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Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakotaby Chuck Klosterman
Chapter One: October 26, 1983
The worldwide release of Mötley Crüe's
Shout at the Devil.
It's easy for me to recall the morning I was absorbed into the cult of heavy metal. As is so often the case with this sort of thing, it was all my brother's fault.
As a painfully typical fifth-grader living in the rural Midwest, my life was boring, just like it was supposed to be. I lived five miles south of a tiny town called Wyndmere, where I spent a lot of time drinking Pepsi in the basement and watching syndicated episodes of Laverne & Shirley and Diff'rent Strokes. I killed the rest of my free time listening to Y-94, the lone Top 40 radio station transmitted out of Fargo, sixty-five miles to the north (in the horizontal wasteland of North Dakota, radio waves travel forever). This was 1983, which — at least in Fargo — was the era of mainstream "new wave" pop (although it seems the phrase "new wave" was only used by people who never actually listened to that kind of music). The artists who appear exclusively on today's "Best of the '80s" compilations were the dominant attractions: Madness, Culture Club, Falco, the Stray Cats, German songstress Nena, and — of course — Duran Duran (the economic backbone of Friday Night Videos' cultural economy). The most popular song in my elementary school was Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue," but that was destined to be replaced by Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" (which would subsequently be replaced by "Raspberry Beret").
Obviously, popular music was not in a state of revolution, or turbulence, or even contrived horror. The only exposure anyone in Wyndmere had to punk rock was an episode of Quincy that focused on the rising danger of slam dancing (later, we found out that Courtney Love had made a cameo appearance in that particular program, but that kind of trivia wouldn't be worth knowing until college). There were five hundred people in my hometown, and exactly zero of them knew about Motorhead, Judas Priest, or anything loud and British. Rock historians typically describe this as the period where hard rock moved "underground," and that's the perfect metaphor; the magma of heavy metal was thousands of miles below the snow-packed surface of Wyndmere, North Dakota.
Was this some kind of unadulterated tranquillity? Certainly not. As I look back, nothing seems retroactively utopian about Rick Springfield, even though others might try to tell you differently. Whenever people look back on their grammar school days, they inevitably insist that they remember feeling "safe" or "pure" or "hungry for discovery." Of course, the people who say those things are lying (or stupid, or both). It's revisionist history; it's someone trying to describe how it felt to be eleven by comparing it to how it feels to be thirty-one, and it has nothing to do with how things really were. When you actually are eleven, your life always feels exhaustively normal, because your definition of "normal" is whatever is going on at the moment. You view the entire concept of "life" as your life, because you have nothing else to measure it against. Unless your mom dies or you get your foot caught in the family lawn mower, every part of childhood happens exactly as it should. It's the only way things can happen.
That changed when my older brother returned from the army. He was on leave from Fort Benning in Georgia, and he had two cassettes in his duffel bag (both of which he would forget to take back with him when he returned to his base). The first, Sports, by Huey Lewis and the News, was already a known quantity ("I Want a New Drug" happened to be the song of the moment on Y-94). However, the second cassette would redirect the path of my life: Shout at the Devil by Mötley Crüe.
As cliché as it now seems, I was wholly disturbed by the Shout at the Devil cover. I clearly remember thinking, Who the fuck are these guys? Who the fuck are these guys? And — more importantly — Are these guys even guys? The blond one looked like a chick, and one of the members was named "Nikki." Fortunately, my sister broached this issue seconds after seeing the album cover, and my brother (eleven years my senior) said, "No, they're all guys. They're really twisted, but it's pretty good music." When my brother was a senior in high school, he used to drive me to school; I remembered that he always listened to 8-tracks featuring Meat Loaf, Molly Hatchet, and what I later recognized to be old Van Halen. Using that memory as my reference point, I assumed I had a vague idea what Mötley Crüe might sound like.
