Post No. 125: Alone in the Dark

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Every 25th post, darkadaptedeye takes a planned break from normal business to plumb the shallow depths of its author’s psyche and/or overtly explore the locked attic of memories it only ever really dabbles in otherwise. You might think of it as a pit stop, or maybe a soft reboot. In “Danse Macabre”, Stephen King termed his own such digression “An Annoying Autobiographical Pause”, which I choose to think was kind of charming. Please know I take seriously the challenge of making patent self-indulgence interesting – actual results be damned – and I appreciate you being game. We’ll return to our irregularly scheduled programming shortly…

There is a point to this: what we see, what we hear…what we experience, and how we feel while doing so. It is a vital and inescapable part of being alive. Not only wouldn’t I have it any other way, such an “other way” simply isn’t an option, or at least not for me. The second weekend in November, as you are no doubt well aware, terrorist gunmen inflicted horrible casualties on a coordinated group of targets in Paris, France, including a packed concert by raucous American desert rock institution the Eagles of Death Metal. Due to the time difference, the eastern part of the United States received the news in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I was stunned, as I’m sure were we all, and took the moment, while devouring whatever breaking information on the shootings I could find, to spin EoDM’s new album, Zipper Down, for what was, shamefully, the first full time since a friend had gifted it to me the previous month. It made for a weird but poignant DIY elegy. I find it hard to imagine a more disjointed, incongruous, nonsensical soundtrack to mass murder, or, to my mind, a group of people much less deserving of an ignominious, indiscriminate death. This music, so full of equally unrestrained joy and hip-shaking swagger, should be a totemic boon against evil, not a sad footnote to its commission. The first of many shudders of recognition the night would offer swept through me. So many of the greatest hours of my life have been spent in the dark, after all, be it a concert hall or a movie theater. I revere those spaces like few others in my life – even the especially corporate or generic ones, for what they provide – and I’m beyond grateful for all those experiences – even the ones that fell short, because how else could I truly quantify excellence? As Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart wrote movingly in the wonderful career-capper “Headlong Flight”, “I wouldn’t trade tomorrow for today.” Yesterday factors into the equation as well, I suppose…somewhere.

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For all the great memories I’ve collected, I’ve also had call to occasionally imagine much bleaker possibilities. I know, for example, precisely where I was in July of 2012, when the massacre at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises happened in Aurora, CO. I was at my own special midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, on the other side of the country yet comparable in most every other respect. The following day, as news poured in about the carnage and the circumstances, I could barely form a coherent thought that was not fixated on one or the other. Just a week ago, we marked the 11-year anniversary of the heartbreaking shooting death of former Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott at Columbus, OH’s venerable Alrosa Villa concert venue, a tragedy that killed four in total, wounded several others, and imparted wholesale psychic damage that may never truly heal across multiple, sometimes overlapping communities. Columbus is my adopted home town, where I’ve lived now for over fifteen years. But for the grace of vague, grumbly disinterest would I have been at that show, amidst all that bedlam, and I can scarcely fathom how I might’ve reacted in the moment. I probably should have been at that show, truth be told, but I was not, and in one way or other it has haunted me ever since. It’s entirely possible that I would’ve frozen like a statue and been wounded, or far worse. I watched a commemorative report on the 11:00 local news the other night, and the reporter was clearly fumbling for words as he stood outside the Alrosa. On the one hand, I suppose he was trying to contextualize the lingering woe felt and carried by this little-remarked-upon niche of music fans to a much larger audience – that sort of effort has real value, whatever the results – but his patter was so inept and incomplete that I’m sure it couldn’t help but frustrate those folks forever on the inside of this thing – those with lives that were lost or irrevocably altered in the attack – and idly, ineffectually claw away at collective scabs still in the process of healing.

