05 November 2011

The Me in Metallica

’Twas on one of those summer afternoons in the year of 2000, I stood on the freshly watered green lawns of my Engineering College Boat Club, when a man’s deep vocals wafted through the air and reached my senses. Over a decade has passed since that day, but the memory remains. The occasion was final year Electrical batch farewell party and I was in my first year ready to pick up new things. I tuned my hearing on direction of the speakers. The song, its music, the man’s siren like baritone had stirred my innards firmly. I noticed two seniors standing near the speakers humming the song, appearing pleased to have played it on our BC lawns. In the cacophony of voices loaded with merry farewell mirth, I picked a word which one of the two guys had said. It sounded like Metallica.

Back in my dingy hostel room later that night, I opened my big yellow VIP suitcase and took out a huge cache of dust veneered cassettes. There was a faint recollection in my mind of seeing the word ‘Metallica’ on one of these records which I had bequeathed from my brother, as normally happens when one has elder brothers. Without so much of an effort, I lay holding in my hands an album with a totally black cover and just the word Metallica written obliquely on its top portion. I quickly found my walkman, which was close to atrophy, shook it out of its lethargy and impregnated its open mouth with a cassette extracted from within the covers of that black nameless album. The gears turned, the tape unwound, and music flowed into my ears. It was loud, very loud. I grimaced disapprovingly but one of my best virtues of patience allowed me to audio scan song after song, counting them as I progressed. Then suddenly I exclaimed. I had found the same song which I had heard at the boat club. There was no mistaking it. I turned the cover and counted down the number of songs. My index finger stopped at three evangelic words. Nothing Else Matters.

… And thus a lad of 19 got baptized into the creed of rock music. No one asked him to. It was meant this way.

I look at the time. Its 2:30 PM. Time to make a move. I wear my Metallica T shirt, pull up a pair of pure blue denims, very providentially slip into my sports shoes and begin the longish drive to Palace Grounds in Bangalore. The year is 2011, the date is 30th Oct and the day is Sunday. In the morning Arka had called to confirm his and another friend’s attendance at the concert. Subsequent messaging from him alerted me to the possibility of record crowds and the risk averting need to arrive extra before time. My ticket is with Mayank, my olde friend and ‘rock brother’ who I manage to talk into moving arse early.

I hit the pedal and burn more fuel in my effort to reach as early as possible. I reach Mekhri Circle and pass straight under the overhead road and the first sight greets me; a unending queue snaking all the way to the main entrance. “Shit, this is crazy” I murmur to myself. I miss the parking towards the left and realize my mistake too late. It’s a long way now for the next U turn and the traffic is absolutely hellish. In the best of the days, Bangalore traffic is irritating; on the day of Metallica it is incorrigible. It takes me 30 minutes to cover a distance of 1 km and luckily I branch out into the several labyrinthine side roads and park my car. Meanwhile Mayank is struggling with his own parking misadventures and after some where-are-you-i-am-standing-in-front-of-metallica-banner phone calls, we finally convene at the main entrance. No marks for guessing my first words, “Hope you have got the tickets!” The last thing I wanted was a welcome home. Fortunately, two tickets flash in front of my eyes.

There was one reason which helped my love for Metallica grow, and it happens to be a rather queer one. A decade back, when I was struggling to get myself educated in a totally unappealing and unpalatable faculty called Electrical Engineering, the curriculum demanded students to write down experiments and practicals (supposedly performed with pedantic rigor during the course of the semester), bedecked with neat, labeled and artistic diagrams; some 40-50 odd pages packed, punched and parceled into a file. For the majority (me included) this unwelcome ritual was banished to the dying moments of the semester close and went under the lingo of ‘submission’. So we (like minded Fabians) used to sit awake late into the nights, gratuitously copying the completed, signed off file of a sincere friend who had taken the contrarian and morally ethical path of actually performing the experiments in letter and spirit. Now when this nocturnal printing press began, the only way to keep it running was music. Plug your ears with those tiny earphones and let there be music. One got wired to music more out of this compulsion than interest. This factor, I have now realized, was the single most important reason behind I getting inebriated with metallication. Listening to the same tape over and over again till the pencil cells died away, just unknowingly endeared these songs to me. Metallica grew on me. In just few days, it was out of interest rather than compulsion that I was reaching out for my walkman. The impact on my overall psyche was huge. I still retain in my laptop an unfinished story which I had begun writing in those days. This story was set in a sea side village in England, having an old lighthouse which was abandoned many centuries ago. On a particularly nasty night, the weather cries foul and hurls a hapless ship with fury on to the jagged rocky shoreline, wrecking it to smithereens. Suddenly the bell in the lighthouse starts to ring waking the villagers up. Such was the macabre story which I had titled for whom the bell tolls. Would it surprise if I further reveal it had a character named Hetfield?

