It’s 2005 and I am always, always in the car, driving my 17-year-old son through a record-wet Seattle winter. It is raining at morning rush hour, at dinnertime, at midnight, and in the pre-dawn murk. It is raining on the everlasting east-west slash of Madison Street, on the bus-infested crush of Fourth Avenue, on the unruly crosswalks of Pike and Pine. Rains beat on the windshield while C. J. listens to the story of my life, not because he wants to, but because I make this listening the price of the ride.
“It was March of 1972,” I say, as if I’m narrating a documentary of great historical importance.
“And you were 17, the exact age I am now,” he says, playing along. He holds his acoustic guitar and rips a random chord progression.
On this particular day, I’ve decided to tell a story about the good old days, or, as the kids say now, “back in the day”: the 1972 weekend when his father and I made our pilgrimage to see the greatest rock band of all time, Led Zeppelin.
“Your dad and I were actually younger than you are now -- we were juniors in high school. We drove from Richland to Seattle in your dad’s 1967 Comet. Your dad’s friend Dave rode in the back seat. We thought we were very cool, to cross the mountains by ourselves.”
C. J. nods and keeps playing. All I can see is hair, guitar, black leather, and hands. He’s six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. His hair, which has the color and gloss of honey, waves past his shoulders. He has green eyes, perfect teeth, a small nose, and a square chin. Everywhere he goes he wears a black leather biker’s jacket, a t-shirt bearing the lurid insignia of a heavy metal band, tattered jeans, and ratty black skate shoes. Girls he doesn’t know somehow obtain his phone number and text-message him during class. This astonishes and delights him.
“Driving to Seattle from our little town in Eastern Washington -- it was as if we were Vikings entering Valhalla. I think our parents made us stay with your dad’s uncle.”
“Hmm,” he says. He keeps playing the guitar.
“I remember driving across the 1-90 bridge into the city. The bridge was only six lanes back then, but it seemed gigantic to me.” C.J. segues into a jazzy, Spanish-sounding tune, plays a few bars of a classical piece, finger-picks a rock classic, rips off a little Hendrix. I wonder if he’s getting anything I’m saying.
“People got killed back then in stampedes when they opened the doors to the arenas. You had to really watch yourself.” I don’t tell him the part about how everyone, everyone in the crowd was passing big fatty joints around or pipes filled with bricks of hashish, but I can smell it so vividly I want to sniff my own shirt to see if I reek.
He looks at me through his hair and raises his eyebrows. I can’t remember exactly where we’re going -- the Key Arena at the base of Queen Anne, or the Paramount downtown, or El Corazon in the Denny Regrade, or Studio 7 in the warehouse district. He’s going to meet friends to see a heavy metal show, and there’s a crowd out there that’s scary-looking. Black leather, metal studs, startling piercings, biker boots, garish tattoos, theatric makeup, and disquieting hair -- long, Mohawk’d, dyed, or shaved. Before I pull over and let him out of the car, he rips off a couple of bars of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, his own composition, or, if he feels grateful for the ride, Led Zeppelin. And then he stashes the guitar in the back seat and melts into the crowd.
I am trying to learn about heavy metal, because C. J. defines himself as a heavy metal guitarist. Not a rock guitarist, not a punk guitarist, certainly not an alternative or grunge guitarist. A classic heavy metal guitarist. He writes and plays music that hearkens back to the Black Sabbath of the late sixties, the pioneers of metal, the original band fronted by Ozzy Osbourne.
When C. J. first got interested in heavy metal -- I think he was in seventh grade -- I wasn’t sure how heavy metal was different from hard rock. This was before the Osbourne family’s reality show, and I hadn’t been a fan of Black Sabbath in its heyday. But when the standard seventh grade assignment came up -- “Write About a Hero and Why He/She Changed Your Life” -- C. J. chose to write about Ozzy Osbourne. When he told me, I was horrified.
