February 24, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
J. J. Anselmi's Heavy is a fascinating memoir of BMX culture, music, addiction, and sobriety.
Jeffrey Gleaves wrote of the book:
"Heavy has a grainy, thrash-music quality to it. On its surface, Anselmi's story is that of an angry, white-trash kid (he admits this in his book) who never had the chance to fall from grace because grace never lifted him that high; beneath that it's a book about control, and why destruction equals power for those who feel powerless."
When I'd drive around my hometown of Rock Springs, Wyoming as a teenager, metal seemed like the only music that could even begin to touch the pessimism and anger that beat inside my chest. Of course my view of that place has become more nuanced over the years, but all I could see then was a shitty small town that revolves around harsh industrial labor and addiction. Indifferent prairie surrounds Rock Springs, and my instinct was to rage against it.
I use descriptions of metal songs throughout the book as a way to get at these feelings, so making a playlist for Heavy seemed like a no-brainer. Included here are multiple tracks that I discuss in the book—as well as a few others that shook my brain at various points in time but didn't quite make fit into the narrative—in chronological order of when I became obsessed with each one. In short: my trajectory as a metal head.
Deftones, "Around the Fur"
Nu metal was my gateway drug. From the bands I listened to as a thirteen-year-old, Deftones might be the only one that I can still jam—unironically, at least. Chino's lilting vocals, Abe Cunningham's heavy grooves, and Stephen Carpenter's deceptively smart riffs—in retrospect, I can hear the influence of post-hardcore legends Quicksand and Helmet in songs like "Around the Fur." In junior high, all I cared about was finding loud and angry music, and this hit the spot.
Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen"
Although I never really identified as a punk, this music was a bridge, getting me from bouncy nu metal into frenzied thrash. Sex Pistols also departed from the "I hate my parents and teachers" ethos of bands like Korn into an antipathy for society at large, which I loved. Another attractive element of Sex Pistols: Johnny Rotten's petulant antagonism. When I went on a mailbox-bashing spree with my friend, we were driven by the same mindset.
It was all over for me the first time I heard "Battery." As a child of MTV, I'd seen Metallica's video for "Enter Sandman" quite a few times, and I liked it. But "Battery" jolted my being. The song's intensity was also compounded by the fact that I first heard it while watching a legendary part in a legendary BMX video: Van Homan's section in Seek & Destroy. As Kirk Hammet and James Hetfield's symphonic leads soar above Lars Ulrich and Cliff Burton's war hammer rhythm during the song's intro, Van Homan destroys rails, ledges, and dirt jumps on levels that I hadn't seen. Hearing this song in this context was the final nail in the coffin in my decision to become a metal head.
As with old Metallica, I was first exposed to Slayer by a BMX video, this time in Dave Young's gnarly section in Nowhere Fast. Young's part begins with a horrific crash montage that's made all the more brutal by its soundtrack, "Postmortem." The song starts with a mid-paced groove and then bursts into inhumane thrashing. As Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman play the fastest guitar riffs I'd ever heard, Dave Young repeatedly smashes his body in attempts to grind monstrous ledges and handrails. During the final two, and possibly gnarliest, wrecks in the montage, "Raining Blood" starts playing and continues throughout the rest of the part—three minutes of Young pulling many of the rails and ledges that he tries in the intro. This isn't kids popping wheelies down the street. It's a nihilistic young man who easily could've died doing this shit. Of course Slayer was his soundtrack.
When I was in sixth grade, my two friends and I started a band in which we tried to cover "Paranoid" and "Iron Man." I liked the songs at the time, but only in a sort of passing way. At the age of fifteen, I started to understand how profoundly heavy Sabbath is. Growing up in a boomtown during a bust phase, I deeply identified with the frustration and cynicism of Sabbath, feelings they experienced while growing up in the industrial belly of Birmingham. I started to think about how mind-blowing it must've been to hear Black Sabbath in the early '70s, when no other band sounded even remotely as heavy.
Because of the prevalence of suicide in Rock Springs, the title of "Killing Yourself to Live" immediately struck me. I could apply its ambiguous lyrics to both addiction and the destructive nature of industrial labor, which is a large part of why I decided to get the title tattooed on my wrist, in addition to Tony Iommi's signature SG, when I turned eighteen. Looking back, this song seems like one of those almost-too-perfect metaphors from real life that make creative nonfiction so fun and exciting to write. The title hits on the binary of creation and destruction that the book revolves around, and I might've used it instead of Heavy if Chuck Klosterman hadn't beaten me to the punch.
Pantera, "The Great Southern Trendkill"
Pantera might be the perfect union between Slayer's manic thrash and Sabbath's syrupy doom. I clearly remember the first time I heard this album (easily Pantera's best) and its title track: cruising down the road in my best friend's Bronco on our way to ride our BMX bikes. Dimebag's riffs are Southern fried gems of pure energy, and Vinnie Paul utilizes his entire drum kit rather than completely relying on double bass like many of his thrash contemporaries. Considering vocalist Phil Anselmo's disgusting outburst recently, it's hard to even think about Pantera right now. But I also can't deny that this band played a huge part in defining who I was in my late teens.
