[Translation of my essay ‘Grafherrie en seriemoordernaar’, which appeared in an anthology about music.]
‘I didn’t hear voices. It was a conscious decision on my part. Umm – I didn’t hear voices. It was… it was a power, with me, it was more of a power thing. Because of… my fantasies, I act on my fantasies, you know. It was a conscious decision on my part.I didn’t hear voices. I didn’t hear voices.’
– Godflesh: Streetcleaner
A deadly monster is being created
LACKING TEMPERANCE, NOW there’s a familiar feeling. It’s all or nothing and life is best lived in peaks and dumps. I’m no fan of Guns’N’Roses, but Axl’s habit to start shrieking when he’s only reached line three or four of a song agrees with me. Moderation is of no use. Putting on a spurt is important; it simply helps. Like wearing shoulder pads to shape up in order to better bear with the world, or buying shoes one size too big and hoping you’ll grow large enough to fit them and will have to take on a brisker pace meanwhile anyway. (Sometimes this strategy doesn’t work, no matter how high one takes off: the promise is not redeemed, the energy and audacity remain surface, form without content, noise without weight.)
I like uneasy listening, scraps of noise in my ears, volume controls wide open. Post punk with reverberating gothic male voices and grasping hunting chased female voices. Death and thrash metal, full of fanged riffs, low bass lines and men gurgling blood in their throat, who when seemingly singing sound like a drainpipe badly in need of a plumber. Music that could function as the overture to a horror movie. Fair but foul. Music of which people in America think it drives you mad. Music of which people in Holland think it’s dangerous.
(Follows a description of a Bolt Thrower gig in the blackest terms possible, quoted from a recent Dutch novel. The author compares what’s going on on stage to something devilish: ‘an amorphous monster is being born, a baby made up out of sweat, beer and noise, compared to which Rosemary’s was angelic.’ Then, as a counterpoint, a description of a deathmetal gig that I attended. Quite a friendly atmosphere.)
The music is the symbol
Death metal is usually referred to as creepy and dangerous. The music is reputedly aggressive, crude and unwieldy; the lyrics – in as far as they’re intelligible – often deal with death and decay; bands have a distinct preference for names denoting nasty illnesses and physical defects; some musicians dote on satanism and serial killers; several young devotees take the lyrics far too serious and flirt with murder and suicide. Some serial killers habitually played heavy- or death metal, sometimes for days at a stretch.
‘Heavy metal [is] the music of a culture feasting on death. I think that this underlying message explains why so many desperate people are fanatical listeners of the genre,’ novelist and journalist Joost Niemöller argued in an essay on serial killers. From his article it transpires that he considers deathmetal to be highly dangerous, although he’s refuses to commit himself: ‘but the music is not the cause, it is the symbol.’
Shortly before, Niemöller published his novel The Muscle (1993) which reads as a catalogue of grindcore and death metal acts; almost every band that has a name to speak of – from Dismember, Cannibal Corpse and Carcass to Cemetary, Cathedral and the Spudmonsters – are mentioned.
In The Muscle Albert, a journalist, travels the United States. He continually plays deathmetal tapes and empties can after can of Budweiser. In fact he’s zapping the States: he visits lots of towns and meets lots of people, but nothing makes an impression. The only thing that sticks with him is his headache, which takes on various shapes. At times it seems as if he glimpses a memory; he wonders whether memories are connected to headaches. Meanwhile he is gathering information on Lee Harvey Oswald and when he stops making notes intended to solve the riddle of the murder, and of the murderer of the century, he thinks about killing.
Albert is afraid that he’s being monitored. They might spike your drink or do things with music. You never know. All you can do to ward them off is to cut open your victims to check whether their guts are may have been bugged. And of course you have to take lots of showers and play loud music, movies taught him that is the best way to disorder bugs and taps. He’s not quite sure who he really is, the headache has attached itself to him like a leech and if he has any thoughts at all, the headache makes them murky and useless by meddling with them.
Albert starts killing; or he thinks he does. All reviews took it for granted that Niemöller’s anti-hero actually works his way up to become a serial killer; the reviewers took the music Albert is listening to be as circumstantial evidence. But all through the book, Albert proves himself to be an utterly untrustworthy narrator who is unable to distinguish between fantasies and fears, who sees or does things which can’t have taken place. There are goldfish in his whiskey, Russian tanks crowd the streets and there’s blood dripping on the windows instead of rain. And who in the world would believe that a murderer could dissect his victims and hack off their toes with one of these tiny, always blunt knifes from a K-mart pedicure set? Without having to sharpen it even once?
