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metal inspired by science fiction. really.

July 1, 2011

I figure we all stumble across people in our lives about whom we think, “Under a different set of circumstances, if I were less busy/more energetic/less introverted, we could be good friends.”

My Punk Rock Friend (PRF) and his wife fall into this category.

The three of us met while volunteering together several years ago and, while we never hung out beyond the confines of our mentoring duties, we laughed at the same absurdities.  We shared an unabashed nerdiness.  We had easy conversations.

I’m compelled to mention that, in spite of a shared nerdiness, PRF and his wife are — and have been, as long as I have known them — light years cooler than I am.  They are also ten years younger, phenomenally tattooed, pierced, and gauged, and have buckets of charisma.  If I’m honest, I don’t think I am interesting enough to hang out with them.

However, I had been thinking about PRF a couple of weeks ago when he coincidentally emailed me.  “If  you want to see something absolutely ridiculous, you can come to the first show of my band, which is Thursday June 30th at 9:30.  It will be really weird and stupid and off-putting and funny.  I’m not sure it’ll be worth a babysitter, but maybe. It’s metal inspired by science fiction literature.”

Before I even finished reading his email, it became obvious that this show was an Entertainment maybe just begging to be chased.  It’s fair to say that I have avoided anything resembling heavy metal music since I saw a commercial featuring KISS thirty years ago that scared the daylights out of me.  And sci-fi?  It has lived on the rung just below unicorn books on my literature hierarchy.  Thus, this show was the perfect storm of entertainment I’ve always avoided for reasons I can’t fully articulate.

The entirely alien music, though, made up but one element of my decision to attend this show.  In the space between deciding to go and actually going, I realized that there is a colossal difference between exposing myself to music I think I hate in the privacy of my own home and dragging my weary bones to a sweaty metal show that begins past my bedtime and is populated by people half my age.  Peeking into a musical world described as “weird and stupid and off-putting and funny” seemed an activity best appreciated live and in person.

An element unrelated to the music, the fact that PRF had (with no knowledge of my Chasing Maybes project) extended this invitation to me, might have been the most important factor in my decision to go. I was honored, and the fact that he considered me worthy of admittance to this strange rite buoyed me.  It made me wonder if I might, in fact, be interesting enough to hang out with these cool kids after all.

So, without too much consideration, I emailed PRF back and told him I would be there with bells on.  [Speaking of which, choosing an ensemble for a comic book convention is a walk in the park compared to picking a look for a metal-inspired-by-science-fiction-show].

I originally planned to attend the show solo.  PRF himself had said he didn’t think it would be worth a babysitter, and I assumed I could better focus on the music if I were alone.  After mentioning this to my husband and a friend or two, though, I was reminded that: 1).  I’d never been to this venue,and it might not be the safest place in the world, 2).  with three bands on the playbill, the show wouldn’t end until the wee hours, and 3).  it might be helpful to have a friend’s perspective on this strange voyage.  Besides, we are moving out of state in less than a month — I need all the time with friends I can score right now.

My friend Christina, as it turned out, was the perfect traveling companion.  This fact was foretold when I texted her, “Wanna hear a punk-metal band inspired by science fiction next Thursday?” and her almost immediate response was, “What’s the name of the band?  I’m in.”

Christina’s general enthusiasm for all-things-novel is only one of the characteristics that uniquely suit her for events like last night’s show.  Others include her unmatched extroversion (we have known each other for nineteen years, and I have observed her flawless navigation of even the most bizarre social situations many times), her hypervigilance (last night, she pulled me out of a brewing mosh pit at the perfect moment, but more on that later) and her genuine love of humanity.  The openness with which she approaches new people and experiences inspires me. It would have been an entirely different experience if I had gone alone.

She and I didn’t have a lot of time to talk before the show, so I was left alone to mull over what to wear.  I knew it was unlikely that I would blend in, and I certainly didn’t want to show up as anyone but myself, but I also wasn’t sure of the practicalities of a metal show.  I’d never been to the venue, which apparently had outdoor and indoor seating. I left my wardrobe choice until the last minute, when I decided to wear jeans and closed-toed shoes — just in case my feet got stepped on.  Christina came to pick me up wearing — you guessed it — jeans and closed-toe shoes.  Apparently, this is the uniform of soccer moms attending metal shows (N=2).

When we pulled up to the venue in Christina’s car, my stomach dropped a little in disappointment.  The place appeared to be some kind of coffee shop, populated by students demurely sipping lattes and tapping away on their laptops at outdoor tables.  Christina and I looked through the windows to see a cheerfully lit, charming little cafe.

“This is a metal-inspired-by-science fiction show?”  I muttered.  “This looks like the set of ‘Friends'” (see? I really am old).  We wandered around for a bit, ordered drinks, and took our seats outside at a quaint little metal bistro table.  It was 9:45.

At some point during our conversation, I spotted PRF eating what appeared to be a vegan burrito at a table inside.  When I approached him, he seemed genuinely surprised and happy to see me. As PRF washed down a bite with his beer, Christina gently asked him, “We were kind of surprised by this place.  It is really …  well-lit.  It’s not … what I expected.”

PRF laughed.  “Yeah, a knitting club just left out the back door.  Apparently they meet here on Thursday evenings.”  He paused, looking out the front glass windows for a moment.  “But, this show is starting on punk rock time… we are running late,” he said pointedly, rightly assuming we had no prior experience with “punk rock time.”  “It should be interesting.”

And, almost without warning, it did get interesting.

