Monday, October 13, 2008

Problem Child

A Veteran of the Metal Milita Reflects on his Service
Online exclusive essay by Mutt Ploughman, with tongue firmly in cheek.

I was recrüeted into service in the metal militia at age thirteen. The 1983 album Shout at the Devil by Mötley Crüe was responsible. The idea of screaming back at Satan for all the appalling pain he had inflicted on my heavily burdened existence – living as I was under significant duress in upper-middle class suburban New Jersey – appealed to me in an almost Paleolithic way. When I heard that sinister narration by a voice identified as ‘Allister Fiend’ on ‘In the Beginning’, the album’s biblically-flavored prologue, urge me to ‘be strong, and shout at the Devil’, I considered that an oath of service. I took up my bludgeon and strode willfully onto the warpath.

Of course, none of this sat very well with the outgoing chain of command: my parents. Infatuation with a heavy metal band whose records included such transparent offerings as ‘Too Fast For Love’, ‘Bastard’, and the impossible-to-justify ‘God Bless the Children of the Beast’, and whose drum kits and merchandise were plastered with Satanic-looking pentagrams, wasn’t exactly smiled upon in our Roman Catholic household. It was pointed out to me that I was, technically, still an altar boy at our parish. You see the contradictory impression created by your church activities in combination with your burgeoning musical interests, the Authorities said. I do, I conceded, but let me remind you, as merely one example of the pitfalls associated with jumping to conclusions, that the Mötley Crüe record is called Shout at the Devil? The Devil is bad, correct? No harm done! One preposition was the bedrock of my defense.

I attempted to enlist in the Crüe’s ‘Safety in Numbers’, or ‘S.I.N’, Fan Club, the instructions on how to do so being helpfully provided on the album sleeve. But I could not come up with the dues, and even if I could have, I was unable to subvert the in-house financial system in order to deliver the money. There was simply no way my parents would allow me to forfeit my wages, hard-earned in slave labor on a paper route, to join something called the ‘S.I.N. Club’.

No matter, for by then mentally, ideologically, and perhaps even theologically, I had already joined the militia, and I felt the camaraderie with my brothers in arms. I had discovered the place where I fit in. I stepped into that mystic land where the drums were always pounding, the battle was never over, the blood flowed all the time and the screams were unceasing.

Ok, so there were a few obstacles impeding my advancement through the ranks. I was only thirteen, after all. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t buy my own records, let alone an improved wardrobe full of spandex and studded leather. I didn’t even try to grow my hair long – a major problem, for in metal the correct appearance made up for most lapses in substance and talent. But it was something I could have never gotten away with in my parents’ house.

I didn’t have much of a physical form, either. So I wasn’t breaking any heads, let alone getting any girls, and what I would have attempted to do with those girls if I ever got them is best left to the annals of bad YA novels about under-developed losers. Ironically enough, these were the same kinds of books I was being assigned to read at the time, preposterous tree-defilers like The Chocolate War and Bless the Beasts and Children that I am sure would have proved my point had I read them.

In the beginning, then, I did the best I could. I studied the music and, most importantly, learned the words. I had my friends whose parents were less formidable adversaries than my own make Maxell tape copies of their records, which I would smuggle into our house in book bags. Yes, Mom, lots of homework today, let me just lug this thing upstairs so there is no possibility of my forgetting to set to it.

Occasionally, because of the paper route and other degrading jobs like cutting wealthier people’s grass, I would scrape together a little cash of my own. This would prompt me to embark on patrols, usually on foot, to a record shop to buy an LP or cassette. Then I would try to transport the goods across lines without being captured by the Authorities or compromised by my older brother, who was above heavy metal, but took pleasure in ratting out my twin brother and me. It was all hazardous stuff, and I thrived on the danger. Metal had never been for the weak-hearted, and it wasn’t going to start being that way under my watch.

I remember the day I commanded a ten-speed individual combat transport about eight or ten miles to a Pathmark supermarket, in the intermittent rain, just to purchase an LP copy of Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance. I can still see the $5.99 price tag in my mind’s eye. That record’s title boiled my entire mental state to three words. The fact that singer Rob Halford literally screamed through most of the title song lent much credibility to the enterprise. He sounded the way I felt.

A title like that could not possibly be figurative. If there was anything I was not interested in in those early years of service, it was nuance. The warriors I longed to follow in battle would take the fight straight to the enemy. Judas Priest delivered exactly what I was looking for.

