(I rifled my photo archives to find shots of me wearing the tees mentioned below. When those are not available, I used Google’s image search function to find the shirts in question. Thanks to all the nameless vintage metal tee collectors who posted this stuff online.)

I grew up in a military household. But even as a standard-bearer in his beloved “finest killing machine the world has ever known”, my dad was exceptionally liberal. He knew I wanted to play guitar and my brother drums, and helped us both finance our respective instruments. When we formed a death metal First Witch Hunt Shirtband called Witch Hunt in 1992, he made the family car available whenever we needed to play shows in the northern Virginia and Maryland regions. He let my brother Ben and I grow our hair down to our butts, as long as we kept it washed and pulled back at school, so the teachers could see our faces. In exchange for this freedom, he expected us to keep our grades up, respect authority figures, and steer clear of drugs and alcohol. His only mandate was that if he ever saw us “acting out” any stereotypical teenage heavy metal rebellion, that’d be the abrupt end of our involvement in the music and accompanying fashion. As long as we met he and my mother halfway, the old man let us do whatever. Part of that “whatever” was wearing metal shirts to school. By today’s standards, that doesn’t seem worthy of boast. The impression I get, now in my late 30s, is that kids today do pretty much whatever they want, and asking permission was as outdated as Betamax. But you didn’t see many kids – and certainly not on military bases – dressing metal in the early 1990s.

I never owned anywhere near the number of metal shirts many of my headbanger friends did. I probably bought, or received as a gift, 40 total tees over the 8-year period from 1988-1996, my personal Golden Era of metal apparel. Yes, 40 tee shirts sounds like a lot, but your average serious headbanger – especially fanatics of the underground scene – will have acquired far more over a shorter period of time. This is especially true in the Internet age, where all you have to do is click and wait to receive your coveted metal tee parcel later in the week through the timely, faithful dispatchers of Amazon.com. Though I risk damaging my street credibility by admitting it, that I had relatively few metal shirts was largely by design. The average cost of a metal shirt in the early 1990s was $15. That’s serious cash to a pre-teen whose income was derived from lawn mowing and babysitting, back when neither endeavor was the cash cow it is now.  Once I did begin working steadily – my first gainful employment being McDonalds from 1993-1995 – I was knee-deep in financing activities for our band. This included everything from purchasing and maintaining equipment to covering recording costs, paying for promotion, and sending out nationally and internationally hundreds of free demos to ‘zines, radio stations, and labels to spark their interest in our project. None of that, as you might imagine, came cheap. But perhaps more importantly, I was sick of being burned on bad purchases: the quality of metal tees back in the day SUCKED. The cotton used in their fabrication was thin and of poor caliber. This meant they faded fast, sometimes got holes after only a few wears, and at any rate shrunk quick once you put them in the wash.

Never the less, while it lasted, my metal shirt mania was as intense and devoted as any other kid’s. My first metal shirt came when I was 12 years old. It was Motley Crue’s Theater of Pain tee, received scan0254Christmas 1988 alongside a stocking-stuffer cassette of their Shout at the Devil opus. From time of receipt, I made a personal commitment to sport the tee at least three days per week, sometimes four. Eventually, though, I was forced to take it off. As those of you who own Theater of Pain know, one of the songs titles is “Louder Than Hell”. This was written across the back of the shirt along with the album’s other song titles. During lunch one day in the school Anthrax SoF shirtcafeteria in March 1989, a patrolling teacher noticed the “obscenity” and decided to make me an example out of me, moral regulator that she was. With a malicious censorship in her eyes, and a grand contempt for Motley Crue (and all that represented freedom to 12-year old boys) in her dictatorial heart, she ordered me to turn the shirt inside-out the rest of that day, and never wear again so long as I was enrolled at Fred Lynn Middle School. Not long thereafter replacement came in the form of an Anthrax shirt. I’d just seen their MTV breakthrough video for the song “Antisocial”; one day after school, the video debuted at #6 on Dial MTV. This was my introduction to thrash metal and I wanted to jump into the TV to be closer to the action onstage in the video. I later learned there was heavier stuff out there – this was still during Kreator, Exodus, Dark Angel and Napalm Death’s classic eras – but compared to the hair metal defining my tastes ‘til that point, “Antisocial” was off the cliff.  So the shirt was opportune.

