By Ernest Hilbert
I amble down Walnut Street in Philadelphia, on lunch break from my job as an antiquarian bookseller on the top floor of the art-deco Sun Oil Building, when I develop a pronounced limp. I am not surprised. It is not my first affliction of the day. Welts and bruises rise along my biceps and upper legs. I’m a bit battered. More than a bit battered, really, and, at age 46, experiencing a tough aftermath to the night before. My frame has received many hundreds of severe shocks and blows, the kind that shake the brain around the skull and rattle the length of the spine. I may as well have stood in the Anglo-Saxon shield wall at Hastings. You see, about twenty hours before I found myself in the middle of a massive mosh pit at a Slayer concert. I was 17 at my first Slayer concert, nearly 30 years before, and my ability to take punishment, and to heal from it, has begun to wane. I’ll be restored in a few days, but the following July, when I find myself in another, far more intense pit, I’ll be in serious recovery for nearly a month. Today I feel good. I am triumphant.
What is a mosh pit? How does one explain it to someone who has never even seen one, much less been pulled into the maelstrom? It compares with very few other experiences. Merriam-Webster offers a staid definition of “an area in front of a stage where very physical and rough dancing takes place at a rock concert.” Wikipedia is a bit more helpful:
a style of dance in which participants push or slam into each other, typically performed to “aggressive” live music. It originated in the hardcore punk scenes of California and Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, thereafter spreading from hardcore to other forms of punk rock as well as thrash metal.
Better. As often, Urban Dictionary is even more helpful, illustrating a number of types of pit, including the Closed Pit (“Tight, hard to move and hard to breathe”), Open Pit (“You can pick a target and reach them, throw them across the floor punch them, barge them [sic]”), and Circle Pit (“Run around in an empty circle punching those on the outside of the circle and pushing the runner in front until he either leaves or falls to be trodden on . . .”). Though the etymology of “mosh” remains somewhat murky, Merriam-Webster traces the word to 1983, possibly an “alteration of mash,” as it appeared in early hardcore zines. The band Anthrax was instrumental in popularizing the term for larger audiences.
A Slayer pit is a mixture of these three principal types, unfolding in a completely unpredictable and dangerous manner in pitch darkness split by blinding white flashes from strobe lights. The closest non-concert experience I’ve had was during a protest march in 2003 that rammed me up against police barricades in Manhattan with a crush of thousands behind who were unaware that those in the vanguard were trapped at the barriers. Your own body becomes lost in the animal movement of a great mass. Panic sets in at first when you are crushed; it gets hard to breathe, you lose your footing and find yourself lifted off the ground by the pressure of crowded bodies. It is also invigorating. Metal shows always have this insane press, closer to the stage. The pit is a more merciless environment precisely because you can move. You must move. It is impossible to explain why anyone would willingly choose to enter such a situation at all, much less for an hour or more. Heroic quantities of beer, gallons of it, help to produce the correct attitude, of course. Also, the volume and intensity of the music heightens the corporal instincts. The fiercest thrill arrives from the combination of total physical exertion accompanied by sometimes total loss of bodily control. Slayer creates these conditions on every occasion, quickly and reliably.
* * *
Recently, Slayer performed at the end of a two-day hard rock and heavy metal festival called Rock Allegiance Fest, held at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania. The day is sweltering, hellishly humid. For the festival, the soccer field itself is opened up for the audience. This allows for far more bodies than the 18,500 seats would suggest. Inside the stadium, the well-tended grass of the playing field is preserved from damage by an UltraDeck synthetic turf-protection system, which protects the field but creates a nightmarishly slippery surface for those unfortunate enough to be standing on it after it is slickened with rain and two days of spilled beer mixed with sweat, traces of blood, and vomit. I stand with my brother at the center of the field as the immense crowd circulates around us. I am 6’3” and well over 200 pounds. My brother is taller and stronger, with broader shoulders. We are agog as true giants lumber by us, brushing us with bare shoulders that seem as high as our heads, their deep eyes set grimly on the distance like ogres or stone giants.
The denizens of the festival assume many forms. Hair is of every possible length; elaborate tattoos abound. There are teenagers. There are middle-aged parents, some with children in tow. There are wiry young skater kids. There are thick-trunked veteran head-bangers in their 50s and even 60s. Shirts are uniformly black, most with only white emblems, sigils, and stylized lettering. One emblazoned simply FUCK HITLER would seem oddly unnecessary and out of place anywhere that self-professed Nazis weren’t prowling on a regular basis. In the confines of the arena, nothing shocks. It’s all OK. A burly man with a beard and crew cut, arms and legs emblazoned with tattoos, is clad in nothing but bright sneakers and a skimpy bikini that almost disappears under his rotund torso and strains over his bull shoulders. No one gives him a second glance.
I feel an almost palpable sense of camaraderie. I feel like I belong. Whatever else divides us, there is no question that we all love heavy metal of one kind or another. This sense of belonging may be fleeting, and, in a sense, illusory. Surely many of us couldn’t be more different outside the confines of the concert. Granted, most (though never all) are white, more than half are men, and most are in some stage of inebriation or stoned (or both and more), but the feeling is good when it happens and for as long as it lasts.
