In case you missed it, check out my Out Front Colorado article on the science behind understanding sexual orientation. Is it determined in the womb? Are we really born this way? More importantly, why does it matter?
“Why do you have to listen to it loudly?” my partner yelled, looking at me from the passenger seat, his face twisted into a tight knot. I didn’t respond right away as the speakers in my truck pummeled out some random metal lunacy. “I can’t hear myself think!” he pleaded.
“That’s the point!” I yelled back with a smile. He didn’t he return the grin. I then had to choose between turning the music down or sleeping in my truck. It’s a good thing I keep a pillow in the cab.
But that really is the point. Sometimes I just want to shut my mind off, and drinking a bottle of whiskey every day isn’t really an option (though I sometimes wish it were).
It’s metal that keeps me (somewhat) sane. It certainly keeps me from lighting the mall on fire, laughing manically while I pour kerosene on my head in front of a burning Abercrombie & Fitch store surrounded by screaming shoppers choking on smoke and the smell of burnt flesh.
And when I worked customer service to put myself through college, metal kept me from bringing an axe to work and lopping off the heads of all those condescending customers—laughing manically while I did it, of course.
Metal is a bastion when you lose your job and find yourself selling your plasma to buy groceries. It’s the grotto you climb into when you discover your girlfriend/boyfriend moved out, taking the computer and the dog. Metal is what you listen to right before every family christmas dinner.
It’s something my partner (who listens to nothing but jazz and classical music) will never get. Which is fine, as long as I keep a pillow in my truck.
And that’s not to say all metal is just one-dimensional pulp vomited into your ears to drown out your own depressing, strangling thoughts. On the contrary, engaging lyrics can rip you out of your own stolid perspective. Just read the lyrics to almost any Agalloch song. And the samples in “Faustian Echoes” are wonderfully though provoking.
Faust: “So, still I seek the force, the reason governing life’s flow and not just its external show.”
Mephistopheles: “The governing force? The reason? Some things cannot be known. They are beyond your reach even when shown.”
Faust: “Why should that be so?”
Mephistopheles: “They lie outside the boundaries that words can address, and man can only grasp those thoughts which language can express.”
Faust: “What? Do you mean that words are greater yet than man?”
Mephistopheles: “Indeed they are.”
Faust: “Then what of longing? Affection? Pain or grief? I can’t describe these, yet I know they are in my breast. What are they?”
Mephistopheles: “Without substance, as mist is.”
Faust: “In that case man is only air as well!”
Metal isn’t afraid to claw away at that comfortable social veneer most people saturate themselves in—to reveal the horror of an unexamined life.
So, here are a few of my favorite metal songs that explore this duality. They run the gamut from poetic music inspired by John Milton to raw animosity. Listen as loud as possible.
Dying Fetus “Second Skin” [intelligent growls]
“Gracious second skin
Courteous facade accepted
The cultured do not harm
Fitting in amongst the sheeple”
Hevein “Last Drop of Innocence” [the death of childhood with a cello and a violin]
Draconian “Expostulation / Heaven Laid in Tears” [Paradise Lost as metal]
Agalloch “Not Unlike the Waves” [astronomy as metal]
A Lengthy Excursion
Denver, Colorado to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. About 1,638 miles. That’s 2,882,880 yards of asphalt. Burning through almost 200 gallons of diesel fuel. Passing what must have been over 1,000,000,000 fucking construction cones. The vehicle: A 22 foot-long Penske moving van with a dolly towing a car. 12 foot, 7 inch height clearance. Ten tires on the road. Total weight of about 30,000lbs.
Yes, this was (dare I say) an epic trip. And an expedition of this magnitude required tunes. Lots of tunes. Lots of metal. With almost 30 hours of drive time, silence for that long would have driven me into a bridge. Or rather, I would have driven willfully into a bride, laughing manically while beating my head against the steering wheel.
Combine the claustrophobia of a truck cab, the inability to sleep while occupying such a contraption, the stomach aches from eating shitty gas-station sandwiches made with meat shaved from the hind-end of a decaying maggot-infested human carcass laying out back, the traffic jams in the middle of fucking nowhere due to construction, the congested cities you must fight your way through, and just the general mind-numbing tedium of miles and miles of road rolling out in front of you—endless and without mercy or conscience—then you understand the function and importance of metal to sooth nerves and subdue the urge to suddenly veer into oncoming traffic.
I put myself in charge of what music to bring. Since my sister-in-law was in the cab with me, I brought a plethora of various bands. Everything from The Who to The Cure to Stevie Nicks to Thy Catafalque to Smashing Pumpkins to mind.in.a.box to random techno music.
But the genre that brought me the most comfort was metal. Nothing is more comforting on miles and miles (and miles) of pothole-littered, monotonous highway than the swelling growls, guitars and drums bellowing out of those crappy stock speakers.
I did all the night driving, with Thy Catafalque’s Rengeteg stabbing at my ears and keeping me awake (along with more than a few energy drinks). Particularly the fourteen minute song “Vashegyek” with that pulverizing and relentless double-bass drum on the second-half. “Holdkomp” is a perfect road song if I ever heard one, the repetitive drum beat of which the Penske truck seemed to bounce along to.
At one point around 3 am, I turned Thy Catafalque up a little too much and my sister-in-law woke up (this is somewhere in Kansas—a.k.a. the great void of the earth). I apologized, asking if the music was bothering her. “Not at all,” she replied with a slight laugh. “Whatever you need to keep going.” (Yeah, my sister-in-law fucking rocks.)
When I wasn’t driving, I would throw on my headphones. I found Omnium Gatherum’s New World Shadows—particularly the song “New World Shadows”—to be a particular treat as background music on I-70 in Pennsylvania, the black hills rolling up and down in the distance.
Ne Obliviscaris Portal of I soothed me to partial sleep as the truck slammed violently over the cracks in the interstate, the violin, vocals and rhythmic guitars serenading me into a quasi-dream world free of potholes and the smell of diesel fuel. The haunting ending to “Of Petrichor Weaves Black Noise” matched perfectly with that intense introspective feeling you get when traveling for hours on the interstate, left alone with your thoughts.
The trip ended without incident, and I attribute our mutual sanity to the power of music. So I end with the following: What are some of the bands/albums you listen to when stuck in a vehicle for hours at a time?
The Jobless Writer . . .
The Jobless Writer . . .
Sits in the corner of a small café, bent over an aging laptop. Takes a sip from a cup of coffee: Black as space. Bitter as death. Could dissolve corrosion from battery terminals.
Chews on the bottom half of a bagel for lunch. The top half was breakfast.
Rubs his eyes from the glow of the screen. Looks up. The faces of the people next to him have changed. Replaced by new faces, doing the same things. Frantically talking into earpieces that blink blue. Slamming down scolding-hot lattes. Leaving unused napkins on tables.
The jobless writer digs deep into his pockets for .52 cents. Finds a quarter, two dimes and three pennies. Rummages through a ratty backpack and finds four pennies hiding under a copy of Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five.
Stretches his legs with a fresh cup of coffee in hand. Sits back down. Slaps the headphones around his head. Turns up the album Svartir Sandar by the metal band, Solstafir. Their lyrics are sung in Icelandic.
Gets back to work. Pounds out a few more sentences. Sits back and crosses his arms, constructing the perfect setting in his mind for the next scene: A busy train station. Downtown. Late at night. It’s snowing outside.
Writes a few more sentences. Sighs. Highlights and erases the entire paragraph.
After two hours, the jobless writer grabs his grumbling stomach. Switches to the other Word document. Scans his cover letter for an administration job. Reads through his credentials. Corrects a typo. Thinks about the seven other cover letters he sent out last week. Checks his email. The number zero sits obstinately next to the inbox.
Sips from the cold cup of battery acid and switches back to his novel. Chapter 12. The scene takes place on an Amtrak train. Somewhere between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Just after dusk. Rain instead of snow.
The hours pass. His character never makes it to Philadelphia, enduring several fates: First she dies from a bomb carried by the passenger sitting next to her. Then she dies of an aneurysm. Then she’s mangled when the train jumps the rails. Her fiancé is eagerly waiting for her at the downtown train station, holding a bright-red rose. He drops it when a conductor tells him—
The jobless writer feels something at his leg. A small child pulls on the laptop’s power cord. The mother chastises the little girl and goes back to reading 50 Shades of Grey. The jobless writer smiles and winks. The little girl giggles and smiles back.