On the other hand, it might turn out there’s simply nothing left to say, yet we strive to connect regardless. Surely value exists in that as well. The point I’m grasping at is that, in an increasingly sensationalistic and, seemingly, overly violent society, tragedies such as these, although they almost certainly won’t, have the potential to touch anyone and everyone. In the month between Paris and now, the deadly community center attack in San Bernardino, CA happened, in addition to numerous other underreported incidents, including one in Georgia the same day. The date of this writing (-1) happens to coincide with the three-year anniversary of the shocking assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. I’m not a victim, or a witness, or a hero, just a bystander, like you (I hope). I’ve spent a great deal of my life in the literal dark, attempting to nourish my soul via a steady, likely excessive, diet of dynamic live music and cinema writ large. If the metaphorical dark didn’t ever encroach into my twin sanctuaries, reason suggests, I’d have just as much to be wary of in the cold light of day, but, one day, it did just that, and then, another day, it did again, and then Paris happened, and whatever thoughts might’ve once been entertained in passing gained in potency a hundredfold overnight. The genie can’t be returned to the bottle. So it was that, during the third weekend of November, I felt a real sense of trepidation in the immediate lead-up to seeing metal mavens Machine Head in concert at Columbus’ historic Newport Music Hall. I’m not suggesting that I spent the show with one nervous eye trained on the lobby doors, half expecting machine gun-toting madmen to suddenly flood the hall and end us, merely that I officially lived in a world where such a thing had not only once occurred in some obscure backwater far from my notice, it had happened multiple times in the real world, to painfully real people seeking only a moment of escape, release, or joy, and at multiple events which I either might well have attended if the wind was blowing the right way, or absolutely did, with the inconvenient exception that I happened to be 1200 miles away.

The only thing to which I can compare this was the feeling, many months after the Abbott shooting, of finally walking back into the Alrosa Villa for a concert. It was a sort of creeping uneasiness I wore like a rumpled $65 suit, ever so slowly (but surely) supplanted by a sense that although things would never, ever be the same, they would somehow still be all right. It took a long time to get from there to here. The Alrosa, a decades running institution on Columbus’ North side, was comprehensively castigated for what were perceived as security issues that allowed Darrell’s assassin entry through a back door, and withstood widespread public and financial pressure to close in the intervening months. Over a decade later, it is once again, at least in theory, business as usual, but there’s never been a time since that I’ve entered those flier-plastered steel doors, walked past the ticket booth and down the dingy tile straightaway flanked on either side by a long bar and a makeshift merchandise stand fashioned out of cordboard and repurposed pool tables, toward the floor where I once saw Anthrax, and Sepultura, and Morbid Angel, and Slipknot, and Kataklysm, and Behemoth, and Misery Index, and In Flames, and Hatebreed, and Overkill, and Kreator, and Exodus, and, yes, Machine Head, and, almost, fatefully, Damageplan, among literally dozens upon dozens more, and not thought, just for a second, “this is hallowed ground”. I forget the occasion exactly – what headliner finally drew us back from the sidelines into the fledgling club’s gravity – but I’ll never forget that feeling of standing a couple feet from stage during the changeover between bands and looking down at the loveably scuffed but otherwise spotless floor and seeing it covered in invisible, residual blood spatter, just as clearly as if I had passed an industrial strength blacklight overhead. Any time you experience the supreme privilege of standing, breathing free and enjoying at least a modicum of safety, on a spot where others lost their lives, it can’t help but get to you. People died here once. Now it’s business as usual. It’s almost too much to process, let alone overcome.

The small triumph of that Machine Head show, just over a week to the day after Paris, was no doubt echoed in hundreds of other unassuming little victories across the country and the world that night. Passionate, well-meaning people congregated en masse in public to indulge their love of music and to forget their troubles for a few minutes (or, in the case of Machine Head, then barreling toward the finish line of a tremendous year-long “Evening With” tour that had already featured sold out legs in Europe, North, and South America, a scintillating 120 of them), and were justly rewarded with exactly what they’d sought. I’d expected notoriously gabby Machine Head ringleader Robb Flynn – never a particularly shy, retiring figure, nor the type to shrink in the face of conflict – to have much perspective to add in the wake of the high profile attacks that cast a funereal pall across his entire industry, but he largely treated the proceedings as if nothing had changed. There is, of course, a delicate balance to be struck between what we feel in any given moment and what we express, and Flynn, arguably the most serially impassioned front man in a genre that simultaneously gives to and demands more emotionally of its audience than any other, this time counseled therapy through unstated defiance. Song after song, the elephant in the room was reduced, through rapt communion and sheer force of will, to the size of a chintzy carnival prize. “Do you feel free?” Flynn bellowed during a split-second lull in the awkwardly titled, surprisingly empowering rager “Now We Die”, as the crowd roared its approval. As ever, the man knows his audience. A bittersweet aspect of embracing normalcy at any Machine Head show, but especially one in Columbus, is the marking of Dimebag Darrell’s passing with the song “Aesthetics of Hate”, Flynn’s aggrieved and highly personal, venom-tipped evisceration of pointedly unsympathetic columnist William Grim, whose professional response to Abbott’s death was to dismiss, degrade, and insult him viciously (the song, which seethes with anger at Grim’s callous affronts, shares its name with his article). “For our brother, Dimebag,” exclaimed Flynn above the mournful acoustic intro…“For your brother, Dimebag”, even louder, just before the song exploded from complete stop into an assault on the sound barrier. I’d witnessed “Aesthetics of Hate” live a half dozen times or more, but never before a more potent or cathartic rendition, charged, I’ve little doubt, with not just the weight of shared remembrance but, with that firmly in mind, a sober surveying of the sadly reconfigured larger landscape through resolute but reddened eyes.

