As I age, I try to grow as a person, to keep from ossifying. For example, in the last decade or so I’ve broadened my horizons significantly. I’ve even dipped my toe into heavy metal music with a couple of Metallica albums, which are great when riding the trainer.
The other thing I’ve learned to enjoy is turning up the thermostat. Of course this was off-limits when I was a kid, but oddly enough I stuck with this no-furnace-ever practice even in college, when my gas bill was subsidized by roommates.
This post showcases both aspects of my dark past.
Heavy Metal Roommate - November 10, 1991
My apartment is like a big walk‑in refrigerator. I have never been in such a cold building in my life. If I relax my jaw, it begins shaking violently and my teeth chatter. I’ve never seen this happen indoors before, unless you count the Charles Dickens “A Christmas Story” movie I saw on TV as a kid, which I can’t remember very clearly because all the soup in my brain has coagulated, like really fatty gravy does when you refrigerate it. (If my roommates and I had any gravy, we wouldn’t even need to keep it in the fridge.) I’m typing this slowly because my fingers are going numb. If I sat on my hands they might warm up an imperceptible amount, but my ass would turn to stone.
Why is it so cold here? I think it’s because the molecules, instead of bouncing around, are fleeing to far corners of the apartment, trying to escape the music my roommate plays twenty‑four‑seven. His music is even worse than pop, worse than Tiffany, worse than the socially conscious music that Debbie Gibson will surely try to make after she becomes a big star. I’m talking about music so absolutely hateful as to make Satan turn to the Lord for salvation: heavy metal.
I’ve often wondered how anybody could play heavy metal day in and day out without getting an ulcer, or at least a headache. The other day my roommate J— was beating little cartoon characters with clubs on his Nintendo while some incredible noise was howling and shrieking through the apartment like only his $5,000 speakers can howl and shriek. At first I thought it was the smoke alarm, but ruled that out because I tore the smoke alarm out of the ceiling the other night. It was like thirty-something degrees in our apartment and despite my sweatpants, sweatshirt, and dual polyester comforters, I was still cold. I finally broke down and turned on the heater, which hadn’t been used in so long it coughed up all this smoke and set off the alarm. This alarm had no buttons or simple shutoff switches—at least none I could find at 3:00 am. So I tore it out of the ceiling, ignoring the fire threat even in light of the Berkeley Hills fires that recently tore out five million houses near here. (Maybe it wasn’t five million. Like I said, my brain doesn’t work well in the cold.)
So with the smoke alarm no longer a possibility, I knew the heinous noise must be a death metal song—maybe by Hellhammer, or from the new Cradle of Filth album, or possibly Angra—raging across those inch‑and‑a‑quarter speaker cords to the acoustic cannons pointed right at J—. Heavy metal music on that stereo, in this little apartment, is like a Panzer tank running over a tiny hut in a defenseless village. Were the other roommate and I to combat his stereo with an alliance of our little boom-boxes and “bookshelf stereos,” the acoustic holocaust would chase all the warm friendly molecules away for good, and we’d have audio winter.
Today’s selection was the worst sound I had heard yet, and I was beginning to think it wasn’t heavy metal at all, but merely some electronic malfunction. I mulled over what I recently learned, despite my kicking and screaming in protest, about metal. Unassimilated noise is a favorite way to begin a song: terrible shrieking begins out of nowhere and continues, with no form whatsoever, for what seems like whole minutes before gaining accompaniment—just like the riffraff who fall in together to share drugs or crime—of drums and howled vocal sounds, not harmonizing but clashing together to form complete and relentless auditory anarchy. The metalist—that is, the eager listener imitating the MTV rendition of his idol on stage—listens, entranced, his eyes shut tight, perhaps his lips trembling in that same pseudo-awe we get in church on Sunday, his arms outstretched above his head, fists joined at the thumbs with pinkies extended to form the Secret Satan Symbol, his upper body wavering back and forth. Finally the anarchy of sound reaches a pinnacle, at which point the drums explode into life and the first of many painful guitar solos begins.
