Sam Peckinpah’s CROSS OF IRON (1977)

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Good kill.”

With these words, Sam Peckinpah opens up thoughts and discourse in his 1977 war film, CROSS OF IRON. These are the first words spoken by the main character, played by James Coburn, and they don’t happen until around the 7 minute and 40 second mark. Prior to this we are given one of the greatest opening credit sequences, and then a stealth mission where we follow the main characters as they quietly sneak up on an enemy bunker team and eliminate them.

This line is much like the iconic one in Peckinpah’s 1969 western classic, THE WILD BUNCH, where the main character simply says, “Let’s go.” There is a whole lot more weight and meaning and unspoken choices when William Holden says this line, as anyone who has seen THE WILD BUNCH knows. He repeats that line several times in the film, but when he says it in that solemn quiet moment before the long walk to the notorious finale of the movie, it burns into your memory. It has been ranked as one the greatest movie quotes of all time, along with the even more famous, “If they move….kill ’em.”

The skill of the credit sequence

While some directors view the opening credit sequence as a necessary evil where they list all involved as quickly as they can, Peckinpah considers it an art form. It often becomes a mini-movie by itself, and perfectly sets the stage and back story for the film to come. I recommend THE WILD BUNCH, PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID, THE GETAWAY, CROSS OF IRON, and JUNIOR BONNER for examples of his stellar opening sequences. Lesser directors would just take the lazy road by adding a narration that explains the set up and history, or even a title card to catch the viewer up. Peckinpah tells us more about the characters, backgrounds, motivations, and mood in those first few minutes than some directors tell us in their entire film. And he does it in an entertaining way that drops us right into the story.

The genius opening credit sequence in CROSS OF IRON is as good or better than the one in Peckinpah’s 1972 film, THE GETAWAY. That one is an 8.5-minute-long masterclass in editing and storytelling with very little dialogue.  In CROSS OF IRON, black and white newsreel footage of young German children is cross-cut with real archival World War 2 footage. He shows us artillery shellings, Nazi flags, marching soldiers, and corpses on the ground. A young choir sings a children’s song juxtaposed with footage of Hitler Youth Groups. The sing-song children’s playground tune alternates with ominous orchestral film music. At the end of each verse in the child’s song the image freezes and the screen turns red, while the music switches to a more typical movie score. Some horn fanfare finds its way into the soundtrack. We are shown images of tanks, executions, rifles firing, grenades exploding, and Adolf Hitler himself appearing rather childish.

The images of children in this opening, and during the film itself, are key. It is no accident that Peckinpah collated so much newsreel footage with children’s faces listening to speeches and shaking Hitler’s hand. He wants to show us that impressionable young children are always watching and being influenced by the violence that us adults participate in and tolerate. Violence is normalized and children grow up to take part in their own violence in some way. A child character plays an important role in the film itself. And various characters behave in a very childish manner. Some characters are immature and petty, petulant and selfish. Others are just uneducated and crass. Others exist solely for the brotherhood of it all. Some play games and sing songs of childhood. The whole idea of war as teenage draftees (kids) forced to go out and run around in fields with guns, is much like how little kids would play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. We evolve from elementary school playground games with imaginary guns to actual battlefields with weapons that maim and kill. Peckinpah also dealt with the impact of kids watching violence in The Wild Bunch. After the initial massacre in that film, the kids run around pointing their fingers at each other making ‘bang-bang’ noises, emulating the actual shootout they just witnessed. They also put some scorpions in a container with thousands of ants and watch the battle to the death.

This opening newsreel sequence of CROSS OF IRON goes on for almost 4 minutes before Sam starts inserting footage of his actors in their German uniforms. It’s easy to miss just when the footage changes from actual war footage from the later 30’s and early 40’s to the footage he shot for this movie in 1976. He did a great job of matching the darkness and grain. James Coburn leads his team through the forest on a stealth mission. We travel with them through smoke-filled trees as if in a dream. This entire scene is done without music. The only music is birds, the Russian radio chatter, and more importantly the distant sound of the enemy mortar firing. As they move closer to the enemy camp this drum-like mortar sound gets louder and louder in the mix, just like it would to the German soldiers. I remember being very impressed with this sound design the first time I saw this movie, and I still am each time I watch it. The team silently approaches three sentries, keeps their horses quiet, and takes them out in such a way that they do not make any noise as they die to alert the mortar team. Coburn’s team uses a knife, a garrote, and their bare hands to kill the guards. They then quietly approach the bunker, which has mortars and a heavy machine gun on a tripod. They surprise the Russian bunker with grenades and machine guns of their own. The first usage of Peckinpah’s trademark slow motion camerawork happens in this scene. He was a master at showing the poetry of violence, finding strange beauty in the dance of death. Bodies twisting as they react to gunfire in the choreographed ballet of bullets.

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Once the Russian mortar team is eliminated, Coburn’s character Steiner surveys the bodies and says, “Good kill.” This could mean many different things and be interpreted several different ways. It could mean that it was a good kill because all enemies were killed without any suffering. It could mean that no enemy got away, or was able to notify others on the radio. It could mean it was a justified killing based on previous actions of the enemy. It could mean it was a clean or righteous kill as in an act of revenge. It could mean that their aim was solid and the bullet holes were all at the center-of-mass chest area. It could even mean that it was just simply fun for them.

I defy anyone to watch the first 8 minutes of this film and not be stricken by how well done it is. I’ll even go further and say that you won’t be able to stop watching the film after watching the opening credits/stealth mission sequence. Peckinpah always had a skill for sucking viewers into the movie from the openings alone.

Synopsis

This is an unusual film in that it told from the point of view of German soldiers. We follow their story as they battle against the Russian army near the end of the war in 1943. Except for Wolfgang Petersen’s amazing 1981 German film DAS BOOT, I can’t think of many other movies told from the German’s point of view. I don’t want to spend too much time on plot synopsis, mainly because I just want you to watch the film and be swept away by it. But briefly, James Coburn is a Sergeant in the German army leading a small squad in the retreat from the Russian Front. Maximilian Schell plays Stransky, an arrogant Captain transferred to be his new commander. Stransky is mainly concerned with earning himself the Iron Cross medal, even though he isn’t really a soldier. He lacks the experience, courage, and bravery to realistically accomplish this trite and selfish goal. James Mason and David Warner play other officers in the German army.

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Telling the story from the viewpoint of weary German soldiers seems unusually bold, but after a few minutes the audience buys into it. Sam takes any allegiances or politics out of it and it just becomes a story about soldiers in war. There’s no nationalism or clichés. The issues, problems, intense decisions, bureaucracy, and death that they face are universal to soldiers of any army. You end up sympathizing with them because they are soldiers in hellish conditions, not because they are ‘the enemy.’  There is only one point in the film, near the end, where the characters do acknowledge their particular place in 20th century history. Steiner says to his squad, “Germany. Do you think they will ever forgive us for what we’ve done? Or forget us?”

Children going to war

Besides the repeated footage of children in the masterful opening credit sequence, CROSS OF IRON is full of children and references to children. The recurring motif of children being sent to fight older men’s wars is present in both CROSS OF IRON and DAS BOOT.
This exchange from DAS BOOT comes to mind:

Captain: Take pictures of the crew returning, not putting out to sea.
Lt. Werner: Why?
Captain: They’ll have grown beards by then. It would shame the Tommies to see mere boys give them hell. Baby faces. Ones that should still suck mama’s breast.
I feel ancient around these kids, like I’m on some Children’s Crusade.

A line in CROSS OF IRON directly connects with this scene when a grizzled warrior presents the new clean-shaven teenage recruit and says, “They’re sending us babies now.”

More scenes dealing with children in war happen early in the film. We are shown a dead teenage soldier with his arm presumably blown off from the grenades that they just lobbed into the bunker. Coburn’s character Steiner says, “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.” A moment later a member of his team captures an even younger Russian boy. The boy reached into his pocket and a soldier raises his gun. Steiner says, “Put it down…” and shows us a line that he won’t cross, even though others have. The boy was just reaching for his harmonica, which he beings to play. Perhaps trying to save his own life by communicating through music. They don’t get approval from their superiors, there is no discussion, Steiner just says, “And bring him with us.”

When Stransky finds out about the Russian prisoner he orders Steiner to shoot him due to their policy of not taking prisoners. The boy, who looks about 12, only speaks Russian so he does not understand the order Stransky is giving. The team member in charge of the boy says that he will go take care of it and walks off with him, deceiving Stransky and saving the boy’s life. He then walks him down into their underground bunk house and quarters and the boy is essentially adopted into their team. The Russian boy becomes a helper to the German squad. A wartime foster kid.

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The next day the team is drinking coffee preparing for the day’s mission and Corporal Schnurrbart randomly asks Steiner about his kids. This give us some of the only back story and motivation for his taking on the young Russian boy.

Schnurrbart: “Do you ever think about your children?”
Steiner: “Always.”
Schnurrbart: “Where are they?”
Steiner: “I don’t know.”

Steiner then sees the Russian boy walk by him wearing a German Stahlhelm (helmet) and jacket. He stops him and removes both, revealing the Russian uniform the boy was originally wearing. He says, “Take off one uniform, there’s always another one underneath.” Steiner walks the boy out through the mist-shrouded barbwire fences to release him. Perhaps based on guilt, his own missing kids, or an inability to keep the boy safe, he decides to free him and tells him to go home. The boy gives Steiner his harmonica and runs off into the forest.

Much later, near the end of the film, the squad is trying to return from behind enemy lines and a teenage solider is found hopping oddly around the grass. He explains that it’s a children’s game where you try not to step on the spots where the sunlight beams touch the ground. It is supposed to bring good luck, and if he only steps on the shadows they might all get through all right. Silly superstitions like avoiding stepping on sidewalk cracks so you don’t break your Mother’s back. The games of our youth being relied upon to ward off death.

Connections

As I recently rewatched Cross of Iron I noticed numerous specific connections to other war films.

A) DAS BOOT (1981)

The other major film that is told from the German soldier’s point of view is DAS BOOT, with which CROSS OF IRON shares many similarities. The cramped underground bunkers in Peckinpah’s film remind me of the claustrophobic interior of the German submarine in DAS BOOT. The forced happiness with meals and drinking to kill time between attacks. The constant mortar shell explosions that disrupt and terrify the soldiers in the underground bunkers is very similar to the depth charges that detonate in the water around the submarine. The brotherhood and love among the soldiers. The notable youth and inexperience of these soldiers that we expect to make intense life-or-death decisions on a dime in wartime. Even just everyone looking haggard and tired, covered in dust and sweat and wearing beards.

B) APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

There are several scenes showing Captain Stransky flinching at mortar explosions while the other seasoned soldiers do not. This is a great visual way to quickly show us that this man doesn’t have the experience and isn’t a soldier. He is a desk sitter, an aristocrat, an officer who likely got promoted due to his connections rather than any battlefield victories. This reminds me of the classic scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam 1979 war epic APOCALYPSE NOW. Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) stands on the beach shirtless among the explosions around him. He doesn’t flinch at all while everyone around him drops to the ground to take cover. This is the same scene where he makes his most famous line about loving the smell of napalm in the morning. It’s the reverse of the Cross of Iron scene. It shows us that Kilgore is a very seasoned soldier, accustomed to constant nearby explosions, immune to any fear of them, and perhaps overconfident and a bit crazy. He thrives in the chaos and imminent death, which makes him perfect out in the field.

My friends might tease me for comparing every movie I ever watch to Apocalypse Now, since that’s my favorite war film ever made, and honestly my favorite film (tied with Blade Runner). But in this instance the comparisons are completely valid. I don’t think Coppola would have seen Cross of Iron even though it came out two years prior to Apocalypse Now. Coppola was deep in the Philippines jungle for almost 2 years filming Apocalypse Now under unbelievably challenging conditions. Please watch his wife Eleanor Coppola’s amazing 1991 documentary called HEARTS OF DARKNESS for the account of that troubled production. I think that the shared flinching/not flinching scenes just show that both directors hit upon a universal symbol of inexperience/experience with war.

Another connection to Apocalypse Now is some dialogue discussing war itself. In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kilgore says, “Someday this war’s gonna end….”
He doesn’t explain himself, but I feel that there are so many unspoken sentiments when he says that line. I think his character actually enjoys the freedom and chaos of war, so he is almost mourning that this war will eventually end. When else in a man’s life can he be master of his own violent destiny, killing other men with the blessing of your government and no real repercussions? The thought of returning stateside to some office job as a cog in the corporate machine would be hell to soldiers like these. Since the ultra masculine John Milius wrote the script, I am certain that is what he was going for with this. Kilgore is wistful and sad about the prospect of this coming to an end. Ironically, the Vietnam War is a war that went on and on and on, without a distinct ending or conclusion.

In Cross of Iron, Steiner has this small speech to his squad which exemplifies the ideas above:

“To tell you the truth I’m beginning to enjoy it. What do you want? Sitting in some mud hole somewhere waiting for the top of your head to be blown off? At least here we’re free.”

We also have this bit of dialogue between Nurse Eva and Coburn’s Steiner character:

Steiner: “I’m going back.”
Eva: “I thought you were going back home.”
Steiner: “I have no home.”
Eva: “Do you love the war so much?
Is that…..is that what’s wrong with you, Steiner?
Or are you afraid of what you’ll be without it?”

What do hardened killers do once they return back to the normal world? Are you able to change back into who you were before you killed men with machine guns, bayonets, knives, or your bare hands? I don’t think so. I think you put on a mask and try to keep the killer within you at bay. Reintegration back into the world after being a soldier has been the subject of so many great films from THE DEER HUNTER to TAXI DRIVER. ROLLING THUNDER, FIRST BLOOD, COMING HOME, AMERICAN SNIPER, and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY all tackle this topic. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES might have been the first film to deal with this topic back in 1946. War changes you into somebody else and you are never the same again.

One of the best lines from Cross of Iron is the moment between the James Mason and David Warner characters:

Colonel Brandt: What will we do when we have lost the war?
Captain Keisel: Prepare for the next one.

The perfectly sums up the themes of the perpetuity of war, the military-industrial complex, and the inherent war-like nature of mankind.

There is another shared scene between Cross of Iron and Apocalypse Now. In both films the main character is part of a dinner scene that is alien to them. Our protagonist is put into a meeting or social dinner with people who are far removed from the grimy reality of soldiering. In Apocalypse Now the men who assign the mission to Captain Willard are eating shrimp and roast beef and other delicacies that he is unaccustomed to, as evidenced by the expressions on his face. Soldiers typically eat MRE rations and whatever they can scrape together. The bureaucrats eat seafood prepared for them by servants. In Cross of Iron Steiner is injured in battle and convalesces in a military hospital. There is a dinner with many visiting officials in the German military looking for photo ops with the healing soldiers. The officers and aristocrats eat similar delicacies that the hoi polloi and soldiers would never be offered. Cooked whole pigs, chickens, and rabbits. They remove these items into the ‘private dining room’ and leave the vegetables to the regular guests. The scene is edited in a way that makes the people seem animalistic as they feast, tearing apart the vegetables and lettuce and splashing wine into their mouths. Both scenes use extreme closeups of the food and sound effects of forks and lips smacking to enhance the strangeness of it all.

And to return again to the recurring motif of children in these war movies, Apocalypse Now opens with Jim Morrison hauntingly singing these perfectly fitting lyrics from The Doors classic song, “The End.”

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all of the children are insane

C) SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)

Steven Spielberg is a fan of all films, so I am certain that he watched Cross of Iron. He was definitely influenced by it, and put numerous connections and similarities in his 1998 war masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan.

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The way Spielberg uses tanks at the final battle definitely reminds you of Cross of Iron. He makes the tanks animal-like with the huge roaring of their engines and squeaking of the tank treads. The rumbling of the tank movement builds tension just like Peckinpah’s film did. There are certain shots that I believe Spielberg directly replicated as an homage to Cross of Iron. Several scenes in Cross of Iron have a tank climbing up a ridge and coming over the top of our protagonists in the trenches. The tank then crosses the trench. There are scenes exactly like this with Matt Damon and Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan that are very intense, and I think a tribute to Peckinpah’s tank battle. Another famous scene in SPR is where they improvise and make ‘sticky-bombs,’ This is where they take a sock and put composition B (explosives) into it, then slather it with axle grease. They add a fuse and throw these onto the tank wheels to blow off the tank treads. In Cross of Iron James Coburn’s character grabs a bunch of land mines and places them directly on the tank treads of an enemy tank that is stalled over a trench. Once it begins to move again it detonates the mines, destroying the entire tank. The trench warfare in both films is chaotic and brutal and frenetic, just as I imagine it would actually be.

There is also a scene in Cross of Iron where a soldier collects a sniper rifle off of a dead enemy and is looking through the sights trying it out. He makes a quiet firing noise with his mouth and is then surprised by an actual explosion nearby. This is reminiscent of the scene in SPR where Tom Hanks is firing his pistol at an approaching tank and is surprised by a much louder artillery explosion.

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The idea of killing a prisoner of war is deftly debated in SPR, and it is dealt with in Cross of Iron as well. Tom Hanks and his team capture a German soldier and, after much debate, let him go. James Coburn and his team capture a Russian youth and, after adopting him into their group, let him go. In both cases their decision comes back to haunt them. The entire crux of SPR is why a group of men should risk all of their lives for the rescue of one other man? It’s one thing if it’s brotherhood, and you are going through high risk to rescue one of your own. But in SPR it is for a total stranger. His only reason for getting out is that his 3 other brothers have already died in the war and the government wants to get him out before he is also killed. But does that make his life more important than the soldiers currently trying to save him? In COI there are several instances of putting the group at risk for the benefit of a higher ranking official. Why are the officer’s lives deemed more valuable than the soldier’s lives? The aristocrats and government bureaucrats that never see the battlefield are shielded from any danger while they order men to their deaths.

I also would say that some of the nice little artistic touches of visual poetry that Spielberg added in to SPR are much like the ones Peckinpah put in his film. There is a shot of the squad walking across a field at night with artillery shell explosions briefly lighting everything up. We see the silhouettes of the soldiers walking through a surreal environment strangely lit by markers of war. Spielberg adds dead fish on the beach after the stunning D-Day invasion of Normandy battle, their silver bodies reflecting the light like daggers. The squad finds a phonograph in the rubble and listen to a song by Edith Piaf as one of them deciphers her French lyrics. A beautiful moment of soldiers appreciating music and culture before the horrors of war return.  In another classic Spielberg touch, he focuses on green leaves as they start to get hit by raindrops. The sounds of the raindrops are subtly mixed with gunfire and explosions as we cut to the next battle scene. This is a genius linking of two scenes. Nature and beauty juxtaposed with violence and death.
This visual poetry is the subject of the next section.

Visual poetry on film

Some of the most striking scenes in this film don’t actually do anything to propel the story along. But they end up being the moments that stay in your brain long after the credits roll. These scenes are all dialogue-free, showing the power of visual poetry. I am certain that Peckinpah, and other great directors, fought for their little touches of poetic beauty when studio executives wanted them cut out. Here are my favorite little moments from Cross of Iron that elevate it far above any other war film.

A German soldier cooking the group meal in their underground bunker pops open a bottle of wine. Just as the cork pops and we expect to hear that familiar sound, Peckinpah cuts away to a scene of mortar shells exploding. He matches the sound of a mortar explosion where the cork pop should have been.

A dead soldier is face down in a pond and blood from his mouth slowly flows into the muddy water.

Three soldiers are crawling through the tall grass to stay out of sight. The camera is up above them looking down, so we can see the trails that their bodies leave behind.

During a battle a soldier is flung into the air by a mortar shell. While in midair his body is punctured by shrapnel from the explosion. We see blood splashes at the entrance point and the exit point before he lands on a barbwire fence. Peckinpah was the master of using blood squibs for realistic bullet wounds in his westerns. Here he upgrades it for shrapnel trauma and gore.

A dead soldier’s body laying on a muddy road is run over by a jeep. His body has been there a long time, and there is so much chaos that nobody has had time to remove him from the path. This scene was replicated exactly in the 2014 war film FURY. It had better be an intentional homage, otherwise the Peckinpah estate should sue.

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A high level official goes to shake the hand of a soldier at a military hospital dinner. The officer reaches for the wounded soldier’s hand and sees that his hand has been amputated. He moves to shake the soldier’s left hand and that hand too has been amputated. The soldier, sitting in a wheelchair, defiantly raises his foot to the officer for him to shake.

We see a white screen with no context and no sound. After a few seconds we recognize it as fog. As the fog and smoke clears, we see a stationary tank sitting like an animal waiting for a clear path of vision. This is such a dramatic reveal, and a great way to begin the thrilling tank battle. Quick cuts show about a dozen tanks waiting to attack.

