Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Healing Power of Metal

This year, I am thankful for the healing power of hard rock/heavy metal--and the soothing bowl of headless chicken soup-for-the-dark-soul it provides.

I spent my 2013 American Thanksgiving last week in Helsinki with a Finnish friend watching Danish Elvis/Metallica impresarios, Volbeat, put on a hell of a show. Michael Poulsen, the singer, nailed every note as the band thrashed beneath fireballs and weaved around stage pyrotechnics. After the show, my buddy and I went to the sports bar by the Helsinki train station, elbowed past former Finnish ski-jumping champion and cultural icon, Matti Nyk√§nen, who himself had once attempted rock stardom (in between attempts at male stripping and acting). Over beers and ciders, my buddy and I talked about rock. About how it found us as kids, nurtured us into young adults, and sustains us as fathers to this day.  

My friend was born in the mid-60s. He grew up in an era when Finland’s airwaves carried rock and roll for a total of one hour once per week on Sundays on the government radio station. Think about that. Finland, international heavy metal/hard rock powerhouse, was virtually starved of the stuff as recently as the mid-1980s. And yet guys like my friend heard one hour of Van Halen on a cold Sunday in 1980, and were immediately hooked and forever changed. Aside from a family connection who owned a record store, he doesn’t remember how he found all the rock he mainlined into his brain like a sound junky. But by 1990 he’d developed a legitimately encyclopedic knowledge of rock. His knowledge has expanded today into his becoming a walking GoogleRock search engine. Like some kind of Sisu desert plant’s roots that stretch past rocks to find water in sandy, scorched soil, my friend—and thousands like him—reached into the country’s dry, dark alcoves of music to soak up the rock their souls demanded.

There’s something awesome about that. Today music is so ubiquitous, so easy to access, that it’s lost its thrill of discovery. We used to huddle around our radios or stay glued to MTV waiting, praying, begging for THE SONG to come on, whereupon we’d call our friends and yell, “Dude, Metallica One’s on!!! Oh my god, now it’s Smells Like Teen Spirit!” You learn real passion when music involves a journey. It’s like courting that mysterious lady, the one with red lipstick and tattoos and a PhD in something badass. You can’t just snap your fingers and have her in your sauna; that’s far too cheap to engender a lasting passion. No, young music lover, you have to chase her, pursue her, woo her, know her secrets, win her heart and then she will be yours and you will be hers, one plus one equals one.

My friend and I have gotten through dark times with the aid of rock. I remember one night when I was fourteen, being unable to sleep, I turned on a new radio station in Seattle called 107.7 The End. First a song called Rhinocerous by Smashing Pumpkins floated into my room. My heart beat hard. Something had been broken down inside me, and something else awoken. Next came The Song, the one that changed it all for me. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Something raw and powerful and full of rage, something bleeding the exact feeling in its chords and lyrics and punishing drumbeats that I carried in my chest, it being a few weeks after my mother had died of cancer. Staring into the shadows of my room, lit with that oily blue glow of a lava lamp and an illumastorm electrical ball, I heard Nirvana and Kurt Cobain yowl, “With the lights on/It’s less dangerous. Here we are now, Entertainers!” I had no idea what the words meant, and yet that song carried more meaning for me than anything I’d ever read. Up until that moment I’d merely listened to music, simply enjoyed classic rock, and (shameful to admit) I’d tried to develop passion for the rap and hip hop all my cool friends were into, hoping to be cool myself (which never quite happened). Until that Night of The Songs I’d never really understood what all the fuss was about with music. But after that night, I spent hours alone in my room at a time listening to CDs and tapes spitting out grunge fury into the trippy, quasi-dark of my room.

My friend goes to three live shows a month around Helsinki. Every moment in transit to and from his banking job is spent listening to rock--new and old, hard and harder—as he uncovers rare and exotic rock and metal from Australia to Scotland. His passion for rock deepened into a lifeline a few years ago, when his daughter lost her battle with brain cancer. Aside from his son and his wife, rock kept him afloat during that time. He’d been through dark times before, times made bearable with a little Van Halen, but nothing like a sick child, no one has been through anything worse than that, there is nothing worse, and yet somehow he managed. I admire him and his passion for rock. His passion is real; it’s pure.

Finland is a dark place. The winter rolls over you here like a freezing wave. It’s up to you to kick your way to the surface and find something to hold on to until you can catch your breath and the sun comes out. For me, I’ve found I can hold onto rock. I just started singing in a heavy metal band with some friends. It’s awesome. One of the best things I’ve ever done. I don’t know why I used to play so much acoustic folk/indie stuff. It’s all fine, but it doesn’t scare the darkness away. Metal does. Metal takes the darkness and weaves it into your DNA until it no longer can make you ill; metal is like some kind of vaccine or inoculation against the darkness. It should be prescribed by physicians with black scrubs and covered by Obamacare. If you are struggling, I suggest grabbing your nearest listening device, putting on something hard, fast, and relentless, turning it up to 11, and proceed to scream at the abyss until Something Good happens.  And it will. That’s the power of metal.

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