Now his character is in the hospital, unconscious. The fiancé thinks she’s dead. He’s collapsed on the cold, marble floor of the train station. The concerned conductor pats the fiancé’s shaking shoulders, accidentally stepping on the rose.
Stands and paces along the back wall. It’s dark outside. Realizes for the first time the sun has long disappeared. The café closes in an hour. Digs through his bag and finds only a nickel and three more pennies. Adds water to the half cup of cold coffee. Asks the girl behind the counter to nuke it.
An hour later, he’s walking home, ragged backpack slung over sunken shoulders. Commuters drive past, illuminating the sidewalk with bright headlights, casting a brief shadow that quickly slides into darkness.
Walks past a neighborhood restaurant with an outside patio. The smell of grilled beef and fried chicken makes his stomach growl. Turns and walks down an alley.
The cat meows as the jobless writer pushes open the door, a furry body winding its way between his ankles. Fills the cat bowl. Adds water and a few ice cubes to a glass, setting it next to the feasting feline. Scratches behind the cat’s ears. It purrs as it eats.
Dons a sweatshirt, drinks a glass of water, then warms a bowl of Ramen noodles. Only uses half the packet. The other half for when Chapter 12 is finished. Warms his hands and face with the steam from the soup. Opens the laptop and glances at the cover letter again. Closes it without making any changes. His Inbox reads two new messages. Closes the web browser.
The jobless writer crosses his arms and leans back. He creates in his mind a cantankerous conductor punching tickets. A child, a little girl, running up and down the passenger car pulling on power cords. His character applying lotion to her hands just before the train jumps the tracks.
The cat jumps up and lands on the keyboard. Pushes its head against the corner of the screen. The jobless writer smiles. The cat looks back and purrs, smiling back.
Maldire: A Curse Wanting
It was shortly after one in the morning when I opened my laptop and made my way to the Metropolis website. It was the 11th of September, and Velvet Acid Christ’s Maldire was just made available for purchase. I hastily bought the album, along with the t-shirt that featured Quartier Macbre’s beautiful and gruesome artwork. I clamped my headphones over my head and pushed play.
Wicked harmonies ensued. Bryan’s curse was cast. My ears bled.
I discovered the music of VAC in 1998 by happenchance in a used CD store in Utah (of all places). I was flipping through a pile of CD cases when I came across Church of Acid. The eye-catching artwork garnered my attention, so I pulled it out of the pile and listened to the disk in the store. I was immediately enthralled. Never before had I heard music that so accurately paralleled my own anger, isolation, and depression so elegantly—and with such intense malevolence.
I’ve been a fan ever since, following Bryan’s career and evolution with enthusiasm.
Maldire is an excellent throwback to some of his earlier work on Fun With Knives and Twisted Thought Generator, combined with a more experienced, developed sense of sound and structure that occupies Lust for Blood and The Art of Breaking Apart.
The album begins with an audio clip from the television series Dark Shadows, an ideal way to launch Maldire with the incantation of “charred and blackened clouds that reigned (or rained for the pun) at your beginning.” Indeed the gloomy clouds gather thick and heavy as the track unfolds with weighty, thunderous beats that threaten to crack your skull, while layers of synths mercilessly pummel your ears. Then Bryan’s booming vocals tunnel into your mind with the perfect amount of maliciousness. By the end of the song, my own heart was scorched forever black by this blight evoked.
“Maldire” itself is one of the strongest songs on the album, with a powerful, captivating beat that forces your body to move to the music like a demon helplessly following Lucifer’s lurid commands. The duality established by Bryan’s lyrics are intoxicating, and you can’t help but sing along, face distorted, eyes narrowed as you lament about casting spells and cutting your own flesh, frightening the patrons of the coffee shop who happen to be sitting next to you when “Maldire” starts playing in your headphones.
There are two instrumental songs, “Septic Rinse” and “HyperCurse.” Bryan has a knack of juxtaposing buoyant trance tracks with thick layers of despondency that drip with obsidian. Beauty eviscerated and sealed in black glass before being thrown to the ground, shattering into a million pieces that slice your bare feet.
“Dream Curse” consists of the album’s only spoken-word track. Like being flung into an ethereal nightmare from which you can’t awake, narrated with images of melting faces, chattering bones and blood raining from the sky, threatening to drown you in ambivalence toward this world we inhabit.
Maldire is paradigm for electronic albums today, spiking high above the white noise of industrial music that has inundated the scene to the point that discovering anything unique or innovative is a chore, and a scarcity.
It’s the kind of album that, like the first time I listened to Church of Acid in that Utah music store, grabs you by the throat and tears out your vocal chords just to get your attention, then soothes you with evil melodies as you slowly bleed to death on the floor, unable to think of a better way to slip into oblivion.
The Dancing Dead in Denver
The Dancing Dead in Denver
After a 16 year hiatus, the talented and diverse group of musicians known as Dead Can Dance (DCD) returned with a much anticipated album entitled Anastasis, followed by a world tour. On August 19, they played to a packed Buell Theater at the Denver Performing Arts Center.
Lead vocalists Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry formed the band thirty-one years ago in Melbourne, Australia. Incorporating instruments from all over the world, the duo have crafted a plethora of albums that run the gamut of musical influences from Ireland to Africa to the Mediterranean to China.
But the real power behind DCD comes from the vocals of the duo. Gerrard is renowned for singing in Glossolalia, an evocative expression of emotion through voice that has no defined language. Gerrard has stated in interviews she feels language to be too restrictive, and Glossolalia to be a more authentic expression that communicates to all who listen, regardless of language or culture. Her songs are ephemeral, haunting, and painfully beautiful.
Perry grounds DCD with his solemn vocals and introspective lyrics. Many of his songs originate from centuries-old ballads, reliving the struggles humans have endured in love, loss and that ceaseless search for meaning and purpose. “We are ancient, as ancient as the sun. We came from the ocean, once our ancestral home,” sings Perry in one of their latest songs, “Children of the Sun.”
The show opened with DCD percussionist David Kuckhermann sitting alone on stage. On his lap was a mysterious-looking instrument called a hang. Created in Bern, Switzerland, the instrument consists of two large metal bowls sealed together. Kuckhermann would strike the top side with his hand, producing different tones depending on where he hit the pitted surface. The hang was tuned to a specific eight-tone scale. The audience grew overwhelmingly quiet as he played, the single percussion instrument filling the entire auditorium with eerie, otherworldly music.
Soon the entire band took to the stage and the crowd was on their feet, cheering before the first note was played. DCD opened with songs from their latest album, Perry’s voice booming through the theater just as strong and stirring as it was thirty-one years ago.
The energy of the fans (mostly the older fans) swelled when DCD began playing pieces from their previous albums. The celebrated song “Rakim” began with Gerrard playing the yang-ch’in: a stringed instrument of Chinese origin in which padded bamboo sticks are used to strike a series of strings corresponding to specific scales. Perry accompanied the yang-ch’in with his own Glossolalia.
As the concert moved forward, the music stirred many audience members out of their seats, several finding their way to the back of the auditorium to dance. Others leaned forward in their chairs, closing their eyes and allowing the music to saturate the senses. A few even wiped away lingering tears from wet cheeks.
The Latin phrase Tempus Fugit (time flies) was analogous to the audience’s experience. Almost too quickly the entire theater stood and applauded as the band left the stage. But as the auditorium remained dark, the adoration only grew louder and more intense. Soon DCD returned, Perry signing a fan favorite, “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” with the sound of sitars weaving through his dynamic vocals. Still, the crowd was insatiable and cheered after another exit of the band. And then another, Gerrard returning for the third encore with her mesmerizing voice accompanied only by a keyboard player.
At the end of the concert, though Gerrard’s voice could carve canyons with its intensity and precision, she quietly leaned forward into the microphone, whispering a thank you to the audience, followed by “you are all beautiful.”
Anastasis is fitting lexicon not just for the new album but for the entire concert experience. Coming from the Greek word meaning resurrection, DCD brought to life long forgotten music and ancient instruments from all over the world, bringing with them the spirits of those musicians who lived and died centuries before Denver was even a city.
And in the back of the Buell Theater, where audience members stood and sang and danced, you could see the dead dancing right along with them.
The Dreaded E-Word
TV Commercial: “If you’re thirsty, try (insert shitty sugary sports drink here) to quench that epic thirst!”
Movie Review: “Bruce Willis stood in front of the White House in a torn, bloody t-shirt while firing machine guns and bazookas in slow motion with explosions raining down all around him as terrorists were being blown away by the dozens. It was fucking epic!”
