Posts Tagged ‘romance’

At least since that obscure era of the neoliths, societies flung to the furthest reaches of the globe have debated what constitutes the essence of the human race. And in our enlightened modern era, as a society – with the lamentable exception of hardcore religious types still emphatic that the triceratops was a damned lie and the earth was created merely 6,000 years ago – we’ve come to accept that some folks are simply born a certain way. Just ask Rob Halford. Scholarly debate regarding nature-versus-nurture has forever attempted to calibrate the importance of one’s innate qualities relative to how one’s personality and character are shaped by experiences. Though nowhere close to possessing expertise on the topic beyond what I’ve skimmed on Wikipedia, I’m personally markedly inclined toward nature, which in large order accounts for why I was born METAL.

A hindsight-boosted analysis ought usher into clear focus the fact that while Paul McCartney, Elton John, and The Manhattans were sweeping the American music charts in that miraculous annum of my birth, 1976, an incipient me bellowed forth into the delivery ward of Mount Carmel Hospital in Franklin County, Ohio already hard-wired to march to the (blast) beat of a distinct percussionist. Though no one would have wagered such a bet at the time, a series of antecedents during my first 11 years of life served as the smelly, toothless roadies setting the stage for what would ultimately become my lifelong metal fandom.

For starters, I was born in Ohio, a Midwestern province forming part of the ill reputed American Rust Belt and once particularly renown for its heavy metallic industrial output. Not only was the general ambience of Ohio therefore one of figurative metal, but I’ve heard that literal metal found its way directly into the my corporeal being, owing to the weighty levels of lead (quite a heavy metal) in the tap water quenching my thirst in our home on Sibley Street in the sleepy agricultural hamlet of Van Wert. Thus it ought have shocked no one when, as a budding four-year old in pre-school, I once colored the rainbow black, failing to comprehend or acquiesce to the complaints of the headmistress.

Like all metal fans, so too was I preternaturally obsessed with image quite early in life, donning all manner of costume and uniform regardless of how ludicrous to distinguish myself from the lesser humanity surrounding me. For their part, my parents did their utmost to encourage such experimentation, likely without realizing its eventual destination. One of our family’s photo albums contains a snapshot of a butt-ass naked and grinning me sitting soapy in the bathtub, baby blond hair shampooed and teased into devil horns adorning either side of my noggin. Me and my brother Ben routinely dressed up as Batman and Robin, baby blankets draped over our shoulders serving as capes and colored leotards, cowboy boots, and masks our mother fashioned from scraps of cloth completing our respective ensembles. For authenticity’s sake, we also made thorough use of Underoos, a type of children’s underwear with a matching top and bottom featuring a superhero and mimicking the character’s distinctive costume. This was metal in its most youthful and elemental form, for the difference between a Shout at the Devil-era Nikki Sixx and either me or Ben decked out in such duds was, at best, negligible.

Heavy metal is an expressive and, when correctly executed, brutally honest art form. Metal speaks its mind, consequences be damned. In keeping with the maxim that honesty is always the best musical policy, throughout my first decade of life I was exceedingly outspoken and – to the dismay of my parents, neighbors, and anyone else haphazardly within earshot – often in the most wholly inappropriate of fashions. I was always intelligent enough to avoid being too outlandish at school, thus evading the wrath of grade school teachers, who to me always seemed to simmer just below their superficially cool surfaces. But I tackled themes verboten with self-satisfying reckless abandon as soon as I successfully cleared the radius of the authorities’ status-quo enforcing clutches. While one could argue my fascination with taboo topics was a natural product of childhood and its concurrent sense of inquiry and experimentation, I cannot readily deny that I frequently took things waaaaay too far.

