Monday, June 11, 2018

The Deathfest that Wasn't

Maryland Deathfest 2018 has come and gone. By all accounts, this was a particularly great year, but I wouldn’t know, because I wasn’t there.

Oh, I was there. I made the drive up Thursday night after work, then went home and came back up for Saturday’s Ram's Head shows. 

And there were highlights. Sets by Mantar and Bolzer were awesome. I got to see what Frost looks like when he’s not bleeding out of his neck. I met a few folks I’d only known online. I even (literally) bumped into Goatwhore’s Ben Falgoust in a bar, and he could not have possibly been more  good natured about it.

But I totally wasn’t “there” this year. 

I was exhausted both nights, and my back was killing me. But more perplexingly, I just found myself wanting to be somewhere else almost the entre time.

This is totally out of the ordinary. I look forward to MDF all year long. Time and budget typically only allow for one-day’s attendance, but I always make the most of it.

In fact, a therapist (….yes, a therapist….) once told me that this annual pilgrimage is one of the healthier things I do each year. She talks about how “refreshed and present” I seem to be when I describe the day, and how clearly I need to make more time like this to reconnect with music, and performance, and with other people.

So much of this benefit is just the therapeutic value of being around the metal community for the day. 

I sometimes half-jokingly refer to metal fans as “my people,” but that’s not quite accurate. Sure, I like metal. I love metal. But these aren’t really *my* people. “Metal” is not exactly my lifestyle, and my knowledge of the various subgenres is quite shallow compared to other fans. The truth is, I’m totally *not* part of the metal tribe.

That's why, so many years, I barely speak to anyone all day at Deathfest. But it’s still comforting to be among the fans. Watching them in the company of one another. Seeing them take on amusing tourist activities in Baltimore. And, of course watching the exuberance of it all as the festival gets underway.

There’s something profoundly joyful about being in their presence each year. I don’t think I know anyone in my day to day life who likes metal, so even if these aren’t “my people,” it always feels fun and safe to be among them. 

And yet….I just wasn’t feeling it this year. 

And yes, I was tired. Yes, my back has been hurting for weeks. And, yes, I’m stressed about work. But it was more than that.

An awful lot has changed the past few years. I’ve lost a little motivation to be social, to pound drinks, to stay out late. To go to shows, even.  

I often just prefer to be home. Sometimes, I just like it better when I’m here when the kid goes down. When I know that my chores are done. When my wife knows that I’m here and holding up my end of the bargain. 

All of this shuts the door on certain options, but it doesn’t really represent the sacrifice you might assume. This really is the life I want.

But, you know, MDF is still this thing my wife (and my therapist) encourages me to do each year, so this year,I had the bright idea to tie it all together with the family. We decided to get a hotel room and spend the day together on Saturday. I’d then go to the fest Saturday night, then we’d all spend the day together on Sunday.

Raining Blood

It didn’t exactly go as planned. We got off to a really late start, then a thunderstorm left us stranded at a Barnes and Noble for much longer than we expected.

When the storm broke, my wife encouraged me to go to the festival before it got any later, but I suddenly didn’t want to. My daughter was having a blast with the books, and I was having fun riding that out with them. Plus, it killed me to know that the afternoon was winding into the evening, and that the two of them were probably going to be sequestered to the hotel room after the storm inevitably returned.

And even though I eventually made the jump, I really just wanted to be with my wife and daughter. Even through that excellent Bolzer set. Even during the weird opening moments of Master’s Hammer. Even though I knew I had twitter friends somewhere at the fest that I should be connecting with. (And, honestly....I really wanted to see them, even though I didn't make the effort. I still can't exactly recon that).

Halfway through Satyricon, I just knew I was done. So I tossed a half finished beer and went back to the hotel.

And that was the end of Maryland Deathfest for me.

The next morning, we grabbed coffee and ate breakfast on a park bench in Fells Point. We strolled around the neighbothood, checking out record shops and toy stores, and I eventully dropped a crushingly exorbitant entrance fee for the Baltimore Science Museum.

Raining, Um, Blood Again 

And that’s when another thunderstorm came through….stronger and much more persistant than anything we’d experienced the day previous.

