What happens when autofiction meets doom metal? That’s the question Lee Klein poses in his new book Neutral Evil ))), inspired by a visit to a Sunn 0))) concert in Philadelphia in early 2017. As the book’s narrator takes in the concert’s atmosphere, he ponders questions of family, safety, and aging — a fascinating glimpse into a particular headspace surrounded by a fascinating sonic space.
The Jodhpur Problem, Or an Account of Waiting for the World’s Preeminent Drone-Doom Band to Take the Stage, March 18, 2017, in Philadelphia
I’m aware of my thoughts in a way that makes me aware that I haven’t been aware of my thoughts recently. They’ve been benevolently suppressed by routine, by action, or whenever they asserted themselves I elevated their status to that of a tweet, but in general I’m now beginning to realize that I haven’t been thinking, I haven’t had sufficient unoccupied free-range time alone to hear myself think, and now it seems I have an hour or more to myself in a crowd of mostly young men willing to pay $22 to stand and listen to super-loud low-frequency drone-doom minimalist-metal in a converted Spaghetti Warehouse.
I’ve taken a position against the southern wall of the lower level, close to a short hallway leading in either direction to sizeable, clean, gender-specific bathrooms to the east and west. Ahead of me on the other side of the entrance to the bathrooms there’s another riser along the wall that nearly reaches stage right (the left side of the stage if in front of the soundboard), where I’ve stood recently to watch Swans, Steve Gunn, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy with Bitchin Bajas, Sun Kil Moon. I like the elevated perspective more than the aristocratic view from the balcony where I’ve semi-recently seen Slint, Ariel Pink, Deerhunter, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs. I also want to see the crowd, not-yet anonymous torsos with the houselights up, the primarily white male crowd in their twenties and thirties, some wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with skulls, Misfits shirts, others more grungy with a ’70s rocker look like Lemmy, like stray motorcycle gang members who shred on vintage Gibson SGs, others older with gray in untrimmed beards wearing wool hats knitted by their wives’ mothers and fuzzy sweaters and thin rumpled blazers purchased at outlet stores outside Rehoboth Beach. Stray women in attendance seem like they’re here on dates that most likely won’t go well.
In the balcony I see from my vantage across the room through a thickening scrim of dry-ice smoke two couples who seem like legit rockers, the men with facial hair embodying 1975, leonine like the cruel pimp in Herzog’s “Stroszek,” with two women, one taller and skinnier, pale, gaunt, thick blond Scandinavian Iroquois braids on either side of her head, in overalls with what looks like nothing underneath, and another woman with a harder, more handsome face, stronger features, a well-defined jawline, and thick curls she every now and again flips back with a forearm covered in what looks like a brown-leather jacket with fringe along the arms like wings. She seems to hold my eye for what feels like a minute or more, although thanks to the distance there’s no way of knowing if she’s looking at me or someone near me or above me or the entrance to the bathroom, or maybe she’s watching me watching the two couples standing midway along the northern balcony, thinking they’re the representative citizens of the room who make the show feel legitimate because they look like real-deal young virile outlaws more than, for example, the guy three spots over along the narrow balcony away from the stage, a guy wearing an “Unsane” shirt, a middle-aged white guy of medium build and brownish-gray hair who really looks a lot like my friend Gibson. It could be him gesticulating, talking, explaining something, sort of holding court high above the floor of the reconstituted Spaghetti Warehouse now between bands, not that I want to catch his eye and wave and hang out with him since I’m savoring these rare island-like hours of solitude.
So isolated lately, immersed in the family unit, the domestic trio of father, mother, and daughter, not to mention cats, houseplants, appliances, books, records, instruments, all the miscellaneous items we own, so many recently acquired pieces of plastic for the sake of the child’s education and entertainment, hibernating through a warmer winter that included a seventy-degree week in February. My only friends still in town are England and Gibson. Everyone else moved away since Kali was born four years ago, particularly two good friends with whom I’d drink immoderately and invariably/inevitably talk about writing, books, literature, life. Now I see that it was preferred for me to focus on family, rediscover playing music, cool it with the recreational quaffing of fancy craft beer at home and whenever out on the town. Now I chew strawberry-orange Trident Layers gum and blow bubbles as big as my head that burst across my beard I then retract and chew some more before blowing another oversized bubble, chewing generously, extravagantly, almost like a jaw workout, as though for the first time figuring out what to do with the novelty of not drinking when alone out on the town at a show, positioned no more than fifteen or twenty feet from a not very busy bar. So tired of overpriced beers, not interested in intoxication or spending an additional $40 (five beers at $7 + $1 tip) on plastic cups of beer instead of a commemorative T-shirt, record, or CD to support the band. I wonder if Sunn O))) will pause mid-drone halfway through the show to introduce band members, including whoever’s running the dry-ice machine, salute the opener, say how much they love this city, joke about cheesesteaks or roast pork sandwiches or one of the sports teams, and then remind everyone they have stuff for sale over at the merch table and will be there hanging out after the show the way Michael Gira of Swans said something similar, producing unexpectedly affable and approachable stage rapport.