And so nothing was off limits for me conversationally. By age 8, I gathered that my father – a Marine officer whose government-mandated propriety usually kept his words few and disciplined in the workplace – found great reward on the home front in all things scatological. And for my old man, that meant discussing in exquisite detail every aspect, both theoretical and practical, related to his daily bowel movement. That his treatises on crap might be adorned with the fig leaf of legitimacy for the sake of his own parental self-image, he reminded us of the hard science undergirding them: where else would an eight-year old get an advanced lesson in the difference between solid, liquid, and gas? At certain points during my childhood, the old man’s work schedule was so busy that the only time we had to catch up was often while he took a dump; we would load into the bathroom and tell him about our days while “stinkin’ and thinkin’ ”, as his euphemism went. And so feeling fully justified in emulating daddy dearest’s example – not understanding that other kids didn’t hang out with their shitting fathers – one day I rushed into the front yard declaring to our neighbors what indeed was celebratory news to the 8-year old me: not only had I just flipped the scoreboard on Atari 2600 standard Asteroids, but moments earlier I’d successfully utilized the same two squares of toilet paper during seven consecutive folds, gleaning a solid wipe with each one.

Tending to my image and speaking my mind weren’t the lone hallmarks of metal I was showing from an early age. Like the glam metal groups that would shortly become my heroes, I was enthralled with girls. Verily, from a young age I felt perfectly comfortable in the company of females. I recall not being panicked about cooties in pre-school, when I sat next to a lass named Carissa during weekly show-and-tell. The ante was upped when in 3rd grade I dreamt that I was at school finger painting with Punky Brewster – in that era the most metal of television’s pre-teen female personalities. In 4th and 5th grade I regularly received, while in a state of slumber, celestial visions compelling me to actively seek a girlfriend. Bearing a halo, flowing white robe, effervescent aura and levitating off the ground, an angel would appear to me, its only human feature the face of a girl at school I had deemed prettiest. Then she would speak unto me: “Briancito, asketh of me tomorrow my hand, for love thee doth I!” Under what I considered divine providence, the following day at school I’d propose to the young lady in question. I even did so while on crutches after foot surgery- did Noah turn down God’s request for the Ark simply due to physical hardship? Invariably, she’d decline. And so a few days later, whilst slumbering anew, the second prettiest flower at school would appear unto me in a similar angelic fashion, the heavenly cycle repeating until I’d worked my way through every female prospect in class, including the ones who barely spoke English, like Anita Medina, Laurel Bay Elementary School’s sole 4th grade representative of the Mexican nation.

Like every metal band I would later love, I found nothing more satisfying than challenging the norm, from an early age taking some perverse personal pleasure in contravening convention and being consequently recognized for doing so. Being normal bore scant interest for me. In a manner akin to how many of the era’s glam rocker dudes took pride in looking uncannily similar to women, so did I invest myself in a brief period of cross-dressing around age 7. With a towel draped over my head to simulate long hair, and blanket wrapped ‘round my waist for a skirt, I also wore my mom’s nail polish and occasionally even her lipstick. Sometimes I’d even attempt sneaking one of her cigarettes, though never actually lit, convinced that smoking would speed my conversion to woman. And my fascination with womanhood wasn’t confined strictly to mere trappings of fashion: when the neighborhood kids played house, I’d duly assume the role of mother (and relegate my brother to family pet, usually a dog).

My intrigue for alternative lifestyles didn’t stop there; political movements defying the mainstream likewise endlessly fascinated me. At age 10, after watching way too many episodes of the GI Joe cartoon series after school, and relating far better to the evil genius of Cobra, I declared myself a terrorist. Enlisting two friends from school as my sinister cohorts, I ran them through homemade obstacle courses in the backyard as part of their training. Once I deemed training complete and began planning the next stage in our plot to global domination, I broke the cardinal rule of membership in a terrorist organization when disclosing our plans to my mother. In one of the rare instances in which she struck a firm heel into the dirt and crushed my creative impulse, she informed me in no uncertain words that if I wanted to be a terrorist, “your father will have to kill you. Because that’s what your daddy does. He’s a Marine. He kills terrorists.” And if obscure political movements captivated my imagination, then religious ones were not exempt from experimentation. At age 11, after watching Ghostbusters far more times than would reasonably be considered healthy by any practicing psychologist, I decided to become a devotee and worshipper of Gozer. Upon warning my father that his lack of piety for the Supreme One would land him squarely in the merciless crosshairs of Zul the fridge deity, he got up, bade me stand at attention, and in his finest formation voice ordered me to cease and desist all worship of any god but Jesus Christ in his house, thus abruptly curtailing my flirtation with alternative lifestyles.

