AUTHOR’S NOTE – Tradition for this blog, informal until now, has been for every 25th post to eschew the usual route of reviews and features and speak to something personal. What follows does all that and much more. In rereading and editing it, I realized immediately that its protagonist doesn’t come off particularly well. I hope much of that can be chalked up to these being remembrances (fairly accurate, I’m forced to concede) of how I felt, and what I was, at the ages of 11-13, a shy, lonely kid trying and failing to navigate the choppy social waters of junior high/middle school. What I was and how I felt were pretty much one thing and the same: lost. I try to always write from a passionate point of view, in part because it’s comfortable and inspiring, but also because I worry I’m not particularly interesting and hope that subject matter for which I feel a particular affinity will help make up the difference. When I’m the subject matter I’m writing about, well, the intensity is necessarily compounded.
What you’re about to read is a long and winding journey, cathartic (I found) in addition to being self-indulgent, meticulous in detail and overreaching in scope. Some of the details were particularly uncomfortable for me to excavate and inhabit, and I apologize if they’re upsetting, or if the journey becomes wearying. I thought it proper and necessary to describe both the heights and depths in full. This was a very hard piece for me to write, or at least half of it was. When things later shifted abruptly to far happier subject matter, I predictably found it difficult to stop writing. Everyone has a story. Mine is no more important than anyone else’s. I am merely longer in both memory and wind…and hopeful that reading this might someday be a help or a comfort to someone, somewhere. That’s all. I confided in my father over lunch, one day approximately fifteen years ago, and was surprised that this story brought him to tears. Too many times since, I have promised him I would write it down. I love him. So here goes.
I want to belong.
The bonds of memory are such unreliable things: tenuous, slippery, brittle even. With years and years of distance now between those days and this one, I don’t suppose I can credibly pretend to know exactly how I felt at age eleven anymore, but I think it’s worth the attempt nonetheless. My memories of that time still wash over me if I stand back and let them, and even now are always vivid, and burdensome, fraught with a creeping, nebulous kind of tension. The predominant social artifact of my youth was always this nagging, practically crippling, feeling that I just didn’t belong – that I was somehow unworthy of belonging, and laughably unable to affect my station in any way. A child is by necessity self-centered, of course, but could I have possibly invented all the conflict I felt myself embroiled in as I entered my teens? Even as now I don’t rightly know, I still find it highly unlikely. The child isn’t mature enough to deal with his or her environment, though he hopefully makes strides to learn and adapt. The child bridging his way into adolescence creates an arena, a mindset, a state of being, in which his or her needs are of paramount importance. Anything that threatens him is, almost by definition, cataclysmic, and adolescent emotion is among the most powerful forces imaginable. It creates, it destroys, and it burns like a furnace. It is immutably personal. I felt all those feelings, all those years ago, intensely, and that is undeniable. Whether or to what degree they were tethered to the encroaching real world is almost immaterial. As a young, fumbling teenager, I created my own reality, in a manner of speaking. The world didn’t help, certainly, but I also couldn’t get out of my own way. I certainly couldn’t get out of my own head.
I want to know who I am.
I don’t ever remember thinking or saying those words until music came into my life, and, even then, years later. I grew up an only child, a latchkey kid, a child of divorce. My parents heaped love onto me but also often seemed absent, although the world in which I was living admittedly wasn’t really accepting visitors. They divorced when I was six, each remarrying over the course of a very confusing summer two years later. When it came to parenting, I felt their absence acutely, but what I see now they lacked was time, not effort. My mother exhausted herself with the effort of making her only son not realize how much she sometimes struggled to make ends meet. She sought also to cobble together some semblance of a life, as well she should, and has always lamented that she didn’t fully grasp the degree to which I was distressed. In those days, however, I was kind of a closed book, latched and locked. My time with my father was generally limited to a weekly visitation, at which he attempted to engage me gently, thoughtfully and without condescension about things that mattered to me. I considered those visits at worst an oasis, and, on occasion, an outright life raft. Like so many kids, I struggled socially, and mightily, before finally finding any sort of footing. I was quiet, overweight, contemplative, overly sensitive, and painfully shy. In elementary school, I was teased sporadically, but for the most part ignored. I felt like a non-entity. The real world moved a bit too fast for me to grasp, and so I moved inward, living inside my flowering imagination and hoping against hope that one day I might somehow magically fit in. I hoped for a long time, to no avail, and what I found myself grasping for, somewhat desperately, was not a sense of self but rather any sort of acceptance from my peers. The former would have served me far better, in retrospect.
Please, just let me belong.
Making friends has never been my strong suit, and, even today, I rarely have the first word on anything. Junior high school (I can never get used to calling it middle school) was a dark revelation to me. I had navigated elementary school reasonably well, but even in a small town, wading upriver into the raging confluence of multiple schools is an experience that is well beyond disorienting. The general population (and I don’t choose my prison metaphors lightly) increases fivefold or more, bringing with it new streams of finely-tuned young alien hunters, their weapons all set to stun or higher. This bestows upon the put upon youngster limitless opportunities to be shunned, shamed, or otherwise shown his place. I remember the fun for me actually began before I had even entered the door. My new classmates and I were awkwardly arranged outside the school into several long lines. An authority figure strolled each column, clipboard in hand, taking inventory, and reshuffling the deck here and there as it pleased her. My darting eyes fixed briefly on a trio of pretty girls in the line to my left, then quickly found a fascinating spot of gravel on which to focus as the tallest one called out to me in a mocking sing-song, “what are you looking at?” I didn’t respond, didn’t acknowledge her in any way, hoping she’d shrug and move on. Undeterred, she called out again. “Hey, you’re cute. What’s your name?” I could hear her friends giggling beside her, could see them whispering the occasional scandalous item to one another out of my peripheral vision. The sound penetrated me. I don’t think I could’ve have responded, even if I’d thought there was any upside to doing so. “Hey, you wanna go out some time?” This was followed by peals of outright laughter, to which I saw the ringleader, my intended, seamlessly join in, her previous earnest poker face finally broken into shards of taunting sunshine. Eighteen words had rendered me mute. I felt a sort of impotent rage rumbling in my belly. I returned my gaze to the ground until I was finally moved away.
