhead was finally fulfilled.

Saxon’s Debut (1979)

The NWOBHM represented Metal purification, shedding itself of any remaining blues elements, and the music was heavier and faster; an almost relentless sonic assault. (Subsequent purifications would be responsible for extreme sub-genres like thrash and death Metal.) The NWOBHM also established the look of Heavy Metal: leather, denim, studs, and other accessories previously belonging almost entirely to BDSM subcultures (including, interestingly, Gay ones). But though all of these elements were established with the NWOBHM, they really all go back to one band: Judas Priest.

Priest is as old as Sabbath (their first album debuted in 1974, but the group was formed in 1969), and enjoys an equal place as one of Metal’s originators. If Sabbath gave Metal its subject matter, guitar textures and tones, and major riffs, Priest stripped it of the blues and gave it its speed and look (the latter most iconically represented on its classic 1979 live album, Unleashed in the East). What was started by Sabbath was refined and polished by Priest and then codified in the NWOBHM.

Judas Priest in the late 1970’s

I fell hard for the NWOBHM, and to this day several bands remain high in my list of favorites – Saxon, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang, and Angel Witch are staples in my Heavy Metal mixes – but at the time, two bands really stood out to me: Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. Leppard would cross over into the mainstream in a huge way with their albums Pyromania (1983) and Hysteria (1987), which were all over prime-time MTV, but their second album, High and Dry (1981), was a NWOBHM classic that I played to death.

Maiden was another animal entirely and especially with their original vocalist, Paul Di’anno, and first drummer, Clive Burr. Di’anno had a lower, gruffer voice than the operatic Bruce Dickenson who would follow him, and the music was faster, nimbler, and tougher than the mid-tempo, proggy fare Maiden would be known for later. And those early album covers! Even if I had never heard Maiden on WCWP, I would have bought their albums just based on the covers alone.

The cover of the first Iron Maiden album (1980)

The second half of high school and my college years represented the point where my Metal inclinations were at their lowest ebb. It was the mid to late 1980’s, and the Metal that remained was either of the Glam-inflected, “Hair Metal” variety that I wasn’t into back in the day (I have a more favorable view of it now), or ever more extreme purifications and distillations of the genre, which at the time remained beyond my sensibilities. There also was the matter of girls or at least the ones whose circles I found myself in. I went full-on Greek during my four years at the University of Michigan, and the kinds of girls we encountered in the sororities with whom we partied were not the Metal kind.

I fell back into Metal in a major way in 1991, the year between college and graduate school. I was living in my parents’ house and working at a restaurant, situated in the Roosevelt Field shopping mall in Garden City, NY. My fellow employees were mostly students at our local community colleges and universities: Nassau Community College, Adelphi, and Hofstra University. They generally came from working class and lower middle class backgrounds, as most of the middle class, upper middle-class, and wealthy kids on Long Island went to college out of state, and this meant that there were plenty of Metal enthusiasts and notably, female ones. (Metal and class is a whole subject of its own that I won’t go into here.) Two girls in particular were seriously into Metal, and given that I was seriously into them, Metal was back in my life. It was different this time, though, and that was due partly to cocaine.

The Metal that had been a Bridge Too Far became the metal that I listened to regularly and primarily, Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth. It was ferocious, brutal, and lightning fast and the perfect music to listen to while doing coke, which was the drug of choice in the restaurant business back then, given the energized high it offered and the duress that is endemic to the trade. The girls did it. I did it. The managers did it. Everyone did it. And then, after our shifts were over, we would pile into our cars, blast Metallica (or Slayer or Megadeth) on our stereos, snort more coke and smoke joints and then descend upon the local bars, where we would drink until closing time and enrichen the bartenders with the money that we’d earned that night.

At this point, some may be thinking that my life took a rather hard turn, but it really was a whole lot of nothing. I had already been accepted to the Ph.D. program in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center and deferred it for a year. After twelve years of primary and secondary schooling and knowing that I would be years more in graduate school, I felt like I needed a year off to run wild. This didn’t worry me, as I knew its duration would be finite and short and that once I started graduate school, I’d be in entirely different circles and engaged in different activities. There was zero chance I was going to become some junkie.

Once I was in Graduate School, one of the students in my inner-circle of friends, Mike Menser, shared my love for Metal. He became my Metal companion; the guy I went to concerts with and who could be counted on to be the one person who would be happy when I played Thrash Metal at parties. We saw multiple Slayer shows together, including one legendary concert at Roseland, which also included Biohazard and Machine Head on the bill, in 1995.

At this point, I was 27 and no longer felt quite up to the physical demands of the “mosh pits” that had become routine at Thrash Metal shows. So, when I would go to these shows — which were always at smaller theaters that had bars in them — I would hang out at the bar in the back with the other “old-timers,” who could be identified not just by apparent age, but by the fact that they often wore t-shirts sporting the logos of older bands, like Sabbath and Priest. We would smoke cigarettes and joints — no one cared if you smoked pot at concerts back then — and watch the “kids” beat the crap out of each other in the mosh pit. When this particular show ended, I looked for Menser (who never saw a mosh pit he didn’t like) but couldn’t find him. When I finally gave up and left the venue, I noticed an ambulance nearby and Mike, sitting on the ground by it, being tended by paramedics. Apparently, during the playing of “Hell Awaits,” the crowd had surged forward at the point when the song first really kicked in, and Mike got crushed against the metal railing that separated the audience from the stage. Nothing could be more Metal than that.

After moving to Missouri in 1999 to begin my career as a philosophy professor, I married, became a father, and eventually stumbled and lurched into middle age. Now, years later still and recently retired, my musical tastes are eclectic and wide-ranging, and Metal is just one of many things I listen to. What is interesting, however, is which Metal continues to make my playlists, and that’s the early stuff: Sabbath, Priest, and the NWOBHM. Thrash has been largely left behind, and the only really fast and hard music I listen to now is hardcore Punk, and even that is a somewhat rare occurrence. At 56, I find myself (largely) secure in my masculinity, without a need for external expression. I no longer burn with the boyish and adolescent energy that only heavy guitars and anthemic choruses used to satisfy, but I sometimes find myself longing to remember how it felt when I did. And when I do, it is for the first, purest versions of those feelings, which are the ones that I experienced in my earlier years and to which those earlier versions of Metal spoke.

Dio era Black Sabbath