It was kind of amazing, a spontaneous emotional outpouring, in a dozen different ways from hundreds of different vessels, myself included, at once so innately understandable yet somehow unlike anything I’d experienced at a concert before. I left the Newport Music Hall, the scene of a surprising number of my life’s sweetest, most indelible memories, free of all my prior misgivings. I was the very picture of smiling calm, with a bounce in my step and songs bouncing around in my head. I slept through the night like a zen rock garden, and didn’t think of death again until somebody online, as is seemingly required by law, stubbornly reminded me of its existence many hours later. The break was sorely appreciated. My sorrow at the hideous, pointless loss of life – any life, not just ones that, by horrible coincidence or trick of circumstance, I feel an extra kinship with – has in recent days been exacerbated by the sharp, sky-scraping contrast between the good days and the bad. It’s no secret that, with every 25th post, I try to get overly personal as a sort of counterbalance to the parade of wonky, full spectrum armchair quarterbacking that seasoned DAE visitors are used to otherwise. What isn’t as immediately apparent is that I generally invest days of reconnoitering thought in trying to figure out just what the hell I should talk about. In this 125th post (ye gods!), I’ve concerned myself largely with discussing events that happened on the second two weekends of November, 2015 – the first heartbreaking, the second hopeful – but something personally wonderful happened that first weekend, and it was going to be the subject of this post* before real life intervened and compelled me to go another way entirely. Part of the reason this post, which threw me off my weekly schedule for the first time all year, took so long to complete was that I’ve spent much of the last month trying desperately to imagine a way for those two topics to coexist, however tonally incongruous they might’ve been, instead of just accepting things and getting down to business. Business, for me, largely consists of sitting or standing around in the dark, either watching magic happen, anticipating it, or at least being open to its existence (thus especially discouraged by its absence). It was this way well before the internet, (approx.) 110 years before I had a dedicated writing platform, or the chutzpah to pretend anyone might possibly care about my opinions.

*There’s always Post No. 150 for that, of course, assuming (ahem) that we get there. Those great memories aren’t going to fade in the interim, that’s for sure.

I’ve seen magic happen before – at an out of nowhere theatrical revival of Star Wars in the mid-‘80s; at a Bruce Springsteen concert that lasted three hours but felt, in the best way, like twice that. I’ve felt its residual glow in a strip mall parking lot, staring at the stars after a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, or in a sold out amphitheater, looking up at the sky at the moment, in the incomparable “Dancing Nancies”, that Dave Matthews suggests his listener, “look up at the sky”. I’ve experienced equivalent magic in crowds of eighteen and 18,000, plus all points between. I’ve felt the propulsive lift of soaring vocal harmonies or searing guitar lines connect me to their respective architects as if with a tether. I’ve heard death metal that never made me feel more alive. In 2015, largely spurred on by my efforts writing this blog, I saw well over twenty movies in the theater – blockbusters, arthouse picks, revivals, special events – and just as many concerts. You’ve read about some of them here, perhaps, and for that, among other things, I humbly thank you. I would write without you, and, crazily, actually have before…but my dearest friends in life are, to a one, people that can see and embrace just how much experiencing and celebrating all this art means to me. Without it, there is, to a manner of thinking, insufficient me. With it, I not only overcorrect that imbalance and become nigh unbearable in my abundance, but also energized, empathetic, and connected, or at least in a way I don’t think I quite would be otherwise. I’m a solitary soul with a big heart. There is a point to this: what we see, what we hear…what we experience, and how we feel while doing so. It is a vital and inescapable part of being alive. Not only wouldn’t I have it any other way, such an “other way” simply isn’t an option. Not for me.

Life in the dark goes on – as it has, as it must. Thank goodness.

Previously on ABC Family:

Post No. 25: Powder Burns and Uncertain Terms

Post No. 50: Iron Maiden Saved My Life. (Abridged)

Post No. 75: Unlimited Mileage

Post No. 100: Centennial Homesick Blues

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