Slowly and really slowly, I went beyond the Black album. While I do not remember the exact chronology of my purchases, but one after the one, I bought all Metallica albums. It’s just so very sad, but true that I have dispossessed myself of all these belongings

We have been standing in a sea of black, even the skies have blackened by now. The point of ticket checking and body frisking is still far away and apparently the police are controlling the ebb of people. Standing aimlessly, I observe the swarm of people with interest. Contrary to what one would imagine, the crowd is minority on college kids and majority on people in their >30s. There are women as well, even a few sindoor foreheaded ones! In my limited but sufficient experience with Indian rock concert crowds, this one appears to be remarkably well behaved. The cigarettes and dope is a given for a concert like this but I still sense it to be within limits. Suddenly the police siren sounds from behind and we look back to see a convoy approaching. “It’s the band” shrieks emerge from the crowd as the black river moves back to allow the cavalcade to pass. Off course it’s no band but just a ministerial bandwagon. Even now, there is little pushing and shoving, but the VIP’s entry lifts the blockade up front and loosens up the sardine like packed bodies in the crowd. Mayank and I seize the chance and using the peripheral boundary of the crowd, break into a brisk canter. It works and we manage to jump the middle portion of the crowd which is largely immotile. After traversing a mud sloshed field, we arrive at another waiting mass of black T shirts just outside the single file walk through security and ticket checking counters. The progress from here on is fast, off course no one wants to waiting outside. The security check my pockets, hand me the torn ticket counterfoil and let me through. I am in. It is already 5:30 so we decide to abandon exploring the stalls and head straight in the direction of the stage. After surveying any available vantage points, we lodge ourselves near the makeshift scaffolds which house the overhead projector. We are placed mid way, not too close to the stage but not too much behind either. By now I have lost any hopes of locating Arka. In this madding crowd, with evening upon our bosoms, it was the proverbial needle in the haystack trying to find him. I turn my attention towards the stage. Biffy Clyro, a Scottish band is playing…

During the heydays of my quizzing there were two questions which I answered even before the first few words were spoken. One used to be “The drummer of this band placed an ad in a local paper looking for musicians. The lead vocalist responded and the two founded one of the most influential bands in the history of rock music”. Second one was “The name of this band was originally meant to be the name of a heavy metal magazine”. The answer to both questions is rather obvious, given the context of this write up. The people and stories behind Metallica came to life. I learnt that in the year of my birth 1981, on the other side of the world, two youths started a heavy metal band. I learnt that Metallica was as old as I am. I learnt of Dave Mustaine and how his firing proved more beneficial to rock music as he went on to found Megadeth. I learnt of Cliff Burton and his tragic death. I learnt of his replacement Jason Newsted. I learnt of how the legendary song ‘Fade to Black’ had actually led to people committing suicide. Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and Newsted became demi-gods for a 20 year old that was me.

It is 6:30 by the time Biffy Clyro wraps up their act. And now the wait begins. My legs are already paining and my back is hurting. By now, the crowd has swelled to a massive congregation of 25-30K fans. The crew members come on stage and start setting the equipment. A bald guy, presumably the band’s security chief, takes up the mike and starts requesting the crowd to move a little to the left. While he was entirely correct in his request, I thought the manner of his voice was a bit weird. He was talking as if the crowd were a bunch of illiterates who may not understand his accented English. The truth, in fact, is exactly the opposite. This supposedly master of puppets act of making the crowd take three steps to the left continued for quite some while. When I read one of the reviews of the Delhi fiasco, I had read about this same guy who had abused the crowd when they refused to listen. I hoped things did not turn the Delhi way, but honestly, full marks to the crowd here. There is definitely some merit in saying Bangalore crowd is better than other venue. The statement may not be widely accepted as gospel truth, but it definitely is not fallacious. The wait goes on, the longest I have ever had to stand for a band. Mayank and I are now breaking at the knees; it is 7:30PM more than an hour since Biffy Clyro left stage and 4 hours since I parked my car. I say to him, “Even Iron Maiden did not take so much time to come on stage. Hope these guys haven’t cancelled it and just vamoosed!”.