We got drenched getting back to the car, and made a dying cry to save the weekend by hitting up an oyster bar in Federal Hill for a family meal. Without going into details, the food that afternoon turned out to be decidedly beneath Baltimore's generally high standard.

And to cap it off, I somehow received a goddamned parking ticket in the midst of that deluge. (God bless the meter maid who had to stand in the storm and write that one out).

I had tried to forge out a better experience for all of us, but it wasn’t meant to be. We never really found our gear that day, or the weekend. For all the effort and good intentions, I ended up dropping a ton of cash, eating a disappointing meal, and enduring the bummer of peeling a wet ticket from my windshield.

Heading Out to the Highway

Here's the funny thing though: as we motored out of Baltimore, it didn’t really matter. 

I spent the whole weekend trying - and failing - to re-establish some poorly-defined connection with "my people" assert some claim to my identity. To hitch myself to a tribe where I would belong.

And all the while, "my people" were here in the car with me. Soaking wet. Low on funds. A little disappointed.

But happy together.

These are my people. And I'll never go looking for them anywhere else. 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The 2016 Song of the Year

It's probably pointless to crank out another end-of-year post. I already kind of did two, and if I ever want to be a respectable adult person, I need to stop moping about my crappy 2016.

But, it's been a tradition of mine to celebrate my favorite shows and songs each year. And even at 7 PM on New Year's Eve, I guess it deserves at least a half-assed effort to keep that tradition going. 

There's no sense in attempting to do a "Year in Shows" post. I only attended one show this year, and it was more to hang out with an old friend than to enjoy the music. (Because -- sorry, Black Lips, but your "thing" doesn't do it for me any more). Frankly, the fact that the Black Lips are the only band I saw perform live this year is at least as disappointing as attending no shows at all would have been.

Still, I still listened to a lot of music this year. And as I tried to work though so many confusing things -- financial stress, career anxiety, fears over my health, and deep feelings of sadness and loneliness as I watched some of my oldest friendships die right before me -- I turned to the music that best suited the sense of confusion and withdrawal that defined my head space this year. 

That opened my eyes and ears -- and I guess my heart and soul -- to all kinds of music that I'd never heard before. And that's a very good thing.

No song spoke to my confused feelings more than Let's Eat Grandma's "Rapunzel."  

It's a dark, disturbing song that's worth your time. The themes - of feeling lost, of feeling wronged, and of possibly feeling that one is living out a life that isn't his or her own -- very much resonated for me this year. 

Indeed, the lyrics of the coda -- combined with the gloriously eerie harmonies -- still leave me numbly staring into my screen even as I listen to it now:

"And there is something strange in my mind
And there is something weird in my head"

None of my introspective nonsense even takes into account the phenomenal piano or drums on this track. Or the fact that the song was written and performed by teenagers -- artists who are far, far younger than their contemporaries in my earbuds this year. 

So, there you have it. I thank Let's Eat Grandma for making me feel slightly less unstable in my 2016.....or at the very least, for allowing me to feel less alone in my instability this year.  Yours is my song of the year.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

In Defense of 2016

"FUCK 2016!" 

Go ahead and say it, if you haven't gotten it out of your system yet.

Here it is: December. The month of the "In Memorium" article.  I certainly don't need to write the list out for you by this point.

I'm not going to pretend that it was a good year. I've had good years before -- great ones, in fact. I know what they look like.

This wasn't one of them. Not by a long shot.

Still, amidst the chorus of jeers for 2016, I'll make one concession on its behalf. Because we have to be adults about this: people die. And they rarely do it on a convenient or pleasurable schedule. But we all die.

Few of us, however, ever come back to life. And that's what was special about this year.

Because in 2016, the mighty Glenn Danzig was reborn.

For more than 20 years, it's been the cool thing to mock Danzig. For his silly image. For his shitty attitude. For his uneven releases.

Even those of us who defended Glenn the most over the years have had to accept Danzig being Danzig, even when it disappointed us.

But then, in 2016, Glenn Danzig won us all back. And it was a joy to experience.

It wasn't just the Misfits reunions shows -- although the evening I spent furiously searching for live streams from the Denver show was certainly the highlight of my musical year.

