Mill Town Metal Memoir

Toronto rock journalist Brent Jensen's No Sleep 'Til Sudbury is a smart, sweet memoir of the joys and travails of growing up metal in tiny Espanola, Ontario -- ...A Fine Paper Town, as the welcome sign notes -- weaving a portrait of youthful discovery/rebellion into a larger macro story of metal's mid-eighties coming-of-age moment. It's a good time and Jensen was kind enough to offer Decibel excerpts from two chapters, centered around Metallica and Iron Maiden, respectively. For more information, visit the official No Sleep 'Til Sudbury website, or seek out Jensen on Twitter and Facebook.

And so without further delay, let the tale begin...

I caught Metallica live in the metropolis that is Sudbury when they were touring the Master of Puppets record in 1986. They headlined this show, an off-date from their opening slot on Ozzy’s The Ultimate Sin tour, with Metal Church and a Canadian hard rock band called Kick Axe opening. The Sudbury Arena probably held about five thousand odd people, and I think it was about half full.

Kick Axe came and went, and the three recollections I have of them are that 1) the drummer had these unusually long, tubular drums in his Ayotte kit, 2) the band played a smashing cover of Humble Pie’s “Thirty Days in the Hole”, and 3) the singer’s name was George. I only noted this at the time because the name George seemed so un-rock for a lead singer.

So Metal Church was second on the bill. I had bought their debut album way before this show, but I didn’t care for it very much then. I liked the songs “Hitman” and “My Favourite Nightmare”, but I wasn’t big on much else the record had to offer. It seemed to me that the record was a bit dull, and the “Highway Star” cover version at the end was noticeably out of place compared to the rest of the track list. The production didn't seem so lively, and I really overlooked the whole record. The lyrics in “Hitman” were well suited for young passive-aggressive headbanger fantasy engagement, dumb fantasy akin to those old Chuck Norris movies like The Octagon that featured ninjas and throwing stars, and loads of improbable action. The same dynamic was deployed - a manufactured outlet through which to channel the aggression of youth, in a healthy, regular non-Columbine way. While this fantasy element is one of the most attractive aspects of metal in general for young teens, it’s also one that has also been manipulated to the point where it's become pejorative. This topic is fodder for all kinds of stupid debates, and the debates aren’t necessary. Because really, the difference is common sense, pure and simple. The difference between me listening to AC/DC's “Night Prowler” and enjoying it as a form of entertainment, and Richard Ramirez listening to it and going out and killing people because he said the song compelled him to do so, is common sense - common sense, of course, being the active dynamic of mental stability and the ability to reason. I had my share of rage to channel as a teen, as most teens do. But I did so through more rational means, like sports and other activities. I didn't go out and fucking kill people, for crissakes. Nor did I even remotely consider snuffing it when I listened to Ozzy's “Suicide Solution” or Judas Priest's “Beyond The Realms Of Death”. Things like that don’t even cross the mind of the rational person. It’s foolish to think that you can blame that sort of behaviour on music. Of course, wading into these waters means opening up the floodgates of myriad debates, including organized religion and free speech, and maybe even euthanasia, in the case of that one kid who misfired during his suicide attempt while listening to Judas Priest and blew most of his face off but lived. Debating these topics (like debating most other topics, really) is pointless. If you're willing to take your own life at the perceived suggestion of a lyric in a song, your problems are deeply rooted and far-reaching, and those problems were in place long before the play button was pressed.

Anyway, it wasn't until I bought Metal Church's second record, The Dark, that I really opened my eyes (and ears) to the band, but that was only after seeing them at this Sudbury show. My friend Johnny and I were like giddy schoolgirls after watching the band rip through “Ton Of Bricks” and “Psycho”. I needed to get my hands on The Dark after seeing that. When the record was finally mine, I noticed that it had placed quite a lot of distance between itself and the first album. It was slickly produced, almost too much so with respect to the drum tracks -- they almost bore an electronic sound. In this sense, the record almost seemed to have a slightly commercial flavour. The songwriting contributed to this idea too -- the two albums seemed to come from different bands. Record companies refer to this ‘artistic growth’. Regardless, I liked The Dark, and when I went back to check out the first record again, I really got into it as well. I listen to it a fair bit these days, in fact. I had picked up Metal Church’s third album, Blessing In Disguise, on CD after I had left for university, but I flipped it at a buy-and-sell shop shortly after. Singer David Wayne wasn't in the band any longer, and while new throat Mike Howe was great, I just couldn't get into the record. Just wasn’t the same somehow.