This tank assault late in the film is one of the most thrilling sequences in the movie. A tank blasts a hole in the concrete wall of the factory where our protagonists are hiding. The camera holds on the blank wall and the hole. Slowly the turret of the tank pokes through the hole as the tank advances. Much like a submarine periscope surveying the inside. Then the tank pushes through and knocks the whole wall down in glorious slow motion.

Conclusion

Peckinpah liked working with the same actors from film to film. He essentially had a company of actors that appeared in many of his films including Steve McQueen, Jason Robards, Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Slim Pickens, and others. He wisely chose James Coburn to star in three of his films: Major Dundee, Pat Garett and Billy the Kid, and Cross of Iron. I think that his performance as Steiner in Cross of Iron is his greatest of the three, even more haunting that his Pat Garett role. He perfectly embodies the weary soldier who doesn’t believe in the war or the cause any longer. But he forges on because it’s all he knows, he needs it, and he is good at it. Much like the characters in The Wild Bunch, they are men out of time, confronting their own impending obsolescence in a changing world.

I think this weary speech that James Coburn gives is one of the greatest acting moments of his career.

Steiner:
Don’t think that just because you and Colonel Brandt are more enlightened than most officers that I hate you any less.
I hate all officers. All the Stranskys, all the Treibigs, all the Iron Cross scavengers in the whole German army.
Do you know how much I hate this uniform, and everything it stands for? God!

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Peckinpah is most famous for his work in westerns. Cross of Iron is his only war film, and it is also his last great film. He sadly spiraled out of control due to alcohol and drugs, getting himself kicked off as many projects as he landed, and getting blacklisted for several years. He continually fought with executives and producers, and pissed off the wrong people. His talent cannot be denied, and when he was functional and at the top of his game he couldn’t be matched. I’m sad that his self-destructive streak robbed us of numerous potential films after his death in 1984. This is one of the greatest war films ever made, and is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made as well. Cross of Iron is Peckinpah’s final masterpiece and deserves to be seen and recognized as such.

“And I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow.”

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BUG (2006)

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Paranoia is contagious.
Absolutely goddamned right.

Bug, the 2006 movie from William Friedkin, dives into paranoia like the films of my childhood. It deserves a spot on the shelf next to classic paranoia films of the 70’s like The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, Capricorn One, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Marathon Man, and The China Syndrome. Moving into the 80’s, we’ve got to add in the 1981 Brian De Palma classic Blowout. I grew up watching these films on TV, probably too young to really even comprehend some of the overreaching conspiracy theories being presented. But I loved them all. The idea that the agencies supposedly there to protect us could be nefarious and hiding their own crimes fascinated me. Most of these films also have an ambiguous, or decidedly depressing ending. As a kid, I was used to the Hollywood movies where the good guys always won out and the bad guys didn’t get away with it. Not so with 70’s conspiracy cinema. To quote another of my favorite films, Katherine Bigelow’s 1995 movie Strange Days, “The issue’s not whether you’re paranoid, Lenny, I mean look at this shit, the issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.”

I absolutely love William Friedkin. While he admittedly has some failures, when he is great he is the best. My favorite horror film ever made is The Exorcist (1973). This is the titan among horror films that has lost none of its power to disturb and rattle the viewer. I also love his tense adventure film Sorcerer (1977). This remake of Wages of Fear is gritty and mesmerizing. Had it not come out within 2 weeks of a little sci-fi film called Star Wars, it would have done much better at the box office and received more acclaim. The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die (1985) set the tone and the high mark for realistic police dramas. These four movies are my top Friedkin films. His early career in making documentaries helped give him a detailed realism to his all of his subsequent films. I love watching the interviews with him and listening to the director’s commentaries. He is a fascinating subject. Hell, I even love the way he speaks. His cadence, his accent, the way he delivers his stories to us. I also highly recommend reading his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir.

I’m now adding Bug to this ranking of my top Friedkin movies. This film is somewhat of a departure for Friedkin. Instead of the stunning location shooting he did in Sorcerer and his other films, he is relegated to filming this entire movie in one small seedy hotel room. It looks and feels like a play because it is indeed based on a play. Michael Shannon portrayed the lead character in the play for years, and was the perfect person to play this character in the film. The playwright himself, Tracy Letts, adapted his play for the screen. Choosing unique shots and framing and utilizing removable walls in the hotel room enabled Friedkin to make a potentially boring shoot into a riveting and engaging psychodrama.

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Friedkin is an absolute master of sound design. This element of using sound cues really struck me hard on this viewing. He builds the tension and the creepiness with very subtle sound effects. He created a bizarre sound effect for the air conditioner that sounds like no air conditioner I’ve ever heard before. But it works to add dread and constant agitation for the viewer. He uses the sounds of the cicadas outside, dripping faucets, helicopters, and in one scene, a beeping smoke detector that sounds just like a cricket chirping. There is a dramatic scene where Ashley Judd tells the story of losing her child in a grocery store. Friedkin doesn’t cut away to any flashback, instead he places a subtle sound cue of children playing on a playground as she speaks. I love when directors use actual sounds in the scene for the soundtrack instead of orchestral music.

The cast is great. It is essentially a two person play with a grand total of 5 actors. Ashley Judd is always great, and she completely inhabited this character. Michael Shannon is perfect and you can’t take your eyes off of him. His eccentric performance reminded me of Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates in Psycho. Full of odd quirks and different ways of saying things. There is a certain innocence and child-like honesty to his character. And casting Harry Connick Jr. as the bad guy was a genius choice. This goes against type the same way that casting Keanu Reeves as the bad guy in The Gift worked. And it gives the actors opportunity to shine in a role you don’t expect them to take. I believed that all three of these actors were the characters they were portraying. Actors always love the opportunity to go through a substantial character arc, or go batshit crazy. This film is an actor’s dream come true. They also filmed in chronological order, which is unusual in feature films. But with a small set that they could control they didn’t have to rely on the weather, matching the light, or daytime vs. nighttime shoots.

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Michael Shannon describes the movie as a love story between two intensely damaged individuals. These people are both haunted and already pretty desperate. The movie definitely drops you directly into the lives of two lost people who end up needing each other and overlooking the various red flags and idiosyncracies. They then feed off each other’s descent into paranoia, fear, and self-destruction.

Some of my favorite dialogue in the movie is where Ashley Judd asks Michael Shannon why he hasn’t been with a woman in years. His response is sublime:

“I just decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.
You have a center, right? A place inside of you that’s just you, that hasn’t been spoiled. And I think it’s really important to try and keep that space sacred. In some sense, on some level, but sex or relationships cloud that space… or they cloud me I guess, and make it difficult to be just me and not have to worry about… being somebody else.”

There is a sweet love scene in the film that Freidkin adds some horrific touches to. As the two main characters make love he puts in an almost subliminal shot of squirming maggots or grubs chittering in the background. As the two lovers climax the scene is punctuated by a sped-up shot of an insect crawling out of its egg sac. A startling musical screech accompanies a close-up of a praying mantis head looking into the camera.

Without giving too much away, the film follows the characters as they become more and more paranoid, imagining bugs in the hotel, helicopters surveilling them, and disturbing government experiments. Similar to another favorite film of mine, 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder, you don’t know if the characters are suffering hallucinations from trauma, drugs, experiments, or mental illness like Schizophrenia. Shannon is a drifter who at times appears Autistic, antisocial, withdrawn, or paranoid schizophrenic. Judd is a survivor of trauma, abuse, and great loss who also has a hefty drug problem. They both spiral down the path of paranoia, isolation, and delusion. There are many interpretations that Friedkin leaves ambiguous. The group hallucinations could simply be a cocaine-induced psychosis, as numerous shots of cocaine and glass crack pipes are shown. Marijuana and meth can also certainly cause paranoia. The stories Shannon tells about military experiments and governmental collusion could actually be true. Shannon could just be a paranoid schizophrenic imagining these conspiracies and convincing Judd to go along with him. Or the bugs that are so feared are really nanotechnology inserts. Not biological insects at all, but microscopic computer tracking devices from the CIA. The word bug can mean insect or listening device.
B 9

Friedkin gives us some great subtle visual cues as well. The outdoor flourescent lights of the hotel look distinctly like bug zapper lights. In one scene the shadow from a shower curtain on Shannon’s back makes little patterns that look like spiders. Near the end of the film they cover everything in their hotel room with tin foil. The only light sources are the blue bug zapper lanterns they have bought, and some candles. The cold blue palette is distinctive and surreal. The opening shot is a slow helicopter zoom in on the cheap hotel. It shows us the isolation, the country road, and the aqueduct behind it. It is shot and filtered in such way that it makes you think of bloodstreams and corpuscles. Genius.

One of my favorite shots has to be the homage to Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 Vietnam War film starts with shots of Martin Sheen laying on his hotel bed looking up at the ceiling fan. He imagines hearing helicopter rotors as he zones out on the fan blades. In Bug, Friedkin has Harry Connick Jr. lay down on the hotel bed in exactly the same way. The camera is up at the ceiling looking down at him in what filmmakers call the God’s eye view. We look straight down through the moving fan blades at the upside down face of the character. 
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“The horror…..the horror.”

This movie suffered a bit from it being incorrectly promoted. All the press and posters called it a horror movie. They all referenced The Exorcist. I even fell into that trap of expecting a horror movie about bug infestations from the master of horror, William Friedkin. I didn’t even like this movie when I first saw it. It isn’t a horror movie at all. It is a drama. A psychological thriller even. Or best called a psychodrama. It’s a slow burn for the first hour as it builds and builds, and then the final half hour goes batshit crazy. If you go into this movie just expecting an intense drama based on a play, then you will be so happily surprised. Just don’t go into it expecting The Exorcist where the people are possessed by bugs instead of demons.

 

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The blind man and the pariah

Steven Wilson was on tour and playing in Portland at our venue tonight. He is a progressive rock titan with a hugely devoted cult following. He was the lead singer and primary creative force in PORCUPINE TREE, BLACKFIELD, and other bands, and now writes unique and emotional solo records.

I’m a big fan of his, as are many of my friends, so I requested to work the stage for this show. Additionally, I was asked to work load-in, which is where I greet the band, and supervise and assist the band members and tour crew with loading in all of their gear. I give out appropriate wristbands, check IDs and tour laminates, and assist them with anything they need. Depending on the amount of gear in the trucks and stage show requirements, load-in can start at 9am. Obviously this means that I get to meet the musicians and interact with them throughout the entire day. They may even ask me for advice on nearby places to go in Portland for food, snacks, quiet coffee shops, cannabis dispensaries, etc. So I get to play tour guide to famous rockers.