* * *
In The Violent World of Moshpit Culture, Joe Ambrose tells us that “what began in small clubs now stuffs arenas. The violence of the mosh pits, which 10 years ago resulted in self-elected injuries shared between grown men, has spread all over the place.” This leads to legal and security concerns for promoters. In 2008, the president of CSI Entertainment Insurance told ABC News that “Mosh pits are an interesting problem. They’re very tough to control and can break out anytime, anywhere.” He went on to say that “insurance for concerts that have a moshing potential is definitely more expensive. A Metallica concert will have more exposure to moshing and the [insurance] rates are definitely higher.” In 2013, NBC News ran a story of a man who claimed he had been mistakenly pulled into a mosh pit that quickly broke his knee and sprained his shoulder. He filed a lawsuit claiming that the band and the venue’s owners “failed to prevent aggressive, intoxicated, drugged, and/or otherwise impaired individuals from forming a mosh pit.”
One problem with mosh pits—and a permanent headache for promoters—is that they are simply unstoppable. They are like riots. When a worried concertgoer (“not some big buff kid”) inquired on Gamespot about techniques that would help him survive an upcoming Slayer mosh pit, answers included “stand outside it,” “be aggressive and don’t lose your shoes,” “surviving is for lightweights,” and, resignedly, “if you do get injured it’s just a badge of honor.” Some seek to observe the phenomenon from a purely scientific standpoint. Lindsay Abrams wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 about a Cornell physics student who noticed in a mosh pit “curious patterns in what had always felt like the epitome of chaos.” The student explains that after “being on the outside [of a mosh pit] for the first time, I was absolutely amazed at what I saw—there were all sorts of collective behaviors emerging that I never would have noticed from the inside.” The concert became fieldwork, during which he hoped to study “the complex behavioral dynamics of each human mosher” according to methods usually used for understanding the movement of particles. He went so far as to create digital models to further his study of the seemingly random motion. “We need someone to try and explain what’s going on. And that’s what scientists are here for, right?” His confidence is admirable, but his study, as diverting and inspired as it is, is not likely to explain the strange desires that drive otherwise sane attendees to join the pit.
Few of the dozens of bands scheduled to play today can incite a mosh pit. It’s hard to know exactly why Slayer inspires such devotion and can whip up such furious mosh pits, but they do, and indisputably. Their success is hard to understand, but it’s a combination of the bizarre, hostile, diminished-fifth (what they call “devil’s music”) songwriting of guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman (the latter now dead from complications related to chronic alcoholism compounded with a flesh-eating condition known as necrotizing fasciitis, contracted from a spider bite) and the apocalyptic, violent, and nightmarish imagery the group cultivated to accompany that sound. In “Fans Rule,” the short documentary appended to their concert film War at the Warfield, fans testify that Slayer is an “expression of hatred in a very fucking aggressive form,” insisting “Slayer is a religion . . . you’re either there or you’re not,” “it’s about chaos,” “it makes me want to be violent.”
* * *
As the sun sinks toward the horizon the crowd shuffles over to the side where Slayer will soon begin. My brother, always tactical, positions us where he believes we’ll be close to the band but not in the area where mosh pits usually erupt. In the enclosing dusk, Slayer detonates titanically into “Repentless.” It’s a fast song, and it gets the crowd rowdy right away. Tom Araya shouts the furiously fast punk-style lyrics:
Arrogance, violence, world in disarray
Dealing with insanity every fuckin’ day
I hate the life, hate the fame, hate the fuckin’ scene
Pissing match of egos, fuck their vanity
Like sinkholes, mosh pits open up suddenly and without warning, leaving one in the midst of a particle accelerator of sweating shoulders and arms slamming and jabbing with great velocity. This is what happens to us. My brother had calculated the best place to stand in relation to the stage based on his assessment of the arrangements on the right hand stage, which has a fenced VIP section. The left hand stage, home to most of the thrash bands, has no such VIP area, placing the most likely storm center for a mosh pit right where we were standing.
Total chaos breaks out in the darkness. In rapid succession, with almost no break (they don’t go in for the usual rock-star banter), Slayer plunges forward with songs from every era of their nearly four-decade career: “The Antichrist,” “Disciple,” “War Ensemble,” “Mandatory Suicide,” “Fight Till Death,” “Dead Skin Mask,” “Seasons in the Abyss,” and through to the big final push of “South of Heaven,” “Raining Blood,” “Hell Awaits,” and “Angel of Death.” Writhing silhouettes are whitened to sweat-glistening torsos when the big floodlights flash. We find our bearings and anchor ourselves on the southeastern turn of the pit, legs braced and arms up to accept the blows that come with unrelenting ferocity. There are massive body builders with crew cuts and shirts off, fast long-haired thin metal guys, usually at least one Amazonian woman who can give as well as she gets. These guys are mean, they’re revved up for this, and they love it. One dude pukes in the middle of the pit while his friend stands guard to warn others away from the spill. Before long, the vomit is streaked around with the rest of the fluids on the plastic, making the UltraDeck even more slippery. One guy with shaggy long hair delivers a gut punch to me. I see it coming, and my tensed stomach muscles combine with some protective fat to cushion the blow, snapping his fist back. He stands there breathing, grinning, insanely but un-maliciously happy, as if to say, this is fun. This is fight club. Before I can return the favor I’m slammed hard from the left by two huge guys, one pushing the other so fast he’s out of control, and in less than a second I’m twenty feet away and sucked back into the churning vortex. The pain is nearly crippling later, but the torrent of endorphins and adrenaline, along with the buffer of whiskey and beer, make it not only painless but exhilarating.
