I’m of the school that states we’re each allotted a certain amount of alcoholic drinks in a lifetime. It’s an equation mostly based on girth, genetics and one’s propensity for destruction. At fifteen I discovered my depression could be lifted by cans of Budweiser. I welcomed the relief. I was free enough to be giddy, to elicit laughter from my friends for original creative thoughts. It was 1981 and we partied to a new sound that blasted its way into the ethos of suburban New Jersey. Metal. It came in a package of light beer, brown weed and the hurling of one’s head back and forth to the quick thump of rock. The musicians were Gods to us: rich, talented, drug aficionados who could party all day long and play in stadiums at night. From an education fraught with regulation we were amazed that such superheroes existed. They flipped off reporters, swigged tequila from the sunroof of limos and destroyed hotel rooms. Every effort we made to include ourselves in this energy left us more alive, drunk and included. I was as normal as 1980s Pumpkin Pie: divorcing parents, an almost invisible public school presence and a hope to board Ozzy’s Crazy Train, if it ever arrived at South Orange Station.
We all wanted to be our heroes, to register as men with guitars and hot women in leather pants in our clutch. Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, undeniably a member of the Mount Rushmore of Heavy Metal, single-handedly brought motorcycle leather to a community in search of a uniform. We couldn’t buy the black bomber jackets fast enough. We’d worship our Judas Priest in the church of Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Throngs of beer-soaked teenagers bobbing their collective heads to the rhythm suggested by our leader, our preacher, The God on stage in leather chaps. Rob’s Living After Midnight is played to this day in professional baseball and football stadiums all over the country. “Hells Bells,” “Crazy Train,” “TNT” and “Breakin’ the Law” are songs downloaded daily in 2015. Each of these anthems was written during this small pocket of time, somewhere between Star Wars and Raging Bull.
Tipper Gore was hearing a very different message at the time. And she was the vice president’s wife. She wanted airtime, dang it, and telling the TV nation that Ozzy and Rob were encouraging metal-heads to commit suicide was the agenda of the day. Geraldo Rivera smelled career affirmation and immediately produced a primetime NBC Special Report: “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” The show aired just before Halloween and indicted heavy metal lyricists, stage shows and, of course album cover art as evidence of this violent epidemic aimed at our youth. Iron Maiden’s extremely popular Number of The Beast got an especially thorough strip search. Satan was alive in suburbia. Geraldo’s program ended with “experts” in the fields of demonic possession suggesting that He-Man and the Smurfs fell under icons deemed “recruitment tools,” for young, up and coming Metal Maniacs. Huh? Tipper was especially incensed by Mr. Osborne’s tune, “Suicide Solution,” which was a song mentioned in an actual suicide note of the time. Metal was on the Nightly News and the news wasn’t good. Ozzy and his cronies were sending satanic messages best heard if you played their records BACKWARDS (The Direction of the Beast). Rob Halford was indicted, literally called to the stand to sing his demonic lyrics to a somewhat taken aback judge. In a trial that lasted a month, Rob, a regular old human being that sings for a living, said the following: “We accept that some people don’t like heavy metal, but we can’t let them convince us that it’s negative and destructive. Heavy metal is a friend that gives people great pleasure and enjoyment and helps them through hard times.”
Didn’t matter. Tipper wanted Americans to be warned. She said the culprits have names like Lars, K.K, Dio and whoever wrote the extremely catchy “Highway to Hell.” We laughed. Never at suicide, never at human loss. But at Tipper and her team of Satanic pundits, people that had the Smurfs on their shit list. We drank Stroh’s and flipped off the screen. My favorite albums were being confiscated by the FBI, like a hilarious Coen brothers scene. Sorry, Tipper, your attempt to widen the gap between teenagers and their parents in pre self-help America was, “Just a bit outside.” Satan’s musical preferences were never known to us. I’d guess Wagner’s operas if I had to take a crack. I spent way too much time in religious school to give credence to any symbols of biblical or mythological importance. It was the music, Tipper, always the music that appealed to me. Let me explain: Ozzy’s vocals tracks were all being overdubbed by a harmony of himself. Two high keys in this great male voice that sounded ethereal to my ears, a soaring of power and even, beauty. The voice was coupled with Randy Rhoads’ virtuosity, a fire-storm of classically trained finger work played through a jacked-up Gibson Les Paul. “Shredding,” as we knew it, had a new face. Its name was Randy Rhoads. Ozzy and the bands in his genre connected to us through a language of miraculous skill-sets, namely, they knew how to play. We saw ourselves in the achievements of these similar-aged outcasts that got rich in spite of societies assessment of them. The result was a kickass sound that encouraged us to grow a pair of balls and stand tall for ourselves in a decade remembered for the Me, Me, Me, of Reaganomics. Hang with us for now, the music said clearly, until you find people that can hear you. They are out there. So, “Have A Drink On Me” AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, offered. Because you’re not as alone as you think.