This was actually a gradual process that started a few years ago. It began with small moments that a lot of people might not have noticed at the time: 

There was the borderline-stunning return to form on 2010's "Dethred Sabaoth."

There was Samhain's "30 Bloody Years" tour in 2014, when Glenn looked happier to be on stage than at any other time I'd seen him.

There was the long-awaited release of the weird and wonderful "Danzig Legacy TV Special" in 2015, during which Danzig's fucking tooth fell out of his head and rolled across the carpet mid-set. And instead of pitching a fit, the guy simply smiled, sheepishly grumbled to Doyle about what had just happened, and left it all in the final cut.

There was the unusually friendly and generous series of interviews he gave to Loudwire and Rolling Stone.

By the time he made that hysterical cameo on Portlandia earlier this year, it was becoming obvious that Glenn Danzig just wanted to have some fun. And in that context, the Misfits reunion makes perfect sense.

Still, who really believed it would happen? And who believed it would be any good?

That's the even greater miracle of 2016: the Misfits reunion shows were outstanding. The band sounded great, the crowds were ravenous, and there was nothing weird or awkward happening on stage to ruin the night. 

Compared to reunions this year by Guns n'Roses (...successful, but uninspiring), Dokken (...thoroughly disastrous), and LCD Soundsystem ( scam) the Misfits shows were the only ones that came across as vital, visceral or relevant.

So say what you want about 2016, and all it took from us. Because it sure took a lot.

But in 2016, we got Glenn Danzig back. And I'll celebrate that.

Monday, October 17, 2016

My Year in Music

It might seem as though October is an odd time to start the “Year in Music” posts. The truth is that I haven’t been operating on a calendar year lately.

For me, the passing of time has been measured against my layoff. And that occurred one year ago.

This is my year in music.

If there will be a musical theme to the last twelve months, it will be the deaths of so many of our musical heroes. Of course, I loved Prince – we all did – but Bowie and Lemmy were actual influences on me. More so than any other two musicians, they were the ones I looked to when I was afraid.

Bowie taught me I could be whoever I wanted. Lemmy taught me to be true to myself. That guidance never seemed the slightest bit contradictory to me. It seemed true and it felt right.

The loss of both Lemmy and Bowie within weeks of one another – at a time when I needed heroes so desperately -- should have crushed me. But I didn’t mourn either of them the way that I would have expected.

I was already grieving something more important.

Losing my job was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to work through. I’ve written about it before, but this was a job that I treasured. It was a job that brought me happiness. It was the job I’d always dreamed of. And how many of us ever get to say that we had a dream come true?

I am one of the lucky few.

And, so, when faced with the deaths of two of my favorite artists, I just didn’t have that much to give. After all, it’s one thing when your heroes suddenly die. It’s something else entirely when your dreams do.

I realize that losing a job isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. But it remains a deeply humiliating and invalidating experience. It wreaks havoc on your finances, your emotions, your relationships, and your career prospects. It destroys your plans for the future, and sometimes forces you to make undesirable decisions. If you take any pride in your role as a provider, the experience will attempt to torch that part of your soul.

So often in the past, I had turned to metal in these moments of crisis. I've referred to it in the past as my own primal scream, a forceful expression of my deepest self whenever I felt hurt or unvalued. When careers and relationships were in disarray, it was my reminder to the world – and to myself – that my spirit would always be untouchable.

Extreme metal, in all of its grotesque aggression, is magical that way. It is an ugly, ferocious genre, often hateful and destructive, but deeply committed to its core. It is outsider art, made by and for people who are thoroughly at peace with their identities.

For most of the past twenty-five years, that was always me. But for the past twelve months, I was having an identity crisis.

Without my job, I no longer knew who I was as a professional. Without my income, I no longer knew who I was as a husband or a father. And to add to all this confusion, many of my closest friends simply stopped talking to me during this period. Without my friends, I really didn't know what I was worth.

My core? My spirit? My soul? I had lost my grip on all of these things. No amount of blast beats, death grows, or screams would give me anything to declare on my behalf.

And so, when I retreated to music this year, it wasn’t metal. I was in a deeply-hurt state of mind, and I no longer had the energy to lash out at the world. 

I was defeated, and I just wanted a salve.

