Heavy Metal Thunder: Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax Storm America - Rolling Stone
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Heavy Metal Thunder: Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax

In the Clash of the Titans Tour, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax storm across the nation

Tom Araya, Dave Lombardo, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman of Slayer 1991Tom Araya, Dave Lombardo, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman of Slayer 1991

Tom Araya, Dave Lombardo, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman of Slayer.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

‘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.

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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.

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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.

The first test comes an hour later, when Slayer opens the Dallas show. There is nothing in all modern pop like the moment Slayer takes a stage. The whole place rises to its feet as the band slams into “Hell Awaits” at a ludicrous breakneck pace, and hundreds of kids press their way to the front of the stage, where they proceed to throw themselves into one other, moshing with a furious intensity. At first the security force looks a bit edgy – it is not always an enviable position to be caught between Slayer and its fans – but in a short time their patience pays off. Nobody shoves or punches anybody, and the few times that any guards see a kid who looks as if he’s trying to hurt other dancers in the mosh pit, Mele makes his way into the crowd and drags the offender out himself. Later, when Anthrax makes its appearance, things go even more smoothly. At that point, even young women find the mosh pit a fun place to hang out – which is rarely the case during a Slayer set.

But then, just before Megadeth is set to perform, the fires begin: eerie-looking eruptions of flame surrounded by thrashing circles of kids, all pushing and shoving to dance as close to the flares as possible.

When you venture up close, though, the fire-dancing doesn’t seem particularly threatening or licentious. In fact, there appears to be a rather strict social order at work. First, one or two kids strip off their T-shirts and set them ablaze, waving them over their heads until they attract the attention of other fans. It’s almost as if they are setting the fires as a way of drawing each other in closer, as a way of finding other sympathetic souls in a dark landscape. After a bit, the kids toss the burning rags into a heap, along with paper cups and other scraps, until they have something like a watch fire going. Meantime, a growing circle of dancers begins to tramp around the fire in a rhythmic, running stomp, picking up speed and gaining new members as it spreads outward. The scene only gets scary when security guards charge up the hill, pushing the kids aside and extinguishing the flames with chemical sprays. The resulting smoke is harsh and burns the eyes, causing the kids to turn and run, sometimes knocking each other down in the process. Invariably, the fire starts up again, and the circle of dancers reconvenes. It’s as if the conflagrations taking place on the hill were an enactment of the defiance and rage that the music onstage has been proclaiming all day long.

Ultimately, not much real damage is done. The next morning there will be a few square feet of torched grass and some predictable local media outrage. But for some of the kids who had gathered here, a genuine power struggle will have taken place – the first that many of them have ever won.

The next day’s show, in Lubbock, Texas, proves to be something of a letdown. The turnout is one of the smallest that the tour will see – a little more than 2000 fans show up in an arena that can hold more than twice that many – but a bigger problem seems to be the sound. The members of each of the bands come off-stage complaining that they could not hear themselves playing and that the mix in the sound monitors had been messy and dim. In particular, Megadeth guitarist Mustaine is coldly furious. At the end of the evening, he stands in the backstage area and tells his tour manager that he wants the soundman suspended from the board for the following evening. It is plain that the tour manager will not find this an easy request to accommodate, though it’s also plain that Mustaine isn’t about to give ground.

Just two days into this trip, Mustaine is already beginning to wear on the nerves of some of the others involved in the tour. A former heavy drug user and drinker, Mustaine these days is scrupulously clean and healthy. As a result he insists on keeping himself at a distance from the members of Slayer, who still enjoy drinking and acting up. In a Los Angeles Times article that appeared at the outset of the tour, Mustaine told an interviewer that he had been embarrassed by Slayer’s behavior during their recent European tour together. “There were times where it was detrimental to my sanity,” Mustaine said. “When we travel and we’re stuck on the same plane, and they’re completely inebriated, swearing at the top of their lungs and belching and guzzling . . . I felt like I wanted to crawl off into the bathroom of the plane and die. . . . I have more respect for their luggage than their behavior.”

