Headbanger's ball

Hell hath no house band like Slayer; Ozzy has no mojo.

Published June 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Bringing the original Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne to New Jersey is like ...
what, bringing the Olympics to Athens? There's an Ozzy Osbourne service area on
our Garden State Parkway. Our state bird is the Headless Bat. The State
Legislature failed to elect a chairman one year in the early '80s, issuing
instead a proclamation that "Ozzy rules forever." Yup, this ain't one of your
effete New York crowds over here. So the choice was a tough one: Go to Ozzfest
and rock one's balls off, or enjoy, for once, the rest of the Garden State,
suddenly quiet with all the mooks and mullet-heads penned up in one huge
terrarium of Ugly.

Actually, things began fairly quietly at the Art Center, a 17,000-capacity shed
off the parkway in central New Jersey. Besides the main stage where the
headliners played, there was a fairly large second setup out on the lawn, with a
canonical festival spread of booths and concessions going out in all directions.
The crowd assembled slowly about a nucleus of serious hard-liners, the "take a
day off work" people, who looked as though they didn't want to miss a single
thing, say in case Sabbath's Tony Iommi erupted from backstage, shouting, "Ozzy
is sick! We need a singer! But ... does anybody know the words!?" There were a
lot of 30-ish men with blond moustaches -- the kind of ruddy-featured balding
guy who looks like his divorce just made the drinking worse. You could see them
all at 17, wild and doomed, but at 30, the doom had come and gone. The few women
looked like they had reasonably intact working-class lives -- with kids, and
family to watch the kids, and girlfriends to hang out with while the kids are
being watched. The men looked like they only had a bar to go to, and a girlfriend
with somebody else's kids. These are the Dudes of Jersey Past, whom punk never
knew. You have to respect them.

The musical program began, as usual, with the small fry. The main stage yielded
up Apartment 26, an unsigned industro-techno metal band with a cool British
(read: postpunk) sensibility. One of the members is Sabbath bassist Geezer
Butler's son, which explains how the "unsigned" part fits with the "main stage"
one. But better them in the big top than the hiply all-lowercase "hed (pe)" a
plastic hip-hop metalpunk act with lyrics like, "Niggaz hitch a ride white boyz
too/In the car with the hed crew/What ya gonna do/Rollin in the 96 fuck
you." Woo-hoo. Whatta buncha poo. They use the word "dick" a lot, too.

System of a Down took over the big stage with their grungy agitpunk, to a scanty
crowd. They've got a bit of the bitter playfulness of the Dead Kennedys, a little
of the Killing Joke groove, a singer with presence and a loose, catlike
guitarist. These guys are good. But political rock bands, like the French army,
tend always to be fighting the previous war. Singer Serj Tankian on Kosovo:
"We're not fighting for freedom; we're fighting for oil profits!" Slipknot take
the little stage. Imagine a noisy metal band with Cali-punk vocals, except
instead of a metal band it's eight guys in orange jumpsuits and clown masks,
beating on each other. Overheard: "You know, those bands on the second stage pay
to get on there ... They sell the space." Hmm.

During the early part of the day, the most heartfelt performances were being
heard at the karaoke stage, tucked away in a corner of the midway. While on the
big stage Godsmack blared and clattered through a set of whatever you call it
when it's just a two-chord riff and a guy going Yah! a lot, the karaoke stage
offered a bunch of people doing Sabbath, Guns N' Roses, Doors and Ozzy songs
really, really well. A large burnout chick belted out a hot version of "Roadhouse
Blues." A skinny young guy did "War Pigs" as well as Ozzy could in the '70s.

The younger people streaming in seemed like a different breed from the worn-out
mustachioed crowd. Easily a third were female, and easily half of the males were
just ordinary squarish bald guys, with sort of a generic unworry about them,
perhaps from not having been raised to be as dudish as the older dudes, in a
society that takes manly plumber's sons and warps them out until they live off
bong hits and pray to Satan.

