Category Archives: Rock & Roll


Photo courtesy of Caitlin Becker

I can count all the times I’ve been complimented in a music store. When I first started learning guitar as a kid, being complimented in a music store was an attainable dream on the list of dreams. It was among the things I wanted in a “Oh that would be nice too” sort of a way. I fantasized about it as recess from the other more extreme fantasies.

This is because a big part of electric guitar is the culture of big tits. For guitar players, big tits = shred, and shred = fancy in-your-face guitar playing that immediately shows off. If you have the big tits of shred, everyone wants to see it. But you’re not allowed to touch someone else’s big tits of shred, you just have to stare and admire it, or envy it. To put it another way, shred is obvious and powerful the way big tits are, and the feelings of attraction and confusion that shred inspires among guitarists are not, I submit to you, entirely different from the feelings many of us have about big tits.

I was 12 when I started taking guitar lessons, and my teacher back then was 13. I remember once, during a lesson in his living room, he told me that he went to a guitar store and bunch of other kids crowded around him and watched him play. “Yes,” I thought to myself as a hapless beginner, “I must have that too someday.” And it was at that moment that I first entered the gladiator’s arena and took my shoes off.

All these years later, do you want to know how many times I have received praise in a music store? The answer is 4. You may be wondering, “Is 4 a lot or a little?” You must decide for yourself. Judge my 4 how you will, with all that you know about shred and big tits.

Know too that many people who work in guitar stores are basically Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. This may explain why 2 of my 4 praises are not from playing guitar but from playing piano. I can imagine that the culture of piano is different, that there’s less silent hatred among players, less overall anxiety in the rat race for shred. Maybe because there’s never quite been a Jimi Hendrix on keyboard.

In any case, I’m not a good piano player, but it has brought me 50% of my music-store props. The first time anyone ever said to me, “Hey, you sound good,” I was diddling around on a keyboard in Teaneck, NJ. I had been playing guitar for about 8 years at that point, and I felt totally ready for someone in a music store to say that I was a shredder. But it didn’t happen until I sat down to play a keyboard, maybe because I wasn’t trying so hard, or maybe because I can only play pleasant, Paul McCartney–type stuff. It happened again at the Guitar Center near Union Square: I was sitting at a piano and people stopped and watched for a while, which counts the same as praise in my scoring system.

If I could, I would trade those for 2 more guitar praises, guitar being my main phallus and my main big tits, but that’s not allowed. Of my 2 guitar praises, one is from a guy in a store in Roslyn, Long Island, who seemed like he might have been looking for a guitar-bro. He was in his 40s, he had an 18-year-old son, but he gave off the vibe of the kid on the playground who wants to be friends more than you want to be friends. It was a small guitar store, and I didn’t want to get sucked into a conversation with this guy about his rig and his band and his dreams, so I bailed.

My 4th guitar praise, which is probably the only one that really counts, is from the owner of 30th St. Guitars, Matt Brewster, who once looked up when I played “Le Freak” by Chic. I was playing a BC Rich through a Marshall stack, which is totally un-Chic. But I made it sound like “Freak Out,” because I’ve had a thing with Nile Rodgers since 10th grade, and I even saw him on the street once. And while I was playing, Matt looked up at me from the back of the store and did the frowning nod thing.

So, to be perfectly honest with you, my 4 is really a 1. But it’s a good 1. And earlier, when I said that you yourself must decide whether my 4 counts for a lot or a little, it was really another way of saying that my 4 counts for a little. But I say too that my 4 contains 1 really great 1. So let that be known.

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I read recently that Wendy and Lisa get the vibe from Prince that he disapproves of their lesbian relationship, even though they were all in the Revolution together. That struck me as odd. In addition to being an extraordinary talent, Prince made a name for himself by being androgynous and sexually unrepentent and queer—as my grandparents would use that word. Is he really in a position to cast aspersions on the sexual proclivities of others? Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe he is afforded that position by being a Jehovah’s Witness. Or maybe by being a genius. He is, after all, my favorite living musician, and I have some reservations about speculating about his personal beliefs, even more reservations about judging those beliefs. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to a paradox: the possible convervatism in the sexual politics of our most sexually liberated performer.

