Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Louder Than Hell (Book Review) by John Yohe

Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, compiled by Jon Wiederhon and Katherine Turman, is a mosh down memory lane: In high school and college, I belonged in the metal 'scene', such as it was, in lower mid-Michigan, playing bass in metal bands and performing in clubs from Detroit to Kalamazoo. I also spent a year in LA studying at Musicians Institute, right with the glam/hair metal scene (Ratt, Poison, etc.) was just booming, along with the thrash/speed metal scene, which I preferred, embodied by bands like Anthrax, Slayer, and the already-starting-to-get-huge Metallica. And though I eventually stopped trying to 'make it' in a band, and in fact always enjoyed listening to other types of music, from The Beatles to Vivaldi, I still return to metal, though I'm not sure I could articulate why. I was wondering if this book might help me answer that.

Louder Than Hell is modeled after Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, which came out over fifteen years ago. Excerpts from interviews (by Wiederhorn and Turman, from previous articles they've done, and some especially for this book, and from other sources) are collaged together roughly by time (70s, 80s, 90s), place (the San Francisco thrash scene, the LA glam/hair metal scene, the Sweden death metal scene), and topic (influences, banging chicks, drinking, banging chicks, drug use, banging chicks, dying, banging chicks). Each chapter also roughly covers metal 'movements,' like thrash, hair metal, death metal, black metal, nü metal, etc.) some of which were happening at the same time, or overlapped.

I devoured the almost 700 pages in two or three days. And while I already knew a lot about many of the bands, and the scene, at least up until the mid-90s, when I stopped playing music and was less invested in keeping up with the Osbournes, I didn't know everything, and Louder Than Hell is filled with interesting little nuggets, like for example Black Sabbath bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler discussing his interest in classical music, and Holst's Planets cycle, especially “Mars, Bringer of War,” claiming to have played the opening signature (which includes the infamous flat 5th' note, banned by the church centuries before for being the Devil's note because it sounds so evil!) on his bass during early band practices, giving guitarist Toni Iommi the idea for the similar opening riff on the song “Black Sabbath.” And there's also lots of juicy gossip, things I'd wondered about, like the details of the firing of guitarist Dave Mustaine from Metallica (he had a drinking problem. This coming from a band whose nickname was Alcoholica.) And even things I had never wondered about but which are interesting, like Mustaine's eventual becoming a born-again Christian. Or just to read a rambling quote from the singer of progressive punk band Bad Brains which makes almost no sense, wondering if he really talked like that all the time, then having another quote from their guitarist confirming that, in fact, he did).

And, mid-way between gossip and talk of origins/influence, I learned a bit more about how many bands involved with the different branches of metal knew each other, sometimes for years before they 'made it,' like for example hair metal guys from Motley Crue, Ratt, and WASP, some of whom had arrived in LA in the mid-70s, meaning some of them were in their thirties by the time they were famous. While it makes sense that if one band gets signed to a label, other labels would come sniffing around the same area for a similar-sounding band, Louder Than Hell reinforces the idea writer Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, Blink) and others have written about: that becoming famous/rich/etc. is less a question of talent than circumstances. Amazing to me, though makes sense also, to learn that the 'death metal' scene centered in Tampa, Florida, of all places, and as the interview excerpts reveal, seems due to a combination of time (thrash metal already in full swing, what's the next step?), place (“Central Florida is a hyper-conservative, religious retirement community [with] kids with no place to go.” “The heat in Florida makes you fucking crazy, man. And between that, all the old people, tourist, and the fucking drunks, no wonder everyone wanted to make really extreme music”), plus one small studio, and one guy who worked there, Scott Burns, who 'got' the sound (in both senses of the word)—the importance of the double bass drums being upfront in the mix. Reading how all these things came together, from the people involved, engrossed me both as a musician, and someone generally interested in creativity and arts movements, and I don't even like death metal! (I just never got into the 'Cookie Monster' vocals.)

What was frustrating about Please Kill Me, I thought, at the time, was that it only covered the main era of punk, 70s New York, with a brief jump over to Ann Arbor, Michigan to cover early pioneers such as the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges, and a quick hop over to London to include the British response to American punk, in the form of The Sex Pistols, and that book basically ends with the death of Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious. Having grown up in the time just after (though I wasn't a fan of punk at the time) I thought there was an obligation, to talk about punk's spread, especially to the West Coast, with bands like The Dead Kennedys, X, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks, but also bands out of the Washington D.C. area, like Bad Brains and Fugazi. But, in hindsight, and especially after reading Louder Than Hell, I think McNeil and McCain made the right choice (though perhaps they were just limited by logistics and personally knowing the people from the New York scene). Please Kill Me is about 450 pages—devoting time and space to another ten years of punk might have forced them to cut interesting stuff. (Penelope Spheeris' documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, did end up covering the West Coast punk scene. She also did a Part Two, chronicling the LA metal scene, both glam and (a little) thrash).

