The customs and cultural mores of heavy metal are, by nature and necessity, far outside the mainstream of our emasculated crybaby culture — and this separation is typically worn as a badge of honor. Alas, in the Islamic world outcast status can engender reactions considerably more hostile than askew glances and snickering mockery.
Last summer, for example, Iranian police raided a “provocative, satanic concert” in Tehran, arresting 230 people for “immoral behavior,” and, as we learn from Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a heart-rending new documentary detailing the trials and tribulations of Acrassicauda, Iraq’s sole thrash band, head-banging along to a Slayer song under Saddam Hussein could lead to a harrowing detention and interrogation — a paranoid overreaction to its motional similarity to Jewish prayer. Sadly, despite the initial ebullience of 2003, post-invasion Iraq has only become more hostile to Acrassicauda’s aspirations. When the band’s bassist matter-of-factly tells the filmmakers Islamic extremists may very well kill him over his heretical heavy metal T-shirt, it is clear the same sacrifices are not asked of all members of the tribe Metallica christened in 1983 the “Metal Militia.”
Western fans appear mostly oblivious to their good fortune and ease of rebellion: American Hardcore, a wonderful documentary on the mutation of aggressive music in the early 1980s, nonetheless begins with an ominous montage of scenes from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural cut with various old-school punk rockers bemoaning the nation’s “puerile fifties fantasy,” which included but was apparently not limited to cardigan sweater-type milquetoast fashion trends, feathered hair, wine coolers and consumer culture. It’s tempting here to offer a feigned swoon and falsetto Oh, the horror!. Everyone, however, has their lot in life and rebels have to rebel against whatever looks like the most promising proto-fascist symbol at the moment, even if those symbols are…well, feathered hair and wine coolers. “This isn’t baseball,” a member of The Adolescents, still angry over a plaque given to him to commemorate a 1981 hit single, rails. “You don’t give me an f—ing trophy. This is a war I’m in the middle of.”
Actually, Acrassicauda is in the middle of a war. The Adolescents guy was in the middle of puberty. There is a difference. Heavy Metal in Baghdad is Henry Rollins’ Black Flag tour diary Get in the Van on steroids; Blood on the Tracks with actual blood on the tracks. No matter how hardscrabble and beaten down by society rock dissidents of whatever subgenre prefers to imagine themselves, it simply cannot compare.
AS SUCH, THE FILM SHOULD be required viewing for every morose, self-obsessed Western rock star planning to pen a song or shoot a band documentary detailing the supposed soul-shucking misery of modern-day minstrel work. No matter how arduously art rock standard-bearers Radiohead toils in its cloying, navel-gazing 1998 tour film Meeting People Is Easy to convince us otherwise, there actually are fates worse than being stuck on the set of one’s latest pretentious video. Could watching Heavy Metal in Baghdad — a member of Acrassicauda noting ruefully of the apocalyptic artwork on an Iron Maiden disc, “This is what life here looks like”; the nervous singer pleading with filmmakers to stop (shamelessly prolonging) an interview so he can make it home before darkness falls and the monsters come out — help Radiohead rethink the tiresome whining over photo shoots, repetitive interviews and gobs of cash? It’s a tall order. “You suddenly have money and get used to this lifestyle and don’t want to take any risks because they’ve got you by the balls,” Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke whimpers in Meeting People Is Easy.
What can you say? Sorry you enjoy being rich?
Perhaps it is simply a reaction to the latent guilt of living a dream legions of others have failed to achieve. Or the anathematic reaction to happiness that passes for credibility, wryly lampooned by the band Cursive as “the art of acting weak” en route to the perfect “self-inflicted song” on their truly subversive 2003 track “Art Is Hard.”