I remember that this Sudbury show was played under somewhat unusual circumstances for the Church, wherein guitarist Kirk Arrington had very recently broken his arm and couldn't play the gig. He was standing off in the wings and some other guy, maybe his guitar tech, was filling in for him. The tech was also standing back there, not out on stage with the rest of the band for some unknown reason. The other guitar player, Kurdt Vanderhoof, was a fucking mental case on stage that night, running around and banging his head like a lunatic. I remember thinking that he resembled John Hinckley Jr. a little bit.

Metallica took the stage after Metal Church, and it was a raw, deafeningly loud show. I was paralyzed with joy that James Hetfield and Metallica had come to my remote, desolate little locale. In addition to my memory of actually feeling the crack of the snare drum in my shins from the floor in front of the stage when the drum tech was checking it beforehand, I remember a lot of spitting. Hetfield and Ulrich were constantly spitting during their set -- Ulrich's projectiles looping up over his kit and coming down to the front of the stage often just missing Hetfield, who himself must have expectorated at least three or four times per song. Hetfield remarked between songs that he loved Canadian beer, toasted the crowd and gulped from his plastic cup (Sudbury's by-laws sadly but wisely prevented the sale of alcohol in Sudbury Arena). I also remember that he substituted the word ‘Sudbury’ for ‘the city’ when he sang the first line of “Seek and Destroy” -- "scanning the scene in Sudbury tonight". I’m sure Hetfield carried out this routine nightly but I still got a charge out of it, just as I did when he asked the crowd during the “Seek and Destroy” intro if we had the Kill 'Em All record. A resounding "Yeah!" response resulted, to which Hetfield earnestly asked, "Can I borrow it?" I always thought that was funny, because it was all part of the sneering, defiantly juvenile bliss that I immersed myself in as a Metallica fan back then. I still have the ticket stub for that concert -- I had ticket number 16. The date on it reads Wednesday, December 10, 1986. Admission was $15.50.

xxx

The first time I had ever heard of Iron Maiden was back around the time when The Number of the Beast was released in 1982. Quite honestly, I was a bit intimidated initially by the imagery of the band, particularly band mascot Eddie wielding that hatchet and the whole fire-and-brimstone thing on the album cover. Not in a frightening way, but more in an off-putting, mildly irritating way, like when someone turns the channel to a UFC program on TV. The Number of the Beast album cover pitted Eddie against what I assumed was the devil, battling on a cliff in some post-apocalyptic hell-type setting. Several smaller, less fortunate silhouetted figures can be seen below in the background, also fighting and carrying on in the flames. It wasn't until I looked very closely at these figures that I noticed a few of them sported male genitalia, some of it in fact erect. As a young man of twelve, I was perplexed by the purpose of this. So many questions filled my pre-pubescent, small town brain. Of course, the most important of these questions was, "What must this music sound like?"

Fearing the worst, I didn't shell out the money for this peculiarity at the time, though I was nonetheless as intrigued as I could possibly be. I was a bit of a stray dog as a kid. I had several fair-weather friendships, most of these being spontaneous and based on geographic and situational availability. I must say that I made some poor decisions relative to my friend selection, sometimes hanging out in some less-than-savoury social circles. I do sometimes wonder though, had it not been for this lapse in judgment, if I would have ever come to experience the sheer joy that is listening to Iron Maiden.

I don't remember how any of these frivolous friendships even started, nor do I remember the endings of such. But when you're that young, there's practically zero responsibility or accountability invested or even expected in relationships of any sort. Even the smallest of towns subscribe to a social class system, and while my "best" friends in Espanola were the ones who were in my class at school, whose houses I was able to sleep over at, and with whom I tended to fraternize with in most social settings, I do remember having friends when I was around the age of twelve or thirteen that were peripheral to my previously established social niche, and I suppose I hung out with them when no one else was around. I’m not sure why, but I just kinda opened it right up. I think that in Espy, friendship was essentially about self-involved gain than anything else at that age. Consideration was lax. There weren't really many 'real' genuine friendships that I witnessed or participated in that could be validated by core values like sincerity, honesty, or loyalty. My memory tells me that the idea of friendship for most of us in Espanola was approached from a mercenarial tack, wherein you took what you needed to satisfy yourself first, and you moved around as you saw fit, without having any real allegiance to anyone.

