(13) loudness, "crazy nights"
(1) MÖTLEY CRÜE, "DR. FEELGOOD"
and plays on in the elite 8
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/23.
DEATH, RESURRECTION, AND ROCK & ROLL: JENNIFER RICE EPSTEIN ON MÖTLEY CRÜE'S "DR. FEELGOOD"
Imagine, if you would, that it’s 1816: Alessandro Volta has invented his battery and Benjamin Franklin has flown his famous kite, but neither Thomas Edison nor Nikola Tesla is yet born. Mary Godwin is hanging out with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron in Villa Diodati, a house in Switzerland once occupied by John Milton. It is a literal dark and stormy night, and Lord Byron suggests that everyone writes ghost stories. Byron starts a vampire horror story but never finishes it; Percy Shelley abandons the project almost immediately; and Mary Godwin, who would become Percy’s wife later that year, writes Frankenstein.
The good doctor for whom the book is named has animated a body composed of dead parts using a science based loosely on theories of electricity—a result that births not man but monster. It’s a book very much of its time, perfectly encapsulating the anxieties of the early 19th century, when technology and scientific discovery were rapidly evolving (in addition to being a book very much about the horror and anxiety of parenthood). And it peeks at advances that are indeed, to come: future generations with faulty hearts and kidneys and eyes will have these organs replaced by cadavers. They’ll walk among us—miracles, not monsters.
Others still will die, however briefly, and be resurrected. This is what will happen to Nikki Sixx, the bassist and lead lyricist for Mötley Crüe, in 1987. Sixx had been introduced to heroin in 1983, and by ‘87, he was in the throes of deep addiction.
His hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes.
That’s a quote from Frankenstein, but it sets the scene beautifully. Sixx himself was beautiful—the whole band was. Informed by punk rock and glam, enamored of New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols and Kiss, the boys of Crüe, who ranged in age from 24 to 32 (or 36—sources differ on what year Mick Mars, the oldest band member, was born), exhibited the kind of bravado, beauty, and charming immaturity particular to rock stars.
If the Jigsaw Jimmy of “Dr. Feelgood” owned L.A.’s drug scene, the members of Mötley Crüe owned the Sunset Strip. Their previous album, Girls, Girls, Girls, had reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts. They were beloved and reviled by all the right people. If they wanted to make a high-concept video where they played their instruments in an inexplicably aflame junk yard that is also somehow a tent, nobody was going to stop them.
Sixx had a mansion in Van Nuys, about 15 miles north of Sunset. It was a party pad (years later, when it went on the market, the Realtor called it “an entertainer’s dream”), but he spent his nights there shooting cocaine and heroin—the combination of which induced paranoia. He’d become convinced that someone was spying on him, so he’d trigger the panic button on his home alarm. When the company responded, he would threaten to shoot them, sure that they were the intruders in disguise. These nights would end with him alone, cowering in his bedroom closet, lost even to the social aspects of the rockstar hedonism of which he writes. Dr. Feelgood was turning him into a monster.
But who was Dr. Feelgood? Perhaps it was the man Sixx, in his memoir The Heroin Diaries, calls Jason. Jason, a drug dealer whom Sixx calls an egomaniac, pursues him even as he tries to get clean, going so far as to leave his number in the mailbox after Sixx literally builds a fence to keep him out. But Jason also helps him wean himself off heroin—a plan that works, at least for a few weeks. So maybe Dr. Feelgood is Sacha, the limo driver/dealer who supplies Sixx in New York, then moves to L.A. to connect with him in the fall of 1987, just after he’s fallen off the wagon again. Somebody’s getting paid, and Nikki is one reliable customer. His habit is costing him thousands of dollars every week.
Absent from “Dr. Feelgood” is the addict—the song is, oddly, from the point of view of the dealer. I suppose it would have harmed Sixx’s image to write a song about being naked and afraid in your own walk-in closet, or waking up next to a groupie having wet the bed. This is metal: vulnerability replaced with bravado, fear with guitars. It’s what I love and hate about it.