There’s a certain high you can get from mosh pits. Chuck Palahniuk writes in Fight Club, “maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.” There must be something to that. When the mêlée ends, its participants, battered and bruised, know something that others don’t. Palahniuk writes that “nothing was solved when the fight was over, but nothing mattered.” That’s the place you want to get to—where the world narrows to a single, manic point. It makes sense to me almost instinctively. Growing up, it felt like I was punched, strangled, and kicked every day. It wasn’t every day, but it felt like it because it happened a lot. Even days when I got to school and home again safely I spent much of my time worried, jumping fences and devising shortcut routes that would allow me to avoid groups of bullies who preyed on me. I fought back, but I always lost. When I was a bit older I found myself caught in serious rock fights, a proposition that sounds utterly insane to me now. We’d wind up on a building site, crawling through trenches, hurling jagged rocks at each other. As the sun set the terror became more acute. We’d eventually emerge with bruises, scrapes, and open wounds, but it felt like we had done something incredible, something that was indisputably real. You felt it. And you could talk about it because you were there. It’s hard to account for except to cite the old fight or flight response and the floods of adrenaline that accompany a dangerous encounter. This is how people get addicted to extreme sports. It’s not much different from extreme drug use. So much of it is just chemicals charging through the system.
An hour disappears quickly in these conditions. There is no time to think. The rational mind is short-circuited, leaving pure reflex and impulse to take over second to second: retain your balance, time your move, dive into the pit and get across to slam into someone on the other side, join the counter-clockwise flow, get out when you can’t take it or lose balance. If someone loses a shoe or boot, get to the side and hold it up above the carnage. When you go down—and you will go down at some point—pray that those around you are quick to get you up before boots come down on your face. Members of a pit are quick to react when anyone falls. The true fraternity that underpins the violence shows itself. No one stops to think. Get the body up, push it out of the circle to recuperate. The worst thing that can happen is someone going down and causing others to trip and go down themselves—the dreaded pileup, which will hurt more people more quickly than anything else in a pit. Luckily for us, this pit, frenzied as it is, finishes without a pileup.
* * *
Before I wrote poems, I wrote some of the lyrics for the band Judgement, a thrash metal outfit for which I played bass. Like poetry, heavy metal gets into the blood. I try to use the energy of heavy metal in my own verse, forge something between the choppy horror-punk strophes of Slayer and the grand Latinate lines of Milton. It is only natural that I would grope in the dark for a poetic correlative to the experience of being in a mosh pit. If poetry can capture the dread of death, the ache of heartbreak and loss, the terrifying beauty of the world, surely it can match the pit. But, after 25 years of writing, I’m still not certain it can.
Looking out over the gathered masses at a Slayer concert, I sometimes think of Milton’s fallen angels, exhausted and disordered after falling through the abyss from heaven, “grand infernal Peers” awakening and discovering where they are. Satan is “Hells dread Emperour with pomp Supream” enthroned in “A Globe of fierie Seraphim inclos’d / With bright imblazonrie, and horrent Arms” in “the hollow Abyss / Heard farr and wide, and all the host of Hell / With deafning shout, return’d them loud acclaim.” This grand imagery goes some way toward explaining the sheer exultation of the decibels, the flashing lights, the gleaming skin, the massive motion of the mosh pit. Lines from the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus also spring to mind, as when he describes the wild gyrations of the Dionysian festival:
And I know how to lead off
The sprightly dance
Of the Lord Dionysos . . .
I do it thunderstruck
This is fragment 250, translated by Guy Davenport. A later fragment also resonates:
So thick the confusion,
Even the cowards were brave.
Even Sappho, perhaps an unlikely candidate, conjures these sensations when describing the grip of sexual mania, again by Davenport:
My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,
Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,
My eyes cannot see and my aching ears
Roar in their labyrinths.
Chill sweat slides down my body,
I shake, I turn greener than grass.
I am neither living nor dead and cry
From the narrow between.
Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s unsentimental paeans to pure energy and power, such as one to a racing car, “All’Automobile da corsa,” also come to mind:
Vehement god of a race of steel,
Automobile drunken with space,
Trampling with agony
Clamped in your vicious teeth
These could easily be extreme metal lyrics. Following Marinetti’s manic lead, modernist poet Ezra Pound founded his short-lived Futurist-style movement Vorticism by pronouncing in his magazine BLAST that the “vortex is the point of maximum energy,” and that “All experience rushes into this vortex. All the energized past, all the past that is living and worthy to live. All MOMENTUM.” We’re getting closer with that. American poet James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” memorably captures some of the desperate energy expended in collision.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
These high literary examples can be set alongside the folk energies summoned by the bands themselves.
Though Venom’s underground hit “Black Metal” from 1982 boasted lyrics about power and unrest, they could not have forecast the emergence of the mosh pit as a standard fixture at extreme heavy metal concerts. The song seemed very forward and new at the time but quickly became corny as metal leapfrogged past it in the years that followed:
Open the door, enter hell’s core
Black is the code for tonight
Atomic force, feel no remorse
Crank up the amps now it’s night
Lay down your soul to the gods’ rock ‘n’ roll!
Metal tenfold through the deadly black hole
Riding hell’s stallions bareback and free
Taking our chances with raw energy!