And it is rather thin, plot-wise, to pass a character of as a serial killer merely by letting him listen to death metal. Uhm – How do we prove him a creep? Got it! Let’s make him a deathmetal fan! Brilliant. But it worked. Dutch critic Arjan Peters yelped in de Volkskrant that such music would certainly drive him crazy too. Niemöller and Peters both take the danger of such bands for granted. But I don’t buy this notion that death metal is shorthand for death & decay. (The members of Carcass, who have lyrics that boil down to endless lists taken from anatomical companions, all happen to be confirmed vegetarians. Singing about something and dissecting or eating it are two quite different things.)
There are, contrary to what Peters and Niemöller believe, hardly any satanist metal bands. Deicide is in fact the only one of any fame. Deicide worships the devil and, concurrently, wallows in blasphemy; during gigs they celebrate black mass and their singer has an upside-down cross burned in his forehead.
White metal is much more frequent than black metal. White metal is rock’n’reli: ‘Beautiful music, and they all spread the word of the Lord,’ as a visitor of the Spring Rock Festival put it. The Spring Rock Festival, which has taken place thrice by now, is an offspring of Flevo Totaal, also a pop festival devoted to religion. Spring Rock programs the heavier variants such as Stryper, Decision D, Bloodgood and Bride (who consider Guns’N’Roses to be devils, not because of their music but because of their lyrics and Axl Rose’s behaviour; nevertheless Bride’s singer likes to imitate Axl when he’s singing ‘Knock knock knocking on heaven’s door’, a song Guns’N’Roses in turn borrowed from Dylan). White metal bands are musically very similar to other heavy or death metal bands, but their lyrics mainly consist of biblical scraps, confessions of faith and conversion stories.
I like Decision D best. They’re an authentic death metal band, whose singer Edwin Ogenio is a minister. Every Sunday he sweetly preaches in a church in Utrecht, on stage during weekdays he’s screeching for Christ to his heart’s content.
Dutch Death Metal Night, Paradiso, 7 January 1994
The guys in the audience often have angelic faces – but then again, perhaps its only their long hair, their tender age, the clear skin, the lack of wrinkles and facial hair. They are terribly un-scary. The only bother with them is their length: the amount of people over 1.90 seems larger among deathmetal fans than among any other genre. Perhaps that’s why they insist on bending their head: they headbang to keep track of the floor.
The singer of Donor, the second act, has received (or taken) too much from Metallica‘s James Hetfield. Donor doesn’t amount to anything much. Besides, a good donor is usually a dead one.
Lots of appropriate t-shirts. Letters like corpses, a mere skeleton remains while the flesh drips from the carcass. The metal fans of the first generation, the Ozzy die-hards, have loads of hair on their upper lip, chin, jaw, arms and chest and, judging by their tummies, they like beer.
Deadhead. The band is more intent and massive than the previous ones, and slowly the audience starts moving. A few headbangers. Stage divers. Or, well, diving: it’s more like paddling, tentative toes dipped in to check whether the water is warm enough to go in, the music strong enough to carry one. They don’t jump, they test for supporting power, their arms wrapped protectively over their head, preparing for a breaststroke instead of a long-fly or a sturdy crawl. Stage diving. The general idea is to walk on the music, to be carried by it, to glide the thick sound layers that the bass, the guitars and the drums lay down, to skim the staffs stretched through the house. You float on the music. You jump as if you could bounce, a stone skimming over the surface of the water.
Six guys come up to me and surround me. They hand me a Deadhead t-shirt. They explain to that the band threw the t-shirt into the audience when they left the stage; this group had gotten hold of it and started a fight over it and had pulled it and stretched it and tugged at it until one of them remarked that obviously, this way there would soon be no shirt at all. He’d proposed to give it to somebody who couldn’t fight. The others had agreed and they had stalked the house to find a suitable recipient. They had chosen me, and would I…? I thank them profusely.
