During my freshman orientation class at Kent State University, I somehow surmounted my Paul Pfeiffer–in–The Wonder Years dorkazoidism and befriended two wild-eyed, burly, metalhead smart-asses, Joe Pfaff and Andy Wuelfing. Perpetuating a theme fundamental to most of my close acquaintanceships, we fawned endlessly about our favorite bands . . . and then mercilessly belittled everything about them. Joe adored Dave Mustaine—he once breathlessly outlined his nightmarish "ultimate show": Metallica, Megadeth, Green Day, Face to Face—but eviscerating a Cheez Doodle–haired Metallica throwaway who spooky-grumbled, "Hello me, it's me again," fell in the "plugging caged deer" realm, or, to be more current, the "scourging the so-called son of God" realm.
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Andy, the most brutal shit talker in the triad, was a devout Henry Rollins disciple—he owned upward of 30 Black Flag, Rollins Band, and solo Rollins spoken-word records. Around this time, the Rollins Band's unintentionally comical rant "Liar" ("I'll rip your mind out! I'll burn your soul! Cuz I'm a liar! Yeah!") was all over MTV. I treated Andy to my Hank impersonation at many a cafeteria bullshit session, slapping myself and gorilla strutting just like his hero did in the video. After one particularly "on" night, I caught my breath and asked Andy, "So, uh, seriously, what do you see in that fucking guy?" My new friend steeled up and seethed, "When I was in junior high and I wanted to kill myself, I listened to Rollins and I didn't."
He could've dragged my nipples through the food card scanner and I would've felt better. And, trust me, I know plenty about the middle-class white boy "outsider" pose. Today's mall rats will blog Andy's line five years from now, verbatim, only about fucking AFI. But, stripped of its Teen Angst sheen, the statement is a disquieting testament to the absolute power of rock and one that we identify with more than we're willing to admit.
Take me, for example, because, um, I'm writing this column. Just because I didn't necessarily need Helmet's Meantime to keep a straight razor out of my carotid doesn't mean that album and that band didn't "save my life" in, oh, a million other intangible ways. Maybe the stunted, repetitive staccato of architect Page Hamilton's "drop-D" compositions, coupled with his fragmented, tangential beat-poet barks, altered and amplified my view of art forever. Maybe that's the most pretentious, shit-heap sentence I've ever written. Whatevs. The arithmetic here is as deceptively simple as the average Helmet song: Band + deeply personal, obtuse "life-saving" moment(s) = Favorite Band. The equation and its ramifications are unfuckwit'able . . . even for AFI kids.
Acknowledging your Favorite Band is not always easy or pleasant; the responsibilities are far more burdensome than merely "enjoying" a genre or "respecting" a songwriter. It entails defending them against—or stubbornly ignoring—any criticism, no matter how valid. It entails friends dismissing them as not only Birkenstock-wearing,preppy one-hit wonders, but the godfathers of nü-metal, and simply . . . not . . . listening. It means exploiting your job as an alternative-weekly columnist when you're told your idol is available for interviews and finding a convoluted way to incorporate him into that column even though he hasn't released an album of new material in seven years.
Ever found yourself in the dicey, yet bodacious, position detailed in the preceding sentence? A word of advice: If you ever waited for four hours at age 17 outside of a club in short sleeves during the dead of a Cleveland winter for Hamilton to exit the bus just to give him a 49ers football card (his favorite team) rendered with a voice balloon suspended above the head coach reading "Play 'Born Annoying!'" resist the temptation to actually relay this anecdote in your interview. Not that it would stop Hamilton from talking your ear off and saying all the right things in 30 minutes to confirm his rock lordliness, but it'll probably decrease the chances of you making a cameo on his next album.
Before I could get to question seven out of the 7 million I had for the guy, his publicist e-mailed to encourage me to wrap up the chat (I had only been allotted 15 minutes; what, was Rolling Stone beating down his door for a cover story on Unsung: The Best of Helmet 1991–1997?) I'm not quite prepared to share Hamilton's loquacious, irreverent, astute, catty, egotistical, totally awesome remarks about the legacy of Helmet with the world, save for one: "You've got to have metal in your blood to play this music. I'm not saying you have to be a metal guy, but there's a certain aggression or intensity or passion that's necessary. It's just the way you strike your instrument. It's the only way these songs can be rendered properly."
See what I see in that fucking guy? No? Whatevs.
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