Mar 27, 2007

Afro-Punk & Metal: A Headbanger's Journey

I've been promising, among other things, a quick take on the really interesting documentary Afro-Punk that I picked up through NetFlix. I've not gotten around to it until now, and in the interim, I checked out Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, which definitely merits some airtime as well.

There are two very different docs, but both take on genres and subcultures that are altogether unknown to the mainstream. Afro-Punk isn't trying to be a retrospective history of punk - it's really looking at the intersection of race and the genre, primarily through a bunch of interviews with a bunch of young and long-time fans, as well as a few punk veterans. For someone like me, who is so new to the genre, and not a convert to punk, though punk elements in the metal that I love definitely appeal to me (early Maiden/NWOBHM, etc), it was an eye-opener.

Also, because the film kept race front-and-center, I found the questions, approach, and gems that they uncovered incredibly interesting. The filmmaker had a light tough, enough so that you didn't feel like he was trying to make some profound statement from the film. It asked a few questions, found a bunch of interesting people, and just gave us a brief introduction to their place in a genre of music that's so often associated with unhappy white kids that you forget that some of the real trailblazers, like Bad Brains, like members of a bunch of groups, were actually black.

My favorite part was when he had a bunch of the interviewees, in rapid succession, saying that they were the only black kid at punk shows growing up. It's just awesome to hear like 10-15 people say the same thing. And you think "I wish I could have them all meet each other!" There's also something refreshing about the do-it-yourself aspect of punk - I was pretty inspired to see/hear folks talk about it - the race didn't really matter - it was the attitude. And finally, one sister was really deep because of the way that she identified the music, and the culture of punk - from the haircuts to the tattoos and piercings, with specific traditions in Africa. It was quite powerful to hear her talk about it, and talk about how much she was mocked or told that she was "acting white" by folks in her neighborhood, when she flipped it and said "actually, I'm getting closer to a culture that we lost."

It's pretty powerful, and I appreciated her take on it. Regardless, the film moved smoothly, there was enough cool stuff that was known and stuff that was unknown (at least to me, a neophyte to the culture), and I have to say, some of it was damn funny. Not to ruin the film, but there's a moment when the guys from TV on the Radio are asked to name all the groups that had black members, and they went through a list, and eventually said "The Clash... because they *had* to be black" and quickly followed it up with, "the whole scene is full of them!" I guess you have to see it.

So with that rave review of Afro-Punk, which was very satisfying as a film, I have to move on the Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, which suddenly found itself high on my Netflix list and in my DVD player quickly thereafter. What can I say? This is my genre, my first love in music, and the first true community that I felt like I was a part of while growing up. The filmmaker is an anthropologist who was a metal-head while growing up in Canada, and he has an easy, welcoming style of narrative that draws you in.

The film starts with shots from Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a short film taken during a Judas Priest show in the heyday of crazy metal fans (sometime in 1984, I think) and just showed a bunch of kids waiting for the show to start. I rented that DVD, was not really impressed by the film itself and less impressed by the dozen or so extras, most of which were quite a bit longer than the actual film (though I have to say, the filming of the demolition of the arena where the show had taken place, as well as the metal fan who went through a quite detailed LP-by-LP review of each of the Judas Priest albums as he showed off his collection were precious).

Anyway, so the filmmaker, Sam Dunn, a fan of the music, went on an exploration of metal culture and history in his film, and I thought that it was well done. He looked at the roots of the music, without talking about it for too long, interviewed people like Alice Cooper, Ronnie Dio (who kept making fun of Gene Simmons), Tommy Iommi, Dee Snider and a number of other respected folks from the beginning of the movement. He also did a one-on-one with Bruce Dickinson, in the Hammerstein Ballroom, which was pretty incredible, and a mind-blowingly funny interview with one of the most controversial black metal bands in the genre.

All that said, because I know the music fairly well, I wanted more. I thought that his exploration of controversy, from the Norwegian church-burning black metalists (and the way that Alice Cooper laughed at them) to the PMRC and Dee Snider discussion, were great. He even dealt with gender (and gender bending) in the genre. But he didn't open the question of race - which may seem like a non-issue because it seems like such an overwhelmingly white male genre and culture.

But it's not, the crowds around the world that turn out for metal shows is incredible (look at Brazil, Japan, and other places where metal shows can sell more than 75,000 seats easily), and even within metal, there are a good number of thrashers and others who are not white. Tom Araya of Slayer is Peruvian. Testament's Chuck Billy and Eric Petersen (at least) are American Indians. There are plenty of others. And the lyrics - from Anthrax's numerous songs to many others - also look at intolerance and hatred in interesting ways. [note, when posting this, I went to the website for this film, and realize now that Dunn is en route to making a follow-up that looks at the world metal phenomenon called: Global Metal. I'm impressed by this dude!]

I would say that the fan base in the United States is similar to punk - there aren't a lot of us, but probably more than you'd find at a typical country show. I haven't seen the extras from Metal but I'm not sure if there's anything there that looks at race either, and I think it remains an interesting angle for an aspiring filmmaker: "Gold, Bronze, Brown, and Red: The Many Colors of Metal"


burnedouteyes said...

awesome, I've been wanting to see both of those docs.

bad brains rules!

I remember being the only Asian at some 90s punk, hardcore, or metal show. Sometimes I got a little hate (a too hard shove in the pit) but most of the time it was great. There was acceptance and camaraderie, unlike most of high school.

Rage said...

Yeah man - you have to see the docs. I would really love to know what you think of them, given your history with the music and the scenes. It's funny, but metal shows have been the one place where I haven't felt completely out of place in a room filled with white guys.

There's something about the outsider/non-conformist thing that helps keep the tribe together. And there was a great quote in the Metal doc, when Dunn basically goes to the festival in Germany (blanked on the name) that is one solid week of metal, which people from around the world come to... he basically said that the best thing about the metal community is that for people who aren't part of it, they have no idea of how huge it is. 40,000 people go to this weeklong event! The shows in Brazil are *huge.*

But I have to say - it's not all roses. Even if race isn't as big of a discrimination factor, sexual orientation, national origin (thanks, S.O.D.) and a range of other issues can be. But basically, the whole fuck the establishment mentality really appeals to me. Not to mention being able to listen and talk about a musical genre that a lot of people (hipster interest notwithstanding) know very little about. Finding the tribe within our ordinary lives is actually quite a thrilling thing.

One other thing that Dunn explores a little, when talking about the hair/glam metal phase, was really interesting. He has Dee Snider talking about how men actually saw it as being so subversive and looking at how far they can bend what the boundaries of being macho are... that they would dress like women, or put on make-up. i.e. when you hit a wall for how "manly" you can play yourself up to be, the other direction to go is to assert "womanly" features/attributes, because you're that hyper-masculine.

I'd never thought of it that way, and though I'm still not convinced, it's so interesting that things could be viewed that way, and yet the tolerance of alternative sexuality, gender roles, etc. doesn't seem particularly progressive by a long shot. And Snider makes the intelligent analysis of asking... well either you have guys wearing tight spandex and thrusting at you in the audience all the time (to an audience that's mostly male) or you have guys dressed like women for an audience that's mostly male. Either way - there's some serious research that could be done on what that's all about. Classic.

Got to love the inner workings of the culture.

Rage said...

Oh yeah, and on the hair metal thing, the best was when someone said "yeah, there was always someone in line for the show saying he'd love to sleep with all the girls in Poison!"