first round game
(4) alice cooper, "poison"
(13) loudness, "crazy nights"
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls close @ 9am Arizona time on 3/6.
nicholas ward on alice cooper's "poison"
Maybe once I was heir to the throne. You can watch the video here, tell me if I’m in right. It was the opening of the talent my senior year of high school. My friends and I donned all manner of absurd get-up to sing Alice Cooper’s “I’m 18,” to a rapt and bewildered audience of our peers. To my right was Paul, my closest friend since I was five years old, in a stocking cap behind his Blue Anniversary Edition Fender Stratocaster. To my right, Patti, the newest addition to our friendship set, but no less important. After all, she pushed us from a duo to a trio, from steely cool to loving hugs. She wore a brightly-colored apron that night—hand-painted by a friend—over a bikini, behind a bass guitar she learned to play for the show. I’m in the middle, skin-tight leather pants and a halter top, show-boating and flinging myself around the stage. “I’m in the middle, without any plans,” I screamed Alice’s words like I’d written them myself, “I’m a boy and I’m a man, cuz I’m eighteen, I just don’t know what I want.” The real truth was that my life wasn’t as dead-end as the song made it out to be. I knew the college I would attend, the city I’d move to after graduation, the life I wanted to make for myself (which I’ve more or less affected). But that night, maybe I wanted to prove something about myself, that I too could yowl into the void.
Another truth: Patti and I were playacting, dumb-showing for our peers. It was Paul who was real, who could play, who sawed away at his instrument like he’d reached into his own soul and yours too. Paul led us, that’s the fact, scaffolding a riff for “Hot for Teacher” on top of the Alice Cooper jam and making sure we never strayed too far from our real aim. Cooper may have written the song we sang, but we styled ourselves after The Stooges, all ramshackle abandon and pure wildness. But when people asked us afterwards if we were on drugs, like our heroes surely would have been, we looked at them like they crazy. Of course not, we said. That was just the way we wanted to be. Perfecting something extraordinary before we left it all behind.
I wonder now about the rock stars who lived, past the hedonism of their youth, past even the existentialism of middle age where the questions of relevancy gnaw. It seems like most don’t live that long: Jimi and Janis and Jim and Kurt are the obvious ones. But there’s also Chris Cornell and Scott Wieland and Chester Bennington. And yeah, even Whitney and Prince and Michael and George Michael and Basquiat, he was a rock star too, and Lester Bangs, let’s not forget about him, and a whole slew of people most of us don’t even know: Bob Stinson and Peter Laughner and Bob Quine, he was the best. What is it about this world that shortens their lives? Can’t there be some other way?
The case of Alice Cooper is a curious one. Born Vincent Damon Furnier in Detroit, but starting the band once his family moved to Phoenix, Alice wasn’t a teenage punk so much as a festooned halloween creature in cascading makeup and long stringy hair. He was threatening to polite society, I suppose, but looking back at the old footage now, what’s most striking is how over-the-top he was. This wasn’t Iggy Pop flopping around as the menacing clown, emerging with chest scars and blood running down him. Alice was a live action cartoon dressed up for an endless holiday. Recall those first early hits, “I’m 18” or “School’s Out”. They’re great, but they don’t sound real. They’re like the performance of someone who believes that this is the way to become a rock star, writing about how much school sucks and how you can’t wait to get out from wherever it is that you’re going, even if you’re going nowhere at all. Maybe Alice knew better than most that youth is a performance anyway, a facade that masks the knowledge that you will get old and settle down and become just like your parents after all. It’s there in the story of his most famous moment, the one that birthed the moniker “shock rock”. During a concert in Toronto, a live chicken somehow ended up onstage and Alice, mid-song, tossed it into the audience, who ripped it apart. Rumors swirled instantly. None other than Frank Zappa, another one gone too soon, called Alice up and asked, “Did you really bite the head off a chicken?” No, Alice admitted, I thought the chicken, being a bird, could fly. “Well, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you didn’t do it,” Zappa responded.
