Life after Death Metal [guest post]


In the coming days and weeks I’ll be inviting some of my favorite writers/friends to guest blog about a defining moment (the length of the moment undefined) in their search for identity. First up is Ulises Silva. His site is currently under construction, but for now you can follow him on Twitter, @inventingsilva

Geraldo Rivera was an idiot.

Back in the day, he made the case that heavy metal was a really bad idea for impressionable kids looking for any excuse to kill themselves or worship Satan. I remember watching his quasi-documentary on the evils of heavy metal and thinking two things:

  1. Why does Ozzy look like he’s just woken up from a three-day cocaine binge and trying to remember if he left the refrigerator door open when he went for that late-night bat snack?
  2. Are you $%(@*% kidding me?

See, I was one of those impressionable youth Geraldo was talking about. One of those high school kids who were mindlessly ready to succumb to the mind-altering effects of heavy metal album covers, who thought music was actually an instruction manual on proper social interaction (like the Cha Cha Slide, only darker), and who regularly listened to his albums in reverse (don’t we all?) and further exposing myself to the satanic verses embedded therein.

And yet, even though my maturity was a work in progress, my intellect had yet to be installed, and my argumentative skills were just slightly better than those of cabbage, I looked straight at the TV and said, “Geraldo, you are so full of shit.”

(Well, not really, since I was watching this program at home, and swearing at home was punishable by lethal injection or dishwashing duties.)

Heavy metal didn’t make me want to kill myself or sacrifice goats to Satan. Hell, it didn’t even make me want to rip the tags off mattresses. Heavy metal probably saved my life.

No, I wasn’t suicidal, but let’s just say that life in grades 1 through 9 was hardly a time I’d ever want to relive. I just seemed to be perpetually caught within different worlds and never really finding my place. I was a Mexican-American living in a predominantly Greek neighborhood. I was sometimes bullied, but sometimes the bully. Not the most ridiculed kid in class, but hardly the most popular. Not overweight, but not exactly trim. Smart enough to graduate third in my class, but dumb enough to think it made a difference. I was one of a handful of Latinos in a school that was anything but, and was regularly mocked and told not to lose my green card—despite being a U.S. citizen by birth and despite the fact that the kids telling me this had green cards themselves.

Mix these all up, add in a chronic inability to ever catch on to any popular trends (musical or otherwise), and you had the makings of an adolescence I couldn’t wait to be done with.

Heavy metal came into my life in a roundabout way. There was a kid in class who wore heavy metal t-shirts almost every day. One shirt caught my attention. It was an Iron Maiden Aces High t-shirt, and I guess it stuck out because I was a big WWII aviation buff (yet another probable reason why I was unpopular) and the t-shirt featured this monster thing (i.e., Eddie, the Iron Maiden mascot) piloting a British Spitfire. The kid wore this shirt, and instead of focusing on the lesson at hand, I’d wonder who this Iron Maiden was, why she chose to spell her name out in such an unusual font, and whether she knew about the lightweight alloys that might make her social life a little easier.

I can’t remember the exact thought process that made me jump from point A (“I’m unpopular and everyone thinks I’m a wimpy dork and they want to deport me, woe is me”) to point B (“I need to listen to cooler music in order to gain social acceptance and build a new identity for myself”), but that’s pretty much the conceptual jump I decided to make. I needed a personality makeover. And the “cooler music” I figured could help me achieve this was heavy metal.

Now, given my lowly social status at school, there was no one in my class I felt comfortable enough to approach and say, “Hey, I’m trying to reshape my identity through the incorporation of more age-appropriate music into my life and was wondering if you’d be willing to assist me with the procurement of tapes that could facilitate this search for self-identity.” Lucky for me, there was a kid on the third floor of my five-story apartment complex who liked heavy metal and who wasn’t in school (and thus largely unconcerned with my pitiful popularity ranking). So I went up to him one day and asked, “Uh, can I borrow some heavy metal? It’s for a thing.”

When he asked what band I wanted, I named the only band I knew of: Iron Maiden. You know, the shirt guys.

So the kid dubbed me a copy of Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time. (Yes, before the days of downloading music, we had friends dub cassettes for us.) Yes, many will argue that Somewhere in Time was the start of Maiden’s musical decline, but to me, it was my first metal album, and it introduced me to a whole new world of musical possibilities, new life perspectives, and new trite clichés.Iron-Maiden-Aces-High

From the start, I was hooked. Here was a music that had rhythm, power, and was more socially acceptable for a kid my age to listen to! (Because, strangely enough, listening to the original soundtracks of Indiana Jones and Star Wars didn’t really earn me any popularity points in junior high.) Not to mention, metal had a “tough guy” factor that fit my requirements for a style of music that would help me go from “dorky kid” to “dorky kid who at least listens to tough guy music.”

