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the Devil


Blabbermouth, that instant source of edification and general rock’n’roll snark fests, hauled off another one of my goats today to the slaughter, straight to the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph, where I read that a small town in Russia has plans to ban heavy metal music on the grounds that it is “satanic” and “ideologically destructive”.

Small town or no, the morally upright citizens of Belgorod have been newsworthy before, instituting fines for public swearing, dancing and trying to ban the celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Oooooh, baby. From Valentine’s Day to forbidding local music venues to play “satanic” music – these latter-day Calvinist killjoys are on a roll. As if living in Russia isn’t bad enough, now they have to take away metal?

The mayor of Belgorod admitted he didn’t know anything about that type of music, but. “If children are exposed to satanic influences, the parents would never forgive us.” He also cited an infamous Soviet-era psychiatric hospital study stating that heavy metal music was “ideologically destructive”.

Ahem. And?

Satanic. Which means what, precisely? If you wanted to play hardball with me, I could tell you that “satanic” music is nothing new. Over two hundred and fifty years ago, the celebrated violinist Giuseppe Tartini dreamt one night that he taught the Devil to play violin, and immediately, the Devil grabbed the violin and played a tune of such fiendish complexity and hellish beauty, Tartini couldn’t wake up fast enough to write it down, and even then, he felt that what he wrote down was nowhere so good as what he heard in his dream. This piece is so difficult to play, rumors were quickly circulating that Tartini had not five, but six fingers on one hand – how could he play it, otherwise?

Carl Orff claimed likewise that the Devil came in a dream and gave him a little something to remember him by. It wasn’t what he heard, but he tried to recreate it anyway – “Carmina Burana”.

Down in the Mississippi Delta a few years later, Papa Legba lay lurking at the crossroads at midnight, waiting to tune the guitars of itinerant musicians. One dreamy-eyed youth – shy, retiring, musically inclined – took up his offer and came back, so the story goes, as the original ur-God of the blues and rock guitar. They all whispered it behind his back. “Sold his soul to the Devil, he did!”

It made for a much better story than simply saying that the mild-mannered young man who sang with such a fury and played with such a passion practiced – in a graveyard.

You didn’t mess with Robert Johnson. The Devil came to claim him for his own soon enough.

These days, nothing is shocking any more. Rock music has been flirting with all manner of devilry – good, bad, benign and not – ever since poor Bobby Johnson drank that bottle of free and fatal whisky.

Of course, things have gotten, well, hairier since then.

For one thing, evil is no longer an abstract principle, a control device put in place by religious dogma to keep us all on the straight and very narrow. It’s all around us, every day. Turn on the news – there’s your Devil in all the thousand and one details of a thousand and two international horror stories, brought to you live by CNN.

For another, much as I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, far too many avatars of Good and Noble, whether they’re televangelists with supposedly God-like powers and all-too human failings or the Pontiff of the Catholic Church – surely the most evil and evilly long-lived institution ever created on Planet Earth – denying a massive abuse of both children and implicit trust –can no longer be considered good by even the most Pollyanna imagination. Good…just don’t cut the mustard any more.

We degenerate, cynical, long-haired, non-conforming, loudmouthed metalheads worldwide know better. There’s no such thing as good. Virtue is an ideal as opposed to a reality, because it’s a lie.

Vice, on the other hand, is…nice. At least it’s honest. It’s certainly real. It’s – fun. Your thing might be vintage Alice Cooper, who always held his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. It might be the further reaches of black metal, if that’s your thing, and you might be surprised to learn that it’s actually far more heathen in its sensibilities than outright satanic.

The Prince of Fucking Darkness is not, in fact, evil, but he’s smart enough to know that if you connect with the darkness in your audience, they will love you for it, love you for articulating and saying what they can’t.

Some of us have a need, near biological in its impetuosity, to look around in the dark of our souls and first of all, accept it. Second, to celebrate it. It keeps us sane, to acknowledge what the rest of the world refuses to see. It keeps us rebelling, in all the best senses of the word, against conformity, against dogma, against a world that prefers to categorize humanity into neatly ordered segments, easily defined and easily contained.

We know it’s dark and hairy and ugly in there. We know. We know no matter where our Devils come from, whether it’s a suburb of Birmingham or Lodi, New Jersey.

And those club owners in Belgorod?

One club owner said that any official who tried to interfere would get punched in the face.

Rock’n’roll, yes. Satanic?

You be the judge!

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