(The following is the text of a talk I gave to MIT’s Heavy Metal 101 class, on January 15, 2020 in Boston. Due to multiple requests, I am publishing it here for those who were not present at the talk. It was an honor to have been invited to speak to this class of true believers, and a true high point in my Metal journey… which is a long way from being over.)
First I’d like to say that it’s an honor to be here at MIT addressing this group today, and Thank You to Mary for inviting me here. I’ve actually been to MIT before, my band played live on WMBR 27 years ago on Joanie Lindstrom’s show, Late Riser’s Club, which as you all know, was and still is a Boston radio institution, and I was proud to be a part of that then and I’m proud to be back here today.
My band Wargasm released 3 albums, 1 EP (the bulk of which was recorded live on Joanie’s show), produced 1 video that aired on MTv, and toured internationally between 1985 and 1995. Clearly Heavy Metal has had an impact on my life. But before I really get into anything regarding Wargasm, I want to begin by talking to you about how Heavy Metal impacted the arc of my life BEFORE the band happened, about the therapeutic value of this music, about the power this music has to empower.
I won’t go so far as to say ‘music saved my life’. but I can tell you that the strength it has given to me when I needed it the most definitely helped me survive some very dark periods and several traumatic events in my early life. I can honestly say that Metal was my best friend. It was, as Dio said, ‘A Light in the Black’ for me. Actually my favorite description of HM is ‘power to the powerless’. This phrase perfectly describes my relationship with Heavy Metal throughout my life.
Like many of us, I am the product of a severely dysfunctional family. Both of my parents were alcoholics, my younger brother was an addict, and my adolescence was what I can honestly describe without exaggeration as a nightmare. When I sought professional help with my baggage in my 40’s, I was diagnosed with Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But previous to that diagnosis, I had spent decades self-medicating. Not with alcohol or drugs, but with Heavy Metal.
At 13, in the mid-70’s, I was a traumatized, emotionally damaged introvert. I had trouble making friends, and I was an easy target for bullies. I felt defenseless against an often cruel world. One day in Science class, our teacher brought his guitar and a little amp to the classroom. He was a ‘cool teacher’, and we all knew he was ‘in a band’. He played a little bit for the class, and then asked if any of us could play. I was surprised to see a fellow misfit raise his hand, and he was invited up to play. I was terrified for him, as he was regularly picked on mercilessly for a nervous tic that caused him to blink excessively, and I saw the smirks on the faces of my classmates as he walked up to take Mr Bishop’s guitar.
This kid then proceeds to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (it was 1977) note-for-note, including the solo. Over the course of those 6 minutes, one by one I saw the smirks disappear. Everyone was awestruck. He had earned the respect and admiration of his peers. Other kids applauded and congratulated him as he walked back to his seat, even those who had been awful to him that very same day. THIS… This was exactly what I wanted for myself. This was Power to the Powerless.
I started hanging out with this kid and asked him to teach me something on his guitar. I had become an overnight KISS fan, because HE was a huge KISS fan, and he taught me how to play the main riff in ‘She’. This kid also had an older brother with a pretty big record collection and an awesome stereo. So while hanging out there and learning guitar basics, I also heard Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple for the first time, as well as Aerosmith and lots of KISS. This music was very different than what I was hearing on AM radio. This music mesmerized me, I soaked it up like a sponge, I couldn’t talk while it was playing, I felt plugged into something powerful and exciting. This music sounded like how I desperately wanted to feel: powerful, confident, free. I felt an unfamiliar feeling that I only recognized much later as ‘joy’.
Soon enough, Heavy Metal, at least the 70’s and early 80’s version of metal, was constantly playing in my head throughout my middle school and high school years. I was a metalhead, even though the term didn’t exist yet. Running through Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ album in my mind while walking the halls of my school was like wearing a suit of armor. Metal was my comfort zone. During this same period, I was getting pretty good at playing guitar, and being able to play music granted me entry into a group of musicians in my school, and allowed me to self-identify as a ‘musician’. I rebuilt myself and left my previous non-identity behind. I was no longer invisible. I now had some power, at least the power to choose my own path, and to live pro-actively rather than re-actively.
My high school reinvention led directly to the formation of Wargasm, where metal fan and metal musician converged. In Wargasm, I got to make my own version of the music I loved. I also got to vent all of the bad stuff that had built up over the years at the top of my lungs, almost on a daily basis. And Wargasm’s music, what would later be called Thrash Metal, was very physical music to play, so there was a cathartic, endorphin-release element too. I enjoyed playing this music much more than just listening to it, and it was still the only aspect of my life that brought me joy. I also loved creating this music, and in Wargasm I learned that I could create music that empowered others. This realization was huge.
If you decide to check out any or Wargasm’s music, keep in mind that the guy doing all the yelling was and still is a shy, quiet, introverted loner. Playing in a Metal band brought me out of all that by giving me the opportunity to work through my feelings at extreme volumes, and then allowing me to return to who I really am: that shy, quiet, introverted loner. There have been a few disappointed fans over the years, let down by the realization that I was not the angry rage monster they expected. But neither side of me was fake, both ends of that spectrum were 100% real, and maintaining that dichotomy allowed me to survive my twenties without falling off the deep end of either side. Metal brought balance to my life. Isn’t that a Rush album?
Metal also gave me something that was absent from my life: A family. By the time I turned 18, as I learned later in therapy, I had divorced myself emotionally from my entire family for my own mental health, stability and sanity. In Wargasm, the guys in my band became my brothers, and the circle of friends surrounding the band became my new family. Metal had always been a means of escape, but now I really could escape, as I travelled the world with my new family, getting as far away as I possible could from the toxic nature of my previous home life.
When my band broke up, the confidence that Wargasm gave me allowed me to start my own family, as I got married the year the band broke up and had a son a few years after that. A while later, as the realities and stresses of adulthood manifested themselves, without that effective outlet that Wargasm provided, that dysfunctional, traumatized kid threatened to re-emerge. So I sought professional help and entered therapy, where I was able to finally understand myself and my life and begin some healing, while also appreciating Metal music’s major role in keeping me functional and relatively sane into adulthood.
I know this story is common. Maybe not the record deals and European tours part, but the Metal-as-therapy part. As a kid, I listened to Metal because it reflected how I desperately wanted to feel. It was about self-medicating. In Wargasm, it was about empowerment, as I rebuilt my life, my family and my self, while making music that empowered both myself and others. At this point in my life, post-Wargasm and post-actual therapy, I listen because it reflects the way I often feel inside, and helps me vent those everyday frustrations and anxieties we all experience, even as well-adjusted adults. It soothes those old wounds that might never completely heal. It gives me comfort in this increasingly fucked up world.
I didn’t outgrow Metal. I can’t, it’s too important to my stability, too much a part of who I am. And why should I? I am and always will be a metalhead. Because, while I’m not completely comfortable saying ‘Metal Saved My Life,’ I will say that ‘Metal gave me a life.’ Because Metal offers help to the helpless, gives voice to the voiceless, and grants Power to the Powerless.
(Thank you to Joe Diaz, keeper of the Heavy Metal 101 flame at MIT for hosting, and to Mary Church, a brave and inspiring metalhead, for inviting me to participate.)