I most likely would've listened to Slayer and old Metallica at some point if it weren't for BMX videos. Living in Wyoming during the dial-up era, though, there's no way I ever would've heard of sludge heroes Floor if it wasn't for Manmade's Chapter 2 video. When I first heard "Assassin," I vaguely knew about sludge—a subgenre of metal that filters the slow, plodding approach of Sabbath through the lens of hardcore punk—and I knew that I loved it. Practicing drums in my parents' basement, I would frustrate myself to no end trying to play double bass like Dave Lombardo of Slayer and Lars of Metallica. And then I heard Eyehategod, Sleep, and, of course, Floor. Like Black Flag, The Ramones, and countless other punk groups, these heavy bands have a populist quality that invites you to pick up an instrument and start playing. There's also a deep richness in Floor's music. The tar-soaked riffs in "Assassin" sounded so sweet to me that it was hard to believe they were real. Given that Floor's frontman and guitarist Steve Brooks is openly gay, the band would later attain even greater meaning for me as I began to examine my own sexuality.
At the Drive In, "Arcarsenal"
It's weird to think that At the Drive In could be on MTV when they were, simply because they're so much smarter and more interesting than everything else the network played. Thankfully, the video for "One Armed Scissor" somehow got airplay. Watching TV in my parents' living room when I was seventeen, I had no idea what post-hardcore was, but I could feel At the Drive In's verve in my chest. I immediately bought The Relationship of Command, and this group became one of the few non-metal bands that I regularly listened to at the time. I played "Arcarsenal" in my truck while driving home after my first real kiss, and the song still sends narcotic shivers through my brain.
Mastodon, "Crusher Destroyer"
Brann Dailor is arguably the best metal drummer in the world, and "Crusher Destroyer" floored me when I was nineteen. Dailor constantly fucks with each section with his polyrhythmic grooves and fills. He also has a much more pronounced feel than many metal drummers. Like Bill Ward and John Bonham, Dailor plays deep in the pocket; so, even when he's doing crazy double bass shit, it grooves with an undeniable heaviness. Because the rest of the members exhibit a similar level of originality with their playing, Mastodon threw me for a loop in the best possible way. Even though I didn't really know what I was listening to, I fucking loved it. I also had an amazing fan-boy experience when I saw them open for Slayer and Brann threw his drumstick (which I still have) right to me.
After taking LSD for the first time, I went to a party at a house where a crew of abusive and sadistic BMX riders lived. At one point, someone at the party played "Leave Me Up," which features some of the meanest Southern riffage in existence. The riders and this song scared the shit out of me in a way that was also weirdly alluring. Listening to this song now, it still makes me anxious. I also can't help myself from head banging throughout.
I listened to "Hearts Alive" after leaving the BMX house that same night. Brent Hinds's layered guitar work and Brann Dailor's serpentine rhythms pushed against the inside of my skull. The song additionally features one of my favorite guitar solos. There's probably only a handful of guitarists that could even play it, but I once saw Brent perfectly execute every note while he was completely loaded. He seemed to have more trouble keeping his bloodshot eyes open than shredding his guitar.
Led Zeppelin, "Dazed and Confused" (BBC Sessions version)
When I'd hear Zepp in high school, I just assumed that John Bonham played double bass because I didn't know that it was possible to pull off his triplet patterns with one foot. Once I realized what he's actually doing, it motivated me to stop playing double bass and focus on using a single pedal, which ultimately helped me become a better drummer. On a lot of Led Zeppelin's studio albums, Bonham holds back quite a bit, and it wasn't until I started listening to the BBC Sessions—often while soaring on weed and/or acid—that I realized what a force of nature Bonham was. He became my disembodied drum teacher.
I use "Fault and Fracture" as a chapter title for a few different reasons. In the context of Heavy, the title connects to the violence of hydraulic fracturing, which consumed my hometown when I moved back after dropping out of school and then failing in my brief attempt to make it as a drummer in Austin. The song itself is extremely jarring, so it works as an aural reflection of the destruction that the fracking process enacts upon the earth. The chapter depicts a time when everything in my life seemed broken and jagged, and, with its angular changes and acidic anger, I can't think of a better song (or band, for that matter) to represent those feelings.
About two years after graduating from high school, I got sober, became serious about college, and decided to get the tattoos on my arms removed by having a surgeon cut them out—one piece at a time. I discovered Neurosis during this period. Like a lot of the band's music, "Through Silver in Blood" is deeply masochistic. Driven by Jason Roeder's primal drumming and unceasing waves of venomous guitars, vocals, and noise, the song is also brilliant. Neurosis showed me that heavy music can be as profound as any other style, and I'll always think of the band as an integral part of the soundtrack to my intellectual progression.
J. J. Anselmi and Heavy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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