The Gathering. Death metal risks, just as happened in science fiction when authors started exploring other, non-existing worlds, to end up somewhere in the Middle Ages and get caught in mere fantasy. The Gathering bathes in pastel coloured backlights with lots of smoke: let’s pretend we’re all fairies and magicians and knights. The blowing of horns. Violins. Synthesizer. A wispy, dreamy lady’s voice. Yuck. Two girls climb on stage. For a second I think they’ll dive. But girls hardly ever dive, for historical reasons. Instead they clutch their arms around the neck of the singer and the guitarist and kiss them on the cheek.
Enter Gorefest. My favourite of the evening. And within two minutes there’s a true metamorphosis: all heads bang up and down and up and down and up and down and the divers flutter from the stage like autumn leaves, they are coming and going in a never-ending stream, the prospective divers should really draw numbers first. They throw themselves in the crowd with poise, this music is strong enough to carry six seven people at the same time, and what’s more, one can even double-dive: two guys shoot themselves simultaneously, with a graceful bow, in the same direction. Others try a dive with effect and throw themselves into the mass with a twirl.
A fresh trick, now: a big guy on stage carries a girl in his arms, he wants to throw her in the crowd, perhaps because she wants to dive but is afraid to, or perhaps because she doesn’t and he wants her to anyway. They both hesitate. He dumps her into the audience, watches her go with an anxious look on his face and then he jumps too. Later on, they are at it again. The same hesitation. But now because their timing is wrong; the song’s just finished. The guy stands there, wondering whether they’ll go down anyway or perhaps it’s better to wait for the next song. Hollering into his microphone, Gorefest‘s singer enquires: ‘Will she or won’t she?’ The crowd cheers. ‘Well dammit, throw her!’ says the singer, and heave ho there she goes.
Later on I finally see a girl diving. Guy-like. And there’s another one who does it in a most ladylike, refined manner: she makes a handstand on the edge of the stage and lets herself fall backwards on the headbangers’ heads.
Punk is dead, long live death
Death metal is pre-eminently the current offspring of punk; in the super-short and super-fast songs of Napalm Death this affiliation is most clear. To the inexperienced ear, death metal sounds (as did punk at the time) loud, mean, crass and awkward; groups have equipped themselves with a musical style that wards off almost everybody and that might in fact even be intended to incur the wrath of the righteous; songs deal with the backside and the downside of life, unintelligible lyrics that run counter to polished images and slick stories. Their physical appearance centres on the unrestrained, the fray and tat of leather, long hair and oversized shirts, in answer to the over-stylised, streamlined, steeled perfection that is tied in with a culture of attractiveness, success and health.
Punk excelled in cynical political texts and was, unlike mainstream pop music, not at all interested in emotional or psychological phenomena, let alone in rendering yet another love song. In as far as the emotional domain was examined at all, it was in its darker regions: anger and hatred were lots more interesting than love, juvenile uncertainty or the lost-lover syndrome. ‘Ooh baby why don’t you come back’ was gladly traded for ‘Get the fuck out of here’.
Punk came into being during a period in which Thatcher stressed that England was a nation to be proud of, that every citizen of the country was single-handedly responsible for his or her personal success, and that prosperity was well within reach for everybody who’d care to put some effort into the task. Meanwhile racism abounded, there were mass-dismissals, the government advocated a most conservative morality and many people lived far below the substance level. Politically, there was no room to move.
Punk brought the anger about this situation to the fore and offered a platform for protests. ‘The daily attacks on Asians, West Indians, leftists, women, gays by skinheads and right-wing groups are intensifying (two people killed in Coventry in the last couple of months) … The most disturbing thing about this is how little the establishment as such acknowledges what is a kind of continuous guerrilla warfare … more and more I feel I live in a society that bears no relationship whatsoever to the way it is perceived / conceptualised by Thatcher, Foot, the BBC etc. Rock is the only medium that makes any sense of life – aesthetically or politically – at all.’
Death metal acts in similar ways. It grounds a stray feeling of discomfort or distress that roams many people’s minds, and brings it into the open. Most bands are not wholesome dealers of political lyrics, as was punk (although Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, Nuclear Assault, Sepultura and Gorefest do not shun these in the least, and hardcore bands such as MDC, Suicidal Tendencies and Biohazard, who combine punk and thrash metal, often have political lyrics); most of their lyrics are unintelligible anyway. However, many people experience a sense of disunity and conflict, and death metal voices and validates that feeling. If only by clamouring and shouting.
