Downtuned to Nowhere: A Metalhead’s Journey. Part 2: Too Old to Rock’n’Roll, Too Young To Die

I posted earlier this month back about my long love affair, dating back to my teenage years, with heavy metal in general, and Metallica in particular. Very little of this has come out in my fiction, although I’m sure with a little more imagination I could do something about that:

– Darling, I —
– No, Celia, don’t say anything. Not now.
– But darling, I have to tell you. I can’t keep it a secret any longer. You see, I —
– What? What is it, Celia?
– I’m … I’m leaving you, Clive. I’m leaving you to go on tour as the new keyboard player for Lordi.

Brief Encounter was never like this!

In a classic case of the “return of the repressed”, however, what is absent in my fiction emerges in my poetry, in the form of poems about ageing rockers. Why ageing rockers? I think it’s because there’s something of both valour and pathos in the grizzled hero strapping on his wig of flowing chestnut locks, his armour of leather and studs, and his battered, trusted guitar one more time and going forth to do battle against the night. It’s like Tennyson’s Ulysses with a merchandise table.

In honour of ageing rockers, I present, in increasing order of the protagonists’ decrepitude, these three poems from my recent poetry collection All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens.

An Adventure

He put his Steely Dan CDs
in a box under the bed
bought three pairs of baggy shorts
wore his cap backwards
learned to swear like Fred Durst
(or was it Kirsten Dunst? He could
never be entirely sure.)

Took to clubbing. He sought out
young women with black hair
(or auburn — almost anything but that particular
shade of bottle blonde)
and more money than good sense.

For a while it all went well.
With the little blue pills
bought cheap online
he gave them a good time
every time.

Then, in a private moment
one of his conquests
caught him listening to the Moody Blues.
When she spread the word
the good times were over. He hung up his cap
gave the shorts to charity
and subscribed to Sky instead.

Norah Jones or System of a Down

I’m visiting Lemmy from Motorhead.
“Lemmy,” I say, “how did you get that
bass sound in ‘The Watcher’?”
He shows me the fingering on his Zimmer frame.
He’s forgotten most of Motorhead
but he’s frighteningly lucid on Hawkwind.

Unasked questions throng my head.
Lemmy, who was your favourite band?
Lemmy, what drugs do they still let you take?
Lemmy, when did you start growing old?
“Lemmy,” I say, “are you cold?”
He is. I wrap him in my coat.

Visiting hours are over.
I shake the maestro’s hand.
The warts on Lemmy’s ravaged face
stand out like sentinels
defeated by the beat of time.

There’s music piped into the rooms.
It’s Norah Jones or System of a Down.
I take my leave.
I brace myself against the cold.
I embody the presence of silence.

New Live Dates

It’s a meat market in here.
Why girls as green as grass
Should dance to the songs of a man ten times their age
Climb on their boyfriends’ shoulders
Throw their panties and their room keys on the stage
I’ll never know.

They wanted to send me out backed by machines
Some guy in a booth somewhere, flicking switches.
I said no: give me a band, the younger and louder the better.
Let the old man have his Zimmer frame of noise
His crackling fire of guitars
His beating heart of bass and drum.

I’ve lived; no, not lived, let’s say survived
To hear my music cut to pieces, used to sell
Everything from shoes to car insurance
Everything from fried chicken to retirement homes.
It doesn’t matter: nothing matters
But the lights, the noise, the stage

And my women. I drink them up.
I leave them pale and drained.
In the morning, they don’t know themselves
Waking with a shiver to the memory of pleasure
The scents of whisky and old leather
And the sound of curtains flapping in the wind.

