“And Satan’s a pussy that let me down a few years back, so fuck him.”
I can’t look Lars Ulrich any more.
I’m serious. I freaking can’t. Every time I see him on tv, or in some magazine, I just want to slap that self-satisfied “Yeah, I’m a weasel pawn of corporate America—whatcha gonna do about it?” look right off his ratty little face. I swear, I’m never buying another Metallica album for as long as I live.
Don’t get me wrong–I don’t give a damn about Napster. I never used it. I don’t own a CD burner; I’m a loser with a dual cassette. When I want to make a music mix, I turn to my own pitiful little collection of CDs. The result is a two-headed monster with 20 songs; it comes out alive, hissing and snapping, but I know from the moment it’s born that it’ll die some day—that I have to listen to it while I can.
I’ve paid for every piece of music, every CD and tape I own. Sometimes with more than money. Maybe everyone else should, too. What the hell do I know?
I still can’t look at Lars. I’ve tried to muddle through the Napster thing: I just can’t. Sure, maybe someone had to bust up the party—but did it really have to be Metallica? Since when do heavy metal musicians kick in doors and bust heads for the Powers That Be?
And more importantly—what the hell did he cut his hair for?
Maybe it’s a superstition, but I don’t trust a heavy metal musician who cuts his hair. Like, ever. I see one of these guys with a brand spanking new haircut, I start looking for the Philistine whore who’s robbed him of his strength and taken everything that he was away from him. I start looking for the slave manacles and wondering what they’ve burned out of him, if not his eyes. I sit back, and I wait…and usually, I get to watch him become the helpless slave of everything he once hated.
There’s only one exception to this general tonsorial rule of thumb, of course: I know a lot of heavy metal faithful who cut their hair without losing their balls because they converted to a new religion. When they hacked off those long beautiful tresses, it was so that they could become something even more anti-authoritarian than the metal-heads they were before: they transformed themselves into punks.
Lord knows, though, that’s not what happened to Lars. (The little yuppy turd.)
All of this brings me, in a round-about way, to my point: despite everything, heavy metal is not dead. There are some people still carrying the torch and even evolving the form, although they have to struggle to exist in the cracks of an industry dominated by pop, alternative and hip-hop, rap…even grunge. There are still some fringe bands that haven’t given up on the wall of the sound, the power chord, the sex and drugs and Powers of Darkness. In fact, just the opposite—in some ways, new heavy metal bands go even further than the old ones did. In an increasingly straight-laced and prohibitive society, they wallow in the pleasures of the damned.
So far as I’m concerned, the King of the new “Stoner Rock” is Dave Wyndorf, the lead singer of a band called Monster Magnet. Here’s a man who hasn’t cut his hair yet! And so long as Dave is still letting his freak flag fly, I will not lose faith in the decline of western civilization. For the moment, at least, he is my fucking hero. Of course, I like a man who looks good with long hair…but what I love even more is a man who knows how to give the world the Finger with real style.
Monster Magnet is a band from New Jersey. Why is it that guys from New Jersey kick such incredible amounts of musical ass? I don’t know. I do know that I identify a great deal with Wyndorf; like me, he spent his teenage years avoiding school and reading comics, watching sci-fi flicks, listening to rock and roll, and deranging his senses. To quote: “The goal was to get as fucked as possible without dying.”
Eventually he stumbled into the music scene, first with a punk band called Shrapnel and then into the forming nucleus of Monster Magnet. I’m going to skip the long story of how a three-piece band turned into a five-piece band, and how of the original three members, only Wyndorf is still on stage during gigs—frankly, it’s a tangled web and only so interesting, unless you’re a berserk fan.
The subject of my review today is 1998’s Powertrip, the band’s sixth album and one of their strongest releases to date. This is the line-up that has stuck for the last few years: Dave Wyndorf at the mike and performing sporadic guitar duties, Ed Mundel on lead guitar, Wyndorf’s life-long friend Phil Caivano mopping clean-up and fattening the band’s sound with a third guitar, Joe Calandra on the bass and Jon Kleiman on drums.