Heavy metal’s predilection for dark subject matter also became an interest of mine during those formative years. Sadly, however, my introduction to the macabre was not through a harmless scary movie. Instead, a traumatic incident to which my family was subjected one summer evening in 1986 was the culprit. Without delving into every lurid detail, we saved a woman who had been raped, savagely beaten, and left for dead in the woods. Regaining a state of semi-consciousness, a miracle given how much blood she’d lost and that her skull was fractured in three places, she emerged panting and desperate from the woods precisely as my family passed while returning home from a movie; we were the only vehicle on that desolate stretch of road. My mom pulled into her the car and held her tight in the passenger side in front while my dad floored it, spiriting us to a nearby military base while the woman went into shock and began a descent into expiration. We made it to the base in time, and the gate guards served as first responders while the ambulance was on its way. But before we reached the base, from the back seat, I reached out and touched her shoulder, was frigid and wet despite the 90 degree South Carolina summertime late night heat. Drawing my hand back, I beheld my fingertips stained with blood and dirt. This was my first contact with evil, an overwhelming experience for a 10-year old. The experience morphed, for a brief time, into an intense fascination with death lasting well into my teenage years and manifesting itself first in drawings I made in art class, later as lyrics to songs I’d write.

Before I turned to metal as a full time lifestyle, I made a valiant stab at achieving the dream that society does its utmost to inculcate into every young boy: becoming a star athlete. And yet being a baller simply wasn’t inscribed upon my parents’ stars nor my own. Ever the self-taught artist, my mother’s orientation was that of loner. My father’s last year of organized sports came on the Tays Valley High School football team in rural Ohio his senior year in the early 1970s; while he played ball with my brother and I, the activity was never mandatory and he always encouraged us to find our own passions and deliver on them fiercely. From the ages of 6 to 13, I played an accumulated three seasons of soccer, three of baseball, and one of football. A multitude of elements conspired to turn me off to sports, though. I was genetically poorly equipped to do much of anything on a baseball diamond, football field or soccer pitch. I had a touch of asthma in childhood, combined with my general chubbiness, I was not physically equipped with the hustle required to round bases, kick goals, or speed triumphantly into the end zone. This problem was not the least remedied by having undergone a series of feet surgeries between ages 9-10 to correct an osteo-structural abnormality. I can’t say I liked most of the other kids I played with, largely of the uber-competitive variety and hysterical about winning to the exclusion of every other consideration. Nor did I care much for the coaches to whose whims and seesawing temperaments I was subject. I should not neglect to mention that along the way, I experimented with martial arts: initially karate and followed by a gingerly brush with tae kwon do. The fixation with chops, kicks, and anything that might involve throwing a ninja star into someone’s eye was the immediate and fantastic byproduct of living in northern Japan during three years of my youth, being exposed to the samurai and ninja culture which subbed for Japanese kids’ game of cops and robbers. But once I got my clock cleaned by most of the females in the dojo, and didn’t like hitting other people in general, I learned I was not long for the world of combat sports.

So metal really did come along to save me, to provide me a purpose and a mission. Unlike my infatuation with Cobra and terrorism, metal would not get me sent to Guantanamo Bay. Dissimilar to my flirtation with Gozer worship, metal would not result in my hasty ex-communicated from the Church. Metal’s sometimes-violent subject matter allowed me to embrace some of life’s unspeakable horrors, aiding me in a quest to make sense of the dark places from which those horrors sprang and the chaos they engender. Unlike sports, I did not need to depend on angry coaches and judgmental teammates. Metal, in its way, was simpler, more reliable and infinitely more rewarding in every respect: I could do this music on my own, independently and from the comfort and security of my room, and any gains I might make were directly proportional to the time, energy, and love I invested in it. This is why music is the savior of many a wayward young soul, for ‘tis an investment in, and fortification of, oneself. Not to mention death metal guitars are badass.

…or how a passion for Spanish and undying devotion to heavy metal jointly shaped the course of my whole life.

