Dec 5, 2011

Diamonds, Rust, and Nostalgia

judas priest reading pennsylvania heavy metal music diamonds rust nostalgia aging henri bergson memory time emotion
A little over a week ago, my wife-to-be and I roadtripped out to Reading, Pennsylvania for the second concert we have made it to together so far.  My rather decidedly unacademic, surprising (to my colleagues and students) love for Heavy Metal -- I've written a bit about this previously on Orexis Dianoētikē -- for the straight-out hard-edged metal I grew up with and in during the late 70s and all the 80s -- overdriven bass, melodic but achingly distorted riffs, drum and bass fills, guitar solos (preferably in tandem), larger-than-life frontmen (or in the cases of Wendy O'Williams or Girlschool, frontwomen) -- metal that laid down its roots, and was communicated about in enthusiastic fan magazines before it was esoterically and eruditely distinguished into genres, discussed in dissertations.

We traveled out to see one of the last shows on the last tour of a band who earned their status as giants, as innovators and influencers back when we were listening to them on albums and cassettes:  Judas Priest -- lacking only one original member, K.K. Downing -- played an intense two-and-a-half hour set, preceded by Zack Wilde's vehicle Black Label Society, but more importantly (at least for us -- and probably more than half of the audience) by another seminal, hard-hitting, though sadly  attritioned-away (only two members from their heyday remain, and their original singer died a long time back) band: Thin Lizzy.

Last Chances for Metalheads

Although we've both been to many metal concerts -- admittedly, back in our younger days -- over all that time, neither one of us had ever seen Judas Priest in concert, and getting Thin Lizzy thrown into the bargain only sweetened the deal.  We've recently crossed the official threshold into middle age, but my fiancee and I met in high school in the 80s, losing touch only to cross one another's paths again in the 90s (that story will be told sometime, but likely in another place), so much of our courtship has felt as if we were back in 1985 -- rejuvenated, rejoicing, resuming interests and enterprises that had been beaten fallow by the years, not least our mutual love for a genre of music, hundreds of whose genuine examples we knew intimately enough to remember solos almost note by note.  And, this was the last opportunity we would ever have to see a landmark band.

Other than seeing the Foo Fighters and Social Distortion in Madison Square Garden a month earlier (the encore of which, unfortunately, we had to forgo, since we both had to be at work 8 AM the next morning), Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy in Reading was the first concert I'd been to in at least fifteen years, and it prompted me -- for many intersecting reasons -- to some reflections about concerts and concertgoers, this particular band and its members, their performances and our expectations, the music and mentality of metal, and. . .  that most eminently metaphysical of all topics:  time.

Time takes its toll on all things -- particularly on our bodies -- and it imposes demands that can be forestalled for a space but never ultimately deferred.  It is really unsurprising that the Epitaph tour could be Judas Priest's final days on the road, playing stadium after stadium, show after show -- Rob Halford shouting out yet another rousing greeting to still another arena packed with fans out of their seats -- older fans for the most part, but many still fist pumping and headbanging to the songs of their youth.

Pacing The Metal Show

The performance itself was a reminder of the reality of aging -- although Ian Hill, the bassist, could thrash his own axe around for the entire time, the body and the instrument of a frontman require considerably more marshaled care, it seems. Halford still possesses the amazing operating octave-leaping range, sweeping from a gravelly growled bass all the way to unfalsettoed highs, and when he chooses, he punches out his voice with all the raw power of his and our younger years.  But he rations it throughout the performance -- not in any way that induces any impression of stinginess, of theatrical pretense, but simply recognition of the limitations within which one must now work to reproduce artistry in performance.

Likewise, though he still rides out  on his Harley to an encore"Hell Bent for Leather," and engages in who-knows-how many costume changes during the show -- and this is a band that still uses old-school pyrotechnics, fireballs, fountains -- Halford is clearly slowed down, ambling rather than careening across the stage, climbing rather than scampering up to the drum set, amazingly never out of breath, but never moving quicker than a brisk walk.  He got down alongside his bandmates into the classic lunge stance emblematic of metal guitar and bass, but almost a bit gingerly.

Musically, however, the band is as powerful, as precise, as heavy and hard -- and within the genre, as playful and innovative -- as they have ever been, connecting with the audience at every moment of the show, delivering the goods that forty years have taught their fans to expect -- even making virtue of necessity while husbanding Halford's voice, by bringing in the crowd to sing the entirety of well-remembered lyrics on "Breaking the Law", and portions of other songs. 

Perhaps what was most striking about this show, however, was its explicitly adopted retrospective tone. Behind the band, album covers for particular songs were projected up onto the screen, as Halford, piece after piece, recounted the story of Judas Priest, and the development of heavy metal from the 1970s through the 80s --"there was a time when it was just us and Sabbath" -- "and then about this time, there were more:  the Scorpions, Motorhead, Iron Maiden" -- "this one is perhaps the best song off of our first album" -- ranging through all of the 80 and going even up to the albums of recent years.

Charting Out the Albums

This discographical recollection might have been originally intended as a sort of map, allowing their newer, younger fans points of entry into an extensive 40-year-long body of work, which, likely having gotten to know the band through more recent compositions, they might not know and appreciate. I suspect that the motive was something different, though, one stemming more from desires of the band members themselves, intensifying like feedback, interweaving like twin telepathic guitar and supporting bass and drum lines not only with one another's desires, memories, emotions, but also those of the audience members out there in the eminently working-class, unvarnished Reading arena.