“Isn’t that the guy who bit off the head of a live bat?” I said.
“He didn’t mean to,” C. J. said, and indeed, that’s what Osbourne claims to this day. He says he thought the poor thing was a plastic stage prop and was not happy when he realized he’d bit off the head of a living creature. Not only that, but he’d flung the bat remains into the audience, and there was nothing left to test, so he had to be hospitalized for rabies treatment.
Lesson number one about heavy metal: It’s theater. It’s entertainment. If the rest of the record industry is engaged in making a romantic comedy, heavy metal is delivering a kick-ass horror flick.
We are in the car again, and I’m giving C. J. a ride to school, or home from school, or from school to a friend’s house. He and I haven’t been getting along. We’ve had fights about curfew, about pot smoking and beer drinking, and about his propensity to get in the middle of the fights his friends are having with their parents. It seems as if this is the season for all of the kids and all of the parents to fight. The kids want out, and they want out now. The parents want the kids to settle down and do what they’re supposed to do: get into an acceptable college so they can get a decent job and support themselves properly.
What complicates all this for us is that C. J. isn’t speaking to his father. There was a divorce a few years ago, and C. J. dislikes his new stepmother.
So today, on one of these rainy trips across town, on one of the few opportunities I’ll have to speak to my kid this week, I decide to tell him the story of my marriage. I know I’ve got only 15 minutes or so to make an impression.
“So, we were 17 when we met. We were in high school. Younger than you are now. And we were together, basically, from that point on.”
“Jesus, that’s crazy,” he says. He’s just gotten out of the shower and he’s staring at me through his wet hair and knocking back throat-fulls of Coke.
“Maybe,” I say. “We needed each other. Your dad’s mother was dying of brain cancer, and we were both afraid of being on our own. And we loved each other. And we had fun together.”
“Yeah. But to be with one person your whole life -- what were you thinking?” He’s holding his backpack on his lap, staring down at it. “And why don’t you ever let me drive?”
I ease through the intersection and stop again for the next light. I want to avoid the discussion about why he can’t drive. I had revoked his driving privileges when I found some beer cans in the car, but talking about it never seems to get us anywhere.
“Maybe we weren’t thinking straight,” I say. “Maybe your dad needed a substitute for his mom, and maybe I was trained as a kid to be everybody’s mom. Anyway, we were happy for a long time -- at least I think we were. We were happy when we had you and your sister. We loved each other then. Things went bad later.”
“Lots of reasons. I don’t know, exactly. He wanted something different, and even though I didn’t want to split up, sometimes I can understand why. We were together so long."
“He’s an asshole. It’d be faster if you’d take the freeway.”
“I don’t want to take the freeway. The traffic’s bad.”
“Like sitting at all these stoplights is better.”
“Did you respond to your dad’s text message?” I knew his father had text-messaged him to congratulate him on his band’s latest gig.
“Yeah. You know what I wrote back?”
“U R A DICK.”
We have arrived at our destination. I pull over, and he’s gone. I’m crestfallen. I feel as if I am scrambling up a mudslide, and every time I gain a few feet I slip and slide down to land hard at the bottom.
Lesson number two about heavy metal, according to C. J.: Heavy metal rose out of a disgust with hippies. Love and peace, man, the hippie said, playing his funky or poppy rock -- songs about love, broken hearts, teenage sex, cars, growing up. Fuck that sentimental shit, said the Metal Head. Life kicks your ass. Love stabs you in the heart. You work in some factory until your body breaks down and then you die, or the old men send you off to war and you die. Life is dirty and strange. It’s full of doubts and desperation. It is dark.
In metal, the guitars are tuned low and the amps are turned up as high as they’ll go. The music attacks you as if you’re Poland and it’s the blitzkrieg.