One explanation is that, actually, the conservatism was always there. To be clear, we’re talking about the man who wrote a song called “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” which he sang under the guise of Camille, a hermaphrodite whose voice was a sped-up version of Prince’s. He also wrote a song about getting sexed and pimped by his own sister, and a song that inspired Tipper Gore to start the PMRC. One of my favorite Prince lyrics is this one: “I’m not saying this just to be nasty, but I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth. Can you relate?” Yes. I could always relate. It was my understanding that these Satanic verses were, in fact, the opposite of Satanic: they were testimony that we know God by the ecstasy of orgasm.

There is one type of orgasm, however, that I have never known Prince to write about: the kind you get from anal sex. It is an omission that leads me to wonder if a certain kind of passion, the kind that dare not speak its name, has always been distatseful to Prince. Maybe, to him, it represents blasphemy: when you have anal sex, you’re doing God’s work in the wrong sort of way. A sacreligious way. Maybe even hetero couples are sinners when they try it. Of course, this would mean that when Prince sang “Sexuality is all I ever need,” he was talking about sexuality in terms more narrow than you or I might have guessed.

The handful of references to being gay in Prince’s lyrics (that I have found) do not entirely refute this theory. “Bambi,” an early song in which Prince tries to seduce a young lesbian, contains the line “Maybe it’s ’cause you’re so young.” In “Uptown,” Prince describes being asked by a woman if he’s gay, and then remarks “She’s just a crazy crazy crazy little mixed up dame,” which makes you wonder how much he was offended by the question. Neither of these is shockingly homophobic, but I do detect traces of a certain kind of straight-boy attitude, the kind that says “I just don’t get it with those people.”

But I think I’ve gone too far. Parsing his lyrics like this, trying to read his mind, is exactly the sort of thing I try to avoid; it’s one thing to judge the lyrics, another to extrapolate the man behind them (especially a chameleon like Prince). One reason I like Prince is that he has always been provocative and sly, and I would hate to misunderstand him by citing songs of his that were written in the poetic voice. After all, my single favorite Prince song ever is “Controversy,” which I have always considered, rightly or wrongly, to be the Prince-iest of them all. The first line is: “I just can’t believe all the things people say/ Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” It is in many ways a perfect first line: daring, ambiguous, personal. And also accusatory. The subtext is “Fuck you for asking.” Could it be that the truest perverts among us are those that get hung up on the difference between black and white and straight and gay? Maybe trying to guess Prince’s innermost feelings on the subject is itself more prurient than anything Prince himself ever wrote, or didn’t write.

Which is why, for everything I’ve just written, “Controversy” is the song that makes me think I’m wrong. Even if Prince does, in whatever way, disapprove of Wendy and Lisa in bed together, the truth is probably more complicated. We may know God by the ecstasy of orgasm, but that doesn’t mean we know Prince.

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I started a series on Biscuette in which 2 songs with the same name fight each other. In the first entry, “DREAMS” by Fleetwood Mac takes on “DREAMS” by Van Halen. FIND OUT WHO WINS HERE.

I’ve set up a poll below, because I’m curious to see where everyone comes down on this. Depending on the results, I might arrange a rematch:

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Big news: I’ve begun writing a guest column about boxing & rock and roll at Biscuette. My first piece is called “GET IN THE RING: THE MIND OF AXL ROSE,” and you can read it here. It’s about the things that Axl Rose and boxing have in common–and why they are attractive (and occasionally repulsive) for the same reasons. As you might have guessed, I have a lot to say on the subject.

Stay tuned for twice as much H.M.H. in the coming weeks: in addition to the new column at Biscuette, I’m going to continue posting new stuff here, including a new video game guitar solo and some more inside stories from SWEET FIX.

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This is a list of my 9 favorite key changes in pop music. I should say now that this list is devoted to only one kind of key change: the obvious kind, in which the tonal center suddenly moves up. I am not talking about non-diatonic chord changes, or any sort of modulation that might occur over the course of a chord progression. I’m only talking about the kind of key change that everyone recognizes immediately: the kind that grabs your attention and brings the song up a little higher.

#9. “Get Out Of Here,” by Thin Lizzy. This song has a few key changes, but my favorite is the one after the guitar solo. The new key hits the sweet spot in Phil Lynott’s voice, making it my single favorite moment in any Thin Lizzy song.