The edibles are proving efficacious. One of my daughter’s Sargento cheese sticks I consumed before the lollipop since the guy who gave me the lollipop said you need to eat some fat with it for it to really work. What a world: spicy cinnamon lollipops consumed after cheese sticks.
I enter notes into my phone’s Notes app and everyone around me must think I’m texting or tweeting, not knowing I’m leaning against the wall entertaining myself, leaving behind a trail of misspelled abstractions to decipher later, breadcrumbs to retrace my thoughts, aware that this could be a novel, as though I’m working on a novel now, conceiving it, recognizing the possibility of one when it appears in the wild, committing once again to fulfilling the need to create text from life and work on it daily and let it sit and work on it and let it sit like bread rising until the dough is ready to cook and consume. Every few minutes I flash open my phone in the dark and thumb something out, auto-SMSing myself.
I feel like that Francis Bacon painting I had in my room in high school and college, a hunter or lost hiker in the swirling primary-colored world of a Van Gogh imitation/homage, now also maybe an adequate representation of the individual in the echo chamber, as I lean against the southern wall of the venue’s back bar. I stood in the same spot for Swans over the summer. Soundwaves rippled through the air and I laughed as I held my palm to the vibrating wall. I could even feel the loose fabric around my knee agitated by extreme audio.
Conversations around me begin to achieve the tremolo of laughter. “The tremolo of laughter” I note into my phone, registering the back-and-forth inconstant velocity of surrounding voices as the former Spaghetti Warehouse converted into rock venue with a high vaulted ceiling and enormous wooden ceiling fan begins to fill with dry ice. The stage disappears in fog as I plan my move in advance should violence erupt.
If a gunman, a man with a gun, men with guns, women with guns, a single black mother with a machine gun and a bazooka, or an Italian grandmother from the old neighborhood runs into the main room from the primary entrance, pistols blaring, my best course of action would be to get down and move as fast I can into the corner where I’d be out of sight unless she enters from the bathrooms, in which case I would get down and hope she doesn’t spray bullets to her right.
If she enters from the bathrooms I would strongly prefer that she steps into the room and gets sucked into the gravity of the stage. If she stops a few paces into the room I will get down on hands and knees and make my way to the exit to the northeast and then book it to the front door or another set of bathrooms around the corner, hoping there’s an emergency exit that way. But if she comes from that direction and enters the main bar area from the back bar area, I will jump the railing in front of me, scamper up the riser along the southern wall and head toward the emergency exit that skirts stage right, assuming she’d be distracted by all the innocent people available to kill at the bar to the immediate north of the soundboard.
Or maybe instead it’d be Kali, Hindu goddess of creation and destruction, on a chain around her neck seventy-two shrunken heads of men with identical mustachioed facial features, brandishing a flaming sword in one hand, a full-sized decapitated head in the other dripping blood and gore, her skin a bright and unblemished blue like an indigenous occupant of Pandora, the environmentally endangered planet in “Avatar,” stepping on the chests of those she smites, posing for pictures with her tongue all the way out, her signature look, before she vanquishes everyone in the room too stunned by the spectacle of her appearance to absquatulate post-haste.
For my birthday six weeks ago Mamou presented me with a fabric depiction of Kali like an orchid in homicidal bloom that I hung next to my amplifier in the area in the back of our basement I converted into a cozy little cave for a middle-aged man to rock. I look up at it as I
play, the smiling mustachioed heads around her neck, the blue skin, the extended tongue evoking Gene Simmons of Kiss, bass player/“God of Thunder and Rock and Roll” in the first band I ever called myself a fan of as I collected all their records in the late ’70s. The fabric Kali tapestry is the perfect decoration for my little serial killer chill-out zone, with the wall behind me when I play covered in two Hieronymus Bosch posters, neither “The Garden of Early Delights.” Creation and destruction in eternal round, like light and darkness, life and death, the poles between which existence zaps back and forth.
On a Friday night in November not even two years ago, halfway through a concert by the Eagles of Death Metal, an ironic name that may have attracted sincere terrorists, at the Bataclan theatre in Paris, three men entered with AK47s and grenades and killed eighty-nine concertgoers of a crowd of about fifteen hundred. The survivors escaped through emergency exits, hid in bathroom stalls or under desks in the venue’s offices or fell to the ground and played dead. I doubt I would have acted like I’ve already been killed as so many around me were getting shot.
Dry ice fills the room and mixes with grenade and gunfire smoke, the smell of the slaughtered unintentionally shitting their pants, the enormous wooden fan overhead rotating slowly, obliviously, complicit somehow, not descending to decapitate the gunmen. It’s easy to imagine leaping over dividers and sprinting with head low and hands out along the floor to the nearest exit but the likely response would involve crumpling into the fetal position in the darkest, most protected corner of the room, making oneself as small as possible, exposing the least surface area to ricocheting bullets.