It seems strange to me now that I would even set foot in some of the houses I did back then. But set foot I did, and listen to the first strains of The Number of the Beast record I did as well. I was captivated by the lightning-in-a-bottle anarchy of the whole thing, the sinister ferocity of it. It was much different than anything I had heard before. Eventually I was so into The Number of the Beast that this other guy and I would pretend we were in the band when we listened to it, using props like pool cues and broomsticks to ape my newfound heroes. The beauty of make-believe was perpetuated in the fact that you could be whichever band member you wanted at the time, based on whether there was a great drum riff or series of fills, or a guitar line that you wanted to play. You were any and every band member at any time, as you saw fit. I would mostly be the singer with a pool cue. We would both play the lead guitar parts, because you couldn't just stand there and do nothing during the lead break. We established a stage in front of the stereo and took our positions as needle made contact with vinyl, the metal riffs that poured out of the speakers serving as a malignant outlet for our misplaced, adolescent small town angst. The sheer freedom and wanton self-involvedness was the immediate order of the time. And it was bloody glorious.

And so it was, my blossoming courtship with Iron Maiden. When I got to high school, I found out very quickly that the parameters of social demarcation were even more clearly defined. Being a metal fan unfortunately meant you were a lowlife -- a branding that often thwarted any significant socialization opportunities. Not that I was the gregarious type anyway, but I kinda saw myself as more of a multi-dimensional type. I didn't really completely fit into one category. I wasn't a card-carrying, denim-n’-leather clad metalhead, but I loved heavy metal. I wasn't a phony preppy though I dressed like one most of the time. I wasn't a jock but I held a first-line position on most of the sports teams I belonged to (though this was not at all a major achievement in Espy). And, I wasn't a nerd but I was interested in learning -- I loved English Lit and would occasionally flip through the dictionary just to learn new words. I was socially chameleonic but very clumsily so. Always just looking to relate -- looking for myself in the lyrics of my favorite recordings, and using those lyrics as validations for who I thought I was or should be, though I really had no idea. Drawing associations between my own personal situations and song lyrics enhanced the intensity of the experience and added pretended grandiosity to my boring small town life. I was bright enough, and maybe just good-looking enough to stay ahead of the lowlife tag, really just looking for a place to happen -- but on my own terms. And all the while living in my own little world of self-delusive happy goodness.

In my first year of high school, I made fast friends with a guy named Bryan Sloss who shared the same inclinations I did, and we were pretty similar. We both had longish hair that conceded socially somewhat by looking more like Steven Adler's than Axl Rose's. We had an appreciation for the arts as much as you could in a small northern Ontario town. And we both loved heavy metal, Iron Maiden in particular. We read Hit Parader, Circus, and Creem, and listened closely when Maiden brought in their new drummer Nicko McBrain for Piece of Mind, the follow up to The Number of the Beast. I bought the record right away and phoned Sloss from another friend’s house to discuss Nicko’s cred and how good he sounded, I distinctly remember that. Girls called each other to blather about boys and shoes, and I blathered about Iron Maiden. Even though this was the case, I couldn’t really be considered a headbanger. At least not in the same way the guys in metal shop were, but who knows. I think I didn't want to come to grips with that fact because I didn't want to put all my social eggs in one basket, or limit myself to a stereotype. Especially one so reviled by most of the girlies that I was trying to get with during that time. So shamefully fragile in character was I.

*****

Iron Maiden had become massively popular by the time their next record, Powerslave, came out in 1984. Inexplicably, their tour to support Powerslave would bring them to…Sudbury!?!

So Iron Maiden is coming (close) to my hometown. I’m running around the room and jumping on the furniture like Ed Grimley when I find out. I couldn’t figure out why they would come to Sudbury because they were huge, and bands of their stature didn’t bother coming any closer to Sudbury than Toronto, which was four hours south. As a young kid, I would read the tickets-for-sale section of the Toronto Star classifieds to find out which bands were playing down there. Looking back on that now, it seems more sado-masochistic than interesting. But, as much as I hated seeing Motley Crue tickets for sale, it somehow felt like that was the closest I could get to being part of the action. Toronto may as well have been in another solar system for me at that time. When I found out Maiden was coming to Sudbury - after I came to the realization that it wasn’t some sort of error, misrepresentation, or cruel joke -- I almost pissed myself with gobsmackedness. I was fourteen, and this would be my first-ever live concert.