A Friend: “So then, we go to (his or her) place and start having sex on the kitchen counter, and (he or she) pulls out this epic glass dildo from the cupboard!”
As Islander has lamented in previous posts, the word epic has proliferated metal blogs to the point that its overuse has the opposite effect. Epic now equals insipid. Superficial. Commonplace. I become very skeptical about an album when I see it in a review. I can’t help but think it’s being used to compensate for music that’s just plain bad. Or maybe the author of the review was just too tired after a long day at work and passed out at the desk looking for a thesaurus. (I’ve been there.)
This is unfortunate. Because there are a few bands out there who are epic. There are a few albums that are epic. Even a few songs.
The first time I listened to the song Crimson by Edge of Sanity, epic was the first word that came to mind. Holy fucking shit! were the next three words that came to mind. When the song ended, I just came.
To begin, there are some talented fucking musicians at the helm: Dan Swanö and Mikael Åkerfeldt. Those names alone should give you a raging boner, and an idea of the professionalism and epic talent behind the music.
Shit. I used the e-word. Awesome talent? No. Massive talent? Meh. That works. I’m tired. Next paragraph.
Crimson is forty minutes long. A one-song album. When any song runs longer than the average television show, a number of assumptions might be made: The song contains tasteless, long-winded solos that are less about art and expression and more about the musicians showing off. The riffs become mind-numbingly repetitive. There are probably large sections of creepy ambient noise and samples from bad horror movies linking transitions in the song to add to its length.
Crimson avoids such pitfalls, keeping the listener engaged form the beginning, punching you in the throat right at the start. A nice pace is established as the song vacillates between well-placed clean vocals and growls. The song develops not unlike a caterpillar morphing into a beautiful butterfly—an evil fucking butterfly that will chew out your eyes as you scream helplessly, your muscles paralyzed from the venom which digests your flesh just before its slurped up by the insect.
Anyway, as you listen to the song, you get the sense that you’re part of some epi – . . . part of some legendary struggle. Maybe fighting alongside Ghangis Kahn’s army as you clash with the soldiers of Vlad the Impaler in a macabre orgy of death to determine the fate of all mankind.
Which isn’t too far from the truth. Crimson is a concept album, the lyrics outlining the narrative of a future kingdom in which the human race is fading away. Bearing a child has, for some unknown reason, become impossible. The king of this vanishing empire dies. Then there’s a successor. The successor is challenged. Battles. Bloodshed. Betrayals. A single miracle child. Malevolent deities drinking the blood of men. Reminds me of a Greek tragedy. Only with really loud guitars and very angry actors growling out their lines.
There’s even a section where the dead king returns as a ghost urging his dejected soldiers to fight on, Dan’s voice layered in this ethereal reverb that punctuates the scene nicely.
Even the artwork on the cover of Crimson is epi—. . . remarkable. Duncan C. Storr draws a surreal, psychedelic chamber of stasis pods that contain the leaders of the kingdom. They have been frozen until a resolution to the impending doom can be found.
Doom. Almost as bad as the word epic. How about the word calamity? Impending calamity. That works. Next paragraph.
It’s important to note that Crimson was recorded in 1996. This was before the popularity of “progressive” metal was as it is today. Take just about any current band that combines growls with clean vocals and you can hear the similarities.
Like any good story, the song unfolds naturally like acts in a play. By the time it comes to an end, the body count is enormous. The future kingdom lies in ruins. But it has been saved by a brave few . . . sort of. I won’t spoil the ending. Just know that your brain will be mush from banging your head so hard for so long.
There is art. And there is exceptional art. Crimson certainly falls in the latter category. (Its sequel, Crimson II, is an excellent follow up, but lacks the authority of its predecessor). So, I argue that Crimson reclaims the power and substance behind the word epic. Conquers it, really. Dismembers the word and bashes your skull in with the bloody limbs—and it does this for forty epic minutes.
Note: The word epic is used fourteen times in this review. The irony is palpable.
Agalloch: Marrow of Denver’s Spirit
It was just after 5pm, and I was pacing back and forth in my apartment, trying to watch a movie. The concert didn’t start until 8pm, and I was attempting to exercise some patience. Then I thought to myself: “Fuck patience. And fuck exercise, too!” I grabbed my ticket, some cash for swag, and my ID. I ran out the door, jogging (not walking) towards the theater where Agalloch was going to play.
Normally I wouldn’t stand in line for two-and-a-half hours to see a concert. Now days I’m more content to hang back and enjoy the music with a cold beer in my hand. But Agalloch isn’t just some nominal band rolling through town, and this wasn’t going to be just another show.
The concert was at Denver’s Bluebird Theater. An official historical landmark, the brick building is one year shy of being a century old. It was once a movie house, and its maximum capacity is only 500. This creates an intimate atmosphere between the crowd and the band. Best of all, it’s only a fifteen minute walk from my apartment.
There were only a few people at the door when I arrived. We chatted about metal, memorable concerts (mine was Depeche Mode at Red Rocks), and how this was the first time any of us were going to see Agalloch live. Soon I saw Aesop Dekker and Don Anderson walk out the front, lighting up cigarettes, though they kept their distance from the growing line of fans.
The doors opened at 7pm, and I made my way to the front of the theater. I snapped a few pictures of the interior architecture: Tall marble columns and long, flowing crimson curtains along the walls. Between the columns were bowl-shaped light fixtures with intricate designs carved into their surfaces. Mounted to the front of each fixture was what looked like a demon mask—white faces with malevolent smiles and black holes for eyes. Something a shaman would wear from some ancient, forgotten civilization to frighten off disease.
The band Velnias from Boulder, Colorado took to the stage first. They reminded me of Morgion, with slow, doomish tempos building and growing until a fortification of frenzied black sound came crashing down on our headbanging heads, pulverizing the skulls of the hapless crowd with primal screams, explosive riffs and devastating drum beats.
Taurus followed, slowing things down with muddy, morose guitar playing. Guttural screams pushed against the walls from the throat of the female lead singer, punctuated with frantic, feral drum fills. I feared the drummer’s body would fly apart as she played, her performance reminding me of Animal from the Muppets (which is a huge fucking complement).
Finally it was time. Smoke and darkness rolled onto the stage as John Haughm came out holding a single candle. The entire theater grew quiet, and I swear those pagan masks turned their faces toward the front as Haughm lit the signature incense that starts each show, the soft light from the candle illuminating his face with a soft orange glow.
The aroma filled the air: rustic, saccharine, earthy. Soon the rest of the band members donned their gear, and the opening riff to “Limbs” spilled out of the large speakers.
Being a former drummer, I watched Dekker closely. His performance was flawless and intimidating. Though he was tucked away in the back of the stage, his volatile drumming carried through the venue, threatening to knock over those marble columns.
They played their latest song, “Faustian Echoes,” and the horde became unglued, starting a short-lived mosh pit before the song slowed. You’d swear Agalloch sold their own souls to Mephistopheles to play so brutally and beautifully at the same time.
One of my favorites followed, “Bloodbirds.” That eerie lead guitar winding its way through the percussion and bass as Haughm screamed into the microphone, “the god of man is a failure!”
To everyone’s elation, Agalloch played several pieces from Pale Folklore and The Mantle. When “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” filled the auditorium, I tried to film the performance with my phone. But at around the 11:30 mark, the band members become blurred images in the clip as I slammed my head forward.
And I swear those pagan masks on the walls were doing the same.
Agalloch has a reputation for putting on a memorable show, and their first concert in Denver was no exception–superlative, vicious, august.
When it came to an end, the multitude screamed for an encore, but the lights stayed on. I blame the high altitude with its thin air, because the crowed was ravenous for more. We would have stayed for another set. Two sets. The rest of the fucking week.
Before I left The Bluebird, with ears ringing, I bought a t-shirt with the lyrics to “Black Lake Nidstag” printed on the back. Then I bought a second t-shirt referencing “Faustian Echoes.” Then an Agalloch patch.
Then I ran out of the theater before I emptied out my bank account paying homage to these pagan metal deities who descended upon the mile-high city and were made flesh, gracing for one night a hand-full of fanatical Coloradans with their Cthulhu-like providence.
Shades of Gray
Growing up in a Baptist home, being gay was not just an abomination, it was a sickness. A scourge in the eyes of the Lord. So terrifyingly reprehensible that the subject never came up in conversation. Not with my teachers at the private Christian school. Not with friends. Certainly not with my parents or my older brother.