At this moment of ground-zero the metalist’s eyes pop open, hopefully revealing a bloodshot road‑map of burst capillaries, and he does something violent, preferably smashing a guitar or at least jumping off a huge amplifier and striking a gnarly stage prance, or in J—’s case, smashing the skull of the aforementioned cartoon character on the Nintendo. But this time, the shrieking was not building up to anything, wasn’t gaining any accompaniment, and finally another roommate, Eric, whom I was helping with a resume on my computer, said, “What the hell is that noise?” and we both started yelling at J—. “It’s just feedback, something’s wrong with the CD player,” he said, not looking up from where he was clubbing a queer bird with a big stick he had taken, by force, from another cartoon enemy earlier. “Well shut it up!” we yelled, with no results.
We closed the door and turned on some real music to drown it out and cheer us up—Bob Marley and the Wailers, I believe—and the shriek went on out in the living room for several more minutes. How could J— withstand the noise, especially when seated at the stereophonic focal point? Simple: all metalists necessarily build up a thick outer shell—an armor, really—that protects the human deep within from the traumatic noise. Hearing such feedback, or a jackhammer, or an F‑15 fighter shooting down the runway (with Desert Storm over, it’d be on the way to a kind and gentle air show, costing taxpayers $2,500 per minute) or the squealing of two hundred pigs in a slaughterhouse, could no more faze a metalist than be discernible from the metal he is playing. Until we pointed it out, J— probably never knew the difference between the feedback and the disc he had intended to play. His shell was too thick: and this accounts for the rest of his personality as well. The other day I told him, “Hey J—, fix us something to eat” (mimicking Eric, who jokingly badgers me with outrageous requests), and J—’s response was the same as if I had told him to do his dishes: “I’ll get to it.” We roommates might as well be the mindless automaton that he is.
To make matters worse, this music makes me feel embarrassed. Here’s how. I should probably have a warm hat to wear around here, but I don’t—I don’t have a hat at all—so I sometimes wear a bandanna. Yeah, thin cotton isn’t exactly going to help, but I’m desperate. So I was working on the computer and looked over at my mirrored closet door, saw myself, and thought, “Who are you trying to be? Axl Rose?”
Axl Rose is pretty silly, you have to admit. He wears a bandanna onstage, with that long, straight hair pouring out of it, and the effect isn’t so much “bad boy of rock” as “your friend’s little sister.” It’s somehow ever girlier than Roger Daltry’s ringlets. But at least Roger Daltry’s hair always looked unkempt and slept-on, and he never wore a bandanna. Don’t get me wrong, Guns N’ Roses’ music, though I dislike it, is the serene singing of sirens, the cooing of lovebirds, my mother’s heartbeat as I am curled in her womb, when compared to the ferocious and hateful dragging of fingernails down a chalkboard I have to put up with here, like so much second-hand smoke.
So, to try not to look like a rock star, I’ve turned my bandanna around so the knot is in front, in the style of Aunt Jemima. She is warm and maternal and pancakes are warm and fluffy and this positive imaging might just warm me up a bit. Maybe if I also think of Mrs. Butterworth, I can put my evil roommate completely out of my mind. The pancake ladies are so opposite of J—, with his ice-cold demeanor, his molecularly inert slouch on the sofa, his violent video games, and the four hundred heavy metal discs he needlessly hoards in his room. I just wish Aunt Jemima were a real person, and were here right now, to bring some warmth to my own private Siberia.
Quiz answer (added Feb 7 - not from the original essay)
No, you didn’t miss it—I never issued a formal quiz. But you may have wondered, “Who is Ellhame?” You know, Ellhame, from the homemade poster at the top of this post. Well, I got that picture from the web. Some metalist evidently decided to make his own “keep calm” poster, and despite the utterly intuitive tools provided by the Keep Calm-o-matic, he couldn’t figure out how to change the font so that “Hellhammer” would fit on the poster. I guess he decided “ellhame”was close enough, and I think that tells you just about all you need to know about the heavy metal believer.