If my suspicions are right, the retrospective narrative did provide a map, back through time, within which Halford and his bandmates could articulate with their fans -- with each person out there who bought and brought home this album, this tape, who copied it, perhaps even studied its solos or riffs, hummed its bass lines, sang its lyrics, finding in them something, some richness of sound, image, and emotion, most likely going beyond such individuality to more communal enjoyment and discovery -- rearticulate how things had gone, how songs had struck one and stuck into, even opened up one's soul.

These speculations doubtless strike the non-metal-lover as strange, even bizarre things to say about a style of music, a pantheon of bands, that has been regarded as far too aggressive, morbid, delighting in cacophony, morally suspect if not depraved. . . one could go on and on -- but there it is:  with others who found in that music, those lyrics, those guitar riffs, if not an evolving pattern for a shared and intense lifestyle, at least an accompanying soundtrack, anchoring points to the ready and the real, there exists a kind of common history, a sequentiality richly, perhaps even overloadedly imbued with meaning -- a set of linkages between times past and present, between former, admittedly more naive selves and those we currently are and know ourselves to be.

Judas Priest, like so many other great metal bands from the formative years of that musical genre, have lived out their time since their youth enacting the same songs, echoing them night after night to new ears, adding new pieces to the repertoire, resuscitating those which haven't been played or some time, reworking them -- the time they inhabited and continued on into, one of endless engagement with music, making it, enjoying it, setting their own stamp upon that inexhaustible ocean of musical possibility, of which we seemingly possess so much now that it has been digitized, susceptible of storage on our computers and phones -- but in reality, when extended to live performances, jamming, mimetic practices and improvisations of admirers, how little, what a sliver, of music as such is possessed let alone heard, not to speak of remembered by any given person.

Music, Time, and Memory

It is striking -- to return again to the theme of time -- what is retained in the storehouse of one's memory, not only affording recognition to a sequence of notes, even to the bare outline of an arpeggio or a hint by a signer's off the cuff remarks, but going beyond this to link up songs one has not heard for over a decade -- so that after they blazed through "Better By You, Better Than Me," I realized that I was expecting, anticipating ahead as I'd done so many times in a past more than half my life back, the first short and wild solo with which "Stained Class" would begin.

What bears responsibility for these linkages which lie latent underneath the flow of time?  I suspect that repetition plays a central role -- who knows how many times I listened to those albums all the way through, biking from place to place, riding in cars, walking with them blaring on a boombox, hanging out with friends, skateboarding, painting, doing chores, puzzling out bass lines back when I used to play, even slipping into sleep, riding on those notes turned down low.  What is repetition, though -- simply the recurrence of something, mechanically engraving or embossing a grooved pattern into behavior, association of ideas, affections? Or it is the recognition of the same from past to present?  Or, is it the stage that affords -- if one pays attention, if one is curious, if one has an ear -- ever-present but until then unrealized possibilities for discerning the different in what seems only the same?

If repetition includes, extend to the latter, it introduces something new into time -- and it also depends on something else that occurs in time but also transcends it, breaks it, rearranges and infuses it -- and that is affection, emotion, desire, the whole range, intensity, and attunement of what philosophers and theologians -- even poets, knowing what the meaning of this was -- used to call the passions of the soul.  The music that captivates a listener becomes something loved, but what is felt is not simply love, nor even joy, pleasure, or eagerness -- I can say that for myself, and I suspect for many others, certain songs, certain bands, even certain wordless portions and passages, opened up for us an emotions life whose richness we didn't yet suspect at the time, and can only with great difficulty articulate -- one must rather experience, or reexperience it as a condition of its communication.

Living Time, Emotion, and Gratitude

Henri Bergson delved into this  -- and discussed some of those very difficulties -- back in his Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (translated as Time and Free Will more than a century past, in which he also proposed a difference between time and duration, the time that is measured and the time that is lived, cathected with significance, remembered -- interestingly, the metaphysician not only has, like everyone else, to live oscillating back and forth from one to the other, but also is subject to the temptation to ignore lived time in his or her reflections and analyses of reality (the metaphysican's métier, after all) in favor of the much more intelligibly tractable, but deceptive, chronological time.

If repetition of music afford us the opportunity to experience anew or even for the first time, affectivities through which we see and feel the world -- and ourselves, and others, even God -- differently, more richly, with finer discrimination and wider wealth of feeling, in return, as response, those affective dimensions, those resonances, are what give those associational linkages their capacity not only to survive the erosion of chronological time's passing, but to interconnect, even extend in new manners, introduce new significance or sense throughout the fissures and faceted interstices of lived time.  Repetition and affectivity reciprocally infuse durable meaning into songs, into the myriad moments comprising past and present, into the act of remembering, the suffering of being reminded,  and the passion of recollection.

I'll end these perhaps all-too-abstruse reflections on seeing an era being brought deliberately to a close, --but thereby neither killed off nor allowed to degenerate into caricature -- a culmination of sorts, not by talking about one of the emotions which it surprised me to see so suffused through the concert, the band, and the audience -- joy -- but rather another feeling, one inherently retrospective, and in this case explicitly expressed in relation to lived, meaningful, shared time.

Toward the end of the show, Rob Halford paused and brought up the fact that Judas Priest had been able to live the last 40 years making music, traveling, playing for fans -- making it, providing not only for themselves, but their crews, their families.  The word that he used -- entirely the right one in this case -- to describe his own feelings looking back, and sweeping out over the crowd -- and to speak for the rest of the band standing poised behind him -- was simply: grateful.