Back when I was a 13-year-old hermit in training, eating lunch either by myself or with a fellow bookworm who was as content as I to silently munch a sandwich while we read, I was a big science fiction fan. To be more precise, I was a big science fiction and fantasy fan. Terms seemed very important at the time. There were a lot of things I liked about the genre, and plenty of them had less to do with the stories than with the feeling of community that seemed to exist around them: the way the writers talked about each other when they wrote prefaces for one another's books, and the willfully offhanded tone that fans tried to adopt when talking about the objects of their attention. ("Reading last month's Analog, I'm sure I wasn't the only reader who noticed Ben Bova winking in Theodore Sturgeon's general direction throughout his essay on robotics — what's the story?") But I think the thing that appealed to me most was the drama; the grandeur; the pretentiousness, which isn't the bad thing we generally make it out to be.
After all, what is the difference between pretentiousness and seriousness? Only a contract between the speaker and the author. People call things "pretentious" in order to put them in their place; if a thing has been conceded to actually occupy a place of seriousness, it's immune from charges of pretension. I'm really suspicious of this process — it seems cliquish to me. At the same time, though, one has to concede a big difference between the seriousness of heavy hitters like Faulkner or Joyce and the would-be gravitas of stories about dragons that can talk.
Or does one have to make such a concession at all? The question plagues me, not least when I listen to Blackie Lawless's most concentrated bid for seriousness, The Headless Children. This is, plainly put, a badly underrated album: it swings for the fences and connects more often than not. Its mood is half panic, half glee; it has that millennial, apocalyptic grandeur that great metal sometimes gets. Its default rhythm is a rolling-thunder vibe that owes a concealed debt to Adam & the Ants, and its shredded-throat vocals wail scarily atop them like angry train whistles. It has a song in which the singer engages in a "would you die for me?" dialogue with a pitch-shifted interlocutor who is probably supposed to be Satan. In "Forever Free," it has one of the best, most obviously calculated rock anthems to ever fail to galvanize the general public; it's hard to believe this song hasn't been covered by a country artist in recent years. Its one minor hit was a cover of "The Real Me" by the Who.
It is simply magnificent in its pretentiousness.The cover alone announces that it means business: from the mouth of a skull-shaped mountain, amidst faceless hordes, emerge the great monsters of contemporary history: Jim Jones, Lee Harvey Oswald, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan. (I think I also see Sitting Bull amongst them, and I have no idea what he's doing there.) Flames and smoke climb heavenward behind them, though, since they are marching away from the skull-mouth and not toward it, it's hard to say what precisely is going on. There is some barbed wire surrounding the band's logo; heaven knows why.
You have two choices confronted with something like The Headless Children: you can make fun of it, which is what most people will do; it will be noted that I can't really resist the urge to do so, either. But the braver choice, and the one I end up making by time I've been listening for a few songs is to let it take you up; to give yourself over to it and see how it feels. This is the challenge of metal, and its gift to its listeners (and also its central point of contact with fantastic literature): it provides a place for grand lofty half-formed thoughts of vaguely big concepts, just for sake of seeing how they feel.You don't always want to think hard about the evil that men do; sometimes you just want to bask in the wicked light such men's names give off. To get to that light, you need to be willing to invoke big concepts — evil, death, history, all that jazz. But invoking is enough; go any further, and you're a boring blowhard like your present correspondent, trying to "say something" instead of just letting some images and names loose for the sake of an effect.
But an effect — a vibe — a sheen — is a bigger thing than we think it is, because it's looser and consequently more useful. A big idea coherently stated and well-defended leaves no room for play; the same idea clumsily deployed and gleefully exploited lets the listener keep it for himself. It belongs to the listener, and its truth is non-different from the truth he gets from it. That's what W.A.S.P. were about, whether they thought so or not: making the big gesture and letting it go, and giving to the listeners the gift of their own imagination. This is no small accomplishment. W.A.S.P. deserve better than they've gotten from the world over the years; they won't get it, but that's how it goes, and the fact of it may infuse their masterpiece with a little more of the gravity it audibly wants.
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John Darnielle is the singer and songwriter otherwise known as the Mountain Goats.
Books mentioned in this post
John Darnielle is the author of Black Sabbath: Master of Reality (33 1/3 Series)