An Evening in the Abyss
Recently I was sitting in my office waiting for some oatmeal to cool and trying to purchase Bonnie Raitt tickets on the internet for my mother-in-law’s birthday. An advertisement on the ticket website announced an upcoming Slayer concert, and it occurred to me: I’d like to go to a Slayer concert. So, credit card in hand, I bought two passes to see them in Philadelphia. It was an impulsive splurge, but what the hell, I figured, let’s give ’em something to talk about.
Completing the transaction and already feeling like a bit of a total maniac bad-ass who doesn’t give a fuck about shit, I called my wife to make sure she wouldn’t be mad at me. “Do I have to come?” she asked. “No? Then sure, ok.” I hung up the phone and took a total maniac bad-ass bite of oatmeal, burning my tongue.
For your information, Slayer is an American heavy metal band from southern California, and, along with Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, one of the “Big Four” thrash concerns hugely popular in the metal scene of the late 1980’s and 90’s. Founded by guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, and drummer Dave Lombardo, Slayer’s lyrical meditations on the occult, serial killers, Nazi war criminals, arteriosclerosis and other nightmares earned the group a reputation as the scariest of the Big Four. Dave Lombardo, by consensus the greatest metal drummer ever, quit the band several times over financial disputes, and is not in Slayer’s current lineup. Jeff Hanneman died in 2013 of alcohol and spider bite-related causes.
For your further information, I am an American white male from southern Minnesota, one of those “big dorks” hugely unpopular in the middle school scene of the late 1980’s and 90’s. As a kid, I was an avid metalhead, doing permanent harm to my eardrums with a steady regimen of Sepultura, Pantera, Sacred Reich, Deicide, Prong, Cannibal Corpse, Corrosion of Conformity, and of course, the Big Four. I’d even seen Anthrax in Minneapolis in 1993, but due to the shifting sands of preferences and priorities (Ska! College! Conscious rap! Law school! Fatherhood/Wilco!), it had been many years since I’d listened to metal in earnest, much less live and direct. Time marches on.
Finding a taker for my second ticket was harder than I had anticipated. I’d assumed I could lay a guilt trip on one of the guys who’d convinced me to join them a couple years back for my first and last Phish show. But no, the hippies could not abide the metal, and so I resigned myself to being slayed alone.
The gods of rock move in mysterious ways, however, and only a week before the show, I mentioned to a guy named Matt on my neighborhood association’s zoning committee that I was going to see Slayer. “Slayer?!” he exclaimed. “I want to see Slayer!” Boom, I had a date, and the zoning committee moved on to its next agenda item.
The day finally arrived, and I found myself antsy. To be at work, toiling with legal documents and escrow letters was, frankly, unbecoming of a Satanic acolyte such as myself. When at last crepuscular talons began to caress the blood-red twilit horizon (i.e. when my boss left), I hurried out of the office. Once home, I shed business garb to change into my most blasphemous pair of chinos and a merino wool v-neck sweater that positively screamed, “Fuck you” to traditional Judeo-Christian values. Taking leave of my wife and 17-month old daughter, I paused to tell them I loved them deeply, and that there was a very real chance I would literally be killed by metal tonight.
My wife looked into my eyes. “We’re out of kitty litter.”
A brief UberX ride later, I connected with Matt and we queued up outside the club, which was housed in a building in a light-industrial park near the Delaware river. The assembled crowd was a consortium of intersectional metaldom: portly IT guys, crust punks, aging hipsters in merino wool sweaters, unreconstructed acid-washed heshers, and one bold dirtbag with a large upper-arm tattoo featuring a group portrait of Load-era Metallica. Wending our way through the security line, Matt and I bumped into another guy from the zoning committee. The air was electric. We went inside.