While the unglamourous man sells sugar to the sweet on the streets of Los Angeles, other Dr. Feelgoods are popping up in high rises and hospital buildings across the country. A couple of years before Nikki Sixx got his first taste of heroin, Dr. Hershel Jick wrote, in a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, that “despite widespread use of narcotic drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare…” His five-sentence letter opened the door to the ubiquitous prescription of opioid painkillers, and with it, widespread addiction.
These days, Sixx is 16 years clean and writes earnestly about the opioid epidemic, including a recent Op-Ed in the L.A. Times. According to the CDC, nearly 42,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2016—and that doesn’t count the thousands who, like Nikki, were resurrected. Whereas Nikki’s dealers were the kinds of predators I thought only existed in DARE narratives, these Ivy-educated Dr. Feelgoods surely pushed opioids with the best of intentions. Like Victor Frankenstein, they were victims of their own hubris.
Dr. Hershel Jick is speaking up these days, too. The man who almost single-handedly set off the opioid crisis regrets the harm he has caused. He gave a measured apology in an NPR interview last year, saying he’d “take it back” if he could. I can’t help but imagine that in his most despairing hours, Jick feels the isolation and confusion of Frankenstein.
By the end of Frankenstein, Victor tears apart a second creature that would have been the monster’s companion—he has seen the consequences of playing god and wants no part of it. Eventually, he dies alone, bereft, literally drifting on an ice floe after having told his story.
We don’t learn the fate of Nikki’s dealers—not in his memoir. In the song, Jimmy is finally caught by the law but his interior life is as absent as it was in the first line. We don’t know if the real Jimmy regrets his role, if he’s living or dead, if he too was in the grip of addiction or merely a supplier.
But isn’t it something that he’s called Jigsaw Jimmy? I’ve wondered what to make of that nickname—maybe he had a massive scar across his face, or used his coked-up energy assembling mighty puzzles. But I keep landing on the idea of Jimmy as the sum of disparate parts, a hybrid of companionship or even well-meaning and danger. It brings to mind the common error where people call Frankenstein’s monster Frankenstein. Frankenstein is doctor, not the monster. Except, of course, he’s both.
Jennifer Rice Epstein is a fiction writer and journalist living in Long Beach, California. She has written for dozens of publications including Los Angeles, LA Weekly, The Millions, Flaunt, Vice Sports and The Morning News. Her heavy metal phase lasted from 5th grade until her freshman year of high school, when Nevermind was released and her head exploded. She is pictured sitting on a 1955 Pontiac station wagon that her father promised to fix up for her and never did. She was planning to have it painted pink and orange.
YOU ARE THE HERO: W. TODD KANEKO ON "CRAZY NIGHTS" BY LOUDNESS
It’s the first day of tenth grade in 1984. You’re in traffic safety class, where you’ll spend the next ten weeks watching driving simulation movies with a fake steering wheel on your desk. A long haired dude sits down in front of you, a drummer who wants to start a band, and asks if you know anyone who plays bass guitar. You have never touched a musical instrument outside of that clarinet you spent a month pretending to play in fourth grade—you never practiced, so your mother took the clarinet back to the rental shop and said there would be no more music for you. But guys who are in bands have cool friends and go to parties. You have never been cool in your life, so you look that drummer square in the eye and nod your head. “Yeah,” you hear yourself say. “I play bass.”
You buy a cheap bass and some gear at a neighborhood garage sale. You’re thankful the amplifier is so cheap that your new drummer friend can’t hear you play over the sound of his drums because—well, you can’t play. You spend the next year in your room learning songs by ear, playing along with Mötley Crüe, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and whatever other tapes you have shoplifted. You spend many hours practicing those songs over and over and over again.