Over the first two or three years of my tour it became harder and harder to beat the security system in the suburban gulag where I was imprisoned. My parents caught on quick and drew in the lines. Meanwhile, simultaneously, the albums themselves took greater pains to offend. Kill ‘Em All. Invasion of Your Privacy. Lick It Up. Orgasmatron. Spreading the Disease. Stay Hard. Innocence Is No Excuse. The Number of the Beast. Ad infinitum. On one album alone, Accept’s Metal Heart, included the following songs, any one of which would have prompted summary execution of my entire record cache: ‘Dogs on Leads’, ‘Too High To Get It Right’, ‘Wrong Is Right’, ‘Bound To Fail’, and ‘Screaming For A Love Bite’.

The pinnacle of my smuggling operation may have been the time I hitched a ride to a mall in Livingston, New Jersey, purchased a record called See You In Hell by Grim Reaper, and managed to get it inside enemy lines and on to our crappy turntable in the basement. If my parents had ever managed to find it, they might have declared with confidence that I would see whoever was responsible for that album there if I did not make a decision to change my ways.

At about age 16, though, I became caught in a rut. Listening to the records, drawing the bands’ logos on my grocery-bag textbook covers, and scrounging the occasional tour t-shirt out of life was not going to cut it anymore. I was being called to a higher level of service. As the reader has no doubt discovered for themselves, your humble scribe was in possession of reserves of talent. Since no one seemed to be summoning me to the front, inexcusably, I had to initiate my own offensive offensive. But in what form, and how would I sustain it?

Then, in a spectacular communications breakdown, the sort on which great conflicts hinge, my mother bought me a used bass guitar for Christmas against my father’s wishes. This was explicit evidence of dissention within the enemy ranks, for I knew my father would never have signed off on the procurement order. I expressed genuine gratitude whilst resolving to make both of them pay dearly for this snafu. In my mind I immediately began drawing up a list of potential band mates. I had never played the bass for one second in my entire life, but no problem, I would learn.

My brother and I had a long history of making up fictional bands and albums on our own, perhaps in anticipation of a greater destiny. In eighth grade we created a fake band called Hooded Lizard (names that failed to make the cut were ‘Blood Monkey’ and ‘Brain Damage’); it was for them that he one day conceived and even drew up cover art for a debut album, Maul. Maul’s first single, ‘The Sun Don’t Shine On Those Who Rock’, would have taken its proper position alongside such hard rock classics as ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)’ and ‘Rock And Roll All Night’, had it merely had the benefit of not being imaginary.

Then I took the whole thing one step further. I began penning my own lyrics to match explosive musical arrangements that were detonating perpetually inside my skull. It was around this time that I produced my signature teenage manifesto, a paean to my own lofty aspirations. The song was called ‘Problem Child’. Before you say it, this was well before that ridiculous C-movie with the guy from ‘Three’s Company’; that didn’t come out until 1990. Anyway, here’s a sample:

Problem child, bad attitude
They say you’re loud and rude
They’re takin’ what you never had
It makes you pretty mad!

Get back, look out
I’m a problem child
Nowhere to run from the grip
Of a problem child

Before long, my twin brother was singing lead vocals, since he didn’t play an instrument, and I was the bassist for our first band, Igniter. We found a guitarist named Andy, who was genuinely talented, and convinced a drummer friend of ours, Dave, to not only join our band, but to strong-arm his parents into letting us use their basement as a rehearsal studio/headquarters. His drum kit was already set up there anyway. The sonic assault must have been unbearable; I don’t know how his folks held out for as long as they did. They must have been dug in pretty well.

Later we changed the name to Outrage. What was the difference? All we knew was that we couldn’t call ourselves Cutthroat, because that was the name of a rival band at our high school.

We began with covers, like any band. I remember playing Priest’s ‘Living After Midnight’ and Metallica’s ‘Seek And Destroy’ over and over again. But all of us knew what we eventually had to do. The first original song we wrote and performed was ‘Problem Child’. After that, we opened every single rehearsal with it. It is impossible for me to ever forget the guitar riff or the bass line. Like all soldiers, we broke the job down into small parts and repeated them until we could play the whole song without the hindrance of cognition. ‘Problem Child’ was our Pledge of Allegiance, our Preamble, and our Bill of Rights. My brother dug deep on that song, for it was required; he belted out the final ‘I’m a problem chiiiiiiiiiild!!!’ in a high note that none of us knew he was capable of hitting. Such is the power of rock.