Still, these free-floating, non-grammatical comic-book lines transmitted incredible vitality at the time, outblasting the likes of Iron Maiden and Motörhead and kicking the door open for bands like Slayer. Eventually, “Black Metal” lent its name to an entire genre of extreme heavy metal that would emerge in Scandinavia before spreading around the world.
A few years later, Anthrax did as much or more than any other band to popularize the word “mosh” in the metal world, not least with shirts instructing us to “Mosh it Up!” In the song “Caught in a Mosh,” they manage to provide some rationale for the phenomenon (frustrations felt in daily life, pent-up aggressions released in the pit) as well as acknowledging that it was a word only some would understand, intended for the initiated.
Can’t stand it for another day
I ain’t gonna live my life this way
Cold sweat, my fists are clenching
Stomp, stomp, stomp, the idiot convention
Which one of these words don’t you understand?
I’m caught in a mosh
Talking to you, is like clapping with one hand
What is it? Caught in a mosh!
The pit is also conjured by the song “Electro-Violence,” which appeared on the band Overkill’s album Taking Over. The confused organization of the lyrics befits the chaos of the pit and must be heard—that is to say, sung by lead singer Bobby Blitz—to be fully appreciated. The awkward couplets, laid out on the page, fail to convey the power they possess when performed. We must accept that this is the case with nearly all rock lyrics once shorn of their music.
Sweaty bodies, bodily harm
Abuse thy neighbor, that’s the charm
Take the shot, take the pain
Rebound back again
Do unto others, stay unbowed
You social misfit, you’re one of us now
Face the music now the time has come
Into the circle
Anthrax and Overkill did a good job of describing the very conditions they create with their music. The following year, Exodus would join in with “Toxic Waltz,” assuring us that some “won’t survive” (and what’s worse, “they don’t hit cause they’re wimps”), and instructing the listener to “slam your partner against the wall.” Slayer gets even closer to summoning the pit in their song “Hell Awaits,” the epic title track from their 1985 album, circling us back to Milton and the “revolt in Heaven” when Satan “drew his Legions after him” in Book Five of Paradise Lost.
Existing on damnation’s edge
The priest had never known
To witness such a violent show
Of power overthrown
Angels fighting aimlessly
Still dying by the sword
Our legions killing all in sight
To get the one called Lord
Milton it is not, but the year it came out it was unquestionably frightening and fast, the album cover embellished with demons ripping the damned as they drop through flames toward hell. That’s the pit too.
Extreme heavy metal has never been celebrated for the caliber of its lyrics. Metal has never boasted a Bob Dylan or Warren Zevon. Subtlety is not prized, nor is irony, nor grammar most of the time. It is a type of music best appreciated for the purity of its aggression and instrumental virtuosity. Even the best metal lyrics border on the comic, particularly when a band opens a thesaurus. Some metal songwriters have sought authority through the use of various inkhorn terms rarely seen outside of technical manuals or dictionaries. Crowds sing along with them, shouting words like “abacinate” (“to blind by placing red-hot irons or reflective metal plates in front of the eyes” according to the Oxford English Dictionary). Sometimes Slayer seemed to simply make up terms, like “modulistic terror,” without listeners really grasping what any of it meant. Some of the most egregious examples are to be found in bands whose first language is not English, such as Sepultura (Brazilian Portuguese), on Bestial Devastation, and Sodom (North Rhine-Westphalian German), on Obsessed by Cruelty.
* * *
I sometimes wonder why a musical form so formidable and carnal as extreme metal is so frequently ignored or dismissed as meaningless. It’s not a fad, if only because fads don’t last four decades. One can listen to dozens of hours of podcasts about the history of popular music, read massive tomes on the subject, and find that heavy metal is entirely absent, written out of history. You will scan top-100 greatest album lists by Entertainment Weekly, Mojo, NME, and others in vain looking for a single metal album. How can this vibrant, popular, outrageous, spirited, and endlessly creative music simply not exist at all in the minds of those who determine what is worth listening to? As is often the case, the answer is partly socioeconomic. The people who flock to extreme metal are usually working class. Underclass might be a better term for many. The scene is ugly. It is coarse, crude, and, of course, violent. The divide is real, and it is acutely felt by those on the wrong side. Most who write the books usually don’t find themselves drawn to heavy metal and either think of it as a joke, recoil from it, or feel it is best ignored. Those who do write about underground metal are themselves insiders writing for a small audience. In any case, the door slams shut year after year. Yet, when you are forced out, standing together in the cold, you feel like brothers and sisters, sharing a deep and abiding sense of loyalty and understanding.
* * *
I usually stood clear of mosh pits in my early metal days. I weighed about 120 pounds, really just bone, some cartilage, greasy hair, and a shitty attitude. I might jump in and go around once, looking like a fool, hoping not to get slammed. At an M.O.D. (Method of Destruction) concert, a skinhead friend of mine held back another skin who wanted to kick the hell out of me when I leapt into the pit in a beer-induced goofball mania for all of 10 seconds before pushing my way back out (I thanked him afterward; sadly, he would go on to take his own life a few years later). In the summer of 1987, I found myself on the edge of the pit when Anthrax played with Testament at the Satellite Lounge on the outskirts of Fort Dix Army and McGuire Air Force Bases in southern New Jersey. Like most metal evenings, it unrolled in a blurry, confused manner, but I remember moments of it vividly. The pit was insane. Though I did not venture in, I was close enough to receive some shocks that radiated out through the crowd. Those who escaped the crush sought sanctuary in the bathroom only to find a scene of complete confusion and disorder. The faucet had been torn off the sink and spewed water like an opened fire plug, the bathroom flooded with several inches of fetid water. We stood in line to shove our heads under the geyser in an attempt to bring down the heat. I remember eventually collapsing into one of the booths at the back, dehydrated and exhausted, and dropping my face on the table only to discover someone had opened a salt shaker all over the Formica. The crystals embedded themselves in my cheek.