My new metal pal Sloss and I set about trying to organize our plan to make this happen for ourselves. Ticket acquisition was primitive back then. You could either buy the tickets from the arena or from the local record stores in person. No Internet, no TicketMaster. The show was general admission, so wherever you planted yourself in six-thousand-seater Sudbury Arena was your own business. If you wanted to be up front, you would work your way up there. There was no scalping for front-row or floors. I don’t think I’d even heard the term ‘scalping’ yet at that point. If I had, I probably would have tried to work it in to the conversation somehow, thinking I would raise my social profile by edgy-sounding slang. Without even really knowing what it meant. Most of us did that in Espanola.

I don’t remember exactly how we did get the tickets, because I doubt that we would have been able to make two trips to the city for that. Sloss used to have access to his parents’ car, but not with any regularity. Christ, I don’t even remember how we got to the actual show itself, to be honest. I do remember being in Sudbury fairly early that day and hanging out in the malls, hitting all the record shops and really soaking it all up. There was a small gang of Espy boys there to see the concert. I also remember that out in front of the City Centre Mall in downtown Sudbury, three of us were asked by a reporter from the Sudbury Star newspaper if we wanted to answer a question for a feature they were doing on the new cable channels that had just been made available to us in northern Ontario. Back then in 1984, we were just getting that big brown rectangular box that was still connected to the television with a cord, and it had buttons on it that went ka-chik very loudly when you changed channels. And that was a big development. “Wow, we don’t have to get up to change the channel anymore!”

I think the reporter’s question had to do with the perceived value of the channels, if John Q. Public thought the channels were worth the money that he was going to be charged for them, something like that. I’m still not really sure why he was posing this question to three fourteen-year-old longhaired punks dressed in metal getups. At any rate, I remember giving a half-decently credible answer, and I remember that Sloss also provided a thoughtful response. I’m not sure if the third guy perhaps didn’t clearly hear or understand the question, or if he may have been nervous or something, but the answer he gave was a bit stupid. After the reporter noted our comments, names, and ages, he took our pictures, thanked us for our time, and told us the feature would run the following day. So, there I was, all fucking proud of myself for being in the Sudbury Star - mullet, fake leather jacket with a Flying V pin in it, Iron Maiden Killers three-quarter length sleeve baseball t-shirt and all. When I picked up the paper the next day, I was mortified to discover that the knuckleheaded comment the third guy provided was inserted under my name and picture, and my comment was under his picture. Awesome.

There was a lot of nervous giddiness before this concert. We were more like little schoolgirls than tough metal guys at this time. Someone in general proximity said that they heard that Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson was spotted at the health food store in the City Centre, and we went goddamn nuclear. The delta that existed between a gaggle of small town hicks and a seemingly pseudo-mythical being like Dickinson was unfathomable when you’re one of the small town hicks. It wouldn’t seem possible that he would move among us in our pedestrian spaces. And to be honest, for the sake of pure fantastical entertainment, which was really a key fundamental of my obsession with heavy metal in the first place, I didn’t really want to believe that he would. That may have spoiled the fun. Whether or not I would admit it at the time, I knew that heavy metal was specious escapism for me. And it still is, really. I just happen to be a bit wiser and slightly more enlightened in my consideration of its scale these days.

*****

I could have been considered a serious Iron Maiden fan back in 1984. I wouldn’t say that I was a diehard, because I didn’t care for the non-Dickinson, pre-Number of the Beast Iron Maiden albums yet (Bruce Dickinson had just joined Maiden prior to The Number of the Beast). There was such a dichotomy between Dickinson’s more metal, operatic, human air-raid siren vocal approach and that of previous frontman Paul Dianno’s punkish-inflected delivery that I just couldn’t get into Maiden’s first two records, Iron Maiden and Killers, and I really didn’t until just recently. And they’re fantastic records. But, I did devour everything that Maiden subsequently released following The Number of the Beast; I bought Piece of Mind and Powerslave the minute they were available, in addition to all of the 12-inch singles, B-sides, posters, T-shirts, all of it. With the concept of Eddie and his countless reinvented machinations adding a whole new dimension to the band’s fan draw, it was an exhilarating feeling to be part of the continuum that was happening. The band had a distinct identity, with a history and an exciting future that seemed as though it would be never ending. Not that I gave endings any thought as a fourteen year-old. And it was goddamn exciting to be directly in the middle of it.

