I Learned How to Be a Better Father By Going to Death Metal Shows
Sometimes the best parenting advice comes from watching some middle-aged guys in leather scream about Satan.
Wednesday is guy’s night out. For my dad friends and I, it’s our weekly respite, where we can socialize without having to force-feed broccoli to little people or debate kindergarten curriculums with other couples. We just get to relax, unwind, and feel like ourselves again.
We do this primarily by going to doom metal shows.
Our last big excursion was to see a band called Sleep. Prior to the show, I didn’t know anything about them, other than that they have a 63-minute ode to cannabis called “Dopesmoker.” My friend Carl, a high school principal and doom metal enthusiast, assured me that they’re “face melters.” So we drove down to the south side of Chicago, where all the streets are numbered and the buildings look like Martin Scorsese sets, and walked into a club where the visibility, thanks to a blue cloud of marijuana smoke, was just a few inches.
Sleep came on stage around 11 pm, which on any other night is when my wife and I are watching Seinfeld reruns in bed. The trio — three paunchy guys in their 40s — pounded out massive, sludgy riffs that were so heavy they were testicle-rearranging. Every song was about Greek mythological creatures having unprotected sex on Stonehenge, or a slight variation on that theme. The shirtless guitarist, wearing jeans that probably fit him 20 years ago (but now…. not so much), was doing things to his guitar that shouldn’t have been possible without some Dark Lord mentoring.
The four of us—me, Carl, Ben, and Jeremy—definitely stuck out in the crowd. We were surrounded by a sea of black t-shirts, studded wristbands and face piercings, but we looked like we’d wandered in from a farmers market. I was wearing a Pure Michigan t-shirt and shorts. It was a miracle that they let me into the building at all. But what I lacked in doom metal aesthetics, I more than made up for with Satany enthusiasm.
We went to see bands like Oozing Wound, Wolvhammer, and Whores. Whores was my favorite, if only because I got to tell my wife, “I’ll be back late tonight. We’re going to see Whores. You want a t-shirt?
“The reptile pushes itself out into space,” the lead singer growled through his immense wizard’s beard. “Leaving behind, the human race!” I saluted him with rock horns, overcome with the beautiful poetry of astronaut lizards.
My dad friends and I exchanged glances, our eyes wide with giddy disbelief. It was part of our ritual during these weekly outings, to first feign disbelief at the ludicrous metal theatrics we’re witnessing, before giving in completely to the self-parody. There is a very fine line between “This is hilariously awful” and “SATAN HIMSELF HAS NEVER ROCKED SO HARD!”
Full disclosure: I’m not a doom metal guy. I’m not even a metal guy. My musical tastes, for the majority of my life, have gravitated towards songs with hummable melodies. I went to more Billy Joel concerts in my teens than dates with girls. Even into my 20s and 30s, my musical preferences were dominated by sensitive Caucasians with acoustic guitars. The same seems to be true for my dad friends. At weekend playdates and dinner parties, their iPod playlists might as well have been curated by Zach Braff.
But a few years ago, we decided to do something more adventurous with our Dad’s Night Out than sip on bourbon cocktails at the local bar. The doom metal idea was a joke — what could be more opposite of our middle-aged dad lifestyles? We expected some tongue-in-cheek hilarity, but we never expected to actually like it. One minute, we were watching with the same slack-jawed amazement of catching a homeless guy urinate on the subway. And the next, we were full-body throbbing along to the music and pledging our eternal allegiance to dark overlords.
It soon became a regular thing. Every week, if there was a doom metal act in town, we’d be there. We went to see bands like Oozing Wound, Wolvhammer, Destructor, Rhythm of Fear, Sudden Deth, and Whores. Whores was my favorite, if only because I got to tell my wife, “I’ll be back late tonight. We’re going to see Whores. You want a t-shirt?” We went from casual fans to metal connoisseurs, able to discuss the minutiae of genres like thrash, grindcore, sludge punk, and crust. As long as it was wildly melodramatic (and earnest about its melodrama) and very, very, very, very loud, we were in.
This wasn’t escapism, it was practice. Going to doom metal was teaching us how to be better dads.
It wasn’t always easy for our respective partners to accept, especially when we’d try to explain the appeal of Beastmaster—“Their songs are about vampires, or Satan, or vampires who work for Satan, or maybe Satan is a vampire, I’m not entirely clear.”—or show up for play-dates wearing a Revenge t-shirt from their “Infiltration.Downfall.Death” tour, and we’d have to explain the illustration of a skull with three nooses to confused 6-year olds. (“It’s a floating head that’s fishing,” was the best I could do.) This wasn’t some midlife crisis, a pathetic attempt to reclaim a youthful vitality that was slipping away. My youthful vitality had nothing to do with studded leather and songs about rotting corpses and alien invaders. This wasn’t escapism, it was practice.
Going to doom metal was teaching us how to be better dads.
When my son Charlie was born, the first thing I said to him, just seconds after he was pushed rudely out into the world, was “I promise Daddy doesn’t cry like this all the time.” The nurses laughed, but I felt a little guilty even as I said it. I wasn’t crying just because I was holding my son for the first time and he was beautiful and perfect. I was crying because a tiny person had just come out of my wife, and he was my responsibility or at least co-responsibility. But my entire body of work as a human being up to that point suggested I wasn’t even remotely ready for the job. A child’s birth is your first failure as a father, writ large. Both your wife and newborn are crying and screaming at you. They’re confused and angry and scared and at least one of them is covered in goop, and you’re just standing there, mouth agape, unable to fix any of it. “Just breathe, it’ll be okay,” I told my wife, like a freaking idiot. How was that helping?
