Monday, July 21, 2008

A Heavy Metal Elegy for Joey

Joey (right) eyes the stacks at Real Groovy in Wellington, New Zealand (2003)

A couple days ago, my good friend Joey Lutz died. He was wading in shallow water at a beach in northern Panama when a wave swept him away and he was dragged underwater. In my mind, he died heroically - he was standing erect, defying that wave to do its worst. I imagine him contemplating how happy he was to be in such an exotic place in the minutes before it happened. Joey took nothing for granted. We first started hanging out in New Zealand in 2003 on separate study abroad programs, just two pensive Jewish kids from Los Angeles in the most beautiful country on earth. He was the one that learned to drive reverse stick-shift so that we could get out of Wellington for the day and explore the less populated areas. He tried (and failed) to make inroads in the Kiwi standup comedy circuit, just because. And he was always appreciative of the simple joy of grabbing a pint of Tui after class. 

Joey (center) poses with his barbershop quartet, which he wanted me to join

After we returned from New Zealand, Joey remained an infrequently seen but extremely valued friend to me. We hiked, went to lunch, chatted about our parallel relationship triumphs and woes. He took me to my first reggae concert. In exchange, I introduced him to Mayhem, Emperor and Dissection. I always left his company lightened, smarter, smilier. When I was with Joey I could just be. And maybe because his role in my life was as a friend whose philosophies and quiet strengths I admired, rather than as a constant companion, the pain I feel at his loss isn't a sharp pain - it's a dull ache, an absence where there once was possibility. 

Metal pumps me up. It helps me unwind. It stimulates me intellectually. It conveys the sorts of emotion that I don't express myself. But there are a few things for which I would not think of turning to metal, and consolation while I mourn for Joey is one of them. To be sure, the metal community has shown strong support for its departed sons. Think of those who still mourn for Cliff Burton, all of the fundraisers and benefit concerts held for Chuck Schuldiner before and after he died of brain cancer, the outpouring of love and support for Dimebag Darrell following his murder, the on-stage shout-outs that death metal bands gave to Decapitated's drummer Vitek after the bus accident that killed him. But when it comes to manifesting this support, this desire to memorialize in musical form, there are precious few examples of metal songs that get it right. 

Sorrow and absence feature heavily into the work of classic gothic doom bands like Katatonia and My Dying Bride, who prize existential loneliness as the highest virtue. That's not where I'm at though. That kind of introverted sorrow, projected outward in mopey roars and slow tempos, seems selfish in the face of actual death. It wallows in self-pity instead of suggesting the difficult path towards making meaning out of the loss of another. Death metal strikes me as having the opposite problem. So much of it takes takes an analytical approach towards death -- Carcass describes how it happens biologically, Slayer criticizes those that make it happen, Deicide and Immolation explain why Christ deserves it -- that there is little room to explore any emotional reaction. With the exception of anger of course, but as unfair as it is that Joey left this earth too early, anger isn't part of the way I process his death. The cold-blooded surge of death metal feels too aggressive to me to connote the sadness of loss.

And still, taken on their own terms, the following metal songs deal sensitively, I think, with the pain of loss in a way that is uniquely metal. I offer up this virtual Heavy Metal Elegy mix for my good friend Joey Lutz. May he be carried aloft by a storm of guttural vocals and spiraling guitar solos on his way to the other side.  May he rest in peace.

Pantera - "Cemetery Gates" from Cowboys From Hell (Lyrics)

Testament - "Afterlife" from Formation of Damnation (Lyrics)

Kingdom of Sorrow - "Screaming Into the Sky" from Kingdom of Sorrow (Lyrics)

Death - "Open Casket" from Leprosy (Lyrics)

Black Label Society - "In This River" (dedicated to Dimebag Darrell) (Lyrics)

Aletheian - "An Open Grave" from Dying Vine (Lyrics)

Side B:

Zao - "A Fall Farewell" from When Blood and Fire Bring Rest (Lyrics)

Hate Eternal - "Tombeau" from Fury & Flames (Lyrics)

Thank you to Greg Burk and Keith Emrick for their helpful suggestions about what to include.

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