As frontman, it was obvious that my brother had to write his own song, make his own statement. A leader must be willing to take the point. He responded with nothing short of prophecy, predicting at least three future global events in the apocalyptic ‘Hysteria Forever’:

That one fleeting moment
That one reaction
Is going to become this night’s main attraction
Everyone is jumpin’, not knowin’ what to do
It’s a whirlwind of lunacy
It’s comin’ straight for you

No one knows what to say
No one knows what to do
When the hammer falls
They’ll come to kill us all

Hysteria!
Hysteria forever!
Hysteria!
Hysteria forevermore!


As you can see, he was coming on strong for the cause. With those take-no-prisoners lyrics, the riffin’ possibilities were legion.

The band steadily grew in muscle, proficiency, and facial hair. Our practices extended for hours. My third-hand amplifier, probably busted before it ever got to me, started sending painful electric shocks through the bass strings to my fingers; it was shorting out. All the better. It sounded exactly like an insane 1,000-pound wasp, underwater, stapled to a buzz saw. I remember attempting to squeeze in syncopated bass fills wherever they would fit. The bass mattered in hard rock. If you didn’t have a rock solid foundation down below, your wall of sound crumbled. My job was to drive the rhythm section, but I also had to tear it up.

Andy, lead guitarist, was listening to a lot of Suicidal Tendencies and Stormtroopers of Death at the time; he wanted to try a punk-inspired hard rock tune. He threw down the gauntlet. Bring it on, said we. The result was the rebellious crowdpleaser ‘I Woke Up Late’. Andy’s lyrics played it close to the vest – the song resembled our real lives only slightly more than our other rock sagas did – but we compensated musically with a power-chord stompfest that made everyone who heard it bang their head.

I woke up late and I’m tired right now
School is open and I don’t wanna go
I woke up late and I’m tired right now
School is open and I don’t want to show

School was open all right – for all competing bands. Outrage was on a tear. Other originals soon followed, breaking even more new ground. One song I wrote while in a more somber mood, ‘Origin’, summoned up everything from Beowulf to J.R.R. Tolkien in the mode of a classic quest narrative. The lyric depicted a lone warrior ‘hunting land and sea’ in search of his ‘Origin’ – a nebulous, perilous metaphor for the universal search for meaning in a cruel world. For some reason the metaphor was reinforced musically via a bass solo.

Later, another original composition, music and lyrics both written by Andy, somehow became both the high point of our musical competence and the forewarning of our band’s demise. The song, appropriately titled ‘Shattered Dreams’, was the first we had written that featured a more complex arrangement than your average high school-level construct of ‘verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus chorus chorus’. Thanks to Andy’s development as a musician, the new tune had shifting time signatures and a few extra bridges built into the framework. I was only too motivated to learn my part and suggest enhancements. Andy came up with the idea to play the opening riff with the benefit of a flanger effect pedal he had recently purchased. My brother bellowed the vocal with appropriate vitriol.

Sadly, however, ‘Shattered Dreams’ led to Outrage’s own individual Waterloo. A Battle of the Bands was coming up at our school, and we agreed we were not men if we did not try out for it. It was high time to take to the stage and deliver our message to the masses, who were begging to be stirred up into a frenzy. One must recall that at that time the metal militia was on the cusp of taking over the entire globe. Metal albums were all over the Billboard Top 200. We weren’t satisfied to just sit back and let other people take the fight to the enemy, which by now consisted of all persons in any position of authority. All metalheads by definition lust for a piece of the action, wherever it is. Besides, our name was Outrage. If we had no intention to take our music to the people, we might as well have called ourselves Inrage.

We informed the committee at our high school that Outrage was throwing our hat into the ring. They answered that we had to submit to a live audition in front of said committee. So one afternoon they sent a delegation of the most popular kids from our high school – juniors and seniors who would have not given us the time of day if we had been alone on a desert island and they had been spotted a timepiece. They came over to Andy’s house, where for whatever reason we had relocated our setup into his upper bedroom. This cluster of nitwits that none of us could stand, who listened to stuff like Steely Dan and Madonna, filed in to the room with their clipboards and expensive clothes. We stood in our ripped jeans with instruments slung over our shoulders like battle axes, as if in a Viking troop formation. ‘We’re Outrage,’ my brother informed them bravely. Subtext: we’re gonna rock your asses off.

Unfortunately, when we got to our own complicated original, ‘Shattered Dreams’, we wrecked our vessel on the jagged shores of ambition. We got lost in the middle section of the song that was supposed to be our defining set piece. As we halted in mid-bridge and exchanged flustered glances, the fight flew from our hearts. It was all the committee could do not to laugh out loud. They managed to hold it in as we limped to the end of our audition, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds. ‘We’ll be in touch,’ said the committee. We didn’t make the cut, and never performed live. And that was what might now be called the death of Outrage.


