In the days following Christmas, I was beginning to feel that all my presents were being taken away. The deaths of captivating, talented artists including Lemmy, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman were heartbreaking, and I started dreading social media, where I might learn of yet another creative genius stolen from us. On Sunday, I was planning to see a metal show that I hoped would take my mind off my increasing despair. Instead of a mere distraction, however, I received six gifts that renewed my spirit.
I spent most of the day with my brother in metal, Sean. He invited me to join him to see Venom perform on Sunday night, and we decided to make a day of it, have a few beers, enjoy a meal, and engage in our favorite pastimes: listening to and talking about heavy metal music. I don’t have many “spend the whole day with” friends, but Sean and I have a long history together, rooted in our love of this music. We don’t mind hearing each others old stories again. We’ve been through a lot together, times we are happy to recall and others in which we are united in our embarrassment. Friends like that are rare, and if the gift of a day with my friend was all I got on Sunday, I would have been satisfied. Lucky for me, there were more presents under the tree.
2. Metal Music
Put simply: I got to see Venom! Venom released their first album, Welcome to Hell, in 1981 and they’re one of the most influential bands in the metal canon. They embraced the trappings of evil that earlier bands had only flirted with. They decided to be the most overtly satanic band in the world. Of course, it was all for provocative show, along the lines of a P.T. Barnum-ish philosophy that the scarier the roller coaster appears, the more likely people will want to ride it. Technically, Sean and I saw Venom Inc., which included two of the three original members along with a singer/bass player nicknamed “Demolition Man,” who, as Sean pointed out, bears a striking resemblance to J.K. Simmons of Farmers Insurance commercials and the film Whiplash. While not as scary-looking as original vocalist Cronos, Demolition Man’s rhapsodic howls were sufficiently spine-chilling. I admit that when it comes to Venom, I’m more of a “sing along with the chorus” fan than I am a “sing every word fan,” but I banged my head with reckless abandon, smiling all the while. Metal Rules!
3. The Joy of Watching Someone Open Their Present
While I may be a somewhat casual fan of Venom, Sean has been obsessed with the band for more than thirty years. Whereas I got nervous about the bands that looked satanic, Sean was eager to ride that roller coaster. He had a personalized license plate (BLAKMTL) in honor of Venom’s signature song “Black Metal.” He owns multiple versions of every album, EP, and single they’ve released: Japanese, European, and any other obscure import edition he could find. Despite the number of metal shows he’s seen (hundreds), he had never before seen Venom perform. He traveled to California twice to see them, and, on both occasions, they canceled. On Sunday, we were anxious the show may not happen, as the band had canceled its appearance in Vancouver B.C. the previous night, but they came through. When Sean and I go to shows together, I’m usually the one up in the pit or pushing towards the front row while he stands closer to the back, a bit out of the fray. Not on Sunday. From the opening chords of “Prime Evil,” Sean was pressed up against the front row, laying down his soul for the gods’ rock and roll. Did you ever watch a little kid open a Christmas present he’s been hoping to get all year? That was Sean, and seeing him watch his favorite band for the first time was a wonderful gift.
4. A Brush with Metal Celebrity
Sean and I got another gift when we met Venom Inc’s drummer, Abaddon, after the show. We were hanging out by the tour bus and saw a long haired guy attempting to enter the code that would open the door to the bus. Despite the resemblance, we decided this person wasn’t Abaddon because, first, he didn’t have the code to the bus, and, second, he was just too short to be the “barbaric guardian of the seven gates of hell.” We should have known better. Rock stars seem tall on stage, but, as Sean and I are both over six feet tall, most metal gods end up being severely average in height. Other fans approached the diminutive demon, and he was generous with his time and willingly gave autographs. Sean and I each ended up with a tangible memento from our night with Venom.
The fifth gift was my nephew. I had texted him earlier in the evening as I was in Seattle, where he lives, and thought he might want to join us for dinner before the show. He said he was on his way back from a gig in Portland, but he was somewhat interested in seeing “what this heavy metal thing is all about.” He’s a jazz sax player and as much of a metal fan as I am a jazz fan. That is, I have a lot of respect for jazz, but it doesn’t move me. I’ve seen my nephew play several times, and I admire and appreciate his talent. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about music, and we both have a love for live performance, whatever the genre. I told him if he was available, I had a ticket waiting for him. When he arrived, I was ecstatic. Very few of my family members have dared to enter the metal dungeon, so I was grateful to share the experience with him. We stood near the back of the crowd, safely away from the pit, as I didn’t feel the need to subject him to the more physical aspects of the scene. He got to see a circle pit and stage diving, hear growling vocals, and over-the-top riffing; a full meal deal. He will have to give his own review of the proceedings, but from what I could see, he appeared to be digging the spectacle of it all. After the show was over, we hugged, and he went on his way. That’s officially going in my favorite memory file.
The final gift of the night was the Motörhead Miracle. One of the most important decisions a metal head has to make is which t-shirt to wear to a show. I didn’t have a Venom shirt, so I had to consider other options. I figured my Cattle Decapitation shirt might be seen as a desperate attempt to prove I was extremely metal, but I knew a lot of the crowd would be old guys like me who would be unimpressed by such a peacock-ish display. Eventually, the obvious choice arose, and I wore my Motörhead shirt. Lemmy’s passing was a fresh wound for the metal community, and he deserved to be remembered in t-shirt form. When we got to the venue, I visited the merch table and decided to get a Venom Inc. shirt to add to my collection. I picked one that was sufficiently evil-looking without being horrifically offensive and put it on. For the rest of the night, I had the Motörhead shirt tossed over my shoulder. It worked out fine while I was hanging in back with my nephew, but when Venom Inc. played the seminal classic “Black Metal,” I felt compelled to get in the pit. I surged forward to join Sean at the front of the stage, and we banged our heads and bellowed along with Demolition Man, “Riding hell’s stallions bareback and free, taking our chances with raw energy!” When the song ended, I returned to the back of the crowd and realized I had lost the Motörhead shirt. For a moment I was despondent, but upon reflection, I decided that if I had to lose my Motörhead shirt, at least I lost it in a mosh pit. It seemed a fitting end; a sacrifice to the metal gods. A few songs later, I decided to go back up front and let loose one more time. I took a couple laps in the pit and then moved to the front row. I was wallowing in the moment, when I looked to my right and noticed a fellow headbanger rising up from the floor. He had bent down to pick something up from under his feet, and now, in his hands, he held a black t-shirt. He looked at me, and I said, excitedly, “That’s mine.” He smiled, handed it to me, and slapped me on the shoulder. I slapped him back, thanked him, and, together, we chanted the chorus to “Countess Bathory.” I told my nephew that we metal heads are a passionate brotherhood. A brotherhood – and sisterhood – indeed.
Count your blessing, my friends. Be thankful that you were alive when artists like Lemmy, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Venom graced the world’s stages and screens. And be grateful for the gifts of family, friends, and fraternity.