Heavy metal started, most agree, with Black Sabbath in the late sixties. Ozzy Osbourne, the singer, and Tony Iommi, the guitarist, grew up poor in a factory town, Birmingham, England. They didn’t have much upbeat or chirpy in their experience. Ozzy did six weeks in jail for burglarizing a clothing store. Tony Iommi lost several fingertips to some factory apparatus. Once they got together, their band rammed rock music into louder, faster territory: tuned-down power chords, screeching guitar solos, wailing or growling vocals, insistent rhythm.
C. J. says the thing that characterizes heavy metal, more than the music or the words, is the way it insists that you stand up for yourself regardless of the odds. He’s been heavily engaged, I realize, in standing up for himself, and I’ve become one of the people he needs to stand up against. Teachers and police are in the same position. But I keep wishing I could be on his side. The words he says to me all the time -- “You don’t understand” -- that’s what I want to say back to him. That’s how the cross-town story series started.
We’re driving west across Lake Washington on the 520 bridge. Things have been desperate between C. J. and me lately, and this morning I get a call from the Kirkland police. They’re holding my son at his friend’s house, the scene of an “underage drinking party.” Either I have to come get him there, or I can pick him up later from the police station.
On the way over, my head is crammed with mother-type thoughts: What next? What is he thinking? How could he be so stupid? And, how is he going to react to this? C. J. is given to extremes, and one extreme is that he’s unable to tolerate the notion that he might be wrong once in a while, that he might make a mistake. His mistakes fill him with shame, and when he’s ashamed, he’s angry.
I myself am no stranger to shame. I don’t know if it’s a feature of a Catholic background, a genetic predisposition, a personality trait, or a character flaw, but an excess of shame has paralyzed me more than once in my life. When I feel ashamed, I burn and shrink, like a scrap of paper in a bonfire. My experience tells me if you can’t put shame in its place, it can take over. Your mistakes can begin to define you.
This is on my mind when I pick C. J. up from the scene of the party-crime. I haven’t planned a story for this ride, but one starts flowing. Even as I speak the words I wonder if I’m crazy.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I got caught smoking pot by my parents?” I blurt.
“No.” He is quiet and pale, and he smells like cigarette smoke and stale beer. His hair is dull and messy, and he’s wearing his mirrored aviator sunglasses.
“Your dad and I were in my grandmother’s house. She was out of town, and I had a key. They caught us there.”
“That’s hella bad,” he says, as if he can’t understand how I could do such a rotten thing to his grandparents.
I squeeze the steering wheel and keep talking. “It wasn’t good. I was really, really embarrassed. I wanted to die.”
“Did they do anything to you?”
“Not really. I guess they thought the embarrassment was enough.”
“It didn’t make me stop, but I doubt if anything would have, short of getting arrested.”
He nods. He rests his head on the backrest and endures the rest of the ride in silence, across the bridge, through the arboretum, and home. I worry the whole time that I’ve said too much, or I’ve said the wrong thing, or I haven’t said enough. There is just no way to tell.
Heavy Metal Lesson #3, according to C. J.: “Metal is all about excess: guitars, drums, singing, and acting are all over the top. Like in that movie Spinal Tap.” This is Spinal Tap, made in 1984, is a mock documentary about the downward skid of a heavy metal band. I have so many favorite scenes, it’s hard to list just a few. I love how the drummers are always getting killed by freak accidents, like drowning in someone else’s vomit or spontaneously combusting. I laugh insanely every time I see the Stonehenge replica stage set that ends up being one-quarter the size it’s supposed to be, which means the band has to hire small people to dance around it onstage. By the end of the movie, the band loses its promoter and is reduced to playing an Air Force base near Seattle, where their song “Sex Farm Woman” is met with stunned silence by the audience of military families.