I try not to be a googly-eyed fan boy when any of my musical heroes interact with me, but I have to admit, meeting famous rock idols is a huge perk of this job. Prior to working in music venues, I got to meet a few of my musical heroes like Tori Amos, Henry Rollins, and Rob Halford. But meeting touring musicians at my job means I don’t ask for autographs or photos. I just treat them like any other professional musician playing a show here. Sometimes it takes a lot of willpower not to tell them how much they have personally influenced me, or which album is my favorite, or ask for a photo. But I don’t because I am a professional.

One of my best friends, we will call him ‘John’, is the biggest Steven Wilson fan that I’ve ever met. So I was texting him photos throughout the day of the tour bus, the guitar amps with stickers from previous tours on them, and even the set list once that was put in place. I received happy text squeals of pleasure and anticipation from him after each share. John bought tickets to this show months ago, and I knew that I would see him and some other friends later tonight when the show began.

Knowing I would be stuck at the stage all night (by my request), I went outside to get some fresh air and soak up the last of the sunshine. There was already a huge line down the block for general admission, and the early entry line for VIPs was forming inside the restaurant. A couple walked up to me to ask a question. It was a woman and a man, and the man had a cane for his vision impairment. They asked about early entry for people with disabilities, which is 15 minutes before doors open. They had never been to this venue before, so I described it to them, and told them the options of where they might want to stand for the show. There are staircases to each of the 4 levels, one elevator, a balcony, and all-ages area, a VIP area, and several bars. They agreed that they wanted to be in the all ages portion that is right in front of the stage. Even though the man was blind, he wanted to be front and center for the show. Their names were Colin and Jen, and they were both in their 40’s and were kind and appreciative. I made some radio calls and got permission to bring them in for early entry myself, before anyone else got to enter the venue.

I’ve helped blind patrons at music venues before, and it’s a sweet trusting interaction. They usually grab my elbow and have me lead them around. Somewhat like when a Father walks his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Except I’m constantly describing what’s around us and announcing any obstacles that we need to navigate. Colin was tall and lean and had bright blue eyes, looking ever so slightly like the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. I felt like I was guiding a blind Sherlock Holmes into the venue.

Colin opted to take the stairs instead of the elevator, so we slowly walked up to the third floor where the concert hall is located. We then walked all the way to the front of the venue and I made sure that his hands found the metal barricade. “OK friends, we have arrived at the best spot in the house. The sound here should be perfect. I hope you enjoy the show. I’ll be right on the other side of this barricade during the performance, so if you need anything just wave me over.” They were excited and appreciative, and I took them on as my VIPs to check on throughout the evening.

So now here we are at door opening and the eager crowd streams into the room. The people who have been outside in line for hours move right up to the very front by the barricades, where Colin and Jen already are stationed. They’ve got another hour and a half of chatting, drinking, milling around, and posting photos on social media before showtime. This is the time that I can chat with people, say hello and give hugs to friends, answer questions, explain rules and remind them of the ‘no photography’ policy.

My good friend John shows up and finds me at the stage. We chit-chat about the show and me meeting Steven Wilson numerous times throughout the day. We geeked out on the gear onstage, and the possible encores listed on the set list. He also told me that he met a really cool woman in the crowd who loves Steven Wilson almost as much as he does. He pointed her out and I recognized her from earlier in the day. She was decidedly shorter than John is, and covered in tattoos. She was a die-hard fan who got here really early to get in line for the show. Nothing like meeting like-minded people who love what you love. He then told me that he ex would be here tonight and that will be emotional for him. This will be the first Steven Wilson show that they would both be attending since they broke up two years ago.

I should give a little back story on this scenario. John dated this woman for 6 and a half years and they were engaged to be married. They lived together and both loved the music of Steven Wilson, bonding on his songs and lyrics and live performances. Sadly they broke up amidst some unfortunate deception and hurtfulness. They called off the wedding and she moved out. John was, understandably, devastated. He honestly had planned on spending the rest of his life with her. They had zero contact for a very long time after the split, except for telling each other what social event they were attending, so the other person would know not to be there. John is a very loving and charming person that you remember even if you just met briefly. He leaves a great impression and has a truly caring and warm personality. So seeing him hurt like this and then suffering through the lengthy aftermath of the split was hard on all of us in his inner curls. I let him stay at my house a few night when I wasn’t there just so he could get his head together without being surrounded by reminders of her in his house. The household ghosts of a dead love are insistent and vexing.

I’ve been there too, as most of us have after a bad breakup. A house full of things that you bought or created with the other person is now tainted. Every single item. The art, knickknacks, photos, and decorations that made your house a home now just bring emptiness and tears. You now have to decide who gets to take what with them. Custody battles over throw rugs and photo albums and pets. Every little item in your home reminds you of the person who broke your heart and razed the future you had planned. You look at the empty couch and flash back to a morning where she was reclining on it giving you a flirtatious smile over coffee. No matter how much sage you burn and how well you clean, the house still smells of her perfume. You swear you even hear her voice saying your name when you’re there alone. It can drive you mad and make you consider torching everything in the house so you can start over clear. But you can’t burn some memories away no matter how much you want to.

At this point I was waved over by Colin and Jen, so I left John for a bit to see what they needed. Colin asked me if I could help him get to the restroom before the show started. Strangely, there is no bathroom on this level, so I offered to walk him upstairs to the mezzanine bar bathroom. I came out of the moat between the stage and the barricade and offered my arm to him again. We slowly walked all the way across the venue and went upstairs. We chatted a bit and I learned he was from Canada and had traveled down here after attending the previous Steven Wilson show in Seattle. I also learned that we both have a college background in psychology. I walked him into the bathroom and described very precisely how the urinal was located in front of him. I tapped the porcelain top of it with my metal flashlight so he would hear it and know it’s positioning. I told him the flush handle was up on top of that and stepped back. Had we not communicated very effectively, he could have urinated on the wall.

As Colin was relieving himself, another friend of mine came up to say hello. As I’m standing in the bathroom watching another man pee. I couldn’t think of a more awkward time to try to have a conversation, but that’s how it goes at concerts. I tried to be friendly and greet him, but honestly my mind was on Colin’s pee stream. He asked what I was doing and I said, “Oh I’m just bringing my friend here to the bathroom.” He then saw the white cane and hopefully put together that I was escorting a blind man to the lavatory. I think some other less prudent staff might have just nervously said, “I’m waiting for this blind guy to pee.” I liked my wording better. By calling Colin my friend, you don’t actually know if he and I are friends outside of this venue, or if I’m just being respectful by referring to a patron as ‘my friend.’ And actually we are kind of temporary friends now. He is trusting me completely with his well-being getting him around this venue and through the crowds with me as his eyes.

I said that I’d talk with my friend later, and then helped Colin find the sink, apply soap to his hands, turn the water on, and find the paper towels to dry off. Then we walked back through the crowd. The main room had now filled in, so it was much harder walking through everybody to get back to the front row. If you’ve ever been up close at a concert, you know that people are very territorial about their positions, especially up front on the barricade. That’s prime real estate. Patrons arrive hours early to stand in line so that they can secure the best spot when the doors open. And they’ll be damned if they are gonna give up their spot for some Joe Schmoe who just showed up and thinks that they can push their way up to the front. So as I’m walking Colin through the crowd, the space between bodies is getting smaller and smaller. I’m starting to get glares from people who think that I’m just trying to shoulder my way past them to get in front of them for the show.

I start saying, “Excuse me….excuse me please.” Once people see that I’m security staff with a radio and leading a blind man behind me, they move out of my way and let us through. The closer we get to the front there really isn’t any room as people are crammed in standing shoulder to shoulder. People are not so willing to move out of our way, some even trying to act like they can’t hear me. I start shining my flashlight around to get people’s attention, and tapping everybody on their arms saying, “Security! Coming through. Excuse us. Please move. Security.” That always gets people’s attention and they move out of our way quick. This journey from the upstairs bathroom to the front of the house took longer than it should have. I reunited Colin with Jen at the front center of the barricade and they thanked me profusely.

I returned to my position in the moat by the stage and smiled at Colin and Jen. I saw several of my friends out in the crowd, and sure enough now I see my friend John standing next to his ex. They are smiling and talking jovially. She waved at me to say hello and I waved back. Odd to see them standing together as friends after the last two years of minimal contact. But time heals all wounds. On the other side of John is this new woman who he was so excited about meeting. He’s spending ample time talking to both women. But I’m pretty sure he’s flirting with the short tattooed woman that he just met here tonight. Good for him.

The show starts and it is indeed amazing. The crowd at a Steven Wilson concert isn’t particularly interested in crowd surfing or starting fights, so I don’t have to worry about that at the stage. I actually get to glance over and watch the performance by a musician that I love from ten feet away. The show was a great mix of Porcupine Tree songs and Steven Wilson solo songs. At one point I was standing there with my arms crossed in the typical security staff pose. My face was expressionless, so I probably looked angry. Steven Wilson looked at me from the stage while playing guitar and shook his head at me like he was saying no. But more like he was asking, “Are you not entertained? I remember you from earlier today. Why so angry? Aren’t you having fun?” So of course I smiled big back at him, and then he smiled back and nodded in the affirmative. I laughed and looked out at my friend John, who saw that little interaction and was laughing and smiling pretty big himself. That was my quick little moment with Steven Wilson during the concert.

I ended up walking Colin out through the crowd on my arm two more times to use the upstairs bathroom. Each time got more and more difficult to move through the crowd, but I got it done. A tactical flashlight and a strong loud voice comes in handy. I tried to pass the same people each time so they would remember us and be ready to make a path. Each time I walked him by I passed my friend John, his ex, and the new woman. They were about 10 feet back from where Colin was camped on the front of the barricade. I gave them a quick smile or said, “I’m on a mission” as I gently pushed people out of the way. People smiled at me as I made my way back out of the crowd, some even patting me on the shoulder to essentially say, “Thanks for helping the nice blind gentleman get to the bathroom and back without losing his spot at the front.”
I’m here to help.

Steven Wilson had the same opening act for this tour, an extremely talented Israeli woman named Ninet Tayeb. She is not only the powerhouse lead singer of her band, but she is also an actress, a DJ, and model. Ninet and her band were amazing onstage, and she would then come out later to sing several songs with Steven each night. Her voice is strong and powerful, ranging from husky to angelic. She sang a duet with him that I had never heard before tonight. The melody was haunting and plaintive. I was moved by the emotion of the song, and the lyrics that I was hearing for the first time.

