‘Metal, Mayhem, Madness … Meaning?’

Jeff Mackowiak, Robinson College, 2 March 2014

READINGSEcclesiastes 1: 1 - 11 (KJV); Mark 11: 12 - 22 (KJV).

‘That got me right in the feels, bro’.

In an article surveying the various words of the year of 2013, published in The New York Times Sunday Review, the lexicographer Grant Barrett identified ‘feels’ as a word of the year, above and beyond those selected by various dictionaries.  ‘Feels.  n. pl.  Feelings.  Originated online, thrived as a meme in 2012, and now in 2013 shows signs of moving into more widespread English slang’, Barrett reported.  For previous generations, an affecting anecdote might move your ‘soul’, non-corporeal and vaguely spooky, if not fustily Victorian, or it might stir your ‘heart’, that doubly freighted organ, charged with profound physiological duties while making irresistible emotional demands.  The modern young person, though, turns the whole assertion of personal impact much more sensory, tactile ­– even materialistic:  Your ‘feels’, feel; the way your ear, listens.

‘That story of Jesus and the moneychangers, got me right in the feels, bro’.

Yet, though the sophisticated – or, perhaps, just superannuated – ear might chafe, is this phrasing all that novel?  As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun, and for all the ‘selfies’ and (God help us) ‘twerkings’ appearing in dictionaries nowadays, commonalities of sensibility and anxiety are preserved.  Sure, there is amplification, abasement, adaptation, acceleration, compaction; technology plays its role, and mores change.  (Yet I am fairly sure Sylvia Plath would have understood the urge to take a selfie, and I am certain, say, that Walt Whitman would’ve been snapping away.) 

vanitas vanitatum.  ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, 
vanity of vanities; all is vanity’, as tonight’s King James Version has it.  This, though – as I am sure you are all aware – is not a pithy caution against self-admiration for the compulsive selfie-taker, as the less lyrical, less magisterial, yet more sprightly and demotic New International Translation’s rendering reminds us:  ‘“Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher. 
 “Utterly meaningless!
  Everything is meaningless”’, in the modern coinage.  Two translations, centuries apart:  Not quite congruent, but similar in shape.  Each with drawbacks; each with excellencies; each, vitally, with expected audiences ­– and fervid advocates:  One might even call them ‘fans’. 

The ‘shock of the new’ is a cliché, in music even moreso than linguistics … or Biblical translation.  I was at an evensong at King’s College Chapel three weeks ago, and the celebrant announced – to the assembled tourists and students and townsfolk – the choir’s final solo piece, with the direful phrase:  ‘This evening’s anthem is by a … contemporary Australian composer’.  A tremor ran through the congregants, the very angels atop the rood screen put down trumpets and half-covered their ears.  But that anthem, a setting by Carl Vine of Tennyson’s ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’, was in a familiar, and culturally valued idiom, classical music, performed in a sacred space, by the embodiment of the Establishment, King’s College Choir.  For all its dissonances (which were minimal), it fit the venue and occasion.  It met expectations.  The congregation smiled on exit – not toe-tapping, exactly, but not flummoxed or sputtering, either.  How would that same congregation, though, perhaps in a different venue, have responded to a heavy metal take on the same themes, if not the same poem?  I would suspect:  Not terribly well

True story:  I once requested the (scrumptiously titled) volume How Black Was Our Sabbath, a memoir of roadies’ travails on tour with the seminal Birmingham heavy metal quartet Black Sabbath.  This was in the Reading Room of the University Library.  (Classmark: M950.c.200.508, in case anyone wants a peek.)  The text, when it duly appeared, was placed on the table by the library staffer with such disdain, that tongs may as well have been used.  Plutonium is handled with less trepidation.  And in some senses, heavy metal – the ‘schlock of the new’? – is easy to mock.  T. S. Eliot, in a letter to celebrated American New Critic Cleanth Brooks, once wrote:  ‘Reading your essay [on one of Eliot’s own poems] made me feel […] that I had been a great deal more ingenious than I had been aware of, because the conscious problems with which one is concerned in [the] actual writing [of poetry] are more those of a quasi musical nature, in the arrangement of metric and pattern, than of a conscious exposition of ideas’.  Eliot – rather disingenuously, to be sure – was, in a way, disclaiming Deep Meaning in his verse, as he had been too busy getting the tune right.  Heavy metal bands are, shall we say, even more guilty of this. 

