Criticism — From the May 2014 issue

Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives

A poet’s guide to metal

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In the beginning, William Blake writes a gonzo mythopoeia called Milton:

All that can be annihilated must be annihilated
That the Children of Jerusalem may be saved from slavery
There is a Negation, & there is a Contrary
The Negation must be destroyd to redeem the Contraries
The Negation is the Spectre; the Reasoning Power in Man
This is a false Body: an Incrustation over my Immortal
Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated alway

In another beginning, a bunch of working-class drug users detune their guitars and add some horror-flick spookiness to the blues. Metal — no one can agree on when or why the “heavy” fell off — is born, half in love with easeful death and with Rimbaud’s “chaos of ice and polar night,” which could describe the sound of a record like the Norwegian black-metal band Immortal’s Sons of Northern Darkness.1

1 A note on terminology: the tag “heavy metal” was applied to various psychedelic and/or blues-based rock bands throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, but it seems to have stuck when Lester Bangs used it to describe Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, by broad consensus the first (and perhaps the best) heavy-metal bands. As rock and roll became rock, heavy metal yielded to metal — splintering into a kajillion subgenres ranging from cough-syrup slow to so fast that drummers use electronic triggers to produce uniform beats at tempos faster than is normally possible with human arms and legs. Genre classification doesn’t interest me. Listen to Poison Idea’s Feel the Darkness followed by Repulsion’s Horrified and tell me the main difference between hardcore punk and metal isn’t that one has a bullshit positive message and one has a bullshit negative message. Hell, I think Steely Dan is metal half the time. But for the record, here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular metal subgenres. Thrash metal is fast and angry; practitioners often appear to have spent too much time lifting weights. Death metal comes from Florida, is superfast, and sometimes employs meters more often associated with jazz, or at least with Weather Report; lyrics tend to be about death and dying and killing. Black metal is from Norway, sounds like Joy Division on Benzedrine, and won’t shut up about Satan; these are the idiots who burned dozens of churches, some centuries old. Doom metal is low and slow, sometimes to the point of sounding like Pauline Oliveros, and mainly concerns the relationship between despair and marijuana.

These two histories probably have no connection besides the one they spark in me, even if “All that can be annihilated must be annihilated” could be every metal band’s credo; it’s precisely because the line is a sort of affirmation — destruction in the name of redemption.2 But this is how popular music works: in secret histories and self-contained channels. As John Ashbery says, “The songs decorate our notion of the world / And mark its limits.”

2 Of course, Blake urges “mental fight” in the name of an idiosyncratic militant Christianity, whereas metal tends to be Christ-centric in, um, a slightly different way. But the marshaling of spiritual resources against Reason’s temples of destruction finds surprising resonance in the visions of technocratic nightmare common to certain strains of metal (e.g., the Quebecois band Voivod’s entire oeuvre).

Metal and poetry are, among other things, arts of accusation and instruction. Together with Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo, they say: “You must change your life.” To see metal as demanding something of us — a fundamental change, a shift in perspective, an acknowledgment that we are headed in the wrong direction — is to admit that when we listen to it, we’re receptive to its message. (“I beg you to listen,” Ashbery writes. “You are already listening.”) But metal’s message is not the same thing as its rhetoric.

Metal’s most familiar trope is, duh, Satanism, which might be silly — okay, it’s definitely silly — but has a distinguished literary pedigree. Romantic diabolism since the nineteenth century has taken its cue from Milton’s Paradise Lost. “Milton’s Devil as a moral being,” wrote Shelley, is “far superior to his God.” Blake said Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” In the twentieth century, this view of Milton was charmingly defended by William Empson, who argued, more or less, that if by the end of the poem Satan is a rather unsympathetic character, it’s only because God’s such a jerk.

Whatever one thinks of this interpretation — and most modern critics reject it — it’s clear that Satan has the best lines:

That we were formed then, say’st thou? and the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learned: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power . . .