In our culture, there’s not much space for suffering, death, despair, hatred, disgust, repugnance and anger. Dying people are known only from news shows, mortal terror only from horror movies and thrillers, sincere paroxysms of rage are confined to indoors and are outdoors immediately quenched by calming, soothing or derogatory comments. In daily life most people meet with relatively little actual violence, although they might live in perpetual dread of it; but violence is not common practice, precisely because people are bent on keeping it under taboo. And when violence does indeed occur, most people are severely shaken, a reaction which emphasises its impropriety and extra-ordinariness.
Which is o.k. However, there’s a serious rub between the rather controlled interaction people have managed to cultivate and the amount of fear, despair, anger & hatred swirling in the average human brain. Fear and hatred of madness, of violence, of love & loss, of rape & murder, of dreams & demons, of politics & people, of others and of oneself, of death and suicide. There’s hardly any acknowledgment of such ‘negative’ or ‘destructive’ feelings: there is no stylisation or formalisation which makes them easier to handle or safer to express, as is continually the case with those emotions which are defined as ‘positive’.
Silent witnesses and eloquent devices for the latter are abundant. We are reminded on a daily basis of the option to present gifts as a token of friendship, esteem or reconciliation; factories concoct boxes of chocolates that go by the brand name ‘Merci’ to provide us with a silent but meaningful gift; we don’t have to grasp for words when wanting to express greetings or best wishes, ’cause they are pre-printed on postcards; we have learned to consider jewellery and flowers as love-tokens; there are ready-made forms to arrange relationships, such as marriage and cohabitation contracts; magazines teach us how to set up a ‘nice’ dinner or a ‘comfy’ evening; soaps show that things may get out of hand but that talking things over is the universal remedy. In short, we learn about normalcy and about the maintenance of that blessed state.
But what about everything beyond this range of the normal, the decent, the advisable? There are hardly any clues or leads on how to handle them. Because we ought to simply get rid of them, preferably as soon as possible. Faced with somebody’s distress, despair, rage or disgust people usually are at a loss and revert to sending a condolence card, advising anti-depressants or an encouragingly whisper that ‘things can’t be that bad’ or that ‘they are bound to get better’. And there you are. Because things do not improve, or they might take a turn for the worse once again. And perhaps you don’t know what to do. When you want to celebrate you might throw a party, but what to do when there’s something to hate or abhor?
Scream, for instance, if need be by following the tracks of a snarling band. Quite relieving. Or state most explicitly and decidedly that you don’t care in the least, that indeed, as far as you’re concerned, everybody might as well drop dead. Right now. There’s even a bonus to it, when it’s done with gusto. This understanding was inherent in punk, too: ‘…and finest of all, the hate and delight Rotten put into the chorus of “Pretty Vacant”: “AND WE DON’T CARE!” Finest of all, because the force of his negation brought such pleasure: a thin edge of affirmation.’
Perhaps these feelings needn’t be put away or masked. Perhaps they can be expressed. Perhaps they can even be utilised or exploited. I know I do. A sense of dread, far from being something to get rid of, is a purchase on life that can be sought out, tested and renewed. Dread and anger give you an edge. It shapes diffuse feelings, gives a laugh weight, strips away mystification and reveals paradox.
Death metal is, like punk was before and horror movies still are, a sanctuary against normalcy. They give awkward but real emotions their full due and right there people scream, drivel, squeak and yell amply. Deathmetal and horror counterbalance the shallow, false picture in which everybody is happy and everything annoyingly harmonious. The world does not turn without friction, and hence you may want to scream occasionally. Death metal and horror at least offer a perspective and a context to diffuse fears and antipathies.
Of course they might go astray, too. Vague fears can be shaped in many directions, including the wrong ones, and strong feelings are not always charitable. Punk also attracted people obsessed with hatred and violence and became the birth place of Oi, that is, nazi-punk. Whether it was an involuntary move or not is a matter of dispute: some punk bands (like X, Black Flag or Fear) excelled in nasty lyrics which spat on every thinkable minority. With most groups however, it was quite obvious that they engaged in political ironies or just kicked some dogmatic legs. Titles such as ‘Kill the poor’, ‘California über alles’, ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ or ‘I kill children’ might be suspicious to some, but when you hear the Dead Kennedys sing these songs their intention becomes immediately clear. Yet political intentions and affiliations (if any) are always a matter of speculation and interpretation.