In his good-natured debut memoir about heavy metal, Fargo Rock City, pop-culture essayist Chuck Klosterman tells of his life as a lonely metalhead in a small rural town in North Dakota. As much as he loves heavy metal, he admits to feeling downright afraid of Slayer fans, explaining that the violence he witnessed at one of their concerts “continues to baffle” him. “As soon as guitarist Kerry King played the first chord—and I mean the first chord—a guy about fifteen feet away from me inexplicably punched the person standing in front of him,” leading Klosterman to conclude that at the very least “there is something weird about how humans react to the sonic quality of speed metal.” Slayer fans are a breed apart. They are scary people, ex- and future-cons, bitter loners, horror fans, proud weirdos, and self-harmers. The CD of the band’s 1994 album Divine Intervention shows photograph of a man holding out his forearms with “SLAYER” hacked across the veins on one arm (pressed against the other forearm it gives the appearance of having been done on both), a bloody, frankly horrifying mess running down his hands (the fan’s name is Michael Meyers). The wounds were then doused in rubbing alcohol and set alight in order to cauterize and scarify (the whole procedure was filmed and can be found on Slayer’s 1995 concert film Live Intrusion). If you Google “slayer cut skin” you’ll also find more arms as well as backs and heads grotesquely incised with the band’s name. Don’t rush to do it if you’re not in the mood. One joker even made a plastic sign with a pentagram warning “Employees Must Carve Slayer into Forearms before Returning to Work.”
It is hard to look at this sort of thing without flinching, but it accurately captures a very important element of Slayer’s appeal. At a time when other metal bands were hoping to go mainstream or simply giving up, Slayer became more extreme. Perhaps these images also help explain why Slayer’s fans are so quick to action and even violence in the pits. One fan tells of friends whose lives were ruined—“they’re just fucked somehow”—who care about “nothing else but getting in that pit and fucking tearing shit up.” While the imagery and lyrics are troubling, it is possible they serve a higher purpose. On one level, these offensive gestures constitute pure rebellion, part of a mass chant of “non serviam,” a rock in the eye of Goliath, a middle finger held defiantly forward. Another fan goes so far as to say that “Slayer represents the First Amendment.” It’s the excitement of rock ‘n’ roll pissing off the parents taken to its most dangerous degree. It would be hard to find a more anti-authoritarian crowd than at a Slayer show. Lars Gotrich reaches for an unlikely comparison when thinking on this topic. “Like an Ingmar Bergman film, metal often works in darkness, rooting for something, anything that makes sense of this ugly human existence. Hanneman [of Slayer] understood that and channeled it into a band that exemplifies pain.” Yet, on another level, the sliced eyeballs and peeled flesh correspond to a purely juvenile desire to shock. They appeal to the sneering Beavis, the hormonal 14-year-old-boy who lurks in all men and must be confined most or all of the time, or else civilization could not stand. Most popular music exerts an erotic pull. It celebrates love and sex. It is meant to be danced to or wept over. The god of pop music is Eros. The god of metal is Thanatos. Freud wrote of “Todestriebe” or “death drives” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, naming the “opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts.” Slayer and the frenetic pits that open up before their stages are the ultimate embodiments of the death drive. What brings so many together in this way? Why the obsession with violence and horror, the attraction to pain? You look at anyone at a Slayer concert and wonder if he once suffered a wound so deep and grievous he wants to open it again to try to understand it. Or is it less complicated? Are we all, like lemmings, lured to our doom for reasons that are so dark and primitive they elude us and are impossible to explain even in our quietest moments? There is something primordial in the music and our correspondingly primitive reaction to it. This sounds like an old cliché. But when you enter the ecstatic and pure field of energy and action, the body dissolves into an afterthought.
I first listened to Slayer freshman year of high school. A friend named Chris spoke of this fantastic new album he had at home. I was listening to AC/DC, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Raven, Black Sabbath, Ozzy, hard rock and second-wave British heavy metal of the kind that really came into its own in the late ‘70s and somehow survived into the ‘80s. As soon as the stylus dropped on the first Slayer track, “Evil Has No Boundaries,” I was hooked:
Blasting our way through the boundaries of Hell
No one can stop us tonight
We take on the world with hatred inside
Mayhem the reason we fight
The melodic strains of Iron Maiden’s pseudo-classical prog-metal could be heard on the album. Still, in 1983, aside from still largely unheard of bands like Hellhammer (soon to become Celtic Frost) and the overexposed missing-link metal band Venom, few were playing as aggressively or as fast as Slayer. There was more to it, though. I admit, the very notion of being part of some legion of evil whose power “knows no boundaries” was comforting, if impossibly absurd, for a flyweight teenager with no money in his Velcro Van Halen wallet and no way to guard himself against roving hordes of other boys who cheerfully sought to chase down and humiliate anyone unable to resist.