A classic line from the movie is, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
Behind all this parody, though, is a truth: wildly successful metal bands had a talent for becoming sick and desperate. In Bang Your Head, The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal, David Konow chronicles the renowned substance abuse of the top heavy metal bands on tour. Ozzy jumped on a conference table in front of record executives and did a strip-tease; Aerosmith’s members were often too stoned to play; Metallica’s singer and legendary guitarist, Dave Mustaine, got drunk and beat up his band mates; Slayer concerts degenerated into riots that left puddles of blood on the venue floor; Vince Neil of Motley Crue killed a friend in a drunk driving accident.
If underlying tragedy is one of the elements that makes comedy funny, This Is Spinal Tap is funny partly because of the real arrogance, stupidity, and tragedy that characterized the heavy metal scene.
“Are there any heavy metal musicians that were nice people?” I ask C.J.
“Randy Rhoads,” he says. “He was Ozzy’s guitarist after he left Black Sabbath, and everybody loved him.”
“I remember reading about him. He’s the guy who loved his mommy,” I say.
“Yes, he loved his mommy very much,” C. J. says.
We’re back in the car. I have picked C. J. up from his excellent private school. Neither one of us is in a good mood. This might be the day it becomes clear that he’s flunking out of math and history.
It’s the same old story: if he likes the teacher, he gets As and Bs. If he takes a dislike to a teacher, he flunks, and I believe I’ve discerned a further pattern here. The teachers he dislikes are all men.
“I was thinking more about why your dad and I got divorced,” I say.
“Really.” He says this word with no upward lilt on the second syllable, no suggestion of curiosity, and no assumption of credibility, as if I am a witness for the defense and he is the star prosecutor.
“There was his work,” I say. “It was pretty intense that last year.”
“I know. When he sold the company to Microsoft.” He is fooling with the audio system, looking for a CD he doesn’t hate.
“Yes. He got burned out being the CEO of a public software company. Every quarter the financial analysts and stockholders expect the profits to go up by a huge percentage, but that’s impossible after a while.”
“I guess,” he says. (Do I detect skepticism in his voice, or just boredom?)
“So he started talking to Microsoft about selling the company, and Microsoft was interested, but they were negotiating hard, and then the Securities and Exchange Commission decided to get involved. And we couldn’t tell anybody what was going on. We had to keep the whole thing a secret for over a year. The pressure was terrible. Your dad felt responsible for his family and for all his employees and their families, too. It stressed him out, and me, too.”
“And the point?”
“There’s no point, I guess. Except something had to give, and maybe it was the marriage.”
“I don’t think so.” He digs around in his pack and finds a death metal CD -- the blast-beats pound like artillery and the singer growls as if he belongs at the gates of hell.
“And do you have a theory about what it was?”
“He’s a dick.”
I want to put my head down on the steering wheel and cry, but I have to drive.
I am ready for Heavy Metal Lesson #4.
“The music got old and stale after a while for some of those guys, didn’t it?” I ask.
“That’s why they can’t watch Spinal Tap,” C. J. says. Lesson number four is that many of the popular metal bands became inflated and then later pursued by their success. They had lifestyles and, as time went on, families to support. They had entire economies that depended on them -- road crews, managers, publicists, record companies, distributors -- and they felt enormous pressure to keep the money rolling in. So they wrote another power ballad or arena rock anthem. They wrote their next hit based on what they or some record executive thought would sell. And, like any entrepreneur or corporate executive, they pushed themselves and made compromises. They went out on yet another exhausting tour in Europe or Japan, to flog merchandise, to increase the demand for their mediocre and derivative recordings, to keep the machine running.
We are in the car. I can’t think of anything to say, so we listen to Rob Halford, Judas Priest’s original singer and front man. He’s known as one of the best heavy metal singers and one of the first metal musicians to come out. He’s the guy who brought gay fashion into the metal scene: black leather and silver studs. “From memories of 68 when the wizard shook the world,” he roars, “Metal came from foundries where the midlands sound unfurled . . . Hell, we're born to raise some hell/ Hell, we're gonna raise some hell.”
“Did I ever tell you about my first job?” I say.