Because, even though Louder Than Hell is 700 pages, Wiederhon and Turman have attempted to cover the whole span of 'heavy metal', from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in the late 60s, all the way up to the present (or, 2012 at least, being able to include the death of Ronnie James Dio, but missing out on the death of Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman this year, 2013). That's a lot of territory to cover. So, inevitably, some things, some bands, get left out. Deep Purple is barely mentioned. Ditto progressive, science-fiction-y Canadians Voivod, one of my favorites. In fact, 'progressive metal' (influenced by bands like Rush and King Crimson, which was my main interest) isn't even mentioned, though its spawn, 'prog-rock' is briefly. One of my favorites, Fates Warning, gets no mention at all, while Queensrÿche ends up lumped into the hair metal scene. On the other hand, an even worse lumping happens every week in former Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider's syndicated radio show, House of Hair, where Iron Maiden can get played back to back with Poison (!).

Maybe I wouldn't quibble so much if a lot of Louder Than Hell weren't spent on backstage hijinks like banging chicks. Yes, Please Kill Me covers the drug use, and the ODing—how could one not cover that in punk or metal?—but Wiederhon and Turman love the sex stories, four generations of male musicians using, and in sometimes abusing, their groupies. I'm not saying this aspect of the metal 'lifestyle' shouldn't be mentioned, but much page space is devoted to the details. In some cases, the sex seems relevant, especially in the chapter, “All For The Nookie: Nu Metal, 1989-2002” which shows the personal (and maybe creative?) connections between porn and metal, including relationships male musicians developed with female porn stars, like, interestingly, Lynn Strait, vocalist for the band Snot, who I'd never heard of, but who actually crossed over and performed in movies with his porn star wife (and others).

More interesting would have been an exploration of the groupies, and why they would do things like blow a band's whole road crew, or gangbang a whole band on their bus. That is, actually do some research and seek out some of these women. Wiederhon and Turman only devote about a half a page (again, in 750 pages) to a few of the most famous groupies, whose quotes basically seem to justify everything by saying, 'Hey, I wouldn't do it if it wasn't fun for me too.' For example, Roxana Shirazi (listed in the index as 'groupie, author', though a simple google search leads to a much more interesting actual human being), who has this to say, in her one and only quote in the book:

I tend to really surprise rock stars, as I can easily conduct an orgy or get a band to do me [all] at once, and the next minute I can start talking about political theory. Groupie to me is very one-dimensional. Man, when I go to hang out with bands, if they don't give me fun or get me off sexually, I leave or tell them to go and find me someone who will. I genuinely don't [understand] girls who do things just to please these guys. What do they get out of it? (163)

Great question, though never answered. I'm not sure whether to take Shirazi seriously or not, especially since her official webpage is in need of a good copy editor. Still, hearing more from her and the (in)famous “Sweet Connie” Hamzy would help give us readers a bigger view of that world. Instead, the women involved generally remain nameless, and faceless, as they seem to have been for the men involved.

Most painful is reading about four generations of young men fucking themselves up on alcohol and drugs. This may come from Wiederhon and Turman's choice of what quotes to include, and maybe they're betting that the rock 'n roll excesses are what fans really want to hear about. And they're probably right. There are some voices of reason in the book, like Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from KISS (I can't believe I just wrote that), who claim to never have indulged too much (though Simmons discusses his books of polaroids of all the thousands of women he's slept with. Thousands. I'm barely in the double digits.) But overall, the emphasis from the young male musicians is how enjoyable the drugs and alcohol and banging three chicks a day was, and is. I would have welcomed more emphasis on the music, more talk of influences, creative decisions, and innovations. I know those things went on, but I guess that shit seems boring compared to yet another story of trashing a hotel room. On the other hand, this book was my reminder/verification that I was right to bow out of the metal scene when I did. I would not have survived.

The one non-partying aspect that does get talked about, at least with certain bands, is the business. Specifically, how musicians were screwed by record labels, and sometimes other musicians. More than one musician talks about selling hundreds of thousands of records and not making any money at all. Or, for example, according to Marilyn Manson, because of some early contract he signed, he now, apparently, still, has to give a percentage of everything he makes to Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails.

There are moments of kindness too, without which metal just wouldn't have taken off. Jonny Zazula, owner of a record store called Rock 'N Roll Heaven, liked the early thrash demos coming out, so much that he started his own small independent record label, Megaforce Records, which gave bands like Metallica and Anthrax their first breaks though, according to Zazula, he didn't even make money the first few years, doing it simply for the love the music. More behind-the-scenes stuff like this would have been interesting, though maybe other readers wouldn't agree? Or care?

Other strange inclusion/exclusion choices: Metallica is covered in the “Caught In A Mosh: Thrash Metal, 1981-1991” chapter, and I learned a lot more about the period when they left San Francisco for New York to record their first album, thanks in part to Anthrax's Scott Ian, who was there to welcome them and help them out by bringing food to the hovel they stayed in. (Ian's voice crops up a lot in the book (including writing the Foreword to the book), giving me the impression Wiederhon and Turman personally know him). But then Metallica drops out of the narrative, mostly, only popping back up at the death of their bass player, Cliff Burton, which even made the mainstream media at the time (Burton was a huge influence to bass players like me—listen to his solos on “Breaking Teeth” and “Orion”). At first I thought that we readers were being prepared for a whole chapter on Metallica, since right after Burton's death they exploded, but they don't really appear again at all, even though they're still around. (For the curious, the documentary, Some Kind Of Monster covers an important, kind of embarrassing for them, later chapter in Metallica history).

