I was banging my head. I was in a crowd of 15,000 people, feeling the bass squarely in my solar plexus and raising and lowering my head rhythmically along with the bearded stranger next to me. Two seats over, on the other side of my husband, a young girl was banging so hard that her long, red-brown hair flew up and over her face and then off again with the beat. It was like a religious ceremony in some kind of chanting tribe, the amplified beat, the roared lyrics, and the plaintive wail of electric guitars. We were all united, not moved by lyrics that spoke to us, or by a Brahmsian strain of melody, but by raw musical power. It was my first rock concert, and it was heavy, heavy metal
Earlier in the day we arrived at the outdoor concert venue, stepping out into a hazy, muggy sauna of an afternoon. Walking towards the snaking line waiting for admittance we passed cars in the lot in which groups were drinking beer, playing music and getting hair and makeup done. “So you didn’t have to work today” said a shirtless young man in wide legged black pants suspended perilously from his hipbones.
“Nah,” said his companion, older by maybe twenty years. “But if I’da had to work, it would have sucked.” I saw tattoos, everyone had at least one, and many people were covered with portraits, Old English letters, geishas, cartoon characters, skulls, Harley insignias and names. There were mohawks, dreadlocks, fishnets, spikes, studs, and two young women in bikini tops and hot pants. It was not a crowd of the tanned and the buff; much of the exposed flesh was pasty and many midriff-baring tops sat above a soft blob of gut. There were tulle tutus worn with striped leggings, six-inch platform Converse high tops, and piercings through ears, tongues, noses, lips, cartilage and navels. There were undoubtedly other piercings beneath the tutus and skinny jeans.
The air smelled like Axe, pot, concession grease, cigarette smoke and rain, and the crowd was both orderly and courteous. Behind us, a group of teenagers wondered whether there would be cotton candy, and one of them suggested that if there were, it should be black. A group of young men discussed women, and one of them, dismissed an ex on the basis that when he met her, “she had a nice fat ass” but we were then divided by gender to be searched, and I never learned the fate of the ass. Moving into the line of women, I caught the line “-your carpe diem shit ain’t going in my apartment.” Again, momentum separated me from what was undoubtedly a fascinating story.
Inside the gates, we saw t-shirt vendors, concessions, and prominent product placement for Rockstar energy drinks and Jagermeister. People carried (nine dollar) beers, and fluorescent cocktails in long glasses shaped like guitars. There were lots of shirts for sale, as well as jewelry, glass hash pipes, skull caps and “booty shorts,” and the canopies over the merchandise bore names like “Heathen Productions” and “Hate Wear.” I was in another country, a country in which people dressed in costumes, everyone smoked everywhere all the time, and no one was hip, ironic or clever. The day was about passion, about being with other people who understood this thing and didn’t judge anyone for being outside the mainstream. Anything went.
We caught the end of an alternative metal band, the only act with a female member, and my husband fell a little bit in love with the tiny, beautiful person who growled, screamed and swore like a trucker. (Everyone swore like a trucker). Meeting her afterwards for a picture, we found her gracious, charming and adorable. In the metal world, I was learning, a lot of the roughness is part of the show. These were not, contrary to the T-shirts, the language, or the skull-heavy album art, corpse-eating and soulless creatures of the underworld. They were working musicians wearing wedding bands, running back to the buses to feed their dogs, and looking worn out with travel, heat and the demands of touring.
In the crowd watching another band, a “stoner metal” group, a mosh pit evolved in the crowd. All men, including a guy in a wheelchair, the moshing was not the violent and threatening thing I had imagined. It was slow, graceful, as I had always imagined things whirling to the beat of the universal pull in “A Wrinkle In Time.” It looked like a kind of carefully laid out stage fighting, and I felt completely safe and unthreatened by the weight of a flying body. The participants, mostly shirtless, a mix of ages and colors, made eye contact with someone, moved towards them balletically and gave them a gentle bump before spinning away with the grace and deliberation with which they had arrived. Moving to another outdoor stage, the crowd became less mellow and a string of people with linked arms pushed their way past us as the lead singer began whipping up a frenzy, nearly toppling my big, solid husband. Deciding that we preferred the mellow stoners to the angsty pushers, we wandered away from the stages to find something to eat.
It finally rained, and we snagged a table with an umbrella near the concession area. A family joined us, a mother and her two adult foster sons, her significant other and the girlfriend of one of the boys. The son sitting nearest to me had a magnificent tattoo on his elbow, a spider web radiating elegantly from the pointed joint. We talked easily, and the mother told us that she had all her ticket stubs from every concert she had attended, starting with AC/DC in 1980. She had recently seen Motley Crue, and taken her mother. Although her conversation was peppered with the f-bombs that had come to seem perfectly normal, she was charming, friendly, and was the kind of person who had earned the patent devotion of the two young men she had fostered and loved. Amidst the rough and unfamiliar terroir of the heavy metal world I began to see a clear pattern of exterior toughness that could not obscure the tender hearts of good people. This whole rotting corpses/fuck everybody/praise Satan thing was an optional but flashy part of a cathartic ritual, a ritual in which we were all able to participate even if we were seventy and wearing khakis and a Polo shirt.
Around five, after three hours of wandering, listening and chatting with random strangers, we took our seats in the huge amphitheater as the vast lawn behind us filled with those who had not been quick, lucky or liquid enough to snag indoor seats. I watched a large, puffy guy with hair the color of cotton candy, and a man in his fifties with long, wavy jet black hair, and tattoos covering both arms. I wondered what he did for a living. I wondered what a lot of the people did for a living, particularly those old enough that they probably needed real jobs to pay for concert tickets, food and gas. Did they wear long sleeves, pull back their long hair, un-dread their dreads, and remove the studs and silver barbells from noses and eyebrows? I felt old, conventional and judgmental for wondering, but wonder I did.
Then the music began, and I was caught, entranced, intoxicated by my first time at this rodeo of sound and lights and thousands of people feeling the same beat at the same time. It didn’t matter, then, what anybody wore or did for a living; I felt the barrier broken between tourist and native and I was open to the universe as I bobbed my head sharply to the speeding beat of a bass guitar or moved my whole body forward and back, directed not by something not cerebral but by something primitive, not caring what I looked like, who saw me, or if I was doing it “right.” In the battle for my soul, the metal world beats the hell out of the Ironic Hipster community for letting me lose myself without self-consciousness or a shred of detachment. Often, I feel that I am slightly outside myself observing and taking notes for later; in the middle of a live Megadeth song I was pushed firmly back into myself, living in that place in that moment, experiencing an unexpected confluence of Buddhist “presence” and metal exuberance.
In closing, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised, and that I ended the day feeling not that I had endured, but that I had been enriched. I do not like or admire the hate-related messages written across t-shirts, or the bashing of Christianity (“Your God Can’t Save You Now”), but it seemed that that was the province of the young, their generational push-back, calculated to generate shock and awe. The older generations were mellower, unconventional but not driven to highlight their disconnect from the mainstream. The musicianship was beyond fine, the show was run like clockwork, and the bands performing on the main stage treated the crowd like cherished guests. When the lead singer of Machine Head singled out a grey-haired, balding and bespectacled guy (to whom he referred as “the old guy”) in a striped, collared polo shirt, exhorting us all to admire his head banging spirit and giving him two long moments on the Jumbotron, I felt a wave of warm, sweet pleasure. We were, for one night, a community, a family, no matter what we did the rest of our days. It was rough, it was loud, but it was good.