On February 28, 2009, the Scion car company put on a free metal festival in Atlanta, GA. This is the story of my journey there and back.
I caught an unexpected glance at Karen’s pubic hair as she threw the quilt and sheets off of A.J.’s bed in a frenzy. She lept up and at the two sheet-ply doors, twisted a blue robe around her meager body, and tossed the would-be intruder away like a dead mouse. He went back inside the house without complaint. We waited for A.J. to return.
We had shared liquor and tales, and now shared a growing sense of the truly weird, as if detecting the first scent of a paper-mill that had mysteriously appeared in the front yard. The rain had not yet let up, but I began to feel the decided necessity of moving on, as, it seemed, did Karen. I had told her about a local youth hostel and made the offer to pay for a night there. But we waited for A.J. It took no more than seven agitated minutes for him to return. I told him that I was leaving; I actually wanted to sleep that night and the cold wouldn’t allow it. Karen angrily told him that the man in the house had nearly broken the door down, and A.J. dismissively tried to console her. I said my goodbyes. He offered to walk me a few blocks up the street. I told him I was fine but he insisted. I divided a bit of vodka into a bottle for myself, and Karen got up to hug me goodbye. She sent me off without giving any indication that she was leaving. She asked me to take care of myself. Then A.J. and I set off up the street, through the rain, towards the intersection where we had encountered each other earlier in the evening.
While we walked he told me stories about a trumpeter he may have been related to, his mother and the trials and tribulations of moving her home all over the country. He was a traveler, claimed to be a carpenter by trade; highly charismatic, an Atlanta resident of fifteen years; I didn’t know how long he had been homeless. He never talked about it and I didn’t either. I wonder now whether I had been taken in by A.J.’s pride in his porch, or if I had been the beneficiary of his bountiful generosity. Maybe he doesn’t identify as Homeless. Maybe he identified me as Homeless. Maybe he has proper pity for a wet idiot. I still said nothing. Double the coward, I thought, loosing the evening’s narrative in his loose talk about the musicians he knew. I was wondering how long until I would crave to be dry and slipping out of my reverie, but was all the same feeling grand at that moment about my adventure. I split off with him just past a small flood in a Pep Boys parking lot, taking his blessings and good tidings.
I had encountered A.J. in a similar fashion earlier that evening. I was breaking free of the empty Masquerade back lot, where I’d been hoping to grab a post-sound check interview with whomever. After mucking my way onto the back lot, I found I had missed Mastodon and High on Fire by an hour. That plan foiled and the rain getting harder, I began to walk back the mile towards downtown when I ran into him. He asked me if I had come from the Masque and wanted to talk music. I told him that I was in town for the big fest tomorrow. He said it was a great idea, that he loved music, and loved listening to bands behind the Masque from his porch. I don’t really remember what he talked about then, but I told him that I hadn’t lined up lodging, but knew I had passed a youth hostel on my way. He told me he knew of a cheaper place than the one to which I was heading. $11.50 a night, he said. That just can’t be beat. He showed me up the block to a stone building painted white, and walked inside like it was his job. Friend of his lived here. The interior looked like a tiny nursing home. There was a set of glass doors to the immediate left, darkened and locked, and a steep flight of stairs directly in front of us. A large woman who looked like a child’s doll was standing near a small office. Two grown men were putting a puzzle together on the floor. A shorter woman strode out of an open doorway next to the stairs, brushing someone’s bullshit off her arms. She looked like she had spent every night of her life in the tiny cubicle I called an office. She knew A.J. He asked if I could stay in his friend’s room. She obsequiously declined. They argued their respective points by blinking Morse code at each other while releasing a varied stream of grunts and sighs. Then she looked right through me and said, trying as hard as she could to be frank, that I did not want to spend the night in that nasty-ass room. One of the men on the floor looked up at me with morning due in his eyes and offered to stay with me. I was flattered, however I concurred with the woman from the office and told A.J. so. We left and he said, "then let me put you up at my house." I trusted the world for the hell of it. We went to a store, bought a bottle of cheap vodka, and marched the blocks back to where we had met.
We walked up a flight of stone steps in front of a nearby house, turned left, and entered the screened-in porch where A.J. lived, and Karen sometimes stayed. It completely contained almost all the contents of a small apartment and had no electricity. She woke up quickly with a faint trace of alarm. I poured out small cups of vodka, one straight and one with Coke, and gave A.J. $17. $11.50 was for his landlord, who lived in the porch’s house. He left to pay his landlord and to pick up some groceries with the rest of the money. Karen sat up in the bed and told me what a nuisance A.J. is. You can never hear him when he talks, she said. She delicately stubbed out half of a Kool and placed it on the headboard. She groaned and creaked while waking up. Then she looked at me and we met.