The results were almost immediate, albeit too late to make any real impact in my tortured junior high school career. I guess that’s what happens when you decide to make an adolescent life change with about a month or two left before graduation. But still, the day one of my biggest tormentors heard I was “into” heavy metal (I mean, seriously, I’d only been “into” it for about a month), the shocked, frozen, “wow, I had you pegged all wrong” look on her face said it all: yes, I suddenly had a small modicum of street cred.

For all the misguided reasons I decided to get into metal, my love of heavy metal and its multiple sub-genres, especially death metal, would essentially define my high school and early college years. Though too late to make a difference in the hell that was junior high school, metal helped me make a confident transition into high school. There, my newfound street cred would not only help me find some of the best friends and times I would ever know, but it helped me establish a sense of confidence I’d never known before.

Which is why I think Geraldo was full of shit. (Well that, and just about every other thing he ever said with a camera pointed at his face.) You know what, Geraldo? Heavy metal did change me, but in an incredibly positive way. It gave me confidence because, ironically enough, I felt socially well adjusted for the first time ever. It gave me a positive sense of self-identity because I was no longer the class dork. It helped me make friends because I finally had something relevant to talk about with others. It gave me newfound ambitions, not the least of which was the dream of learning an instrument and being in a band—a dream that finally came true many years later in Detroit.

And you know what metal didn’t change, Geraldo? The sense of decency my parents raised me with. Yeah, okay, maybe Dad bought into the shtick that heavy metal had mind-altering effects on its listeners (and thus raised the alarms when he saw an album in my collection by a band named Sodom). But both he and Mom worked hard to raise a good son who was respectful to his parents and elders, respectful to his teachers, and respectful to his culture. They raised an hombre de bien (a man of good), and that’s something that didn’t change.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I not gotten into metal. And while it’s impossible to know if I would have been any worse or better off, I’ll go out on a limb and say that heavy metal saved my life. Because it helped me make a critical attitude adjustment at a crucial transitional moment in my life. And had I not made that adjustment, would I have been able to go to college? Grad school? Would I have landed great jobs, including my latest one here in the great city of Chicago? Would I have published a novel? Who knows…

So thank you, Iron Maiden. Thank you Slayer. Thank you Sepultura. Thank you Death, Death Angel, Napalm Death, Living Death, and Hobbs’ Angel of Death. Thank you Deceased. (And sorry that I thought you guys sucked the first time I saw you in Buffalo in 1990. If it makes you feel any better, Fearless Undead Machines is one of my “desert island” albums.) Thank you Rage, Sodom, Destruction, Kreator, Helloween, Entombed, and all those other kickass German bands of the late 80s. Thank you Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, Faith or Fear, and Demolition Hammer. Thank you Devastation, Suffocation, Immolation, Incantation, Repulsion, and Cannibal Corpse. Thank you Carcass, Cadaver, and Autopsy. Big thank you, Rapture, Nothingness, Evil Entourage, and all you other Mexican death metal bands that fill me with nationalist pride.

But no thanks to you, Metallica, for being the sell-out vindictive pricks you became.


If I could do high school over again I would only change two things


I used to say that there wasn’t a moment of my life that I’d do over. Regrets were not my thing. To me, even the moments of wrong decisions were simply lessons learned. But life has a way of changing your perspective. When you get to your 40s you realize that some possibly not-so-positive emotions may have gotten in the way of a different life outcome, or at the very least an experience you may have enjoyed. 

As I reflected on this and began to really think about the missed opportunities due to my choices in high school—summer program at Harvard, prom, graduation—I realized that in retrospect there were two things I could have done differently.

I would care less…

  • about being cool
  • about the zit on my chin and uncontrollably frizzy hair
  • about impressing boys
  • about hanging out with my friends
  • about fun after school
  • about my picture in the year book
I would care more…
  • about being involved
  • about my grades
  • about impressing myself
  • about walking across the stage at graduation with my friends
  • about life after school
  • about my achievements listed in the year book
Yes, just two things: cared less and cared more. If I were to do it all over again, I would put more thought on what was important. I would look past the things and the people in front of me to see the potential my future held for me. I would put my dreams front and center and not allow life to fool me into thinking they were too far out of my reach.
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