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Slipknot: Highway to Hell

On the Ozzfest tour, death metal’s mutant, nine-headed spawn prepares America for the shock of their latest album

SLIPKNOT

SLIPKNOT, 2001.

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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.

“Fucking awful,” Taylor says, flopping on the dressingroom couch afterward.

“Pathetic,” Crahan says, throwing his mask and wiping snot from his beard.

“That was shit,” Jordison huffs. In the corner, Jones takes off his helmet, revealing slightly rusty, round rivet marks in his skin. He looks as if he’s been attacked by suckerfish. He also looks angrier than before but says nothing.

“Were the people in the first twenty rows on Valium?” Fehn asks, dropping his coveralls, changing into his other band persona: Naked Guy. “They were sitting there all spiritual and into it. What’s spiritual about ‘People = Shit,? ‘Oh, yes, that’s amazing. “People = Shit.”

Ozzfest ’99 introduced the world to Slipknot. It was the end of a long journey for all of them: unsuccessful bands, unsatisfying day jobs (except for Taylor’s happy stint as a night clerk in a porno store) and a culturally barren hometown. Crahan, the band’s twisted P.T. Barnum, poached the core talent from Des Monies’ best bands, beginning with Jordison and ending with Taylor. “He broke up our band,” says Taylor’s wiry best friend, Shawn Economaki, who is now Slipknot’s stage manager. “I called him up and said, ‘I’m coming over right now!’ Clown said, ‘You don’t have a gun, do ya?’ ” Economaki, like a lot of the band’s friends — some still with them, many gone — joined the circus.

“I was a night manager at a Sinclair gas station from ’95 to ’97,” Jordison says. “That’s where most of Slipknot was conceived. I’d get off band practice at about ten, and I’d bring a radio and TV and fucking crank metal. Shawn would come down at about 11:30, and we’d start plotting things out. He’d split at about five in the morning, and we’d have all these ideas. That’s how we did it. Until I got fired. My bosses were cool, but I was scaring the customers away. We literally had people pull up, see me and Shawn sitting in the window, floor it out of there and go to the Amoco across the street.”

They were signed on the strength of a demo that became their first album, Mate.Feed.Kill.Repeat. They had yet to play a show. “We didn’t even play those songs by the time we got signed,” Jordison says. “We were looking for a style. We had one song called ‘Bitchslap’ that went from, like, metal to jazz to disco to thrash. But that’s what Ross Robinson [the metal maestro behind Slipknot’s two major-label albums] got ahold of, and he came to see us practice in ’98. He was standing right by me in Shawn’s parents’ basement, and I’m counting off the first song. I get to ‘three’ and I drop the drumstick. I blew it.” But after that practice, a hang at a strip bar and a show the next day, Robinson was convinced and signed them immediately.

goat (gõt) n.1) any of various horned, bearded, ruminant mammals of the genus Capra; 2) a lecherous man; 3) a scapegoat; — get someone’s goat, to make angry or annoyed.

The nine are glad to be back on Ozzfest’ but it has its downsides: Any member who stage-dives (a regular part of performing for Wilson and Fehn) is fined $15,000; the mosh pit is regulated by security, and their set is shorter. “There’s a list of don’ts,” Fehn says. “I didn’t jump into the crowd, but I ran in the pit in front, and they tried to fine me for that. I mean, I used to throw kegs into the crowd and throw my water bottles as hard as I could at people. I’d jump off my kit and into the crowd, not having one care and knowing people weren’t going to sue us. I miss that closeness.”

Slipknot make up for it on the Ozzfest off days, when they’ve scheduled headlining dates along with Papa Roach, Disturbed, Linkin Park and Mudvayne. They unleash their 666 lights, more explosions, and a new banner emblazoned with a goat’s silhouette and a nine-pointed star – one per member. “Goats are set in their ways, they’re stubborn,” Crahan says, embracing the taxidermied goat head he bought to molest onstage. “There’s two types of people: sheep and goats. It’s a wake-up call. We’re not here to follow. We’re here to break the monotony and the rules of efficiency. An artist’s job is to be out of their mind to help the evolution of the species. I’m tired of wisecracks about us — we are serious and take this shit seriously.”

