My Heavy Metal Years
I’m sure that most of you are familiar with a few myths of durability which are, finally, fake news. Of course, if you swallow gum it does not live in your digestive tract for seven years. While gum can’t be broken down by the acids in the stomach the way radicchio or, say, raw venison, can be, gum nevertheless does not “stick” inside the body. It emerges later, incorporated into regular shit. Nor does LSD embed itself into the cells of the spinal cord for a number of years or decades. Lysergic acid is water soluble and vanishes from the body’s systems hours after you stop seeing tracers and life-size wolves reading Blake or whatever.
I guess we must be in love with these myths to tell them to each other so casually and often. Maybe they offer us some sort of comfort, that what we put inside us will find our body such a warm and nourishing host they never want to quit us. Of course, these myths only refer to relatively harmless objects, like LSD and gum. Nobody wants one of those ten foot worms, fattened by siphoning calories, swelling to the capacity of our rectums, only emerging when coaxed by the hand of a specialist. Unlike a lingering wad of gum or sunny psychedelics, that shit is fucking gross and scary. And very metal.
When I first read the title of Jeff Derksen’s poem “In Memory of My Heavy Metal Years,” I figured I knew what I was in for. And I was ready for it. I am hopelessly not bored by prosodic recollection of whatever has obsessed anybody, and I love Frank O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings.” I assumed Derksen would write about the teenage fury in the pit while seeing Testament in Vancouver, wild mullet rushing forth towards the stage with every bang of his head like the person-devouring surf of the sea smashing into the rocks and foliage of the beach. I figured I was in for a song of adolescent decadence and outrage.
That’s not what “In Memory of My Heavy Metal Years” is about at all. It is mostly about literal metals.
It opens with a brief series of farewells:
There goes the
aluminum, the antinomy, the arsenic
the barium, the cadmium
the cesium, the gadolinium
the nickel, the thalium, and
The “heavy metals” in this alphabetical catalog range from the familiar toxicity of lead and mercury, to the weirder perils of gadolinium and thalium. And there is one item in this list that doubles as chemical element and rhetorical figure: “antinomy,” a word referring to both a lustrous gray metalloid and a logical conundrum in which a statement produces real or apparent mutual exclusivity, like “this sentence is false.” The “antinomy” preserved in “In Memory Of My Heavy Metal Years” is elucidated further as the poem moves through brisk, sparse stanzas, most of them detailing different jobs Derksen had as a younger person. Reflecting on a job spraying lawns with poison as one of two “talentless dickbrains” hired by the rich of Vancouver, Derksen writes, “That was a heavy metal job / that probably killed / a lot of salmon too.”
As Derksen indexes the different metals and toxic substances to which he was exposed, the poem calls into question the finality of these farewells. Unlike a stick of Juicy Fruit or vintage hint of Windowpane, lead really can stay in the body for decades. The staying power of gadolinium is anybody’s guess. Inasmuch as Derksen’s catalog of toxic metals constitutes a mini-memoir, the poem’s penultimate stanza sounds a note of mourning:
And there goes, hopefully, the dust
and everything from that week
when what was stored in the three
buildings of the World
Trade Center was pulverized
and burnt Into the air
Obviously, even if the toxins absorbed by the body from the poisonous, foul air of the destroyed World Trade Center had left the body through feces or urine, clearly “everything from that week” has not disappeared. “In Memory of My Heavy Metal Years” sings the disappearance of what’s very hard to locate: where has “war” gone? Where can we locate “catastrophic nationalist vengeance?” Where would we go to see “vast death?” What about “war on terror?” Has the elevated surveillance of the country’s citizens, the worldwide Islamophobia, the constant leverage capitalism finds in the disasters it generates, have these things disappeared? If we don’t “see” them, have they ceased to exist? Been expelled in feces and piss? How can we arrive in a world in which these things are simply memories? I fear that they are indissoluble elements of human life, grim insistences which constitute our pedigree as people.
The other kind of heavy metal, heavy metal music, is also part of my pedigree.
