Ginger Nuts of Horror
Things hit you differently based on your age, and the age of the world when the impact occurs.
1982 America was a much different beast than the one in which we now live, as the country still clung to a hopeful, purposely naïve outlook that would soon be punctured by various internal and external forces, never to be the same again. But back then, in those first shaggy days of the ridiculous 80s, we the people were blissfully dumb and insulated. Or at least I was - a dumb, scared, awestruck little boy.
Consider the backdrop of the year: After decades of bloody conflict, the United States wasn't (publically) at war. Ronald Reagan was in his second year of his first term, still the actor with the reassuring smile and "aw-shucks" mannerisms. The radio was playing "Eye of the Tiger," Wonder and McCartney's "Ebony and Ivory," and "Hard For Me To Say I'm Sorry" by Chicago on a three song loop. At the cineplex, the feel-good story of a wayward botanist alien, pasty British guys running on the beach, and a sassy musical about the joys of prostitution ruled the screens in between showings of Rocky Balboa still kicking ass for the secret pride of all white people. Nighttime soaps about the obscenely rich and a series devoted to a talking, crime-fighting Trans Am clogged the television, paid for by Masters of the Universe and the Bye Bye Diapers Doll. After the gritty, dismal 1970s, the hair spray and toothpaste smile of the spandex 80s was just gearing up, and economic positivism, military industrialism, and a nasty case of American exceptionalism was on the rise. Like I said, it was a different time.
I was ten years old in 1982, barely a decade on this planet, and my molecular structure was still pink and pliable and deeply in the clutches of Evangelical Christianity, which grew like a weed in open soil during those blissfully dumb days (digging deeper into the ground to find new water in each year that followed). Naturally, with the threat of eternal hellfire dangled over my head like a flaming Sword of Damocles every waking hour of my life, I was strongly - and naturally - attracted to dark and arcane things that would most certainly spell my doom (like, say, such profanities as Dungeons & Dragons or Heavy Metal Magazine). This incessant pull toward the shadowlands terrified me, but to a greater degree, also thrilled me. I'd repeat my salvation prayer each morning, then go set out for the local hobby shop for lead figurines and Savage Sword of Conan comics.
Based on a short lifetime of Biblical teaching, I was increasingly preoccupied with fantasy and horror, gods and monsters, angels and demons and Lucifer himself, thrilled by the possibilities and the danger of it all. In 1982, out in Nebraska farm country, those things were best found in rock 'n roll music, that exotic import from far off lands ruled by mad deities of distortion, darkness, and a middle finger extended to quivering piety.
Over the course of the previous decade, two older siblings had already introduced me to bands like Led Zeppelin, KISS, Pink Floyd, The B-52s, Kansas, ELO, Boston, The Cars, Cheap Trick, Rush, and a variety of others in that vein. I obsessed over this music, the bands, and especially their album covers. The artwork was what set the tone for each band, giving me a glimpse into what was really going on beneath the guitars and drums, and those lyrics I could barely understand. Church propaganda had already informed the congregation that rock music was rife with agents of Satan, hiding in plain sight, spreading their disease via FM radio, seedy record stores, and live shows that amounted to public black masses. And the clues were everywhere, if one only knew where to look. KISS, with their monster makeup, blood, fire, and platform boots, were clearly performing under an acronym that stood for Kings In Satan's Service. Canadian fantasy nerd rockers Rush, with their willy-nilly use of pentagrams, were employing the same clever dupe, as Rush (R.U.S.H.?) actually stood for Right Under Satan's House. AC/DC's Highway to Hell and Meatloaf's Bat out of Hell were less coy in their intentions ("Hell" is right there in the title of both, for crisssake!), with the former featuring Angus Young sporting devil horns and spiked tail, and the latter a muscled longhair bursting from a graveyard on the back of a horse skull motorcycle, with a massive, demonic bat looking on the background. Even 60s flower power metalists Led Zeppelin were on the infernal payroll, skillfully employing "back-masking" on "Stairway to Heaven" so that the properly initiated could spin the record in reverse and hear something that sort of resembled the phrase "My sweet Satan" after the 47th attempt.
The Devil was everywhere, the Satanic Panic crusaders told us, and especially in record stores, waiting to unleash the underworld into the unsuspecting (or most likely fully suspecting) brains of children across the great Christian nation of the United States of America. Naturally, I loved it all and listened to it all, looking for the signs. It was tough sledding, with very little results, but I kept searching, looking for that proper vein that would firmly connect me to the source of all corruption.
My quest came to an end the day my brother brought home a cassette he most likely filched from the mall. The name of the band was Black Sabbath, which I had never heard of before. Black Sabbath? Good Christ, they're not even trying to hide it!
Oddly enough, as a child of the 70s, I had never heard of Black Sabbath until I heard Black Sabbath. At the time, I had no idea that Ozzy Osborne was their founding singer, that Tony Iommi played the way he did because he was missing parts of his fret fingers due to a factory accident, that they were founded in 1968 as a blues band in the rivet-tough English steel town of Birmingham (a year later changing their name, inspired by the Karloff/Bava film "Black Sabbath"), or that they weren't practicing Satanists who got together to write songs in some sort of religious tribute to Lucifer. Why would you name your band Black Sabbath if you weren't a Satanist? This was a more literal time, mind you, and I at a much more literal age.