Slayer is not like other heavy metal bands. It does not have a relaxed side. Passing years, marriages, and families did not mellow the band members as it did those of Metallica. Slayer never goofed around like Anthrax. The members did not become caricatures of themselves, as did Dave Mustaine, perpetually-sneering former Metallica member who went on to form Megadeth (who with Slayer, Anthrax, and Metallica make up the “Big Four” thrash bands of the ‘80s). Slayer somehow managed to mix the pure energy of hardcore punk, the gloomy tones of Black Sabbath, and what sometimes almost (only almost) sound like old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll rhythms. Gotrich wrote for NPR Online that in the years following the ’80s, “Slayer is the only one to maintain its credibility among an extremely judgmental horde.” Slayer’s song lyrics crouch at the dark end of the spectrum: serial killers, abductions, Satanism, wars of attrition, suicide, deadly epidemics, ritual human sacrifice, Nazi death camps, all plainly proposed in song titles like “Hell Awaits,” “Necrophobic” (and “Necrophiliac” for the sake of balance), “Criminally Insane,” “God Hates Us All,” “Chemical Warfare,” “The Antichrist,” “Mandatory Suicide,” you get the picture. Slayer was never played on the radio. They hardly appeared on music television at all in the ’80s or ’90s (though it should be noted that their 2001 video for “Bloodline” has been viewed over four million times). Reactions to Slayer are telling. A fellow rare book dealer asked about Slayer when he heard I was working on this essay. I sent him a link to the video for “Bloodline” and urged him to watch it carefully. He thought it would sound like the punk bands he grew up listening to (he’s older than I). After he listened, he remarked that it was nothing but “pure rage” and wondered how much of it anyone could take. When I was 19 years old I ran into a troubled childhood friend who needed a ride. He had been in and out of jail, once for breaking into the home of an elderly couple, tying them up, and destroying their home. My car cassette deck contained Slayer’s Reign in Blood. He had never heard anything like it and asked me if the members of the band were on meth when performing. He could not understand why anyone would play music that was so violent and angry. It simply made no sense to him. On a Friday night a few years later he would murder a police officer and his girlfriend in a crowded family restaurant before turning a gun on himself.
* * *
I figured the Rock Allegiance show in September would be the last time I’d find myself in a mosh pit. After all, I hadn’t intended to get into that one in the first place but found myself so invigorated and thrilled that I couldn’t get out once it swallowed me. The following spring, as I turned 47, my brother asked me if I wanted to hit a few shows that summer, including Slayer in the parking lot of the Electric Factory, a converted power plant located in an industrial area on the wrong side of Chinatown from Center City. The hall itself holds around 3,000, but once it is opened up for the outdoor concerts (what the promoters bill as “Electric Factory Outdoors”) the number swells considerably. Slayer was touring with two other bands we like a lot, Lamb of God and the Polish black metal band Behemoth. It was a solid lineup. It was at the end of July. Of course I agreed.
The evening of the show the air is heavy and ominous. Dark clouds haunt the horizon. We gather at a bar a 15-minute walk from the show, drink pints of beer and knock back shots of Tullamore Dew, a cheap Philadelphia whiskey. I confide to my brother “I’m definitely not getting into the pit this time” to which he solemnly replies “oh, no way.” We’re joined by Jenny, who writes for local newspapers. Jenny interviewed Slayer’s drummer Paul Bostaph by phone the day before. Her interview, titled “Headbanging 101: A Lesson from Slayer,” included the question “Are any of your songs about something totally unexpected, like unicorns or kittens or spending time with your family?” which elicited only a derisive laugh followed by a grunted “no.” The last time she joined us for Slayer was a show a few years back at the Tower Theater around Christmastime. She wore a black and red knitted Christmas sweater with Slayer’s classic sword-pentagram design. She’s metal. We’re joined by Tom, a big blond Philly native who loves Slayer and rarely hesitates to push into a pit. More join us, including some of the guys I know from the annual metal nights we used to hold a few years back. The Slayer we will witness tonight is not the original unit. The band’s first drummer, Dave Lombardo, who played on the first five albums and returned periodically in the band’s career, has been replaced by Paul Bostaph, who has played live with the band for a total of 12 years (on and off) and has recorded drums for five of the band’s 12 albums. Guitarist Jeff Hanneman is gone, but his replacement is ideal—Gary Holt, founder of the classic band Exodus, considered one of the finest thrash guitarists alive. He was there at the beginning, when the west coast detonated with bands like Metallica, Slayer, Testament, Exodus, Possessed, Sadus, Megadeth, Forbidden, and Death Angel. Even without two of the original members, the prevailing essence of Slayer’s earlier music remains in the lyrics and instrumental parts they created and first performed.