Type O Negative for one has suffered such many controversies. In 1991 they toured Europe and activists kicked quite a fuss over them, because their political stance was considered to be despicable. Especially Steele was under attack, because the his lyrics to ‘Der Untermensch’ in which he rants about the jobless and junkies. The lyrics are indeed not very friendly, but there’s another perspective to them. On the album, ‘Der Untermensch’ is immediately followed by ‘Xero Tolerance’, in which Steele sings about a ‘type A personality disorder’ (‘hatred possessing me, anger burning me, anger turning me into someone I don’t know’), which is an adequate reference to Adorno’s definition of the authoritarian personality who’s supposed to be susceptible to fascist ideas. ‘Xero Tolerance’ could easily be construed to be a critical comment upon ‘Der Untermensch’.
‘Kill you tonight’ became the subject of outrage too. Steele sings about a woman who has cheated her lover and who is killed by the latter as a result. Feminist protests abounded – but the song is plainly hilarious. I for one can’t help laughing when Steele angrily grumbles ‘I know you’re fucking someone else’ and the rest of the band teasingly repeats him: ‘He knows you’re fucking someone else’. But there’s more to it: the song is interrupted by a cover of Hendrix’ old-timer about Joe who went on the warpath because of an adulterous ladylove. Apart from a few words, the lyrics are almost identical: ‘Hey Joe, where are you going with that gun in your hand?’ was changed into ‘Hey Pete’ with a gun and Mexico became Brighton Beach. Hendrix got away with lyrically killing ladies, probably because he was immensely popular and was considered to be political correct. Type O was neither. The Melkweg, where Type O would open their Dutch tour, was occupied by radical activists and the house had to decide to cancel the gig. Of the five gigs booked, only the one in Katwijk didn’t fall through.
What to think of Type O Negative? They make me laugh: I believe they poke fun at radical dogmas and political correctness, I have a hunch they’re into fun death and I would under any circumstance maintain that their music is terrific. The t-shirt which the band sells accompanying their latest album, is typical for their approach: they manage to turn the criticism fired at them inside-out by taking on full responsibility for quite some stunning disasters of the past few millennia. I don’t think they’re scary or evil; instead, I’m intrigued. But at some gig I met a guy who told me that his friends studied the lyrics of Type O meticulously in order to find out how much time it would take them to kill the female population world-wide and which means are available to further this aim. But then again, I also know of somebody who stoutly claims that when you play their albums backwards, you can hear them sing ‘we love you, we love you, we love you’ in between the grooves.
Hardcore Evening, Paradiso, 15 January 1994
A vicious night. The music ranges from Biohazard to something not yet labelled. A full house.
The Spudmonsters whip up the audience: they request that those who are on the balcony jump down, they incite those in front of the house against those at the back. And suddenly the crowd shatters as if somebody has thrown a stone into a pond, furious waves ripple through the house and I’m not fast enough, the tide clashes against me and my wheelchair and we both topple over. I am stuck in between feet and a platform and can’t turn in order to get up, I thrash my limbs about like a bug on its back. Some guys help me to get up. (At gigs I sit sort of on top of my wheelchair. Gives me a better outlook, but it’s rather unsteady.)
Life of Agony. Hardly any divers. The house seems very unrestful, slightly aggressive, as if the energy that’s usually released through diving has now gotten stuck and is seeking to discharge in tiny sparkles whenever two people bump into each other – or perhaps it’s all in my imagination, because I just got flung off my chair and am too much on the alert. There are more caps, there’s more short hairdos, more rings through noses and less amicable faces than usual. The band is okay, good vocals, firm music, but the audience seems too distracted to listen.
A bulky first-generation metal fan passes. I look at his shirt, something with a giant heart pierced by a dagger, and try to decipher its lettering. He stops right in front of me. ‘Great shirt, isn’t it,’ he says. Bon Jovi. ‘Everybody here takes a dislike to it. Which is why I am wearing it in the first place. At Metallica I wore one of Billy Joel.’ I like this strategy, so I tell him that at the last death metal gig I attended, I saw somebody in a Nijntje shirt. [Nijntje is the most innocent children’s figure ever.] Somebody wearing a shirt with ‘SCUM’ printed on it walks by; probably in blissful ignorance about it. I wonder whether he’s ever heard of Valerie Solanas’ Society For Cutting Up Men. Or wait, isn’t Scum that venue in Katwijk? The one that managed not to cancel Type O?