Musically speaking, the band has pretty good chops. Only one of them is really a virtuoso, however: that would be Kleiman, who has some of the most divine feet in rock and roll, and dances on his pedals like 1,000 warrior angels on the head of a pin. Still and all, when I listen to Powertrip I rarely dwell on the frenetic power of Kleiman’s drumming…because the real strength of the album is the lyrics, and that’s where all Monster Magnet releases live and die with me.
That being said, Powertrip is pretty damn satisfying. It’s a collection of songs which cover just about everything that heavy metal is supposed to be about. In no particular order, these things are:
Sex….drugs….money. Rage…sarcasm…irony. Destruction, demons, dreams. Hidden and forbidden knowledge. Blood, snakes and fire. Pretty lies and ugly truths. Loud sexy guitars. Long hair. Ego. And, perhaps more than anything else, telling the Establishment to fuck itself.
In the middle of a jag during which he wrote 21 songs in 21 days, Wyndorf slipped into a sleep deprivation fugue; the result of this shameless self-abuse was my favorite song of the album, “Powertrip”, which is one of the best heavy metal brags I’ve heard since “Back in Black”. The lyrics are cunning and sly, and the music is relentless and driving and blatantly meth-inspired. Even the intro comes in high and fast, although Wyndorf isn’t yelling at anyone; he just sounds gently amused as he asks the listener:
“Who’s gonna teach you how to dance?
Who’s gonna show you how to fly?
Who’s gonna call you on the lame, dope-smokin’, slackin’ little sucker you are?”
When the song rises off the pad, the acoustic chords giving way to electric thunder, the questions get harder to answer:
“Who’s gonna hit you from behind?
Who’s gonna ring your little bell?
Who’s gonna con you into buyin’ that television, fake revolution they sell?
When are you gonna blow the game?
When are you gonna blow the screen?
When you gonna tell them that the crap doesn’t wash–and you’ll find a way to make your own dreams?”
Good questions all, but Wyndorf doesn’t presume to answer them for anyone but himself. The chorus of this song is one that I always sing along to: it’s exactly what was going through my mind when I became a full time writer, years ago.
“Now, I’m never gonna work…another day…in my life!
The gods told me to relax—
They said I’m gonna get fixed up right.
Now I’m never gonna work…another day…in my life!
I’m way too busy powertrippin’….but I’m gonna shed you some light.”
Of course, the real delight of this particular song doesn’t come until the end. Until the final lines, you could just take it as a slacker anthem armed with a few head-banging power chords and a blistering wad of attitude. But with the closing lines, Wyndorf gives the song a bittersweet twist of self-awareness and self-irony which raises him head and shoulders above the vast majority of heavy metal lyricists:
“Who’s gonna teach you how to dance?
Who’s gonna show you how to fly?
When you get tired of the crap, baby,
Move over here and maybe buy some of mine…”
This is a man wide awake to his situation. He knows that he’s walking in a minefield. Recording for a big label is like climbing into a pit full of leeches; they’ll suck you dry and leave you an empty, withered husk if you let them. They have a lot less power to drain you, though, if you sprinkle them with some of that good ol’ Attic salt. The only antidote to those date rape drugs they feed you—money, fame, chicks–is a sense of humor and a sense of irony. You’ve got to be able to laugh and jeer at everything…especially yourself.
Rumor has it that when writing the songs for Powertrip, Wyndorf retreated into the glittering depths of Las Vegas: I believe it’s true. Being one of the deepest karmic sinkholes on the planet, rivaled only by Calcutta and Macao, Las Vegas is the perfect place to contemplate the evils of modern man: it’s the necropolis of the American Dream, the place where the nation sends its icons to be embalmed. By the time the funerary temples of Las Vegas are ready to display an image, its blood has been drained and its brain has been yanked out with hooks and it’s been pickled in hypocrisy and self-delusion. If you’re afraid of mummies, it’s one of the most horrifying places on earth.
Of course, the city is also a citadel of the baser human appetites; after all, you probably want to get in some serious debauchery before they wrap you in linen. In Las Vegas, every desire is a selfish one, every appetite is a potential addiction, and every beautiful woman is probably a whore. There is no better place to be, if you want to truly test yourself: to find out how far you’re willing to go, what you’re willing to exchange for money, what you can’t bear to part with no matter what they offer you…and what you’ll always want, at any price.