You don’t belong here.
This all sounds exceedingly routine, I know, just the normal speed bumps of adolescent angst writ large. By almost any objective analysis, nothing about my case was special. What shy, fat kid in junior high or high school never got taunted by cheerleaders, or ridiculed by jocks, kicked in the ass on either a dare or a lark, mock complimented on his bust line, or regularly threatened by bullies with fights they knew, deep down, would never materialize? I can’t speak to what my fellow classmates might have been feeling or experiencing with any more authority than I can speculate on how things might be for eleven and twelve-year-olds today. Surely a great deal has changed in the interim, though, I’d imagine, not the essential tenets of adolescent acceptance and exclusion – their summary quarantining and round, ripping condemnation of anything “other”. Much more than what I experienced, I only now concretely know what I felt, what I was feeling at the time, as those hours and days ticked by, and, increasingly, with remarkable speed, what I felt was hopeless. I didn’t talk to my parents. Whatever friends I might have ported over from earlier grades now were necessarily largely absent, as they had their own new worlds to deal with. I was locked in on my day to day life, and in the deep recesses of my mind I began to couch it as a dire sort of existential struggle, so much that I’m sure my natural sensitivity, creativity and willpower inadvertently helped intensify the details and greatly raise the stakes, if not will that very struggle into existence. Merely being ostracized and picked on wasn’t enough for me on some weird level. My heightened awareness of the nefarious presence of tormentors, both actual and potential, instilled in me the inescapable feeling that I was trapped, and that my only possible option was to make them see my worth, to make them see me as someone worth accepting.
You don’t belong.
There are few individual black hat villains in this tale, and certainly none I’d care to name. Instead, the loosely codified but deadly potent social structure of school itself was my antagonist. In our small Northeast Tennessee town, hallway and classroom society was divided into three easily identifiable estates: 1) an upper layer of “popular” kids, your stereotypical achiever class – attractive, confident, often affluent, your jocks and cheerleaders and various well-wishers, 2) a base layer of classic underachievers – the “street smart”, delinquent and/or chronically disinterested, your shop kids, detention roster and such, and 3) the vast wasteland of poorly-defined “neither-ness” that existed between them, containing me, among so many others. I worried myself to death about where and how well I might fit into this forbidding new landscape and, because I was so proficient at self-fulfilling prophecies, it turned out that I fit in practically nowhere, and terribly to boot. It would take weeks and months of flailing before I developed a foothold or any semblance of friends. A handful of those would miraculously prove true, and enduring (to this very day), and would, to my delight, enrich my life to come in manifold ways, but I still never needed more than a single hand to count them. And, unfortunately, they weren’t even the mark I had initially aimed for. This is keeping with my record of routinely shooting for the stars, only to clumsily slice into the woods. At any rate, my great expectations were in dire need of recalibration. It was to prove a predictably arduous process.
Popularity seemed to me at once a cruelly ephemeral thing and a genetic trait I most definitely didn’t possess. I split my class time between wishing the right someone would notice me and fearing that the wrong someone would notice me. The rare times I tried to reach out were akin to a child burning his hand on a hot stove. Some truths are indelible and don’t cry out for repeat lessons. The only people with whom I identified in any way were my fellow “others”, some of whom appeared to have established friendly relationships with certain, nicer popular kids and some who seemed similarly dispossessed, if maybe not quite as adrift as me. I was ostensibly on a “college-track” in my classes – almost all of which were disproportionately populated with the popular – though I think the designation had more to do with encouraging achievement than presenting vastly different curricula based on the students’ ability level. One year, at registration, I accidentally on purpose chose a lower level English class on the premise that it should feel like a temporary vacation to be away from the worst popular kids for even an hour a day. And it did, though diligent administrators noted my error the next semester and crowded me back onto the track for which I was meant.
The fact that I didn’t even objectively like many of the popular kids was entirely beside the point. I wanted to belong, but had absolutely no clue how, nor any capacity for honest self-assessment. Conversations buzzed around me, past me, and in spite of me, and I sat, class after class, day after day, silent and wistful, frustrated and meek, doodling in a notebook or daydreaming, forever averting my eyes. Rare attempts at joking my way into the conversation invariably fell flat. Rarer attempts at starting one outright were dead on arrival. I wondered if I should keep trying. I was an easy target, so certain classmates would always see sport in taking the semi-regular mocking jab at me, but for the most part I was patently ignored. I felt like some animal sitting in a desk-sized containment pen, while the larger herd/flock/pack moved and grazed around me, blissfully oblivious to my presence. I didn’t feel I could talk to my parents (for whatever reason), I couldn’t get through to the people I wanted to (for exceedingly well-defined reasons), and I foolishly discounted the kids my age with whom I actually, potentially shared a boat. I increasingly felt I had nowhere to turn, except further and further inward. I felt almost completely alone.
So what does that matter?
In the moments when I felt at my most cut off, I even began to occasionally wonder what it would be like to be dead. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to die, but more that, all things being equal, I would not particularly mind being dead. I wanted to go to sleep one night and just not wake up. I didn’t find the thought morbid. The concept was calming in a way. Among the gifts I inherited from my parents (a keen musical ear, the ability to deftly mix empathy and self-regard, an uncanny talent for procrastination) is my extremely emotional nature, and school was tweaking and twisting it for all it was worth. My heart has always gone out to the underdog. The art that appeals to me most is often the art that makes me feel the most. My breath invariably catches when I hear of somebody’s death or extreme misfortune, or the details of a hard life, whether succumbed to or overcome. Often I get involuntarily misty. I’ve routinely broken into tears at the news of the passing of a personal idol (Roger Ebert, George Carlin, et al). And at the age of eleven, I thought seriously about being dead myself.