Beyond metric and pattern, way beyond matter, there are guitars to worry about; and more guitars; and squiggling, indulgent solos; and phalanxes of Marshall Amplifiers stacked up, cranked to eleven; and pyrotechnics; and bone-liquefying drum fills; and hip thrusts and heads banging.  And noise.  Tennyson once referred to the sound of the organ of Trinity College Chapel, from Great Court, as ‘thunder-music, rolling, shak[ing] / The prophet blazoned on the panes’.  ‘Thunder music’, he called it:  Tennyson had clearly never experienced, say, the ‘Masters of Reality’ Tour of Black Sabbath, at Birmingham Town Hall on 25 January 1972.

So, I’m not making great claims for lyrical sophistication, or even existential depth.

Music, of course – or most music – has always featured interplay between the sacred and the demonic, the ordered and the chaotic, the beautiful and the damned.  The gloomy dies irea pops up in unlikely settings, like Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini’. Perhaps because Paganini, famously, for the sake of the fiddle – or so it was reputed – had sold his soul to Lucifer, as American bluesman Robert Johnson was later to, at a Mississippi crossroads – again, allegedly.  (Some musicians and composers, it seems, were of ‘the [Devil’s] party’, while knowing it; some music, party-music.)  Frederick Nietzsche – incidentally, the only philosopher quoted with any regularity in the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger – in The Birth of Tragedy, praises, in ancient Greek culture, the primordial intermixing of Apollonian and Dionysian modes:  ‘Dionysian music’, he explains, ‘especially awoke in that [ancient] world fear and terror’ – to the inestimable profit, Nietzsche contends, of Western art.  There’s even a curious reminder of this always fertile, sometimes febrile, inter-melding every time you cross Garret Hostel Bridge, here in Cambridge.  Facing North, and looking down, you see the punt armada of Trinity College.  They are all wittily named, or half-named, Trinity’s punts, after ‘things involving three’.  Some are easy:  ‘Hat Trick’, ‘Little Pigs’, ‘Peace Sweet’.  Some are more obscure:  ‘Lithium’ (the third element); ‘Mile Island’ (after Three Mile Island, the site of a 1979 nuclear disaster).  One’s amusingly risqué:  ‘Ménage’.  My favourite, though, seems assertively, even proudly, Infernal:  ‘Diabolus in Musica’, ‘the Satan in Music’, a punt so called after the feared tritone, a musical progression felt since the Middle Ages to insinuate dissonance and unease into the most celestial of choirs, and one, to this day, central to Heavy Music of many kinds.

What of the iconography of heavy metal?:  The corpses and hornéd demons and nightmarish churches and flashes of lightning which grace (if that’s the right word), with fearsome regularity, the album covers as much as feature in the lyrics?  It’s a brand, in part.  In a review of the 1991 album Arise by the band Sepultura, one reviewer complained:  ‘I do wish [Sepultura] wouldn’t start each album with a quiet interlude intended to lull you into a false sense of security – you’re never fooled, because you don’t buy a record with a skull on the cover expecting to hear mood music’.  That’s precisely it:  The iconography of metal is more kitschy Halloween than loathsome Black Mass, marketing rather than malevolence.  (Black Sabbath took their name from a Boris Karloff film playing near their rehearsal space.)  And, of course, All Hallows’ Eve presupposes an All Saints’ Day to come – and soon. 

Such dressing of celestial ends in chthonic cloaks has a storied literary and philosophical heritage, of course.  The most popular poem in Puritan New England was a lurid, sensational, epic-length affair entitled ‘The Day of Doom’, by Michael Wigglesworth.  It was so beloved that no first editions are known to survive.  Volumes were, literally, thumbed to bits … by the Puritans.  And Wigglesworth’s brimstone visuals – and his poem’s chugging, brutish, ballad-stanzas describing Damnation and the Unrighteous – could supply material for a trilogy, minimum, of Iron Maiden concept-albums.

Today is the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, but I think it characteristic of the young to never regard their own times as ordinary.  Apocalypse always seems (nearer-) pressing, the climate (ever more) threatening, cultural portents (escalatingly) grim.  Ecclesiastes emphasises recapitulation, eternal recurrence, a nothing-newness under the sun – always rising, always setting.  This can reassure, but it also might, to some, seem enervating, nurturing complacency, sapping fervour for change. 