Slipknot first toured Ozzfest with tweleve people in a bus that slept eleven. Economaki was the tech for all nine members. Now there are seven techs, four buses, two semis to haul the 50,000 pounds of gear and forty-two members in their party. Their modified store-bought masks are now custom-made, more durable and scarier; their new coveralls were designed by Marilyn Manson’s haberdasher and are repaired by a wardrobe assistant; their pyrotechnics have evolved beyond Wilson’s preoccupation with lighter fluid.

Slipknot will be the first to tell you that growth is both yin and yang. “When I go in the crowd now, people try to steal the mask off my head,” says Wilson, who moves with a loping gait but bristles with frenetic energy, a condition apparently brought on by ingesting forty-five hits of LSD in one go. “What the fuck do they think is going to happen? Would the show stop, would it be over? Why would anyone want to ruin the experience for everyone else and for me? Why do they even want to know me, what I look like, what my hobbies are? The whole point of this band is not knowing who we are so you can pay attention to the art and soul of it.”

“We’ve had run-ins with some rookie extortionists,” Jordison says. “There are a bunch of people out there who say they’re us. And we’ve had stalkers, so now we’ve had to distance ourselves from the fans a little bit. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the evolution of a band. People were saying we couldn’t top the last album, so it’s all a response to that. People don’t really know about our black-metal and death-metal roots.”

Iowa will inform them. From the drum blitz, humongous stomping guitar lines and moblike wailed chorus of the single “People = Shit,” to the machine-gun scream, fuck-all song “The Heretic Anthem,” to all fifteen minutes of the title track’s funeral haunted-house ambience, Iowa is an assault on … everything. If 1999’s Slipknot was a blurry snapshot of a nine-man tornado, Iowa is a frame-by-frame blowup that harnesses the whirlwind and diffuses nothing. “We really stepped up on this one,” Jordison says. “All of us are a lot happier playing death metal — those are the kinds of bands we were in before. We still have the more ambient numbers, but most of this album is much heavier.”

In their live shows, the complexity of Slipknot’s new material is well represented, courtesy of Big Mick, a wizardly Brit whose legendary skills were honed working as the soundman for Black Sabbath, Def Leppard and, for seventeen years, with Metallica. “You know, these guys are exactly like Metallica in the early days,” he says, preparing the soundboard the next day at the Verizon Wireless Virginia Beach Amphitheater. “They are doing something you can’t ignore. It’s happening because the kids fucking love it.”

Big Mick relishes the challenge of weaving such a complex sonic blanket, calling Slipknot “a one-spliff band,” referring to how many he can smoke while working (Metallica is a three-spliff). “It is something new,” he says with a wink. “Samplers? What are those?”

The crew has been at the venue since 6 A.M., but the band is still at the hotel — the Founders Inn. Unbeknownst to them, it’s connected to right-winger Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, whose headquarters are in Virginia Beach. “I was wondering why there’s no porn,” Taylor says disgustedly, scratching one of his sizable sideburns. Just outside the lobby, the frenetic, impish Jordison is yelling to producer Robinson over his cell phone. “Ross, I can’t hear you because we’re staying in a fucking Christian hotel,” he shouts. “Yeah, they’re trying to block this call because they don’t want the most evil album ever to come out. Yeah, I’ll have to call you back.”

Taylor interrupts. “Dude, did you hear what happened last night?” he asks, green goggles on. Apparently a hapless local who had impersonated Taylor for the past month — and enjoyed all the free drinks and girlie action it got him — made the mistake of drinking near a few of the Slipknot crew. “My tech calls me from the bar, and I go right down there,” Taylor says, getting visibly worked up and loud enough to alarm a few white-haired guests making their way inside.

“Fucker was sitting there with some chick, and I go up and ask for an autograph. He stares at me and says some shit about management not letting him give autographs, so I go, ‘Oh, cool. Well, let me give you my autograph.’ Fucking grab a napkin and write ‘Corey Taylor, #8.’ All the crew comes around the table, and this guy knows what’s up. He’s looking at our laminates and shit. I go, ‘You’ve got five seconds to get the fuck out of here.’ He starts saying something, and I’m like, ‘Get out of here, now!’ Some girl grabs him as he’s running out, like, ‘Corey, where are you going?’ and I go, ‘Honey, he’s really got to go. Early band practice.’ If he couldn’t sue me, I’d have kicked his fucking ass. Damn it!” He walks off decisively.

