High on Fire
Part II: The Racoon’s Realization (The Review)
19 Feb 2005: Alvin's Detroit, MI
The crowd was all hooded sweaters, faux-intimidating facial hair, and heavy boots. Uncomfortable looking women salted here and there, standing by their men. I fit right in.
A terrible band was playing. A band so worried about their looks, they don’t even realize that their hearts had stopped. Strictly for necrophiliacs.
Long, jet-black hair draped artfully across his sweaty forehead, the singer smacked his face in a bogus fit of cathartic hysteria, gathered himself in time to announce that the next song was about “fucking”.
The preening singer was making my blood boil. Ten-year olds on Halloween are more disturbing than this jerk. His music, his show, had nothing to do with real pleasure, pain, or anything else that makes heavy music heavy.
When the singer, shirt buttoned only to the navel, started grabbing the heads of people near the stage in mock holy-roller fashion, something had to be done. With his head down, and his focus on the cranium of a skinny young lady, he never saw me coming. I moved within arm’s reach and made a fist out of my hand as my eyes locked on a prime patch of his thinning hair.
It had been a long time since I gave someone a noogie. But I’ve never forgotten the feeling of my knuckles burning into someone’s scalp. It wasn’t the best noogie I’ve ever given, but I can’t remember a more satisfactory application of that schoolyard staple.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw others laughing at the stage and nodding in my direction. I didn’t do it for them. I did it for me. The band finished up soon after.
Another beer. Then High on Fire.
High on Fire are for real. It doesn’t matter that it’s impossible to discern what Matt Pike’s singing about. It doesn’t matter that the band offers almost nothing in the way of visual appeal. What matters is the music. The riffs are ceaseless and impossible to escape. The drums are furious, the bass pounding, the commitment unwavering. Boogie from the best bar band in Hell gives way to solos Slayer should die for. It’s heaven.
I can’t give you any details about songs played or the equipment used. What I can tell you is that I don’t know how a metal band could be better. They are an Aristotelian ideal of heaviness. If you like metal, if you think you like metal, see them now. 2000 years from now, children will wonder how the Devil got so good, and creaky old metal heads will wipe the slobber off their chins, and whisper. “He sold his soul to High on Fire.”
The previous band doesn’t even have the guts to admit to their artifice; they just hope you’ll see it as something else. High on Fire don’t give you a choice. You might like it or you might hate it. But High on Fire are not liars. They are High on Fire. Rocking is what they do. End of discussion. But not the end of the story.
* * *
I tiptoed through a snipe of mic-stands and electrical cables and entered the backstage room. I saw Matt Pike. Minutes earlier he stood with one foot on the stage monitor, killing a yeti with nothing but his guitar, sounding like he just gargled with Satan’s Scope. Now he was sitting silently on a ratty couch, looking small and tired.
I approached him and explained I was from PopMatters and asked if I could have a word with him. He agreed without hesitation. The bass player looked at me sceptically. I patted Pike’s sweaty shoulder and told him I thought it had been a great show—even if “show” is a degrading word for what High on Fire does.
Then I explained to him that I would tell a story, and wanted to know what his music had to do with the story I was about to tell.
My story is:
Driving home late one night, I saw a raccoon that had been hit by a car struggling to crawl away. I pulled over to the side of the road, got out of my car, and walked over to the raccoon. We looked into each other’s eyes. Its breathing was laboured and its eyes were glassy. Using only its front paws, it struggled to pull itself off of the road.
A cop had stopped a speeder a few yards away. I told the cop there was a hurt raccoon in the middle of the street. He said he’d take care of it and that I should just go home. I got in my car and drove off. Less than a minute later I turned around. When I came back, the raccoon was now in a heap on the side of the road. Again, I looked into its eyes. It was struggling harder to breathe; it looked away, then back at me again. Then it died.
I popped the trunk of my car and went to pick up the raccoon. I could feel it’s broken bones as I placed it on the floor of the trunk. I drove home, got a shovel, and then headed to a park. Shovel in one hand, raccoon in the other, moonlight on my back, I found a good spot and began digging. I placed the raccoon in the hole, didn’t cover it, and went home. The next morning I went back to the grave. The raccoon was gone.
What does that have to do with your music, Matt Pike?
“Everything has to die,” he answered. “Even little raccoons.”
Sunday, February 20th:
Hunter S. Thompson died.
Monday, February 21st:
Back in the office, the inevitable Monday morning questions came. The kinds of questions where the answers are less important than the show of asking. This time was a little different though; the reactions were livelier than usual—surprise that I willingly went to Detroit and surprise that I liked the heavy metal I saw and heard there. Raised eyebrows, embarrassed smiles.
One of my co-workers tried to rationalize my trip by saying, “Heavy metal, huh? I guess that can be a great escape from life sometimes.” Heavy metal is an escape from life? The poor bastard. Heavy metal is life. Sitting in front of a computer for eight hours, engaging in phoney banter, minimizing my web browser every time someone walks by, feeling guilty about stepping away from the desk too much, always knowing that finishing one boring task just means I have to move on to the next one—that’s not life.
The little raccoon wasn’t dying as it clawed its way across the street; it was living. It was doing all that it could to keep moving. It wasn’t bogged down in maybes. What we call life is overflowing with alternatives—what we’d rather be doing, what we could be doing.
At a High on Fire show, when the music starts you can’t do anything but scream and jump and go with it. It can be unbelievably hard to do what we have to do to make sure we’re living and not dying. Sometimes we’re not up to the task. We’re told “that’s the real world” and we put the bit in our mouth. Sometimes we can get away for a weekend, drive to Detroit, and see High on Fire. And sometimes, after decades of trying anything and everything to avoid choking on the bullshit, we wake up one morning in Aspen, decide we’re too tired to keep living, and blow our heads off.