Pro Pain. The house starts to move. Loud music has, or so I start to believe, something to do with miraculous transformations: finding out whether you can turn sound into water. Sound and water both move in waves, don’t they, and in both you can drown. And suddenly I understand stage diving better. It’s what we used to do at the swimming pool: throwing each other in, clothes and all, showing of at the edge, diving with histrionics. All the tricks we tried are repeated here: making a bomb of your body (clutching your pulled up knees to go down as fast as possible), pushing & pulling at each other until one or both tumble in, making swan dives and long-flies, belly flopping and splashing. As if to prove my point, tonight people are practising somersaults: they roll from the edge of the stage over the crowds’ heads back into the audience. And this habit of handing over bodies and moving them to & fro is of course an attempt at floating.
With my unstable legs I should perhaps ask a couple of guys whether they’re willing to toss me in hand and feet. We used to do that in the swimming pool too. But girls were supposed to fake resistance. (I never got that part. I truly resisted and the boys usually didn’t get me in.)
Carcass. It seems they’re still dealing in body parts. The singer hisses like a cat. But there’s something strange going on: they do not tolerate divers. The musicians think the stage is theirs, the audience thinks it’s collective ground. Carcass has instructed security to sweep all prospective divers back into the waters. And thus there’s an old-fashioned struggle over stage rights: at the left side, three people crawl up, security dashes towards them and starts pushing, which enables people at the right side to quickly climb, turn & dive. Several times the struggle verges on a punch-up, but finally a compromise is reached: divers are tolerated at the utmost edge of the stage but every step towards the musicians is severely punished. Carcass is starting to smell funny.
An ode to Richard
It takes practice to appreciate death metal. It is not music which scores straightaway or that can be enjoyed without effort or prescience. Coming to grips with it requires the intention to establish affinity, a preconceived desire to understand it. Deathmetal is in other words an achieved and cultivated preference – just as opera is, by the way.
The first time I encountered thrash and heard the grunting and growling – at MTV’s Triple Thrash Treat on Headbanger’s Ball – I didn’t much care for it. Incoherent screeching; a bit dirty, too. Heavy was o.k., but there are limits – even to noise. After mediation by Metallica, I grew more accustomed. After I had heard the solidity of Godflesh and had attended a breath-taking ballet in which their ‘Streetcleaner’ was part of the score, I sought out similar music and bit by bit a framework for industrial thrash, death metal and hardcore took shape. I learned to distinguish in this massive wall of noise.
Those who listen to such music on a regular basis, become apt at discerning the patterns in this blanket of soundbites. Under the hacking drums and pounding guitars there’s often a larger rhythm, a broad wavelike movement that tries to engulf you; an undertow that strangely reminds me of classical music. An association which many bands also consciously attempt to make, for instance by using cellos or flutes and by arranging their songs in an orchestral way as My Dying Bride does (good name, by the way; something like Rome for death metallers: die first, then marry), or by referring to classical structures in their titles: Lovelorn Rhapsody, Symphony of Sickness, Serenades.
Death metal is music one has to learn. Death metal is massive, poignant, overdone, grotesque, overwhelming, pompous and brims with huge emotions. Death metal is the Wagner variety of pop music.
Besides, screaming guitars and swampy voices are the only appropriate entourage to suitably cover the complexities of love or the acidity of life: the contradictions involved in such giant terms are captured better in hardcore, death metal, punk or thrash than in four-part songs accompanied by sweet notes. When Therapy? shrieks about love as an addiction (‘I’m fixed, I’m fucked’), that makes more sense to me than when boys raised on milk and honey cajole their sugary sonnets. The sparse tender passages of these bands – for instance Anathema‘s Lovelorn Rhapsody: ‘I hear your voice’ (restrained), ‘it sings so softly’ (audible tears in his voice), ‘WROOAAH!’ (the music cracks in, of course mate, life sucks. So what? So yell!) – are not pre-given, they do not fit a tradition there for the taking; such scraps sound as the result of weighing words & notes and conflicting sides being taken. It has been thought over; its been felt through. That’s why I trust them better, my moon musicians. Marked by life, seen all corners of their own mind, and therefore wanting to growl or snarl; then it’s okay by me to do thrown in the odd nice & sweet bit without coming across as unbearably naive. It simply cuts deeper. Such tough guys, and yet so disarming. Occasionally anyway. ‘Aahh,’ I can’t help but think, endeared all the way down to my middle ear, ‘there’s hope. Perhaps.’
