Heavy Metal and The Illusion of Violence

I always wanted to be a warrior. I first found my way in a Metallica record, thirteen years old. My dad called me into his room where he had a CD player and some speakers set up, and played me the first song off Metallica’s Black Album, called Enter Sandman. The music hit me like a blast wave from a nuclear bomb. The sound; dark and raging and angry, called out to me. The roar of a primordial cave creature.

The pounding riffs, somewhere between the mechanical sound of a WWI era tank plowing over a hill, and an animal growl, mirrored what I felt inside my mind like nothing I had ever experienced had. Emerson said that music is the shorthand of human emotion. This has always made a lot of sense to me. Tchaikovsky for quiet appreciation of the beauty of snowfall on a winter evening, Doc Watson for the soft feeling of sun on the back of your neck during a walk in the woods. Metallica for the seething, tumultuous brain of my thirteen-year-old self.  The chug-chug riffs of Metallica were exactly what was going on inside my brain, all the time. Instantly, I knew I had to find out how to replicate that noise.

Since my earliest memories, I’ve wanted to go to war. I don’t think this is uncommon for young boys. Many men feel a desire to be warriors, in the same way that many women feel a need to have children. These males fill the world’s boxing gyms, and its online Call of Duty tournaments, and brawl outside of soccer games in Europe. Even in my uber-liberal cultural sphere of Park Slope, Brooklyn, where we were not allowed to have toy guns, my friends and I would break sticks and twist styrofoam into firearms when our parents were not looking, and had group swordfights with plastic lightsabers. All games were war games.

Since that day in my dad’s room where he had played Metallica’s Black Album to me, I re-centered my being around metal. I’d always been a shitty athlete, lacking the coordination, focus, or desire to apply myself to athletics. Baseball, football and soccer all bored and confused me. Gym class was a trial in embarrassment. I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life, and I ran (in the words of my third grade teacher Ms. Gomez) “like a girl”. I’m still fuzzy on some of the rules of football.

During recess I would opt out of the handball game, and sit across the schoolyard and bury my head into a pulpy historical fiction novel about ancient Celts fighting Romans, or medieval knights, or Vikings. I related much more to these fictional characters than I did to the pop musicians and professional athletes my classmates obsessed over. I was being picked on pretty harshly at the time, and I had a pretty thin skin and was easy to upset, so the bullies were drawn like flies.

I became well-acquainted with the feeling of being outnumbered, in the recess yard and in the locker room and the cafeteria. My favorite book was Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llewelyn. It told the story of Brian Boru, the Irish renegade who died fighting against the Viking hordes invading his home country. Brian Boru seemed to have more in common with me than baseball player Mike Piazza who was a demi-god in my Brooklyn neighborhood. To this day I have no idea what position he played. I didn’t care about baseball, I wanted to fight someone with a sword. Brian Boru had united the Irish, weak and outnumbered, against the terrifying and violent Norsemen. I stood up against the jocks when they ganged up on me. I felt a kinship with the medieval Irish hero.

I particularly gravitated towards stories about Irishmen fighting back against the English invaders for ownership of their own country. The characters philosophizing about how it was better to die on your feet than live on your knees appealed to me. It was echoed in a lyric in a Metallica song called Damage Inc. I’d listen to it on the long ride on the R train to school, hitting the rewind button every time the song faded out to begin the eight minutes of hair-raising adrenaline again. “Living on your knees conformity, dying on your feet for honesty” James Hetfield sang, at about two minutes in. That seemed like a profound life philosophy.

Heavy metal is all about creating the sensation of power. Sitting on the train on the way to school on some cold winter morning, leather jacket pulled tight around me, volume on my CD player turned all the way up, I felt invincible. It was easy to forget that I was on my way to a place of torment. With Metallica’s Master of Puppets spinning in my CD player and blasting in my earphones, I felt like I was heading into battle. My leather jacket and studded belt were my armor. There was no question that this was the music of war, the sound of destruction. It was easy to forget getting a garbage can full of hot coffee upended on me as I stood by my locker, or being punched in the back of the head as I walked to my next class. Metal made me feel powerful.