The time and place seem right for an attack, a spasm of unexpected violence, a fissure across the surface of a Saturday night with a doom drone band playing that wears monkish robes to minimize their presence and maximize a semi-humorous or at least self-aware and not super-serious medieval vibe (it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they lowered a miniature Stonehenge to the stage in the middle of the show).
The handsome woman in the fringed coat from the balcony makes her way through increasing clouds of dry ice and those standing in wobbly rows in front of the bar. She passes me and opens her mouth in a silent dragon howl, like she’s warding me off, creating room for her to maneuver through the crowd. Or maybe it’s a yawn I register for a split second as she moves through eerie artificial cloud, a weird reptilian defensive expression against the admiration of men, or maybe it’s just a facial tic? I blend my split-second impression of her into the imaginary terrorist coming from the bar entrance, which in turn I blend into an image of Kali the Destructor with seventy-two identical mustachioed heads around her neck, although no tongue.
She’s much shorter than she seemed high above standing in the balcony, now already disappeared through the crowd and into the bathroom hallway area, not that I’m out tonight roaming solo intent on pairing up with short women in fringed leather jackets with yawning reptilian facial tics. I’m not suffering from decreased libido, or I should say that my libido, once indomitable and in control, has decreased, and its attenuation comes with decreased suffering thanks to decreased desire. Also, generally, if one were interested in an in-person live-action interhuman encounter that leads to no-strings-attached groping and conceivably intercourse (well-protected, with no chance of conception or STD transmission), I can’t think of a worse place to seek and secure such activity than a Sunn O))) show. The only worse place for a middle-aging man to meet a willing woman would maybe be a Sunn O))) show on a snowy mid-winter weekday night instead of a warming Saturday night in early spring.
When I first moved to Philadelphia more than ten years ago the newspapers were calling the city Killadelphia. Hundreds were shot each year, mostly young black men in drug-related battles in peripheral neighborhoods. The streets were empty at night. Except for a few pedestrian thoroughfares, no one was on the streets, so if you were walking home from a show or a bar or a date late it’d just be an empty block ahead, nearly silent beyond the distant city hum, and if someone were coming blocks ahead, the prudent thing to do would be to cross the street well in advance. I’d often see people cross to the other side of the street as I advanced toward them, as though I were the adversary, the potential mugger, the senseless murderer. I liked thinking that someone found my presence up ahead intimidating enough to cross the street or maybe more so the approaching pedestrian only wanted to avoid the inevitable awkwardness of nodding hello or more likely acknowledging another’s existence by respectfully ignoring that existence.
A woman exists near me. Her pants are made of a type of synthetic fabric that wiggles when one walks. The pants are loose along most of the legs and flare at the thigh in an old-timey militaristic way, but not around the lower curves of her posterior. I Google “thigh flared riding pants” and discover that she’s wearing a contemporarily upgraded jodhpur, which originated in India centuries ago, became popular in the West through the sport of polo, and were part of the uniform for the Women’s Land Army during World War II. They definitely have a sporty militaristic equestrian vibe to them. Jodhpurs. Huh. I turn toward the bar and note a man seated at a table behind me on a bar stool-type chair, slouched in his seat, arms folded like a connoisseur assessing some delicacy when really he’s just mesmerized by the jodhpurs, and he nods at me, like yeah, check that out, which disturbs me and turns my sight around in an instant, as though the imagined terrorists just appeared on stage for real.
It’s fine for me to eat half a cookie and a lollipop and come alone to a Saturday night Sunn O))) show since I’m one-hundred percent impervious to lechery. No matter how seriously addled with orally consumed tetrahydrocannabinol, no one really makes me feel uncomfortable. Wherever I choose to stand, I am not ocularly caressed by men who need to actively look away from some strong attractant in my jodhpurs, responding to an ancient mating cue biologically embedded in them by nature, controlled by it as though the universe manipulated the dials on their desire to ensure propagation of the species. Now I have to think about this guy behind me all night, the woman to my right in the ecstatic jodhpurs, the triangle we compose, its angles electrified by the intensity of the guy behind me staring at the woman in the jodhpurs, the intensity of the presence of the woman in the jodhpurs, the intensity with which I focus on the limited action on the stage, this unintentional process-based performance art involving roadies setting up as endless clouds of dry ice flow in thicker emissions over the wall of massive speaker cabinets.
Since graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2006, Lee Klein’s stories, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Harper’s, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. He is the author of JRZDVZ (Sagging Meniscus), The Shimmering Go Between (Atticus Books) and Thanks + Sorry + Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox (Barrelhouse Books), and translator of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (New Directions), for which he received a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award. He lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and daughter.