The first several weeks of my layoff, I medicated myself on immense doses of shoegazey pop. I didn't understand a single word of Yukari’s “Marginal Man,” but I’d surmise that it soothed me more than any other track during this period. Not far behind was Mum’s “Green Grass of Tunnel,” with it’s childlike vocals and nonsensical lyrics.

Songs like these were haunting and tender. So many times I felt myself become nearly dissociative as I listened to them - which eventually became a troubling pattern.

Then there was the long foray into Van Morrison. This was an overdue artistic appreciation on my part. I'm grateful for it, even though it became the soundtrack to my self-pity (along with big doses of Bob Dylan and Butch Walker).

As the year went on, things got marginally better, and I found my way back to metal. I listened to Ghost Bath….a lot….never entirely sure if it was "good," but knowing that it felt pretty, and sad, and desperate, and that it touched me somewhere where I was hurting.

And then there was the day that I looked at my iTunes account and realized that “Slaughter of the Soul” by At the Gates was my most listened-to track of the year. (I suppose I had subconsciously identified it as the perfect song for tuning out the constant babble and noise that comes with working in a coffee shop).

Still, I missed out on a lot of metal this year. I decided to skip Maryland Deathfest and the Shadow Woods Festival. Somehow, I also managed to not attend a single live show of any genre the entire year. In retrospect, I can see just how unhealthy this was.

Of course, in time, things sorted themselves out. 

Nearly a year to the day from my lay-off, I received a job offer, and I am now officially employed again. I'll probably be working through the aftermath of everything for a long time, but I know this is the start of believing in myself again, which means the metal won't be far off.


It's funny, but I can point to the musical moment when the healing began, and I suppose it wasn't very metal.

I was sitting in my neighborhood coffee shop, laptop out, transitioning one of my low-paying freelance accounts now that I'd accepted my job offer. Music was shuffling randomly through my earbuds, when Bob Mould snuck up on me, and I realized that everything would be ok.

And as the chorus hit, I bowed my head down, squeezed out a heavy tear from each eye, and took a deep, deep breath. 

And my year in music was complete. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Remembering John Stabb

Yesterday morning, the punk community awoke to the news that John Stabb had succumbed to stomach cancer. He was 54.

It was not a secret that John was sick, and based on the few cautiously-worded updates that travelled across social media, it seemed like the situation wasn't good. Still, no matter how many times we go through this (and we've been through this a bit too much for my tastes lately), it's always a shock. 

I had the pleasure of meeting John several times. We had a few common friends, and that yielded a handful of shared shows when I was in my first band, and John was playing in Betty Blue. 

It's a kind of crazy situation for your first band to open for someone "famous." It would be easy -- especially when you're young and kind of immature -- to get over-excited by the prospect. It would be easy get nervous, or desperate for his attention.

But John was so normal, and goofy, and nice that it was never an issue. 

Stabb made a tremendous impression on me. He was a captivating performer, but more importantly, he was funny and friendly. And in such a stiflingly self-conscious scene as D.C.'s, that was special.

I probably met him half a dozen times; I don't think he ever really remembered me, but he was always pleasant and typically would ask after the friends we shared. If he was with his partner, he would unfailingly take a moment to introduce her. (That gesture, in particular, always stuck with me. What a genuinely polite thing to do). 

John was the first of the D.C. punk legends I met, and it was a sad surprise to learn that not everyone was as generous of spirit as he was. Of course, the D.C. scene is packed with legendary figures, and many of them still have a presence around town.  I'm sure all of them are nice enough people, but few of them are at all approachable. John, on the other hand, was as un-insulated as they came. 

For several years I'd see John everywhere...debuting a new band at the Black Cat, playing gigs at the old arts space where my wife used to work, rifling through CDs at the old Tower Records in Foggy Bottom, or maybe just waiting at a bus stop in Silver Spring. I seemed to see him everywhere for a time, and I'm sad that it'll never have again.

My favorite memory of John was playing a party with him in 1997. It was a weird event....a big all-day, all night field party somewhere in Savage, MD. At some point in the afternoon, John took the stage to read a spoken-word selection from a memoir he was working on. 

The details of the story elude me, but I recall that the tale climaxed with Stabb somehow inadvertently getting himself in a feud with Glenn Danzig, and subsequently receiving a threat from none other than the Iron Sheik.