Some believe that death metal necessarily has to get nastier and meaner in order to keep producing the desired effect. Accustomization. Inflation of the senses. Because the trick is to be taken by surprise, to be swept off your feet, as in horror movies; but as soon as you become acquainted with the structure and methods of such movies, you’ll recognise the spots where directors try to get at you. Seasoned directors know that you think that they think that you think &c, and go for something more bizarre or unusual, until you’re used to that one too. Escalation is the name of the game; burglars and cops tied together in a double helix, spurring each other onward to even more inventive levels of bolts & crowbars.
But this mechanism can abruptly be broken out of by changing to another tune. Metallica sings a heart-rendering love song (‘Nothing else matters’), thereby setting its audience, that would ordinarily shirk sentimental moods, on a different footing. The greatest surprise is when you discover that you’ve come full circle.
Music at least can be switched off
In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis published American Psycho. A fascinating but unsettling novel, to put it mildly. Everything in the life of its main character, Patrick Bateman, is surface: what one wears, where one eats, which clubs one attends and which people one meets are the only valuable things in his world. In conversations, people only want to score and meanwhile they talk about nothing; in between conversations people snort coke and try to make reservations for restaurants that are the in-thing that particular week.
Bateman has a tumultuous inner world and it is threatening to drive him crazy; he’s in the grip of images of mutilation and murder. From time to time he attempts to tell his friends about these obsessions and fascinations, but every time he mentions it to them they take it as a joke. ‘My life is hell on earth,’ Bateman says when dining, but nobody bothers to listen. The split between his inner world and his outer world increases; he slips and sort of disappears in between the crack. He kills, in the most brutal fashion; of the deformed slaughters he engages in, some are described in great detail. He cuts off the fingers of his victims while they are still alive, he pushes a famished rat into somebody’s vagina and cooks soup from a corpse. Some of his victims are people he happened to see on the streets; most killings however are carefully planned and meticulously executed.
There are obvious similarities between American Psycho and The Muscle. Patrick Bateman and Albert are both not characters in the classical sense: they have no morality, no history, no ties with others, no emotions apart from a vague sense of fear that keeps them moving. Nothing they do, see or experience affects them. Both are harassed by thoughts they can’t or won’t fully remember and by images – demurs – they take to be deeds and events. There are two main differences: American Psycho is a great book, and while Albert listens to death metal, Patrick doesn’t. His taste is considerably more commonplace.
Just as in Less Than Zero, Ellis’ first book, music is unobtrusive but always present. Wherever Patrick is, he faithfully reports which music he hears: on the radio, on his disc man, at home in the jukebox, in cafés, in disco’s, on the streets. He identifies strongly with what he hears – or perhaps the music that’s being played only gets through when it means something to him. Almost all titles he mentions are related to his life: ‘Party all the time’, ‘I wanna be happy’, and time and again INXS‘s ‘New sensation’ seamlessly changes into their other hit ‘The devil inside’. During his most brutal crime he plays Frankie Valli’s ‘The worst that could happen’ and soundlessly sings along.
In three chapters Patrick dwells on his favourites: Genesis, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis & the News. These chapters, or rather lectures, appear out of thin air. They form an absolute counterpoint to his usual attitude. Bateman reviews his favourites from album to album, from song to song, and strives to make a connection between composition and lyrics. And although he allegedly aims for a balanced opinion, he extols these middle of the road artists to the skies whenever he hits upon the suggestion of complexity or intensity. Especially albums or songs that reflect his own state of mind and longings are applauded. About Genesis for instance he states: ‘Again the songs reflect dark emotions and are about people who feel lost or who are in conflict … [although] the themes of loneliness, paranoia and alienation are overly familiar to Genesis it evokes the band’s hopeful humanism … so beautiful that it’s almost impossible to shake off because every song makes some connection about the unknown or the spaces between people … reaching new heights of emotional honesty.’ Whitney Houston provides him with the hope that ‘it’s not too late for us to better ourselves’. Huey Lewis, who according to Bateman has improved to no end ever since he said goodbye to the nihilism of Elvis Costello with whom he used to play, is appraised for his ‘maturity’ and because he has ‘found himself’ ‘in the passion and energy of rock ‘n’ roll’.
