Sweating Bullets: Reflections on Experience with Live Music

I’ve seen a number of shows in my time, though they tend to be metal shows because I’m a little biased in favor of the surrounding musical culture.  I will say that I think live music of any sort is better, even when its not to my taste, because of the contextual details.  I love the energy of the crowd.  In a way that I’m sure many of you have experienced for yourselves, I feed off of it.  It is better than any drug, more satisfying than any sex, and I think there’s something to that.  Perhaps I’m just odd, but a corner of my brain is always observing human behavior, especially at events that involve the consummate loss of self that often occurs at shows.  I’ve likened it to events as old as human society itself–the ecstatic release of tensions, yielding of burdens–experience of the quasi-magical ritualistic realm, born of a deep, wordless need to let go.


What Happened on the Killing Road

My best friend and I have had many adventures, most of which involve the grocery store.  One day some years ago, she proposed that we travel to Norfolk for the last American show of the United Abominations tour.  And so we did.  For those of you who don’t care for Megadeth, you’re probably still familiar with some of their music, because it’s been consistently sampled over the last few decades–from movies and video games to commercials and the bygone Mtv News intro, their highly complex music is a part of Western pop culture.

We didn’t drive straight from Atlanta, but detoured through western Tennessee in order to visit with some of her family.  Because this necessitated some substantial detours, we were able to see parts of Virginia I’d never visited.  These memories are incredibly precious, and they are forever wedded to my experience of that amazing performance–one of the better live shows I’ve seen to date.  They involve things like the gales of laughter over the sign for HUNGRY MOTHER (state park), which is part of the Shenandoah State Park expanse in Virginia.

When we arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, the most important thing we absolutely had to do was drive through the subterranean tunnel–several times.  I’ll never forget her delight over it, and it made the trip special that I was able to witness that level of carefree enjoyment.  We attended the concert, enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and returned to the ordinary currents of life–which seemed a bit more lackluster than they had before.  At the same time, I had more patience for them precisely because I had attended the concert.


The Ecstatic Relishing

As I said, I tend to be biased in favor of heavy metal shows, and that has as much to do with the fact that heavy metal is the music of unbridled rebellion as it does the music itself.  There’s a good bit of anthropological theory embedded in the study of the musical culture, use of specific chord progressions and heaviness, and the choice of topics addressed by heavy metal, as well as all derivative stylistic differentiations (e.g. speed metal, thrash, black etc.) Megadeth tends to be deeply sociopolitical in its message–if you can look beyond Killing is My Business, that is.  I won’t say I agree with all of Dave Mustaine’s political stances or actions, but I do admire him for sticking to his philosophies.

When I attend a Megadeth show, I note the crafted build-up of tension in their songs.  I watch the people around me, noting their loss of composure, their release of energy through motion, and their show of adoration, which often borders on ecstatic worship.  They shout the lyrics, move to the rhythm, and many of them observe the rules of etiquette intrinsic to many of the older metal style–they may kick the shit out of you in the mosh pit, but they’ll help you up when you fall.  There’s a code of conduct that you breach at your own peril, because it is strictly enforced by other concert goers.

While I no longer dare the pit myself, I have plumbed those sensuous depths of release and revelry myself, and there is a profoundly purgative energy in it.  The band is screaming for you.  It’s also a venue in which it is entirely acceptable to scream and thrash, to be violent within limits, to expurgate the demons of daily frustrations and ennui of repressed creative energy.  I always come away from the concert, exhausted but riding a high that will last for days.  I leave the concert soaked in sweat, and maybe a little blood if I’ve been too near the pit.  I never have any voice afterward, because I’ve screamed myself raw, and my very awareness feels dilated.


What other life event has the power to do these things, to leave us energized and yet wrung with the sweat of intense effort?  If you’re a professional athlete, you might say an intense workout or an arduous competition.  For the rest of us, the answer is the sex act.  I’d be willing to argue that the communal release of energy we experience at an intense live music event is akin to that most vital goad of Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Even when I don’t particularly favor the music, if the crowd’s intensity is high, I’ll derive almost as much enjoyment from it as I would from a concert of my choosing.  Then again, I take balcony seats at the symphony or opera, because I’ve no doubt I’ll writhe in my chair and loll backward at some point–it’s just a basic part of how I experience music.


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