Now here’s one of those moments where every single element of the night and the emotions involved coalesced. I was listening to Ninet sing the lyrics of this song, which turned out to be called ‘Pariah.’ The remote-controlled colored light turrets shone purple and blue onto the smiling faces in the crowd. I could spot Colin and Jen in the front row with their eyes and mouths open wide. Ten feet behind them I could see my friend John with his ex on one side of him and the new crush on the other side. Everything slowed down just like those dramatic moments in movies where they use a variable-speed camera to go from real-time to slow motion in the same shot.
I looked up at Ninet as she sang:

So the day will begin again
Take comfort from me
It’s up to you now

You’re still here and you’ll dig in again
That’s comfort to you
It’s up to you now

So pariah you’ll begin again
Take comfort from me
And I will take comfort from you

At 3:15 the song shifts as it reaches its emotional crux. The pretty acoustic arrangement builds up and the band kicks in with distorted guitars and noise swells. Thundering drums that would fit with arena-rock bands drive the sonic apex of the song. This moment froze as I saw Colin at the front sing the lyrics along with Ninet and raising his arms up above his head when the crescendo hit. It was exactly the way a child throws his hands up in the air when riding a roller coaster. The pure joy of a child channeled through a blind adult man hearing his favorite song performed live.

Then I looked behind him and saw one of my best friends also experiencing pure musical bliss while standing between two loves. The past and present. One love that died and is transforming into a new friendship. Evolving into a respect for what is and appreciation for what was. The other new love is just blooming amidst the shared experience of this concert. Those two will always remember this night as the night Steven Wilson’s music brought them together. And I will always think of this vision of all this coming together every time I listen to this song for the rest of my life. John and I have both watched each other date numerous women over the duration of our friendship. It makes me so happy to finally see him happy again. The lyrics about beginning again were the perfect sentiment for someone who is finally getting over their ex and moving forward. The lyrics at times seem like a dialogue between two ex-lovers speaking to each other with advice and encouragement.

I am certain that Colin has felt like a pariah or an outcast due to his blindness. People tend to not talk to blind people like they do sighted people. I didn’t see anybody talk to him tonight besides myself and Jen. And I know that John and his ex considered each other a pariah or a nonperson for the two years after they split up. A persona non grata that your friends learn not to bring up around you, for just hearing their name makes you uncomfortable. These lyrics could not have been more applicable or perfect for this short but powerful moment in time.

I am in awe of the power of music, and how lyrics sung by a complete stranger can resonate so strongly with us. I feel lucky and proud that I was there to share this moment in time with these friends and the musicians onstage. And not one of them knew that I was watching them during this magic moment. Nobody else had the unique viewpoint I did from the corner stage that allowed me to see all of these faces together in a kaleidoscope of joy. Sometimes you are just at the right place at the right time for lyrics of a song to affect your life. Or to sum it up. Or to spur it along to further greatness and forgiveness, healing and acceptance.

If anyone in the audience had looked over at me by the stage looking out at my friends in the crowd, they might have thought that I had tears welling up in my eyes. And on this one particular occasion, they would have been right.

Don’t you worry
Don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause nothing really dies
Nothing really ends


And if you want to hear the beautiful song by Steven Wilson and Ninet Tayeb, here it is:

And here are the full lyrics to Pariah:

I’m tired of weakness
Tired of my feet of clay
I’m tired of days to come
I’m tired of yesterday
And all the worn out things that I ever said
Now it’s much too late
The words stay in my head

So the day will begin again
Take comfort from me
It’s up to you now
You’re still here and you’ll dig in again
That’s comfort to you
It’s up to you now
So pariah you’ll begin again
Take comfort from me
And I will take comfort from you

I’m tired of Facebook
Tired of my failing health
I’m tired of everyone
And that includes myself
Well being alone now
It doesn’t bother me
But not knowing if you are
That’s been hell you see

So the day will begin again
Take comfort from me
It’s up to you now
You’re still here
And you’ll dig in again
That’s comfort to you
It’s up to you now
So pariah you’ll being again
Take comfort from me
It will take time
Don’t you worry
Don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause nothing really dies
Nothing really ends

Post-script:

In the chaos after the show I wasn’t able to connect with Colin and Jen. I never saw them again. But I did hear that they were singing my praises to my manager on the way out, telling him to thank me for taking such good care of them throughout the show. And my friend John is indeed still dating the tattooed woman that he met at this concert.

Garage Days Re-Revisited

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Last night I listened to one of my favorite records of the last 31 years.
Metallica’s 1987 EP Garage Days Re-Revisited.
25 minutes of raw energetic metal/punk covers by the most successful metal band in the world.
I was alone in the house. I turned off the lights, put my phone away, and listened on headphones with complete focus and concentration.

I was transported back in time to my high school days when music was the main focus of my life. Music gave me optimism and happiness. In 1987 I was a disc jockey on my high school radio station, KRVM 91.9 FM. I had my own weekly radio show, and job title of News Director. I started learning drums in 1986 and fell in love with Lars Ulrich’s style of thrash metal drumming. I was taking drum lessons, discovering all kinds of new music, and sharing music with listeners on the radio. I loved deciphering the lyrics and memorizing them. If the lyrics weren’t printed in the sleeve you just had to figure them out for yourself. No internet existed yet. Sometimes fan magazines would print the lyrics, but otherwise it was just a fun challenge.

I lived in Eugene, Oregon and the only real radio show playing metal music was Al Scott’s show on KZEL FM called Midnight Metal. The program went from midnight until about 1am. I would tune in regularly and listen on headphones so my parents wouldn’t know I was still awake on a school night. I learned of so many new metal acts through this show. The first time I heard “Damage, Incorporated” by Metallica was on this show. I was laying on my bedroom carpet in the dark and my eyes opened wide when the song kicked in. I had never heard a song like that before. I listened like a devoted cult acolyte, taking notes of the band names so I could go get their albums later. This is how I was turned on to lesser known bands like Savatage, Yngwie Malmsteen, Icon, Helloween, Testament, Hallow’s Eve and local bands like Mysstress and Wild Dogs. Then of course he would play the staples by Judas Priest, Dio, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Motley Crue, and Metallica. I loved this show, and I even fashioned my weekly radio show on KRVM after Midnight Metal.

The way I listen to music now is different. There’s less awe in it. Since I am great deal older, and in a band of my own, I may be a bit more jaded. I hate a lot of new music and cannot fathom how certain unnamed acts are so popular. I’ve seen thousands of concerts and listened to thousands of bands. I’ve been backstage, on the tour busses, and onstage countless times. I book all the shows and tours for all the bands I have been in. So I listen to songs for compatibility with my band and others on the bill. I’m listening for recording quality and song quality. And if the singer is pleasant to listen to. I have spent a lot of time in recording studios where you listen with excruciating detail for anything that needs to be fixed. A muffled guitar string, a bungled drum fill, somebody playing too fast or too slow, an out of tune note, a flat or sharp pitch from the singer, an accidental rim hit or stick click,  snare rattles, musicians not locked in with each other, etc. I’m pretty good at identifying levels of reverb, delay, and drum gates. Flange, chorus, auto-tune, 808 drum machines, triggers, etc. I’m going to stop right now because I’m actually boring myself with this tech jibber jabber.

But you see the difference. Now I listen to music more analytically and usually with an agenda and a very critical ear. In my teen years I listened just for the joy of it, how it inspired me, and where it took my imagination. I thought everybody in a band was part of a small revered group of very trained and experienced musicians. Experts in their field. I thought they floated above the clouds and sprinkled their talent down upon us. Turns out they are just like all of us with their own problems, idiosyncrasies, and faults.

I remember buying this record on vinyl when is was called “The 5.98 EP.” Later when it was released on CD it was re-titled, “The 9.98 CD.” This was a great way for Metallica to ensure that record stores wouldn’t up charge you on your purchase. They even went so far as to add a sticker that said, “If they try to charge more, STEAL IT!” Of course the first thing you would do when you got home was to record the album onto cassette tape. This way you could bring it with you in your Sony Walkman. You would always have to get the total time of the album so you could buy the appropriate length blank tape. The best homemade double album cassette tape I ever made was Metallica’s 1984 album Ride The Lightning on side A, and their 1986 follow-up Master of Puppets on side B. Those are their best two albums for me, so this combo was unbeatable and defined metal perfection. I swear I played that tape in my Chevy Impala thousands of times until it wore out and I upgraded to a CD player.

Remember that 1987 was a hard time for Metallica. Even though they had just put out two huge albums and were on their way to becoming the biggest metal act in history. They were on top of the world. Then they had a terrible tour bus accident and their bass player, Cliff Burton, was killed. This tragedy was felt deeply by all of their fans. And they were faced with the idea of ending the band like Led Zeppelin did when drummer John Bonham died. Or continuing on with a new pass player while still honoring Cliff’s memory and contribution to the band.

So they auditioned many bassists and found Jason Newstead from Flotsam and Jetsam. They didn’t do the expected action of recording a new album of originals. Instead they decided to record this lo-fi EP of them rocking out in drummer Lars’ soundproofed garage playing punk and metal covers that influenced them. The world’s first introduction to their new bass player would be on NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) cover songs from the 70’s and 80’s. A bold move.

I will be honest, as a young 16-year-old rocker I actually didn’t know of some of these bands. I had listened to Diamond Head and The Misfits, maybe Killing Joke, but had no idea who Holocaust or Budgie were. This recording is so much fun because it’s raw and full of energy. New band members can totally revitalize a stagnant band, trust me on that. They left in all the amp buzzes, drums sticks clattering on the floor, mis-starts, verbal directions picked up by the overhead drum mic, guitar feedback, etc. All the things that you would fix or mute on a polished album recording. And it doesn’t feel faked. It sounds like 4 friends in a room bashing out some of their favorite songs for fun, not profit or fame.

It’s fun to think about what songs you would choose if you were in this scenario. If I was in some hugely famous band that decided to record an EP of covers that greatly influenced us, what bands would I choose? What songs would be super fun to play even if no one was there to listen to you? What songs would you play just for you? Some bands that would make my list are Siouxsie and the Banshees, Savatage, The Cure, early Judas Priest, and The Pretenders. This is quite a different list from the bands that I actually have performed covers by. That list includes Rush, Living Colour, Led Zeppelin, and Queensryche.