My 13th birthday – November 1989 – saw a new addition to what would soon become a stable of Motley Crue apparel: the Dr. Feelgood album cover shirt, and on its heels a white Girls, Girls, Girls tee for scan0201Christmas that year. In early 1990, my dad went to South Korea for a temporary duty assignment, and returned with pirated Helloween Keeper of the Seven Keys shirt. It lasted two washes before it shrunk so badly that my chubby teen frame was evincing man-boobs, and I consequently discarded the shirt. I got my first Metallica shirt – the one for “Damage, Inc.” – in August 1990. And it was the sleekest thing I ever owned. Everything about the shirt, from fit to graphics, was badass. In those days, next to Iron Maiden, Metallica was the band with the greatest cottage industry of shirts. They had the market cornered setting appropriately dire imagery to a backdrop of teen angst, and any budding extreme metal fan worth his salt wouldn’t be caught dead without at least a handful of the band’s tees on deck. Shirts for the band’s first four albums, and in particular after …And Justice for All was released and Metallica starting headlining arena shows and selling albums in the low Total Metal with First Real Girlfriend Lissa in Hawaii 1991millions, were straight-up brutal. Gruesome skull imagery by underground skate-punk phenom Pushead made these black short-sleeved beauties a must-have metal wardrobe addition. I bought as many of these classic Metallica tees as I was able to afford: the “One” shirt, the “Damaged Justice” tee, and a white one with the band’s album photos across the front. Summer 1991 might well have been dubbed my Summer of Slayer, since that’s all I cared about as a 14-year old that year. A friend at the Christian school was I was attending grandfathered me into Slayer fandom, and I went off the deep end with it. I wrote a will and listed the band’s members as the first to be notified in the event of my untimely death; bought all their albums with hard-won lawn-mowing and babysitting cash; started writing my own song lyrics featuring death or devil worship every second line; and began buying their shirts as soon as I found some sufficiently non-Satanic that my parents would actually let me wear ‘em. First came the “Root of All Evil” shirt. Then appeared in my closet the classic “Slaytanic Wermacht” tee. Shortly thereafter came the “Spill the Blood” shirt, and then one that featured a sinister illustration of the band’s decapitated heads impaled on wooden spikes.

Around this time – summer 1991 at the age of 14 – I was desperate to grow my hair longer. But it wasn’t happening, not even by a long short. In part, this was due to being enrolled at a Christian school where hair wasn’t permitted past  ears or collar, whichever came first. Additionally, my hair didn’t grow down. Metal shirt on headInstead it grew up and out, like Beavis on speed. My best friend at the time – Dan Brill, who happened to double as the drummer in my first band, Speed Scream – came up with a crafty solution that seemed novel to us though it had already occurred to every Harley owner for a thousand years: wrap a metal shirt around my head. This way, I concealed the fact that I was lacking the long locks so urgently sought; did not, after all, a shirt tail cascading down the back of my skull give the impression of long hair, at least if you only looked at my silhouette? And let me tell you, it was certainly an effective way to control my frizzy mop in the Hawaiian humidity. Finally, it was  good for managing the sweat that constantly trickled from my face, as the shirt-’round-noggin motif acted as de facto sweatband. With the entire upper half of my body thusly covered in metal shirts, I felt justifiably badass and strutted ’round the mall, McDonalds, or the front yard. No photos of my fashion statement exist from that time, but I’ve recreated it for your viewing pleasure here.

