This week, after dusting off my Slayer albums, I revisited my old friend Dave Mustaine and His Megadeth.
The urge to kill did not rise.
Not noteworthy, you say? Correct. Yet, I feel it’s worthy of mention, because certain sentiments expressed in song by the man not generally referred to as the Pete Best of Metallica, could easily have become the topic of much discussion in recent months. Evidence, after all, might suggest that in the minds of certain Megadeth listeners, suppressing the urge to kill is a challenge. Just this month, a troubled young man from Moncton pleaded guilty to a brutal and calculated killing spree, launched moments after he had posted Megadeth lyrics to his Facebook page. It was, incredibly, the third instance in Canada of a young man embarking on a violent rampage shortly after quoting from the Book of Megadeth.
It’s the sort of tangential detail the press have been known to embrace.
Instead, passages from Mustaine’s poetic verse have been noted merely as a detail on the periphery of a handful of horrible, senseless events. Noteworthy, all but a few reporters concluded, it is not.
And perhaps the fact that this is not considered noteworthy, is noteworthy.
Had that loser not entered a guilty plea, it’s conceivable his lawyer might have grasped at a sufficient number of straws to mount a Megadeth defense. An act of sheer desperation, to be sure. And unlikely to have done more than help a long-in-the-tooth metal band to sell a few albums and cause family and friends additional suffering.
Thirty years ago, it might not have seemed so implausible. Call it progress.
(Unlike, say, shameful ebola coverage that has too often seen the press focusing not on what is happening in Africa but on what is not happening in our first-world cocoon.)
It’s significant that reporters have evidently not tried to contact Mustaine for comments, or to justify his words. It may even be a little surprising, given that we’re talking about a man who declared, on the cover of his band’s first album: “Killing is my business!” But then, you can’t always believe what you read on album covers; you’ve only to glance at the track-listing of the average “greatest hits” album to appreciate that, ultimately, embellishment is the rock and roller’s business. (Fun fact: When a band cheekily/arrogantly/optimistically adds “volume one” or “so far” to the title of its greatest hits package, it’s safe to assume there will be no second volume.)
Time was, rock and roll lyrics were believed by otherwise-intelligent adults to profoundly influence the behaviour of impressionable youngsters. Long before his transformation into a lovable reality-TV vegetable Ozzy Osbourne became internationally infamous for having penned the sobering words to Suicide Solution. In 1986, the parents of a teenager who had committed suicide while listening to the song thrust Osbourne’s words into the spotlight, by filing suit against the rocker and alleging he had in effect counselled their depressed son to end his life. The suit was ultimately unsuccessful, Ozzy’s father-in-law and former manager Don Arden helpfully noting, “To be perfectly honest, I would be doubtful as to whether Mr. Osbourne knew the meaning of the lyrics, if there was any meaning, because his command of the English language is minimal.”
The Suicide Solution controversy, however, came only months after Tipper Gore and her friends had begun a concerted effort to enact a system that would alert music lovers to the dangers of rock and roll lyrics. The hope was to see initiate the practice of adding mandatory warning labels to selected new releases — something the music industry had already been doing on a voluntary basis.
Outraged, rockers reacted by recruiting their most eloquent spokespeople — Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and John Denver — to cry censorship.
A few voices, including Talking Heads bassist and young mom Tina Weymouth, meanwhile, called for reason. Movies came to a theatre near you with a mandated rating. TV shows routinely offer warnings prior to more mature broadcasts. Why should LPs be exempt from such a practice? After all, no one was suggesting potentially offensive music not be recorded, released or promoted — merely that it should come with a heads-up. A valid point, perhaps; though, the voluntary system had seemed to work well enough. Moreover, nothing helped to propel sales figures for metal and hiphop releases back in the day like a warning label. I well remember wishing such “explicit content” labels had been added to Sonny Boy Williamson, Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson reissues, if only as a means to get the kids’ attention.
(On the other hand, I did feel ‘the man’ had gone too far when London Calling was slapped with a warning label. A pal, though, noted after giving the matter some thought: “Well, there is that line about fucking nuns…” OK, I suppose someone might find that offensive.)
Thankfully, cooler heads seem to have prevailed. Rock and roll lyrics, society has concluded, are essentially devoid of meaning. Or, at least, devoid of anything more substantial than, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!” And, really, what more needs to be said? Hence, today’s metalheads need not fear suppression of their lyrical aggression. Catharsis? Sure… OK, it’s cathartic. Though, clearly, not for every listener. Regardless, it must be noted the song is not to blame. Just, you know, headbang responsibly, people.
Which is not to endorse offensive lyrics, or irresponsible statements in song, whether they be misogynist or racist tirades, or the surely inaccurate boast that everyone loves Marineland. I mean, everyone?
But kudos to the press for forsaking the opportunity to sensationalize. It doesn’t happen often.
Or, more accurately, for taking their sensationalism elsewhere. Fortunately for metalheads, it says here the real post-rock menace to society is now party drugs. Again. You’ll remember them as ‘rave drugs’ or, as most of us call them, drugs. Remember, kids, party drugs are bad. Not like marijuana, or alcohol. Those are good drugs. Know the difference.
Or, as Dave Mustaine would say… oh, never mind. It really doesn’t matter what Dave Mustaine says.
Or, at least, it shouldn’t. That’s what rock and roll is about, right?