That, my friends, is a life well-lived.


This recent wave of celebrity musician deaths has been a brutal thing to behold. And in the coming years, we will undoubtedly eulogize more and more of our heroes.

So many great things will someday be written in the obituaries of the pioneers of DC hardcore...about what they did to bring important concepts like DIY, and punk rock activism, and straight-edge to the forefront, and the impact they had on so many future superstars. 

This is certain.

What is less certain is how many of these people will be remembered for being...well, nice. For being funny. For being not only talented, and visionary, and charismatic, but also being friendly, and kind, and polite. 

I don't know. But I do know that John Stabb was a really nice guy. You didn't have to be in his circle of friends to know it. You didn't have to be one of the smart or cool kids to discover it. You didn't have to know the right people to experience it. It's simply how he was.

That's how I want to be remembered. And it's how I'll remember John Stabb.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Don't Call It A Comeback: Adler's Absence from the Guns N'Roses Reunion

This weekend, Guns N'Roses kicked off their long-awaited "reunion." 

It's a weird moment for me; I loved Guns N'Roses. In fact, I was the first kid I knew to own Appetite for Destruction. But I hate reunion tours.

It's not just because I'm a self-loathing agist; it's because reunion tours are almost always an exercise in compromise.  Something doesn't feel right. Something is missing. Someone  has almost always died or has been replaced. 

Besides the natural effects of age, something in the fundamental chemistry of the band is not the same. But we call it a "reunion" anyway, and we pretend that if we pretend hard enough, things will go back to the way they used to be (regardless as to if that's really a good thing).

All too often, it's painfully obvious how much things aren't the same. The Who tours without its legendary rhythm section. The Doors tour without their legendary singer. The Stones tour with more session musicians and back-up singers than actual band members. Van Halen and Cheap Trick tour with their fucking kids in the band. And Black Sabbath -- fortunate enough to have all four original members alive and kicking -- look like they have enough trouble just conjuring themselves from bed each morning, much less conjuring up any demons.*

* That's Jimmy Page's line.

Like Sabbath, GN'R is unbelievably lucky that their starting five is still with us. And, yet, on Friday night, only three of them were in the band.

I could go on for ages about Izzy Stradlin, who quietly wrote or co-wrote the majority of Guns' best songs. Writing credits on Appetite and GN'R Lies may be mysterious, but the overwhelming majority of salvageable content on the Use Your Illusion albums is directly attributable to Stradlin.

Izzy is fundamental to GN'R's sound. Regardless of the fact that he opted out, regardless of whether he joins them for select dates, any tour without Stradlin cannot be considered a reunion. This is irrefutable in my mind.

The more complex issue surrounds Steven Adler.

There are a lot of very practical reasons not to have Adler on the tour: he hasn't been in the band for 25 years. There are a lot of songs he didn't record and has never played live. He doesn't have an appropriate amount of touring experience. He sometimes comes across as an imbecile. And the guy needs back surgery. 

Those factors make him a liability to promoters, insurers, bandmates and fans.

And, of course, there's his long, ugly history with drugs. 

I actually know a thing or two about being in a band with an addict. It's frustrating. It's infuriating. And it's painful on several levels.

Rehearsals take forever. Songs don't come together. There are no-shows. There are trust issues. And -- especially if it's a member of the rhythm section -- your entire band starts to sound like shit.

Common sense dictates that you have to kick the addict out, and I don't fault Guns N'Roses for giving Adler the boot. How could I? He was a giant mess.

But I do think that if they're going to proceed with this reunion charade -- of selling the public a return of the most notorious band of our teenage years -- they should give him a seat at the table. 

Sure, Matt Sorum and Frank Ferrer are superior musicians, and they both certainly offer a steadier hand on the road (even if their feel isn't quite right).

But they aren't originals. They didn't play on the classic record. And that's what Slash and Axl are selling to the public: the return of the classic line-up. Not the circus act of the past fifteen years. Not the bloated arena monster of the early/mid-90's. Not Velvet Revolver with a different singer.

They're selling the Appetite-era line-up. They're selling the five guys who dominated high school gossip and the pages of Circus Magazine. The five skulls from the cross tattoo.