I leave those shows smelling like weed and stale beer, and with at least semi-permanent hearing damage. But I also come out armed with the knowledge to be a better father.
It’s been pretty much the same ever since. For the past six years, I’ve felt like a guy who stumbled into a job for which he couldn’t be less qualified. And I’m pretty sure everybody knows it. Every time Charlie has a tantrum in public, I can feel the judgmental stares of strangers, muttering to each other, “Isn’t that cute, the way he’s pretending to have any semblance of parental authority? It’s amazing his son puts up with him.” Every decision I make as a parent feels like I’m trying to parallel park a tank. Who the hell gave me keys to a tank?
But then I started going to doom metal shows, and it changed everything. I leave those shows smelling like weed and stale beer, and with at least semi-permanent hearing damage. But I also come out armed with the knowledge to be a better father. (I mean, after a shower anyway.) Here are a few examples of what I’ve learned.
1. How to Be Threatening Without Actually Being Threatening
The best doom metal acts have mastered the art of being scary without really being all that scary. I went to see a band called Corrections House, and the lead singer, in full black priest regalia, was singing from a pulpit, caterwauling lines like “I plucked out her eeeeeeeeyes!” And then a guy pulled out a baritone sax and played it while violently headbanging. Nothing about this was even remotely terrifying. But they still made a convincing case. Because even if I didn’t believe what he was saying, I believed that he believed it.
That’s the type of parent I want to be, especially when Charlie isn’t listening and I start counting to three, as if something horrible is going to happen if I make it all the way to that third terrible digit. I need him to believe that he has only three seconds to comply or I will reign down hellfire on him, while simultaneously knowing this isn’t true and could never be true. The mutually accepted rules of fantasy-reality that make a doom metal show possible also apply to a successful father-child relationship. I need him to look at me like I’m a doom metal singer screeching about plucking out eyes while a saxophonist head-bangs behind me, and he knows there’s probably no real danger, but let’s just go with it anyway.
2. Saying Things That Make No Sense But Doing It With Conviction
When Charlie is being a “I don’t have to do that” jerkface, I put him in time-out for six minutes, and even I don’t understand what that means. He has to sit in silence for the number of minutes equivalent to his age because that will force him to grapple with consequences and… the inevitability of growing older? “You ate candy when I explicitly told you not to, so sit in this corner for a time period that represents how we’re all going to die somebody.” What the hell am I even saying?
Nothing about this makes sense, until you go to a Lethal Shöck show, and they get to the part in “I Rock (in Hell!)” where they start shouting “Kill for lust, fuck with class/ Shove that cross right up your ass,” and you’re like, “Wait, what? Are you…? I’m not sure I understand. What are you asking me exactly?” But Lethal Shöck doesn’t care about your confusion. You heard them the first time.
3. Conveying Power Despite Clearly Having No Power and Looking Utterly Ridiculous
There is nothing about the band Raven that suggests they should have a lot of self-confidence. They’re two beefy British guys in their 60s, whose professional attire includes sleeveless leather vests with lightning bolt lapels. Their “athletic rock” involves jumping wildly around the stage like sugar-fueled kids in a bounce house, making “poop faces” during guitar solos (because you know they’re rocking hard if it looks like they’re having a bowel movement), and singing about atomic monsters and erect penises. It’s a remarkable thing to witness, because it demonstrates that the human capacity for self-belief is so much greater than you ever realized.
Feeling superior to the band Raven is easy. And quite frankly, pointless. Because you’re not going to shame them into stopping. They’re convinced that they’re the hardest-rocking metal titans in existence. And that confidence is contagious. After enough lyrical repetition—and their lyrics are nothing if not anthemic—you start shouting back at them, “Yes, Raven, I will stay hard and wet! That’s excellent advice! And I will join you in your quest to destroy all the monsters! Not some of them, all of them! While remaining hard!”
Doom metal is filled with these types of useful fatherhood metaphors. If a shirtless middle aged guy with man nipples can put on a Viking helmet and a leather cape and command a crowd of strangers, without even a hint of self-consciousness, that he’s leading an army of witches to steal their souls and carry them into the underworld, then surely I can get a 6-year-old to brush his teeth and put on his damn pajamas without feeling like a fraud.
“I want to keep watching cartoons,” Charlie told me the other day.
“No,” I responded, trying to sound stern. “It’s a half hour past your bedtime.”
“It’s fine,” he said, waving me away as though I was an intrusive waiter.
I closed my eyes, and wondered, “How would a Norse vampire doom metal singer who hasn’t done cardio for at least a decade and wears a bejeweled codpiece unironically handle this situation?” Probably completely inappropriately. But he wouldn’t question himself. He’d just start shriek-singing, “Ride the dragon toward the crimson eye/ Flap the wings under Mars red sky!” And my son would eventually listen to him, if only to get him to shut up.
If that buffoon can do it, so can I. Stay hard, my fellow fathers. Stay wet.
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