#8. “I Hear A Symphony,” by Diana Ross & The Supremes. This whole song is key changes, appropriate for a song about symphonies.

#7. “Ronnie,” by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. This song goes up a half step at the very end, making you lean forward during the fadeout.

#6. “Always Be My Baby,” by Mariah Carey. She has a way of anticipating the key change that makes me think her voice has frets on it. It is an effect I love.

#5. “Surrender,” by Cheap Trick. This song has a key change almost immediately, before the first verse, and then another before the third verse. They work so well that you forget about them.

#4. “Man In The Mirror,” by Michael Jackson. Everything stops, and the key change happens on the word “change.” Wish I’d thought of that.

#3. “To Be With You,” by Mr. Big. Billy Saps first turned me onto this one. It is the song that made me care about key changes.

#2. “Rock And Roll High School,” by The Ramones. They go to a key change, and then they immediately cut to an extended drum break, and then they all come back in the new key. It’s like a disappearing act, but when the magicians reappear, they’re all a foot taller.

#1. “I Will Always Love You,” by Whitney Houston. It is my opinion that no one will ever beat this. It is unbeatable. Go home and listen to it again.

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Earlier this year, my band opened for Men Without Hats in Teaneck, NJ. We were one of 2 opening acts; the other was a bunch of 17-year-olds. As someone who has always been fascinated by The Safety Dance, it was a surreal opportunity. I got to the gig early to watch MWH soundcheck, and I ended up having a conversation with their touring guitarist, who is friendly and looks like Edward Norton. I looked around for the main guy—the brains of MWH, the guy in the video who does the sideways move that may or may not be THE safety dance—but he wasn’t there yet. He would not arrive until right before they went on. This man has the same name as me: Ivan. What did it mean? What would happen if we met each other?

I remember sitting in the green room with my band, waiting to go on, while the 17-year-olds finished their set. By the calculus of venue + headliner, we were at that moment equal to the teenagers. We were on the same gig on the same night. It made me wonder if an Ivan was in that band too. It made me wonder, in fact, if the entire night was some kind of bizarre prophecy: were we all the same band in different stages, like the riddle of the sphinx? The teenagers on all fours, SWEET FIX standing erect before an unknown future, and Men Without Hats walking with canes into an episode of Where Are They Now? And if so, is that what I wanted to get out of all this? To endure as a nostalgia act on the strength of one kinky hit?

After MWH finished their set, I ran backstage to meet my destiny. “You guys were great,” I said, and the guitarist smiled. I turned to the lead singer and said, “My name is also Ivan.” We shook hands. The other Ivan said, “It’s a good name” in a Canadian accent and looked away. I could tell he was being polite and had no real desire to know me or my band. Maybe if that happened the universe would destroy itself. So I just said, “Thanks for a fun night,” and gave our CD to Edward Norton. As I turned to go I heard the other Ivan say, “Good luck with that, eh?”

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It was hard for everyone not to use swear words around the child actor in our music video. The child actor was 9 years old. At one point, around 1:00 AM, we were sitting with him in the back of a giant white van, and we tried to explain to him that he should not start using swear words, even if he hears us use them. We were parked on River Street, in Williamsburg, and the van was our trailer because it had air conditioning. We said, “If you start using swear words now, you’ll get hooked, and it will rot your brain.” We looked at each other and tried to stop swearing for the rest of the evening. The kid was being good, and his mom was around.

And yet, as the shoot dragged ever onwards, constantly stopping and starting because of the rain and the thousand technical problems caused by the rain, each of us was brought to a place where we could only swear. After fourteen hours we still had not done our first take. We had arrived in the land of swears. It was not uncommon for the director to say things like, “Don’t fucking touch the buttons on the TVs when you fucking move them SORRY when you move them.”

In the van with the kid, I wondered if this whole experience was going to mess him up later in life. It was after midnight on a school night, and pretty soon we would be asking him to act cool with a pair of drumsticks over and over and over again. I thought of some former child actors who grew up to lead less than wholesome lives, and I wondered if we were giving this kid that. I thought about saying something to him like, “I know being an actor seems cool and you have a girlfriend, but don’t let this fuck up your life.” But that would have required using a swear word, and besides, the kid was a part of my band’s first music video. I was not willing to sabotage our next big thing by talking him out of it. So instead, we told him to go take a nap in his parents’ sedan.