In late December 1992, while laboring studiously as a high school student, I volunteered to sing Christmas carols at an old folks’ home. Always the death metal screamer, and proudly fronting my own band by that point, my scratchy pipes were poorly suited to serenading half-defunct long-past-retirees on themes of Yule tide. And yet there I was, Deicide shirt hidden beneath decency’s flannel shirt, hair tied back, and big dumb grin plastered across my face. What calling so great, what mission so worthy, that a teenage death metal fan would be caught in such a situation, concealing his very metal-ness and allowing non-Satanic song lyrics to cross his lips? It could have been none great than the vixen Dawn, a 12th grader who had invited me to the event and with whom I was desperately, wholly smitten.  I was getting desperate, as she hadn’t responded to my decidedly un-subtle onslaught all school year, and I thought that perhaps ratcheting the ante up would do the trick. In high school two year’s different constituted a virtual chasm separating us, and thus Dawn seemed all but unreachable to lil’ sophomoric me as 1992 faded to 1993. In the mania of my teenage mind, I assessed that perhaps – just perhaps! – crooning to a roomful of geezers would showcase al the qualities I was sure an older woman like Dawn might appreciate, compensating for my age and total lack of jock-ness: my holiday spirit, love of humanity, and if I were really lucky, my on-key delivery of choice Christmas classics.

It was not to be, sadly. The night before we caroled, my band performed, me on the mic. While I admit that it was a rousing performance in which I turned up the volume far beyond what any decent Peavey speaker cabinet can reasonably endure, my vocal cords were in a state of ruin: a collapsing Mayan temple, a dilapidated Appalachian shack. An agonized throat may well be music to a metal fan’s ears, but not so to my elderly audience that day. My pitch was atrocious, a hideous disfigurement of holiday music, and because of it, my much-trumpeted “love of humanity” and “holiday spirit” were sorely un-evidenced by the third song. It shown clearly upon my mournful countenance, and became even more acutely clear to all present after I started sulking. And why did I sulk? Because of an occurrence I had prayed to circumvent, but which the Lord decided to visit upon me that day, a Job-like test of my capacity for punishment.

More specifically: Dawn’s boyfriend made a cameo at the retirement home, held her lily-white hand, and macked on her before my very eyes, likely aware of my interest in his lady and staking his territory publicly. It is true, I mused pathetically in silence, that possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law. This immediately dashed The Master Plan for the eventual (though in retrospect impossible) conquest of her heart. Nearly ready to admit defeat and leave the premises of the retirement home altogether, I was looking for my final in-road, scanning desperately about the room to see if something, anything, would present itself as an avenue by which to woo this lass.

And that’s when I saw the Old Spanish Lady.

She was in a wheelchair, secluded in a corner of the room. Whilst the other retirees enjoyed our high school sing-song rendition of their cherished holiday ditties, she stared out a window, morose and downcast, isolated, clearly pondering with resignation how many feathers remained on the chicken of her life. I asked an orderly why she was there. “She’s from Spain and doesn’t speak any English. She doesn’t talk to anyone.” And just like that, I saw the gauntlet tossed at my feet as though by Destiny itself. I would woo the old bat with Spanish phrases I’d learned in school, by extension wooing my fair maiden who would doubtless witness this act of kindness and linguistic acrobatics. Happily-ever-after never looked so probable.

Verily I approached the old Spanish biddy, rolling up my sleeves in anticipation as I searched the abyss of my mind for precisely the right Spanish phrase for a knock-out introduction, rapidly reviewing every lesson I’d been taught in Dr. Stewart’s Spanish class, poignantly attempting to cobble together anything bearing even the slightest semblance of proper grammar and pronunciation. I slowly grew aware – neigh, intense was my cognizance! – that the entire room’s attention was on me.

And then, the singing of Christmas songs stopped. The crowd watched. Dawn gawked curiously. I had the spotlight and struck:

“Hoh-lah moo-hair… No haw-blow s-paaaaa-nol paaay-ro feluuuuz ni-va dude!”