The interior of the concert venue surprised me. Smartly placed Edison bulbs swayed gently in the well-ventilated coat check annex, Exposed brick and a tidy array of ductwork surrounded the main bar over which loomed a large Jasper Johns-esque American flag mural. Emergency exits were clearly identified and accessible, and even the drinking fountains appeared to function properly. It was a jarring sight, but I reckoned this was how thrash metal was meant to be experienced by someone of my age and station, in a Pottery Barn.
After forking over the very rock ’n’ roll price of $10.50 for a beer, Matt and I entered the auditorium where 500 or so concertgoers were bobbing gamely along to the opening act, Testament. Back in their salad days, Testament were a respectable B-list outfit. Now, a good twenty years past their prime and showing it, they ploughed through their catalog with workaday competence. Tonight, as always, the band’s ace was lead guitarist Alex Skolnick. A true virtuoso, he casually ripped through byzantine, modal solos as if he were, as Matt put it, “pouring a glass of water.” Skolnick’s bravura performance ultimately served only to highlight Testament’s collective mediocrity.
Soon enough, Testament wrapped up their set and the crowd shuffled out to seek new booze. In the space’s sudden emptiness, Matt and I moved closer to the front and center of the theater. While roadies raised a white curtain to hide the stage, we sipped our beers and one-upped each other with stories about the most memorable rock shows of our youths.
We must have lost track of time because the next thing I knew, the audience had flowed back in, seeming to have increased by an order of magnitude. Looking around, I realized Matt and I were trapped, stranded knuckle to nut in a sea of perspiring dudes stomping and snuffing in anticipation of the main event. Suddenly, the PA shut off, the house lights went black, a thunderclap burst, the white curtain fell to the stage floor, and there — visible only in silhouette through a thick red fog — was Slayer, launching into “Postmortem” from Reign in Blood.
At once, the bodily throng transformed into a whirling, churning mosh pit. Arms milled, boots flailed, heads banged. My god, I realized, I really am literally going to be killed by metal tonight. Horrifying tableaux flashed across my mind: medics hauling my broken corpse from the premises with the soiled rump of my blasphemous chinos on full view; my cat, bereft of kitty litter, cursing my name; my daughter, standing over my grave and uttering her first complete sentence, “What a loser, he couldn’t hang in the pit.”
Somehow, I managed to identify a path through the maelstrom of limbs and I scurried like a frightened tabby to its edge. Delivering a parting gift from the pit, a faceless moshman slammed into my shoulder with the force of a coasting Dodge Neon. With that excruciating nudge, I melted back into the crowd now throbbing and pulsing as one like so much sweaty wheat in a breeze. Out of mortal danger’s way and buzzing with adrenaline, I turned toward the stage and joined the mass undulation, throwing up my horns in a joyous esprit de corps.
After twenty bludgeoning minutes capped by a zesty rendition of “Disciple” from 2001’s God Hates Us All, Slayer took a little break. Tom Araya, the bass player and singer whose long hair and shaggy salt-and-pepper beard bestowed the appearance of a stygian Jerry Garcia, stepped to the microphone for a bit of patter. Leaning toward the mic, Tom (we’re on a first name basis) abruptly stiffened and winced as his hand darted to the small of his back. It was a wince I recognized. “Hell yeah, L5-S1 herniation!” I nearly hollered, as if requesting the second track off an album entitled Degenerative Disc Disease. “You might want to talk to your doctor about a cortisone injection and a daily low impact yoga routine, motherfucker!”
Through his discomfort, Tom greeted the crowd with a hearty, “Hello, Philadelphia!” Philadelphia whooped back hospitably, and the singer commenced a cheerful stroll down memory lane, fondly recalling good times and old mischief he and the band had perpetrated on prior visits to our city. Guitarist Kerry King, stocky, bald and profoundly tattooed, chuckled and nodded in recollection. Jeff Hanneman’s replacement guitar player, having no stake in the nostalgia, chewed gum. Not-Dave Lombardo was obscured behind some cymbals.
