'It looks like hell," says the security guard, gazing at the scene before him. "It looks like hell just came popping up all over the place."
It is a hot spring night in Dallas, Texas, at the open-air Starplex theater, where the Clash of the Titans – a bill featuring three of the leading exponents of speed-metal rock & roll, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer – is playing the opening date of a two-month trek across America. Onstage, Megadeth is playing a loud, hard, fast set of songs about rage and apocalypse, but at the rear of the theater, on a large grassy slope, it looks like apocalypse may be happening for real. Up on that knoll, hundreds of heavy-metal fans have started to build bonfires and are dancing and stomping around them in an almost tribal fashion. From a distance it looks as if the fans are tossing themselves in and out of the pyres, like one of Bosch's or Bruegel's portrayals of the inferno brought to modern life.
"Man, I have never seen anything like that," says the security guard, shaking his head, still transfixed. "This is what we get for letting heavy-metal shit into this place. I tell you, this stuff is fucking evil."
For the better part of the last decade, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax have been working in rock's margins, making extreme music for a fervid young audience that much of the pop world – including the heavy-metal mainstream – would just as soon ignore. In fact, as far as MTV and rock radio are concerned, this whole scene may as well be invisible.
For all the dismissal that has been hurled its way, heavy metal is the only constant standard-bearer that rock & roll can claim. Whereas rockabilly, psychedelia, disco and even punk each peaked within a handful of years, metal has proved consistently popular for more than twenty years. Plus, it has served as a vital and reliable rite of passage for its audience – that is, it is music that articulates the frustrations, desires and values of a youth population that has too often found itself without any other cultural advocate or voice. Indeed, metal often works as music for outcasts: kids who feel pressed or condemned by adult society, who feel despised or hopeless or angry and who need to assert their own pride and bravado. Consequently, a music that many regard as a form without redemption is actually a music that can help powerless young people feel powerful – or at least feel like they have found a means to outrage or repel an increasingly coldhearted society.
When it comes to sheer disrepute, nothing in all pop – except for some of the more notorious rap artists – can compare with the speed-metal bands. Inspired as much by the brutal rhythms and bellicose stance of early-1980's hardcore punk as by heavy metal's own styles and obsessions, these groups are making some of the boldest and brightest music of our day and, some critics would claim, also some of the most frightening. "When victory's a massacre," sings Slayer in a song from the group's latest album, Seasons in the Abyss, "When victory is survival/When this end is a slaughter/The final swing is not a drill/It's how many people I can kill." It's a brutal decree, and though it's possible to read it as an indictment of the bloodshed that it describes, it's also possible to hear it as a celebration: a surrender to the exhilaration of the kill. Either way, it's a moment that serves notice that something in rock & roll's moral center is shifting.
"Bands like us are writing a new book in rock & roll history," says Dave Mustaine, the lead singer and guitarist for Megadeth. "If Elvis Presley liberated the body and Bob Dylan released the mind, we're releasing whatever's left: all the stuff that people would rather overlook in a world that's gone mad. Actually, I prefer to think of us as modern troubadours who are spreading joy and harmony by saying 'shit, fuck, piss, kill' and all the rest of it."
The Clash of the Titans tour is an attempt to assert that these bands can attract a mass following, one that is a legitimate pop community in its own right. It's an ambitious venture but also a risky one. Though the three coheadlining bands share roughly similar styles, they don't share the same obsessions. Slayer, a Los Angeles-based band, plays rageful tunes about the horror of interminable warfare and unconscionable murder, while Megadeth – despite its smart and sardonic songs about drug abuse, ecological disaster and impending apocalypse – appeals largely to guitar aficionados. Anthrax – a New York band – plays erudite and ambitious political rock, with an eye toward helping heavy-metal youth understand the sources of its own alienation and the power that lies within its own community. In short, there is as much separating these bands as there is uniting them.
There is also some concern about what might happen when the bands' respective audiences mingle. Megadeth tends to draw a crowd of head bangers – long-haired young males who stand around bobbing their heads in time with the music's lickety-split rhythms – while Anthrax draws a crowd that likes to slam-dance and mosh (a style of dancing in which kids stomp around together, flailing and bouncing off of each other at a furious pace, though usually to little harm). Slayer's following, however, can sometimes seem flat-out violent. At an infamous show at New York's Felt Forum, in 1988, the group's fans went wild, tearing seats apart and getting into fights with security guards. The band's lead singer, Tom Araya, tried to calm the crowd down, but after a few songs, the Forum's management ejected Slayer from the stage. "Thanks a lot, assholes," Araya told the crowd. "You fucked this up for yourselves.''
For this tour the three bands have hired a special security overseer, Jerry Mele. Shortly before each show, Mele convenes a meeting of the hall's security personnel. "Look," Mele tells the guards assembled at the Starplex, "I want you to treat these kids with respect. It may look like they're fighting or hurting each other out there, but it's their way of having fun. If they come over the barricade down front, don't hurt them and don't throw them out. Bring them over to me at the side of the stage. I'll have a talk with them and give them another chance. Believe me, if you do things this way, we won't have any serious trouble here." You can see the look of skepticism on the faces of these guards – big, muscular men, some of whom are accustomed to resolving rowdiness with force – but in the end they agree to Mele's requests.
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