The next three years went by like a blast-beat. I found alcohol soon after I found metal, and in combination they made me feel incredible. I got a leather jacket, a shitty attitude, grew my hair out long, and would drink 40s in the park with my metal buddies, headbang to Judas Priest, and feel like I was awesome. Meanwhile, my body withered away, aside from my belly, which grew with all the beer I fed it.

Then one day, standing in the audience at a Folk-Metal concert, sixteen years old, everything changed. For those who don’t know, Folk-Metal is basically metal plus mandolins and bagpipes. Needless to say, most of the audience was white, male, and pimple faced. The band who were playing now, called Tyr, were looking worse for wear on their second US tour. The first time I’d seen them at B.B. King’s in Times Square a year or so before, the Faroe Islanders had looked like the Norse gods they were singing about, ruddy and blonde and ripped like bodybuilders. This time around the touring lifestyle had clearly gotten to them, they had gotten fat, muffin top bellies protruding over metal studded belts.

Presumably to make up for their declined physiques, Tyr now sported armor, Iron Age- style breastplates and chainmail. The idea was probably to lend to the overall Viking-esque image, but to me it felt fake. Suddenly, standing there against the metal barricade that separated the stinky, black clad audience from the Scandinavians onstage, nodding my head along to “Hail the Hammer” I realized what this was: an illusion. The armor wasn’t for protection: it was for show. It was a warrior costume. I was watching a performance about war.

The sound of the overdriven guitar, strings damped with the base of the palm of the strumming hand, downstroke chugging the E chord was an illusion. This deep, throaty noise, which seemed to trigger the genetic memory left from our hunter-gatherer days, was no more powerful than a picture of a gun, or a recording of a thunderstorm, or the lion that roars at the beginning of the MGM tag. That’s all heavy metal was. The illusion of power. Like the little old man operating the huge monstrous face in The Wizard of Oz.

In sophomore year of high school, I transferred schools. At my old school in Brooklyn, my leather jacket and under-age drinking had been subversive, but at my new one in Manhattan, my self-styled renegade behavior was the norm. Suddenly surrounded by people who were, in their own ways, outsiders like myself, I began to identify more highly with the jocks who had slapped me around at my old school. I started spending more time in the weight room.

Somewhere around 17 years old, I and a friend took a kickboxing class, at a now-defunct Manhattan gym called Fighthouse. I fell in love immediately. I remember walking up the stairs, and smelling the fight gym sweat-funk, so thick you could practically chew it. Fighthouse was the crossroads where every martial art in NYC met. The walls were lined with medieval weaponry, and Vee Arnis Jiu Jitsu guys practiced their shouting pantomimes of violence in the corner, but in the ring real boxers worked, and hard faced MMA fighters practiced their grappling on the blue fold-out mats on the far side of the gym. One figure drew my eye though. A white guy with a dark beard, a few years older than me, kicking the pads.  Every time he kicked the thai pads there was a crack that seemed to shake the whole gym. That noise was the real sound of violence. I asked the fat Chinese guy at the front desk what he was doing, and he told me Muay Thai. I didn’t know what Muay Thai was, but I signed up right there.

I discovered a hidden world. Muay Thai is a combat sport, arguably the most brutal one. It is boxing, but with every conceivably hard-edged part of your body used as a weapon. Elbows, knees, fists, shins. Everything but the forehead (headbutts are the domain of Muay Thai’s medieval ancestor; Muay Boran) is weaponized. Philosophically, it’s about using your skeleton as a club to beat your opponent senseless, but paradoxically, its deeply entrenched in Buddhist mysticism.

I became addicted. I put in serious time, and to my delight, found out I was not as much of a physical zero as I had thought. My body changed, my belly flattened, and my arms grew strong. I learned to kick hard enough to fold the bag when I hit it. My guitar started to gather dust in the corner of my room, but I accumulated hand wraps and boxing gloves, shin pads and mouth guards. I started spending all my free time in the gym, instead of in the park drinking. I grew distant from my drinking buddies, and closer to my training partners. I changed.