I remember as a teenager coming to the horrifying conclusion that I was gay: a one-way ticket to the eternal lake of fire. I hated myself for it. Pushed it inward with all my strength. Tried (very poorly) to play the straight guy. Ended updating a self-proclaimed tomboy. She was better at sports than I was.
When I graduated high school, I left home and joined the Air Force. The ash grew thicker. I wanted to talk to someone, but Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell kept that closet door sealed. I worked harder to play the part of the straight guy—clubs, strip joints, posters of blond women in bikinis.
It was during this time I found a temporary respite, paid for with headaches, bloodshot eyes, and lost memories of the night before. Friends joked I was a functioning alcoholic. It helped me keep my secret.
But when I moved back to Denver as a civilian, I was choking on the ash. My older brother and parents wondered what happened to that ebullient, laid-back kid who built snow forts, played the drums, and did card tricks.
I wondered, too. So, one day I walked into the library looking for answers, trying to remain inconspicuous as I strolled over to the section on human sexuality.
I grabbed a stack of books at random, sat cross-legged on the floor and opened the first one. The top paragraph was an echo from my past: Homosexuality is a disease. It is a perversion of nature. Hell awaits those who choose to be gay. I lowered my head and set it aside. Unable to bring myself to open another book, I left.
The ash became too thick to breathe. I wrote multiple notes, different drafts. The first sentence always read: I am gay. The rest of the letter outlined what to do with my corpse.
My volunteer work for HRC stems from a very personal, very visceral sense of obligation to those who occupy those same billowing clouds of ash I wandered in for too many years.
As is evident from this blog, I never taped those notes to my apartment door. My family, my older brother in particular, became my lifeline.
When I finally came out, I was surprised to discover organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, declaring with a loud voice that homosexuality was not a perversion of nature—that I was someone who deserved love and respect, no different from anyone else.
I still struggle with depression, and not everyone from my past accepts me for me. But I am now surrounded by a network of friends, family and colleagues who love me for who I am.
There are many who are not so fortunate. There are many who have no lifeline.
The iconic rainbow flag is a reminder to me of where I came from—a world consisting of shades of gray. I volunteer with HRC to help wipe away that thick blanket of ash so that others can breathe. So that others can see those vibrant colors for themselves.
Confessions of a Lithium Addict
“If you knew the answer to that question,” the doctor responds, clearing his throat, “then you’d probably win the Nobel Prize for Medicine.” He chuckles, tapping his pen on the desk.
“So, no one knows how it works in the brain?” I ask.
The doctor’s thin-framed glasses hang on the edge of his nose as he scribbles the word Lithium onto a small pad. “Not exactly.”
He doesn’t elaborate. The doctor’s been acting strange since I walked into his office. I think he suspects.
So, I work on fighting my hangover until I get my hands on that prescription, but my skull feels like it’s been sealed in a metal barrel of wet cement and flung down the side of a mountain. My ribs hurt and are covered in bruises—I don’t know why. My cell phone is missing. Hell, I don’t even remember where my car is. Not that it matters. Not after today.
I do remember stumbling around a bath house with a guy who wore nothing but a Rockies baseball cap. Before that I was snorting cocaine off the bare chest of a guy named Mustang in the back of his Corvette. All part of my big last hurrah.
The doctor rips the top page from the prescription pad. “I want you to do some blood tests before we increase your dosage.”
“How much am I taking now?” He looks annoyed. “Two pills, right?”
“600mg. If the blood tests show no toxicity with the Lithium, then we’ll increase it to 900mg.” He pauses, looking at me over his glasses. Four eyes blink back at me. “That’s three pills.”
He hands me the prescription order, but when I reach to grab it, his grip tightens. The doctor tilts his head, narrowing his eyes. He’s definitely on to me.
“Got it doc,” I reply, puling harder on the slip of paper. He doesn’t let go.
It’s bad enough planning my suicide with framed pictures of his wife and kids staring back at me with disapproval. Now this. Plus, the white walls crowded with framed diplomas are reminding me of everything I haven’t accomplished with my life. I try to forget I’m only a few months younger than the doctor.
“How’s your drinking?” he asks, pulling the prescription paper away and leaning back.
It’s my eyes. I should have bought eye drops at the 7-11 behind the bus stop. “A few beers here and there.”
He sighs that familiar sigh, trying not to sound like a parent but not trying hard enough. “We’ve talked about this. Lithium, combined with too much alcohol, can shut down your kidneys.”
No shit. “It can do that?”
“You need to abstain.”
“Not even a beer?”
“It was more than just a beer last night.”
It’s my breath, too. I should have bought some gum at the 7-11 behind the bus stop. “I’ll work on it curbing it, Doc.”
“You blacked out, didn’t you?” He pauses. “That’s a strong indication that—”
I jump up and snap the prescription order out of his hand before walking to the door. I open it and turn around. Surprisingly, he’s still in his chair. The damn doctor just leans back again, staring at me with that condescending fucking smile. “You don’t remember anything, do you?”
“I remember that Lithium is number three on the Periodic Table, having only three protons. Atomic weight: 6.941 grams per mol. The only lighter elements are Helium and Hydrogen. Lithium controls the glutamate between neurotransmitters, which in turn controls the amount of serotonin and dopamine in the brain which in turns controls the patient’s mood. This helps stabilize those suffering from bi-polar.”
“Wikipedia is not a great source of medical knowledge,” he says.
“And neither are you,” I reply, slamming the door shut.
I can’t stop smiling as I pick up my bottle of Lithium. Those will be the last words he ever hears from me. I jog across the street to a bar called The Emergency Room. I sit next to two guys wearing scrubs and order a pitcher and a shot of vodka, pulling out the bright orange cylinder out of a small white paper bag. I pop open the lid and shake four pills into my palm, washing them down with one gulp of beer. Seven more pills. Two gulps. The guys in scrubs look over. I smile back.
I’m on my second pitcher and third shot of vodka when someone sits down next to me. “Your car’s parked two blocks from my house,” he says. I turn. I didn’t recognize him at first without the glasses or the white coat. “I drove you home,” he adds. A Rockies baseball cap covers his head.
“It was you? How the hell did you . . . my car?” He doesn’t answer. He just motions for the bartender.
“Fine,” I say, shaking the empty prescription bottle in his face. “Stay silent as forty pills of Lithium and a shit-ton of alcohol leak into my bloodstream.” The doctor keeps his gaze ahead as he orders a gin and tonic. Someone plays “Hotel California” on the jukebox. “My kidneys will shut down in a matter of hours. Even if you get me back to the hospital—”
“They’re placebos,” he says. “And we still have a problem to fix.”
My stomach drops. “Sugar pills?”
The doctor sighs that familiar sigh before taking a sip of his drink. “The body is still in your trunk,” he says nonchalantly.
“The . . . what body?”
The doctor sets my cell phone on the bar next to the empty pitcher. “And my wife found this in my car. That took a great deal of explaining.” I just stare at it, the glass surface of the phone reflecting my perplexed expression. “After all, we can’t deal with my wife like we did her gym trainer.”
I drop the empty prescription bottle. It bounces on the floor as I grab my head, trying to squeeze out even a flicker of a memory from last night. Nothing.
“Of all the bath houses in the city . . .” The doctor shakes his head. “I happen to meet you. Break every rule there is concerning doctor-patient decorum. Then my wife’s gym trainer happens to see us together.”
“I…you? You’re lying,” I say weakly.
He looks over at me. “He fought like a gorilla. How are your ribs?”
A Citadel Called Morgion
It was a small music store tucked into the side of an outdoor malljust south of Hill Air Force Base, Utah. I was flipping through a stack of used CDs (remember CDs?) and found this subtle yet intriguing album cover. It had a hand-drawn picture of a solar eclipse with a diagram of our solar system labeled in Latin.
I sat on a small stool near the cashier, sticking the disk into their CD player. I pulled the headphones over my head and pushed play. A sense of gloom coiled itself tightly around my body, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Listening to Morgion’s Solinari is a bit like being dragged slowly out of a bog just before you’re pulled under. As you lay on the ground gasping for air, your faceless rescuer comforts you withsluggish tempos, mournful whispers and haunting keys.
Then the tempo quickens. Guitars grow loud and angry. The whispers mutate into indignant growls. You watch helplessly as your rescuer picks up a large rock with both hands. The music surges to its apex, and the rock comes crashing down on your chest over and over until it breaks through your ribcage.
The music then subsides. Acoustic guitars fill the void, and your rescuer tosses your broken body back into the bog, watching silently as it sinks beneath the surface.