But there is another side to Mustaine, and it can be surprisingly affecting. A few minutes after his tantrum about the sound problem, the thin, blond Mustaine sits aboard the band’s bus in the parking lot of the Lubbock Coliseum and talks quietly about all the time and friendships that were lost to his drug abuse. In moments like this, there is nothing in Mustaine’s manner that is arrogant or taxing. Instead he comes across as somebody who is smart, conscience stricken and deeply sad – as if he has endured a long nightmare and is just now coming to terms with how he managed to inflict so much damage on himself and others over the years.

In some ways, Mustaine’s long bouts of abuse were probably an extension of the ruin he had felt as a child. When he was seven, his parents divorced, leaving Mustaine, his sisters and his mother living in poverty in the suburbs of Southern California. By his early teens, his mother was absent much of the time, and Mustaine spent the next few years residing with his sisters and their husbands. One day, when he was fifteen, says Mustaine, a brother-in-law punched him in the face when he found him listening to Judas Priest‘s Sad Wings of Destiny. “I decided then,” says Mustaine, “that I was going to play this music. That would be my revenge.”

In the early 1980s, after playing in a series of pop and metal cover bands, Mustaine hooked up with Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield in Norwalk, California. Together they formed Metallica – a band that within a few years would become the most important heavy-metal ensemble since Led Zeppelin. It was Metallica, in fact, that codified speed metal as a music derived from the rhythmic brutality of hardcore punk and the yowling melodic drive of early-1980s British denim-and-leather metal bands like Motörhead and Iron Maiden. But for all its gifts, the group was beset with serious personality conflicts. Mustaine and the others fought frequently – sometimes about drug use, sometimes about the leadership of the band – and in time the tension became unbearable. “One day,” says Mustaine, “they woke me up and said, ‘You’re out of the band.’ And I said, ‘What, no warning? No second chance?’ And they said, ‘No, you’re out.’

“To this day,” continues Mustaine, “I have a hard time seeing those guys. Something inside me feels like saying, ‘You know, you guys are really fucked for firing me. You didn’t give me a chance – and I really miss you.’ And while they’re responsible for their own success, I don’t think they ever would have developed the way they did if I hadn’t come into the picture.”

Back in Los Angeles, Mustaine settled deeper into his drug use and thought for a time about quitting music. But in 1984, after he met Dave Ellefson, a bassist who had just moved to California from rural Minnesota, Mustaine decided to take another stab at band life and formed Megadeth. “I thought of this band as not just the return of Dave Mustaine,” he says, “but also my revenge. I thought, ‘This is the music I want to play: a jazz-oriented, progressive music that’s going to alter heavy metal as we understand it.'” Mustaine made good on his promise. Though Megadeth shared Metallica’s passion for hard and fast riffs, the best tracks on albums like Peace Sells . . . but Who’s Buying? and So Far, So Good . . . So What! demonstrate a melodic and textural versatility that no other band in metal has matched.

But Megadeth has also seen its share of problems – including numerous band firings, as well as Mustaine’s worsening drug use. “One of the earlier members in the band,” Mustaine says, “finally got me into heroin. He told me it was like being back in the womb, and, I mean, I was a slut. Pussy was my favorite thing in the world, and for me to be fully inside a pussy was the fantasy of a lifetime. I became like a dope-seeking missile, and after a while I was losing my mind. I got to the point where I just could not play anymore. I knew that I was going to die if I didn’t get sober, and even that wasn’t enough to make me stop. I would have done anything for coke or heroin. I would have even gone into prostitution.”