The title of the album was "Live Evil," which - literally - confirmed everything I needed to know. I looked at the cover art, and was transfixed by the images. The mob rules figure, swaddled in Tatooine robes and holding a whip. A screaming man imprisoned in a straight jacket. The horrifying image of a pig in Vietnam era helmet and uniform, clutching an M-16. The golden glowing angel and the crouching devil.
This was the real shit. I'd found the jugular to Hades, and I wasn't sure I was ready.
My brother slid the cassette into the double tape boom box, pressed play, and leaned back on his bed, seemingly unconcerned about what he was about to unleash. Across the room, I was sitting bolt upright, unfolded liner notes in my lap, eyes and ears wide open and mind open wider, and waited for it to begin.
"E5150" set the stage, with odd, otherworldly atmospherics priming the listener for what was to come. It sounded like something large and evil rising from the sea, ascending to join its kind raining down from the heavens. I was locked in.
This initiation was cut off by the first high hat shimmers of "Neon Nights," which introduced me to the voice of Ronnie James Dio, whose grandiose, operatic style was edged with a metal snarl, while Iommi showed that he has always been more than just thundering grooves with an impressive solo.
Next came the droning guitar of "N.I.B.," offset by soaring vocals, and the first lyrical sledgehammer blow was delivered to my fragile salvation. When Dio sang "My name is Lucifer, please take my hand," I felt myself pushed back against the wall. Everything was confirmed in that moment. The band name, the album title, that artwork, all of it was legit. These were Satanic verses set to a metal soundtrack, and I grinned with a guilty, nervous pleasure that embarrassed me. I was obviously an awful person, with the fate of my eternal soul on the line, and the fact that I was willingly taking this risk was as freeing as it was horrifying.
"Children of the Sea" brought me back to the music, where I found my first taste of Lovecraftian weirdness before I knew what I was dealing with. The lyrics sent my mind spinning with possibilities, tapping into a thirst for cosmicism I never knew I possessed.
And then came "Black Sabbath," a song that furthered the communiqué with Satan started with "N.I.B." Swirling guitar and chimes served as a prelude to a roaring siren signaling the end of the world. The music faded back, clearing room for this desperate lament of the doomed, a final journal entry of a regretful soul who made a pact with the Devil that had finally come due. On the day of payment, Lucifer comes to collect, smiling and laughing as the flames grow and the last call to a spurned God goes unanswered. This was horror fiction. No, to me, at that time, this was HISTORICAL fiction. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, or what I was feeling. To this day, "Black Sabbath" has stayed with me as the most transformative song I heard that day back in 1982. It was horrible. It was glorious. "Black Sabbath" on Live Evil made me a Black Sabbath fan, a fan of Ronnie James Dio, and a fan of horror. All horrors, but especially those that cross the physical and dimensional veils.
My atoms still humming and turning things over inside, the dual dystopian dirges "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" stood up from the speakers like rusted steel girders, bones of ruins and charred glory, while "The Mob Rules" proved to be mostly forgettable. "Heaven and Hell" took me from side one to side two, which - even finishing with the epic "Children of the Grave" - isn't as notable in my memory, including "Paranoid," which has since become one of my favorite Ozzy/Sabbath songs. It doesn't suit Dio as well.
Side two is a bit of a blur, but the first side of Live Evil has remained with me since that day in the bedroom I shared with my brother, in the house built by my great grandfather on the rolling plains of eastern Nebraska. Those songs, hit me at just the right time, when my brain was aligned in the perfect way to receive an album such as this, allowing for maximum impact of the music and the message. I would soon discover bands like Slayer, Judas Priest, King Diamond, Deicide, and the kings of Satanic marketing, Iron Maiden, but Live Evil by the band that truly started it all, that has birthed and/or influenced so many of my favorite groups to this day, will forever live on deep inside me as that first glimpse of the truly dark. And flamboyantly so. Proud of their heresy. That was huge to me. Transformative. Now, it was all a bit of fantasy and cool occult symbolism to main lyricist and bassist Geezer Butler, but how it was interpreted by those who listened showed the power of the written word, when framed against a particular backdrop. Religions have risen and failed by this, wars started, genocides unleashed. The illusion is real if one wants to believe it.
And I believed it then. Back in those silly, dumb days of 1982, the (im)properly prepared mind could morph blue collar, pint-swilling, steel town rock and rollers into Satanic high priests. Looking around, in this age of hyper self-awareness, cynicism, nihilism, and the furtherance of rationalism, those blissfully dumb days are most definitely still with us, as is the written word, and the thoughts and feelings and actions they can inspire. Because of the framing. The context.
Maybe it will always be 1982, two years prior to our Orwellian end. Luckily, I'm no longer that dumb, scared, awestruck little boy, although enough of him remains inside me to keep things interesting.