No doubt, including Adler would have created problems. It would have meant fewer dates on the tour. It would have meant putting his sponsor on the road with him. It would have meant postponing everything so he could recover from surgery. Maybe it would have reduced the whole thing down to one or two shows.

Maybe that isn't smart. 

Maybe that isn't practical. 

Maybe that's dangerous.

Which is funny. Because that's exactly how I remember Guns N'Roses.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

In the Heat of the Mourning: On Grief, Gratitude and David Bowie

Let's be clear about something right from the top:

Coming to terms with the death of your favorite artist is not the same thing as mourning a friend or loved one. It is incredibly easy to confuse the two, but the experiences are fundamentally different.

In the aftermath of David Bowie's death, I've spent the past two days considering this. Like thousands upon thousands of other people, Bowie's work and influence meant the world to me, so I've tried very hard to be honest with myself about what I am currently feeling.

When you lose a friend, family member, or even a pet, you grieve everything about them. You miss their weird habits and odd mannerisms, and fear for a future in which you will have no more shared experiences together.

I've always found that this is the most profoundly painful aspect of grief: realizing - sometimes for months and for years - all the things that you will no longer do together.

You ache for the silly jokes you shared, and the satisfaction you'd get from making that person smile.You hurt each time you cross a life milestone without them. And you yearn to make things right for all of the times you never said or did what you should have when you had the chance. So often, you just wish you could sit in the same room with them one more time, and feel complete again.

When someone you love dies, you long for the coexistance you once shared.

But when your favorite artist dies, something different happens. 

You don't really mourn the person -- no matter how much you might be temped to believe that you do. You won't be missing your lost time together or your shared experiences, because you didn't actually share anything together.

You won't really mourn their art -- especially if it's a musician -- because the art lives forever, and you can always revisit it. And it will always be wonderful -- perhaps even more wonderful over time.

Still, something deep inside of you hurts like mad. And it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.

I believe that this pain is deeply rooted your own path to self-discovery, and the role that the artist's work played in it. 

There is absolutely no shame in believing that an artist's work has changed your life. Great art can challenge you to broaden your horizons and try new things. It can force you to reconsider preconceived notions. It can overwhelm you with a beauty that you didn't realize was possible. And it can validate feelings that you've never before been able to process. 

This is why, when our favorite artists die, we are so often overcome with inappropriately personal feelings of sadness and loss. And most of all, we feel a deeply disorienting sense of muted gratitude.

I believe that this is what hurts most: never having the opportunity to thank the artist for making your world more vivid and show them that their work brought you happiness or solace when you most needed it. To tell them that they may not realize it, but that they made a difference.

To that end, the experience can closely mimic that incompleteness that follows the death of a loved one. 

But it's not quite the same thing. In fact, practically speaking, it is nearly nonsensical; under what circumstances do we ever meet our idols? When I envision what might have happened if I'd ever met Mr. Bowie, I practically recoil in horror as I consider the things I might have said. The influence of our favorite artists may be acute and profound, but our relationships are probably best left to be one-dimensional.

Still, I can't help but to feel that same sadness that I could never thank him. 

I was very fortunate to experience a tremendous amount of personal growth as I studied Bowie's work. His approach to identity helped me become comfortable in my own skin for perhaps the first time, and it taught me how much control I have over how people perceive me. I learned something important about the thin line between the grotesque and the exotic, and that helped me partially overcome the body image issues that have stuck with me since I was a scrawny little boy who was unable to defend himself. I have so much more gratitude for that than I can even express.

Of course, it is now impossible to thank him. It probably always was.

But I can tell you what is possible:  

I still remember who it was who turned me on to Bowie. It was my friend, Miguel. He was an awesomely charismatic high school classmate, a reformed "problem child" who'd done some truly crazy stuff at a young age, and had lived to tell the tale.

I remember how he approached me one afternoon and poked a finger into my breastbone.

"You...Major Tom. That's who you are," he said, grinning. "You look like David Bowie. You know that, right? People tell you that, right? That's who you look like."

Then he walked away, and my fascination with Bowie was born. All because of one cool kid with a strange and sudden observation.

I can't thank Bowie. But, tonight, I can thank Miguel.