The subject of depression is one I’ve danced around and shadowboxed for years, and it makes me intensely uncomfortable, because I know the world is teeming with people who (diagnosed or not) struggle with it every day. I don’t have the credentials to speak to it with any authority. I know depression is an albatross, an anchor chained to an ankle, a thick, low-lying fog that obscures and envelops and squeezes with all its might. You manage it or you don’t, but I don’t think you ever really overcome it. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced depression in a clinical sense, but I have hurt, truly and deeply and often, especially in my early adolescence. When I was too young to have hero figures I wasn’t related to, I thought of things in terms of comfort and convenience. Is there a point to this? Why was being dead so obviously an unviable alternative? I gave the idea entirely too much thought, as is my wont with most things. Contained within it were a placidity and an unsettling logic, at a time when my emotions almost seemed to be conspiring to destroy me otherwise. What was the point, really, in pining and cringing my way through the day, every day, in going through the motions, solely because it was expected of me? Whatever its basis in truth, I felt ostracized, if not spat upon, and patently uncared for. Each day that passed only reinforced that worldview. What could there be to possibly look forward to except more of the same?
What does any of it matter?
The distance between not caring to live, however, and actually wanting to kill myself was, for me, a chasm. I have a vivid memory of taking the large butcher knife out of its drawer in the kitchen. School had let out, and I was home alone as per usual, bored and idle and inquisitive. I looked at the knife. My mother would be back from work within the hour. Fact-finding mission? Dress rehearsal? I wondered. The knife was heavy but not particularly shiny. It had water spots on it, and was longer than it probably needed to be. I turned it over and over in my hand, grasping the blade tight enough to feel it begin to dig in but no more. I stared, wondering how sharp it was, wondering if it’d suffice and having no earthly clue, curiosity curdling within me. Our electric can opener had a knife sharpener built into it, and I ran the edge through it multiple times, almost as a dare, letting the low screech of metal tempering metal bore into my consciousness. How much would it hurt, I wondered? Would it be over in a single slice like you always saw in the movies, or would I need to work harder because I was a stupid, clumsy kid? Could I stand it? Would I faint?
I stood there, pondering, unmoving, for what could just as easily have been one minute or thirty, then I blinked my eyes, pointed the freshly sharpened edge of the knife away from my body, took a breath, and drew it slowly across my wrist. The feeling was indescribable. I felt myself slump a little, felt a muscle in my shoulder involuntarily spasm. Unnerved, I shut my eyes tight, trying to contain myself in the moment, but other thoughts crowded in desperately. Even though the knife’s dull edge was still cool against my wrist, in my mind’s eye I saw a sudden geyser of blood, exploding onto the kitchen floor and spattering against the window of our back door. I felt its shocking warmth, and I saw myself, aghast and suddenly panic-stricken, clutching the wound in a futile effort to stem its flow. Then I saw myself crying uncontrollably into my hands as one of them spurted blood. I could taste it. I pictured myself dying, before the age of twelve, slipping away helplessly, ripe with the sudden knowledge that I would never see or talk to my father again, and that discovering my body would very likely drive my loving, unsuspecting mother insane, if not into a premature grave of her own. Ours, as I said, is a very emotional family.
I opened my eyes.
The hallucinatory realization walked me back from the edge, pretty much for all time, but as I stood there, tears welling but not falling and knife still in hand, what I felt was not relief but rather a pointed sort of shame. I was weak, and here was all the proof that was needed. Here was thudding, definitive confirmation of the weakness inside me, the deficiencies I’d always imagined others saw in me finally made manifest, and laid bare for me fully acknowledge. Even if I did sometimes want to die – and the thought would lay dormant in me for years to come – it turned out that I had no real say in the matter. I lacked the innate confidence I thought was necessary to make others like me; I lacked the agency to attempt to change anyone’s mind (mine included); I lacked the spine to stand up to others when they hurt me, and now, in my darkest moments, I lacked even the courage of my shaky convictions. I felt well and truly defeated. Each new day just tacked additional points onto the margin of victory. I sat down hard and laid the knife aside, on the carpet of the adjoining dining room, edge still pointed away from me. I just couldn’t get out of my head. Thoughts of death thankfully receded in the subsequent days, though the anxieties that had so neatly inspired them in the first place were a fact of life, and the longer junior high went on, as the miles stretched out behind me and high school, with all its dread potential, loomed, the more I felt I was walking in quicksand. Any effort to improve my standing seemed to just suck me down further.
The tipping point finally came at a time, not terribly far removed from the day I audited Cutlery 101, when my optimism was on an improbable upswing. After weeks of hounding, I had finally convinced my mother to buy me a new outfit of “cool” school clothes. We frankly could not afford these clothes, which I now remember as aspirational mall-wear directly out of the late-‘80s John Hughes catalogue (back when he was still writing quality, teen-focused movies but farming them out to other directors), but Mom saw how much it meant to me and acquiesced to my no doubt adorable pressure. I imagine she didn’t see any excess importance in the gesture, and was just excited to see me excited about buying clothes. I’d naively thought they would be some kind of difference maker. When the big day finally came, I assessed myself in my grandmother’s full-length bathroom mirror: new shirt, age-inappropriate and straight off of an MTV dance show, overly ornate new jeans, and slick new shoes. The sage wisdom of ZZ Top echoed in my head, and, well satisfied, I left for school, brimming with temporary courage.
What began as my closest approximation of a strut dwindled as the day progressed until it was a little less than nothing. I received no compliments, nor kind words, noted no approving glances but a few incredulous double-takes, and not a few sniggers as I passed. For the most part, it was merely the same obliviousness which greeted me every other day. Realization dawned on me with all the subtlety of a bank of flood lights. I had been used to unwelcome scrutiny before, or to feeling marginalized, but this was something new. This was an elaborate practical joke I’d unwittingly played on myself. I wasn’t merely embarrassed but, rather, mortified. By noon, I was performing internal damage assessments. By two, I was devising hilarious ways to minimize my hallway visibility and cursing myself for not being clairvoyant enough to bring along a change of clothes. By five, I was back at Grandma’s, staring soberly into that same mirror at that same ridiculous ensemble, now worn by an entirely different kid.
“This is what you get,” I thought to myself, as I stared, unblinking, at the mess in front me, the mess I’d voluntarily made myself into. Then I said the words aloud for added emphasis. “This is what you deserve.” I was disgusted with myself in that moment, and angry to the marrow of my bones. To strive so long and intently for the slightest wisp of approval from the distracted masses – who, for all I knew, couldn’t have cared less if I staged a daily one-clown parade down the main hall or disappeared entirely – and for what? For nothing, clearly. I felt like the worst kind of fool, in the reductive way many people imagine prostitutes must feel when they look in the mirror, though at that age I couldn’t possibly have articulated it. Without ceremony, I threw the Hughes reject clothes into a heap at the back of a closet, where they might have decomposed for all I cared, and changed back into my typical plain jeans and (not yet black) t-shirt with palpable relief.