As a kid, I had a metal phase. One of the many times I swindled Columbia House for a set of six cassettes for a dollar, I devoted the caper to metal, rounding out the early Metallica catalogue and other classics of 80s thrash. My favorite band from that milieu was Megadeth, with their corny conspiracy-theory lyrics and their adorable mascot, Vic Rattlehead. I remember going to see them in Kansas City when I was 13. The opening band was Stone Temple Pilots, touring just before their first record. They were booed off the stage and the boos were enormous, outlandishly expressing classic metal antagonism to what does not sufficiently shred. I saw Megadeth a few more times, and went to a few other big metal shows. I saw Pantera, Metallica, White Zombie, Danzig, Body Count, and a band called Sacred Reich, whose name gives me the creeps (I guess they are just goofy stoners, thankfully.)
My childhood metal phase was over by the time I went to high school in the city for my sophomore year. My therapist convinced my parents that I should enroll in an alternative school founded by one of her cronies, an insane gun-packing megalomaniac named Ron. Ron was minorly renowned as a local educator with a huge heart for troubled young men, but it was all burlesque. My first day, he took me aside and said, “I know you like to get high and I don’t really care. Just don’t let anybody see you do it when you’re on campus.” One time he was substitute teaching and some kid made a doofus remark. Ron pulled a pistol out of his waistband, gestured vaguely towards the dunce’s direction, and reminded us that he was the only teacher in Kansas City who carried a loaded gun. After a brief silence resplendent with malice and threat, he continued lecturing.
Some of the people who went to the school were like me—ordinary little pieces of shit, too bored or smart or lazy to deal with the demands of high school sociality. But some were genuinely deranged. This one guy Mike came to school on Monday morning with no eyebrows. “What happened to your eyebrows, Mike?” somebody dared to ask. He told us that he had gotten in a fight over the weekend and somebody had burned them off. He relayed this information with the nonchalance of a coworker telling you about the nap they took on Saturday afternoon. It sounds extreme, but it was easy to believe, coming from Mike.
In the same cohort, I met the first urban metalhead I had ever encountered: Desmond Winterhouse. There had been metalheads in the shit country town I grew up in. Some were a little older, skaters who wore Anthrax t-shirts and smoked cigarettes in the sewage ditches that undergirded the town. The heshers I knew were all in the high school band, strumming “When the Saints Go Marching In” for credit but incubating monster riffs in the band room before first period. I’d sometimes show up early to hear them play, frozen in admiration of their fingers nimbly moving up and down the neck of their axes, noodling greasy Kirk Hammetts of the plains.
Desmond was something else. For one thing, he was extremely fucking rich. His dad had made a killing on a local franchise of lighting stores called Winter House Of Lights. You can’t make this shit up. I guess if you have the last name “Winterhouse” and you are plotting some entrepreneurship, you can make it the “Winter House” of whatever, including light fixtures. Anyway, Desmond spent his dad’s money on an exquisite collection of metal memorabilia and his prized possession, a dingy but still bad ass Iroc-Z. I marvel that he could have had so many Iron Maiden shirts pre-Internet. I guess it’s possible he took all that lamp lucre and followed Maiden around like a Deadhead of the dark arts.
The most metal thing I ever saw Desmond do—and frankly perhaps the most metal thing I have ever seen anyone do—was in our science class. It was taught by a hopeless sweet buffoon named Tim. Tim would do things like teach a section on growing “herbs” to a class full of teenage stoners. “Now, nobody grow marijuana in these planters,” he would say, eliciting belly laughs from 20 potheads freshly bedewed by a morning bake. “Sure thing Tim,” we would say, unabashedly twisting seeds off the buds in our bag and burrowing them in his tender soil.