Still, I didn't listen to it. I put Huey Lewis into my brother's trendy Walkman (another first) and fast-forwarded to all the songs I already knew. Meanwhile, I read the liner notes to Shout at the Devil. It was like stumbling across a copy of Anton LaVey's Satanic Bible (which — of course — was a book I had never heard of or could even imagine existing). The band insisted that "This album was recorded on Foster's Lager, Budweiser, Bombay Gin, lots of Jack Daniel's, Kahlua and Brandy, Quakers and Krell, and Wild Women!" And they even included an advisory: Caution: This record may contain backwards messages. What the hell did that mean? Why would anyone do that? I wondered if my brother (or anyone in the world, for that matter) had a tape player that played cassettes backward.
The day before I actually listened to the album, I told my friends about this awesome new band I had discovered. Eleven years later I would become a rock critic and do that sort of thing all the time, so maybe this was like vocational training. Everyone seemed mildly impressed that the Crüe had a song named "Bastard." "God Bless the Children of the Beast" also seemed promising.
Clearly, this was a cool band. Clearly, I was an idiot and so were all my friends. It's incredible to look back and realize how effectively the Mötley image machine operated. It didn't occur to anyone that we were going to listen to Mötley Crüe for the same reason we all watched KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park in 1978, when we were first-graders who liked Ace Frehley for the same reasons we liked Spider-Man.
Yet I would be lying if I said the only thing we dug about Mötley Crüe was their persona. Without a doubt, their image was the catalyst for the attraction — but that wasn't the entire equation. I say this because I also remember sitting on my bed on a Sunday afternoon and playing Shout at the Devil for the first time. This may make a sad statement about my generation (or perhaps just myself), but Shout at the Devil was my Sgt. Pepper's.
The LP opens with a spoken-word piece called "In the Beginning." The track doesn't make a whole lot of sense and would seem laughable on any record made after 1992, but I was predictably (and stereotypically) bewitched. The next three songs would forever define my image of what glam metal was supposed to sound like: "Shout at the Devil," "Looks That Kill," and the seminal "Bastard." Although the instrumental "God Bless the Children of the Beast" kind of wasted my precious time, the last song on side one was "Helter Skelter," which I immediately decided was the catchiest tune on the record (fortunately, I was still a decade away from understanding irony). I was possessed, just as Tipper Gore always feared; I had no choice but to listen to these songs again. And again. And again.
It was three months before I took the time to listen to side two.
It can safely be said that few rock historians consider Shout at the Devil a "concept album." In fact, few rock historians have ever considered Shout at the Devil in any way whatsoever (the only exception might be when J. D. Considine reviewed it for Rolling Stone and compared it to disco-era KISS). Bassist Nikki Sixx wrote virtually every song on Shout, and he probably didn't see it as a concept record either. But for someone (read: me) who had never really listened to albums before — I had only been exposed to singles on the radio — Shout at the Devil took on a conceptual quality that Yes would have castrated themselves to achieve. Like all great '80s music, it was inadvertently post-modern: The significance of Shout at the Devil had nothing to do with the concepts it introduced; its significance was the concept of what it literally was.
I realize this argument could be made by anyone when they discuss their first favorite album. My sister probably saw epic ideas in the Thompson Twins. That's the nature of an adolescent's relationship with rock 'n' roll. Sixx himself has described Aerosmith as "my Beatles." Using that logic, Mötley Crüe was "my Aerosmith," who (along these same lines) would still ultimately be "my Beatles."
Yet this personal relationship is only half the story, and not even the half that matters. There is another reason to look at the Crüe with slightly more seriousness (the operative word here being "slightly"). As we all know, '80s glam metal came from predictable sources: the aforementioned Aerosmith (seemingly every glam artist's favorite band), early and midperiod KISS (duh), Alice Cooper (but not so much musically), Slade (at least according to Quiet Riot), T. Rex (more than logic would dictate), Blue Cheer (supposedly), and — of course — Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin (although those two bands had just as much effect on Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and all the Sasquatch Rockers who would rise from the Pacific Northwest when metal started to flounder). In other words, this wasn't groundbreaking stuff, and no one is trying to argue otherwise. Sonically and visually, heavy metal was (and is) an unabashedly derivative art form.