Tuning out Tom’s monologue, I surveyed the set dressing. At the rear of the stage, a massive vermilion tapestry conveyed the canonical death metal signifiers as well as Slayer’s brand-specific catalog of diabolica: a Halloween supply store of inverted crucifixes, saber pentagrams, stahlhelmed eagles and crotchety skeletons. It was sinister, sacrilegious, and all pretty silly if you took a step back. But I didn’t want to take a step back; I was there to find catharsis in demonic, high decibel chaos and to feel that communal charge that saw me through the slings and arrows of my garbage teenage years. Dammit, I was there to rock, dammit.
Tom chattered on amiably, clearly relishing the opportunity to catch his breath. Meanwhile, Kerry (we’re pals) paced and fidgeted like a housebound pug, eager to resume melting faces. It might have been the coagulated bro-dew going clammy on my exposed flesh, but something snapped me from my reverie in time to hear Tom relate an anecdote about his involvement with a charitable organization that “brings music to underserved kids.” What?! I recoiled, unconsciously disavowing any cognizance of my sweet toddler at home. Charity?! Enhancing the lives of underserved kids?! That’s not evil! That’s not satanic! That’s not Slayer! Booooo!
Kerry must have shared my sentiment, for he turned and gave a brusque nod to Not-Lombardo, who clack-clack-clack-clack’d his drumsticks and hurled the band headlong into “War Ensemble”. At once, the mosh pit opened its hungry mouth anew, and I gave myself over to the human tempest. Slayer played “Mandatory Suicide” and “Chemical Warfare.” On the floor, we thrashed and roared. They played “Payback.” We gnashed and hollered. They played “Hell Awaits.” A guy in a wheelchair crowdsurfed. They played “Dead Skin Mask.” Wheelchair guy crowdsurfed again. They played some new stuff too. Then, somewhere between “South of Heaven” and “Raining Blood,” an old familiar sensation began to stir within me. Before long, the feeling grew shrill and insistent, drowning out even the blast of the amp stacks on stage and bidding me heed its cry. There was no denying it; I had to pee.
Juking my way back through the still-rocking crowd, I drew a bead on what appeared to be a route to the restrooms. I squeezed past the fans, begging their pardons as metally as possible. Just as it seemed I was home free, I walked bang into a low-slung crowd control rail, and there I was stuck. I grimaced and clenched, and finding no egress, turned back to face the stage. As I did so, a new banner unfurled behind the band. It was a huge Heineken beer logo, except instead of “Heineken” it read “Hanneman” and displayed the departed axeman’s expiration date. Now I really had to pee.
Slayer tore into “Angel of Death,” re-conceived as a tribute to Hanneman. The audience went into a paroxysm of ecstatic madness, and then, it was all over. The band set down their instruments, waved goodnight, and left the stage, The houselights went up, the PA kicked on, and we streamed toward the exits. I staggered into the cleanest rock club men’s room I’d ever seen, and was soon enjoying glorious relief at the urinal.
Outside, Matt and I found each other and hailed a cab. We were exhausted, elated and totally shellshocked. We compared the scratches and welts taking shape on our hands and forearms, souvenirs from the pit. We looked out the taxi’s windows to see a gentle snow falling on Columbus Avenue.
My house was dark when the cab dropped me off and I said goodnight to Matt. Once inside, I tiptoed upstairs, peeled off my cold, damp clothes and jumped into the guest bathroom shower. Everything ached, and I knew I’d be all but hobbled by morning. I didn’t care. I was still keyed up and blissed out. Quietly, I snuck past the nursery and into my bedroom. My wife stirred as I crawled beneath the covers.
“Did you have fun?” she inquired sleepily.
I gazed at the ceiling in the darkness, at a loss to answer a question that didn’t even begin to describe what I’d just experienced. “Yeah, I had fun.”
“Good, I’m glad,” she murmured. “Oh, hey, did you ever buy those Bonnie Raitt tickets?”