Christmas 1991 brought me Testament’s “Perilous Nation” shirt (around the same time I independently purchased the band’s “Electric Crown” tee as well) and Sepultura’s Arise (which lasted me a few years) and Schizophrenia (which lasted maybe 6 months, falling apart with a stretched neck and various moth holes) tees.  In late 1992, I discovered a place by the Potomac Mills shopping mall in Legion shirt reverse sideWoodbridge, Virginia called Central Newsstand; this place would be the downfall of many McDonald’s paychecks, though (with rare exception, provided the shirt lasted awhile) I always considered it money well spent. Central Newsstand no longer exists, having battened down its hatches sometime in the late 1990s, but it was THE place for metal shirt in those days if you lived in northern Virginia. The store was located nearby to Taco Bell and Staples, and all across from the Potomac Mills shopping mall, so you could get a your burrito on AND make copies of your band’s upcoming concert flyers AND try to meet girls after hooking up a new metal shirt, which you’d don immediately upon exiting the store. From Central Newsstand I acquired a series of shirts: Benediction’s The Grand Leveler, Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, Overkill’s Horrorscope, an Obituary long-sleeve, Slayer’s “Chemical Warfare”, Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual, and the DecideTestament Perilous Nation Shirt shirt for the Legion album, upon the back of which was a menacing photo of the band ready to beat everyone’s ass and the words “The End of God: The Way It Must Be”. This was the closest I ever came to approximating serious social offense, but I had the sense to keep the back of my Deicide tee covered by either a flannel or denim jacket if I wore it to school. I wanted people to know I was a headbanger, but it was never in my plans to provoke a fight. And in a Republican-heavy school, that would have provoked a fight, no question. It’s the same reason most Cradle of Filth fans didn’t parade around publicly wearing the band’s infamous tee with a crucifix-masturbating nun calling Jesus a very naught word rhyming with “stunt”. Even offense-desiring, gutter-dwelling metal fans sensed that maybe, just maybe, ‘twas better left alone. I don’t need to offend the entire religious world to prove something to myself or anyone else. The teachers at school and my parents never gave me any guff about my wardrobe, and I planned to keep it that way. So intelligence was in order.

I was gradually getting into heavier stuff. This is the natural progression of metal fans: the stuff you find out about first is typically commercially available lighter fare. Time passes, you research, you talk to friends, you read liner notes in albums, and you slowly discover “the rest” of what’s out there. Beginning With Erik before going to mall summer 1994my junior year of high school in 1993, I started hooking up shirts for underground death metal bands. These were ones you wouldn’t find at places like Central Newsstand; you had to buy directly from the band through mail order or at shows, or rifled the Blue Grape Merchandising mail order catalogue.  I purchased the very first Dying Fetus shirt in late 1993. A simple black short-sleeve number with the band’s logo in red/white across the chest, and the reserve side was blank. I bought it from the band by mail order for $10. In those pre-internet days, I was penpals with both Jason Netherton (who later formed Misery Index, which has now played over 1,000 shows in 40 countries) and John Gallagher (the only original Dying Fetus member still in the band) and they were promoting their first “official” release, the Bathe in Entrails demo. In early 1994, I saw Incantation and Postmortem live and picked up a shirt for each group.scan0105 The Postmortem tee, in particular, garnered considerable attention, as it featured a baby giddily slurping brains from an open skull using a spoon. In July 1994, I got a Cannibal Corpse long sleeve tour shirt for The Bleeding when I saw them play with Sinister and Cynic in Maryland. In November 1994, my band Witch Hunt brought Internal Bleeding down from Long Island for their first show in Virginia, and I forked over $20 for one of their “Total F**king Slam” long sleeves at the gig. In December 1994, we brought Insatanity down from Pennsylvania (a band whose primary renown was that one of their guitarists once played for New Jersey’s brutal death stalwarts Brian and Jimmy with Chris from Internal Bleeding 1994Mortal Decay). I acquired one of Insatanity’s long-sleeves after being convinced of their mightiness when their singer planted a massive wooden inverted cross onstage during their live set. But this one, like the Motley Crue shirt in 6th grade, didn’t last long at school, after it was pointed out to me that the difficult-to-decipher art on the shirt’s reserve side was actually the defiling of a nude angel. For Christmas 1994, Santa brought me Brutal Truth’s Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses tee. In March 1995, I finally got to see Slayer live (on the Divine Intervention tour) and bought two shirts: a bootleg one for cheap in the parking lot before entering the venue, and an official Me and mom and Ben and Witch Hunt shirt Xmas 1995one for considerably more once inside. In June 1995, I got a Death shirt when we saw Chuck Schuldiner and his band of merry thrashers destroy Nick’s Nightclub in Alexandria, Virginia on the first date of the Symbolic North American tour. Sometime around then, I picked up a Pungent Stench shirt, but cannot recall if it was at a show the band played or thru mail order. Then there was my band Witch Hunt’s second and final tee shirt, a black beefy-tee beauty which got a pressing of perhaps 20. The shirt’s design was a replica of the cover art for our Darkened Salvation demo tape, which inspired a palpable buzz in the global metal underground of the mid-1990s. We each took one, gave a few to close friends, and the rest of the shirts went on sale soon thereafter at we opened Internal Bleeding’s Voracious Contempt release show on Long Island in November 1995. One of the proudest moments of my life was the next day, as we drove to get pizza, spotting a kid walking roadside wearing our shirt.