But those sonic thefts are only half the equation, and maybe even less than that. We have to consider when this happened. The decade of the 1980s is constantly misrepresented by writers who obviously did not have the typical teen experience. If you believe unofficial Gen X spokesman Douglas Coupland (a title I realize he never asked for), every kid in the 1980s laid awake at night and worried about nuclear war. I don't recall the fear of nuclear apocalypse being an issue for me, for anyone I knew, or for any kid who wasn't trying to win an essay contest. The imprint Ronald Reagan placed on Children of the '80s had nothing to do with the escalation of the Cold War; it had more to do with the fact that he was the only president any of us could really remember (most of my information on Jimmy Carter had been learned through Real People, and — in retrospect — I suspect a bias in its news reporting).
In the attempt to paint the 1980s as some glossy, capitalistic wasteland, contemporary writers tend to ignore how unremarkable things actually were. John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles were perfect period pieces for their era — all his characters were obsessed with overwrought, self-centered personal problems, exactly like the rest of us. I suppose all the '80s films about the raging arms race are culturally relevant, much in the same way that Godzilla films are interesting reflections on the atomic age. But those films certainly weren't unsettling to anyone who didn't know better. WarGames and the TV movie The Day After were more plausible than something like Planet of the Apes, but — quite frankly — every new movie seemed a little more plausible than the stuff made before we were born. Anything could happen and probably would (sooner or later), but nothing would really change. Nobody seemed too shocked over the abundance of nuclear warheads the Soviets pointed at us; as far as I could tell, we were supposed to be on the brink of war 24/7. That was part of being an American. I remember when Newsweek ran a cover story introducing a new breed of adults called "Yuppies," a class of people who wore Nikes to the office and were money-hungry egomaniacs. No fifteen-year-old saw anything unusual about this. I mean, wouldn't that be normal behavior? The single biggest influence on our lives was the inescapable sameness of everything, which is probably true for most generations.
Jefferson Morley makes a brilliant point about inflation in his 1988 essay "Twentysomething": "For us, everything seemed normal. I remember wondering why people were surprised that prices were going up. I thought, That's what prices did." Consider that those sentiments come from a guy who was already in high school during Watergate — roughly the same year I was born. To be honest, I don't know if I've ever been legitimately shocked by anything, even as a third-grader in 1981. That was the year John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan, and I wasn't surprised at all (in fact, it seemed to me that presidential assassinations didn't happen nearly as often as one would expect). From what I could tell, the world had always been a deeply underwhelming place; my generation inherited this paradigm, and it was perfectly fine with me (both then and now).
Mötley Crüe was made to live in this kind of world. Shout at the Devil injected itself into a social vortex of jaded pragmatism; subsequently, it was the best album my friends and I had ever heard. We never scoffed at the content as "contrived shock rock." By 1983, that idea was the norm. Elvis Costello has questioned whether or not '80s glam metal should even be considered rock 'n' roll, because he thinks it's a "facsimile" of what legitimate artists already did in the past. What he fails to realize is that no one born after 1970 can possibly appreciate any creative element in rock 'n' roll: By 1980, there was no creativity left. The freshest ideas in pop music's past twenty years have come out of rap, and that genre is totally based on recycled, bastardized riffs. Clever facsimiles are all we really expect.
The problem with the current generation of rock academics is that they remember when rock music seemed new. It's impossible for them to relate to those of us who have never known a world where rock 'n' roll wasn't everywhere, all the time. They remind me of my eleventh-grade history teacher — a guy who simply could not fathom why nobody in my class seemed impressed by the Apollo moon landing. As long as I can remember, all good rock bands told lies about themselves and dressed like freaks; that was part of what defined being a "rock star." Mötley Crüe was a little more overt about following this criteria, but that only made me like them immediately.