One afternoon, Tim announced we would be dissecting a pig fetus as a science experiment. Dissecting a pig fetus is itself pretty metal. But Desmond raised the stakes. In front of a surprised but appreciative audience, he cut clear through the little pink foreleg of the brined swine with his scalpel and stashed it, and the blade, in his pocket. Tim lumbered over of course, “Where’s the pig’s leg you guys?” He asked a few more times, everybody laughed, and he gave up. Maybe next year he’d find a job teaching science to a room of less derelict youths. Desmond went outside and skewered the pig leg on the antenna of his ‘roc, a macabre flag for his chariot of death and gore. He left it there for weeks. We watched it slowly disintegrate with the arrival of Spring, metal’s least favorite season.
Desmond’s extreme performance was not lost on me. I was grateful to know a genuine metalhead, unironically rocking an oily mullet, wearing Iron Maiden shirts, and gunning down the street in an Iroc-Z with a goddamn fetal pig trotter planted on his antenna. But by then, I had turned to other forms to adequate the surfeit of negative feelings inside me. First, punk. And when Dez Cadena rawly proposed I’m about to have a nervous breakdown / my head really hurts I was like “same” and still am. Now I wonder if metal could have given me what I needed all along, to adequate my rage and hatred of this world combined with the stubborn and stupid wish to make life better inside it. I couldn’t see the zombies for the screams, if you will.
Cinderella, not a metal band, had a huge hit in 1988 with “You Don’t Know What You Got (Until It’s Gone).” “You Don’t Know” is a song about romantic complacency followed by reversal, a mediated carpe diem power ballad warning against taking the object of your love for granted. It is uttered in the gnomic. But isn’t it also true that sometimes you don’t know what you need until it’s right there in front of you, drenched in blood, screaming as Cerberus must have howled from just outside the gates to Hades? When I thought back to my heavy metal phase, it was usually with a note of bemusement. What initially drew me to metal: the intense punishing noise, the baroque soloing, hyperbolic lyrics of gory excess, flailing gloominess, etc, seemed a little silly, too pompous and extreme.
A few months ago, Evan told me he had started going to metal shows. Evan and I have a wide-ranging, years-long conversation going about music, but we had never really talked much about metal. I was intrigued. He sent me some links to bands he had been listening to, with tremendously fucked up names: Sarcófago, Acephalix, rapedgod666. I listened to the tunes on my headphones at work, admiring the baroque gaudiness of the screaming guitars and feeling duly punished by the gruff vocals. But I didn’t become a student of those unholy sounds just then, not quite yet. Or to put it in metal terms: the wings of grim fate had not yet settled upon my brow.
Finally, I invited myself to join him for a show at the Knockout. On the train, I thought about my adolescent metal phase. While we sipped beers and metalheads slowly populated the bar, lubricating themselves for a few hours of brutality on a Wednesday night in San Francisco, I told him that I hadn’t been to a metal show in 25 years. The number shocked and disturbed me. How could I be so old that I could say of anything “it had been 25 years” unless I was talking about pissing on myself or shitting into snug diapers.
The second band that night, CARTILAGE, was fucking scary. First of all, they were covered in blood, as if they had just finished viciously slaughtering a bunch of sheep. The band has five members, totally occupying the small stage with bodies, guitars, hair, and splattered blood. As a result, the singer, Mark, sang from the floor just in front of them. He didn’t exactly “dance,” but lurched violently towards small squads of headbanging spectators, screaming gruesome lyrics of carnage and gore into their faces at close range. At some point I admit I actually felt frightened, as if I were in danger of imminent violence. In the critical lexicon of metal, this is a real compliment to CARTILAGE.
After the show, I felt exhilarated in a way that few other performances demand. And I learned, through this enthusiasm, that I already knew poets who were metalheads. Kim turned me on to black metal, a confusing genre of impossibly fast percussion, shrieking vocals, and an enormous amount of face paint. Ed offered to vet bands I was considering seeing to make sure they weren’t crypto-Nazis or whatever. I bought the classics: DEATH’s Scream Bloody Gore, MORBID ANGEL’S Altars of Madness, OBITUARY’S Slowly We Rot. Evan kept me up on the most promising shows.