In the meantime, the members of my band and I sat in the air-conditioned van and watched as our best friends toiled in the rain in the middle of the night. We had asked them to help with the shoot, which meant carrying televisions around and setting up lights between takes. We were not allowed to help them because it would have messed up our makeup. So we just sat in the van, which was the only place to sit at all, and we waited for the rain to stop while our friends scrambled to cover all the electrical equipment. Some of them took their shirts off while I fixed my hair. I wondered if this was the beginning of the process by which people are transformed into soulless bastards. I wondered if I was now becoming the type of soulless bastard who sacrifices his own friends and ruins childhoods to make a sexy music video.

Was this music video really going to get made? Was it going to change our lives the way it was supposed to? Sitting in the van, I looked for reasons to be superstitious. I found two: earlier in the day, when Tommy and Marco were driving to the shoot, they saw Kevin Nash cross the street. That was the first sign. I wasn’t in their car when it happened, but that was OK. While I was driving over the Williasmburg Bridge in my dad’s car, the same car that inspired the first verse of FM Radio, “Fantasy,” by Earth Wind and Fire came on CBS FM. This was the second sign.

When I drive to gigs, I have to listen to the radio, so as to receive messages from the Gods of Rock and Roll. This is actually something I have a lot to say about, but for now I’ll keep it short: I search for meaning in the songs that get played on the way to gigs. And for the purposes of communicating with the Gods of Rock, driving to my first music video counted as a gig. Plus, that morning, I had held a session of my Dungeons and Dragons game. So it was truly a day of Fantasies. And hearing that song was proof of something. But proof of what? I didn’t know.

Around 1:45 in the morning it stopped raining and I thought of Earth Wind and Fire. They had banished rain from their band name, and perhaps also from our shoot. We picked up the televisions and started rolling tape. The child actor woke up and did a good job. Our friends did not appear to hate us, even though their clothes were still wet. We were finally doing it; we were actually making the video, and I started fantasizing again about whether or not this would change our lives in the next days and weeks and months.

After it was all over, I got back to my apartment around 5:45 AM. Somehow I succeeded in finding a parking space that was on the right side of the street. If I was supposed to receive divinations from Earth Wind and Fire, maybe it had been about the parking space all along. What did that mean for the future of the band? I walked two blocks home and called my girlfriend, because she was in Italy, and it was already tomorrow there.

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A little over a month ago we played our first show in Pennsylvania. We were supposed to be on a bill with 2 other local bands, but when we got there we learned that the local bands had cancelled. It was just going to be us, the out-of-towners. Loading our gear into a basement in Allentown, it occurred to us that maybe no one would come.

The venue was really 2 venues: a main stage for nationally touring bands, and a basement downstairs. We were downstairs, which was OK. After big summer shows at Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza, we had a certain romantic attitude about hustling on a basement stage out of town. It was a chance to reconnect with our roots, and that would be fun, until we realized the local bands had bailed.

The basement was long and narrow, with a low ceiling. It had the vibe of a storage room in an unused country club, and since it was the week of Halloween, it felt like we were playing a gig in The Shining. Plus, in the daytime the club used the basement as some kind of haunted attraction, so there were fake corpses and entrails strewn about backstage. I got a kick out of that. I had to smile at the Halloween weirdness of it all.

But then, during soundcheck, my amp died, mysteriously and absolutely. It just powered itself down, and when we checked the fuses one of them had been obliterated into a million little pieces. I had never seen anything like that before, and it made me wonder if the satanic forces in our midst were not pleased with us. We’d had tough shows before, dealt with our fair share of issues.  But this gig was starting to take on an extra level of spookiness. This gig was acting like the cranky old man who insists on giving you a trick instead of a treat on Halloween.

The sound guy patched me through the PA system and I left my dead half stack on stage for appearances—it was, truly, a costume performance. Earlier in the afternoon, Tommy and Marco had found a local chapter of Occupy Wall Street and convinced 8 protesters to come see our concert. These 8 people were the entire audience. Tommy and Marco just gave them the tickets for free, a gambit that did not endear us to the promotor, but somehow we talked our way out of it. The show had to go on.

