When I was 20, I saw Slayer in concert, and I stood in the front row. I had decided to stand at the center of all heavy metal, and see what it made of me. Why did I feel the need to do this? I am, from time to time, unable to resist trying things that may indicate some measure of my own toughness. A Slayer concert is one of those things. Moreover, I like Slayer. Being in the front row and witnessing the madness that took place there felt commensurate with my love for the band. The law of attraction as I understood it seemed to apply. And, sure enough, something was revealed to me that night, standing amidst the violence and anarchy. But it was not what I had expected: I learned that I was not a metalhead the way that other metalheads are metalheads.

To be clear: the front row at a Slayer concert is where the savage come to have parties. The concert onstage, less than 10 feet away, is secondary to the fight for survival. The front row is a war. It is a vast communion with violence. People go wild and push each other and flip out. There are some rules (if you fall down, someone will usually pull you back up), but you can’t trust anyone too far. Before the concert started, a large bald kid with broken teeth was shouting, “I don’t care what anyone says, it’s a Slayer concert. You’re gonna get hurt.”

My purpose is not to condemn metalheads, or concerts, or mosh pits. Let the record show that I waited on line for an extra 2 hours so that I could be in the front row, which is where the mosh pits and slamdancing are most intense. I could have hung out on the mezzanine, where no one hits anyone. But I didn’t. Whatever else heavy metal concert violence is, it is basically elective. And it’s daring enough that I had to try it, once.

Yet the experience struck me as contrary to heavy metal. When I was in high school, I understood heavy metal to be a parade of force. It was a demonstration of fury, and massive, massive force. To appreciate that force was to possess it. To be tightly coiled around it. Not to be sneezed at. Not to be fucked with.

In other words, heavy metal music was what it sounded like to tame the beast. It was under control. Orderly. Disciplined. When Phil Anselmo, of Pantera, sang “Be yourself, by yourself, stay away from me,” I took that to heart. That, to me, seemed like the gist of it. “Be yourself, by yourself.” That was where the biggest muscles came from. It seemed like something we should all do.

At the Slayer concert, I realized my understanding of that principle may not have been shared by everyone. Standing in the chaotic beast-war of the front row, it all struck me as the opposite of Be Yourself By Yourself. Entering that world is the opposite of staying away.

It was a strange sensation, to observe heavy metal contradicting itself. For the first time, I realized that I had mostly listened to heavy metal alone in the attic. I was out of touch. Since I didn’t really want to participate in that brutal catharsis taking place around me, I felt like less of a metalhead. But that would mean I didn’t fit in with the club for people who don’t fit in—and that made me feel like the king of all metalheads. I wondered if the difference between me and some of the other metalheads was that my love for Slayer was happy to be in love. I didn’t want to push or get pushed. I just wanted to stand there, really close, and love Slayer.

It was not a new question for me. Even in high school, when I had my own metal band and covered my guitar case in stickers for Metallica, Megadeth, and Iron Maiden, I wondered what sort of metalhead I was. I was good in school and I didn’t smoke. I must have been the only kid my guitar teacher ever had who came to class with Chic records, because I needed help figuring out the guitar parts. I remember wondering if he would say anything. My friends didn’t get down with Chic. My own girlfriend said it made me seem gay to listen to that stuff. But I loved it. And when I solicited my guitar teacher to help me learn “I Want Your Love” he said, “Oh, this.” He gave a half-smile. Then he nodded. He said, “You can get some cool ideas for riffs if you take the bass lines to these songs and mess them up.” Yes, I thought to myself. It was at that moment that I knew I was on to something. I was a metalhead that liked disco. A straight faggot. That would be the source of my big muscles.

Five years later, at the Slayer concert, I saw a 12-year-old girl standing in the front row near me, wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the album art for Master of Puppets. I could not believe that this girl-child was going to stick it out here, with the slam-dancers, so I tried to be her friend. I pointed to her hoodie and said, “That’s my favorite record of all time.”

“Mine too,” she said.

I put out my fist, to pound hers, and she hit it as hard as she could. She punched my knuckles with all her strength. I looked at her and smiled. I figured she would be fine.

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