It was the first time I heard doom/death metal. I found a bastion. A medium to purge the past.
Almost ten years earlier I stood next to my older brother in our backyard. The sun was sitting comfortably in a naked sky. Not a cloud to be seen. The wind blew hard as my mom dug a small hole. My brother was visibly annoyed, but he knew better than to say anything.
She gathered all of my brother’s cassette tapes into a pile. (Remember tapes?) Then my mom set them in the pit, coated them with lighter fluid and lit a match. As the music of Def Leppard, Huey Lewis, and a smattering of 80’s hair bands melted beneath dancing flames, my mom told us how she was clearing the house of demons, something her church told her she had an obligation to God to do.
I was young, incredibly naive, and eager for my mom’s approval. I became convinced Satan was ensconced in secular music and vowed never to listen to it—not even the radio.
But the metal bug had already hatched in my brain and was eating its way through my temporal lobe, laying eggs along the way.
I started listening to Christian metal bands. To my surprise, my mom didn’t care (as long as it was Christian music). But the teachers at the religious school I attended told me electric guitars were instruments of the Devil—that I should burn my albums. I went out and bought more.
Then I graduated high school and joined the Air Force—escaping home and the church. I gave away all my Christian CDs, looking for something which reflected my anger at a church telling mothers to burn their kids’ music. My frustration at having to remain in the closet because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. My despondency that I was stupid enough to believe Beelzebub lived inside a compact disk packed with digital data.
When I listened to Morgion for the first time, I found salvation in the very music I was taught would damn me forever to perdition.
I went back to that store knowing next-to-nothing about the metal. But those eggs embedded in my brain began to hatch. Emperor’s IX Equilibrium: A wall of swinging sledgehammers that pulverizes your bones into a fine powder (used by Ihsahn to season his meals). Daemonarch’s Hermeticum: Infectious riffs and guitar solos that jab at your ears just before Fernando Ribeiro’s vocals claw your face from your skull.
I couldn’t listen to those albums enough. Some of the airmen I worked with cringed when I played them in the shop. One guy refused to carpool with me after Morgion’s “Nightfall Infernal” bellowed out of my truck’s speakers at top volume.
My brain is now a festering, writhing swarm of metal. A pulsating hive spawned by an innocuous death/doom metal album sitting in a small music store in Utah.
Check out the song below. Sinking slowly into a bog with a large hole in your chest never felt so fucking great.
Things Most Gay Men Don’t Like: Metal
Mastodon finishes shredding the frenzied crowd. The drummer tosses his sticks into the throng. The lights go up.
It’s between sets, so I sit with my back against a metal barrier that separates me from the larger crowd below. I shove in a pair of earbuds, turning up “Black Rose Immortal.” A twenty-minute Opeth piece of metal magnificence and mayhem that chokes out the white noise of conversations around me.
There’s something about heavy metal that’s primal. Cathartic. A juxtaposition of raw, exposed animosity eviscerated and dismembered by beauty herself, left on the dusty ground in a pool of blood to die—with a smile.
The lights drop, and I jump to my feet. I yank out the earbuds. The crowd stirs. The only illumination comes from the Fillmore Theater chandeliers hanging from the ceiling—glowing purple. Movement on the stage. The crowd starts yelling in anticipation. I join in. Blue lights grow bright to illuminate that signature O. Mikael Akerfeldt walks onto the stage. Metal ensues.
Opeth starts with their progressive rock from Heritage, Akerfeldt singing God is Dead!—the chorus from “The Devil’s Orchard.” Between songs, Akerfeldt comments that he loves Denver because the thin air makes him feel drunk without having a single beer. Someone from the crowd yells, play some fucking metal! “Patience,” Akerfeldt replies. “Or I’ll play the song ‘Patience.’”
Soon we are all rewarded for our patience, and the intro to “Demon of the Fall” begins. Angry growling death metal ensues.
Slamming my head forward with everyone else, punching the air above me with the traditional devil horns, I realize there’s another important characteristic to metal—solidarity.
Metal is about getting lost in the futile anger, disappointment and frustration of life, drowning out your problems for three hours. Finding absolution, and knowing it’s only temporary. Then slamming your head even harder, growling with everyone around you to each line of the song as your throat blisters and you start to gargle on your own blood.
Young or old. Bald or hair hanging below your ass. Straight or gay. During a metal concert, these trite distinctions just don’t matter.
Outside of a concert, when people find out I’m gay, they usually respond with, “you don’t act like it.”
Which is true: I don’t watch musicals. I loathe the music of Lady Gaga. I was dragged into a Banana Republic once. I wanted to light the entire building on fire.
I do own about a hundred band t-shirts—from Dead Can Dance to Agalloch to Velvet Acid Christ to Opeth. I drive a Dodge Ram (the lesbo-mobile, it’s been fondly called). I’m not offended (nor do I care) when someone around me uses the word gay to describe something stupid. And I fucking love metal.
Most of the music I hear in gay bars and on the radio lacks depth. Feels synthesized and forced. The songs have shitty lyrics. In a word—kitsch.
Nietzsche wrote that art made for the masses is valueless. Conversely, he added, music made for the sake of making music “at every moment make[s] life worth living at all, and prompt[s] the desire to live in order to experience the next moment.”
The concert ends with “The Grand Conjuration.” Opeth takes a few bows before leaving the stage. My shirt is plastered to my back with sweat. A woman I’ve never met before smiles, “that was fucking awesome!” Adrenaline still saturating my veins, I can barely stand still as I wait in line to buy (yet another) t-shirt. A guy in his fifties with a big, gray bushy beard and a tie-dye t-shirt stands next to me. Words like concert, kick-ass, epic, intense, and fucking are being thrown around—though not in that order.
And this moment is about sharing the experience of being pummeled by head-stomping riffs, double bass fills, and Akerfeldt’s demon-like growls. It’s about no one giving a shit I’m gay.
The sidewalk carries me away. Denver’s Fillmore Theater is swallowed up behind me. The traffic on Colfax Avenue saturates my senses.
I stick the earbuds back in. Take my time as I walk back to my truck, finishing “Black Rose Immortal.” Those pesky problems I forgot about are still lurking at the periphery, waiting patiently to rise blindingly with the sun.
But the rest of the night belongs to the fans. This moment belongs to metal.
“So, you like being a cock
The words hang briefly in the air like autumn leaves. Tumbling into my peripheral vision with flashes of red, yellow, and orange. They crunch beneath my feet.
I say this without turning my head. My pace steady. The rainbow boa draped around my shoulders kicks up in the breeze. Goosebumps on my arms. Loud laughter from the bar I just left meanders its way to me and vanishes. I cut down an alley. He follows.
I don’t bother to look behind me. I already know the face. Sharp cheek
“Hey!” he yells forcefully through clenched teeth. The footfalls grow louder. Increasing in frequency as they splash through puddles of water. Animosity made flesh. “Where you going, cock holster?”
A flair for the dramatic. He does this once a week. Standing on the corner a block away from Sodom and Gomorra. His version of foreplay.
I wait. Preparing for the perfect moment. Timing is crucial.
“You deaf or what?” I hear as I pass a dumpster that smells of rotting meat. “Faggot.”
“No different from you,” I say over my shoulder with a smirk. Each word evenly spaced like a metronome.
He halts at the dumpster. “What the fuck did you just say?”
It’s almost too predictable. A tinge of pity surfaces. I squander it. Drown it. Push forward and turn down a street littered with a few derelict cars. I focus on a tall church made of ancient cracked granite poised at the end of the street. The cross of steel, made red with rust, perches overhead on a crumbling steeple.
“Say that again you fucking fudge packer!” The words leap over my shoulders and land at my feet. I step over them without tripping.
His hand lands hard on my shoulder. My body turns. He slams me against a brick wall. The boa falls to the ground. Jagged bricks cut into my back. I smile.
“How about I cut another hole for your fuck buddy?” A click. He pulls up my shirt. I feel the edge of the blade slip pass my belly. ”Or maybe slice off the source of your sin?” The knife nestles itself between my legs, ready to penetrate. A dog barks in the distance.
His other hand slowly wraps around my neck, choking me as he pushes up against my body. His cracked lips linger near my ear. His breath smells of cheap whiskey, that acrid smell of charred fur. “God hates fags,” he says slowly. The words warm my neck.
I push my hand down, wrapping my fingers around his wrist like a snake around a trembling branch. I whisper the words do it. I push into him. His eyes widen. The blade clatters at our feet.