It was my first complete Spanish sentence, ever, and I wasn’t about to let the total wrongness of every aspect of it deflate my pride in having spoken a foreign language publicly. Dawn’s cock-bag boyfriend, take THAT. I stood back triumphantly waiting for the Old Spanish Lady’s response. She continued to stare out the window, unaware, unresponsive, her stoicism befitting Shakespearean intrigue. And that’s when the orderly approached me anew, now with a clarification: “Oh sorry. She’s actually from Bulgaria.” I didn’t look up as the flop-sweats forced itty-bitty trickles of perspiration down my furrowed brow.

(In the background: the faint sounds of muffled snickers. A snort or two.)

At that very moment, I swore never to suffer that kind of public humiliation again.

Thus it was a function of terribly unfortunate timing that a mere three weeks later, in early 1993, I was compelled to smack the bejesus out of a chap named Paul, who embarrassed me one cold afternoon leaving the cafeteria and on the way to geography class. His transgression was egregious in my prideful land o’ leading a garage band: he voided his bladder on one of my band’s promotional fliers. We used to pass them out during lunch hour. Were we expecting some push-back from the other kids? Sure.  Hip-hop and Nirvana were in, and metal was anathema in those days.  But didn’t we deserve, demand, a modicum of respect for our labors?  So pissing on my flier was not something I could, with any dignity, take in stride.

But in truth, though his golden shower was the immediate precipitator leading to Paul’s humiliating comeuppance before half the student body, the roots of out tiff lay in a heavy metal beef set to pasture and grazing for six intense months by that point in the school year. Simply put, Paul hated me for being the superior guitarist to him. But it wasn’t my fault that his assigned lot in life was that of a six-string douche. We cannot all be cut from the cloth of musical glory.  So this, his lack of instrumental ability, I could forgive him as it affected me not.  I could even pardon his frequent public challenges to my birth legitimacy and sexual orientation. These, typical for teenage boys prepping the battlefield for a late-day scrap, were sufficiently vulgar (though, admittedly, creative) to have sent an arsenal of angry little rockets screaming out of any teenage boy’s affronted ego. I was certainly no exception.  But no, I contained my wrath, choosing to be the proverbial “bigger man”. But then there was the pee-peed flier… Oh, how that pee-peed flier obliged me to a full defense of my offended metal honor, so incensed was I at this punk’s contemptuous and cavalier attitude toward my musical art. As a (literally) red-headed step child, Paul should have known he was statistically six times more likely to be beaten, and whizzing on my flier that day exponentially increased those odds to the point of dead certainty.

The next morning I told my mother, cryptically, that she ought to “be ready to come get me by about 8”, and listened to Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, strutting and flexing in front of the mirror to dissipate the horror I felt for what was about to happen. Truth be told, I’ve never been a fighter, and hate violence. And I was scared of Paul, who I was told had quite a bit more experience with fisticuffs than I.  But I knew what had to be done. Thus, by the time I got to school shortly thereafter, my jittery nerves counterbalanced only by the simmering ire I felt over the poor pee-peed flier, I exploded like Van Halen in 1984. Before homeroom bell even struck, I had delivered a sound thrashing with the precision of a smart bomb and the glee of a child on Christmas morning, a million purring kittens playfully swatting at the butterflies in my tummy whilst my clenched fist rocketed into Paul’s unsuspecting cheek.

Dr. Stewart, my high school Spanish teacher, intervened and broke us up, truncating my splendid brutalizing. She never let me live it down, constantly reminding me that only “bad students get into fights”, doling out goodly amounts of reproach to me whenever I came into her line of sight. And this bothered me: I was always a good and mindful student, filial to the end, and it was a cause of shame to me that a teacher would not think highly of me. I was not a big fan of foreign languages in those days, and unless a foreign tongue would help me nab one of the Mexican weather girls on Telemundo, I wanted nada to do with Spanish class in particular. But seeing that the only avenue by which to bring Dr. Stewart back around was to at least feign an interest in the material, I started paying closer attention in her class. I hoped my scholastic achievements would overshadow her low impression of me, showing her I wasn’t a bruiser but in fact was a responsible, upstanding young man.