30 more minutes go by! The pain in my legs is unbearable and I am bending down every now and then to stretch my fatigued spine muscles. And then it happens. Metallica comes on stage! The crowd goes berserk but to its credit even such an ecstatic moment does not drive it to delirium. No pushing, shoving.

The starting song is ‘Creeping Death’. The sound quality is just unimaginable. Every foot bass that Ulrich hits with his characteristic aplomb generates such a thump that my heart muscles vibrate to its frequency. It is just incredible. They have a huge LCD screen with great clarity. Whatever few concerts I have attended before, I have never ever seen such a huge screen. One after the other they dish out their songs, a non stop avalanche of sound is how best I can describe it. The crowd sings in unison during most songs, but the ra ra ra ra ra ra during the song ‘Memory Remains’ surprises even Hetfield who stands akimbo shaking his head in disbelief. And oh! I forgot to mention about my legs, they have become ‘comfortably numb’ now.

In hindsight, another interesting fact is the way I explored Metallica’s music. I entered with the Black Album which was released in 1991 and then moved either ways. From the peg as the Black Album, when I travelled back to their earlier albums Ride the Lightning (1983), Master of Puppets (1985) a very different musical character of Metallica emerged. These albums, especially Ride the Lightning is extremely heavy, almost ferociously fast. Hetfield almost sounds like a different man altogether, his voice is torn and high pitched. On the contrary, when I travelled forward in time to their albums Load & Reload, most of the songs are slow with more melody. In my opinion Lars Ulrich’s (the drummer) genius is best reflected in the works up to the Black Album, and James Hetfield’s vocal genius really reaches stratospheric levels in the albums after the Black Album. His voice in Load & Reload is just magical. Kirk Hammett is fairly consistent throughout the years. I was just blown away by the sheer variety and experimentation these foursome or five some had managed to create. This fact alone made me to bestow the coveted all time no 1 band accolade to Metallica. If you disagree, just my tuppence

James speaks to the crowd, “I have heard you guys like your music heavy”. The crowd roars their ayes. “We will give you heavy, a lot of the older stuff”. This is followed by the number Sad but true. I get blown away with Lars drumming on this one. By now, I am standing alone as my dear comrade has heeded to the rodents running in his stomach and headed all the way back to the food stalls. After listening for about 20 mins of non-stop heavy metal hammering, my legs finally give way and I too decide to recede from the traffic jam of rain soaked bodies. It proves to be quite a task, weaving through the packed throng, with someone or the other swearing when I gently push him to make my way. At the back, the ground is in a state of complete mess. The rains have made it so muddy that people are almost skidding. Just as I reach the back, I hear Hetfield screaming “On the lead guitars, Mr. Kirk ‘the ripper’ Hammett”. Kirk starts the initial chords of nothing else matters and there is a deafening roar. I stop my recession and stand still for a moment to savour the song which started it all for me, way back on that eventful summer afternoon.

I take some grub and locate Mayank finally. We stand together speaking each other out of our reverie of being stunned by Metallica. It is 10PM by now, and I decide to call it a day. The band is also relaying their valedictions. We know they would return for the encore, but being a Sunday night there is not much bandwidth for a late outing. With one last look at Hetfield’s face on the giant screen, we get out. I locate my oddly parked car, Mayank finds his and we head homewards. I have just had the BEST musical experience of my life.

Afterword: It’s been a week since the Metallica earthquake shook Bangalore. Fortunately, no lives were lost however thousands have been deeply affected, their lives changed forever. The aftershocks still keep keeping. After I-do-not-know-how-many-days-or-months I listened exclusively to Metallica while driving home from work on Friday. For all those young men and women like me, who grew up in India listening to their songs, 30th Oct 2011 was salvation day. For those unfortunate souls who could not and for those stupid souls who did not, you may still begin. I have offered you a helpful prod by the way, just read the words italicized in the article above and you would know which songs Metallica played live in India!

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Blogger Mayank Shridhar kuchh to bolti...

And for the readers, the other one is at http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150398385247389 :-)

11:33 AM  

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