I can feel his hard-on grinding into me. His breath becomes shallow and rapid. My back is now covered in scratches from the brick wall. My tongue tempts the skin on his neck. He closes his eyes. I reach behind my back.
“Forgive them father,” I say softly into his ear, looking up at cloudless sky made black, “for they know not what they do.”
I shove him away. He stumbles back. The gut full of whiskey has slowed his reaction time. He just stares at the barrel as I point the gun at his torso. The slide on the pistol kicks back. A single piece of hollow brass dances at our feet. Rolling past the knife. The limp boa.
He grabs his side. Life trickling through interlocked fingers. Eyes wide and white and static.
I aim at the wet spot on his neck left by my lips. I pull the trigger. He collapses, folding over himself into an inert pile of flesh-covered bones. Blood seeps into the cracks of the sidewalk—communion for the empty street.
I tuck the gun into my waistband and pick up the boa. Brush it clean of dirt. Drape it over my shoulders.
A few colored feathers—red, yellow, and orange—land next to him without a sound.
I continue toward the church. The rusted cross is now missing from the steeple. It lies flat on the sidewalk at the base of the granite building. I step over it without tripping.
The brick wall stands across from me as I write
An echo of a life
I imagine the worker who placed each brick
Leaving his silent testament
His creation outliving him
Ensuring that I stay warm as I write
As the man at the bar with thin gray hair drinks
And talks about the corruption of politicians to anyone in earshot
As the server named Lisa pays for her college degree
One drink at a time
Ignoring the pats on her skirt
I think about cracked skin
A thumb smashed beyond recognition
I think about hard days in the heat
Sunburned neck and ears
Or gloves that fail to keep fingers warm
Numb toes in steel-toed boots
I think about yellow hardhats and long drives home in the dark
Tools spray pained neon green so they can’t be stolen and resold
I think about the worry for the next contract
The next paycheck
Eating cucumber sandwiches
Saving money his daughter
Or his son
The wife left long ago
For another man
A clean shaven white-collar man
Or maybe she died
A car accident
Hospital bills paid with mortar and shale
She wasted away with her soft hands cradled in cracked skin
Kids just outside the door
The boy wearing his father’s reflective orange vest
The hardhat at the foot of the mother’s bed
The nurse politely tells him visiting hours have ended
He tells her he built the walls that keep his wife warm
Then Lisa tells me it’s last call
Notebook tucked under my arm
I walk past the man with gray hair
Nursing his final beer
I walk past the brick wall
Out the door
Out into the cold
Past a homeless man leaning against the bricks
He holds out his hands
Asking for change
His thumb is flattened
I quicken my pace
The cracked sidewalk leading me away
“You wouldn’t have known me a year ago,” I pleaded.
“And I wouldn’t have cared, though I would have recognized,” he replied.
He added that I would have been the same person then and still am now and how do you stop being you and when are you ever not? I didn’t respond and my shoulder bled and the asphalt burned against my left cheek as my right eye glared at the failing sun but I didn’t blink nor attempt to rise so I told him that people change all the time. He arched his back as he laughed and his large buckle blazed in the sunlight just before he spat and told me that a being who changes is still the same being who was changed and he held the black canvas bag open to the wind and money fluttered and tumbled like green butterflies ascending until the sun was blotted out by his large silhouette as he leaned down with the barrel hovering just above my temple. He began to speak.
“An individual only stops being once that person can no longer choose.” I could smell tobacco as the barrel ran against my skull and the metal was warm against cold skin littered with marbles of sweat. “Choices that lead to a future self are actualized from the consciousness,” he continued, “and the physical wiring of brain itself, along with the circumstances that surround it, do not solely define that being. “ He took a deep breath and smiled warmly. “The essence of a being is a process, a process of choice within the confines of immoveable facts.” He stroked my hair then stood and broken glass scraped against his soles as he walked behind me with sirens growing in the distance and I closed my eyes and told him about my dead wife and my lost job and my sick daughter and I had no choice and there are no choices and choice is a cruel and unforgiving delusion sent to torture and he yelled the words to the sky choosing not to choose is still being.
“It is time that is a construct applied through reason—it is what is illusory,” he said as he pulled the slide back and locked it in place and checked the chamber before he added, “the you that you were a year ago could easily be known today or in the future or in the past for the being that is you is immutable except in the vacuousness of death.” I rolled onto my back and held my shoulder as thin streams of red rushed between my fingers and he released the slide and it snapped forward with an echo and he placed the gun on my chest and the barrel glared in my eyes and with sirens were now growing louder as he towered at my feet and added, “as long as there is being there is choice and to believe otherwise is to subvert the will, your future self—to deceive the self.” I watched myself as I pushed the barrel past my lips and felt my teeth scrape against metal and I pulled the trigger and the gun whispered click.
My eyes snapped open and my daughter was calling me out of the darkness, arms outstretched and suspended by small plastic tubes that ran to bags of clear liquid. I jerked out of the chair and tripped over a stuffed bear that sat askew on the linoleum floor next to the heart monitor. An ambulance pulled to a stop three floors down, its siren still blaring. The rain beat the window panes until dawn and I held my daughter tight as she vomited and shook and wept and clinched her stomach, all while black glass eyes watched from the floor without blinking.
To Die Soon
It was Hemingway who wrote: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” This, before he swallowed a round from a shotgun. Virginia Woolf stuffed rocks into her pockets and walked into the Ouse River. Sylvia Plath stuck her head in a gas oven with her children sleeping in the next room. Kurt Vonnegut populated his novels with a recurring character named Kilgore Trout, who frequently stated that “life is a crock of shit!” Even the Bible declares the following: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity . . . one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.” When the author of Ecclesiastes needs a prescription for Prozac and maybe a hug, something must be terribly wrong.
Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy about King Midas, who captured the demigod Silenus and demanded the most desirable thing for man. Silenus remained silent before belting out a sardonic laugh, answering: “Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is—to die soon.” Perhaps Kind Midas should have stayed in his kingdom turning things (and his daughter) into gold.
Nietzsche replies to Silenus’ charge by explicating the duality of our existence. One side of this dichotomy is emotion, personified as Dionysus; the other side is reason, personified as Apollo. (Think Kirk and Spock.) Dionysus is nature; euphoria by getting drunk with wine and having frenzied sex orgies in the open fields of Greece (yes, this happened). But Dionysus also represents the brutal truth of nature: suffering, pain, agony, and progress through death and life—the lion consuming its prey to live. Apollo, on the other hand, represents the individual who acquires knowledge and the wisdom to rise above nature and subvert its vicious tendencies. However, according to Nietzsche, the Apollinian perspective is ultimately an illusion to conceal the Dionysian truth. How does one overcome this problem of existence? (Excluding Hemingway’s solution, of course.)
Apollo and Dionysus collide, raze, and rebuild each other. Nietzsche uses the term nausea to associate the hopelessness when the illusion of Apollo succumbs completely to Dionysus. Man realizes he is merely an unimportant part of nature—soon swallowed up by the Earth. Pushing up daisies. Worm food. “Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion,” Nietzsche writes. All effort to project a future self seems vain, revealing the “horror or absurdity of existence.” Indeed, Silenus’ solution seems more sensible—to die soon! But this is not the overly dramatic solution Nietzsche would encourage. He argues the Apollinian civilization is, yes, illusory—but necessary. Necessary to live, to experience this dance between of Apollo and Dionysus. And what do they dance to? “Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress . . . she alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.” Embrace creativity like Hemingway, Wolfe, and Plath (just keep away from guns, rivers and gas ovens). Write, paint, play music not for the masses (for Nietzsche considered art for the masses to be worthless) but for yourself. Use art to show that life may at times be a crock of shit, but it’s worth enduring—to die later!
He spent two hours on a single sentence.
Naked feet flat on a cold, linoleum floor.
Next to his computer a dog-eared thesaurus.
It lay open. Limp. Words eviscerated from its bosom.
He pushed Enter.
His heel sprang from the floor when he typed the first word of the new sentence.
It fell back to the ground slowly, nuzzling itself next to a sock.
He shifted in his seat, a ragged comforter draped over his shoulders.
He closed his eyes.
The cursor blinked.
His fingers detached themselves from the keyboard like satiated leeches.
He lit another cigarette and winced at the taste.
It was Pall Malls or the heat bill.
The cold kept him awake.
The tobacco kept him company.
Six minutes passed.
He started typing again.
Another six lonely hours and the poem was finished.