Other huge bands get short mention. What about Van Halen? The whole glam/hair metal stage gets covered with nary a mention of them, the first to come out of that LA scene. Iron Maiden barely appears, though I would argue they influenced many thrash bands. In fact, the other big British metal band of the 70s and 80s, Judas Priest, who I like, or liked, though not as much, receives lots of space, as does their singer, Rob Halford, who writes the afterward to the book, making me suspect the book's authors know him personally as well. Or at least he made himself readily available. Which may be the key to making history.

All of which makes me feel this could have been a two volume set. I'm tempted to say that, like Please Kill Me, perhaps Wiederhon and Turman could have stayed with a smaller time period, say from 1970ish (Black Sabbath) to hair metal and thrash metal in the early 90s. But, that just wouldn't be fair. Even if I personally don't like a lot (most?) metal that came out of the late 90s onward, Louder Than Hell convinces me that there was (and still is) a lot going on. Though frustrating, to the book's credit, I'm left wanting more, specifically more voices from, and therefore more understanding of, those formative first two decades, without which next two decades wouldn't have existed. But, a metalhead twenty years younger than me (and who would have thought I'd be able to write that sentence?) might prefer more about Marilyn Manson and Slipknot. Whole books could be devoted to each chapter, each branch of metal, even certain bands. Actually, whole books have been written about bands like Black Sabbath and Metallica and others, though not necessarily well, which is why an 'oral history' is a good choice.

But Louder Than Hell kind of fizzles out at the end—by then I was skipping whole pages of yet more drinking and banging chicks—ending with the death of Slipknot bassist Paul (Clown) Gray. I was never a Slipknot fan, so/and it seems like an odd place to stop. Other loose ends are not tied up exactly, and the categorizing of movements, while making sense sometimes (yes, all the glam/hair metal bands seemed to be doing similar things, as did the early thrash bands, and all the death and black metal bands) end up sounding a little forced, especially for some bands in the last ten or so years. Where do Tool and Godsmack fit in? They're not “Thrash Revisted,” nor “Metalcore” (two other chapters in the book). And 'grunge,' though mentioned a lot, specifically as a movement that blots out metal in the 90s, and which some metal bands, like Pantera, were reacting against, is not covered at all. I'm not sure about Nirvana, but if Soundgarden wasn't metal, what were they?

But if Louder Than Hell feels unresolved, that's Wiederhon's point in the epilogue: metal (unlike punk) continues to evolve and mutate. My curiosity is why. What's the appeal? I'd argue that there are a lot of angry young men (and some young women) out there (mostly white, maybe, though metal appeals to latinos and asians too)(again, why?). Not that it makes people angry, but that people are drawn to music that reflects how they feel. Of course, hair metal doesn't fit into that category. Nothing angry about Poison's “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” (ack). I'd put hair metal as more in the tradition of regular of rock n' roll, which was, of course, when it first appeared, a slang term for sex. (My guilty pleasures: Motley Crüe's “Girls, Girls, Girls” and Whitesnake's “Still of the Night.”) The key, as Louder Than Hell implicitly shows, I think, is that metal seems to be the only type of music that continues to horrify parents, which is important. The sound: the distorted guitars, the loud drums, the screeching vocals. The lifestyle: the booze, the drugs, the banging of people's daughters. The image: upside-down pentagrams, demons, and/or sexually ravenous women who could be someone's daughter.

Except, some of us metalheads are now parents, and even grandparents. Ozzy Osbourne and Toni Iommi are in their seventies. My friend John joked back in high school (twenty-five years ago!) that he'd be an eighty year old man sitting in a wheel chair raising his hand in the devil horn salute while croaking out, “I am Iron Man” (the famous quote from the Black Sabbath song “Iron Man” for those of you non-metalheads who have led benign, conformist lives), and yet, it's going to come true! He'll probably horrify his children (or not, he's probably playing them KISS songs at night to lull them to sleep). So, who's left to horrify? Oh, plenty of people. America, the world, remains a socially conservative religious place: there's still much to be angry about. Louder Than Hell reminds us metalheads that we weren't, and aren't, alone. And if you're not one of us, the book offers an accessible look into the world (into the void?), in the voice of those involved, as a way of (partial) understanding. After all, we're coming for your children.

Author bio: 

Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan, and makes his h(om)e base in Portland, Oregon, though this summer he is a fire lookout, living in a tower high up on a mountain in the Arizona desert. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, runner/busboy, bike messenger, wilderness ranger, as well as a teacher of writing.  A complete list of his publications, and poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing samples, can be found at his website: www.johnyohe.com

No comments: