Once Bitten

Slaughter, D-A-D, Skid Row, Poison, Mötley Crüe, Warrant, Ratt, Faster Pussycat, Tesla, Kix, King Kobra, Trixter, Jackyl, Cinderella, Guns n’ Roses, Lita Ford, Bon Jovi, Vixen, Twisted Sister, Steel Dragon, Bang Tango, Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, LA Guns, Great White, Whitesnake—these are a few of my favorite things. Which I guess is just another way of saying I was born in 1972, meaning I got my first truck in 87, meaning I had that hair metal volume knob cranked all the way over to the right until . . . 91, 92? Right about when grunge came along, made the world smell like teen spirit. Or, made it smell not like teen spirit? Or ran a hole through teen spirit? I’m not sure I ever totally understood, really.

What I do try to maybe understand, though, it’s the generation just right ahead of me, that caught that grimy bus to LA, skinned on some tights, waded through a haze of Aquanet, and made all that music that became the soundtrack of my high school days nights. Which, to slow down for half a moment: yes, my continuing love affair with this sound likely has more than a little to do with my memories of what it was like being sixteen than it does with the actual music. Every next song would ambush me with how real and true it was. And I have to guess that it’s this way for a lot of us, maybe even for most of us: whatever station we were tuned into at that age, it still feels kind of like forever. New wave, hip hop, country, punk, rap, whatever, it’s less that the songs actually ARE speaking your inner self, probably more that any melodic utterance at all is going to resonate with you, since everything feels true and right, deep and meaningful, momentous and amazing.

For me that teenage heartbeat was hair metal, coming through 93.3 KBAT in Midland, Texas. Warrant’s “Heaven” broke my heart and Skid Row’s “I Remember You” knitted it back together. Faster Pussycat’s “House of Pain” was my secret autobiography, Mötley Crüe’s “Smoking in the Boys Room” cover my less secret one.

not sure I searched up the right sticker—looks like the Permian Basin’s KBAT is NOW 99.9, and out of Odessa? I don’t know. Haven’t been home in forever, and I’m sure the programming and format have changed anyway . . .

Too, I should maybe note here that ‘hair metal’ is kind of a misnomer, yes? Or . . . saying it like that, “Hair Metal,” it probably includes Iron Maiden, Slayer, Metallica, Megadeath—all the actually heavy bands. Who, yes, would tease their hair up just as high, sling their guitars just as low. Those were never my bands, though. They had real . . . anger, I guess? Like, there was always a snarl to their lyrics, and that snarl wasn’t me at sixteen. Like Brett Michaels (or was it Vince Neil?) would say about grunge in the early nineties: Why be so sad and angry? Why not just be happy and have a good time? I have come to appreciate Metallica some, sure, how not to, though I can’t go chapter and verse on their catalogue, their line-up—really, I can’t do that for my favorite bands either. If there was a record shop in Midland, Texas to hang out in back then, learn all that stuff, then I didn’t know where it was, anyway, and probably wouldn’t have been cool enough to stand around in there besides.

But, yeah, I’d snag one of those music magazines from Hastings in Midland every once in a while—that’s where I got the George Lynch fold-out I carried around forever, as his look was my absolute and only goal—but . . . okay, I’ll sometimes know who the front man is for a band, and, yeah, I guess I know Randy Rhoads got poached from Quiet Riot by Ozzy, that kind of top-level stuff, but there’s a lot of history with LA Guns and Guns n’ Roses and that whole scene that’ll forever be lost to me. Or, just plain old unfound by me, I guess. Not saying it’s not important who played for whom and when, and why, and I’ve watched a stack of documentaries on the whole Sunset Strip scene, but . . . it doesn’t stick. I just like the songs, man. Whenever the DJs would start talking, laying down trivia and backstory and all that, I’d thumb in Hysteria or Whitesnake 87, listen to some singing instead of some talking.

So, no, not much actually-heavy hair metal for me, no. The hair metal I was and am more into, it’s probably more pop metal. Which I’m completely cool with. ‘Hair Metal Lite,’ no problem. ‘Metal with Yer Madonna,’ sure. And, some’ll call it ‘glam metal,’ of course, harken all back to the New York Dolls and T. Rex, and some of the hair bands—Ratt, say, doing ‘fashion rock’—fit with ‘glam’ pretty well. And there’s nothing at all wrong with ‘glam’ either. It’s pretty cool, really. That’s not what we were calling it in 88 in West Texas, though.

Anyway, I was talking about that generation right before me, which I guess is an effort to try to halfway guess where hair metal might have come from. As far as I’m concerned, in my non-expertness, since I wasn’t even listening to music in the seventies? Where hair metal comes from is as simple as this:

no clue the year/venue/photographer (sorry), I just img-searched, can’t even read the full WSJ article

I really feel like the generation that grew up with Robert Plant as their rock god kind of had his tight pants, big hair, and decadent swagger imprinted on the back of their foreheads in a way that shaped the hair metal to come. The high schoolers and junior highers of then had to have seen Plant on stage in front of a wall of sound, and they of course would have wanted not just to be him, but to have that life they saw him living.

And, I have to think that wanting to be SOMEBODY, that’s essentially different from wanting to do someTHING. I mean, the result of wanting to be Plant, to be like Plant in all his golden-godness, was that music became the means to have that life, to inhabit that lifestyle. Which is to say, as good as a lot of the music most definitely was, the music wasn’t the actual goal. There was still amazing musicianship and heartfelt lyrics, but the songs were more the means to have an arena in your thrall, were the key to getting to lean back into that pulsing mass of adoration. I feel like the hair metal acts were trying to do the next “Stairway to Heaven,” sure, but they also knew that the dizzying heights Zeppelin had taken things to, that was lightning that wasn’t going to strike again anytime soon (at least not until Appetite for Destruction…). In lieu, though, they could live the Zeppelin life on the road, couldn’t they? Wasn’t that what it was all about anyway? The over-indulgence, the decadence, the complete absence of consequences? It’s the Peter Pan complex in tights and eyeliner: why grow up if you don’t have to?

Which, of course, leads too . . . well, “Wasted Rock Ranger” documents it pretty well, I suspect. But that’s all later, that’s in the morning. Hair metal was all about the night, and making it last longer and longer, maybe even until the next night, and the next. If there was going to be any daytime at all, then it would be the music video for “Home Sweet Home,” that probably launched a thousand high school dropouts west to California.

But, I really suspect, all of that comes from wanting to be Robert Plant of the seventies, when Zepp ruled the world, could do no wrong, had the key to every door, and would usually leave the room full of bottles and smoke. In trying to be that, you shimmy into the tightest leggings you can, you learn to prance and jump like Dave, you practice with a mic stand until you can work it like Steven Tyler, you run away from every barber—if you look the part enough, the songs’ll come, won’t they? They have to.

And? For some bands, the songs did come. Bon Jovi’s a good example. They had a real knack for hooks, and they put on a good high-energy, safe-enough show. And Def Leppard was raising the bar higher and higher with each hit, didn’t even need a Sunset Strip pedigree. But, really—and this has been said before—what all the bands wanted, I have to think, it was what Kevin DuBrow screamed in 83:

I really want to be / overrated.

What he’s saying there, for a whole era, a whole generation, it’s that he doesn’t want to be that good, he just wants to be that hyped. He wants the audience to be blind enough with desire that they don’t care about whether Quiet Riot makes this chord progression or not, whether the drums are coming in right. That line’s about wanting the audience to expect all of that, but the band not being under any real pressure to deliver it. It’s about fame, and being a rock god. When you’ve reached that, then whatever you say and play is good, as opposed to the conventional model, where you become a rock god because what you’re saying and playing is good. Hair metal wanted to turn that inside out, and then grind it into the stage with the heel of its glittery, wannabe-biker boot.

Anyway, that’s where hair metal starts for me.* That line, that song, that album. I don’t remember how I got it, but somehow a Metal Health cassette found its way into my player. Back then—I’m twelve—every couple of weeks I’d be tasked with mowing my grandparents’ property. They lived on a ten-acre pad out in the pasture, but only about three acres of that was somewhat in grass. Still, with a push mower, in 110-degree heat, that could take a full day. Especially if you were getting paid by the hour, not the job. What I Walkman’d into my head for all those narrow, overlapping passes, it was Metal Health and Stay Hungry, which I even had the cassette case for, meaning I could look at the cover art in my bed at night, and dream of being Dee Snyder (didn’t hurt that he was blond, either—being the only Indian at my school, I had big dreams about fitting in some fine day).

I had no clue who Robert Plant or Led Zeppelin was back then, either, and, all these years later, Zepp still doesn’t really do it for me. The kids who grew up on Plant and Page, though, those kids’ watered-down, maybe not-quite-as-virtuosic sound, from “Slick Black Cadillac” to “Cherry Pie” and everything between, that’s where I’ll forever live.

Remember that whistling Guns n’ Roses’ “Patience” opens with? When I was seventeen, cruising the drag in the daytime because I didn’t have anywhere else to go, no high school, no job, I’d be in just the right state of mind—or place in my life?—that, whistling along, I was Axl, I was on stage with my eyes closed, eighty thousand people snaking back and forth with me, and I knew that was what was waiting for me, if I just reached my arm out, grabbed onto it. That fantasy the seventies kids were living out on the radio, that forceful dreaming, it had infected me just the same. I didn’t so much want to know how to make the music, the music was secondary, an afterthought. What I wanted was to be that person. I wanted that life. And it all started with getting the bandanna on my head just so. I miss that. But I can still thumb that feeling open on my phone, pipe it into my ears. I can still close my eyes, whistle along.

* as for where I think it ends (**), no, it wasn’t grunge that killed hair metal. grunge just happened to be next. far as I’m concerned, hair metal, much like the slasher it shared an era with, collapsed under the weight of its own excess (and, yeah, maybe it sold out a little). and for me there’s no better visual representation of that than Vince Neil wearing bike shorts with a suit jacket for the re-do of the “Home Sweet Home” video. though, too, the B&W photography of that video also probably made this whole “hair” thing feel like it was receding into the past. or? could be that B&W was just the Crüe being aware that this was the end of things. and, I don’t pretend I’d have chosen pants instead of bike shorts myself, of course.

** and, yeah, very tempting to choose Guns n’ Roses’ 4 million dollar “Estranged” music video, complete with dolphins and a tanker, as the kind-of-official deathknell for hair metal. or, for that matter, their 1.5 million dollar “November Rain” video, right? But, “Estranged” is 93, “November Rain” is 92 (talking videos, not albums), and Mötley Crüe’s re-do video for “Home Sweet Home” is 1991, the same year Nirvana’s Nevermind hit and hit big, was the Metal Health of its musical moment.

oh, and: if you know me, you know I know country music of the seventies and eighties and early nineties pretty, um, completely. maybe even ‘fanatically.’ I listened to a LOT of it, and I still do. but? 92.3 KCRM when I was 16, that was for the eight or ten or twelve hours on the tractor. 93.3 KBAT was for cruising the drag deep into every Saturday night. and when you’re sixteen, seventeen, every night is Saturday night.

Author: SGJ