The sun now hiding on the other side of the Earth.
With both his heels off the ground, he posted it online.
He smoked his last.
Turned the computer screen off.
Ate dry cereal out of a dirty bowl with no spoon.
He waited some more.
Snow flicked the window pane next to him.
Another three hours and he turned on the screen.
He squinted from the sudden light.
One person read the entire piece in less than a minute.
In the comments section: You have too many sentence fragments! Learn to write!
Another wrote: What is flagitiousness?
Another: I didn’t even finish reading this.
Hours consumed in minutes.
Vomited onto his naked feet.
He closed the browser and opened a new Word document.
The cursor blinked.
He waited six minutes.
His left heel lifted off the floor when he typed the first word.
The thesaurus trembled.
© Mike Yost
Chuck Palahniuk once said in an interview that his favorite place to write was in the waiting area of an emergency room. To be embedded in a whirlwind of raw emotions to feed off of. And no one ever, ever bothers you.
Granted it sounds a bit parasitic. Some might call it macabre. But Palahniuk gets paid good money to write novels, so chew on that.
I prefer public places. Coffee shops work well. My drug close by, though it’s hard to key when my hands start shaking after twenty cups. I like the library on occasion. City parks. But my favorite place to write in is a bar.
I work nights, so I find myself in bars that open at 7am. I’m usually the first one in the door. As the denizens shuffle in, I type away in the corner on my laptop, a cold beer sitting patiently next to the keyboard. Moderation is important, or your stories end up resembling the slurred ramblings of, well, a failed writer. One beer an hour. No hard liquor. No shots.
Headphones are essential. I’m a proud member of the LGBT community, but their musical tastes are lacking. Blasting Lady Gaga at 8am? Really? And, of course, there’s the typical crowd noise to contend with. So, headphones with classical or instrumental electronic music, almost anything with no lyrics. On noisy mornings (usually on a game day), while I write, I listen to death metal until my ears bleed.
So why contend with the noise, the bad music, the smell of urine and Clorox wafting from the bathroom stalls? The same reason Palahniuk sits in emergency waiting rooms. I, too, feed off the energy of the crowd around me, like a vampire in the shadows, greedily drinking in the elation and misery of veteran alcoholics. I observe the groups telling jokes and the loners sipping on their despair. I write.
And the harder I work to ignore the distractions, the harder I work on the words, the stories, the characters. I have to force myself to concentrate and live in my fictional world, far away from obnoxious laughter, the loud calls for shots, Lady fucking Gaga.
New Year’s resolution? Not to make any.
It’s a bit too late, since I already made a promise to myself to finish my second novel. What can I say? I am a man of contradictions (not really [but sometimes]).
After sleeping off the New Year’s Eve hangover, I set up my laptop, surrounded myself with various caffeinated beverages, along with a few caffeinated needle injections to stave off a crash. I turned on some background music and began pounding out the next chapter. A few good ideas began to manifest themselves. But progress was slow. When I looked up from the screen, my cat was looking back, curled up in the corner of the room thinking to himself: ‘If I were bigger, I would eat you.’ I looked back at the screen. I’d written about a page. A page in three hours.
What was wrong? More caffeine? Maybe a change in background music? I put on Omnium Gatherum’s latest album. The growling vocals made me smile. I even banged my head a few times at the laptop. The cat stared at me with even more contempt. Still no words. Those bastards can be elusive. I sat back and turned up the music even more. Sometimes it’s better not to think for a bit.
Screw New Year’s resolutions. Who picks an arbitrary date to get shit done anyway? Oh that’s right, we do. I did. I made a resolution and now nothing’s happening. What the hell?
Maybe it’s because we are all going to die this year. In case you haven’t heard, a rogue planet (called Nibiru) will cut across our solar system at a right angle, throwing off the gravitational pull of the sun and knocking the Earth out of orbit, sending us hurtling into the void of space, our entire species frozen on a floating rock. So what‘s the point of writing? Unless… maybe we’ll be found by some advanced alien species. They’ll thaw out our lifeless planet and set us up in a new solar system. They’ll teach us quantum physics and share their advanced technology and tell us what the meaning of life is, and we’ll show them fried butter on a stick. A whole new beginning. Crap. I just wrote a science-fiction novel. A really bad one.
So, I turn up the grinding guitars and double-bass drums even louder (the cat has left the room by now, the pussy) and continue to pound away on the keyboard. Fuck words. I’ll drag them out by their entrails if I have to.
Back to work. Only 362 days left to finish my resolution. Make that 363. The leap year gives me an extra day!
No, I’m not at war with Christmas.
I use to write X-mas merely as shorthand. On box lids. In emails. On greeting cards.
Then the war started. I don’t remember when it began. The body count hasn’t risen above zero since it started. But I’m being told that little baby Jesus is being maliciously attacked every year by laser-guided uranium-tipped lexicon missiles.
Since when did Christ (and more specifically the arbitrary date of his birth) need all this defending? If I saw Jesus on the street and wished him Happy Holidays, would he really smite me with a bolt of lighting that zigzagged down from the clouds, burning my soulless, heathen body to a crisp? Aren’t there more important things to worry about? Helping the needy. Fighting the AIDS epidemic. Getting our troops home safely.
If I’m at war with anything, it’s with conspicuous consumerism, pepper spraying people in the face to get a kid’s toy, saying Christmas belongs to Christ while maxing out credit cards. Disney on Ice.
Now days, I don’t wish people Merry Christmas, or Merry X-mas, or Happy Holidays, or Happy Kwanza, or Good Yule, or Happy Chanukah. I wish people Merry Mythmas (thank you, Bill Maher). For the myth that buying things for your loved ones is the measure of how much you care. For the myth that a tree decorated with small lights and cheap, plastic ornaments is somehow a Christian tradition. For the myth of a virgin birth.
I say Merry Mythmas for the mythical war on Christmas—we have enough real wars with real body counts already.
Of Aliens, Transmissions, and Violins.
So, we found a new planet 600 light years away, one of 713 confirmed exoplanets discovered so far—Kepler-22b. It’s more than twice the size of Earth, takes 290 days to orbit its sun, and it sits in the Goldilocks zone—not too close to its parent star, and not too far away. This means that if there is water on the planet’s surface, it’s in liquid form. On Earth, where there’s water, even in extreme conditions, there’s usually life.
Soon, SETI will be pointing their satellites in the direction of Kepler-22b to listen for signs of life.
A plethora of assumptions: Assuming there is life on that planet, and assuming this life is more advanced than our own, and assuming they transmitted radio signals at least six hundred years ago, we should be receiving their first transmissions any day now.
I wonder what those transmissions would be? Perhaps a short question: “Is anyone out there?” Maybe someone ranting about their political climate, or about religious and civic strife, or about a massive economic crisis. Maybe a TV show. Maybe a bad TV show. Maybe a reality TV show. I hate to think what an alien species would think of Earthlings if all they had to judge us on was Survivor.
The first Earthly radio broadcast was on Christmas Eve in 1906. Reginald Fessenden read the Christmas story from the Bible and played “O Holy Night” with on a violin. This means in roughly 500 years, our potential alien friends will be serenaded by a violin and the story of Jesus’ birth.
A bit unsettling. One of the greatest scientific accomplishments at the time, accompanied by a song calling for all to prostrate themselves before a child born of a virgin. At the very least, our alien friends will be confused, perhaps a bit curious. “Who is this Jesus, this Savior?” they might ask. “Is he your leader? Can we speak with him?”
Plenty of Earthlings would tell them who their “savior” is. Many of those answers will contradict. Arguing will ensue. Fights will break out. Perhaps another war. While we are battling for ideas, our alien friends will quietly point their own SETI satellites in another direction. “Give them a few more centuries,” an alien astronomer might say, “just until they stop arguing over whose god is greater.”
Of course, all of this is also assuming aliens from another planet can understand English in the first place—which is a pretty big assumption (and very arrogant for us to think so).
What would be worse is if their own religions, ethics, and philosophies mirrored our own. In the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “If aliens are like us, then they should be feared.”
Indeed. But if we did hear from Kepler-22b, what would we want to hear?
A loud voice is perched above a black frock and below a black book held high above black hair.
“You sinners will be sleeping with regret tonight!”
His words are brief clouds of white that quickly disappear. Their meaning rolls listlessly along the bed of snow made black from workers working their way home. A shuttle bus drives by, kicking up slush.
I look up and to the right at the clock tower. Six after five. “Time will soon replace regret with another trick,” I say, turning towards him. He brushes away a few lonely snowflakes from his shoulders and continues. “Without forgiveness, your past sins will drown your future in eternal darkness!”
A woman to my left raises her gloved hand and bellows out the word taxi. A homeless man stumbles toward her, whispering the word please as his empty hands shake at his side. She gets in the taxi and is driven away. I tell him I have no cash when he asks for help. The preacher tells him he needs Jesus.
Little warmth is found behind a heavy wooden door that slams hard. I face other faces in a mirror that runs along the back of the bar. Their heads are bowed, drowning above half-empty glasses. Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll” plays from the jukebox.
The chair groans as my lungs sigh and soon my belly feels the warmth of barley.
Behind a window framed in frost my eyes track pale profiles gliding by in a background of white. The word another? taps me on the ear and I nod without looking.
Fingers, wrinkled and stained yellow, wipe a mug dry with a blue towel before sticking the glass under the tap. “It’s like the center of Dante’s hell out there tonight.” The barkeep punctuates his sentence by slapping the tap back with the side of his hand.
The glass lands in front of me, and I pull it toward my lips, watching the foam fall over the edge. I set a portrait of Lincoln on the bar. “And the devil’s on the corner selling a haven from regret.”
The barkeep turns his back and lowers his head. The cash drawer kicks open and lands on his stomach. The eyes of dead presidents stare back at him. “At what price?”
I reply, “Cognition,” pulling the glass away from my lips. Foam hangs in the corners of my mouth. “No different from you.”
A chuckle jumps out from behind the bar. “Except I never lie to you about what I’m selling.” The bartender turns and sets two green portraits of George Washington next to a puddle of beer, taking Lincoln away.
I pull a pen from my pocket and flip the two faces over. “And you preach without words.” Twice I bury the word God under a thick coat of ink.
That Gay Bar on 2nd and Broadway
Pictures of shirtless men distract me.
Especially that blond with the blue eyes and the loose jeans and the tattoo of the sun on his left forearm, staring at me as he leans over the rusted railing of some bridge in some distant, unknown city.
Twelve minutes and thirteen seconds.
That’s how long it takes for him to appear on the flat screen above me.
The sky behind him gray and dull.
Bland, out-of-focus buildings in the background.
I look back down.
My hands sit next to an empty beer glass and a notebook and a pen almost out of ink.
I pick up the pen, bouncing it on the edge of the bar.
I think carefully.
The pen transcribes the events of last night:
I took a walk along the Platte.
No moon. Correction—It was there, but it wasn’t reflecting any sunlight.
A dark blemish on the surface of space.
I came across some kids trying to drown a cat.
A black cat with narrow, yellow eyes.
I kicked a few of the young hoodlums into the cold water.
The others fled.
Sneakers slapping the pavement with laughter and smoldering cigarette butts.
The animal clawed at my arms.
The small body shaking violently.
Its eyes closed.
I took my shirt off and wrapped it gently.
Holding it close to give it warmth.
I spoke softly.
It just cried continually.
I never thought a cat could cry.
Cry with such conviction.
Was it somehow aware?
Did it know how close it was to death?
I walked back quickly.
Air cold on the shoulders and chest.
I heard a glass bottle break in the distance.
A few bicyclers passed by.
Their flashing strobes carved my shadow into the sidewalk.
The cat wheezed and whined and sneezed.
Black hair stuck to the cotton of my shirt.
Broken glass crunched under my feet.
Then, I was home.
An apartment below ground with cages for windows.
They call it garden level.
I ran a shallow bath of warm water.
I unwrapped the animal, and it did not shake.
It did not cry.
It did not move.
So I let the water run in the tub and it overflowed as I held the animal to my chest.
I did not weep.
Because death is just a matter of cruel timing.
“It’s a fag bar,” I hear.
My pen stops.
I look up.
My glass has been replaced with a full beer.
I look higher.
It’s been twelve minutes thirteen seconds.
The blond on the bridge is staring at me again.
I turn my head.
There’s some guy standing at the entrance.
More like swaggering.
Wearing a bright orange Broncos jersey.
Pointing his swaggering finger at us.
“You’re sick motherfuckers and…and you’re all going to hell.”
The bouncer pushes him out.
A few people laugh at him.
The bartender pours some more.
I look back down at my pad of paper.
I tap my pen on the bar.
Someone shouts out for a round of whiskey.
The music in the bar gets louder.
It’s now that I want to weep.
To weep silently because words are so easily forgotten.
Because the cat was so easy to bury.
Because I was so easily distracted.
I try to write.
I try to finish.
But the pen is out of ink.
A few weeks ago someone came into my workplace and called me a fag. Now, I’ve been called a fag (or the longer, more sophisticated variation: faggot) on a number of occasions. I’ve usually been able to laugh it off or just walk away. This time was different. I was tired. I was stressed. I hadn’t had my caffeine-saturated Mountain Dew yet.
I could feel my face getting red, and those veins in my forehead sticking out. I yelled back. He yelled louder. So, I yelled louder. It turned into a pointless shouting match. No one really won. He left when I called the cops, and I couldn’t help but think he got the best of me—with a word. A single word. Fag. Three letters. One syllable. It means cigarette in England.
Dan Savage once had his readers address him as “Dear Faggot” in his advice column. The idea is that the word gets its power not from the speaker, but from the receiver. Reclaim the hate speech! I agree. But easier said than done. Try turning the other cheek when you are in a bad mood, or before your daily caffeine fix. And try telling that to the kid who’s called fag or faggot everyday at school. He can’t just call the cops. We should banish the word, like we did that other notorious f-word: French! (Remember Freedom Fries?)
But censorship solves nothing. It’s just shouting at hate speech with silence. That night, after I downed a few Mountain Dews, I reflected on how I use f-words (fag, faggot, and fuck) extensively throughout my novel. There is such a thing as being too PC, after all. There is also such a thing as overreacting to haters, homophobes, or to people who write letters to Dan Savage. Fag is like any other word—in that it is nuanced depending on intent and context. Consider that the next time you hear the word fag—or any hate speech. More importantly, before you react, ask yourself if you’ve had your caffeine yet.
I love imagining what it would be like to live on other planets. What if the Orion Nebula filled the sky each night—a giant specter spreading its gossamer wings over our heads? Imagine if rings of fragmented rock tens of thousands of miles wide encircled the planet, rings that could be clearly seen during the day splitting the sky in half, ice crystals in the rings refracting the light in a beautiful spectrum of colors. Or what if our planet orbited two stars? How would that affect our mythos? Our philosophies? Our religions? How would we define ourselves differently?
The latter cosmic phenomenon we don’t have to imagine anymore. The Kepler probe discovered a planet (called Kepler-16b) that is part of a binary solar system. This is the first empirical proof of a planetary body orbiting two stars. Though only a gas giant (which makes watching a dual sunset from its surface a bit difficult), 16b brings up a host of possibilities—with intriguing implications. Civilizations use physical environment to define their societies. The Egyptians worshiped the sun god Ra. On planet 16b, Ra would have a younger brother. They would battle daily for supremacy of the sky, one occasionally eclipsing the other. Moral lessons would perhaps be drawn from their cosmic duel: “Though the two brothers fought throughout the day, in the evening they both came to rest on the same horizon.” Monotheism would perhaps be an entirely alien concept (pun intended).
There are biological implications as well. Life forms on that planet would probably be less sensitive to light, and be able to endure our hottest days of the year without any complaint. And if a planet found itself orbiting between the two stars, there would be no night. Eyes would never evolve to see in the dark (except for cave dwelling animals or creatures that lived underwater).
This is all speculation, of course. But it emphasizes how physical circumstances play a large role in how not only our species evolves, but how our philosophies and religions evolve. If I follow that line of logic long enough, I could argue that physical circumstances define purpose. Meaning is a construct created as our experiences wind their way through physical circumstances. The objects that surround us are more than just inanimate objects (what Jean-Paul Sartre called the thing-in-itself) existing solely outside of our consciousness. They become part of us as we interact with them. Existence is a duality between the mind and external objects.
I could stare at the concept images of 16b all day, imagining how different my life and our civilization would be if Earth orbited two stars. I’m cynical enough to declare that our more malevolent behaviors would never be truncated by a change in scenery. But I’m optimistic enough to concede that possibilities, future possibilities of individuals and of societies, can be created and destroyed by mere objects shifting our perspectives and playing a dynamic part in how we define ourselves.
Check out the NASA article about Kepler-16b: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler-16b.html