Playing Favorites (Part 2)

Last week, I promised a look at some of my current faves. Well, as John Matrix (portrayed memorably by Arnold Schwarzenegger) quips before dropping Sully (played by David Patrick Kelly from The Warriors) off a cliff in the classic film Commando (1985, dir. Mark L. Lester), I lied. I’ve decided to go back and take a look at some of the formative favorites I mentioned last week. They’re key to understanding my history with music and why I love what I do, so I felt that they were worth revisiting. Without further ado:

The first CD I bought was Metallica’s self-titled 1991 release, known colloquially as The Black Album. I remember going on a trip to Greece and Italy with my parents, and on that trip was a family from Mexico City with a few boys around my age (I wonder what happened to them; I lost touch with them almost immediately, even though we were great friends for those few weeks). They had a CD player, and among the discs they had with them were Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and, yes, the Black Album. The cover of Appetite was too scary for me, so I never listened to it, but what’s scary about a black background with a flag snake on it? I purchased it when I got home, and I listened to that thing over and over and over again. I won’t make excuses for young me; even though I didn’t love every song on the album, it certainly captured my imagination with their ability to combine heaviness, darkness, and crazy hooks. I then had a slight detour into attempting to impress my middle school classmates by listening to Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews Band, but Metallica always stayed in the rotation. It was an on-and-off relationship — I distinctly remember being really confused and disappointed the first time I saw the video for “Until It Sleeps.” Once I got older and more clued in by my high school buddy Ted, I grabbed Ride the Lightning (still my favorite of the studio records) and Master of Puppets, both of which I dug — but I had a special place in my heart for the Black Album, and I always will. There’s something about the sheer grandeur and mythology of Metallica that will always stick with me, no matter how much they embarrass themselves with ill-advised Lou Reed collaborations or therapy-based documentaries.

I floundered for a while through middle school and early high school, listening to radio rock bullshit and whatever played on MTV. None of it really satisfied me. That all changed the first time I heard AC/DC’s Back In Black. I’d heard “You Shook Me All Night Long” ambiently, of course, but never in album context. When one of my classmates posted a sale ad on the school’s intranet for a copy of Back In Black he’d received through Columbia House and didn’t want (dumbass), I decided to buy it from him and check it out. I distinctly recall the first time I listened to it, because it was in my dean’s office as I waited there to find out the fallout from some dumb act of teenage rebellion I’d committed. She had a CD player, so I popped in my newly-purchased disc, plugged in headphones, and hit play. It was one of those before/after moments — as soon as the titular bells started tolling at the beginning of “Hells Bells,” shivers went down my spine. I was hooked. AC/DC were the first concert I ever saw (on the Stiff Upper Lip tour, with Slash’s Snakepit opening) at the First Union Spectrum on May 5, 2001 with my friend Ben Carlin. That show, incidentally, is also the reason I always wear earplugs at shows — I couldn’t hear for two days after. I listened to their catalog extensively, and even now I’ll revisit some of the Bon Scott-era stuff (the Tropical Prison live bootleg a particular favorite). No matter how overplayed they may get, I’ll always rock out to their three chords.

Eventually I got over my fear of the Appetite for Destruction cover, and once I did, I fell in love with Guns ‘N’ Roses. Scratch that — I was obsessed. This was during the period when they were basically inactive — outside of the bizarre industrial track “Oh My God” on the End of Days soundtrack, and you can bet I had that. I would scour the fan sites frequently for any news of Chinese Democracy‘s imminent release (thankfully, that album proved to be the world-changing masterpiece everyone hoped for when it eventually came out years later). Keep in mind that I had no idea what any of their songs were actually about — I took them at face value. When I went back and listened to the Appetite reissue this year, I realized just how obvious all the drug and sex imagery was, but back then I had no idea. Anyway, their urgent intensity feels utterly genuine and gripping, a band on the edge. There’s a reason it’s a classic. I also listened to the Use Your Illusion discs a lot; I preferred part 2, but upon revisiting those I realized just how many filler tracks I would skip over during the 40-50 minute ride to school. It’s much tighter when you jump over the bullshit! At the height of my obsession with the group, at a summer gifted program, I even performed as Axl Rose in a lip-sync of “Paradise City” at a talent show/performance thing. I finally got to see them in Vegas a couple years ago at the first “reunion” arena show, and while Axl’s voice died about halfway through, it still capped off a lifelong love affair.

The Osbournes put a bullet in my love of Ozzy Osbourne once and for all, portraying him as a doddering old fool (and thus shattering the careful mystique around him I’d built up in my head), but in high school I listened to a lot of Ozzy. A lot. Blizzard of Ozz was the first CD of his I got, and the combination of creepy atmosphere, Randy Rhoads’ inimitable neoclassical guitar work, and Ozzy’s enthusiasm won me over immediately. I absorbed all his albums (No More Tears a particular favorite of mine), went to Ozzfest to see him with Black Sabbath in 2001 (probably the July 21 show in Camden, New Jersey; boy, was that a garbage bill), even quoted him in my page in my high school yearbook (I went to a private school, there were maybe 60 people in my class). He was key to my high school rebellion. It took me longer to come around to Black Sabbath themselves; my first exposure was the original CD pressing of We Sold Our Soul For Rock N’ Roll, which did not quite capture their majesty… at all. It wasn’t until I obtained the reissues of their albums that I grew to love them. Unfortunately, between the aforementioned reality show and some really crap performances from him at later Ozzfests and the Sunset Strip Music Festival, his star fell irrevocably for me. Still great songs, though.

Dio maybe doesn’t belong in this category — I still listen to him pretty frequently, whether with Rainbow, Sabbath, or his solo work. I remember trading a copy of the Bloodhound Gang’s One Fierce Beer Coaster to my friend Ted for his copy of The Last In Line (still my favorite of his solo records). I mean, how could you not be fascinated by that ominous image of the translucent jackal hovering ominously over futuristic space Egypt? Since this was around the time of nu-metal, I had a mental picture of Ronnie James as this big, buff bald dude, which turned out to be somewhat inaccurate. I saw him live multiple times, even getting to meet him at a meet-and-greet when he played the Greek Theater with Deep Purple and The Scorpions (I missed most of Deep Purple, but whatever). He was genuinely a sweet dude — gave me a hug, signed a bunch of stuff for my college radio station. That just made me love his vivid imagery and passionate delivery even more. There will never be another like him. I wrote his obituary for Decibel when he passed, but I kinda regret the tone — it was a little too strident, a little too confrontational for the occasion, trying to get across his importance and everything he meant to a nerdy outcast who found solace in his tales of rainbows and diamonds and tigers.

Goddammit, Nightwish, why did you have to shit the bed so spectacularly? I discovered this band thanks to a Finnish friend in a roleplaying (nerdy kind, not sexy kind) chatroom and the wonders of Napster. They were unlike any band I’d ever heard before, combining the big, glorious emotional peaks of opera and musicals with kick-ass heavy metal. I got all their albums as soon as they became available in the US (even made my weight-lifting class listen to Wishmaster the day I got it, much to their chagrin). I even got some of them before they were available here — I had my parents bring me back a copy of Century Child from a trip to Europe. I was lucky enough to see them live on the one US tour they did with Tarja Turunen, skipped a class in college to drive down to Anaheim to catch them. No regrets. Then the band and Turunen parted ways, the band hired a shitty replacement singer, and that was that. It all left a gross taste in my mouth. They’re a little much for me to listen to these days, but I still have my favorites permanently etched into my brain — at their best, they had a transcendental beauty I’ve never been able to find again.

That’s enough for this week — next week will either be current favorites or more nostalgia. Tune in to find out!

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