Their integrity, their maturity, their humanity, their sincerity, their intensity, their ability to connect with others… For the first time, Patrick is not at a loss for words. These chapters are the most intimate and lyrical passages in the book: not only the most emotional ones, but in a way – his lousy taste notwithstanding – the only normal ones, in the sense that they are not devoid of feeling. His ability to find in music what he lacks in life is simply phenomenal. It is surprising how much of his fascinations he is able to pour into this overproduced, over-polished music. If only our hero could have had a friend who’d acquainted him with death metal: his state of mind would have improved immensely.
‘An important theme in heavy metal … is chaos, and related themes are death in general, satanism, sexual aberrations, mutilation of genitals and the likes. It is clear that there is a seamless connection with the serial killer’s mind … What these psychologically disturbed people really listen for, I think, is something that reminds them of the noises and voices that they believe have taken up residence in their mind.’
I think it’s just the other way around. One of the pleasant aspects of such music is that playing it at least assures you that these voices are outside your own head and are therefore locatable. It’s not you that’s crazy, it’s the music; and music can at least be switched of. Or the volume can be lowered.
Without a doubt, this is ground for a whole new range of therapies. In times of need you can armour yourself with music that breaks down vicariously, muzak for maniacs, so as to enable you to go on, recharged and fully restored. Music so loud you can feel it, music so loud it stops you from thinking, music to bamboozle thunder & lightning. Smother big feelings and grand desires in nasty noises. It keeps them manageable. When Godflesh explodes in animal howling framed by piercing guitars and louring drums, I can’t help but smile and suddenly my eyes start to sparkle. Anger and hatred give heaps of energy, provided one knows whence to direct it: follow that bass! And we turned the volume a bit higher.
There’s still hope for Patrick Bateman.
What does Eddie Vedder think of death metal? Haven’t the faintest. I don’t care too much for his opinion, either. But Vedder does seem to know something about music and death.
While zapping I stumbled into the MTV Awards Show 1993. The award for the best clip went to Pearl Jam for ‘Jeremy’. Jeremy tells the story of a lonely and troubled child that has nobody to relate to and who eventually – it might just be a dream – puts out his classmates with a machine gun.
Granted, it’s a rather romantic picture of mass killers that Pearl Jam presents us with (if only we would arrange for happier childhoods…) but upon hearing and seeing the clip it transpires why such circumstances might invoke thoughts of killing. The clip is suffocating: in black-and-white the boy is chased by the camera, he attempts to ward off this obtrusiveness but his efforts are ineffective, the pursuit never stops, the camera seems to cling to him, there is no relief. From time to time this scene is interrupted by Vedder depicted sideways: his singing is oppressed and he’s visibly affected by the impotence of the child and all its pent-up sadness. He understands the needs of the boy, he wants to do something and help him but he can’t reach the boy: of course not, he’s in another film frame. The only thing Vedder can revert to is singing, hoping that at least his voice might get through to the boy and offer some consolation. Romantic, but it works.
Eddie Vedder came on stage to receive the award for ‘Jeremy’; at his side there was this boy, fifteen or sixteen years old, his son or the boy from the clip, impossible to tell. Vedder put the newly won prize in front of him on the lectern, looked at it for a few silent moments, put his arm around the boy next to him in a protective gesture and draped his long body over the top of the lectern. He took a breath, halted, glanced at the boy again, took another breath, wiped his hairs from his face and said: ‘If I hadn’t had music when I was a kid, I probably would have ended up like Jeremy. Music saved my life.’ He stopped, let his hair fall back over his eyes, picked up the statue and handed it to the boy. Together they left the stage. Arms over each others shoulders.
It was the most sincere statement about music I’d heard for years. Music saved my life. Knowing that others too might want to scream; crying for somebody else’s misery while recognising your own distress; hearing the score to your own oppressive questions and troubles, not in your own mind but out of the speakers, which tames them considerably. Music saved my life. I cheered, endorsing Pearl Jam.