Here’s my take on each song:

Track 1
HELPLESS by Diamond Head

High energy drumming from Lars, tasty double bass drumming, and exact matching of the snare and hi-hat when James Hetfield sings “Cannot squeeze the life from me!”
Ripping guitar solos from Kirk Hammett. What a great opening song.

I can see the stars, but I can’t see what’s going on
Every night alone I sing my song just for fun
Only time will tell if I’ll make it myself someday
This stage is mine, music is my destiny

Track 2
THE SMALL HOURS by Holocaust

Creepy Lovecraftian sludge. Possibly the grittiest grimiest guitar riff on the album. When I play air-guitar along with it I have to make the grimace.

Do not take for granted, powers out there
Don’t step into the demon’s lair
Time is an illusion, rising from time
Steep is the mountain which we climb

Track 3
THE WAIT by Killing Joke

Another high-powered rocker. Great riffs and vocal effects. Thundering drums and catchy chorus.

After wakening, silence grows
The screams subside, distortion shows
Mutant thoughts, of bad mouthed news
It’s just another birth, of distorted views

Track 4
CRASH COURSE IN BRAIN SURGERY by Budgie

Awesome bass line intro to the chunky main riff. A solid song that could actually be a Metallica song if you didn’t know better.

Raven black is on my track
He shows me how to neutralize the knife
Show to me in surgery
The art of fighting words to conquer life, conquer life

Track 5
LAST CARESS/GREEN HELL by Danzig

Two really fast and short Danzig songs. Boy did I love these shockingly inappropriate lyrics as an angsty teenager who loved horror novels.

I got something to say, I killed your baby today and it
Doesn’t matter much to me, as long as it’s dead.
Ooh lovely dead, just waiting for your breath
Cold sweet death, one last caress

Then the short outro is a purposeful out of tune mangling of the Iron Maiden song “Run to the Hills.”

 

What a high potency collection of frenetic but tight musicianship. This songs made me go out and research the originals, which probably was part of the band’s intent. Of course I compared the originals to these new versions and find Metallica’s versions to be superior. Listening to these songs reminds me what I love about Metallica, and metal, and music in general. In part, it’s the sheer joy of sharing music that you love. It’s the inspiration it gives you to go out and start your own band. It’s where the lyrics and sounds take you in your mind during the song.

A year later I would see them in concert for the first time at the Monsters of Rock tour in 1988. The bands were Kingdom Come, Metallica, Dokken, The Scorpions, and Van Halen. Guess which band I was the most blown away by? My undying love for live music probably started at this show as well. I went on to see Metallica in concert at least a dozen more times. They put on such a great show, and I still love them to this day.

I should carve out some time every week to put the world away in a box while I listen to records that shaped me as a teenager. Music is honestly better than any drug.

I was just 16 years old. The world was still in front of me. My greatest accomplishments and adventures hadn’t happened yet. And music was my passion that fueled me.

Thank you, Metallica.

Various accounts of oddities and debauchery

Often the craziest things don’t happen in the music venue, but in the bar itself.

These stories all happened on different nights, but they kind of go together in their surreal weirdness.

One night I was making my way through the crowded bar and encountered a very distinctive smell. One of the sound engineers on break walked towards me and asked, “Do you smell that? What is that smell?”

I replied instantly, “Oh that’s burning hair.”

We both made a face and realized how not normal that was. We looked around us and didn’t see anything unusual. I honestly just assumed that some drunken pyro was putting  a single hair into the candle to watch it burn or something. Then I saw a blonde woman laughing loudly with her girlfriend standing at the bar. She was about 5 foot 3 in heels and probably had a few drinks on an empty stomach. Each time she laughed heartily at her friend’s joke, she flipped her head back and then drooped it forward as she giggled.

I figured out what was happening. When she hung her head down in laughter, the tips of her hairs were dipping into the glass jar candle on the bar. Her hair was getting singed each time she laughed but not catching on fire. She and her friend were so tipsy that somehow they weren’t noticing and weren’t responding to the smell of burning hair.

And then her hair actually did catch on fire. And nobody noticed it. I walked over to her as fast as I could in shock and said, “Sweetheart, your hair is on fire!” I raised my hand like I would swat a fly and kind of slapped her head. This extinguished her burning hair instantly. I seriously expected her to turn around and punch me. But luckily she figured out what I did and why. Everybody in the bar was now watching. Seconds ago, her hair was literally burning and smoking like a firework sputtering to life until I swatted her head with my open hand. I apologized and asked if she was ok. She was so embarrassed that she didn’t really even respond to me verbally. Not even a thank you for smothering her cranial wildfire. She and her friend just kind of resumed their conversation. Almost like having a complete stranger come up and thump your burning dome like Smokey the Bear was a commonplace occurrence. Hell, maybe it is. Her hair was kind of short and choppy.

I started to walk away, but then I reached over and grabbed the candles off of the bar. Nearby patrons smiled at me and nodded in support. Let’s just remove any further fire danger from those ladies. I could be imagining this, but I swear there was a small cloud of smoke above her head after I put her out.

I returned to talking with the sound engineer and quietly laughing about what just happened.
I asked her, “Have you ever seen a person light their hair on fire in a bar and not notice?”
She said, “I love that you just instantly knew that smell was burning hair, and were all nonchalant about it.”
I replied, “Nothing else in the world smells like that.” Which was also me quoting Robert Duvall talking about napalm in Apocalypse Now. However, I really do not love the smell of burning hair in the morning, evening, or ever.

I truly wish that I could watch the security camera footage of me slapping that woman’s burning head. I would keep it running on an endless loop with Ministry’s song “Burning Inside” playing behind it.

 


 

A bartender contacted me and asked me to help deal with two people who were apparently sleeping in an isolate booth. Anytime a patron falls asleep in the bar we ask them to leave. We just can’t have people sleeping or passing out here, for a myriad of reasons.

I get back to the booth and am confronted with Jeff Lebowski and a woman who may be Bunny Lebowski. I am going to assume that you have seen the 1998 Coen Brothers comedy classic, THE BIG LEBOWSKI. If you haven’t, then you haven’t lived and need to fix that problem immediately. But essentially this would be like finding Jeff Bridges and Tara Reid in costume from the movie in your bar. The dude was wearing a tan Terry cloth robe and sunglasses at night. Both people were indeed asleep. They should have been drinking White Russians, but this bar doesn’t serve Caucasians. I turned my tactical flashlight on the most gentle color, green, and gently touched Mister Lebowski on the shoulder to wake him up.

“Hello my friends. You cannot sleep here. It’s time for you both to head home.”
Lebowski, or The Dude, or Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into that whole brevity thing, mumbled something in response but did not get up. Since he had sunglasses on I wasn’t even sure if his eyes were open. I touched his arm more firmly and said again, “Hey you guys have got to head home. I can call you a cab if you want, but you need to head out.”

Now he made my night by playing into his character. He got up from the booth unsteadily and said, “This aggression…will not stand, man.” I grinned from ear to ear and said back to him, “You’re being very undude.” This guy is my most favorite patron this week, but I can’t quite figure out if this is going to go poorly or not. I said, “I’ll walk out with you guys.” He and his special lady friend shuffled through the bar to the front door and I followed them out because it was just too perfect. I would have given anything if the bartender started playing The Eagles right now. I really couldn’t tell if they were acting, or just really drunk and half asleep. But they exited without incident. The Dude abides. For a cinephile like me, this was the greatest thing ever. I could have quoted that movie all damned night.

Its wasn’t Halloween, but there could have been a screening of the movie somewhere nearby at an independent movie theater. Or there actually might have been a Lebowski Festival happening. That’s where a bowling alley screens the movie and serves White Russians and everybody dresses up as characters from the film. But honestly, I don’t think that anything like that was going on. There didn’t need to be, it’s Portland. People might just dress up as Lebowski characters just for fun.

In any case, I get to tell my friends that I kicked The Dude and Bunny Lebowski out of  my bar.

 


 

 

Other times the outlandish events happen just outside the bar on the sidewalk.

The venue I worked at tonight has a bar, a music venue, and a hotel all commingled together. I started driving home after closing the bar and setting the alarm around 3am. After driving a few blocks I realized that I forgot to clock out, so I turned around and returned to the building. I walked back up to the building and saw a big blue pick up truck parked outside with its engine running. I didn’t think much of it and went inside to clock out of the computer system. I said hello to the overnight cleaners there and headed back out to my truck. That big blue truck was still there but I noticed some movement. Always noticing what people are doing around me, especially late at night, is key. Situational awareness is a most needed trait working in the service industry at night.

The truck was bouncing rhythmically with the engine still on but no passengers visible. Knowing full well what was happening, I sat in my truck for a moment just to see if I was right. Sure enough, a female head with big tousled hair was bobbing up and down on someone’s lap. She rose up from the front seat and pulled her hair out of her face, and a man’s head appeared as well. He had the driver’s seat reclined and this woman was giving him one hell of a blowjob. The truck was moving so noticeably that I thought they were having sex. This wasn’t some delicate loving romantic blowjob. This woman was going for it like a cocaine-powered porn star with the utmost dedication and absolutely zero restraint. She must have been doing push ups with her arms on the front seat as she pleasured this guy to completion. She then got out of the truck and said goodnight to the man and kissed him. He drove off and she skipped back up the stairs giggling to her hotel room.

I didnt’ see any money exchanged, but I wondered if she was a prostitute working out of the hotel. Or was she just a woman having an affair with the man at a late-night rendezvous. Were they both married to other people and cheating in secret? Were their partners at home panicked and worried that their spouse was in the hospital, dead, or cheating on them? Since he did not return to the hotel room with her I think something a bit sordid was happening. Or maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe they just meet at the concert tonight and just couldn’t help themselves? But I have seen prostitutes show up at the bar after overhearing a patron make a phone call requesting his preferences in a woman. Sugar Daddies with their stripper ‘girlfriends’, pimps, hookers, and drug dealers probably frequent our establishment under the radar more than we know.

Humans are such interesting, primordial creatures. Especially in the wee hours.
I shook my head, mentally flung any ick out of my thoughts, and drove home.

 


 

After the concert ended and the bar announced last call, dozens of people congregate outside the doors and discuss the concert and either say goodnight or make plans for further adventures. There’s a lot of people looking at their phones tracking the progress of their Uber driver coming to pick them up. And a lot of smoking since there is no smoking anywhere inside our establishment.

I stand outside and assist people with directions and suggestions for other places to go. I make sure no alcohol leaves the front doors. And I remind people not to smoke within 15 feet of the door, and to not smoke pot at all. Often I have to remind people to not be so loud since there are hotel rooms nearby, and oh yes they do make noise complaints. As silly as that is.

