The resurrection and evolution of a metalhead

Jacek Karczmarczyk, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
WILLIAM STROOCK reforges an old musical allegiance

In 1987 this scrawny, disgruntled 14-year-old became a metalhead. It’s an old story. I hated school and life and everything, really. Metal was the best available outlet for expressing that. I stamped my feet and pumped my fist to drums and bass thumping like a British coal ring jack hammer. I wore all the black metal band T-shirts and grew a long, blond mullet that chicks told me was soft and lustrous. Whitesnake’s Slide It In was the first metal album I bought with my own money. But David Coverdale’s hair metal band was a gateway to the likes of Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy and other bands more ‘respectable’ within the metal community. With glee, I discovered that Ozzy had been in a band before his solo career. Who knew?

Grunge killed metal, so the cliché goes. In truth, by 1990 metal may not have been dead, but it was certainly dying. The hair metal bands had done just about the last thing one could with the genre. This was chick-friendly metal, and the hard-core fans hated it. The usual hair metal band formula was to release a party anthem, followed with a ballad. It worked for Extreme. Heavy metal collapsed under the weight of its own success and hair metal un-seriousness. As music progressed I progressed too. I grew up and out and lifted weights. Much to the delight of my parents, I cut my hair and put the black heavy metal t-shirts away. I listened to Grunge.

Grunge eschewed glitz and big hair for flannel and sneakers. The Seattle sound was serious. In college, I listened to Kurt Cobain’s stories and Eddie Vedder’s songs about suicide and depression. It seemed Grunge would dominate the 90s. But Kurt Cobain killed himself, and Pearl Jam moved away from the power chords and searing guitar riffs of their first two albums. They became something of a niche band with a cult following. Grunge’s second wave, led by the likes of Creed, was decidedly unmemorable. Dave Grohl soldiered on with the Foo Fighters. Grunge flared out faster than anyone could have imagined and rock was left with what?

In the early 2000s, the last true rock stars were probably Kid Rock, who fused hard rock with rap, and Cheryl Crowe. In Seven Nation Army, Jack White found the last great guitar riff. Rock and roll had run its course. After Grunge died, this former metalhead had abandoned rock entirely and spent years discovering classical music and jazz. By 1998 I was really into Tchaikovsky, not just The 1812 Overture, but pieces like the triumphant Marche Slave. I got into the big bands too. Duke Ellington can whack one over the head with thundering drums just as well as AC/DC. Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington may not have been metal, but they were heavy. Ten years after I got into heavy metal I didn’t care about it at all.

My metal revival began in early 2003. The 90s were already a lost world of frivolities like the Clinton impeachment and the return of disco (it doesn’t suck, by the way), brought to an end by 9/11. I turned 30 and began writing my first novel. Back then, I liked listening to music while I wrote. I broke out the Led Zeppelin box set of ten CDs. I hadn’t listened to them in years.  But now I approached Zeppelin as a grown man, with an ear for music honed by a half decade of listening to classical and Big Band. Now I could pick out bits in a Led Zeppelin song I never would have when we were 15. That summer, I listened to Metallica’s Black for the first time in years. The controversial album, considered by some to be a departure from the band’s oeuvre, sounded as fresh and hard hitting in 2003 as it did upon release in 1991. Slam producer Bob Rock all you want for lightening up Metallica a bit, but Black is an utterly unique album and we’ll not see it’s like again.

During the winter of 2004, I picked up a guitar for the first time. After a gruelling year learning the basics, I taught myself hard rock songs like Free’s ‘Alright Now’, and the ethereal mist that obscured the likes of Jimmy Page slowly lifted. The mystery was gone. I could play Jimmy Page pretty well, and there was no more overrated bit of balderdash than his violin bow over a guitar. AC/DC’s Malcom Young liked simple chord progressions like Back in Black, but brother Angus’ leads were herky-jerky and violent and difficult to pick up. I’ve come to think of Page as more of a pioneer than a maestro and if asked the age-old rock question, believe the greatest guitar player is recently deceased Eddie Van Halen. He was classically trained but played manically like he wasn’t. In time, I could play. After a while, I could shred, nimbly picking strings and moving our fingers up and down the fretboard. I fired out notes frenetically, like a gunner on a quad .50 caliber anti-aircraft gun spitting tracers over the Pacific. Or so I told myself.

Iron Maiden’s Eddie

As I learned to play guitar, I noticed that heavy metal was creeping back into the culture. By then this former metalhead was a more or less permanent substitute teacher at a high school in suburban New Jersey. In the hallways, I saw some of the kids wearing reprints of black heavy metal shirts from the 1980s. I spotted the classic Ozzy Osbourne/Randy Rhodes Tribute T-shirt, Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ cemetery album cover, and even the old Iron Maiden Eddie T-shirts. Eddie, the tattered skeleton that became the sixth member of Iron Maiden, was ubiquitous in the 1980s and now he’d returned. There was Eddie as a white-wigged English judge handing down a ten-year sentence. There he was again in the cockpit of a Spitfire. And most famously, Eddie carried the Union Jack into battle as The Trooper. I pointed out to these young Millennials that I had the same T-shirts, and they actually asked me about metal in the 1980s. With pleasure I recounted, but not too much; I didn’t want to overdo it like a Boomer who can’t shut the hell up about the 60s, man.

I then discovered Sam Dunn, a Canadian anthropologist, documentary film maker and lifetime metalhead. In 2005 Dunn released his first film, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, a two-hour meditation on the history and meaning of heavy metal. He followed this up in 2008 with Iron Maiden: Flight 666, an inside look of Iron Maiden’s 2008 world tour. The author attended their shows at New Jersey’s Meadowlands and PNC Bank Arts Center.  On 11 November 2011 (the very date is a heavy metal inside joke), Dunn released Metal Evolution. This was an 11-part history of heavy metal, from the very earliest proto-metal bands like Jimmy Hendrix and Cream, right on through to the Nu Metal bands of the 90s. Dunn’s series is akin to the BBCs The World at War. There will never be a better documentary series about heavy metal.

As the metal revival grew, in 2008 VH1 launched That Metal Show. Heavy metal was back on the air, albeit on VH-1, which in the 1980s would have been a mark of shame. That Metal Show was hosted by radio DJ Eddie Trunk and his comedian sidekicks Don Jameson and Jim Florentine. The trio were children of the 70s and 80s, and lifelong metal fans; Trunk had been a record industry producer in the 80’s. That Metal Show was a platform for the discussion of all things hard rock and heavy metal, often hilariously so. Florentine bragged about seeing fellow Long Islanders Twisted Sister during their epic pre-MTV touring days. Jameson bragged about losing his virginity while wearing an Iron Maiden T-Shirt. Over the course of fourteen seasons That Metal Show added greatly to heavy metal’s historical record and taught us much I didn’t know.

Twenty years after I first joined the heavy metal scene, I was back, a better metalhead than I’d ever thought possible – and a better music lover too.