I lay on Grandma’s bed for a long while, eyes open and thinking, before something made me return to the mirror for an updated self-assessment. Yep, still me: fat, quiet and ordinary. Nothing special here, nothing at all worth fussing over…but nothing too terrible either. Something to build on, maybe? I held my gaze at the mirror a bit longer, trying to make myself flinch or shrink, to no avail. I looked weird. But I didn’t want to cry, nor did I want to die, at all, in either case. I wanted something new. I momentarily didn’t care much about belonging. I’ll try to make something good out of something new, I promised the thin air. Then I nodded for emphasis and chuckled uncomfortably. I even tried on a smile in the mirror before leaving. It looked forced, like my prompted smiles often do, but it was still something. Something to build on, maybe.
So what does matter?
You play the cards you’re dealt. Any latchkey kid must necessarily improvise various ways to pass the time. Home was a reliable safe haven, but in the end, my situation at school was only part of the reason I so enjoyed my solitary time there. I was in love with popular music from the moment I was first aware of it, and my passion for sounds of varying styles, stripes and difficulty levels has only grown in the many years since, which for all intents and purpose comprise my entire life to this point. I know intellectually that I existed before music was a part of my life, but the knowledge inspires in me only indifference. Good kid and all, sure, but I barely even recognize him as myself. As a child, my record collection consisted exclusively of 45s packaged with accompanying storybooks, but I couldn’t remain insulated forever.
As a brazen five-year-old, I told my nonplussed parents that my favorite band ever – EVER, mind you – was most definitely Kiss, though what I thought of as my favorite song was actually the cheesy and disgusting theme to a commercial peddling them to kids in doll form. The first song I remember ever hearing was Queen’s “We Are the Champions”. How or where I couldn’t tell you, only that it stuck. I was an MTV devotee as soon as the groundbreaking music channel first appeared in our cable lineup. All these remembrances, of course, date me horribly, way back to (and well before in actuality) that magical time when – all together now! – MTV still played music videos, but they’re also crucially important. MTV and HBO were my first entry into the study of my abiding twin loves, music and movies, and my thirst for knowledge was immediately unquenchable. I sat in front of the TV in my mother’s bedroom whenever it was free – already binging on ‘80s movies and recording song after song off of MTV onto audio cassette – and even sometimes at night at the foot of my mother’s bed. When she and/or my stepfather would inevitably awake, I’d just pretend I’d fallen asleep while watching TV hours earlier and they’d shuttle me off to bed, none (I assumed) the wiser. Subterfuge is an important skill to learn in childhood.
At the age of ten, I was finally given reign to buy my own music on cassette, and my world opened up dramatically. I basically put away my old toys, rarely to glimpse them again. In a way, my course already felt set. My first tape, a birthday present, was Heartbeat City by The Cars, who were, I was delighted to discover, my beloved aunt’s favorite band. I would bond with her younger sons – who were my surrogate brothers growing up, though they lived two hours away – over my third tape, “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D, and albums like Van Halen’s 1984 and ZZ Top’s Eliminator proved formative in developing my preference for guitar-driven, blues-based rock and roll over the flashy new wave and megastar pop that dominated the air waves at the time. Before I ever had a true point of focus, I thought the purpose of being a music fan – or maybe also the reward – was to devour as much as possible, and so I did. My first profession, so to speak, was that of music fan, and I would never devote one tenth the care or effort to any square job I was to have subsequently, nor derive one hundredth the pride or satisfaction.
My briefcase was a tape case, which I upgraded three times in total – from a puny initial capacity of twelve, to a passable 36, to what I imagined was an impressive sixty – and even then, preparation for any road trip required the studious paring down and selection of exactly which sixty to include from my burgeoning larger collection. Listening to and learning about music was my escape from the troubles of daily life, which were only then really ramping up. It was a passion I could indulge without need for input or risk of criticism from others, so I did so constantly. In terms of what I liked, I was all over the place and not at all discerning – whatever MTV offered, I humbly accepted – but for those hours spent in front of the television, or cocooned in any sort of musical embrace, I was able to effectively push the outside world away. As it turned out, something – something special, something new – was already on its way.
That I know who I am.
I was aware of Iron Maiden well before I ever heard its music, or became a fan. The band’s fearsome reputation preceded it. A vanguard of the so-called “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” that energized the scene at the turn of the 1980s, Maiden was among the first foundational metal acts to understand just how important image and aura and mystique were to the predominantly young audience it was courting. Rather than placing any focus on the band, Iron Maiden emphasized and traded off the impact of dark, splashy and, above all, memorable artwork. The clean, hard angles of the band’s logo were meant to appear hammered together out of metal – to this day, whenever some artist tries to approximate “metal” font, chances are high it’s going to resemble Iron Maiden’s logo – and its mascot, a disarmingly lively reanimated corpse nicknamed “Eddie”, would grace the cover of each of Iron Maiden’s (to date) fifteen studio albums, as well as countless singles, tour programs, posters and t-shirts, becoming the heavy metal genre’s preeminent (and enduring) visual icon in the process.
Maiden’s varied subject matter and evocative lyrical content transformed Eddie, who the band styled as part ambassador/part master of ceremonies/part agent of chaos, into not just a globe-trotter but a time traveler. Eddie’s alarming visage could be seen, in one rendering, as a cyborg regulating futuristic cities, or, in another, a sarcophagus carved into the face of a towering Egyptian pyramid. He might clutch a tattered Union Jack during the Charge of the Light Brigade, occupy the cockpit of a WWII bomber, or ride a smoking tank through a modern battlefield; he might be the reflection in your bedroom mirror, or Icarus, fast approaching the sun, or just some punk kid, standing on a street corner and spoiling for a fight. Wherever he was, whatever he was, whoever he was, Eddie was always defiant, otherworldly, and extraordinary. He exuded confidence and menace, and demanded attention. I liked Eddie. I’d never had an older brother.