After sufficient fueling, we decide to set out for the show, walking under the Ben Franklin Bridge to the venue. Big rain drops start to splat on the pale sidewalk. We realize we’re going to miss Behemoth. Their songs “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” and “Conquer All” rumble in the distance. Their blast-beats are joined by the boom of nearing thunder, a bad sign for an outdoor show. We stand in line for the usual pat-down by security, heightened over the years in response to terrorist attacks overseas and mass shootings at home. The crowd here looks nothing like that of the Rock Allegiance festival. These are Slayer fans. You can tell. They’re serious business—scarier, meaner. We arrive in time to hear the news. Due to nearby lightning strikes, the next act, Lamb of God, will be postponed. No word on how long this might be. A girl wearing a FUCKED BY SATAN shirt (for the band Goatwhore, the T an inverted cross, of course) looks crestfallen, her green hair matted by rain. Our group repairs to Voltage Lounge, where the DJ spins “Death Metal” by Possessed and “Spiritual Healing” by Death. We continue drinking and talking about albums and shows, old and new. Rumors circulate that the concert might be moved inside the factory, but everyone within a half mile is plastered and no one could hear anything over the noise with any accuracy anyway. Others claim we won’t be seeing Slayer because the lightning persists and there are too many concertgoers to fit inside the factory. Finally, it is excitedly barked down the line that Lamb of God will soon take the stage. Pints are drained. Crowds roar back through the gates. Tom, Jenny, and the others melt into the crowd. My brother and I stand back near the factory surveying the scene, thousands of fans packed into the asphalt lot, tall fences topped with razor wire on either side. Rain starts up again. My brother says it looks like a battle scene from Game of Thrones. I agree it certainly looks medievally grim and could only be improved by an unkindness (the collective noun) of ravens wheeling above. Lamb of God delivers a pounding set. By the time they end, it is pitch black and the rain torrential. Lights come up on the stage. Slayer will soon begin.
The prelude to the Repentless album starts up, “Delusions of Savior” [sic], the wet darkness electric with anticipation. With an explosion of flames in the eyes of a colossal Christ figure above the drum kit, the band slams into “Repentless” and it begins. Dave and I push through the crowd for a better vantage, but I find myself possessed. I don’t know why. I can’t explain. I continue pressing through the mass in search of a pit, and I find one quickly. I want to be there. When the bright spotlights go up a moment I can make out many of the same giants from the September show in New Jersey, hulking but fast, all wearing a serious grin as they observe the carnage and get off on the excruciating decibels, their veins shot through with some kind of bliss. I’m missing a molar that cracked and was extracted in great agony a few months before. I remind myself to clench my teeth, not for fear of losing another tooth but of the worry that I might rip a chunk out of my tongue on the gap. I linger on the edge a while, receiving shocks, and then burst in, slamming into the opposite ranks and then thrown like a wrestler back off the other side. The rain sheets down like a waterfall. Cracks and holes in the asphalt become filthy puddles. We are spared the dreaded “wall,” when as many as a hundred lock arms in a line and charge at once, knocking down and sweeping up all in their path like a titanic wave. However, we get another weird weaponized spectacle. Two men lock fists and begin spinning, using each other’s weight to go faster, shoulders out, like some demented bludgeoning machine. They spin faster and faster, demolishing anyone who comes near, until they spin entirely out of control into the crowd. This is so common it must have a name, though I don’t know what it is. It lurks somewhere in the lore. The music is so loud I am nearly deafened, and still I go on through the furious pit, giving and taking blows, raising the fallen, shielding the smaller kids, doing my part to keep the mayhem and motion going. Then it happened. The pileup. This requires some history.
Singer Kurt Brecht (of D.R.I., Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, whose logo is a warning sign—think “Caution: Slippery Surface”—of a human figure moshing) describes a 1986 Slayer mosh pit in Los Angeles’s Olympic Auditorium:
The pit that night was insanity at its finest. Skinheads and long-haired metalheads thrashed together with the punks in a frenzy of sour-smelling, sweaty head-walking, stage-diving, chicken-fighting mayhem. . . . Tattooed, shirtless skins walked the circle, waiting for someone to bump into one of them so they could break their jaw . . . the floor of the pit was sweaty grey cement made even slicker by spilled beer. Now and then, some unfortunate soul fell in the muck, usually causing a pileup.
It’s hard to improve upon this description. In fact, the pileup he mentions is always the most dangerous part of a pit, and that’s what got me. I wasn’t the first down and found myself falling backwards onto others where more flailed and toppled onto me until I was pulled out of the pile after what seemed too long a time but was likely only a matter of 10 seconds or so. Things move with terrifying speed in these situations.
Here’s what happened in slower motion. When flying across the pit, you do well to spin around so that your back collides with the opposite side. This makes it easier for everyone involved. You are then pushed back again facing out so you can see where you’re going. On this occasion I speed with such velocity from my last push that I achieve impact sooner than I expect, hitting face-on and pushed backwards into the pit again. I see nothing and have almost no control over my legs. Someone has gone down and probably another on top of him before I arrive. I fly hard backwards onto the pile, feeling what I think are a pair of bent knees, and within half a second, more bodies crunch on top, driving those knees even harder into my back. This takes place on glass-scattered broken-up asphalt. People rush in to start pulling bodies up, but it’s impossible to see and everyone is wet. Those underneath me are withdrawn with some commotion, leaving me on the asphalt before I am dragged back to the edge and finally pulled up to safety. I know the hit is bad. This isn’t the sort of blow that gives you pause to consider “Oh, I’ll feel that one tomorrow.” No. I feel it acutely and immediately; it is severe and very deep. Organs are squashed, ribs severely bent, at least one cracked. My spine is destroyed. And I know, as bad as it is, it will hurt even more the next day.