One morning in early 1990, while driving home in a drug-and-alcohol-induced stupor, Mustaine was pulled over by the police. He had heroin, cocaine, speed and liquor in his blood system, and he also had some of those same substances in his car. He was arrested, and a short while later he was given a choice: Get clean – and stay clean – or go to jail. It turned out to be the impetus Mustaine needed. Within a few weeks he had joined a twelve-step addiction-recovery program and has stayed clean since. “In fact, tonight,” Mustaine says, seated aboard the bus in Lubbock, “is my birthday: A year ago today was the day I quit using drugs. And you know what? Now a lot of my dreams are coming true. In the last year I got married, we put together our best version of Megadeth yet, and we also finished our best record, Rust in Peace. I think it all has to do with the fact now that I pray and meditate a lot. I don’t sit at home waiting for some fucking creep to come over with powder.

“A lot of things have changed for me,” Mustaine adds. “I think I now have a more genuine concern for others. Also, I don’t have the same kind of interest I once had in the occult. I think it’s simply that now I know that there is a God, and, uh, it’s not me.”

The day the Titans tour appears in San Antonio is a Sunday, and one of the local newspapers bears an article on its front page under the headline Face to Face with a Devil. It is a story of a woman who was reportedly exorcised of a demon by a local priest, and it also serves as a reminder that the Texas cities this tour has been visiting are strongholds of conservative religious values. As Donna Gaines points out in Teenage Wasteland (probably the best book written about contemporary youth culture), these communities not only tend to breed a fair amount of repressed anger and resentment but tend to breed conservative fears – like fears of the devil and rock & roll. If you’re young and have had to live with these sorts of strictures for too long, what could be a better way of rubbing against the local ethos than subscribing to the symbology and values of heavy metal?

The signs of the local youths’ appetite for offense become apparent as the crowd begins to arrive at San Antonio’s Sunken Gardens amphitheater. Many of the fans here are young Hispanics, and many of them are wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their favorite metal bands (besides this show’s headliners, big favorites include Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Danzig). These shirts are rife with horror-derived imagery, including depictions of rotting ghouls, greenish skulls and apocalyptic demons. The iconography may sound gruesome, and yet, when you’re confronted with an endless variety of these shirts in mass quantity, there’s actually something mesmerizing about it. Plus, it’s simply a kick to draw the attention or disapproval of others by wearing these shirts. It’s a way of boasting your toughness and your proud status as an outcast. Conservative moralists can fume all they like about the question of what art is tolerated inside the nation’s museums, but they’re missing an important point: The canvas has shifted in this culture, and it is kids like the ones who are gathered here in San Antonio who are bearing the defiant new art on their chests. And the best part is, there is no way this art can be shut down or deprived of its funds. It has already spilled over into the streets and into our homes.

At 7:00 p.m., Slayer takes the stage and tears into its set. There is a dense, pummeling quality to the band’s sound – the bass rumbles, the drums explode at a rat-a-tat clip, and the guitars blare in buzz-saw unison – but it’s all played with a remarkable precision and deftness. Meanwhile, the audience that is jammed up close to the stage erupts in frenzy, with some kids slamming and bounding hard against each other, while others clamber atop one another so they can dive over the barricade. This goes on and on until even the band can’t take its eyes off the action. On a night such as this, there isn’t anything in all rock & roll like a Slayer show. Watching the melee and hearing the fulmination of the music, you feel like you’re seeing the most exciting live band since the Sex Pistols.

At the same time, this is also a band that deals with rather disturbing subject matter. When Slayer first emerged in the early 1980s, the group’s repertoire (written at the time by guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman) was heavy with songs about Satan and hell. But in recent years, under the influence of bassist and vocalist Tom Araya, who is now the band’s chief lyricist, the emphasis has shifted. Araya – whose family fled Chile during a time of political unrest and who has lived around some of the rougher sections of Los Angeles and witnessed the effects of gang warfare – decided the band should write more about the human and social horrors of the modern world, and over the course of the band’s last three albums he has developed a special affection for such topics as political oppression, modern warfare, gang killings and serial murders. Perhaps the band’s most chilling song is “Dead Skin Mask,” about Ed Gein, the famous mass murderer who killed numerous people and flayed them and who later served as the inspiration for such films as Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs. In “Dead Skin Mask,” Araya enters into Gein’s soul and tells the story of his crimes from inside that dark and awful place.

