On February 28, 2009, the Scion car company threw a free metal fest in Atlanta, GA. This is the story of my journey there and back.
I awoke when the ground gave way. I was about to die. The voice in the ceiling garbled something assuring and I ate deference like a prisoner eats breakfast. It was mid-afternoon and the sun set above our heads as our plane descended into the murk over Atlanta. The clouds were so dark they looked like pavement. The land looked like Hell: the way the Land of Oz would look if it were on the north Jersey shore. The air above the blackened buildings was dust orange and seemed to breath. Even the tallest building, a black spike with an orange tip, looked like a hovel in the rain. It was worse than the airport, where even the walls shout at you and the ground speaks in tongues wagging in swallowing brown throats. Buy! Spend! Purchase! Just a friendly reminder. The rain stuck to my skin and congregated in the interstitial space of my clothing. This is the kind of town that makes you suit up to forget why.
Thankfully, I had dressed myself in Los Angeles. I had come to Atlanta to find meaning in the Scion metal fest by investigating the crafts of some thirty or so underground heavy metal bands. Among these were some of metal’s most revered artists. What did their audiences hear, and how did those explanations stack up against what the bands’ claimed they were trying to say? I wanted to find artistic merit in music that I loved because I believe that art is a high and beautiful calling. More and more I have come to regard myself as immature and small in spirit for my devotion to an art form that seems to espouse anti-intellectualism, nihilism, and pain. I can invent or name a nearly endless stream of value for the bands that I love, but this is because I so badly want to continue loving it. Most of the people I meet tell me that I am allowed to love that which I find appealing just ‘cause. But I say that’s not enough, and it does a disservice to the world to appreciate art for intentions or effects it does not have. Clear and good intentions, executions, and effects are a rare luxury in art only because we allow them to be. We are the audience, the consumer, the hypnotized, the apathetic, the passionate, the moved, the yearning, the spiteful, the hated, the joyous, the exulted, the godly, the low, the discerning, the sluts, the unseeing, the microscopic eyes and ears watching and hearing the wisdom of the mouths.
I stepped off the plane and walked for fifty miles. When I was finished, I got on a plane and returned to LA.
When I debarked the plane, I went into the first in series of brown and white throats made of howling mad adults. I hoisted my chest and prepared my pack for an exquisite and uncomfortably long journey. I knew no one and was staying nowhere. My plan was to drift towards the Masquerade (where the fest was to take place the following day) and discuss metal, life, and everything with the people in between. I managed to get a hundred feet from my flying tube when I spotted a gang of obvious outsiders. They were five men with varyingly average builds and short hair. The clumped together and would occasionally look at the tallest one, who was consumed with a few sheets of paper, and then stare around the terminal with five-percent interest. One of them dressed like an Appalachian mountain guide circa 1926. One had a familiar-looking tattoo on the front of his neck. I walked past without recognizing the group as being the band Converge.
Fifteen minutes later we were walking together in the halls. Thinking they were just cross-country metal heads looking to riot their fandom, I approached them. Then the way they flocked told me that these were not just fans. I poked my head into their lives like a gopher.
“Hey uh…” I asked the tall one, lowering my voice artificially and trying to minimize their slightly hostile eye-gestures, “…are you in a band?”
“No. I manage a band. These guys,” he said, throwing his thumb to the rear.
“Oh yeah? Who are these guys,” I said, with apparent interest.
“THAT’S FUCKING CONVERGE?” I said, to everybody in the airport.
Converge is not a band of mainstream celebrities, but they are from Boston and have been dusky legends in all the underground music communities in which I’ve ever trafficked. My surprise was two fold: fold 1) a legendary band from my old stomping grounds was standing before me and shrugging off travel fatigue identical to mine; and fold 2) I didn’t recognize them at all. So I outed them to the squares milling around us. Sometimes I’m a real fucking baby.
Fold 2 should only be surprising because I’ve seen the band live once, and their performance was impressive enough that I declared it to be both fucking and awesome. I’m not a fan of the band. I own none of their records, and not because I dislike their music. They are just one of those bands that I never did, like Anthrax or Immolation. We’ve never been to the same parties or the same Dunkin Donuts’, but singer Jacob Bannon’s neck tattoo is as easy to read as a nametag to anyone who pays attention.
I smelled slightly of failure, so I took five minutes to walk ahead and shuck off my retreat into morbid delirium. One should not be stymied by one’s own retarded behavior, or one will remain retarded forever. I wanted to ask the band the questions floating around my head, so I went back to the manager, introduced myself, and asked about the weather in Boston. Boston weather is not actually exciting, but those of us from New England will sometimes pretend it is because we are impressed with the cityness of Boston. After a few minutes of small talk, I once again decided not to be such a fucking baby and asked the band if they wanted to give a short interview. The beleathered and tattooed boohoos genially agreed.
“What is good?” I asked.
“Puppies, kittens, soft things, things that taste good as opposed to bad.” It had been a long flight after all.
We had an awkward conversation, all of us settling in to something we had never practiced. I was playing the part of a reporter, except I was asking questions about the fundamentals of their band in place of the usual patter about influences or gear.
“Why do Converge?”
“Because we like making music, and playing music, and doing all those things…”
“What’s your art about?” I interrupted.
“You know: self-expression, personal expression, stories of our lives.”
It wasn’t a good answer, and because I didn’t press for anything deeper, it wasn’t much of a question either. Who let whom off the hook? Jacob answered that question with a tone of voice that suggested he was willing, to a certain extent, to contemplate the existence of his band, but that the answer to that question should have been obvious.
“Why make it sound the way it does?”
“Because,” Jacob replied, as though he were teaching a petulant ten-year-old about basic economics, “we are aggravated people.”
Am I fucked? Why would I be fucked? I’m not fucked! I am, sadly, almost never fucked.
The members of Converge grew up into the underworlds of hardcore punk and metal. Abrasive guitars and shouted vocals were accessible sounds, especially because, as bassist Nate Newton put it, they didn’t know how to play or sing. One of the greatest virtues of punk rock is that anybody can play. All you need to play punk rock music is the desire, and usually a guitar. Desire + reaction to music = band. Practice was over. We didn’t talk about anything else because we were all more interested in leaving the airport.
Jacob’s answers were unreasonably simplistic. The genesis of a popular art simply cannot be effectively reduced to “we like making music.” When he decided to devote his life to Converge, was he responding to a primal impulse to create? Did he want to live forever? Did he think he could explode the meaninglessness of his own life by proposing his ideas to the world? Was he trying to have sex with other people? Himself? His mother? Did he wish to stave off the pain of lost love? Did he wish to see in the world a reflection of God as he understood it? Maybe. He likes making music after all. Did I want to know any of that? Nope. “It’s fucking Converge!” after all. At that moment I was just a slack-jawed yokel with a microphone and a book in his pocket. I was not manifesting a profound and brilliant state of being, and Jacob knew it. The only moment of brilliance to be had was the moment where Jacob and I both ran aground on the limits of our interest in the existence of art. If either of us has a real reason to live, we will make something of that moment. This only counts as an announcement.
Then I took a train named MARTA through a muddy cascade of trees and low buildings illuminated by tiny harvest moons in fine mists. There were residents on the train, residents of the train on the train, harvest moons on the train, pale faces on the train, yellow windows on the train, portly business on the train, phantasmagoric personalities on the train, tire tracks on the train, silver plating on the train, pain on the train, my shame on the train, illusions on the train, growing sane on the train, hot wax stares on the train, weight-of-bears stares on the train, a thimble of thoughts on the train; then I got off the train. It took me a long time to get back on the train.
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