In the summer of 2001, my best friend and I exchanged our rock and roll dreams for military service. Dispassionate barbers trimmed curly mop-tops into sandpaper buzz-cuts. Piercings and prickly beards were replaced with the poster boy regulations of the image-obsessed Marines. And rifles replaced our sticks and picks.
September 11th occurred just a few months after we had shipped to boot camp. We knew then that our rock star fantasies would be forever replaced by the dark reality of unending global war. Our commander-in-chief told everyone this during his state of the union address after the towers fell. In addition to Afghanistan, Iran was coming. Iraq was coming. North Korea was coming. One of those damned countries was going to be destroyed; and we knew we’d be there, quietly wishing to return to the music that meant everything to us. In our lives, there’s never been a stronger love or a more fervent connection.
At 13, Ryan (a man I call my heterosexual life mate) was a guitar virtuoso, even subbing in at Baltimore biker bars for bands that his parents knew. In his free time, he set about learning every single Metallica guitar solo by ear just because he could. A radio tower near his one-story home in Perry Hall, Maryland used to project classic rock through his half-stack Marshall amp. He’d just raise the volume knob and lick along with Hendrix, Clapton, Frampton, Page, and other greats.
I never was so good back then. But I played the drums, and drummers were always needed, so I became functional since so many bands sought me out. I never turned down any requests for my services. I played in indie bands, punk bands, alternative bands, jam bands, blues bands, acoustic bands, hardcore bands, and experimental bands.
The highlight of my career still is the Perry Hall High School Showcase of the Bands in the Spring of 2000. My group at the time, Pubescent Weasel, intentionally created a wild, grating sound that was meant to offend everyone present in the auditorium. Beautiful people cringed when our singer leaped off the stage to scream into tiny blonde girls faces. I hit every drum and cymbal I could underneath his banshee yelling, not too concerned with any rhythm or beat. Over the wall of sound we created, our guitar player riffed out a hulking anthem of low frequency distortion. Inexplicably, everyone seemed to love us.
Despite our deep musical passion, like all graduates of high school facing the rest of their lives, we made our decisions about what to do next and suffered the consequences. In the following eight years after signing up to serve and shipping off, we’d live in eight states and seven different countries. Between us, we’d serve four combat tours, which would equal almost an entire year of each of our lives. And there would be no way to tabulate the number of rockets, mortars, IEDs, and bullets we’d see.
I can tell you how many of our friends died and how many memorial services I’ve attended, but I’d rather not.
It didn’t matter because we survived, and in the summer of 2009, in Trenton, New Jersey, the Gods of Rock would finally smile down and reward us with one night as rock stars.
“How do you feel about a metal show?” Ryan texted me. When the message alert beeped, I was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, growing increasingly tired of roasting in the radioactive sun and dealing with privileged white kids who liked to use hallucinogens and refer to themselves as hippies.
“When and where?” I replied with my thumbs.
“Tonight. Trenton. I got us a hotel.”
And this wasn’t extraordinary behavior for Ryan. He would have gone by himself if he had to. But he knew that we both liked to live on the road. He knew that we were always following the traveling disturbance of loud sound. Besides that, since a new semester at a new college would be starting for me soon, I had already asked for fewer shifts at my restaurant. I didn’t have to work till much later in the week – and then, only if I actually cared to.
I packed up my military duffel bag quickly. Then, saying goodbye to my ex-brother-in-law who I had been attending this festival with every year I could since age 15, I zoomed off to Trenton, following the female-toned British-accent voice commands of my GPS and blasting some twangy rock. For me, music has always been a constant comfort and I don’t like feeling alone. The philosophy of a tune tells me to just Carry on, my wayward son. Even if you don’t dig this track, the next song will be playing soon.
After we both arrived at the hotel, we dropped our bags on our beds and walked to my Lincoln Town Car, stopping to share cigarettes and talk with other hotel guests. The show would be starting soon, and we guessed that we were probably already late. So be it: it’s not rock and roll to show up with punctuality, anyway.
We finally made it downtown to the Championship Bar and Grill, and the humidity blanket of a summer city caused us to begin sweating after getting out of my car.
Band stickers covered the PVC drainage pipe that the followed the perimeter of the establishment’s roof and leaked a brown stain onto the sidewalk and street. A vintage sign read: “Tomato Pies” “Burgers” “Pasta” and “Steaks” in descending order with alternating red and blue letters against a white background. The show had indeed already started; heavy metal burst through the walls, becoming audible on the street. Before even entering we could tell this place was going to be rough and dirty, which suited us. We didn’t like perfect things.