I asked her about herself and she told me about her recent jail time, her reawakened addiction to crack, and her continuing devotion to God. Karen had been addicted to crack for twenty-two years. She told me that it isnt’t an enjoyable drug. It’s jittery, itchy, and none too pleasurable. She traced her addiction to crack to an alcohol problem she noticed when she was 13 years old, after eight years of being raped by her father.
“I grew up in a very alcoholic, dysfunctional, paranoid-schizophrenic environment. I had two sisters and two brothers and an alcoholic mother and an alcoholic father. A lot of gunplay, a lot of violence, a lot of breaking of doors, windows, glass, furniture. Lot of beatings. A lot of emotional abuse. Lot of sexual abuse.” She began when she started drinking her father’s lemon kool-aid and vodka, which he would leave on the nightstand while he was having sex with her. “Nobody noticed,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you at the time that I was trying to disappear; I couldn’t put it in those words, but that is what I was trying to do.” She started smoking crack when she was twenty-one. When describing how her addiction feels, she used all of the English language’s negative adjectives. And she hates having sex for crack.
“Living on the street, I’ve been beaten, stabbed, raped, shot. I have one sister that I’m in contact with; she lives in Arizona. I don’t have family. I don’t have friends. I don’t have family…And I’ve got a bad haircut.” And her last hope is with God. She wants to have a house, a girlfriend, and a job with her craft of building cabinets. She doesn’t believe she values anything anymore, but thinks others should value the freedom to do what they want to do, when they want to.
I don’t know what to do with this story except admonish the metal community for being more fortunate than Karen. This is an irrational impulse. It’s my way of criticizing the genre for relying heavily on abstractions of pain and horror for inspiration without promoting justice, but also to undercut that criticism enough that I still want to participate. I’m a hypocrite and a piece of shit.
Metal heads, myself included, should feel like pieces of shit for engaging with a reality rendered irreversibly bleak and disgusting by our art if that vision of reality is a fantasy into which we escape from perceptions of violence and/or senses of powerlessness. Seeking to escape the reality of violence is a passively violent act. Being aware of violence and feeling powerless are conditions that demand action. Often there is nothing more to do than pay attention. Attending to that which is deplorable is neither simple nor easy, but if done properly, it is honest.
The same sounds that provide the avenue of the escape, have the power to lift us up and empower us to change. Imagine if Slayer opened every performance of “Angel of Death” by saying “We wrote this song because we are desensitized to genocide. Dance! Dance! Dance!” or “There is a genocide being perpetrated right now in Darfur! Until you stop it, you will feel immensely frustrated. Now DANCE DANCE DANCE!” Imagine if Pig Destroyer wrote a song about Karen, and when they performed it at Scion they said, “This is a song about Karen, who was raped for years by her father, found apathy with her family, has been imprisoned, stabbed, raped, beaten, is homeless, addicted to crack, and we all probably ignored her when we walked in here; she’s standing outside this place, trying to disappear. Don’t forget: everyday, women and young girls are raped by violent cowards. 1! 2! 3! 4!” So stated, the hyper-insistent music and violent dances of metal would make the atrocities of Karen’s life impossible to ignore. The audience, except the most cynical, cowardly, or evil members, would be forced to confront more than horror and misery. They would be forced to engage injustice with their minds and their bodies, shunning the physical placidity to which entertainment usually dooms unhappy thoughts. One cannot combat atrocity without using both the body and mind. Pig Destroyer is one of the few bands that has the musical power to make that interaction unbearable, and in so doing, to get beyond their audience’s ability to shut down its sensitivity. That’s a power that can change lives.
The moment I knew Karen is a marker: a moment that would seem decidedly different from any other if I didn’t have the vision to see through Weird Clouds to life on earth above. It was a beacon; it shaped the way I was at the show of the world thereafter. When Karen and I were talking, I didn't compartmentalize any of my feelings. I didn't feel crushed with pain any more than I felt lifted like a hot-air balloon. I thought that I was standing on an emotional Arch in which every feeling got it's own brick, and each was of the utmost importance. To remove one would make the whole collapse. In fact I wasn’t standing on the Arch. I was the Arch. I was the best person I’d been in six months, and as of this writing, I have not been as courageous since. I felt absolutely free. I felt a small and nearly overwhelming measure of empathy for pain beyond my reckoning, and I felt joy stirring in the candlelight; I felt radiating warmth while my body shivered from the cold. I wanted to take off into the universe by catching fire and simultaneously becoming an ocean. Karen got embarrassed when I pulled out my tape recorder. She was happy for a few seconds at a time.
Art is not separate from life. Not even life which it doesn't know or understand. Artists willing to express that level of integration and vulnerability - to take the risk of playing it all - are working for justice. Heavy music certainly has that power, and many bands seem to have the inclination. I walked and wondered if I’d meet anyone willing to answer the call. Skyscrapers loomed in shadows at the edges of my vision as I made my weary way to the hostel.
Tune in next week for The Last Scion part III: Metal Heads in the Mist
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