Then one year later: Loudness, the first heavy metal band from Japan to score a major record deal in the United States releases their album Thunder in the East—you’re captured by the opening guitar of “Crazy Nights,” which is weirdly hollow and full at the same time, a powerful jam that washes over you like cold fire and 80-grit sandpaper. Akira Takasaki’s guitar cranks out a riff that claws insidious at the air before the rest of the animal surges forth with drums and bass to swallow you whole.
And you would be swallowed gladly, if that was possible, because the chorus makes you a promise: “Rock and roll crazy nights / you are the hero, tonight.” You have heard similar things from other songs. Mötley Crüe implores you to rise up and shout at the devil. Quiet Riot tells you to bang your head for your metal health. Scorpions offer to rock you like a hurricane, and you’ll be all like okay, but the dudes in Loudness look like you. When singer Minoru Niihara says you can be the hero, it’s like he knows your life story.
There are only a few Asian American kids at your high school. Most of your friends are white but they’ve never made you feel like you’re less than them because of your race; however, you know you are different. You look in the mirror at the color of your skin and the shapes of your eyes. Notice the way other kids refuse to acknowledge you. Compare the hue of your hands against your homework in class, brown against the lightness of the paper—then jam your math test in your backpack instead of turning it in.
And there is no one who looks like you playing heavy metal, no one in any of those posters you have plastered on your bedroom walls. Bruce Dickinson, sweat-soaked and snarling under stage lights. Nikki Sixx posing sinister with his spidery hair and weird mascara. Randy Rhoads and Ozzy Osbourne, the saint of the six-string sling hoisted mid-guitar solo into the air by the Prince of Darkness. After Loudness, this heavy metal whiteness will go undisrupted until Living Colour hits in 1988, an African American band that your friends won’t acknowledge as legitimate rock until they learn that their album Vivid was produced by Mick Jagger. You still hate that a nonwhite band has to be endorsed by a white rock star to be accepted as legit.
Whatever—in your love of all things heavy metal, you feel united with your fellow metalheads, banging skulls and stomping feet with hands raised to the sky in that devil-salute that proclaims your rebellion against everything your parents represent, against the principles your school upholds, against society because it’s important to reject society before it rejects you.
After playing in a handful of garage bands in high school, you graduate to playing on the rock circuit in Seattle. When people find out you play in a band, they often look at you and say something like, Asian bass player, huh? That’s a good gimmick. This makes you angrier than you’ll ever admit, and you don’t have an answer for them because all your metal heroes are white people—you’ll feel like a gimmick until you learn in the late eighties that Soundgarden’s bassist is Hiro Yamamoto, and while you won’t ever meet him, knowing he is out there somehow feels reassuring.
In your mid-twenties, you have an opportunity to meet James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins. Your band opens for the Pumpkins on a weeknight in Seattle, but you are too filled with faux-punk rock anger and pride to knock on the door to their private backstage area and talk to him. Later, when you are much older and less proud, you think about how you wanted to ask Iha the same thing you wanted to ask Yamamoto: what do you think about Loudness?
And they would both have instinctively understood that you aren’t trying to group the three of you into some weird Asian rock and roll trio. They would understand your real question: is this all a gimmick?
It was never lost on you, how Loudness named themselves after the stereo volume knob, that symbol of heavy metal’s sway over its fans. In her book Heavy Metal: The Music and its Culture, Deena Weinstein defines heavy metal by its sonic dimension. She says “The essential sonic element in heavy metal is power, expressed as sheer volume. Loudness is meant to overwhelm, to sweep the listener into the sound, and then to lend the listener the sense of power that the sound provides” (23).
KISS sings “I Love It Loud. AC/DC sings “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” Quiet Riot sings “Cum on Feel the Noize.” And Loudness by virtue of their name just says yes—we are all of that. It’s loudness that sweeps you up and inhabits your body. Other people dance in lines or squares to country twang or shake their hips to Motown, but heavy metal grabs your head and moves it back and forth in a frenzy. And when you strap a bass guitar over your shoulder and wear it slung low across the stage, you can’t help but whip your head along with the audience in front of you, that sea of devil horns and middle fingers aimed at you in a vulgar rock and roll salute. It’s this loudness—your loudness—that has brought you to heavy metal. Because when you were fifteen and alone in the suburbs, you enveloped yourself in loudness, hoping that one day you could harness this power too.