Tonight I looked up and saw some people standing by their huge hotel room window which faces out to our entrance and the busy street. I recognized them as patrons who attended our concert tonight. It was a man in his 40’s and two super cute women in their early 20’s. I remember them well because I thought that it was an odd matchup. At first I assumed it was a father with his two daughters taking in a show. But their flirty nature and their physicality with each other confirmed otherwise. The two hippie-styled young women were quite effervescent and attractive, and were all over this guy.

I looked away for a minute or two to help a patron figure out directions to their next destination. When I looked back up at the hotel window I saw that the man was standing there in just his boxers with his arms around the two nubile young ladies. The young ladies both were completely naked and dancing on either side of him. Their naked asses were almost pushed against the window glass. Everybody was smiling huge and perhaps unaware that we could see them, or just didn’t give a shit about it. Or they knew full well that they were putting on a naked show for us. Picture three bouncers standing outside the front door all looking up at what could be a debaucherous scene from a movie. For once, none of us were talking. Just silently taking this scene in with a bit of shock and envy. This could be a cocaine party, a threesome among friends, or a guy who hired two girls to make his night like something out of Studio 54 in the late 70’s. In any case, he’s living the dream up there. And we’re down here watching it uncomfortably. I believe one of us went back inside and told a couple of male bartenders what was happening, so they came out and we all gawked like teenagers looking at their first Playboy. When the hotel partiers finally closed the curtains I was relieved. Relieved that I didn’t have to act like I wasn’t watching their performance anymore.

This week I feel like I am in a Joe Coleman painting. Quaint little Portland, Oregon is really a lurid and obscene carnival of the strange and decadent. Random debauchery, prostitution, hotel orgies, truck blowjobs, drugs, Jeff Lebowski, and burning hair.

So I got in my truck and turned up the album ‘Night Drive’ by Chromatics. Appropriate music for my post-shift journey to my house. This band is also from Portland. Sexy music for a sexy night’s soundtrack. And the lyrics to ‘Accelerator’ are perfect for all of this.

God I’m feeling I got a hunger
I love my soul I’m satisfied
Come on, come on
Hit the accelerator, the accelerator
Come on, come on
Hit the accelerator, the accelerator
Living on to be a sinner
Lord it’s hard to be a saint

 

 

 

Working the stage (with a crowd surfing primer)

Sometimes being a bouncer isn’t always about checking IDs and kicking drunk people out. In the bigger music venues you can split the duties between the various people on shift. So sometimes you get to work the stage. It is substantially different from working the door as a bouncer. As a musician and concert-goer since 1986, I am a person who truly enjoys working at the stage. Being that close to the performers during their set, and feeding off the energy and joy of the crowd is one of the more fun shifts for me. I’ve met some amazing international touring bands working stage. And they put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us do.

I’m sure you’ve been at a concert where there were crowd surfers. But for the uninitiated, that’s when you climb up on somebody’s shoulders and lay across the crowd that holds you up and passes you around the audience. You usually end up being delivered to the front area between the barricades and the front of the stage. There are always staff there to help catch you so you don’t injure yourself or fall on concrete. That’s me when I’m working stage. Catching adult human beings so they don’t break their bones. Always keeping people safe, even from their own recklessness.

Other things we’re watching for would be fights, people smoking pot (because indoor venue), any sexual harassment, tiny concert-goers getting crushed into the front barricades, and medical issues. Many people don’t want to lose their spot at the front of the barricade, so they don’t leave to drink water. People faint or pass out and we have to haul them up over the barricade and then get them medical attention if needed. People take too many drugs and can overdose there in the heat of the crushing horde. Some people just don’t know how to take care of themselves at concerts and don’t bring money for food or drink. I’ll give out waters to people as long as I can, but I only have so much there with me. Some people have heart attacks or strokes and we need to call the ambulance. There’s a lot that can happen at the stage. So when you see a bunch of security people at the front of the stage looking out at the crowd and not at the show, it’s us. We’re scanning for all of these things while you are watching the concert and hopefully not getting hurt or dying out there in the ocean of sweaty bipeds.

Depending on the type of music and the crowd, there may not be any moshing or crowd surfing at all. On nights like that working stage I get to enjoy the performance and just keep my eye on the people in the crowd that might need help. We can often predict the drinking patterns of a concert based on the genre of music, and whether or not the crowd is going to give us problems all night or just stand there and soak in the music. And just to dispel your possible assumptions, it is often NOT the metal or rap crowds that give us the most challenges. Usually those crowds are some of the best, sharing  more of a spirit of brotherhood and helping each other out. I feel better about the people at a metal show taking care of each other and helping each other out than I do at most other types of shows. Just for reference, it’s been the alt country shows and stoner rock shows that surprised me with their violence and asinine behaviors. Testosterone, machismo, aggression, and whisky, my brother. Keep them all separate.

The time before the show starts is a great time for me to build social capital with the people who arrived early to occupy the front of the barricades. I smile a lot and ask them about which band on the bill is their favorite. I sneak in reminders about the photo policy, and tell them to wave me over if they have any problems throughout the night. I keep telling people to drink lots of water and show them where the water station is located. I answer questions about potential meet and greets, autograph signings, set list acquisition, bathroom locations, and all of the other questions people ask. I’ll also be a photographer for people who want shots of them and all their friends in the front row. All of these short little interactions build a good little temporary relationship that will last throughout the show. And if and when any problems occur, things will go easier. Actually I get sometimes get them to do my job for me. I’ve seen people remind others to not use their flash, and to stop taking video after I announced that to them. I love listening to people tell me stories of seeing this band last night in Seattle or another city. I appreciate fans that follow their favorite band on tour for more than one night.

I also love seeing parents there with their kids for a concert. They’ll often tell me that it’s the child’s first concert ever. I vividly remember my first concert experiences. So I always try to be super friendly to the kids and offer them water and look out for them to step in if somebody is getting to rowdy around them. Just asking a kid what album is their favorite one from the touring act goes a long way. I love glancing over and seeing the kid wide-eyed and in a state of reverie seeing their favorite band onstage for the first time. Or singing along with the lyrics just like they lived those words. If a stage hand offers me a set list after the final encore, I’ll try to hand it to the kid. Parents have come to shake my hand and thank me after the show for helping provide them with such a fun first concert for their child. Live music is life.

Ten minutes before the opening band started, I was called over by some teenagers in the front row. Their friend had just dropped to the ground at the front of the barricade and was laying on the venue floor. I immediately called for a medical situation over the radio and climbed up over the barricade and into the crowd. I asked them if he fainted and his friend said, “Well he did take a lot of hallucinogens tonight.” I knelt down by the young man and put my fingers on his neck to check for a pulse. As I started tapping him he woke up and stood up with me. I told him who I was and where he was and asked him what happened. He said he had a ‘crowd induced anxiety situation’ and that he ‘took a bunch of mushrooms’. I offered him some bottled water and he drank it down. I asked if he wanted to walk out to an area where there were fewer people, but he said he was ok. He said he didn’t pass out or faint but he just needed to lay down and gather himself for a minute. At this point there were 5 security people and 3 managers on the other side of the barricade looking over at me speaking with this young man. I gave them all the thumbs up gesture and walked out through the crowd back around to the pit area between the stage and the barricade. I told the kid and his friends that I’d be there all night and would keep an eye on him and check in. Managers agreed to let him stay with my offer to babysit him. So for the remainder of the show I kept watching him to make sure he didn’t drop again. I gave him a bunch of water and would frequently give him the thumbs up gesture, which he would return with a big smile. I was tempted to say things like, “Handle your high, dude.” Or these lyrics from the band SLACK, “You took too much, your brain is toast. BRAIN TOAST.”  But you know what, I was 19 once and I did some stupid shit too. He and his friends ended up having a fantastic time. I’m glad we let him stay. Maybe next time he won’t take as many drugs as he did tonight. I hope he remembers the concert.

At another concert the crowd surfers were out in full force. Depending on the rider agreement with the touring act, we can either allow this or not allow it. This band wanted us to let the crowd surfers do their thing and not have us kick them out. For a while I counted each crowd surfer that I helped get down safely from the front of the audience. Then I honestly lost track once it got over 20 people. I don’t think I got to turn around and peek at the show at all for this one. People were coming over like salmon jumping out of the water trying to get upstream to spawn. Except that it’s all sweaty shirtless male salmon. Seriously, why it is always the big dudes that have been sweating from the minute they entered the venue that come across the crowd and fling themselves onto us? Can’t we get some tiny person who actually showered and used deodorant that day? The body odor is truly offensive.

You watch the crowd a different way when it’s a crowd surfing kind of show. Because if you miss one and they come flying over the barrier onto you, somebody’s getting hurt. The adrenaline is going, and your peripheral vision awareness is being put to the test. We all point towards the closest crowd surfer we can see so that the other guys on the line will see it coming and not be ambushed. I keep thinking about how I’m a musician and really can’t afford to get a finger jammed or broken by some drunk dipshit who is going to fall on me. If all goes well 2-3 staff will be there to grab you and lower you down to the floor without injury.

Here’s how it usually goes. There is indeed an unspoken protocol. As you get handed towards the stage, you should look at the security guys and let them grab you to stabilize your landing. Don’t flail or fight, we’re trying to help you out. We’ve been doing this for hours, so let us grab you and deliver you as gently as we can. Grab us around our shoulders if you can and let us lower you down while we hold you. Almost like when a husband carries his new bride into their new house. It’s called “Catch and Release” since we catch you, stabilize you, and then return you to the audience to either enjoy the rest of the show, or crowd surf again. Sometimes if we see the same person over and over again we will give them the message that you only have 3 times that you can do this. But don’t try to become part of the performance by getting on the stage or trying to stay in the pit area and head bang. We are going to walk you out. Either gently as an escort to get you to the alley where you can get back into the crowd, or holding your arms you against your will to make sure you get out of the area if you are not following our instructions. Don’t make this interaction a bad one. It should take about 10 seconds and then you’ll be on your way. Usually the people thank us and even clap us on our back for our assistance.

Sometimes the person falls onto you and wraps all four limbs around you. Face to face, groin to groin. It’s an awkward and intimate position for both of us. This is a common position for people having sex, and only when they are having sex. A standing missionary position crowd surfer landing. Since the person is completely wrapped round you, we just call it the Koala bear. I can’t really complain, as this is probably the safest and most gentle way to come out of the crowd. But it’s an odd moment for sure.