For Shelley, it is Satan’s “energy and magnificence” in such passages that mark his superiority. A similar energy inspired Lord Byron, whose epigones Robert Southey dubbed, to Byron’s evident delight, the Satanic School. And a bit later, in the France of the Second Empire, Charles Baudelaire would write a prayer to the “loveliest” angel, “a God betrayed, to whom no anthems rise”: “O Satan, take pity on my sore distress!”3

3 “To whom no anthems rise” is Richard Howard’s version of Baudelaire’s more straightforward “privé de louanges.” “Rise” is a nice touch.

Well, Old Scratch has more anthems by now than he knows what to do with. And of course Satanism in metal — from Black Sabbath (some of whose early lyrics are actually kind of Christian) to the goofy Swedish pop-metal band Ghost, whose members dress as skeleton popes — is just theater, a metaphor for nonconformity that affirms dark, creative energies that orthodox political-religious-scientific thought would repress. A few black-metal bands profess a dully literal belief in Satanism, but I’m not convinced they’re actually interested in anything besides adolescent provocation. As the poet Brandon Brown writes in his obnoxious pseudotranslation of Les Fleurs du mal: “I’d worship Satan / if only I weren’t so allergic to the monochrome / gloomy sartorial orthodoxy / and Nordic vibrato of its brutal / soundtrack.” That’s a lazy reading of black metal, but Brown’s point is well taken: Satanism is boring.

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is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (2012) and The Second Sex, which will be published this fall by Penguin.

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  • J. Chispas

    an unfortunate accident laid me low (and for quite awhile to boot), shortly after writing the following which i stumbled across in my files today:

    Despite all its ostensible erudition (all those references Blake, Rimbaud, Shelley, Sloterdjike!) and demonstrative ‘hepness’ (‘Joy division on benzedrine’) I feel that Michael Robbins piece “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives” [criticism, May 2014] is the sort of ‘criticism’ more suitable for say, a campus newspaper or perhaps a webzine such as pitchfork than Harper’s. It is lazy at best and indicative of the tired old sort of hep posturing at its worst.

    The subject at hand is rock n’ roll. It is what it is and lest we fall into the age old ‘what’s cool v. what ain’t’ conversation already well documented in the collected dialogues of Fonzi and Richie Cunningham, let us remind ourselves that intellect, while often a welcome and invigorating ingredient is by no means necessary to create great and lasting music. (Chuck Berry anyone?)

    Two quotes from two of rock/metal’s patriarchs should suffice:

    Lemmy from Motörhead (I can just now hear Mr. Robbins carrying on and on about the superfluity of that umlaut), while discussing the song ‘Shake Your Blood’ stated “I wrote the lyrics in about ten minutes. . . It’s rock & roll, you know. It’s not one of those complicated things.”

    and y’know, that song rocks!

    or Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath on the creation of the hit song ‘Paranoid’: “[That] song…was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a 3 minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.”

    and that song rocks even more!

    There’s not even an echo of thought regarding the incorporation of caesuric patterns, experiments with iambic feet, or destabilization of the object/subject relationship in regards to the metaphysical notion of rock n’ roll as an ontologically true form of subconscious [removed]or whatever). They shrug it off as if it ‘ain’t no thing’, but then they own it and revel in it’s awesomeness. In a sense, they enjoy it for what it is.

    Reeling it in, let me just say I feel that instead of offering anything truly illuminating on the topic of metal, Mr. Robbins has instead offered us yet another glimpse into the demented and narcissistic inner workings of the aging hipster aesthetic: seal your intelligence up in banality, and temper your passions with aloofness. In effect become what I refer to as a dispassionate enthusiast: know everything about everything, but only use what you know to deride and condescend, never to elevate and praise, much less enjoy.

    Instead of convincing us that he is a fan of metal, Mr Robbins, when he describes dragging a bunch of young people to a metal show only to condescendingly mock the lyrics as he does when he wonders: “empty on the inside” (as opposed to being empty on, like, the outside?).” shows us that he is more like a bitter excluded other (the stereotypical critic) determined to show us, that he is the only serious person in the room, that he’s the only one that ‘gets it’.

    It brings to mind, something Mr. Robbins in all his ‘hep’ erudition may appreciate, a line from the poet John Berryman:

    “Base envy of the very young afflicts me,

    contempt & boredom,

    but envy.”

    Rev. J. Chispas

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