Whatever the origin, brooding abnegation of the joy which presumably should accompany success is endemic to popular Western music. As far back as 1973 Bob Seger was grousing over the “long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha” immortalized in his song “Turn the Page.” The rest stop restaurant along that road full of redneck patrons peddling “the same old cliche, ‘Is that woman or a man?’” nonetheless pales in comparison to the epic struggle of Acrassicauda, self-described “heavy metal refugees” who must arm themselves and dodge various murderous militias simply to make their way to a gas generator-fueled practice space, never mind an arena packed full of screaming fans. By the way, how many of Seger’s rehearsal rooms have been completely destroyed by an errant rocket?
Likewise, the macro power dynamics between Wilco and Warner Brothers records, as well as the micro struggle between bandmates Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett may create a solid dramatic thread in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, but Heavy Metal in Baghdad places the unpleasantness of a record label requesting a band tidy up a radio single into perspective. Should Tweedy and Co. have by accident of birth have come up in Baghdad under Ba’athist rule rather than Chicago, Wilco, like Acrassicauda, would have had to write an ode to Saddam to have any gig cleared by the cultural ministry. (Acrassicauda’s reluctant anthem, “The Youth of Iraq,” included the refrain: “Following our leader Saddam/We’ll make them fall/We’ll drive them insane!”)
And emotional distance? Try living with the concrete distance imposed by a civil war. Virtually every time Heavy Metal in Baghdad flashes forward to a new era in Acrassicauda’s tumultuous existence you expect a member of the band to have been killed. Most of their friends and relatives, they say, are dead, missing or have fled the country.
“I’m still young,” one member of Acrassicauda says quietly. “I haven’t done anything yet.”
He dreams of surviving long enough to tour with Metallica, which begs the question: What will the men of Metallica — who churned out an absurdly straight-faced cover of Seger’s “Turn the Page” back in 1998, incidentally — think taking in footage of the overwhelming cathartic emotion a Syrian audience displays when Acrassicauda covers “Fade to Black”? Ironically, this scene plays out around the same time Metallica was shooting Some Kind of Monster, wherein the men who composed such towering, menacing anti-anthems as “Damage, Inc” and “Dyers Eve” hire a $40,000 a month shrink to help them sort out their feelings, shed a few tears and draft an embarrassing mission statement, which reads in part, “We come now to create our album of life. We honor the brilliance of each and the harmony of one.” At the end of the process the band releases St. Anger, a record oddly rife with thematic/therapeutic mumbo-jumbo for a band whose music can so viscerally effect and empower people across the globe.
One thing Heavy Metal in Baghdad teaches us is that none of this silliness is enough to nullify the transcendent nature of the music or the genre. “Joining together to take on the world,” Metallica frontman James Hetfield sang on “Metal Militia.” “Spreading the message to everyone here: Come let yourself go.” How strange and inspiring that young men from Baghdad carry that urgent flag forward now that Metallica has so weakened: “You really want to know what the attraction is?” Acrassicauda’s singer sighs when asked why he continues to play heavy metal at such great personal risk. “Look around. We are living in a heavy metal world.”
AT THE CLOSE OF Heavy Metal In Baghdad the filmmakers — whose laconic Brooklyn hipster analysis of how, like, bad war is stands as the film’s only real flaw — show the members of Acrassicauda a rough edit of the beginning of the documentary. By now the band are second class citizen refugees in Syria and are in no mood to be portrayed as even sympathetic victims rather than against all odds metal militiamen. One of the members flies into a tearful rage at Westerners’ eagerness to see Iraqis play the victim role. The more one sympathizes with the young man, the more one begins to adopt the very attitude he rails against. It’s a terrible catch 22, actually, made even worse when we learn in the final moments of the film that the band was forced to sell their instruments to pay rent for their unheated cement block apartments and feed their families.
It’s a dour coda. Happily, the expanded DVD version update notes the band has since reconstituted itself in Turkey and is rekindling its improbable dream of world musical conquest, which reminds me of the tongue-in-cheek final verse of the acoustic folk band The Mountain Goats’ ode to heavy metal’s misfit community, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”:
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