Gradually, the crowd morphed from studious anthropology post-docs to white guys in dreadlocks and Doc Martens.  The place was suddenly brimming, and I realized without surprise that Christina and I brought up the median age of the group by at least five years.  Comfortingly, no one was paying the slightest bit of attention to us.

The first band to take the stage, Jokes&Jokes&Jokes, was truly just a guy named Owen, who sang and played guitar, and his drummer.  I wasn’t sure what to make of Owen initially — he was bathed in gold glitter and wore short denim cutoffs with a neon souvenir t-shirt — but he was phenomenal.  He was billed as singing “theatrically heartbreaking ballads,” but that description didn’t do justice to his clever lyrics, pitch-perfect growling, and bouncing guitar.  His drummer must have burned about 3000 calories in 30 minutes, so ferocious was his accompaniment.  Anyway, I liked Jokes%Jokes%Jokes, and I was sad to see them leave the stage.   Christina was fascinated by the drummer — she’s a head taller than me and could see his every jerky move — and shared my appreciation for the duo.

After J&J&J departed, PRF’s wife approached me to say hello and to assure me that the next band, SYSTEMS, was amazing.  PRF walked by and confirmed this fact — citing that they never play the same riff twice, they are expert musicians, et cetera.  Christina and I looked at each other and smiled expectantly.

Then, she suddenly leaned over to me.  “Do you realize that everyone else here is wearing earplugs?” she looked concerned, and rightly so.  All the tattooed and pierced youngsters, the teenagers too young to buy beer at the bar, wore small but identifiable ear protection.  This seemed both ironic and terrifying — how was it that the oldest people and most compromised eardrums at this event were flying unprotected?

Fortunately, it was PRF to the rescue.  Apparently, everyone carries extra earplugs to shows like this these days.  Who knew?

So, bright orange earplugs inserted, Christina and I prepared ourselves to witness SYSTEMS — apparently a crowd favorite.

Hmmm.  Really?

I mean, I have no doubt these guys are excellent musicians.  They did incredible things with feedback and sound and instrumentation.  Their energy literally crackled in the air — thank God for those earplugs — and the crowd pulsed with every beat.

I just didn’t get it.

I also got that I, a thirty-something fan of Americana music, was not supposed to get it.

Having said that, what I did get was the palpable thrum of electricity through the crowd, what PRF later described as the band’s “visceral, cathartic” performance.  While I didn’t enjoy the actual music, the event of listening to it was pretty dramatic.  Christina spent the performance distracted by the fact that the lead singer looked remarkably like one of her nephews will in fifteen years.

Christina with Spencer from SYSTEMS

After SYSTEMS departed the stage, Christina approached him and asked for a picture.  See what I mean about her extroversion?  She didn’t think twice about introducing herself to him, and he was a really nice guy.

The final band to take the stage would be PRF’s band, Swordsmen of Ginaz.  By this point it was after midnight, and both my adrenaline and my evening coffee were wearing off.  I knew Christina had a 5 a.m. departure time the next morning, and I was feeling guilty about keeping her out so late.  Still, we had come for PRF, and we were going to stay to hear his band, by God.

While we waited for Swordsmen Of Ginaz to take the stage, Christina and I noticed a guy standing near us, drinking a beer by himself.  He looked to be close to our age, looked to be something of a misfit like us, and was alone.  I whispered to Christina, “I wonder what that guy’s story is?”  She nodded, and that was all it took.

“Hey there.  I’m Christina.  What’s your story?” (See what I mean?  I just don’t have her guts).

As it turned out, this guy’s name was either Dave or Page, depending on which one of us you ask (it was really, really loud in there).  He was a grad student in library sciences at Carolina, had just moved here from out of state, and knew one of the guys in Swordsmen of Ginaz.  In a conversation that lasted no more than 10 minutes, the three of us talked about religion, the meaning of community, and — no surprise — music.  It was a really nice conversation with a really nice person, and one I never would have experienced absent this project or my friend Christina.  I know it sounds like a trivial moment, but it is an example of why this project is so dear to me.  It extends me in directions I wouldn’t otherwise reach toward, and I am the better for it.

So, finally, Swordsmen of Ginaz took the stage.  They immediately endeared themselves to me by performing in costume, each wearing some version of a sci-fi/spaceman/futuristic something or other get-up.  Their performance was self-deprecating performance art, with ironic flourishes and clips from 60’s sci-fi television shows, and I really enjoyed it.  Midway through an explosive piece, though, Christina grabbed my arm and yanked me onto a chair just in time to avoid a nascent mosh pit.  From our perch above the throbbing crowd, I took this picture of some guy crowd-surfing.  I was terrified he would catch his head in the ceiling fan:

Crowd-surfing. Wow.

Shortly thereafter, Christina and I skulked out the back entrance without saying goodbye to anyone.  We didn’t need to, and we needed to get home to our husbands and sleeping children.  We were both exhausted.

Talking in the car on the way home, though, we realized that we were also both inspired.  We pinky-swore to have at least one or two more novel evenings together before I moved.  We regretted not having done so sooner.

As for me?  I just kept thinking of the time I saw the Beastie Boys play at a Madrid bar in 1994.  I remembered the power of a sound so close I could taste it — so unlike even Mumford and Sons in an amphitheater — and I pinky-swore to give myself more music like this.  The power of weird, stupid, off-putting music is the grace poured into it, and it’s so much easier to hear that grace up close.

I’m really tired.  I’ll be back, far more briefly, with a final unicorn book report tomorrow.

I hope your weekend inspires you in dramatic and unexpected ways.  Thank you, always, for showing up.

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