After arriving at the venue, Taylor wanders, talking to his girlfriend on the phone, visiting friends in other bands and riding around in a golf cart. Thomson, a former guitar teacher who collects vintage equipment and can toss off Hendrix riffs as easily as Cannibal Corpse crunch chords, heads over to Papa Roach’s bus to work on a song with drummer Dave Bruckner. “It’s called ‘Christmas Fetus,’ ” Thomson says proudly, leading the way to the Roach’s in-bus studio. “It’s for the KROQ Christmas album.”

Thomson is a burly six-feet-four with long black hair and a beard. He looks like a lumberjack from Hades and is no friend on our Lord Jesus: “Generally I say whatever makes you happy, fine. But leave me the fuck alone. However, Christianity is a fucking blight on humanity. There is nothing sicker that this world has ever seen than organized religion. People give me shit, because I watch The 700 Club and Robert Tilton. Whatever. Know thy enemy.”

Thomson may look and talk 100 percent metal, but a peek into his CD case says otherwise: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, a Mozart concerto, Gorefest, lots of Hendrix, Stones and Beatles, Morbid Angel, Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, the Misfits. “I have to have my Beatles and Stones,” he says. “That’s the only way you can stay on tour when you’re playing with Linkin Park. Please print that. If they want to fight, my bus is the white one with the stupid gay stuff on the side of it.”

sheep (shep) n. 1) any of various usually horned ruminant animals of the genus Ovis, raised in breeds for its wool, skin or edible flesh; 2) a. One who is meek and submissive; b. One who is easily swayed or led.

Slipknot take the stage, and all hell breaks loose. The first number is “People = Shirt,” the machine-gun declaration of war that sends band and fans into a torso-tossing collective headbang that doesn’t a stop until the music does more than an hour later. During “Everything Ends,” another Iowa standout, Wilson reaches through his mask and gags himself, spitting up a long strand of goo. “I never threw up completely,” he says later. “Just little bits coming up.” The heat apparently gets to Root, who ends a headbang spewing fluid through the mouth and the bottom of his mask.

“The hardest part is getting hurt,” Wilson says later, gingerly unwrapping his ankles. “I’ve blown out both of my ankles already. So when I go in the crowd, I wear ankle wraps and shin pads, knee pads, waist pads. I’m so fucked up, dude. I’ve fractured ribs pretty often. If you jump off of high things into a crowd over and over, that’s what happens. But I’ve got to keep doing it. Kids that bought tickets expect me to get in the crowd and make contact. I do whatever is necessary. Fuck it. It’s for them, not me.”

Around the venue, homemade masks and coveralls dot the crowd. Just before and encore, the band plays “Spit It Out,” their most radio-friendly number to date, and Taylor engages in heavy-metal call-and-response: “OK, I want all of you fuckers to get the fuck down on the ground. Now!” The vast majority do, and it is a sight to see: from the front rows up to the top of the lawn, a crouching crowd. “Don’t get up,” Taylor commands. “Stay the fuck down, until I say jump.” They start to rise during the bridge, but Taylor sends them back down until he hurtles into the chorus.

“I go to a fucking mall, and I get followed by security,” Thomson says to a group of fans and musicians sipping beer after the show. “It’s like, ‘Hello? I’m shopping.’ Here’s what’s cool, though: In the end, I own your fucking children. Say what you want, I can tell your kids to fucking kill you in your sleep, and they will. He who laughs last, motherfucker.”

The parking lot is full of people, semis and tour buses that form a small maze. Between them, people scurry up and down, dodging the odd patch of pee or puke. Papa Roach’s Coby Dick celebrates his fourth wedding anniversary with a cake that a roadie throws in his face. On the more social of the Slipknot buses (the blue one), a band associate brings in a fan to meet and entertain. “My dad and his girlfriend worship the Devil,” she says, pulling down her hotroad-flame bikini top and gyrating slowly. “His parents were Bible thumpers. My mom was a hippie, and he’s a Satanist. Hey, you guys fucking rock.”

Satanism is definitely in the accusation cards for Slipknot this year. “The only similarity we have with Satanism is that we’re self-indulgent,” Jordison says. “One of the main tenets of Satanism is self-righteousness and making yourself happy. I agree with that. It doesn’t mean it’s evil. I agree with aspects of Satanism as much as I agree with aspects of the Bible.” Crahan is more specific. “We’re 100 percent not a Satanistic band,” he proclaims in his raspy, booming voice. “We’re beyond that. We’re communicating in a way that people won’t understand for years to come.”