One of the things I remember best from this era was how much effort we all put into looking “brutal” before going to the mall to pass out flyers, meet girls, or usually both. I’d stand before the looking glass with my brother Ben, or my best friend Erik Sayenga (Witch Hunt’s bassist at the time; he later spent a number of years touring the world behind the kit for Dying Fetus), and we’d appraise each other top-to-bottom and commence the run-down: “Dude, how do I look?” “Dude, BRUTAL!” “Really, dude, brutal?” “Dude, yes, BRUTAL!” “What about me, dude, how do I look?” “Dude, BRUTAL!” ‘Twas a conversation composed of but four words not exceeding two syllables each, but it communicated all that needed be said.

A shirt meriting special mention from my senior year of high school (1994-1995) was a Brujeria one which featured a fist clenching a decapitated head by the hair and the words “matando gueros”. The reverse side was easy Insatanity 1994enough to understand: Narcos Satanicos might as well be English. Yeah, I got it. But matando gueros? My Spanish teacher knew the first word meant “killing” but we were all perplexed over the second. Assuming Spanish was spoken the same everywhere, I took it to our Puerto Rican, Chilean, and Venezuelan contingent, and the best any of them could do was “teenagers”. Killing teens? Didn’t make sense. It wasn’t until years later, when I was working in northern Mexico, that I divined the true meaning of the phrase: killing white people. A great irony for Brujeria, whose fan base is constituted almost entirely by middle class white teens.

One of the last shirts I purchased of that era was in October 1996, while on autumn break from my first semester of college. Me and Erik drove up to Quebec City, Canada. While there, we frequented one of Quebec’s many metal specialty shops, Metal Disque, and they happened to have their own long-sleeve shirts pressed up and on sale for the quite reasonable sum of $20. So I snatched one up. Nothing says credibility like having a metal tee that no one else does; and the fact that it was in French attested to my worldliness, a bonus.

I gave most of the shirts away (or simply chucked them once too threadbare) around 1998. Since then, I’ve sporadically acquired a few metal tees, thru the kind of low-intensity collecting that occurs by Bogota Grind Fest 6 shirtcomplete accident. In 2001, Erik returned from a Dying Fetus month-long outing to Europe and gave me two tour shirts, one of which had his photo (with the other band members) on the reserve side. I still have that shirt, and it reminds me how proud I felt of my boy when he got to have all the road experiences the rest of us didn’t, including playing the main stage at 2002’s Wacken Festival. In 2009, while living in Colombia, I bought a commemorative shirt for a metal fest in the capital city Bogota, an awesome keepsake of a foreign scene. In 2012, I helped in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico called Limerance write their bio in English, and one of their guitarists gave me a shirt in appreciation. I also got a Decibel Magazine shirt that year, as well as one for Nuclear Blast Records. I got the classic Relapse Records shirt as well, but had to return it after a few attempts at getting the right size: the medium was too tight, and the large left me swimming. Total bummer, dudes: I’d wanted the Relapse logo shirt since 1994, after seeing a photo of Dismember’s Matti Karki wearing it onstage in a Rip Magazine article.

Comments
  1. Edenbeast says:

    I just came across this article when googling for some Slayer band images, and let me tell you it was a great read, and apparently we are almost the same age, Late 80s and early 90s were so good for Death Metal, great memories indeed. Now I have to go through all the articles you posted and to keep an eye on your blog from now on, thanks a lot dude, keep up the great work \m/

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