Heavy metal was never about the music, at least not until I was grown up and not really its target anymore. The genre seems like an acquired thing, a taste you get trained into young or never manage at all. The same principle governs elementary school language classes and explains why women don’t wait till their thirties to step into their first pair of high heels. Although the music wasn’t an official part of my life, the culture is stamped all over the place, and junior high is tagged with more metal than my garage door, which some local dickweeds have chosen as the testing ground for their death metal band names.
Metal is the kid who sat across from me at the quad of little tables pushed together to form our fourth grade desks. He wore a scowl to disguise the train-track braces slapped into his mouth over summer holidays and a Pat Benatar t-shirt with black sleeves, its dirty-white body yellowed in the wash. He told us he settled for Pat because his brother called her “sexy” and because his mom wouldn’t let him wear the one with Lita Ford. “Too much underpants and not enough clothes on that girl” for a little boy to sport her picture on his chest.
Metal is the kid who lived in the townhouse kitty-corner across our unfenced lawn, who owned K.I.S.S. records and seemed like maybe, already, he was headed for trouble. His family’s sofa was upholstered in cracked black leather and their dog was allowed to poop in the grass but no one ever shoveled it up, and we were warned to never go visiting barefoot. He built bike jumps in the road right there in the middle, but didn’t really do the part right where you lift the handlebars to extend the leap, and was always bagging himself on the cross bar. I remember the album covers he showed me bore snakes and chalices and gave me the creeps.
Metal is the reason my junior high yearbook is filled with photos that crop at least three inches off the top of everyone’s bangs.
It’s the reason I owned eyeliner in a greasy shade of blue that formed nuggets of crud in the corners of my eyes from colouring it onto the inner white part of my lids, and which would have been disgusting and unladylike except that everyone else looked that way, too.
Heavy metal is also the reason we had to get up before sunrise in order to tease our feathers, comb on three coats of mascara and sink all those earrings through holes in our lobes. Gathered in the bedroom of the girl who lived closest to our bus stop, we studied magazine photos of men with frosted bangs and kerchiefs knotted around their thighs and tried to copy the angle of their blush streaks. This girl’s bedroom was more like a salon than a place to study or sleep, curling iron smoking, Aquanet fumes low and thick, drugstore perfume arranged by bottle height on the bureau. The phone rang every few minutes, if not for us then for her older sister whose girlfriends wore kitten heels and packed their asses into acid wash shorter, tighter, cooler than ours would ever be. One morning we knew it was a boy telephoning for us, a fact her sister was sure to broadcast from one end of the bus to the other if she beat us to the call, and in our scuffle to snatch up the receiver first, someone spilled nail polish into the ghetto blaster cassette hatch, trapping Bon Jovi in there forever.
Metal meant partying in a mostly badly behaved way.
In my neighbourhood, metal was boys with peach-fuzz mustaches and growling cars with ten of us loaded in back, headed to the bonfire at the toboggan run called Devil’s Elbow where one time, a sled full of kids towing a couple more on black garbage bags overshot the hairpin turn and slammed right into a tree. Metal was hash and Jack at those parties, and at least one guy who was way too old to be hanging out and at least one girl who knew how to administer blow jobs too young.
And, metal was my brother in winter, laces untied, stovepipe jeans stuffed into black leather high-tops not quite high enough to beat the snow. Jacket unzipped and fingers grey-blue and furled into fists that he could retract up his sleeves. No hat because it would smoosh the layers on his two-tiered cut: blocky bangs hanging to his eyelids, the rest a long mess parted in the middle and scraggling its way toward his shoulder blades.
Metal wasn’t so much music as it was logos snipped from band t-shirts and pinned to the back panel of denim jackets. It was really just the fashion and the kids who wore it while skipping class to slouch in the school-approved smoking section on the sidewalk out front of the building. Then, I turned nineteen and moved out west and met a guy who played in a death metal band, who knew how to play guitar a little but his real thing was drums and no one talked about anything but how crazy it was he could play that fast and keep three different beats, one with each foot and another up top with his sticks.
His hair was enormous but his voice was – I think – rather tiny, and he decided I needed an education. Unlike the things other dudes thought I might be up for learning and were disappointed when I refused, the drummer stuck strictly to metal and taught me all I know about the music part. I was dismayed that understanding the music didn’t bring with it an understanding of the imagery — burning skulls, loops of snake, chicks strapped into leather “bikinis”, all those album covers with flames and junk I just do not get. His band was fairly terrible even if you’re into that sort of thing, and their songs had titles that were too embarrassing to speak aloud. They toured the local boozecans then hit the road for Seattle where grunge was still big but metal huddled on the sidelines waiting for kids to grow tired of how wholesome the indie scene had become.
And then, thinking my metal education was complete, I found feminism and Riot Grrrl and realised my drummer had done me wrong, not once mentioning all the ladies who were hammering away on instruments and belting it out a couple hundred miles south of my home, or all the ladies who’d kicked it onstage for decades before we came along. Just as I was growing righteous and indignant, I remembered one more place metal cropped up.
Metal was the roller rinks and community centre dances where so long as a woman was singing it, somehow it was ok for the tough music to sneak in.