Jordison punches the band’s security guard, a massive, very chuckly man named Smitty. A few girls hover nearby, giggling. They aren’t typical Slipknot groupies, who, according to Jordison, are “very quiet, seductive, goth bondage-looking chicks, always with black hair. A lot of them want you to have sex with them with the mask on. You know, if a girl is going to take her pants off that easily for you, who knows who she’s already been with. Probably Crazy Town.”

Though all the members of Slipknot are married or spoken for and don’t “do the groupie thing,” as Jordison says, they get a lot of love from fans. One threw a prosthetic leg at them last week, and another topped that with a real human bone, decorated with the words “People = Shit.” “It’s a tibia,” Crahan says, holding out the yellow-brown chipped specimen. “A girl in Portugal dug it up and gave it to me. I’m going to bury it when I get home. I respect that she did that, but I’m going to put it to rest.”

At another end of the parking lot, Taylor and Economaki are reminiscing. “Remember when we used to shoot assault rifles out of my parents’ basement?” Economaki asks. “M-16s, AR-14s, everything. In a residential neighborhood.”

“Ah, to be young, stupid and drinking Kiwi Lemon Mad Dog,” Taylor says.

It’s hard to tell if they’ve taken time to notice, but this is Slipknot’s moment. They compromise nothing, and they have everyone’s attention. “I don’t think this band can last more than four or five albums,” Jordison says. “Look what we’ve done on the new one. I know we’ve succeeded every time I listen to it. I think four albums will tie everything together. This band is so physical, it’s literally trimming years off our lives. This music is hard to play, and it’s hard on us. But we love it.”

There are already Slipknot side projects. “My tech and I have a fake band called Rapist,” Thomson says, grinning. “With songs like ‘I Was Hard When I Left the House,’ ‘Looking in Your Bushes’ and my favorite, ‘No Means Yes.’ We’re going to be the most hated band in the world. Our whole idea is to have everyone hate us, both men and women. We’re gonna have a female bass player, and we’ll paint bruises and a split lip on her and say that we forced her to play the bass. We’ve also got songs like ‘No One Will Believe You’ and ‘Your Parents Won’t Love You Anymore.’ Ah, yes, my future looks bright.”

Wilson has started work on his own drum-and-bass tracks as well as some hip-hop — all MCs with a death-metal attitude, take note. Jordison plans to stay in it for the long haul as well. “I’ll be in other bands after this, and I’m sure I’ll produce,” he says. “But right now, it’s all about the Knot.”

Crahan and Fehn feel that this band is the only one worth being in. “I’ll probably go back to being an electrician when we’re done,” Fehn says. “I’d definitely have to take some time off to figure out the world again. This is like being in jail. You get back out in society and you’re like, ‘Fuck!’ For one thing, I’d have to buy tickets to shows again.” Lord knows what Jones will do — hopefully nothing involving explosives, germ technology or hacking.

Everyone piles on their buses, the guest of honor on the social bus tonight being Coby Dick. “There’s one rule on both buses,” Crahan says before getting on his. “No shitting. If you need to go, tell the driver and he’ll pull over. Otherwise you’ve got to hot-bag it.” It’s an odd aversion for a man who once saved his morning shits to throw around at showtime. “The crap throwing is what it is,” he says, shaking his head and looking down before looking up, his intent blue eyes contrasted by the dark circles around them. “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t get this industry: They don’t want to take the time to find the things that will change the world. They just want to turn it out.” He pauses, then finds his thread. “Yeah, so hot-bagging: You take a trash bag, line the toilet, take your shit, tie it up and throw it out the window. Remember, no shitting.” He points a stout finger. “Because we’ll know if you do. See you in D.C.”

As the blue land submarine hums off into the night, pointed toward the outskirts of our nation’s capital, drinks are poured — a completely appropriate, sickly strong mixture of vodka, Red Bull, Chambord and grape soda — and a sloppy party begins. In honor of the South, the soundtrack starts with Lynyrd Skynyrd, all of the musicians air-playing the breaks and riffs they learned as tykes. Next comes Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and a band associate’s stories about the song “My Michelle.”

As the night gets lighter and the driver tells road tales from yesteryear, on comes Journey’s Evolution. Steve Perry sings a few people to sleep. The remainder greet the dawn, doze off watching Purple Rain and get some rest before waking up in a place that looks like the last one, to do it all over again. 

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