Your friends had so many explanations for the refrain in “Crazy Nights.” M-Z-A is the name of a comet that passes close to the Earth making people go crazier than they do under a full moon. M-Z-A is a drug like XTC, but Asian. M-Z-A is a Japanese word for the devil. Minoru Niihara used to tell people M-Z-A stands for “My Zebra’s Ass.”
Nowadays, Niihara freely says that M-Z-A has no meaning. Like many foreign born rock vocalists in the 80s, Niihara sang phonetically and ended up singing a nonsense track for a pre-production demo of the song. They never came up with anything better for that section, so they just kept M-Z-A. Niihara says it’s “like shouting ‘hey hey hey’ or ‘wow wow wow’ or whatever”—but these phrases have meaning in English. M-Z-A is just three syllables. Three punches thrown at the ceiling. Three beats for emphatic head banging. Fans of Loudness, fans of heavy metal, understand the meaning of M-Z-A, even if it has no meaning. Perhaps, you understand it because without meaning, that lyric “M-Z-A” is just pure loudness.
You don’t speak Japanese, so Japanese metal songs from the 80s are stripped of lyrical content for you. Bands like Earthshaker and Bow Wow and Anthem clearly understood the genre as you understand it, the idiom of raspy guitars and high-pitched vocals, guitar solos that warble dissonant against the against the rest of the song, but propel it to greatness before driving the chorus into a trainwreck. Loudness’s pre-American albums are no different. The chorus of the self-titled track that opens their first Japanese album The Birthday Eve goes, “We are the Loudness / come on now!” The rest of the song is in Japanese, so you have no idea what the words mean, but that doesn’t matter because without lyrical meaning, you hear their music more clearly. It’s obvious to you that before they came to America, Loudness’s songs sounded like heavy metal in its purest form: aggression, power, and volume, all fine-tuned into a hook that earworms itself into your head for days. So once Loudness started writing songs in English, they should have been unstoppable, right? Right?
The video for “Crazy Nights” received relatively heavy play on MTV in 1985. When you watch that video now, you still can’t help but notice how different the band looks from every other metal band that found mainstream success. They snarl and preen as well as the dudes in Mötley Crüe, but for all the makeup and Aqua Net, their faces are still markedly Asian. They are handsome, not in the way that Tommy Lee or Vince Neil are handsome because Loudness can’t ever be that. You can’t ever be that. And you wonder if this is how people saw your younger self (not handsome, just different), or even if it’s how they see your middle-aged self. You moved away from the suburbs almost thirty years ago and now live in Michigan where you can go a week or more without seeing another face that looks like yours.
The other people in the video are also different. There is a weird shot of a bunch of white kids headbanging, the fast-motion camera transposing them to a different time signature than everyone else in the video. Then those Japanese people in front of that glitzy Delish Curry billboard, those schoolchildren waving in a low-angle shot, that smiling woman in the kimono gesturing with delicate fists, those policemen brandishing their nightsticks, all of them chanting with the song: “M-Z-A! M-Z-A!” These are Japanese faces in place of the white faces that permeate most other heavy metal music videos. They are awkward, yet completely into the song. They are Japanese faces that could be your own face looking back at you.
When you load “Crazy Nights” on YouTube, the next song in the playlist is always David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose.” You hate this video for mocking so many stereotypes: the immigrant convenience store owner, the sassy black woman, the loud fat woman, and even the two party blondes (The lounge lizard says, “If there’s a conversation, I don’t have to be involved”). And then just before the song begins, Roth appears wearing face paint and wielding a spear. You get it. Sure, it’s a joke, but you can’t help but notice those people the video excludes from metal: black people, fat women, immigrants—it’s painful to watch because you know you’re in there somewhere too.