We played. We performed with the freedom you get when you know the Eyes of the World are not on you. The 8 people were supportive, and I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that this was not the smallest audience we’d ever had (in 2008 we played for 3 people on the upper east side and 2 of them were my parents).

People say things about paying your dues, but after you’ve played for hundreds of screaming fans, playing a show for 8 people does not feel like paying your dues. It feels like digging your grave. I was trying not to say to myself, “What if Irving Plaza was the high point of the parabola? And what if the Fall of 2011 is the precipitous decline that follows?” This had been in the air since August, and I was doing my best not to succumb to it.

After the show, I carried my broken amp back through the hallway of horrors. I could hear the national band upstairs finish their set.

“Do you know who those guys are upstairs?” Marco said to me. “They have that song.”

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Just don’t tell me.”

I was stepping over plastic rats and rotten mannequins. I could hear people upstairs chanting for an encore. I heard the sounds of fame, trickling down as echoes to the underworld, where I was carrying a broken half stack to the street. One week before I turned 25, I learned for the first time that my faith in the band is perhaps not an indestructible thing. Because in between the stomping and cheering of the crowd above, I also heard a new sound. I heard the ticking of a clock.

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I wrote this on April 4, 2011, the day after we finished tracking our latest single, FM RADIO:

Last night I went to the studio to put the finishing touches on FM RADIO. It was the very last recording session. Everyone else in the band had come in and put their parts down, and it was finally my turn to sex things up with some off-the-cuff lead lines.

When I got there, the engineer’s wife was in the studio, and her dog, and another guy, someone I had never met before, sitting at a laptop. They were going to be in the studio all night—they would sit and watch as I played the same things over and over again, sneaking mini-solos into the verses and adding stuff to the fadeout at the end of the song. The extra people were all friendly and supportive, but I knew they were going to see me do some bad takes. Having people see my bad takes is one of my oldest nightmares. I am a vengeful, competitive guitarist. I don’t like showing people something worse than what’s on the record.

After we started rolling tape, I remember getting stuck on one nasty bend vibrato move [possibly the one that occurs at 2:08, in the second verse]. It was a passage I had written ahead of time, and unlike some of the other spontaneous ideas that went into the song, this one move had to sound exactly the way I’d heard it in my mind. The vibrato had to be perfect. Which meant I had to play through some bad takes.

For my money, trying to nail a bend vibrato is the least fun thing to repeat over and over and over again. Trying to wiggle a pitch just right, not too fast, not too slow, not too sharp, not too flat—it becomes a special kind of torture after the first few passes.

The trick is that you have to resist coming to despise the thing you’re trying to play. You have to play it as though every take is the first take, so as to give it that virgin glow. But if you can’t do that, if you can’t love the thing with all your heart, then you have to get so sick of it that it becomes insignificant to you, and then you can dominate the strings and the neck of the guitar without mercy. The hard part is being caught between those 2 things, the love and the hate, while you try to hit the greatest bend vibrato of your life.

Add to this the superstitions guitarists have about each other’s vibratos. The bend vibrato is understood to be a window into the guitarist’s soul, a cheesy idea that is not altogether false. The bend vibrato is a feel move, a passion move. The sort of thing you pull out in order to sexualize your playing. A good bend vibrato is the only thing that can distinguish an electric guitar player no matter what style he plays. Whatever you’re going for, if you can wail on a bend vibrato, you’ll get attention.

Add to this the chauvinism of lead guitar players. Guitarists who have taken guitar lessons are most likely to be criticized by their self-taught peers for having a limp vibrato. This is the guitarist’s way of saying that you’ve got a weak handshake.

And since I am a guitarist who took a lot of guitar lessons, I did not want to surrender in front of the producer and the small crowd in the studio. Did not want to confirm the widespread misconception that getting an education weakens one’s ability to make sex moves. I started to bite down on that. Started to play with newfound fury. Somewhere in the oblivion of take 27 or take 28 or take 29, the producer said to the engineer “Mark that one.” I knew then that the next couple passes would give birth to the keeper. I was in range. The baby was coming now. The contractions of my vibrato were getting bigger, and I felt my tits engorge with milk. PUSH! I was doing it. Even the dog heard it. I was nailing it.

Then it was time to record the next thing.

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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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