It was time to rock. Ryan – now a civilian like me – had just returned from national security contracting in Afghanistan, and he wore the wild, five month beard to prove it. He had bulked up considerably from working out every day and he had started the tattoo sleeving of his right upper arm.
I felt out of shape in comparison, considering we both used to be Marines and my muscles had since deflated and morphed into fat. My lips were cracked and my clean-shaven face burned from the outdoor folk festival. Underneath the classic Orioles cap I wore to represent my hometown, I hid my short hair. I wanted to be as bad-ass as him. And I wanted a beard, too. But I would have to settle with simply trying to fit in. Contrastingly, Ryan was metal; there was no doubt that he would make this scene.
We stepped inside and purchased entrance to the show immediately. Luckily, the band Ryan wanted to see, The Agonist, had not performed yet and were still setting up after another group just finished.
Awesome. Ryan purchased two beers and two shots after getting our hands stamped and we then entered the secondary lounge which doubled as an event stage.
Pure metal is not for the tame. The band started their show a few minutes later with amplifiers raised to ear drum-shattering decibels of distortion. A row of large, guitar-strapped men banged their bodies towards the audience – which stood inches away – their long cascading hair flowing forward like whips. The drummer thrashed high-tempo triplets against the toms, smashed the cymbals, and kicked out unceasing double bass which ached inside the walls of my chest. The singer was a beautiful young woman who wore knee-high leather boots, torn clothes, and bright blue hair. What little light shone on the stage caused her many piercings to shimmer. With the microphone pressed against the seductive lips of her regal face, she clenched her eyes and unleashed guttural screams juxtaposed every few moments with her classically-trained vocal range – a maniacal dynamic.
I could see Ryan smiling unabashedly, which he rarely does. Standing only few feet away from his metal goddess was a dream coming true. “Dude, I can’t believe we were that close,” he commented after their short set.
Buzzed from our pre-gaming, we returned to the main bar and sat on cracked vinyl stools. I looked around, finally trying to take this place in.
Across the black countertop bordered by a faded brass railing, was a Megatouch arcade screen sounding off vintage Atari beeps. Behind the large bar mirror sat three rows of alcohol, including the rarely seen redneck favorite, Red Stag by Jim Beam. A sign near the bar well ordered: “Don’t stand here ever.”
On the far side of the room were drop ceilings and wood-panel walls. The AC window units along the wall only seemed tolerable in their output when combined with the two ceiling fans over the bar. Two bar-sized pool tables stood atop of busted tiles, torn up carpet, and worn metal trim. The only things that made this place seem like a sports bar at all were ESPN on the wall-mounted plasma TVs and a mantle of APA pool awards reminiscent of childhood everyone’s-a-winner-style plastic trophies.
After analyzing my surroundings, I tried to order the appropriate drink. “Can I get a Pabst Blue Ribbon please?”
“No way,” the tall bartender responded bending down slightly. “Try this instead,” he said popping open a Black Label, a splash of foam streaking down the side. “It’s from Canada.”
“Can we get some shots of Jager, too?” I added.
He raised an eyebrow. Without speaking, he grinned slightly and stacked five rocks glasses up as a tower. The bartender held the chilled Jagermeister bottle upside down over the top glass, letting it overflow into each lower level. “I get the top glass,” he said.
“That’s so metal,” Ryan remarked, his face growing animated. And we smiled and quickly consumed both of our shots. We continued this tempo for two hours.
A sloppy drunkenness took over our filters and our bromance came out. “You’re my best friend,” I told him. “I missed you. I didn’t know what to do when you weren’t here.”
“I missed you, too, but we’re always going to be brothers,” he said, while we high-fived and hugged. And that was true. Ryan’s real brother had died of a drug overdose a few years before I knew him, and I never had any brothers. Since we met in seventh grade, and all the years after that playing the trumpet side-by-side in concert and marching band (our secret), we had become as close as straight men who aren’t biologically linked could be.
It became apparent that Ryan’s new muscular build had made him more tolerant to binge-drinking than me. Another friend of ours, Carlton, a local Jersey boy who Ryan once served with in the Marines, showed up to join our party and I could barely stand after trying to maintain pace.
Carlton held me up when I followed them outside to smoke. A short Latin hombre (who we were reasonably certain was a member of MS-13 because of his tattoos and random references to drug dealing) began mingling with us. Ryan bought him a shot. Better to have him as a good-time friend than criminal enemy.
Alcohol overuse and the fact that I had also been partying for several days already shut my body down. Carlton helped me to his open-top Jeep Wrangler parked right outside. I passed out for a couple hours in the backseat, clutching a crowbar that he placed in my palm. “Hey, no bullshit,” he warned, “If someone comes here – anyone – you use this, okay?” I guess we weren’t appreciating how tough of a town Trenton could be.