* * * *

About four years later, I was home during the summer from attending college. My life and my tastes had changed considerably. I was an ROTC cadet with short-cropped hair. My grades were far better than I had ever achieved in high school. I was contemplating a career in the real militia, the United States Army. I was starting to listen to the sort of stuff that would have made my former self aghast with disbelief. Bruce Springsteen. Sting. Peter Gabriel. Even folk music. But I was still, for whatever reason, writing my own lyrics, and I had taken up acoustic guitar. I still had the desire to create my own music. So I called up my old friend Andy, formerly of Outrage, and asked him if he wanted to write a song together.

For a couple of weeks we collaborated closely in the same bedroom we had performed our disastrous audition in, writing and rewriting the music to a song I had written called ‘The Threshold of Truth’. Andy by then had his own 4-track mixer, and we used it to record a vocal track (sung by yours truly) and three acoustic guitar parts, which he subsequently mixed. Both of us got to perform guitar solos; it is still the only time I have ever tried to record a solo in any capacity. I can remember how challenging it was; I played my little four-bar solo about a hundred and fifty times before finally getting it right with the reels rolling. At last we produced a single copy of ‘The Threshold of Truth’ that we were both very proud of. I had a renewed appreciation for what went into making music.

I listened to the finished product on the way home in my car one balmy, dark summer night, hearing my own voice articulating a lyric that had come to me from God knew where – some latent, inner hunger for experience and the sort of wisdom that was still a long way off.

Staring at pictures of days gone by
My life’s been short and long at the same time
Now I can’t remember all the faces and names
But hope I’m stronger with the knowledge I’ve gained

We pray someday we’ll break from our youth
‘Til then we’re stuck on the threshold of truth
We pray someday we might find the truth
‘Til then we’re stuck with the questions of youth

All of a sudden, during that slow drive home through our sleepy suburb under a canopy of stars, winking because they were clued in to the larger comedy that eluded me, something dawned in my brain. ‘Staring at pictures’? ‘Knowledge’? ‘We pray’? ‘Truth’? Where was the rock? And what the hell happened to the Problem Child?

The truth treated me like a battering ram. At that moment my metal heart crashed and burned, leaking motor oil and acid and blood in one highly flammable mixture. As I listened to my little folk song, knowing I would never go back again, I had to face a bitter reality. I had reached that place where one convinces himself: Those days are behind me, I am too grown up for that now, I have things to do, places to go, people to meet, I may one day start a family, a steady job is looking like a wise idea.

When I served in the metal militia, long ago, we had a term for that state of mind. It wasn’t screaming for vengeance. It was selling out.

3 comments:

Duke Altum said...

Obviously this piece reflects some of my own lived history so I am somewhat biased, but I found it to be frickin' HILARIOUS... this is a new level of humor for Mutt, certainly in the non-fiction realm. Who else could imbue a "memoir" of adolescent years listening to, and attempting to play, cheesy 80's metal with a soldier's sense of mission?? Not since the heyday of The Kiss Army has there been such a fruitful marriage of the musical with the martial...

The essay seems well-timed too, seeing as such aging VMW's (Veterans of Metal Wars) as AC/DC have just released a new barrage of ludicrously juvenile arena rock (exclusively distributed by Wal-Mart, by the way... you talk about "selling out"!!!) - and will probably make gajillions off of it!

The wit in this piece is razor-sharp and as someone who, as I say, was present at the creation, I can tell you Mutt nails the mood and bottled-up youthful "rage" of the time spot-on... it's hard to miss the slightly elegiac tone of the ending section as well, which at first threw me off a bit but after talking a little with Mutt about it, I think is effective as a way of saying that no matter how stupid and juvenile all of the above undeniably was, it was still self-expression... and while that yearning to find your voice may change and mature a bit over time, the impulse is still the same. For the purposes of the essay, the ending about "selling out" works, but to me what's interesting is that when you flash forward four years or so later, the same kid is still trying to find a way to express himself through music. I guess Mutt's time in the metal trenches taught him something after all...

Cathy said...

Duke, prepare to sing next time I see you....

Duke Altum said...

Cathy, you should ask Mutt to sing, not me - he's the rock star here! I was just a pretender... I peaked too early with my "MAUL" concept album...

BTW, it was great to see you and your whole family recently - your girls are beautiful!! It was an honor to stand next to you up there and seeing as we're both Godparents to my man PJ, we're gauaranteed to cross paths again multiple times which is a blessing for me! You guys have a fantastic family, may God continue to bless it!