Slipknot: Highway to Hell
The shirtless, sunburned man with one broken arm ignores the cop in front of him. “Sir, if you don’t leave this area, I’ll take you in on drunk and disorderly,” the officer says as the man runs up to the ticket takers at the gates of the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’ve got to find my wife!” he yells. “Can you let me in to find my wife?” The temperature is well into the nineties, the air is soupy with humidity, and only three of Ozzfest’s twelve hours have passed.
The volatile guy is escorted away none too easily, but there are many more to take up his work: Inside, the patchy grass is littered with visibly drunk, rapidly reddening metal fans rocking themselves out to Zakk Wylde — probably the only guy on the ticket who was around and out of high school during Ozzy Obsbourne’s early-Eighties Blizzard of Ozz tour. Aside from Wylde’s shredder jams, there are a heap of good times to be had: a mechanical bull, a bungee ride and a body-painting booth whose art many women young and old have opted for in lieu of shirts. One bespectacled, zealous groupie-in-the-making who looks about thirteen has chosen the slogan “titties.”
Backstage, five-ninths of Slipknot lounge in their dressing room. Guitarist Jim Root plucks out Radiohead’s “Optimistic” on his guitar; percussionist Shawn “Clown” Crahan paces ceaselessly while talking on his cell phone. DJ Sid Wilson trims the lining out of his new, slightly ill-fitting mask and in the process cuts his finger badly. Craig Jones, the band’s ominously mute programmer, sits ominously, monitoring everyone. Singer Corey Taylor, wearing huge, green-lensed, mirrored goggles and a beat-up leather cowboy hat (looking a bit like Ministry’s Al Jourgensen at a rave), wanders in and out singing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” from the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? — a band favorite. Guitarist Mick Thomson, the darkest comedian this side of the Marquis de Sade, talks loudly about satisfying his sex drive on the road. “My new thing is finding boys who are too young to ejaculate,” he says in a husky voice tailor-made for MC’ing monster-truck events. “That way, there’s no stain on my blue dress, and I send them home just a bit wiser.”
At 5 P.M., drummer Joey Jordison and bassist Paul Gray wake from slumber and roll into the dressing room. And that’s when it begins: Slipknot’s ongoing tribute to Gray, the Balls songs. These are your favorite standards interpolated to feature the word balls. “We call him Balls,” Taylor explains. “So when we see him, it’s on.” The list is already long, but today it grows longer with the addition of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to Balls,” George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Balls,” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Balls,” the Beatles’ “Hey Balls,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Balls Are Made for Ballin’,” Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With Balls” and America’s “A Horse With No Balls.”
The gaiety soon ends. It is time for Slipknot’s set, and each member wanders over to the wardrobe case that houses their stage personae: uniform coveralls emblazoned with their number and band symbols, and their infamous masks. They wear black coveralls today — they also have red and brown-green ones. They all apply football eye black, and Wilson paints a set of teeth on his lips — through his skull/gas-mask helmet, he looks to be grinning maniacally. In thirty minutes the wise-cracking band members have become silent underworldly visions. Taylor’s transformation is the most disturbing. He sits on one end of a couch twitching and moaning gutturally like a caged animal. He gets up, bends over, heaves, spits out something chunky and retires to the bathroom to begin screaming.
Since 1995, the nine Des Moines natives in Slipknot have had a single-minded agenda: to provide an arena for the disillusioned, to teach by example that you don’t need to agree with society, just with yourself. This summer, Slipknot spread their message to a tribal grind-core death-metal soundtrack for 10,000 or so people at each headlining gig, as well as the tens of thousands of converts who bought their merchandise at Ozzfest and the 1.3 million faithful who bought Slipknot, their major-label debut. Their show is a rapid-fire “fuck you,” with the band members throwing themselves around the stage harder than the fans do in the mosh pit. Slipknot’s extremism is a test of metal. The losers are those who turn away, disgusted, revolted or weakened, leaving outcasts of all stripes to band together.
Slipknot have elaborate pyrotechnics now, but they don’t need them. Sometimes they vomit from the heat and exertion; sometimes they kick and beat one another. They’ve destroyed enough equipment and sets that it became more cost-effective to build a stage of solid steel and drums of titanium. They’ve earned their rapidly growing fan base without marketing, radio or MTV play. The stage at Ozzfest is littered with Slipknot’s peers every night — artists these Iowans never imagined they’d befriend. Tonight’s guests include Ozzy, his fifteen-year-old son, Jack — who later offers anyone in Slipknot $1,000 for the honor of Taser-ing them onstage (they ask for $18,000 to let him do the whole band) — Zakk Wylde, members of Disturbed and Papa Roach’s Coby Dick.
The crowd is riveted, standing rapt as often as they throw themselves and any spare folding chairs at the stage. The die-hards soak up new songs such as “Disasterpiece,” a locomotive ironclad dirge of rapid-fire drums, strained guitars and the opening line “I wanna slit your throat and fuck the wound.” The mercilessly chaotic favorite “Purity,” with its marching bass line, hack-and-shred guitars and Taylor’s hell-growl introduction, sends the mosh pit into high gear.
The new songs are more progressive than the old, harnessing the industrial grind of death metal while eschewing the genre’s typical structure, deftly manipulating their sonic momentum. At the back of the lawn a mosh pit becomes a fight club. During instrumental breaks, the Clown stalks the front of the stage, grabbing his crotch, looking down disdainfully at out-stretched arms. Wilson jumps off a riser and falls; Root runs over to kick him while he’s down. Percussionist Chris Fehn mounts his drums, shaking his phallic nose like a possessed dog in heat, sticking his tongue through the slit in his bondage mask. The set is furious with no perceivable hitches — any band that keeps Ozzy grinning should emerge triumphant. But not Slipknot.