That became his brand, though it was impossible to see that Alice Cooper was kind of a nerd. It’s illustrated in his pictures on a golf course with Glen Campbell, his admission that he loved disco, his cameo in the early 90’s classic Wayne’s World. After a rocking concert, Wayne and Garth stumble into backstage, to discover a subdued environment, with Cooper and his band sitting around after the show, eating mixed nuts and discussing the linguistic etymology of the city of Milwaukee.
By the late 80s, Alice was washed up, down and out, finally sober. He needed a hit. The striking thing about “Poison”, the real secret of this shred metal classic (or whatever we’re calling it), is how soft it is. We get a standard opening riff, a few choice cymbal crashes, endless backing tracks. The lyrics suggest that the singer wants love with his muse but that she’s too poisonous for him, she’ll ruin him and he knows it. Take a chance, man, I want to scream, past time and through the years of my life and back to the narrator of the song. Take a chance while there’s still time. You never really know what’s going to happen. Maybe enjoy the poison a little bit, maybe it’s the only thing that’s going to keep you upright, the only thing that will sustain you through the muck.
Paul and Patti fell in love. They moved to Nashville. They built their life together. Paul is dead now, he’s been gone for many years, and I don’t wish the destruction he left in his wake on anyone. Alice Cooper lives in Tucson, where he passes his days playing in charity golf events and hosting a popular radio program. Not that I believe he should have perished. He’s not responsible for anyone’s sins, least of all my friend’s. But it’s a cruel paradox, that the seventy-year old pioneer of shock rock spends his twilight years in luxury while twenty-five year old boys find death in Nashville’s apartments. Maybe we don’t want our rock stars old. We don’t want their wisdom. We don’t want their pain. We don’t want their sex.
That’s not fair to Alice, though, or Vincent, the real man behind the mask. I wonder how much heartbreak he’s seen. How much loss. How many friends have passed. Lovers whose relationships were ruined. Children disappoint him. Even the most brazen among us feel pain. Most of us are wading through the muck of it anyway. I suppose I know how much hurt a heart can take but still I push forward. I want to see what really beats when I get to my lowest point.
I’m separating from my partner. I like that word. It’s better than break-up. It implies a seriousness, hints at a lack of animosity and an undercurrent of heartbreak. All of which are true. I’ve been down this road a few times. Recently, one of my closest friends told me, “You’re one of the bravest people I know. I don’t know how many other people would do what you do over and over. It’s brave to keep being you.” He laughed a little. “Let’s be honest: it’s probably going to happen again.” He’s right. It probably will: the excitement, the crush, the long talks late into the night, the co-habitation, the separation, the heartbreak. I’m not sure I want to control the cycle, even if I could. Though I do keep wondering if I’ll ever close up, if I’ll give up trying to find the life I want with the people I love. If I’ll shut it down. Go home. Read a book. Never love again. But then I sit across from someone for the first time. We smile at each other and something spills into my guts and I know I don’t stand a chance. Some delicious and familiar poison courses through my veins and I know there’s no turning back, no matter what I do.
Nicholas Ward's writing has appeared with The Billfold, Bird's Thumb, Catapult, Midwestern Gothic, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and others. He is a company member with 2nd Story, a Chicago-based storytelling collective, and the founder of NCW Booking, a boutique entertainment booking agency. He lives in Chicago, with Amadeus the cat.
you are the hero: W. Todd Kaneko on "crazy nights" by loudness
It’s the first day of tenth grade in 1984. You’re in traffic safety class, where you’ll spend the next ten weeks watching driving simulation movies with a fake steering wheel on your desk. A long haired dude sits down in front of you, a drummer who wants to start a band, and asks if you know anyone who plays bass guitar. You have never touched a musical instrument outside of that clarinet you spent a month pretending to play in fourth grade—you never practiced, so your mother took the clarinet back to the rental shop and said there would be no more music for you. But guys who are in bands have cool friends and go to parties. You have never been cool in your life, so you look that drummer square in the eye and nod your head. “Yeah,” you hear yourself say. “I play bass.”