Who I am.
Visually and thematically, Iron Maiden was one-stop shopping for a solitary, imaginative kid like me. None of that would’ve made the least difference, however, if not for the high quality of its music – the galloping rhythms, the trademark guitar harmony and dexterity, Bruce Dickinson’s towering vocals, all melded together into something as singular as the genre has ever produced – which, frankly, I wasn’t prepared to hear for the first couple of years I could have. At ten, I found Maiden a tantalizing concept, fascinating and not a little dangerous. Just reading the lyrics to its 1984 classic “2 Minutes to Midnight” – a catchy, metaphor-rich warning of our imminent nuclear doom – unnerved me greatly. I knew the band had attracted an air of infamy on the basis of its third album, 1982’s The Number of the Beast, though Maiden would firmly, loudly and repeatedly deny any occult leanings in either its music or worldview – which, indeed, are primarily concerned with matters of world history, war, mythology and gritty fantasy. The damage, if such naive publicity mongering by a young band can properly be called that, had been done. Hands were dutifully wrung and pearls were clutched, and thousands of new metal fans were born, among them many of the musicians who would carry the genre forward. When the furor finally died down, Beast would be revealed as a stone cold classic, a searing introduction to Iron Maiden at its most primal and explosive, not to mention a mandatory inclusion at or near the top of any self-respecting list of the genre’s best and/or most influential albums. Like Black Sabbath before them and Metallica after, Iron Maiden would be a sound that launched a thousand ships. I was inching closer to my own departure.
Scream for me, Long Beach.
There exists, I suppose, for so many music fans, a single album or song they might say changed their lives. It’s an easy enough thing to claim, and oh so fun to ponder. Maybe it was Revolver, or Kind of Blue, or Led Zeppelin? Maybe it was Blood on the Tracks, or Rumours, or perhaps Born to Run? Maybe it was Ramones, or Ziggy Stardust, or maybe Thriller? I could go on for days. It’s all wonderfully personal, and I’m certainly not here to impugn your own choice, if you have one. I always wonder how much literal truth such an assertion reflects, only because there exists an album that, without question, absolutely did change my life, in just about every sense of the phrase. I was a completely different person before I listened to and absorbed it than I was after. That album was Live After Death by Iron Maiden.
In 1985, my early infatuation with Maiden reached its zenith when I read in the local newspaper the band was bringing its massive “World Slavery Tour” to a neighboring town, a mere twenty minutes away. The prospect of seeing any band in person, particularly a live wire like this one, made me electric with anticipation, and it would obviously have been perfect for my first concert ever to be Iron Maiden. Witnessing such a marriage of thunderous music and eye-popping spectacle might well have changed my life in one fell swoop, over a year earlier, instead of accomplishing the same feat via painstaking immersion over the course of multiple years. I was in many ways quite desperate to go, but I also wasn’t yet eleven years old, and had never even heard Iron Maiden’s music. I feared that if my well-meaning mother did any research whatsoever she would uncover ample reason for disapproval, so I never broached the subject. February 1, 1985 came and went, whilst I stayed at home, crestfallen. Looking back over a concert going life since, during which I have seen many hundreds of shows by countless dozens of bands, including Maiden four times, passing on The World Slavery Tour remains easily my most lamented missed opportunity.
After almost a year of brooding over my lost show (you’ve noticed the pattern by now), the release of Live After Death – a appropriately mammoth 100-minute souvenir live album stuffed to the gills with, if not exactly hits, then with songs I crucially needed to hear – finally offered me a reprieve. I purchased it without ceremony, using Christmas money, feeling not unlike an eleven-year-old Cold War spy clandestinely accessing vital national intelligence. For months I felt duty-bound to keep its mere possession a secret. I still remember my excitement as I listened for the first time, on headphones, sitting cross-legged in my grandmother’s den as she, my father, and my two aunts chatted away. The first sound I heard was the crowd, but then, oddly enough, an imprecise rumbling over the P.A. system that gave way to a few more distinct sounds – airplanes, machine guns, explosions in the distance – and the tinny voice of a staid Englishman. “We shall go on to the end,” this voice, which I later would discover belonged to Sir Winston Churchill, intoned, gravely. “We shall fight in ground. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight, with growing confidence and growing strength, in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be…We shall never surrender!”
So hypnotized had I been by my first exposure to Churchill’s speech that I entirely forgot it was actually the introduction to a song, so when “Aces High” appeared out of the thickening air with its own musical intro, I remember being surprised. When the band slammed into the headlong rush of the song proper, I remember being disoriented, and delighted. Though I couldn’t yet have known it, the track – in this case the tale of a doomed WWII bomber pilot told as straight dive, minimal climb – was textbook Maiden, economical POV lyrics and tasty, muscular, impeccably detailed music buttressed by twin guitar leads. “There go the sirens that warn of the air raid!” sang Dickinson, already soaring, Steve Harris’ urgent bass hurtling him forward. “Then come the sounds of the guns sending flak! Bound for the struggle, we’ve got to get airborne! Got to get up for the coming attack!” Suddenly, I felt like I was in that cockpit, energized, discombobulated, immersed in the chaos of war. It was a bracing official introduction to the band. At long last.
As consolation prizes go, Live After Death was spectacular. It was free entry into another world entirely. At first, it exhausted me. I couldn’t listen to more than a few songs in one sitting, though quickly enough I realized the sittings were becoming increasingly frequent, even as their lengths also grew. We harken, of course, back to a time when albums had distinct sides, and Live After Death’s first was near perfection. The album began with the 1-2 punch of the aforementioned “Aces High” and “2 Minutes to Midnight” (no longer scary in the least) then segued into perhaps the quintessential Maiden song, “The Trooper”, with its indelible twin leads and trademark galloping bassline. Other highlights included “Powerslave”, the tale of a mad Egyptian pharaoh lamenting his mortality, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a 13-minute epic (eventually to become my favorite Maiden song) based on the classic Coleridge poem, and, of course, “The Number of the Beast”, with its ominous, goose-pimply introduction and narrative straight out of a 1970s horror movie. The second side suffered by comparison, despite being comprised off wall to wall classics, such as “Hallowed Be Thy Name” (the stirring tale of a prisoner awaiting the gallows) and “Run to the Hills” (a lament of Native American subjugation that became perhaps the band’s best known song).