Downtuned to Nowhere: A Metalhead’s Journey. Part 1: Youth and Young Manhood

I listened almost exclusively to classical music until I reached high school. Musicals, and occasional outbreaks of the reel and strathspey in the capable hands of Jimmy Shand and His Band, were as ‘pop’ as we ever got, while at school, it was Alex Lindsay and His Orchestra who ruled the roost:

“Do you like to dance?”
Oh no, thought Robinson. Please, not that. Last night, he had run through a range of possible disasters, but he had never dreamed it would come to this. In Standard 3, the teacher, Mr Willis, had made them do folk-dancing. Mr Willis concealed an elderly record-player somewhere about his person and would, with the aid of a series of frayed extension cords, set it up in the playground. He would then produce one of a series of records by Alex Lindsay and His Orchestra, put it on, and order the children to line up in pairs and do the strathspey, or the springle-ring, or whatever other bizarre form of torture appealed to him that day. Mr Willis (for those were innocent times) would take the hand of some mortified girl and lead her through the required steps while the other children watched silently. Then he would remove the needle, return the tone arm to the beginning of the record, and watch as they shuffled around, with a hey-nonny-no and a tirra-li-li and a bow for Good Queen Bessie.

(From “Robinson in Love”, one of the stories in my collection Transported. Autobiographical much?)

Then, at high school, I discovered rock. It was 1973, and Deep Purple and Uriah Heep ruled the roost. Someone – it may have been Athol Fricker – had a record player which he was allowed to coax into life in the common room at lunchtime. I listened, entranced, to this alien music, and something clicked into place. I loved classical music then, and I still do now, but now I knew I had been born to rawk: and, though I like many genres of music, there’s nothing that stirs my blood so much as a crunching riff, a pounding drum, and a lead guitarist showing he* can play scales really, really fast – also known as “spanking the plank”.

In short, I’m a metalhead from way back.

The passion has waxed and waned: later in the 1970s, newly independent in Dunedin, I hewed to the line of the New Musical Express, at the time a haven of jejune postmodernism, and if it wasn’t punk or new wave, I was obliged to dismiss it (trying to pretend, as I did, that I felt no excitement as Chic and the Village People on the one hand, and Yes, Jethro Tull and Iron Maiden on the other). I was mainly into Thin Lizzy then, as they were one of the few metal bands of which the NME approved.

For most of the 1980s, the nearest I got to metal was the angular, cerebral progressive rock of King Crimson (although they do get pretty darn metallic at times). It was easy to dismiss metal then, for that was the era of “hair metal”, bands with all the heft and weight of Snowtex.

It took one video to change my mind. I was living in the Township of Gordon Housing Collective in Dunedin, and one flatmate, Louise, and another flatmate’s boyfriend, Eddy, would go on and on about how great this band of young Bay Area metallers, Metallica, were. Yeah yeah, I thought, reaching for the latest Dexy’s Midnight Runners album [check timing]. Finally, Eddy prevailed upon us to watch the video for Metallica’s new single, One. It was serious music played by serious young men. Fantastic music: tight, powerful, engrossing. I was hooked all over again. I worked my way through Metallica’s oeuvre (soon to take a controversial left turn) and discovered other bands like Megadeth and Pantera.

One of the marvellous things about metal is its variety of sub-genres – how’s this for a found poem? And in some respects, I’m stuck in the past, at the point marked “thrash metal”. Metallica took me with them when they changed to the more groove-oriented hard rock of Load and Reload. They made one of the best and most revealing rock documentaries you are ever likely to see, Some Kind of Monster – the classic being the cardigan-wearing therapist who pushes the band too far when he wants to start writing their songs — and one of the worst comeback albums ever released, St Anger. Now they are back with new album Death Magnetic, and on what I’ve heard so far, it’s a return to somewhere on a par with … And Justice for All (one parallel is that both Justice and Death featured a new bass player who is buried so deep in the mix as to be almost inaudible), and not too far behind their classic second and third albums, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets.

That’s enough for now. More in Part 2 … but let me leave you with Metallica’s finest moment, Fade to Black.

*Lead guitarists in heavy metal bands are almost always male. Why, when so many leading violinists (for example) are female? A number of reasons come to mind, sexism first and foremost. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way. (The sound quality isn’t great, but note the guitarist on the left. This band, Beneath the Silence, won Smokefree Rockquest 2008).