“I know a song like that,” says Araya, “where I’m writing it as if I am the person who is doing the killing, freaks people out. They say, ‘How could you think that way?’ Well, it isn’t hard at all. In fact it’s very easy. I sit there and I ask myself, ‘Now, how would it feel if I really wanted to kill somebody?’ And I know: I’d feel an exhilaration. I’d feel awesome.

“See, when I wrote ‘Dead Skin Mask,'” Araya continues, “I had just read this book called Deviant, about Ed Gein, and as I read it, I was trying to understand this guy – why he did what he did and how he got that way. The fact that he could seriously skin these people and preserve their body parts – can you imagine doing that and thinking that it’s okay and not really knowing the difference between right and wrong? That’s just fucking amazing, to do things like that with no heart at all. And then I came across another book about this guy named Albert Fish, who murdered these little boys and then ate their penises. He said he tried eating their testicles, but he found them too chewy.”

As he speaks, Araya’s face gradually lights up until, by the time he gets to the part about chewy testicles, he is smiling delightedly. After a moment or two, he catches what he’s doing and blushes. “You know,” Araya says, “I can sit here and talk about mutilation with a smile on my face because of the things these people do, but I do know the difference between wrong and right. I mean, I can sit and think about murder, and sometimes I think it would be real easy to do. And then I write the stuff, and for me it works as kind of a release. I figure, I’ve thought about it, I know what it would feel like – and that’s good enough for me.”

Listening to Tom Araya talk about the titillations of murder can be as unnerving as listening to Slayer’s music – even more so. It’s possible to make a case that Slayer’s boldest songs, by presenting horror in such unabashed and unromantic detail, are critiques of violence and evil. But after talking to Araya, you have to wonder if some of the songs aren’t precisely what they sound like: celebrations of the ruin of life.

Actually, either interpretation – critique or celebration – seems fine to the members of Slayer, who are amazingly adept at depicting terrible deeds without giving any indication of how they view the moral dimensions of those deeds. But by completely sidestepping any moral reaction, it’s possible that Slayer has misjudged just how deep the horror runs in the stories they have chosen to tell. Killers like Gein or Fish may be fascinating to read about or to see portrayed on the screen, but the truth is, real human lives were tortured and destroyed at their hands, and the horror and misery didn’t end there: The surviving families and friends of both the victims and the killers had to live the rest of their lives with the effects of those crimes and with the knowledge of all the hopes that were forever transformed and sealed off in those seasons of bloodshed. This is the sort of horror that never knows an end – the sort that lasts beyond death or fiction or art – and it may be a greater evil than Araya and his band are prepared to comprehend or address.

At the same time, for all his creepy interests, there’s really nothing unpleasant or evil-seeming about Araya himself. He comes across as a basically funny, courteous and sweet-tempered guy who has a deep affection for his family and fans and who only becomes truly unpleasant when he witnesses security guards roughing up exuberant fans. In short, Araya is a bit like many of the rest of us: He can be fascinated by the depictions of evil in a true-crime book or a piece of fiction like The Silence of the Lambs, but when real violence spills over into his own world, he is genuinely repelled.

And sometimes that violence can spill over in unexpected ways. For example, during the recent Persian Gulf war, Slayer received several letters from troops stationed on the front line – some of whom stated they were anxious to kill the Iraqis (“the fucking ragheads,” as one soldier put it) and thanked Slayer for providing them with the morale to do so. Closer to home, Geraldo Rivera presented a show a year or so ago called “Kids Who Kill.” It featured a panel of five adolescents, all of whom had killed either other kids or family members and all of whom cited a passion for thrash or speed-metal bands – particularly Slayer. To some critics, incidents like these might suggest that Slayer’s art is a dangerous one – that it works as an endorsement of violence or might even help precipitate it. Well, perhaps. But at the same time, what would it be like if the music of Slayer didn’t exist? If the band disappeared or were silenced, would it lessen the frequency of murder? Would it have had any impact on the killings committed by the children on Geraldo Rivera’s show?