You buy a cheap bass and some gear at a neighborhood garage sale. You’re thankful the amplifier is so cheap that your new drummer friend can’t hear you play over the sound of his drums because—well, you can’t play. You spend the next year in your room learning songs by ear, playing along with Mötley Crüe, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and whatever other tapes you have shoplifted. You spend many hours practicing those songs over and over and over again.
Then one year later: Loudness, the first heavy metal band from Japan to score a major record deal in the United States releases their album Thunder in the East—you’re captured by the opening guitar of “Crazy Nights,” which is weirdly hollow and full at the same time, a powerful jam that washes over you like cold fire and 80-grit sandpaper. Akira Takasaki’s guitar cranks out a riff that claws insidious at the air before the rest of the animal surges forth with drums and bass to swallow you whole.
And you would be swallowed gladly, if that was possible, because the chorus makes you a promise: “Rock and roll crazy nights / you are the hero, tonight.” You have heard similar things from other songs. Mötley Crüe implores you to rise up and shout at the devil. Quiet Riot tells you to bang your head for your metal health. Scorpions offer to rock you like a hurricane, and you’ll be all like okay, but the dudes in Loudness look like you. When singer Minoru Niihara says you can be the hero, it’s like he knows your life story.
There are only a few Asian American kids at your high school. Most of your friends are white but they’ve never made you feel like you’re less than them because of your race; however, you know you are different. You look in the mirror at the color of your skin and the shapes of your eyes. Notice the way other kids refuse to acknowledge you. Compare the hue of your hands against your homework in class, brown against the lightness of the paper—then jam your math test in your backpack instead of turning it in.
And there is no one who looks like you playing heavy metal, no one in any of those posters you have plastered on your bedroom walls. Bruce Dickinson, sweat-soaked and snarling under stage lights. Nikki Sixx posing sinister with his spidery hair and weird mascara. Randy Rhoads and Ozzy Osbourne, the saint of the six-string sling hoisted mid-guitar solo into the air by the Prince of Darkness. After Loudness, this heavy metal whiteness will go undisrupted until Living Colour hits in 1988, an African American band that your friends won’t acknowledge as legitimate rock until they learn that their album Vivid was produced by Mick Jagger. You still hate that a nonwhite band has to be endorsed by a white rock star to be accepted as legit.
Whatever—in your love of all things heavy metal, you feel united with your fellow metalheads, banging skulls and stomping feet with hands raised to the sky in that devil-salute that proclaims your rebellion against everything your parents represent, against the principles your school upholds, against society because it’s important to reject society before it rejects you.
After playing in a handful of garage bands in high school, you graduate to playing on the rock circuit in Seattle. When people find out you play in a band, they often look at you and say something like, Asian bass player, huh? That’s a good gimmick. This makes you angrier than you’ll ever admit, and you don’t have an answer for them because all your metal heroes are white people—you’ll feel like a gimmick until you learn in the late eighties that Soundgarden’s bassist is Hiro Yamamoto, and while you won’t ever meet him, knowing he is out there somehow feels reassuring.
In your mid-twenties, you have an opportunity to meet James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins. Your band opens for the Pumpkins on a weeknight in Seattle, but you are too filled with faux-punk rock anger and pride to knock on the door to their private backstage area and talk to him. Later, when you are much older and less proud, you think about how you wanted to ask Iha the same thing you wanted to ask Yamamoto: what do you think about Loudness?
And they would both have instinctively understood that you aren’t trying to group the three of you into some weird Asian rock and roll trio. They would understand your real question: is this all a gimmick?
It was never lost on you, how Loudness named themselves after the stereo volume knob, that symbol of heavy metal’s sway over its fans. In her book Heavy Metal: The Music and its Culture, Deena Weinstein defines heavy metal by its sonic dimension. She says “The essential sonic element in heavy metal is power, expressed as sheer volume. Loudness is meant to overwhelm, to sweep the listener into the sound, and then to lend the listener the sense of power that the sound provides” (23).
