Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Eine Kleine Nacht Heavy Metal

Richie Blackmore's Rainbow--"Man On The Silver Mountain" (mp3)
Rainbow--"Rainbow In The Dark" (mp2)

Funny how things line-up. Yesterday, the announced death of Ronnie James Dio to stomach cancer. Today, a conversation about a festival of student bands at another school leading a discussion about earplugs and hearing loss, misspent nights at rock concerts in my youth. The price my ears have paid. Stir it all up in my brain and what do you get: heavy metal.

I was never much of a metalhead, but growing up in the 70's, unless you owned nothing but Seals and Crofts, you couldn't help being on the fringe of it--Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep (coming to Riverbend), and countless others had hits that made it onto FM stations, if not even occasionally AM stations. Heavy metal was mainstream.

I'm talking, of course, about 1st generation heavy metal. Once Van Halen came onto the scene with the same kinds of riffs and speedy guitar licks, but with girls as the subject matter of all their songs instead of Sturm und Drang anthems about ambiguous battles between good and evil (think "Iron Man" or even "Smoke On The Water"), the torch was passed. Boston, Def Leppard, Poison, and their ilk were the logical progression.

The original heavy metal was not happy music. It was not a soundtrack for love on a waterbed. Zeppelin maybe, Black Sabbath, no. It was simply droning, pounding, electric riffing best suited to a stupefying intake of marijuana or worse. It was music exploring the lower boundaries of consciousness played by virtuoso musicians, often with classical training, that perfectly captured the downer sensibilities of post-Watergate, post-60's, post-peace, love, and happiness America.

My first arena concert: Deep Purple. 1973. Sixth row. Civic Arena. Pittsburgh. Seated right in front of a massive wall of speakers. As was typical of those days, a confused triple-bill with David Gray opening (wrote "Outlaw Man," covered by the Eagles on Desperado), followed by a very, very, very late Billy Preston who only had time for two songs, his current funky hit "Will It Go Round In Circles" and one other. Made no sense as openers for a crowd primed for Deep Purple in their prime, still milking Machine Head and featuring a bit of Who Do We Think We Are as well.

Deep Purple played two hours. Deep Purple played 6 songs. You do the math.

"Lazy." "Space Truckin'." "Highway Star." "Child In Time." "My Woman From Tokyo." "Smoke On the Water." That was it (not necessarily in that order).

From that 6th row in front of that massive wall of speakers, Richie Blackmore's guitar, Jon Lord's organ, Ian Gillian's voice all pushed the upper limits of what my ears could tolerate. If there were girls there, I didn't notice them. If there were girls at any of those heavy metal shows, they weren't the kind my mother was going to let me date. The smell of reefer hung thickly in the air. Cigarettes flamed or glowed everywhere. I don't know what the ushers were expected to do.

And I'm not sure we, the early 70's concertgoers, knew what to do either. That close to the stage, but it isn't like we were moshing or dancing or even standing. We were sitting in our seats, politely passing whatever came from the left or the right while the noise blasted us further into oblivion.

Though I would see Led Zeppelin later that year, first stadium concert, Deep Purple was my only real foray into that hardcore heavy metal scene. Led Zeppelin was somehow different and bigger. And yeah, I saw Kiss a couple of years later for something to do during Christmas break my first year of college, and yeah, I saw Blue Oyster Cult a year or so after that in the Philadelphia Spectrum, with my coat over my head while people threw M-80's from the upper decks during the show, but those were even more fringe experiences.

See, I actually liked Deep Purple. I still do. Those old songs still hold up in their own way. Even though they are extremely dated in their sensibilities, in the kind of voice required to front such a band, in the riffs that have become cliches, the songs also convey a real sense of passion that comes from rock (not rock 'n roll) being so young and a band having the chance to define it and carve out their own space with each album.

And, just to finish the story, in case you didn't know, when guitarist Richie Blackmore left Deep Purple around 1975, he formed Richie Blackmore's Rainbow and choose Ronnie James Dio as the lead singer, the man who many mourn today.


troutking said...

Great post, Bob. Those concerts sound fun. Most of my concerts have been in the post smoking era, which is definitely a plus. But one of my first was REO Speedwagon. I was 16, just got my license, too scared to drive on the highway to get there. My brother was 14 and we knew REO from it's 80's arena rock reputation. Suffice to say, most of the crowd was there from the 70s Golden Country/Riding the Storm Out days. As soon as the show started, a pungent odor pervaded. "What's that smell my brother asked?" Then, the guy next to use sniffed a line of cocaine and we forgot about the smell. Then since it was the Life As We Know It album tour, REO cheesed it up with In My Dreams and One Too Many Girlfriends and all was right with the world.

Thom Anon said...

But the greatest Dio Tribute was written a few years back by none other than Tenacious D.



Billy said...

My first encounter with Ronnie James Dio was "The Mob Rules" on the Heavy Metal soundtrack.

My first concert was Suzanne Vega. No coke. No pot. No eardrum-splitting.

If your description of Van Halen was crafted to make me like them less than I normally do, you succeeded.

For some reason, your entire post has me relating you to Jason Siegel's character in Freaks & Geeks. This is meant 70% as a compliment.

troutking said...

What happened to my comment about a great song by Rainbow? Oh well, here it is again, Since You've Been Gone:


Bob said...

I had no idea that was Rainbow.

Nah, I got nothin' against Van Halen. Ol' Eddie changed the playing field, didn't he? He created the sound that everyone had to copy.

troutking said...

I heard he just married Valerie Bertinelli because he wanted to hang out with Schneider.

jed said...

gotta love "Space Truckin'." my mom wouldn't let me see VH in 7th grade because DLR wore ass-less chaps. i'm still mad....