But back to the Maiden concert. It’s showtime.

The lights went down, and I may have wet myself a bit as Churchill’s intro speech to “Aces High” came over the PA. The Maiden boys sprint onto the stage, and I’m in another world. My face felt like it was stuck in wide-eyed-wonderment place. As the set list progressed through “Two Minutes to Midnight” and “The Trooper”, I didn’t know where to look - I wanted to see everything at the same time. I tended to mostly watch Dickinson, and guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith when they soloed. As the songs moved through their crescendos, especially from the breakdown in “Two Minutes to Midnight” powering back into the main riff (one of the finest moments in the history of heavy metal by my estimation), I could feel that tingling swell in my torso and a smile so bright on my lips that my face could have easily served as an additional spotlight. As my initial excitement levelled out after the opening numbers, I began to broaden my scope of attention to include the more detailed aspects of the production -- the activities of the stage hands just off in the wings, what went on between numbers, and what Dickinson was doing when he wasn’t singing. As a first-time concertgoer, these nuances were very interesting to me. I noticed that Dickinson would retreat to the drum riser periodically to drink from a Solo cup and blow his nose. He announced later that he had a cold. He must have really enjoyed being in sub-zero Sudbury in December.

Later on in the show he asked the crowd, “Sudbury, do you mind if we come back to see you next year?” Being a young, gullible optimist, I was piss-pants delighted, though I couldn’t imagine why they’d want to come back up to Sudbury, or why they’d even come in the first place. Unless, I thought, Maiden was impressed by the rabid enthusiasm of the metal-starved crowd. So when they came back, not if, because Bruce Dickinson himself said they would, I would be there for sure, closer to the stage. Of course, Maiden would not return to Sudbury on the following Somewhere in Time tour, or ever again for that matter to my knowledge, a fact I remember being mildly bitter about. I felt as though I’d been had. My concert virginity had been taken away, with the suggestion that there would be future liaisons, but with nothing to materialize from that cruel innuendo. I was the jilted cheerleader to Iron Maiden’s high school quarterback. Woe was me.

And much like the newly deflowered cheerleader whose love is unrequited, my crush remained. Iron Maiden’s star was as high in the sky as it had ever been in 1985, and the release of their next studio record Somewhere in Time instilled the standard giddiness that the release of a new album does in a serious fan.

But things were changing.

While the album kick-off track “Somewhere in Time” and single “Wasted Years” were solid, it felt like there was a bit more filler on the rest of the album. It was clear that Iron Maiden were going in a new direction. The album sounded very polished, almost synthetic, and filler tunes like “Alexander the Great” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” alienated me a bit. The loneliness of the long distance runner? What was this? This song reminded me a bit of Piece of Mind’s “Quest for Fire”, a peculiar inclusion on an otherwise powerful record. I remember feeling like Iron Maiden was changing, and that I didn’t completely understand them anymore. When the next record, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, came out in 1988, it marked the first time I didn’t buy a Maiden record immediately on the date of release since 1983. In fact, I only just bought that record in 2007. The fact that it was a full-fledged concept record led me to believe at the time that Iron Maiden may have jumped the shark. Before long Adrian Smith, and soon after, Bruce Dickinson would walk away from the band.

During this same time, the intensity that I had once felt as an Iron Maiden fan had faded to a glimmer. Maiden’s career arc coincided with my graduation from high school and my experience of the culture shock of leaving home for my first year of post-secondary education. Even though Laurentian University was in Sudbury, I lived in dorm there and my life would transform into something completely different. I still cherished metal, but I would never have the same relationship with it again in lieu of all the radical newness of university life, and the end of my teenage years. I could not have left Espanola behind with any more entirety. While perhaps maybe a bit reluctantly at first, I was fully reinvented by my new life in dorm. New stimuli, new friends, new perspectives, new direction. I got so caught up in the new version of me that I even lost sight of my old pal and dear friend Bryan Sloss, and pretty much any other Espanola friends that I had. I was gone. In 1989 I stood at the crossroads of new beginnings, and Iron Maiden felt like that childhood friend whose family had put their house up for sale and moved away.

Or maybe it was the other way around.

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