I have to get out of the pit in order to figure out how much damage I’ve sustained. I pull myself out of the raging crowd and up the slippery iron stairs into the cavernous factory, where I hunch over, holding my lower left back, grimacing, probably moaning in pain. A shirtless skinhead hulk in army shorts moves toward me holding two pints of beer, one presumably for a friend outside. He stops, brow knotted thick with concern, and prods “what happened, brother?” I tell him I’d been smashed in the pit. He says “it happens, man. It happens.” He pushes one of the pints into my hand and says “Take this. It’s the only cure.” He’s right, of course. I chug the beer. A moment later, I am struck with an insane compulsion to rush back out and get into the pit again. I limp savagely out through the crowd and dive back in—gladly taking fierce blows that help to distract me from the profound agony of my lower back. I go and go and thrust through it until the final chords of “Angel of Death,” the closer, and then it’s over, just the warm rain cascading through the bright lights and all the bodies in the parking lot.
I make my way to the gate to wait for the others. Tom and my brother are looking down and kicking at puddles for some reason, and I don’t know what’s going on. I’m dizzy and bent over. Finally, Tom emerges, looking beat up but also more distraught than usual after a show. He’s got blood all over his face. His hat is gone. He’s got a black eye that will look a lot worse the next day. I ask him what’s wrong and he yells, “I lost my fucking wedding ring!” That explains it. He doesn’t care about his eye or nose. He was knocked so hard his wedding ring blew off. We say goodbye to my brother, who wisely refrained from entering the pit this time. He leaves us to it. I haul Tom into Voltage Lounge for more beer. I come up with an idea worthy of a bad sitcom: I offer him my wedding band to wear until he can buy a replacement. He says it’s one thing he can’t lie about. He has to tell her, and he’s dreading it. (As it turns out, when he tells her the next night she’s touched that he’s so worried about it and shrugs it off, saying her father lost five wedding rings in his time.) I didn’t see Jenny again that night, but she called her boss at the paper the next day to ask if she could work from home. When he pressed her about what might be wrong she confessed she’d been tossed around a bit (she’s a petite but tough woman) at a Slayer concert. He said “you’d better stay home.”
After Tom disappears into the rain, I continue drinking. My ears are buzzing, and the DJ blasts metal at top volume. I wind up talking to a guy my age with a tear tattooed under his eye. He’s tweaking on meth. He’s been up for three days. It turns out he had been at the Slayer show at the Tower in 1987, my first Slayer concert, when they blew older bands Raven and W.A.S.P. off the stage during their Reign in Blood tour. We reminisce about that night three decades before. The memories are good, but here we are: two wrecked, aged figures, crooked with years and abuse and lost dreams. My organs throb. I start to worry: How bad is this injury? I drink more beer, hoping, despite my dehydrated state, to finally urinate, in order to see if I will piss blood. Blood will be a sure sign I need to get to a hospital. Finally I do, and it’s clear. I press my sweaty forehead against the cold tiles over the urinal in relief. My skin doesn’t turn yellow, so I figure my kidneys and liver are not ruptured. That is some consolation. It could have been worse. That same night, a diminutive woman entered a mosh pit in Denver, Colorado and immediately suffered severe injuries that would change her life, including “the loss of several of her front teeth and the eventual loss of others, multiple skull and nasal fractures, and splintered pieces of bone scattered throughout her head,” according to Tone Deaf magazine, resulting in multiple reconstructive facial surgeries. She bled for four hours after being pulled out of the pit. Those who attended that concert condemned the “crowd killers” who sought intentionally to injure others, comparing them to maniacs who are rumored to have wielded razor blades in ’80s mosh pits.
I may not need surgery (though I don’t yet know it with any certainty), but I am left with agonizing pain that keeps me in bed with the shades drawn the whole next day. I am barely able to sit up to call out of work. The short trip down the hallway to the bathroom is an excruciating journey. I must carefully position myself so that I experience only biting pain rather than the unbearable lightning that flames out from my ribs. The next day is just as bad, and the day after, though I hobble through my work. When some of the pain and inflammation in the lower organs has subsided I realize that I most certainly have broken a rib. After a few days, I relent and visit a doctor. Since my own doctor was unavailable I am given an appointment with a young internist named Dr. Hurt. He’s bemused and worried as I struggled to explain the circumstances that led to the injury. An older doctor arrives to consult and both agree: no more Slayer pits. My wife insists, and compels me to swear an oath that I will keep out of them.
Even after three weeks on the mend, I sneeze and feel as if someone has plunged a butcher knife in my back. A laugh is excruciating, and it is impossible to sleep through the night. Eventually, I heal. I’m all together in one piece again now as I write. Still, I have no real regrets. It was worth it. It may be foolish to attempt to authentically describe the experience of being in a Slayer pit, in poetry or prose, but it is fun to think about, and the memories are glorious. I may not get into another pit, but I won’t rue the days I did. I suppose that pit was my last. I think back to emptying the last bottle of Yuengling and shuffling out into rain and empty streets, knowing I’d have to walk a while to find a cab. The crowds are gone. All around are miles of overpasses and warehouses. Already I can tell I’ve left a part of my life behind. I feel that. But I feel something else. I feel heaving crowds, primitive humanity, shorn of individuality or rational direction, pure spasms of energy, unrefined power, jostling impatiently, always at my back, unforgiving and impossible to understand, forcefully pushing me forward, and always pulling me back again, over and over, even as I venture farther out into the dark rain.