I became a different person. The effect that combat sports training has on your character is not immediate. It’s more like the erosion of a rock caused by the movement of the waves. Its gradual. I realized that part of what had attracted me to drinking as a teenager was not the feeling of intoxication itself, but rather the sense of being on a mission as me and my fifteen-year-old friends attempted to get our hands on alcohol. We would communicate silently during the school day, texting under our desks. We would make plans, pool resources, gather intel. We would meet after school at four at Grand Army Plaza. I had three dollars, Mike had four, and Roger had only two, but his sister knew a place in Sunset Park where the cashier wouldn’t card us. So we would move out, organized.

In retrospect, it was lame as hell. Alcohol lost its magic to me the minute it became easy to get. But at the time, I was just looking for challenge and excitement. Doing something illegal was exciting and there was a sense of comradery amongst us, as we trekked across Brooklyn looking for the shitty delis that wouldn’t card, or as we sat with our ass in the grass in the park drinking 40s under the stars. At the best of times it felt kind of magical.

But at the fight gym, I found a different type of magic. First I fell in love with Muay Thai, and then Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I became a combat sport fanatic, dabbling in Judo, Boxing, Russian Sambo, MMA, and learning everything I could about martial arts. They had a rich history, full of stories of showdowns between rival tribes, Japanese Jiu Jitsu fighters vs European Catch Wrestlers in the 1800s, Kickboxers vs grapplers in the early 2000s. I fell in love.

Now it’s nearly 10 years later, and I’m a different person. My ears are swollen with cauliflower, filled with calcified fluid from torn cartilage. A badge of honor among grapplers and fighters. My hands have begun to get a little gnarled, and my body sometimes aches a little, the souvenir of almost a decade of hard impacts. My nose has been broken a few times, and judging by the pictures on my Facebook, I’m starting to get that slightly eroded look that old wrestlers and judoka get, their eyes sloping down on the outside corners like a hound dog’s.

Heavy Metal no longer encompasses the whole of my being, as it did the first time I heard it, sitting in my dad’s office all those years ago. But it still is a fundamental part of the core of who I am and how I think. On my hardest days, when I haven’t gotten enough sleep or am feeling particularly lacking in motivation, I go to the Spotify playlist marked “Death Rock” and find my inspiration in the pure nihilistic savagery of it. Now I realize maybe heavy metal doesn’t just have to be an artistic imitation of violence, but a celebration of it.

The aural savagery of metal is no longer a means to its own end, but is an inspiration, a way of putting myself into a heightened state. But now there’s some hip hop on my iPod, some Motown, some indie rock and folk. Four to six nights a week, I go to a basement in downtown Chicago, to a matted room in the back of a loud gym. Walking into the locker room and putting on my jiu jitsu gi, I feel as though I am putting on armor. As I tie my blue belt around my waist, for the first time that day I don’t feel like an employee or a citizen, I feel like a warrior, preparing for battle. Undoubtedly this is my adult enaction of those childhood fantasies of being a knight or a samurai. I walk out onto the mats, ready to play the war-game of jiu jitsu.

I am joined there by about twenty other people, almost entirely men, many with the same swollen ears and battered features as me, some older, many younger. I’m not the toughest one there by a long shot, but I’m not the weakest. We pair up and bump knuckles, slap hands, and then try to kill each other for five minutes, till the alarm timer sounds, at which point we bump fists again, thank each other, and move over to the next person, round-robin style. It goes on for about an hour. By the end I am exhausted, barely able to drag myself off the mats to the showers. That testosterone-fueled part of my brain, that wanted to be a knight and then a heavy metal guitar player, is sated for now. Gone are the thoughts of battle and struggle, I want nothing more than a hot meal and the softness of my bed. I drive home listening to Otis Redding and wake up the next morning with the bloody-minded desires of my subconscious renewed. Rinse and repeat.

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