Meanwhile, in “Crazy Nights” Minoru Niihara sings, “we’re gonna rock and roll you / come get on your feet,” promising the loudness that is at the heart of heavy metal. And America, for the most part, says, “Okay! And hey—you’re Japanese!”
In her book, Deena Weinstein describes the visual dimension of heavy metal, the ways that metal bands use logos, album covers and wardrobes to further convey their sonic messages. Judas Priest is hell bent for leather and chrome. Guns N Roses is half gutter and half glam. Iron Maiden decks all their merch with Eddie, their undead mascot. Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, and Poison plaster their faces all in different shades of ghastly. It’s no wonder you can’t help but dig a band with a good gimmick.
Yet it’s difficult for you to dig Loudness’s visual dimension because under the usual heavy metal accoutrements (hairspray, leather), their gimmick becomes their racial markers: they are Japanese and play rock and roll. Loudness broadcasts this overtly with the sharp angles of their band logo and the rising sun image that appears on their T-shirts and album covers. Their stage costumes don’t transform them in the way that most metal bands are normal young men and women who appear onstage as glamorous rock deities. On the contrary, for Loudness, the leather and spandex serve to standardize a band that looks otherwise non-standard for the genre. Loudness is Japanese, and in the midst of the otherwise homogeneous white landscape of American heavy metal in the 80s, that does the trick. Essentially, Loudness’s gimmick is that they are simply Loudness. Pure loudness. Pure heavy metal. It’s a gimmick you wish you could more fully embrace for yourself.
You have always played guitar by ear, but then you discovered YouTube guitar lessons. You found one channel where a dude teaches you how to play “1000 Eyes,” “We Could Be Together,” and so many of the songs on Loudness’s first American album, including the intro to “Crazy Nights,” which has never sounded right when you’ve tried to play it in your living room. The teacher has such reverence for Akira Takasaki, such admiration and respect for Takasaki’s guitar prowess as he calls him the Japanese Eddie Van Halen and compares him to other metal guitar heroes. He shows you the secret to playing that opening lick of “Crazy Nights,” the pinch harmonics on the power chords, muffling the strings with the thumb of your picking hand to create that strange overtone. He might be the best guitar teacher you’ve ever seen on the Internet.
And yet, in many of his Loudness lessons, he calls the band “Roudness” with a mock Japanese accent, even explaining to make sure you understand his joke: “I should pronounce it a-Roudness,” he says. “Roudness. With an R.” There is no malice behind it, probably, but it’s ugly nonetheless. It hurts you, not in its political incorrectness or offensiveness, but in that this is how the world has been talking to you your whole life in one way or another. Heavy metal is beautiful and angry and awesome, yet it likes to remind you that you are always on the outside, even though you can bang your head like a motherfucker.
Ultimately, “Crazy Nights” comes down to everything you and every metalhead wants out of a song. You are still a child of the beast, rock and roller, lightning rider—or maybe you are still that Asian American teenager filled with disquiet and desire, with anxiety about where you belong in the world. If you will ever belong in the world. And heavy metal tells you that there is a story out there where you can be at the center of everything, a story in which you belong—not because you are the right kind of handsome or display the right kind of charm or go to the coolest parties, but because you feel loud. You are white or not white—it shouldn’t have to matter. “Crazy Nights” says you are the hero, tonight. Sure, you might not be the hero tomorrow night, or ever again, for that matter.
But tonight, you’re it.
Tonight, that’s enough to keep you going until tomorrow.
W. Todd Kaneko is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor 2014) and co-author with Amorak Huey of Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic 2018). His recent poems and prose can be seen in The Normal School, Barrelhouse, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus and many other places. A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of Waxwing magazine and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University. Catch him online at www.toddkaneko.com.