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Metal Thoughts

Marc Olmsted

The skatepunks have a blockparty on a side street of
the warehouse district I live in – guttural cries from
the Abyss in broad daylight – I got to investigate –
old Buddha friend out of 3 year retreat and his 20
year old hippie niece from Seattle come along –
even my usual all-in-black unshaven dirty hair
pierced ear with a skull
wraparound shades
won’t pass here –
bands amped from God knows what power source – 
a nod to the older gent w/ mohawk,
a ferret on his shoulder,
just one mind training slogan on this illustrated man –
my tattoo on deltoid doesn’t show, as pitiful as a
tramp stamp about a secretary’s thong in this
collapsing black hole –
he looks through me –
it’s speed. metal, beer and cigarettes –
some girls are weekenders from vintage clothing stores –
some boys are feral, an inbred look in their eyes –
my heart aches with the local demons, time to go,
pulling back from the skimpy mosh pit
to join my cringing friends


My recent interaction led to these musings…

William S. Burroughs gave the name Uranium Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid to one of his sci fi Hammett-like crooks.  As Richard Modiano explained to me, “heavy metal” refers to metal derivatives such as uranium and plutonium that have a dense atomic particle count. After the atom bomb was dropped a bunch of popular science articles appeared, and Burroughs probably came across the term in his reading. Heavy metals are known for their toxicity. Richard added, “So you could say that Burroughs gave the expression new meaning.”

It’s unclear exactly when it was adopted in the rock lexicon, though the synchronicity of the name Led Zeppelin is certainly worth noting, just as the band itself is essentially the godfather of all things metal. 

The two most evident elements of significance that Zeppelin made part of the signs and signifiers of metal include a dominant bottom-heavy sound and a high-pitched vocal style that more recently has been overridden by the later Black Metal guttural “voice of the Pit.”  Also worthy of attention, preoccupations with the 19th Century ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley was also right there from the start, from Jimmy Page through Ozzy Osbourne and including Marilyn Manson, and one can see an even greater prevalence of a more dumbed down Satanism, which for the large part represents a rejection of Christian anti-pleasure, or as Crowley said, “The word of Sin is Restriction.”  (And William Blake before him: “The lust of the goat is the bounty of God,” to say nothing of his “The road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.”).  This Satanism has occasionally wandered into Charlie Manson territory, but for a large part is just a preoccupation with sex, drugs, and horror films, with the occasional desire for transcendental knowledge or at least deprogramming of cultural lies, as in thrash metal’s Slayer.  “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” quoth permissive Metal Parent Supreme, Mr. Burroughs from Hassan-i Sabbāh, "the old man of the mountain." Friend and sometimes collaborator Brion Gysin turned Burroughs on to the 11th Century Persian master assassin and these purported deathbed words. 

It seemed inevitable that doom metal Sunn0))) would eventually turn metal into its own religious ritual, replete with hooded robes.  Perhaps equally inevitable would be its use among American soldiers riding tanks into combat zones, unfortunately confirming its Conan the Barbarian testosterone-amped warrior god roots as well.

Piercing the body and the tattoo where appropriated from punk, which has its own metal-like elements but can be excluded by a more even-handed mix of bass and lead guitar, if only in a more primitive garage understanding of the studio mix.  But the idea of piercing, branding or tattooing the body becomes part of the Nietzsche-like “that which does not destroy me makes me strong.”  Pushing metal through the body (as in the self-transgressive films Return of the Living Dead III, Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tokyo Fist) becomes a kind of willful embrace of an increasingly industrial world. 

Industrial music has been a clear bedfellow of metal, as is evident in Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.  The most obvious link is again in the bottom-heavy rhythms of both formsAny question as to the inherent component of metal in Manson’s band could be seen in the quality in between the departure and eventual (& celebrated) return of bassist Twiggy Ramirez.  Goth, like punk, has similar cross-pollination, but Goth’s sound is equally preoccupied with post-psychedelic lead guitar and vocal styles created by Siouxsie Sioux of the Banshees and Peter Murphy of Bauhaus.  Emo, however pejorative, does captures the more emotional and romantic aspects of rock that are distinctly non-metal. 

Of course, there are the hair bands.  I could not believe how awful glam metal’s Mötley Crue was when I finally heard them.  And the kid bands, like shock rock’s Kiss, pop metal Quiet Riot, Brit metal’s Iron Maiden.  If you didn’t hear them as a teenager, you probably aren’t imprinted.  Glam metal’s Twisted Sister had its moments, as did shock rock’s Alice Cooper.  Thrash metal’s Metallica is unto itself.  I remember when Guns ‘n Roses surfaced – suddenly all these guys had long hair again.  They’re also pop metal, which is not pejorative, but a term that describes glam metal’s morphing into emphasis on music over image and bigger audiences.  Behind what closed doors had they grown it?  Punk’s revolution replaced by bad boy white pimp aspirations. 

Metal isn’t going away.  It proves to be one of the most adaptive sub-categories of rock that’s out there.  Its basic tribal sound is the distilled core of rock itself.  Beast be with you.

Special thanks to Sam Dunn’s doc on DVD Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, (which has an outstanding stylistic flow chart in its Special Features) for verification and elucidation.