Las Vegas will hit you with every seduction that Capitalism has in its arsenal. Even Satan keeps one hand on His wallet and the other on His dick in that place.
The atmosphere of Las Vegas, and the state of Nevada, has permeated more than a few of the songs on this album. “Temple of Your Dreams” and “Third Eye Landslide” both have a vaguely sarcastic and humorous feeling to them: you know that Wyndorf means it when he says “Your taste for dirt just makes me smile” or
“Things are looking good from where I sit…in the United States of Who Gives a Shit.”
There’s also “Space Lord”, which got some airplay on the hard rock stations from 1999-2000 and even made it onto one of those year-end compilation CD’s. Every time I listen to it, I can imagine Wyndorf kicking back in one of the penthouse suites at Caesar’s Palace, staring out into the desert and straining to see Area 51…
“I’ve been stuffed in your pocket…for the last hundred days
When I don’t get my bath, I take it out on the slaves
So grease up your baby for the ball on the hill:
Just polish them rockets now, and swallow those pills
And say oh….Space Lord mother…”
A word about the use of the word “pocket”: it’s pretty obvious if you listen to all the lyrics on this album that Wyndorf isn’t talking about his pants when he uses this term.. In fact, the “pocket” is a metaphor for a person’s innermost soul, the core of his being—the part of you that informs your most important decisions and guides you in your most desperate hour. So when he speaks from the Space Lord’s point of view, and says “I’ve been stuffed in your pocket for the last hundred days”, he’s not talking about rattling around in your jeans with a couple of quarters and a tribe of lint bunnies. He’s talking about crawling inside you and dominating your will and gnawing your soul like a worm in an apple.
Wyndorf’s Space Lord is basically the embodiment of Ego. The song really captures the all-devouring nature of lust, especially the lust for power and fame. The chorus is absolutely chilling:
“I left my throne a million miles away
I drink from your tit, I sing the blues every day.
Now give me the strength to split the world in two
I ate all the rest, and now I’ve got to eat you!”
The last lines are also creepy beyond the pale, especially if you read too much Lovecraft.
“I lost my soul when I fell to earth
My planets call me to the void of my birth
The time has come for me to kill this game
Now open wide and say my name….”
He continues the theme in “Space Lord” in another song, “Atomic Clock”, which is a tune that Monster Magnet often uses to open up concert gigs. Musically speaking, the song is weaker and not nearly as catchy as “Space Lord”, but of all the songs on this album it’s probably the most raw and personal. In the end, this is probably how Wyndorf perceives himself: as an alien, fallen to earth and helpless to escape its gravity, relentlessly feeding on everything laid out before him and still, at some level, starving to death at the banquet.
“Well the moon crashed in the desert
And gave me a brand new home
These souls come to feed me in my crater
I eat them as fast as they come.
I dig your love and affection
I dig your voice on the phone
So throw some coins in my crater
I spend them as fast as they come.”
Money, women, drugs—it all disappears down the hole, but somehow the void is never filled. Wyndorf recognizes the gratification of his appetites as an entertaining hobby…something to do to pass the time…but he doesn’t mistake it for a meaningful existence, and he doesn’t bother letting anyone all the way inside. He knows that the sight of the darkness within would simply destroy most people, no matter how they presume to adore him.
“A greased up atomic pavilion
A great way to swallow my time
But I do think I’ll need a stronger witness
To watch me blow my mind.
You ain’t digging on my questions
And I know I ain’t digging on your lies
Keep on selling me my future
And I’ll keep on wearing my disguise.”
The painful truth, of course, is that he’s destroying himself. He recognizes this. He also knows that given the industry he works in, he’s doomed to be dismembered and packaged and sold as a product. In the end, though, he doesn’t care—both because he hopes that there is something within him that can transcend this fate, and because ultimately, his despair and loneliness are such towering passions that he doesn’t give a crap who’s recording his howls of pain, or who pays to hear them.
“So won’t you put my dick in plastic
And put my brain in a jar
If there’s something left of my spirit
It’ll find you wherever you are.