In a 1972 profile article on Black Sabbath, the author recalled sitting with the band, as casualty reports from the Vietnam War flickered in over a radio; the band’s bassist, Geezer Butler, sighed:  ‘It’s a satanic world.  The devil’s more in control now, and happier than ever before.  People can’t come together, there’s no equality.  The higher you climb, the more people you have to cut down’.  Their collective rage at the mechanization – indeed, corporatisation – of slaughter during Vietnam, its mercantilisation on TV news, found memorable expression in one of their most enduring and perceptive songs, ‘War Pigs’. 

It begins – over a sludge of down-tuned guitars, and the droning wail of an air-raid klaxon:

            Generals gathered in their masses

           Just like witches at black masses


            Evil minds that plot destruction

           Sorcerers of death’s construction

           In the fields the bodies burning


            As the war machine keeps turning


            Death and hatred to mankind


            Poisoning their brainwashed minds

            Oh lord yeah!

           Politicians hide themselves away


            They only started the war

            Why should they go out to fight?


            They leave that role to the poor

Those are true words, and angry ones, too; the moneychangers have left the Temple, it seems, and moved into armories, into government, into business.  And it can all seem so insurmountable, so irremediable.  Last week, Prof. Hooker spoke of music and social justice, a hopeful noise; metal seems often more about despair, the anthems shouts of helplessness – a rage against the Machine … and the Machine never stops. 

Metal has never been cool.  (I have long been an enthusiast.)  Its fans often feel dispossessed, pessimistic about the world’s future, sometimes their own.  Sabbath, accordingly, has released songs confronting – even, perhaps, some might contend, reveling in – nuclear war, environmental calamity, societal collapse. 

But I would argue that in metal, generally, as with Black Sabbath, particularly, above such parochial dreads, such local extinctions, echoes always that same existential worry haunting a pessimistic reading of Ecclesiastes:  That it is, indeed, all ‘vanity’, all ‘Meaningless’.  (Pick your translation.)  Such worries are ancient, and plagued – oh, dear – Victorians like Tennyson, Housman, and Hardy, of course, and persist still, unquenched.  To my mind, though, they find their most piquant modern expression in a poem – entitled, simply, ‘Meaning’ – written late in the twentieth century by the then-octogenarian Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz; across three stanzas, options are presented starkly – and intimately:

            – When I die, I will see the lining of the world.

            The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.

            The true meaning, ready to be decoded.

            What never added up will add up,

            What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

            – And if there is no lining to the world?

            If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,

            But just a thrush on the branch?  If night and day

            Make no sense following each other?

            And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?

            – Even if that is so, there will remain

            A word wakened by lips that perish,

            A tireless messenger who runs and runs

            Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,

            And calls out, screams, protests.

Either a supernatural, Providential order beyond the visible, inaccessible to experiment, or nothing ‘on this earth […] except this earth’.  Either a bright and numinous realm ‘beyond bird, mountain, sunset’, in which a deductive explanation is ready to hand for that which we must presently take on faith (a world in which, in short, ‘What was never added up will add up’), or – to the detriment of religion, of metaphysics – one in which the arbitrary is doomed to remain ever as such; in which the dead are lost to us, eternally; in which ‘a thrush on a branch is not a sign, / But just a thrush on the branch’. 

Or, as Black Sabbath put it in 1971’s ‘After Forever’, perhaps anticipating ‘Meaning’, and doing their own bit to ‘[call] out, [scream], [protest]’ (those, of course – ‘call[ing] out, scream[ing], protest[ing]’ – the ‘head-banging’ imperatives of Milosz’s anguished finale); here’s ‘After Forever’s open:

            Have you ever thought about your soul – can it be saved?

            Or perhaps you think that when you’re dead you just stay in your grave.

            Is God just a thought within your head or is he part of you?

            Is Christ just a name that you read in a book when you were in school?

Cruder, less subtle, brusquer, yes.  Louder, certainly.  But age-old worries, evoking eternal, irresoluble questions ­(on this side of ‘Forever’, to use Sabbath’s conceit; this side of ‘the veil’, to use Tennyson’s). 

And I must say, that Sabbath song, like the lament in Ecclesiastes, gets me ‘right in the feels’, every time.  Rock on.