I would eventually own five copies of Live After Death, three on cassette (two of which I wore out from overuse) and two on CD (each of them upgrades over the previous version). The album became the predominant feature of long road trips (I once spent the entirety of a 14-hour round trip from my home town to coastal SC repeatedly listening to it on headphones) and the staple to which I returned, again and again, during my leisure time. I played air guitar for hours in my bedroom, trading off between Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, and also began clumsily emulating the dynamic drumming of Nicko McBrain, at first subconsciously – head nodding and intrinsically feeling the beat – and then in the air, on couch cushions, and on other household items that were unfortunately much more dentable. Though it would be refined by others, my lifelong passion for drumming springs almost completely from him.
When I listened to Maiden, nothing else mattered, not taunts nor slights, nor status, nor raging insecurity. The music transported me yes, but, beyond that, it had a thunderous innate power that I responded to positively from the start, and more and more with each fresh listen. It both fortified and freed me. I felt some semblance of myself as an individual emerging for perhaps the first time in my life. Lacking any frame of reference, I dared to imagine myself as who I might legitimately want to be, independent of outside influence, free from outside criticism or judgment, and I began to see…options. The pinprick of light permeating my personal darkness became a sliver and then a crack, though my eyes were shut tight. I was busy grooving to my own intensely personal music, the way millions of kids before me had and after me would, but still I sensed it. In those private moments, the smiles I wore weren’t forced. The music of Iron Maiden had, in a tangible way, awakened something within me, though I was still loath to admit it to anyone.
I know who I am.
At this point, with Live After Death providing its rocket fuel, the story accelerates, and the chronology begins to blur somewhat. Junior high is dwindling, high school looming. High school would be a different sort of story, less overtly difficult, yet more complicated in its way. I’ll touch on it sparingly, if at all. The three major events I’ve mentioned here – my misadventure with the knife, my abortive attempt to force myself into the consciousness of the popular clique, and my galvanizing first listen to Maiden – all happened in fairly rapid succession as I remember, and each necessarily informed the others. I shouldn’t present Maiden’s introduction into my life as a definitive cure all, because it certainly wasn’t that. I still felt routinely marginalized socially, and occasionally much worse, though I now carried a secret weapon with me and found, to my delight, that the wounds I accumulated didn’t seem to sting quite as much, or linger as long. I cared less about the opinions of others than I had before, or at least my interactions seemed to lack some of their former desperation. Still, I remained a closeted fan. The music of Iron Maiden had already grown dear to me, but it was so provocative, and so aggressively alien, that part of me feared I’d be opening myself to more concentrated ridicule by embracing the band fully and openly. Then I heard “Wasted Years”.
Lots of Iron Maiden fans, myself chief among them, seem to have especially fond memories of the song “Wasted Years”. As the advance single for Maiden’s sixth studio album, 1986’s Somewhere in Time, it hit the airwaves right around the time of my twelfth birthday and made an immediate and lasting impression. First and foremost was Adrian Smith’s striking guitar work – hardly even a main riff in the conventional sense, but rather a jittery tornado that sucked the listener right in – the likes of which I’d never heard before. The whole opening build is perfectly controlled intensity, with Harris’ ominous bass a heartbeat below Smith’s snake charmer line, and Dave Murray’s heavier guitar accents spraying them both with suppressing fire. If pressed for a quick answer, I would probably name “Wasted Years” my favorite ever guitar riff, and the coiled fury of the guitar solo for which it served as foundation an all-time great as well. The song’s plaintive lyrics, full of personal stock taking and weary road warriors’ dreams of home, were a marked change for the band, and the chorus is among Dickinson’s most memorable vocal performances.
To that point, I’d known Maiden only as the ferocious live band I imagined, eyes closed, in the space between my headphones, its avatar Eddie forever exploding out of a single dark and stormy grave, shackles breaking, lightning-kissed, on the Live After Death album cover, but the video for “Wasted Years” offered not only my first true glimpse of the band in action but also a whirlwind chronology of Eddie’s exploits. It was, frankly, awesome, a sort of combination blood transfusion and archeological dig. Absorbing the video over a dozen or so viewings had the curious effect of making me fiercely excited about the band’s present and past simultaneously, and hungry to both know and listen more. I purchased Somewhere in Time the instant I could afford it, and thus the die was cast. I couldn’t effectively hide my fandom anymore. The key was finally becoming confident enough to not want to.
My parents first met in high school band, at the same high school I’d soon be attending, in fact. Mom played flute, and Dad played saxophone. Band was a formative experience for them in all the best ways. When the opportunity arose for me, I chose both band and saxophone with no prodding, hoping I’d be able to do the old man proud. In retrospect, I probably should’ve picked drums, as that was where my passion would almost immediately shift, thanks to MTV and Nicko McBrain. I was always mousy and nondescript in the band room, though the director singled me out more than my fair share of times. I didn’t hate band, it just sort of bored me. I was an underachiever at third or fourth chair in my section, and seemed fairly well locked into position. Still, the weather was never as fierce inside the room as it was out in the halls.
I suppose my social inadequacies helped ensure I’d never enjoy band the same way my parents had before me, and I lacked the discipline to ever become more than a middling player. I had an unfortunate tendency to spend my free time listening to Maiden instead of practicing. My single best memory of junior high, however, was the trip our marching band took to Gatlinburg, TN – the tranquil shopping town nestled in the mountainous outskirts of bustling tourist trap Pigeon Forge – though I remember next to nothing about marching, or about the competition. As my bandmates fragmented into groups to better maximize their last bit of downtime before we left for home, I resolved to explore town on my own, walking the streets with both purpose and a soundtrack – Somewhere in Time played on a loop on my Walkman – not to mention actual disposable income for once. After a few random stops, my eye was caught by The Rhythm Section, a smallish music store located on the ground floor of a fairly charming, wood-paneled mini-mall. I spent what felt like hours in The Rhythm Section that Saturday afternoon, subjecting all their albums, posters, t-shirts and other apparel to the white hot scrutiny of the recently converted, lingering an unseemly amount in the “I” section. I only left because I had to get back to the hotel by our preordained departure time.