“Yup,” C. J. says, “You made ice cream cones at Tastee Freez, and then you worked for a pervert at a self-service gas station.”
I’m running out of material, and as I run out of stories, I mine the doubts, the desperation, the dark. Up Madison Street, back across Denny Way, up Mercer, back across Yesler, and it’s as if my life is telescoped into a couple of dozen ten-minute chunks. All the years of going to work, sleeping, eating: where did all those years go? Why is there such a finite number of stories? Why do they take minutes to tell -- not hours, not days? Minutes. Ten-driving-minute chunks of meaning. Of course, there are many stories I can’t tell him. You can vow to proceed as if your nearly grown son is just another adult, but that’s impossible, a foolish goal. The best you can hope for is to carefully approximate small chunks of your experience, as if you are leading a tour of a haunted mansion and you have control of the only flashlight.
He has his attentive moments, and these are usually the times when I’m saying something I probably should keep to myself. At those times he listens as if I’m a roadie for Megadeth and he’s standing in the front row waiting for the show to start.
It’s tempting to make some shit up. I wish I could tell a story that would flip a switch in him, turn on a light, illuminate his dilemmas, calm his fears, as if the world was a big, safe house, as if he wasn’t already out in the elements.
After the heyday of classic metal, the metal scene splintered into sub-genres, which still exist today. One of the first sub-genres to come out was thrash, which sounds to me like the armies of hell engaging in an artillery battle. It’s packed with fast guitar solos (shredding) and aggressive singing. There is death metal, which, near as I can tell, is about death, and often incorporates blast-beats and growling as well, but not always.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is hair metal, which is characterized by performers who have big hair and wear makeup and play music that you can sing along to, like Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noise” (“Cum on feel the noise/girls rock your boys/ we’ll get wild, wild, wild/we’ll get wild, wild, wild, wild, wild . . .”) Trust me, you’ve heard this song.
There’s also power metal, which incorporates myth and legend into its themes and sounds like a rock version of a Wagner opera. Sometimes these bands use big choruses and symphony backgrounds and sound more like a Broadway musical soundtrack than a rock band.
Other types of metal, according to C. J. and Wikipedia, are black metal, neoclassical metal, NWOBHM (new wave of British heavy metal), Viking metal, avant-garde metal, Celtic metal, industrial metal, Nu metal, and sludge metal. There are sub-sub-genres and cross-genres.
Lesson #5, according to C. J.: It’s all metal. It’s not owned by any country or band or genre. Metal is a brotherhood.
My education is not complete, but C. J. says I’m learning. I know quite a bit about metal for a 50-year-old mom, but perhaps, in the end, making the effort to understand matters more than the details.
We’re in the car and C. J. is driving. It’s his first time driving on snow. He’s just finished a shift teaching snowboarding to kids at Snoqualmie Pass. I don’t know if it’s the job, his switch from the private school to a public one, a growth spurt, or an improvement in my attitude, but we’re getting along better. He pulls onto I-90 and starts the long descent toward Seattle.
His face is ruddy with the cold and his hair is soaked, but he seems relaxed. “I had a talk with Sally,” he says.
“Karrie’s mom, Sally?” Karrie is his current girlfriend.
I knew Sally didn’t like C. J. and had told him so on several occasions, so I was afraid to hear the answer, but I asked: “Why? What happened?”
“I let her talk about something that was important to her,” he says. “I listened, and I asked a couple of questions. And then I told her a story about my life.”
“Uh-oh,” I say, fearing the worst. “How’d it go?”
“Well, she doesn’t seem to hate me anymore,” he says.
“That’s good, C. J. That’s really good,” I say.
“Yeah, it’s all right,” he says.
“That’s great,” I say, and then I notice that the car’s going way too fast now -- 90 or 95 down the long I-90 slope from the Cascade Mountains to the Puget Sound.
But I ask him to slow down, and he does. And then we listen to some old Black Sabbath. We both like that.