At Valhalla’s Gates: A Life With Metal

Male menopause, heavy metal, and Lonesome Dove.

Something happens to most men when they hit what is controversially referred to as “male menopause.” They soften up a bit, and it probably has a lot to do with testosterone levels. At least that’s what I hear. No, but seriously, the time will come one way or another for all of us, and in addition to complications met facing the ordinary slings and arrows of real life, a man’s artistic sensibilities can also provide fertile soil for the manifestation of this change.

From the time Jimi Hendrix released “Purple Haze” and Cream topped the charts with “Sunshine Of Your Love” I was a head-banging member of the heavy rock tribe. For 30+ years, up until around 2000 when the band Disturbed made its melodically pulverizing debut, it was all hard rock and the hardest of metal for me.

Then, inexplicably, I began to lose interest. Some inner ear was becoming estranged from the martial strains of Judas Priest and the libidinous raging of Van Halen. It was as if that music, that energy, had rocked out of sync with my bio-rhythms and most profound musical associations.

I rediscovered oldies, like the Four Seasons hit “Rag Doll,” and lots of other songs I’d purchased as 45s. I developed an ear for classic easy listening, with strong emotional content, like Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” If rock was on the menu, it was likely an aural look back at emotive artists like Fleetwood Mac or Tom Petty.

When my son heard me replaying and reflecting to music from the Lonesome Dove soundtrack he accused me of wimping out, but I didn’t care. Where once Slayer’s “Angel of Death” would send me in to paroxysms of darkened joy, now Declan Galbraith’s exultant reading of “Danny Boy” helped make sense of a heightened sensitivity that was causing me to tear-up at the end of old episodes of Gunsmoke.

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But another change was coming. A re-toughening.

Looking back, male menopause—if that’s an apt description–was painful, but once suffered through the passage inevitably made me stronger. I adopted some new outlooks about what I was facing. As I made to crawl out of my middle-age doldrums the easy listening station started losing resonance. I still dug hearing Frank Sinatra sing “New York, New York,” and even liked, “My Heart Will Go On,” but for some scarred-over and toughened part of me that music was losing its primary resonance.

About the time VH1 premiered That Metal Show I began to feel a reconnection with heavy music again. But I’d heard “Run To The Hills,”  “Children Of The Grave” and “Enter, Sandman” thousands of times. I became a regular viewer of the rock-and-metal oriented talk show, and though I could listen on and on about the forefathers of hard rock and metal I also became interested what had gone on in the genre while I was tending to my inner Alan Alda.

What I found, as represented here by three songs culled from the post-millennial history of metal, was that the genre had not skipped a thudding heartbeat.

King Diamond, avowed Satanist, had been one of my faves, God help me. I found in England’s Cradle of Filth that his influence had birthed a frightening progeny. In “Death Of Love” face-painted frontman Danny Filth shrieks and roars behind a wall of Euro-guitars, extracting metal agony out of an old theme that King Diamond veritably owned, the execution of a beloved witch.

Anchored by a crypt-kicking downbeat, the opus offers something I’d not heard in metal, the pristine, un-ironic plaint of a doomed Scandinavian goddess. When the double-bass quickens over her final soliloquy, I feel trapped too on that pyre, with all the failed and exultant moments I’ve shared with the opposite sex.

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It was a dark and stormy night of the soul when I stumbled onto “Unto The Locust” by Machine Head. The band hails from my hometown region of the San Francisco Bay Area, and that’s cool, but this song would have shaken my foundations no matter from whence it had spawned.

A biblical plague has risen to scourge humankind, and no riff-rock evocation of insect fear is missing from this track. The grinding goes from heavy to crushing in its depiction of “loveless” devouring.

A shot in song’s video of a young woman putting hand to mouth as the skies darken speaks volumes about our terrible awe when confronted with the destructive forces of nature. And yet as heavy as the song is, and as potent as the video featuring dark herald Robb Flynn is, it is the dynamic quietude of the post-second-chorus interlude that really floors with its counterintuitive celebration of locusts on the move, a terrible beauty and a metaphor for the creative destruction that dooms us all.

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There are as many ways to confront the reality of the aging process as there are men. To be more specific, we don’t know if Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister went through an easy listening phase on his way past 50, I kind of doubt it. But we’re all headed for Valhalla, some of us sooner than others, and I can only hope that when my time comes the experience will possess some of the magic captured by New York’s Manowar in their jaw-dropping swords-and-sorcery masterwork, “Gods of War.”

There is a deep, primal sense of recognition here, of having heard this song before in another life. After opening with a war-drum chant which vows a fight to the death for Odin’s spiritual monarchy, a tale of anachronistic conflict unfolds, bulwarked by a spellbinding refrain which conjures castle wall breaches, hand-to-hand Armageddons, and Anglo-Saxon antiquity.

Singer Eric Adams mesmerizes from the first hushed incantation to the final scarifying, leather-lunged scream, and the retro lead break evokes the slow fury of clashing iron and blood spilt on the fields of yore.

I’m well past half a century now, and on my way here I caught a glimpse of the Valley of Old Age and Death. I’m not planning any untimely exit, but having crossed over to the far side of my menopausal River Styx my sense is that I need to toughen up and embrace the dark steed I will ride on my journey into twilight and eventual meet-up with God, or the Grim Reaper.

I may opt for Lonesome Dove at the very end, and there will definitely be a crucifix, right side up. But I’ll probably also request some of the music that got me through most of my life. After all, it’s my funeral.

Photo by allisonmseward12/Flickr

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About Mark Ellis

Portland journalist and writer Mark Ellis is the author of  Ladder Memory: Stories from the Painting Trade

Comments

  1. Hmm, interesting. I have to admit that while I still enjoy a little metal in my dotage (God bless youtube, though it’s not the same as a live band with a huge sound system), the part of my brain that enjoys it the most has come to be satisfied with JS Bach’s dynamic compositions for pipe organ. Also, Rodrigo y Gabriela’s cheeky arrangements of Metallica anthems for two classical guitars.

  2. Metallica!!!! That is all………. :)

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