The albums made life better. My girlfriend and I would leave school so we could make-out, listen to Black Sabbath and flip on the new 24-hour news channel, CNN. On Friday nights I drank the beautiful Budweiser cans my brother and his rocker friends crammed in our fridge. We played beer games and I honed the skills. Quarters and Chandeliers, a race to pound the fastest, to beat the older dudes. Upon arriving at inebriation I’d entertain them all with an impression of Angus Young that required a broomstick-guitar and a truly raw and justified display of repressive angst. I became a whirling dervish in a tangle of laundry-room carpet and human hair. When finished I’d stand sweating and kiss my girlfriend to the applause of my audience. The beer and the taste of her lips are in the same slot in my memory. Hey look, CNN says the murder rate is at an all-time high in New York and homelessness too. Oh, no, here comes Tipper. She is announcing the formation of the Parent’s Music Resource Center in an effort to limit children from accessing music with violent, sexual themes. She wants to see warning labels on the covers of our albums. Gosh, Tipper. Can’t you just leave us alone? I began to wonder if this political hurricane could hurt the music, send the industry reeling. But how? Like Ozzy said, “You can’t kill Rock No Roll. It’s Here to Stay.” Right?
Kurt Cobain eviscerated Metal all by himself in 1990 with the album, Nevermind. How could one album end 15 years of Metal Mania? It was utilizing all the rock sounds we cherished but did it with zero pretension. The performers were as miserable as we were. Gone was David Lee Roth and his spandex, yellow pants. What about Tommy Lee’s drum solo, the one where his kit lifted to the scaffolding and flipped upside down? Gone, just gone. The new sound was asking more of us. We were aging after all. Songs about beer and chicks tasted as stale as warm Budweiser in a can. The industry would call the new sound grunge, and Macy’s quickly began dressing their mannequins in the clothes Kurt Cobain wore: flannel shirts, army boots, perhaps a hunting cap with flaps. He would never recover. From my perspective Metal came with shit beer and Grunge came with Black Tar Heroin, apparently purchased in the now ritzy section of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. In 1991 I was living there with my new girlfriend, deeply appreciating how dimensionless Metal was in comparison to the depression-based sound of Grunge. For my money, Alice in Chains was the best at the formula and their frontman, Layne Staley, was the poet of the day. His aim was to take you into a terse, even sandpapery verse that was followed by a hooky and somewhat candy-coated chorus. Look for the tenderness in the song to be filtered through feed-backy, mournful guitars. The lyrics are lonesome, morbid, but less looking for help than confessing the damage done. The answer is in the needle, diluted only by the author’s desire to be released from feelings his elders see as tainted gumption. Layne’s usage of heroin killed him before he was thirty. Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood, Hillel Slovak and my first girlfriend whose lips tasted like Budweiser, were all taken by their abuse of heroin. I could only be scared of it, this tan powder you shot into the bend of your arm. It is the true Satan, Tipper. You were barking up the wrong tree.
I was in my late 20s and actually in love. I’d ask this beautiful woman to marry me, but I had a secret. I had the type of depression that had been killing writers, musicians and other creative thinkers for centuries. The fight was on, and my choices were limited. Seattle didn’t even sell Budweiser. I bought the darkest microbrews they had. They varied in alcohol percentages. The 7 percent beers came in smaller glasses because patrons struggled to exit the bar without tripping. I settled in, opening my heart to creative storytelling, and an alcohol addiction that would secure itself to me, well into becoming a Dad.
In 2010 I was a vodka martini man. But I had a problem. Vodka was making me feel woozy, the way it mixed with my new anti-depressant, Celexa. I cut my intake down to three drinks per day but still felt unwell. I switched to tequila and the party continued just fine. I had a 12-year-old boy, a 9-year-old girl, a 15-year old marriage and two novels available on Amazon. Both the books and the kids were reviewed well — “Rich, emotional novels.” “Emotionally, rich children.” My professional dreams had come true. I was going to write a third novel about being a stay-at-home father, a phenomenon sweeping the country, mom’s in the work place, Dad’s wearing the Baby Bjorn. Metal and Grunge are long gone. Without The Foo Fighters, The Black Keys and Jack White, there’s hardly a crunchy electric guitar to be heard in rock today. One particular Saturday I drink three Margaritas in a bar with three retired Gulf War soldiers. They fascinate me, I ask questions. They buy me a fourth drink. That night I put the kids to bed and sit to watch TV. Not feeling well I get some water and notice my palms are clammy and start to itch. Oh no. I’m hit with a heat-flash that has my head and chest on fire. I remove my pants to my ankles, dumb move, and trip to the floor as I try to get to the bathroom. Please, just let me puke and move on. I think of my kids, asleep, and the Gulf War vets, “have one more.” What a huge and very uncool asshole I am for being down here. For being so typical. A dead artist on the bathroom floor. “I’m sorry,” I say out loud to no one. I’m sorry this is me. I wait, so afraid, my eyes closing as a dog barks next door. My breathing is short so I take air in through my nose, as deep as I can. What’s your very first memory in life? Can you see it? Is it a place where the colors are as muted as the recollections themselves? I think I am four years old. I am alone, playing, and I become suddenly, innately joyful. I know what I will be in life, and it is so clear. I will be a rock star, a person on stage. My job will be to tell you what I’m feeling. A lifting, is what I sense, the sickness is leaving me. There is air, and life in my lungs, as if the timer finally went off. The humbling was over.
The best thing about me is that I don’t drink anymore. Sober men make for amazing parents and in California we’re a growing breed. The country needs more of us. I’m a morning person now, a writer most productive when the air is crisp. I think the plan from here will always involve the dream I had when I was small. To be an artist. They call my sound “Fiction,” although it always reads better with truth thrown in. Heavy Metal and its morphing into Grunge left me highly aware of the way words are influenced by a certain, soulful meter. My brand of prose is also rhythmic. When I read in public I get caught up in the dance of the sentences, the way they feed off each other, land and start. You’ll have to come see me on stage sometime. Some people tell me I Rock.