When I woke up, feeling rebooted, Ryan and Carlton were on the street with the male band members of The Agonist, still smoking and still laughing. Ryan had them all convinced that he worked for the CIA – as he did indeed look like Special Forces warrior – and Carlton was enjoying helping reinforce the lie. As Canadians, only here for their tour, they found Ryan and his experiences – both real and fictive – amazing. It was his chance to feel cooler than the rockers he idolized.
The bar had closed and we sat cross-legged on the asphalt parking lot across the street, outside of their tour bus, sharing our cultures and politics. They all wanted to know what it was like to be in the American military and about the wars. They seemed very curious and stimulated by all my opinions and empiricism, which I had plenty to offer as a veteran and recent college graduate with a degree in political science. Feeling unusually jovial, we lead the conversations and were becoming good friends with them all. We never imagined our military service would be something that genuine rockers would perceive as metal.
The warm sun peaked over the horizon eventually, and they politely informed us that they had to go to the next show. The driver turned on the bus; it roared like angry metal grinding as it came awake. We all hugged and shook hands and exchanged contact information. A local drunk had passed out right under their tour vehicle. Ryan grabbed his legs and I grabbed his hands; the man swung like a hammock as we moved him out of the way and then set him back down on the lot.
“What do we do with that guy?” the bass player asked, while holding his stomach with laughter.
“Let him sleep,” I replied deadpan. “He’ll be fine.”
“Later, Canucks,” Ryan jeered.
“Later, Marines,” one of the guys responded.
We returned to the hotel at 9 a.m., and one of the other patrons we had talked to the night before was headed to some sort of business enterprise. “You guys are just getting back?” he asked incredulously.
We poured ourselves some cereal and orange juice, splashing drink around and making a mess, and Ryan purchased us another day in our room so we could sleep past noon.
“I had an awesome time,” I said after we fell against our beds. In all likelihood, we were still legally intoxicated.
“Yeah, man,” Ryan slurred. “Rock on!”
We didn’t perform that night. We didn’t have a band. But there was no denying that night was ours.
In the afternoon we woke up still feeling high. We relived the parts of the previous night we could remember well. I was getting ready to start graduate school for writing at Hopkins in a few days and I finally felt like a normal person, with real hopes and dreams. Over two years had passed since getting out of the service and almost eight years from my graduation from boot camp. The more I told my war stories, the more I seemed to separate myself from those experiences. I felt that the Corps was finally just becoming a distant memory of a far-away life. And when I sold my book, I could buy a van, find a band, and go on tour myself. Maybe I’d learn how to drum metal so Ryan would want to come too.
My phone rang. It was Tompkins, a Marine buddy from my unit who I had not seen in two years. “Yo, D-bo,” he said.
I didn’t say anything because usually he rambled a lot and spoke too quickly. “What’s up?” I asked after a long pause.
“Cahir is dead,” he replied, the words as thick and shocking as the strike of a gong.
Sergeant Bill Cahir, the 40 year-old former newspaper reporter and former congressional candidate, a brother Marine and mentor, was dead. He would never see his wife again. He would never meet his yet-to-be born twins.
My body turned warm with the news and the room spun.
“Fuck,” I replied into the receiver as tears streaked my cheeks.
I didn’t want to be around anyone, so I packed my bag again and left as quickly as I could. “Sorry,” I said to Ryan, and he nodded knowingly.
He had left a CD in my car. A group called The Haunted remained in the player. The singer screamed, So when I die / lead my remains into the fire / so that my soul flies and I reach the end of the line. It was a raucous rage that soothed my soul and kept me sane as I raced home, ignoring almost every traffic law. I played that track over and over again for those two hours. To the beat, I smacked my palms against the steering wheel and cried. The road ahead appeared fuzzy but I didn’t slow down.
After one of the best nights of my life the next song had come on. It was a track I didn’t like. But I keep listening to metal because I don’t know how to live a placid life. And I don’t think that’s what my dead friends would want. They would want me to pulse with the rock and roll inside me, always raging against the dying light.
Iraq War veteran Dario DiBattista is the Editor-in-Chief for 20 Something Magazine. His work has appeared in The Washingtonian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Connecticut Review, Three Quarter Review, World Hum, and he’s been featured in The New York Times, Urbanite Magazine, and on The Marc Steiner Radio Show. He blogs for many websites, most notably, www.notalone.com, which is a resource website for returning veterans. And he teaches writing at The George Washington University and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda for The Veterans Writing Project, and as an adjunct professor at the Community College of Baltimore County.