Not so shockingly, it worked. Any teacher appreciates an earnest pupil. I was surprised, however, at how quickly I took to the language, and how speedily I began developing a taste and even talent for it. The following school year, 1994, my band Witch Hunt broke into the global underground metal tape trading and fanzine network. We recorded some demos and began shopping them to anyone who would listen to us, yet because of the ever-growing global network to which we were now party, we broke the mold of the typical gonna-go-nowhere, after-school band by marketing our material to other countries.  We established low-level distribution with a few helpful pen pals around the planet, paned off free copies of our demo material to select popular fanzines for review in their upcoming issues, and before I knew it, we were receiving interview requests and even fan mail from foreign lands.

Latin America became a particularly friendly region of the globe for us.  This was almost exclusively because of the efforts of one expatriate German buddy living in central Mexico with contacts all over the hemisphere. I began receiving weekly letters (mind you, this was in the pre-Internet days in which “snail mail” reigned king) from places like Colombia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and even Cuba. And unlike the Europeans who boasted English usually better than mine, our Latin American brethren spoke only their own language. And I understood next to nothing of it. A conundrum; yet if they were confident enough to reach out, then in decency the only proper response on my part was to reach back their way. I began toting the letters to school, asking Dr. Stewart for her assistance in translating them and my responses. At first, she was dubious: how many high school teachers field requests from students who need help translating responses to Chilean fanzine interview requests? But when she saw the proof, she was entertained and, in no small measure, inspired. She realized, and rightly so, that this was her chance to make a difference to a student and a lot of other people that would be tangible, in print, for others to read and enjoy.

Dr. Stewart began giving me extra credit for answering the letters in Spanish. She named me, later that year, Spanish Student of the Year. As my knowledge of the language grew at a steady clip – in no small part due to the Latino exchange students who took me under their wing – so grew my understanding of the region’s politics, history, society, and culture.  These I could also discuss with my Spanish-speaking pen pals as well,  all more than willing to tell me in languid detail of the circumstances facing each of their respective nations. In this manner I learned about the Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary problem; Nicaragua’s long decade of the 1980s and their return to pseudo-democracy in the 1990s; the Cuban censorship police and their occasional crack-down on heavy metal because of their belief that its political content might incite counter-revolutionary activities; and even, as one Mexican contact put it, “That Taco Bell is not really Mexican food.” Latin immigrants from Central America were not very visible in those days at metal concerts where I lived in Northern Virginia, but they were beginning to make a dent in our local scene, gradually; and at concerts in venues like The Cave (Manassas, Virginia) and Jaxx (Springfield, Virginia) I always found one to speak with, to ask about his country, and to cut my Spanish chops. They were always more than happy to oblige, simply pleased that a gringo would take the time to try learning their language.

Such was my passion for this language and its people that once I got to college in mid-1995, I knew I would ultimately declare Spanish as a major. I wanted more, in any way I could get it.  Following my junior year in 1998, I spent a summer in Guatemala working as a volunteer with war orphans and street children. A year later in 1999, upon graduation, I took up with the Peace Corps in El Salvador. During that two-year period, I lived in a small community of 300 ex-guerrillas from the Salvadoran civil war, which had ended a few years prior to my arrival, and traveled throughout Central America. After Peace Corps, I taught Spanish in the US Virgin Islands, obtained a Master’s Degree in Latin American Affairs, and got full-time professionally into regional affairs. Since then I’ve resided in Colombia, Mexico, and currently Brazil (amazingly I speak Portuguese now as well), and have independently traveled the depth and breadth of Latin America.

Metal and Spanish have been, therefore, my two enduring loves. They have outlasted any pet, girlfriend, or hobby I’ve had over the years. And while my love for the Spanish has helped me developed my career in a different direction than most of the headbangers I used to run with, my dedication to the music has never dampened, not for a instant: I’m still a metal-head, and proudly so. It’s the only music that truly churns me, the only kind I find worth paying to see in concert, and the only tuneage to which the vast majority of my best memories are tagged and cued. A song for every personal highlight dating back all the way to the first time I heard Cinderella’s “Somebody Save Me” in 1987 and, intuitively, knew no other music mattered to me afterward.