As for Satan, that's something that was missing from the whole carnivalesque
aspect of Ozzfest. You go to the trouble of plopping a huge, whopping carbuncle
of heavy metal into the middle of a dozen American cities, and you figure it
should at least smell a bit of brimstone, to spook out the Christian in each of
us. Real, full-time Christians might be perennially spooked-out by concerts like
this, but they take it too much at face value. Ozzfest is mostly about fun and
games. There's (naturally) a lot of stuff to buy, like jewelry and kewl,
oval-logo bumper stickers, and outerwear of various sorts; and there are drum and
guitar booths with merch and star apppearances. It's also set up with a lot of
to-do stuff, like the karaoke stage, and a rock-climbing wall, and carnival
games, and booths for airbrush body-painting and henna tattoos. But the closest
thing to metal-monster depravity was a couple of girls steering their bare,
airbrushed boobs through the crowd, guarded by a phalanx of sheepish male
friends. Free paint-on bikini tops at the body-paint tent!

Slayer, you can imagine playing in hell. Not just fancifully, the way you'd
imagine something silly or unlikely (like Judas Priest playing there), but with
solid conviction, the way you can imagine Dire Straits playing in Purgatory.
After hours of metal bands had done their meanest on two stages, Slayer came on
with a thunderous whoom and laid the crowd down like matchsticks, killing
everyone instantly. Speed metal is about discipline, since that's what metalheads
most lack and what impresses them the most -- like ghetto hip-hop kids and the
whole rap iconography of money. But most good speed metal bands only achieve a
sort of clattery, robotic precision through lesson-book chops, or through
technological gimmickry -- and few ever really learn to play as an ensemble.
Slayer have micronuanced timing, a near-classical sense of horizontal
composition, and ensemble playing to make a conductor expire at his stand.
Cataclysmic, terrifying. Nothing this big should be able to move so fast.

Back in the "gimmicks" department, the highly-touted Fear Factory was pretty
turgid and machinelike. Heavy sampling -- drums like a big, loud typewriter. New
benchmark: Could this band play hell? There are no samplers in hell.

Nor turntables, but the Deftones are actually pretty good when vocalist Chino
Moreno quits wit da get-down and opens up into his fine Gothic croon ("Be Quiet
and Drive"). Rob Zombie would rule one of those early-'60s casino-decadent
visions of the Abyss. His music is strictly by-the-numbers -- tasty maybe, and
tight, but nothing that a bunch of kids from the karaoke stage and the drum and
guitar booths couldn't make up on the spot. But whatta stage show. The arena was
packed solid by this point, and the sun went down on a stageful of giant dice,
belching firepots, dancers and stuff blowing up. There were video clips;
banners; huge, flaming Xs for "Channel X" ... It makes sense that Zombie quit
the Family Values tour because of its quick turnover times. ("You can't build a
den of Satan and tear it down in five minutes.") Without his pyro he's got a good
CBGBs-grade rock band, but with it, he's got "Kiss Alive."

Even Kiss, though, once opened for Black Sabbath. This go-round is supposed to be
Sabbath's last ever with the Ozzy lineup, and it was a tremendous sendoff -- huge
and rich sounding, with all the hits. "War Pigs" led off, and from the first, it
was clear that Sabbath, well, rules for one thing. But also that they're more of
a hippy-trippy band with all the edges sharpened (like, say, Hawkwind on really
bad drugs) than a mean-ass hard-rock act. Ozzy has no mojo: He's a gawky,
childlike sort of character whose face shows the creases not of debauchery but of
lifelong confusion. Geezer Butler and Bill Ward still carry traces of the shuffly
syncopation of mid-period Pink Floyd. It's through Tony Iommi's scathing guitar
that the band's essential lopey-mopiness becomes creeping evil. Iommi's playing
was letter-perfect, and you could hear in it all the elements of grunge-to-be,
but also an awful lot that nobody has ever replicated: the tossed-off trills; the
liquid soloing; the instinct toward the grandiosely perverse that made,
say, "Iron Man" into something entirely different from the whiny Troggs song it
might've been. If there's a lesson in this year's Ozzfest, it's that essence
still has something over aspect -- whether you're marking Sabbath or Slayer (or
even Rob Zombie) against bands like hed (pe), or watching the Dudes of Jersey
Past slouch past the young guy smoothies who've taken their bio-niche. Or hooking
up with a Carnival of Perversity that promises you serious Mojo but just ends up
painting your boobs purple. Arrive late; keep your shirt on; bring lots of really
bad drugs.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Gavin McNett

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