I’d stretched my money as far as it would go, making half-hearted allowances for a spartan meal at McDonald’s on the anticlimactic journey home. I was buzzing with excitement. In my bag, I carried a newly purchased cassette – Maiden’s fifth studio album, Powerslave – three supercool buttons, a World Slavery Tour back patch that would spend another year in search of a jean jacket to hold it (I had to strike while the iron was hot), and two t-shirts – one white, bearing the artwork of early Maiden classic “Phantom of the Opera”, and the other black, bearing Live After Death’s indelible cover art. In my other hand, I clutched a rolled up poster featuring the artwork to “Aces High”, with the band logo done in camouflage green and brown and Eddie piloting his WWII bomber, face frozen in a posture of unyielding attack. I cracked open Powerslave in the mall’s entry way, loaded it, pressed play and stepped out into the sun.
Eschewing the Churchill speech I’d memorized, the studio version of “Aces High” kicked in almost immediately, crystal clear, highly detailed and, to my young ears, strange sounding in a most compelling way. I started back up the hill, smiling, practically skipping, toward the hotel some 8-10 blocks away. No, I don’t remember where the chaperones were. On the bus, I found myself (or rather my merchandise haul) the object of some fascination. Part of me wanted to downplay things like always; the other part felt a little like a carnival barker. Kid after kid materialized to look at my “Aces High” poster, or my “Phantom” shirt. They wore a wide array of faces, some amused, some confused, some plainly concerned, some simply weirded out. Some were too cool for it, while some were unsettled. One asked me, pointedly, accusatorily, “you don’t really listen to that stuff do you?” I chuckled and backpedaled out of habit, said something half-hearted about only liking the artwork, but deep inside I knew. Somehow I already knew that I would never again equivocate or apologize for the things I truly cared about, myself included. Why should I validate the insecurities of others at the expense of my own sense of self or hard won sliver of happiness? No, no. Deep inside I knew. That kid is over, world. Take a long, last look. This is something new.
Everyone has a story.
School didn’t magically transform into some unlikely wonderland as soon as the music of Iron Maiden took its full hold of me. Many kids still looked through me just as they had before, or past me, or passed me over, unless they saw a moment’s sport (it is reliably hilarious) in making fun of the quiet fat kid. I mostly rolled with it. My skin had grown somewhat thicker. For those who did take note of me, something seemed to have subtly changed. After all, nobody wears a heavy metal t-shirt (my dad sometimes sentimentally still calls them “ob-noxious”, with that precise pronunciation emphasis) because he’s trying to blend into the background. I had always been unfortunately used to being “other”. I discovered there was a certain sense of empowerment to being “weird”, to being “other” on purpose, for lack of a better explanation. I remembered all those nonplussed faces on the band trip home, and smiled with realization. I’d spent much of my young life listening to pop music, which is, of course, ostensibly the music of “the people”, though a fat lot of common ground or common cause it had ever bought me. Some pop engaged me, it’s true, but even then fleetingly. It’s designed to be disposable. Maiden was a whole different animal, sharp-edged emotion and layer upon layer of musical intrigue just waiting to be peeled back – power, speed, melody, a thrilling dance of darkness and light, exploratory playing, excellent songwriting. Maiden naturally became my gateway to an eventual, enduring love of the heavy metal genre as a whole, particularly the then burgeoning thrash metal scene, which amped Maiden’s speed, aggression and technicality up to giddy heights I could barely fathom. There was so much to process. It was not only wonderfully new, but also wonderfully deep.
While researching this remembrance, making sure of dates and tiny details wherever I could, I was rather pleased, and not a little surprised, to discover that Gatlinburg’s Rhythm Section still exists. I’d like to go back there some day. I suppose Maiden merchandise is a little harder to find now than it was back then, but I’d still be stoked to try. I think the reason I’ve so thoroughly turned out my pockets here, swept everything from under the bed, and shone my flashlight into as many dark corners as I could is because this all still matters to me. These memories have a surprising immediacy and potency that I’ll probably never be fully rid of, though I think that’s both instructive and okay. There just aren’t the miles you’d imagine between the kid I was at eleven and the man I am at forty. We’re both still inherently shy people. We’re reasonably smart and occasionally thoughtful. We deathly hate to step on toes. We don’t make new friends easily, though we’re fairly desperate to connect in the abstract (and I’ve been so fortunate since to know people that I truly love and treasure). Neither of us knows what the hell he’s doing at least half the time. We love music deeply. We’ve both got wicked, multifaceted senses of humor. We both get depressed, and feel lonely often.
The difference is that I can feel lonely without feeling alone, and the kid I was simply could not. His struggles are still my struggles, but I’m just in a vastly different place now, emotionally, physically, psychologically. If I could see him now, I would hug him so tight. Then I’d sit him down and just talk, talk about what he’s into, what makes him happy, free of judgment or agenda. When and wherever passion, true passion, is present in a child, I think it should be treated it as a gift to be celebrated, not as something that has to pass rigid inspection. First and foremost, I would suggest understanding and encouragement. There’ll always be plenty of time to dig deeper and parent traditionally. That’s not coming from any perspective I have as a parent, admittedly, but rather solely from my memories of being that child. I think that advice might be another thing we had in common. I know I didn’t make it easy for people to help me as a kid. It was the way I was wired, which I inadvertently reinforced over time. I was so sensitive and socially awkward, and, yes, needy, that I saw tentativeness as indifference, indifference as hostility, and hostility as open warfare. I wonder if it had to be that way, and I honestly don’t know. I wonder a lot of things. I was buried deep in my head, and in the end I had to find my own way out.