KISS sings “I Love It Loud. AC/DC sings “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” Quiet Riot sings “Cum on Feel the Noize.” And Loudness by virtue of their name just says yes—we are all of that. It’s loudness that sweeps you up and inhabits your body. Other people dance in lines or squares to country twang or shake their hips to Motown, but heavy metal grabs your head and moves it back and forth in a frenzy. And when you strap a bass guitar over your shoulder and wear it slung low across the stage, you can’t help but whip your head along with the audience in front of you, that sea of devil horns and middle fingers aimed at you in a vulgar rock and roll salute. It’s this loudness—your loudness—that has brought you to heavy metal. Because when you were fifteen and alone in the suburbs, you enveloped yourself in loudness, hoping that one day you could harness this power too.
Your friends had so many explanations for the refrain in “Crazy Nights.” M-Z-A is the name of a comet that passes close to the Earth making people go crazier than they do under a full moon. M-Z-A is a drug like XTC, but Asian. M-Z-A is a Japanese word for the devil. Minoru Niihara used to tell people M-Z-A stands for “My Zebra’s Ass.”
Nowadays, Niihara freely says that M-Z-A has no meaning. Like many foreign born rock vocalists in the 80s, Niihara sang phonetically and ended up singing a nonsense track for a pre-production demo of the song. They never came up with anything better for that section, so they just kept M-Z-A. Niihara says it’s “like shouting ‘hey hey hey’ or ‘wow wow wow’ or whatever”—but these phrases have meaning in English. M-Z-A is just three syllables. Three punches thrown at the ceiling. Three beats for emphatic head banging. Fans of Loudness, fans of heavy metal, understand the meaning of M-Z-A, even if it has no meaning. Perhaps, you understand it because without meaning, that lyric “M-Z-A” is just pure loudness.
You don’t speak Japanese, so Japanese metal songs from the 80s are stripped of lyrical content for you. Bands like Earthshaker and Bow Wow and Anthem clearly understood the genre as you understand it, the idiom of raspy guitars and high-pitched vocals, guitar solos that warble dissonant against the against the rest of the song, but propel it to greatness before driving the chorus into a trainwreck. Loudness’s pre-American albums are no different. The chorus of the self-titled track that opens their first Japanese album The Birthday Eve goes, “We are the Loudness / come on now!” The rest of the song is in Japanese, so you have no idea what the words mean, but that doesn’t matter because without lyrical meaning, you hear their music more clearly. It’s obvious to you that before they came to America, Loudness’s songs sounded like heavy metal in its purest form: aggression, power, and volume, all fine-tuned into a hook that earworms itself into your head for days. So once Loudness started writing songs in English, they should have been unstoppable, right? Right?
The video for “Crazy Nights” received relatively heavy play on MTV in 1985. When you watch that video now, you still can’t help but notice how different the band looks from every other metal band that found mainstream success. They snarl and preen as well as the dudes in Mötley Crüe, but for all the makeup and Aqua Net, their faces are still markedly Asian. They are handsome, not in the way that Tommy Lee or Vince Neil are handsome because Loudness can’t ever be that. You can’t ever be that. And you wonder if this is how people saw your younger self (not handsome, just different), or even if it’s how they see your middle-aged self. You moved away from the suburbs almost thirty years ago and now live in Michigan where you can go a week or more without seeing another face that looks like yours.
The other people in the video are also different. There is a weird shot of a bunch of white kids headbanging, the fast-motion camera transposing them to a different time signature than everyone else in the video. Then those Japanese people in front of that glitzy Delish Curry billboard, those schoolchildren waving in a low-angle shot, that smiling woman in the kimono gesturing with delicate fists, those policemen brandishing their nightsticks, all of them chanting with the song: “M-Z-A! M-Z-A!” These are Japanese faces in place of the white faces that permeate most other heavy metal music videos. They are awkward, yet completely into the song. They are Japanese faces that could be your own face looking back at you.