In fact, I loved Mötley Crüe with such reckless abandon that I didn't waste my time learning much about the band. I consistently mispronounced Sixx's name wrong (I usually called him "Nikki Stixx"), and I got Tommy Lee and Mick Mars mixed up for almost a year.
Until 1992, I didn't even know that the cover art for the vinyl version of Shout at the Devil was a singular, bad-ass pentagram that was only visible when the album was held at a forty-five-degree angle. The reason this slipped under my radar was because Shout at the Devil was released in 1983, a period when the only people who were still buying vinyl were serious music fans. Obviously, serious music fans weren't buying Mötley Crüe. I've never even seen Mötley Crüe on vinyl; I used to buy most of my music at a Pamida in Wahpeton, ND — the only town within a half hour's drive that sold rock 'n' roll — and the last piece of vinyl I recall noticing in the racks was the soundtrack to Grease. The rest of us got Shout at the Devil on tape. The cassette's jacket featured the four band members in four different photographs, apparently taken on the set for the "Looks That Kill" video (which is probably the most ridiculous video ever made, unless you count videos made in Canada). By the look of the photographs, the band is supposed to be in either (a) hell, or (b) a realm that is remarkably similar to hell, only less expensive to decorate.
Like a conceptual album of the proper variety, Shout at the Devil opens with the aforementioned spoken-word piece "In the Beginning." It describes an evil force (the devil?) who devastated society, thereby forcing the "youth" to join forces and destroy it (apparently by shouting in its general direction). This intro leads directly into "Shout...shout...shout...shout...shout...shout...shout at the Devil," a textbook metal anthem if there ever was one.
Humorless Jesus freaks always accused Mötley Crüe of satanism, and mostly because of this record. But — if taken literally (a practice that only seems to happen to rock music when it shouldn't) — the lyrics actually suggest an anti-Satan sentiment, which means Mötley Crüe released the most popular Christian rock record of the 1980s. They're not shouting with the devil or for the devil: They're shouting at the devil. Exactly what they're shouting remains open to interpretation; a cynic might speculate Tommy Lee was shouting, "In exchange for letting me sleep with some of the sexiest women in television history, I will act like a goddamn moron in every social situation for the rest of my life." However, I suspect Sixx had more high-minded ideas. In fact, as I reconsider the mood and message of these songs, I'm starting to think he really did intend this to be a concept album, and I'm merely the first person insane enough to notice.
There are two ways to look at the messages in Shout at the Devil. The first is to say "It's elementary antiauthority language, like every other rock record that was geared toward a teen audience. Don't ignore the obvious." But that kind of dismissive language suggests there's no reason to look for significance in anything. It's one thing to realize that something is goofy, but it's quite another to suggest that goofiness disqualifies its significance. If anything, it expands the significance, because the product becomes accessible to a wider audience (and to the kind of audience who would never look for symbolism on its own). I think it was Brian Eno who said, "Only a thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them became a musician." Well, millions of people bought Shout at the Devil, and every single one of them remained a person (excluding the kids who moved on to Judas Priest and decided to shoot themselves in the face).
Fifteen years later, I am not embarrassed by my boyhood idolization of Mötley Crüe. The fact that I once put a Mötley Crüe bumper sticker on the headboard of my bed seems vaguely endearing. And if I hadn't been so obsessed with shouting at the devil, the cultural context of heavy metal might not seem as clear (or as real) as it does for me today.
Through the circumstances of my profession (and without really trying), I've ended up interviewing many of the poofy-haired metal stars I used to mimic against the reflection of my old bedroom windows. But in 1983, the idea of talking with Nikki Sixx or Vince Neil wasn't my dream or even my fantasy — it was something that never crossed my mind. Nikki and Vince did not seem like people you talked to. I was a myopic white kid who had never drank, never had sex, had never seen drugs, and had never even been in a fight. Judging from the content of Shout at the Devil, those were apparently the only things the guys in Mötley Crüe did. As far as I could deduce, getting wasted with strippers and beating up cops was their full-time job, so we really had nothing to talk about.
Copyright © 2001 by Chuck Klosterman
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