The unexpected news is that I did. I had been heading nowhere, slowly, no sense of confidence, no sense of self, and then I was introduced to this music, and the passion it inspired within me spread like wildfire. Not merely insatiable, this passion actually rewired my brain in useful, much more positive directions. In a very real way, Iron Maiden saved my life. Nothing was easy for me, but I found that it was easier. I still found myself down often, but never out. I began talking back to people who made fun of me, or, failing that, dismissing their petty criticisms (and flabby witticisms) out of hand. Against all odds, I found other music fans and made legitimate friends, a few of whom have lasted my whole life, or at least my life since music, which, of course, is how I choose to quantify it. High school came, and, amazingly, improbably, it also went. It was always a frustrating slog, just not quite the gulag I’d braced myself for. I even enjoyed my recent reunion much more than I would’ve imagined possible. All the assholes stayed at home.
College was an incredible new world, full of discovery and possibility and friends (well, full for me anyway). Again, I went in one person and came out the other side, if not markedly different, then still altogether better. I got a girlfriend; I started drumming in a band, and loved it more than absolutely anything. In 1999, I finally left my small town and moved to the largest city in Ohio to live life on my own terms. It has worked out exceedingly well for the most part. In 2000, after 15 years of being a fan, after a decade and a half of accumulated anticipation, I finally saw Iron Maiden live, and they were magnificent. I knew who I was full well by that point, not just as a music or metal fan, but as a man. I’d learned it, experienced it, refined it over time, as we all do. But that night, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, I was also a fan, nerves tingling, letting fall a joyful tear or two, unconcerned and deliriously happy. I wrecked my neck headbanging, and screamed myself hoarse. It had been a long journey from eleven to here.
In, I believe, my junior year of high school, my English class was assigned to write an essay about the “biggest problem in school”, the one thing he or she would change if afforded the power. Naturally, I wrote about the entrenched class system and how it enables (if not encourages) bullying. I’ve always had the most to say about the things I’m most passionate about, as any reader of mine is by now painfully aware. The problem is older than either me or the hills from which I originally sprung, but what I wrote must have been at least a little affecting, because our teacher made a point to read it aloud. He didn’t name me as author, but everyone with a functioning nervous system still knew I’d written it. A few of the worst historical perpetrators (some of the folks who missed our reunion) even told a friend of mine, without a trace of irony, that I’d impressed them, that I’d done “a good job.” We had a nice long laugh over that one.
In 2008, Maiden embarked on its most ambitious, globetrotting tour since The World Slavery Tour. Dubbed “Somewhere Back in Time”, the stage – faux stone cut in the style of an Egyptian tomb, littered with pyro flash pots and historically inaccurate hieroglyphics – and setlist were specifically meant to mimic The World Slavery Tour where possible, making strategic allowances for the passage of time, and this time I was there. Two of my best friends and I saw Maiden tear through a monstrous set of its greatest hits – beginning with “Aces High” and “2 Minutes to Midnight”, and including “The Trooper”, “Wasted Years” and even all thirteen ripping, wondrous minutes of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. We finally heard Churchill’s introduction live (as I had many hundreds of times on album), saw the fifteen-foot Somewhere in Time cyber-Eddie stalk the stage and joined with the crowd in a massive sing along of band, crew and guests during the rousing breakdown section in “Heaven Can Wait”. We saw the fifteen-foot “mummy” Eddie shambling around to the menacing pulse of the band’s namesake song, “Iron Maiden”, and witnessed his giant doppelganger lean forward and shoot sparks from his eyes just as he had during Live After Death’s finale. It was a celebration, and a culmination. It was absolutely everything a rock show should be, everything I might’ve hoped it would be going in, and just about everything I’d imagined it could be at age eleven. The kid would’ve been even happier than I was. Sometimes the circle neatly closes.
Later that summer, one of those same friends and I stood near the stage at the front of a much smaller venue, Columbus, Ohio’s venerable Newport Music Hall. We were there to see the great Motorhead, but were currently marooned in the changeover time between the opener’s set and the headliner’s. As is often the case at concerts, background music was piped in over the P.A. system as the crew went about its work onstage. At a metal show, typically this interstitial music is metal, often classic, so as to better engage or appeal to the largest part of the crowd. We’d been standing there for over twenty minutes, and were getting restless. By my watch, Motorhead was well overdue. Suddenly there came from the P.A. a hi-hat cymbal wash paired with a driving, insistent beat, immediately identifiable by any metalhead worth his salt as the opening to “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden. I smiled instinctively. What happened next was purely organic, and remains one of the coolest memories I have in my 20+ years of concertgoing. As the song galloped from the intro into its first verse, I noticed numerous people around me already unconsciously mouthing the lyrics, and then realized I was as well. Contented, I and several other crowd members began singing the chorus aloud. I noted several more mouthing the lyrics to the second verse, and could even hear some of them, so I joined in. Clearly galvanized by the first chorus, more and more people joined in for the second, and those who had originally been singing became that much more forceful.
“Run to the Hills” is perhaps Dickinson’s signature song as Maiden’s vocalist. It was basically his introduction to both the fanbase and to metal culture at large, and, recognizing the importance of the moment, he really went for it. That night at the Newport, emboldened, we followed suit, with absolutely no organization or cheerleading necessary. Following the guitar solo is a massive musical build and lead-in to the final chorus that is, in itself, rightly famed for its intensity. Guitars, bass, drums, and especially vocals, became a single voice, an escalating wail to the heavens, to which we lustily joined in, ending in a scream and the triumphant resumption of one of metal’s great anthemic choruses. “Run toooo the hills!” 1000 or so of us were suddenly singing at the top of our lungs. “Run for your liiiiiiiives!” A few people were bobbing up and down with excitement by this point, looking around and at each other in giddy solidarity, taking in the moment with smiles plastered across their faces, and everybody sang. My friend and I were, I imagine, among the loudest offenders in the room, and, if not, we were at least determined to be. The repeat chorus was even louder than its predecessors. When the song ended (no one goes out in a blaze of glory quite like Maiden), the crowd cheered wildly and applauded like the band itself had just finished playing.
I looked around, beaming. “This is it,” I remember thinking. “This is where I belong.”
Then the lights went out, and the crowd cheered even louder, if such a thing was possible. It was show time.
Closing Note: If you were generally cool with what you just read, with the minor caveat that you would’ve preferred more words, an unabridged version, containing all sorts of nerdy detail and 700 additional words, can be found here. Thanks kindly for your interest, and Up the Irons!