Jeff Hanneman doesn’t think so. “Obviously,” he says, “a lot of our fans do identify with evil – or at least they think they do. But the truth is, when you come across one of the most hardcore Slayer fans – one of those guys going, ‘Sa-tan! Sa-tan! Sa-tan!’ – and you say, ‘Now calm down, dude; do you really believe in Satan?’ he might go, ‘Yes! Sa-tan!’ and then you go, ‘No, no – do you really believe in Satan?’ He’ll go, ‘Uh, well, no, not really.’ You know, to him it’s cool because it’s evil, and evil is rebellion.

“I mean, these are just normal kids – at least normal by today’s standards,” Hanneman continues. “You have to remember, this society has changed a lot, and some of these kids are coming from some pretty rough family realities and some pretty hopeless conditions. This music is a way of reacting against all that. They go to a show, thrash around for a few hours and then they go home, and hopefully they’ve worked some stuff out of their systems.

“Basically, I think we’re doing a positive thing,” says Hanneman. “But if some kid goes overboard, I can’t take responsibility for that. I mean, we all have an inborn capacity for violence, but most of us know where to stop. If somebody goes over that line, then their boundary is obviously gone, but that has more to do with how they grew up than with our music. Sometimes we’re a bit over the line about killing and stuff like that, but it isn’t like we’re giving them knives, saying ‘Here, cut your throat. Hurt somebody.’ That isn’t what we’re doing.”

If speed metal can lay claim to its own Clash or Who – a band that tries to make sense of its audience’s moment in history and how that moment can be transformed into the basis for community – then clearly that band is Anthrax. Like Slayer or any other number of bands, Anthrax often deals with questions of rage and despair. But in contrast to these other groups, Anthrax wants to know where those dark feelings come from and how they affect the lives of the people in its audience.

In part, Anthrax’s commitment to the ideals of community owes as much to the band’s interest in punk as to its roots in metal. Like most of the other musicians on this tour, the members of Anthrax first developed their passion for heavy metal in the middle-to-late 1970s, when artists such as Kiss, Ted Nugent, Black Sabbath and AC/DC were defining the frontier of rock & roll bravado. But in 1976 all that changed. Punk groups like New York’s Ramones and England’s Sex Pistols took heavy metal’s style and stripped it of its excesses – its overreliance on flashy lead guitars and pretty-boy cock rock – and transformed it into something that was both more primitive and more radical. Indeed, punk bands drew new stylistic, generational and political lines across the breadth of rock & roll, and they declared that if you did not stand on punk’s side of the line, then you did not stand anywhere that counted. As a result, the punk and metal factions didn’t get along very well.

But Scott Ian, Anthrax’s lyricist and rhythm guitarist, was a heavy-metal fan attending high school in Queens, New York, when punk was at its peak, and he couldn’t see the reason for all the division and antipathy. “To me, Iron Maiden was every bit as valid as the Ramones or Sex Pistols,” says Ian, seated backstage at Houston’s Summit Arena. “When I was a kid, it all felt like an underground discovery.”

In 1981, when Ian and a couple of friends founded Anthrax, he envisioned the group as drawing from metal’s style but from punk’s spirit. At first not much came of the idea; others in the group were happy to stick with metal’s familiar styles and fans. But Ian and Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante started hanging out on Sundays at Manhattan’s legendary punk club CBGB and making friends with members of the local hardcore scene. For a brief while they even formed a side band – the legendary Stormtroopers of Death, regarded by many as a key punk-metal crossover group. In time, many of the hardcore kids started coming to Anthrax’s shows, and they brought with them some of their scene’s more colorful rites – like stage-diving and slam-dancing. By the mid-Eighties, however, the punk scene had lost most of its stylistic inventiveness and almost all its cultural clout, and the emerging thrash and speed-metal bands simply appropriated punk’s rhythmic intensity and some of its radical zeal.