The moments after a metal band stops playing are odd. It’s not like a piano concert, where you politely stand and applaud while some person in a tuxedo bows, and not like a poetry reading where people all run desperately for the table covered in wine bottles. The soft sounds of earth come back, a jukebox, glasses clanking on the bar, voices. These sounds don’t seem possible in contrast to the aural assault of the band. I saw Mark from CARTILAGE standing by himself, watching his bandmates unplug. I told him how much I enjoyed the show. He offered me, in return, a mischievous smile and wagged his index finger and pinky at me.
At first I thought it was a little rude, or ungrateful, that he wouldn’t just say “you’re welcome” like anybody else. But now I understand that the wagging sign of the horns is full of meaning and includes gratitude. It’s how metalheads pray together. I didn’t know—I was a poser. I learned later, seeing CANNIBAL CORPSE, that the sign of the horns can also be a way for the band to affirm that they see us, the audience, as allies in an unholy association against normalcy. It is group prayer you all.
I tried now and then to explain this renewed passion in me for metal. Kim and I were talking about it a little bit while watching EHECATL. She said “I thought you were a punk, when did you become a metalhead?” EHECATL play doomed death metal that sounds like a haunted house come into song. That their name sounds like an Aztec tome Giles has to decipher in a middle-era Buffy the Vampire Slayer in order to prevent an army of demons from storming out of the hellmouth does not diminish their grandeur. Enraptured, and high, I did try to come up with an answer. Something like, maybe this dire moment, in which the most extreme political spectacle has become quotidian reality, calls out for such sights and sounds. That in the time of Trump, ICE, Charlottesville, neo-Nazis sig-heiling down Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, the police, border pigs writing memoirs for the NPR set, cartoon frogs signifying the KKK, etc, the only possible soundtrack is the one found in the muddy swamps of grimmest metal. Punk’s legendary optimism doesn’t cut it.
The final stanza of “In Memory of My Heavy Metal Years” hearkens to this excess.
There goes those jobs, those times
there goes those relations
of inside and outside, of work
and nerves and fat and soft tissue
There goes that set of relations
inside and outside. There goes that body
that use and surplus.
It’s a metal commonplace that whatever appears to be dead can come back to life. Usually, this involves the reeking undead, crawling from the crypt to suffuse your gullet with the maggots of hell. But technically can be anything. I will always feel solidarity with the finely-wrought poems and songs against empire. But these days I need the surplus. I want it all to be extra, vicious, unrepenting, excessive, exaggerated, soaked in blood and gore, covered in hair, I want my index and pinkie to dance in the air with my companions, I want to be nervous in the club, to be amidst the puke and shit and piss and mud and gloom and hunker there where the state can’t find us. I want a pig’s foot as a hat. And to bathe in its hemoglobin, skin, whiskers, and fat. “There goes that set of relations / inside and outside.” Just because it ends up in the toilet, that doesn’t mean it’s shit. See you all in the pit.
 Oh god it’s terrifying. One of the most common symptoms of retained gadolinium is that a person will sense a vibrating, twitching feeling just under the skin, like something is crawling around underneath your skin.
 I’m a poser when it comes to metal, but I have inferred that when you’re writing about metal bands you are supposed to capitalize their names. Like “Death” is a punk band from Detroit, but DEATH is a death metal band from Florida?
 The deployment of the sign of the horns in the context of metal is usually attributed to Ronnie James Dio, who wanted to make some kind of hand gesture when he replaced Ozzie Osbourne as the singer for Black Sabbath (Ozzy usually flashed peace signs.) Dio claims to have learned the sign from his Italian grandmother, as the sign of the horns has an apotropaic meaning for Italians, apparently. Unlike metal, where the sign of the horns invites Satan to attend the spectacle at hand with his legion of flesh-eating angels, it is used in Italy in the hopes of warding off same.
 Ehecatl is a pre-conquest Aztec wind god frequently depicted as a feathered serpent.
Brandon Brown is the author of five books of poetry and several chapbooks, as well as three collaborative volumes of Christmas poems with J. Gordon Faylor, most recently The Cloth Bag. His poems and prose have recently appeared in Art in America, Open Space, Fanzine, Art Practical, New American Writing, The Poetry Project...