Still so goddamn hungry
I’m feeding off my own bones
So lay me out in my crater
And nuke me ‘til I glow…”
Of course, big scary tunes are not all this album has to offer. Another of my favorite songs is “19 Witches”, which Wyndorf wrote after a weird incident with a couple of pagan/goth chicks, several years back. He met up with them somewhere in the Deep South, and accepted the invitation to go back to their place after a show—what red-blooded Jersey boy could say no to a good sammich?—but with the proviso that they had to get him back to the tour bus in an hour….
Back to the bus in an hour? Not hardly. To hear Wyndorf tell the tale, the ladies had other plans. “Seven hours later I’m in the bayou somewhere with these girls who think they’re vampires, who watched Vampire Lestat 24 hours a day…These girls were completely out of hand. I missed two shows because of it, and they held me like captive there for two days. They were completely nuts.”
Nonetheless, he got a catchy little tune out of it!
Similarly, there are a couple of songs which aren’t nearly so wall-of-noise as most heavy metal. “See You in Hell” is a song based on one of Wyndorf’s few personal confrontations with True Evil…an incident where he was stuck on a bus with some whacked-out hippy who decided to make His Satanic Majesty into a kind of unwilling Father-Confessor. It’s almost funny to think of Wyndorf, a guy who labeled one of the band’s first albums with the slogan “It’s a Satanic Drug Thing—you wouldn’t understand”, having to sit and listen in mounting horror as the aforementioned Mr. Whacked-Out Hippy told him a charming story about how he and his wife had killed their baby and buried the corpse in a garbage dump called the Meadowlands. Of course, I can identify with this as well: in all my confrontations with True Evil, what’s always appalled me most is how fucking SORDID, and grubby, and depressingly lacking in style or panache it always is.
“You were like a zombie
When you told me what you did that day….
And I drove out to the Meadowlands….
To throw our baby away
Well time and snow couldn’t bury…the years of forgotten guilt.
And little Bobby’s coming
From under a Jersey landfill…”
In contrast, “Baby Gotterdammerung” is a meditation on the perils of reincarnation—although not necessarily in the literal sense. The essential question of the song—“How do I reconcile the man I am today with the man I’ve been in the past?” is relevant in any lifetime, especially if you’ve gone through some powerful series of transformations. And of course, I can never resist a good hip comic reference, especially when it’s dropped into a song without blinking:
“Now face the music, son
Some people live to remember when
But you’re no storage space—
You’ve lived a dozen lives since then.
So what would Modok do—if his memory got too full?
He’d find the power source—and then he’d pick which plugs to pull.”
Talk about your in-jokes…this is an image which can only be understood by True Believers. In the Marvel comics universe, Modok is a living computer. Wyndorf suggests that a human being is sometimes much the same—you’ve got a hard drive loaded with memories which may or may not be useful, but still roll out to torment you when you read a book, hear a song, see a film that brings it all back. If only you could pick and choose what to remember…find the power source and pick which plugs to pull!
The last song on the album, “Your Lies Become You”, is actually a ballad of sorts. It has a dark edge to it—like everything Wyndorf writes—but a curious beauty as well. It would appear that once upon a time, for Dave, there was a Woman…as opposed to a lot of anonymous pussy. There was maybe even Love…as opposed to endless sport sex. He always knew she was smarter than he was, but she never could tell the truth. And although she’s gone now, he hasn’t forgotten her—or the fact that she almost killed him.
“How am I livin’ without you?
I’m not even sure that I’m still sane.
But this little dog’s got enough sense
To know not to sleep in the cold rain…
How are you doin’ without me?
I’m sure you found some new game.
I never wanted to miss you–
But then, I never thought I could dig pain…
Hope it’s warmer for you, princess!
I (in fact) hope it’s hot as hell…yeah
And you get what you ask for
‘Cause your lies become you
Yes, your lies become you
Yes, your lies become you, after all…”
God, I hope Dave never cuts his hair.
first written in 2000 for Online Music Review
Original Release Date: June 16, 1998
Number of Discs: 1
Label: A&M Records
copyright 2011 by Arinn Dembo, all rights reserved.