These days, Anthrax can pretty much be exactly what it wants to be – a heavy-metal band with a punk-informed conscience. Over the course of the group’s last four albums, Anthrax has become increasingly politically savvy and activist-minded, yielding some of the smartest songs about the social and emotional realities of modern-day youth culture that rock & roll has produced in the last decade. But sometimes the band’s progressivism hasn’t sat well with parts of the audience. In 1989, when the members of Anthrax appeared on the cover of the heavy-metal magazine RIP with their friends in Living Colour, a black metal band, the magazine received some ugly responses from several readers. Angered by the incident and by the killing of a black youth, Yusuf Hawkins, in New York’s Bensonhurst area, Ian wrote “Keep It in the Family” and “H8Red,” a pair of scathing songs about race hatred that appeared on the band’s latest album, Persistence of Time.

Says Ian: “I think there’s a pretty good percentage of our audience – you know, white middle-to-lower-class kids – that hates black music and probably hates blacks as well. Why they hate blacks, they probably don’t know; it’s a prejudice they’ve never questioned. I’m exposed to it all the time. People see me wearing a Public Enemy T-shirt, and they ask, ‘Why do you like that nigger music?’ I can’t really talk to somebody like that. I don’t care if they’ve bought every one of our albums, I’m certainly not going to condone their attitude just because they’re an Anthrax fan.”

Ian pauses for a moment and shakes his head. “I wish there were a way to reach those people,” he says after a bit. “Maybe for some of them the music does make a difference. Maybe they can hear a song like ‘H8Red’ and understand that it’s a song about being hated just because of the way you look – whether it’s because you have long hair or you’re a skinhead or you’re black.

“I mean, for a lot of our fans who are into this music, things aren’t easy,” Scott Ian continues. “Some of them are working jobs they can’t stand, and they aren’t sure who to blame for their lives, and so they end up getting drunk all the time or turning to drugs. I think what we try to say to them is: ‘Hey, we’ve all gone through some of the same shit, but you can find a place in your life where you can make it. You may hate your parents and hate your life, but it’s your life, and you just got to fucking do what you got to do to make yourself and your world better.’ I think if Anthrax has any message, that’s it: Make yourself and your world better.”

A short while later, Ian and the other members of Anthrax – singer Joey Belladonna, drummer Charlie Benante, bassist Frank Bello and guitarist Dan Spitz – are onstage in Houston, spreading that message the best way they know how: by playing brilliant and enlivening rock & roll. It’s debatable, of course, whether the audience completely understands or agrees with what the band is saying in its music; maybe, for many of those here, the sheer visceral impact of the band’s performances is all that really matters. Still, there is something heartening about watching Belladonna deliver the key lines from “Keep It in the Family” – “Don’t even try to tell me what you think is right/When to you blacks are niggers and Jews are kikes. . . . And you don’t even know why you feel this way/’Cause Daddy hated this and Mommy hated that” – and witnessing the audience flailing and thrashing to the words as if this were a declaration worth raising a ruckus over.

When the band gets around to “Antisocial,” there’s no question that everybody knows what is being talked about. On record the song is a rousing attack on a man who uses law and order and wealth to beat down the people he doesn’t understand. But in concert it becomes something else. “You’re anti, you’re antisocial,” yowl the band members, pointing their fingers at the audience, and the audience stands up on its chairs and roars back the same line – “You’re anti, you’re antisocial,” – pointing back at the band. Finally, the band and the audience are yelling the same refrain to each other at the same time, over and over, until the voices rise into the thousands. In that moment, the crowd and the band are taking a term that has been used for years as a method of branding young people as outcasts and are turning that epithet into both a mutual accusation and a mutual affirmation. They are telling one another that they know exactly how the world views them and that they are proud to be known by those terms. Indeed, they are forging a bond of community they rarely find outside of the society of heavy-metal music. It is a way of saying: “We are here for each other. Whatever the rest of the world might say about us, we are here for each other.”

In the world that heavy metal and its fans are consigned to live in, that isn’t such a bad promise.

This story is from the July 11th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.


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