When you load “Crazy Nights” on YouTube, the next song in the playlist is always David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose.” You hate this video for mocking so many stereotypes: the immigrant convenience store owner, the sassy black woman, the loud fat woman, and even the two party blondes (The lounge lizard says, “If there’s a conversation, I don’t have to be involved”). And then just before the song begins, Roth appears wearing face paint and wielding a spear. You get it. Sure, it’s a joke, but you can’t help but notice those people the video excludes from metal: black people, fat women, immigrants—it’s painful to watch because you know you’re in there somewhere too.
Meanwhile, in “Crazy Nights” Minoru Niihara sings, “we’re gonna rock and roll you / come get on your feet,” promising the loudness that is at the heart of heavy metal. And America, for the most part, says, “Okay! And hey—you’re Japanese!”
In her book, Deena Weinstein describes the visual dimension of heavy metal, the ways that metal bands use logos, album covers and wardrobes to further convey their sonic messages. Judas Priest is hell bent for leather and chrome. Guns N Roses is half gutter and half glam. Iron Maiden decks all their merch with Eddie, their undead mascot. Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, and Poison plaster their faces all in different shades of ghastly. It’s no wonder you can’t help but dig a band with a good gimmick.
Yet it’s difficult for you to dig Loudness’s visual dimension because under the usual heavy metal accoutrements (hairspray, leather), their gimmick becomes their racial markers: they are Japanese and play rock and roll. Loudness broadcasts this overtly with the sharp angles of their band logo and the rising sun image that appears on their T-shirts and album covers. Their stage costumes don’t transform them in the way that most metal bands are normal young men and women who appear onstage as glamorous rock deities. On the contrary, for Loudness, the leather and spandex serve to standardize a band that looks otherwise non-standard for the genre. Loudness is Japanese, and in the midst of the otherwise homogeneous white landscape of American heavy metal in the 80s, that does the trick. Essentially, Loudness’s gimmick is that they are simply Loudness. Pure loudness. Pure heavy metal. It’s a gimmick you wish you could more fully embrace for yourself.
You have always played guitar by ear, but then you discovered YouTube guitar lessons. You found one channel where a dude teaches you how to play “1000 Eyes,” “We Could Be Together,” and so many of the songs on Loudness’s first American album, including the intro to “Crazy Nights,” which has never sounded right when you’ve tried to play it in your living room. The teacher has such reverence for Akira Takasaki, such admiration and respect for Takasaki’s guitar prowess as he calls him the Japanese Eddie Van Halen and compares him to other metal guitar heroes. He shows you the secret to playing that opening lick of “Crazy Nights,” the pinch harmonics on the power chords, muffling the strings with the thumb of your picking hand to create that strange overtone. He might be the best guitar teacher you’ve ever seen on the Internet.
And yet, in many of his Loudness lessons, he calls the band “Roudness” with a mock Japanese accent, even explaining to make sure you understand his joke: “I should pronounce it a-Roudness,” he says. “Roudness. With an R.” There is no malice behind it, probably, but it’s ugly nonetheless. It hurts you, not in its political incorrectness or offensiveness, but in that this is how the world has been talking to you your whole life in one way or another. Heavy metal is beautiful and angry and awesome, yet it likes to remind you that you are always on the outside, even though you can bang your head like a motherfucker.
Ultimately, “Crazy Nights” comes down to everything you and every metalhead wants out of a song. You are still a child of the beast, rock and roller, lightning rider—or maybe you are still that Asian American teenager filled with disquiet and desire, with anxiety about where you belong in the world. If you will ever belong in the world. And heavy metal tells you that there is a story out there where you can be at the center of everything, a story in which you belong—not because you are the right kind of handsome or display the right kind of charm or go to the coolest parties, but because you feel loud. You are white or not white—it shouldn’t have to matter. “Crazy Nights” says you are the hero, tonight. Sure, you might not be the hero tomorrow night, or ever again, for that matter.
But tonight, you’re it.
Tonight, that’s enough to keep you going until tomorrow.
W. Todd Kaneko is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor 2014) and co-author with Amorak Huey of Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic 2018). His recent poems and prose can be seen in The Normal School, Barrelhouse, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus and many other places. A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of Waxwing magazine and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University. Catch him online at www.toddkaneko.com.