Having sweaty 200 pound human beings that aren’t wearing a shirt flying at you from head-level is an unusual occupational hazard indeed. I can’t think of any other job where that might be listed in the job description. Without a shirt on we can’t grab you as well. And skin on skin is slippery. Especially when you are sweating bullets and processing large amounts of shitty frat boy beer. There are also two kinds of crowd surfers. The conscientious ones who do it right, and the assholes. If I see you continuously crowd surfing and thrashing around while you’re up there, accidentally or intentionally kicking people in the head as you go, I’m going to kick you out. I hate those guys that are crowd surfing and then sort of launch themselves over onto another group of unsuspecting people just trying to enjoy the show. You’re landing with your entire body weight on people’s heads. The neck injuries are probably in the dozens. I’ve been in the crowd where the same jerks keep violently crowd surfing and injuring people’s necks and heads. It sucks. If this happens try to communicate with the security people there so they can grab them and not let them back in. That’s what we’re there for.

At a stoner rock show we had dozens and dozens of crowd surfers coming over the crowd into the pit area. We got in a rhythm and just teamed up on each one to help them get down safely. But this one particular dude won the award for assholery. He was crowd surfing and was being handed towards the security staff in the pit. We climbed up on the steps on the barricades to help him get down safely. But once his feet touched the floor he tried to break away from us and climb onto the stage. Myself and two other guys grabbed him and prevented him from climbing up. Then he turned on us and started trying to thrash around aggressively to evade us. I was right there with my hands already on him so I just wrapped him up and pushed into him like a linebacker. More security were coming over once they saw that this guy hadn’t just touched down and walked out with us. I was pushing him towards my coworker who was moving in towards us from the opposite side. But somehow this dude tripped and fell, and since we both had our arms wrapped around each other he took me down with him. With my forward momentum I essentially just fell on him. I hope it didn’t look like I intentionally did a takedown on him like in a wrestling match. I’m pretty sure it did, though. As we fell he was facing me so I was in danger of him kicking or punching me as I got up again. Amazingly, he didn’t.

Aggro dude still kept wanting to get away from us and do something, so the coworker who I was pushing him into grabbed him with me and we dragged him out to the corridor where he can enter the crowd again. We each had him by his arm and shoulder as we brought him out to the release area and let him go. Thankfully he did not turn around and come at us again, but he yelled and made a commotion like we were the bad guys. I walked back to my place in the pit and both coworkers and audience members gave me high fives and smiles for dealing with that. Turns out the band saw this fracas happening right in front of them and actually stopped playing their song. With all the adrenaline and intensity happening I didn’t even notice the absence of any music. The actions of that one crowd surfer interrupted the concert. The singer looked down at me and asked over the mic, “Did that guy do something wrong or something?” I nodded at him and said, “Yeah” and got back in position for the next crowd surfer. They started playing again.

Later in the same show, an audience member gestured to us that he needed out. Understandable with all the heat, sweat, over stimulation, and crushing force happening.  He was a white guy in his 20’s with only camo shorts on. I came over to assist with pulling the guy up over the barricade while the people around him moved back to make room. Got him over the steel barricade and when we put his feet on the ground he just collapsed like his legs didn’t work. I couldn’t tell if he passed out or had an injury or what. I started talking to him encouraging him to walk out with me. He would walk with us for a few steps, then go limp again. Was this guy pranking us? Was he losing consciousness? Was he having a medical incident? The security manager who hired me happened to be floating and came over to assist. We each had one arm and walked/dragged him out of the pit area into the corridor that leads back out into the middle of the audience.

The guy wouldn’t answer us but started making really odd moaning sounds. We had his arms securely and he wasn’t struggling, so we dragged him a short distance and stopped. It looks really bad to have to bouncers dragging a person’s limp body in front of everybody. Might make people think he died and we were dragging out his corpse. We kept trying to talk to him to get him to walk with us. He kind of started half walking with us, so we continued carrying him all the way through the entire venue floor towards the elevator. Then he started doing odd things with his legs. I wasnt sure if he was trying to kick out our feet, or trying to dance. At one point he lifted up his legs and pedaled them in the air like he was riding a bicycle. We had his arms, so why not?  He started shuffling along and moaning again, so I honestly considered the outcome that he was turning into a zombie. We got him in to the elevator but still kept a firm grip on his arms. A few months before I was hired there was a huge fight that moved into this elevator. Apparently numerous staff were punched and hurt in the melee. I couldn’t help but have the ghost of that story bouncing around my head while we held this guy in the elevator. It’s only two stories down to the entrance, but when you’re holding a non-communicative man who is either on drugs or turning into a zombie….that’s a long elevator ride.

We walked him out the front door and gently set him down outside on the sidewalk leaning against the wall. Everybody breathed a sign of relief that he didn’t lose his mind and start attacking us. I stood back and let the security manager lead this. He offered the guy water and asked his name and if we could help him and what happened to him. He was able to mumble something about breathing heavy, which we interpreted as having difficulty breathing. That combined with his nonsensical babbling and yelling lead us to call an ambulance to assess him. Some random person walked by and asked him if he took some bad meth. All of the sudden the guy got a panicked look in his eyes and started screaming and stood up. He was extremely agitated and charged at us so we tackled him to the ground. I got his legs securely and my manager had his torso. This dude started screaming at the top of his lungs and struggled like we were trying to murder him. The staff person on the phone quickly changed the nature of their call from medical to police. While being held on the ground this guy screamed things like, “THEY ARE RAPING ME! THEY ARE RAPING ME!” He howled like a banshee and tried to get up with two 220 pound men laying on him. I thought of those stories of people with extraordinary strength that don’t feel pain when on some drugs. Or mothers able to lift cars off of their child in an emergency. This dude was maybe 150 pounds but he seemed to have the strength of a horse. We all have walkie-talkie on our belts and he would look at each of them and scream, “THAT’S A GUN! THAT’S A GUN!!” Then he would switch between screaming and sobbing. He would get very quiet and say, “I hate myself so much.”

Remember this guy was only wearing some camouflage shorts. So his bare back, arms, and legs are scraping across the concrete as he struggles to get away from us. He’s got almost 450 pounds of bouncers on top of him and he’s squirming around and jerking and kicking. His exposed skin had to be bloodied and raw. His entire body is going to feel like he was in a motorcycle crash when he returns to the real world tomorrow. And this is the violent idiocy of recreational drug use. Dangerous and surreal.

Waiting for the police to arrive while you are holding an out of control person on the ground that doesn’t want you to also feels like an exceptionally long time. He stopped struggling and muttered nonsense to himself. A friend of his from the concert came out and smiled nervously when he saw his friend being held on the concrete by two bouncers. He came over and tried to calm the guy down by touching his chest and telling him it’s ok. The police and ambulance arrived and assisted us in releasing him to them without him ramping up again and charging anybody. They handcuffed him immediately and put him on a stretcher to go in the ambulance. He’s going to get assessed and likely detoxed from whatever he was on. He will either spend the night in Hooper Detox, or stay a night in the hospital on a psych hold depending.

Meth/cocaine/balt salts/rage virus….I guess I’ll never know what that guy was on.

My boss and I went back inside and thoroughly washed our hands and forearms. Apparently as the guy was being put in the ambulance he said, “This was the best concert of my life!”

I took a moment to gather myself and then returned to my place on the barricade. There were more crowd surfers that night, but nothing like those last two.

I remember thinking “Well, this is my Monday night. How crazy will Saturday be?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you flirting with me?

Like a lot of men, I’m not particularly skilled at knowing when a woman is flirting with me. I just write it off to the woman being talkative, or full of questions, or inebriated. I’ve honestly never considered myself that attractive. So throw in a pinch of insecurity and you end up with a guy that needs to be hit over the head with flirtation for it to sink in.

Except now that I work as a bouncer, the flirtations are crystal clear to me. This piece is about the silly flirtatious behavior that I can easily identify, meaningless as it is.

First off, I don’t want this to sound at all like I’m bragging. I’m not. I just find the extent of these drunken flirtatious anecdotes quite amusing. I am literally twice the age of some of the women in here. I know full well that these situations only occur because I am there at a venue or bar in a position of authority. And people are drinking and doing drugs while they are here. Therefore, their boundaries get blurry and their confidence spikes. What a great combination. I don’t consider myself a magnet for anything except talkative drunk people.

But now that I’m a bouncer/door guy at various music venues, things are slightly different. Lord above, things are different. All kinds of extra happy people just love to talk to me, ask me all the questions, and say ridiculous things. Being the bouncer, I’m the first person people interact with and the last person they see at the end of the night. Depending on the set up, people may have just those two interactions, or 10 more little conversations each time they pass me. Or they might come to where I am just to bend my ear and grab my elbow a dozen times while talking about the band playing there. I might end up calling them a cab, or catching them in my arms as they lose the battle with their high heels and vodka tonic. I do give out a lot of hugs.

The number one comment I get is some variation of “I love your dreads!” “Beautiful dreads!” Dudes will say, “Sick dreads, man.” One woman walked up to me and said, “I am obsessed with your dreads.’ I replied, “Obsessed? That’s….quite a word.” She back pedaled and said, “Well, ok obsessed sounds weird. But I just really love them.” I thanked her and smiled. I hear at least one comment about my dreads from a patron every night, and sometimes many more. Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered. And it usually starts a small conversation. But it’s also the most basic thing you can talk about. It’s the first thing you notice, and the first trait you would use to describe me. I’m a white guy with dreads in Portland, but I’m not a 21-year-old hippie stoner. Many times a patron will reach out to touch them or ask if they can touch my dreads. I’ve gotten used to pulling away and telling people firmly, “You shouldn’t touch people’s hair without asking.”

One dread-locked woman in her 30’s came in and I checked her ID. We had the typical mini-bonding session about dreads where we complimented each other and asked how long the other person has been growing them out. Then she said, “Can I Avatar you?” Luckily I knew what she meant. We each grabbed one of our own dreads and held them out towards each other. Then we touched the tips of our dreads to each other. She smiled and walked away into the venue. Each time we saw each other for the rest of the night we did this little ritual. And this has now happened several times with different people with dreads. (For those of you not in the know, this is from the 2009 James Cameron blockbuster film called AVATAR. The Na’vi have these fiber-optic tendrils that they hold up to each other. The tips of them connect and lock together with little blinky-light tentacles. Then they essentially mind-meld like in Star Trek, making a neural connection and sharing thoughts. The Na’vi connect their queues during mating to create a strong, emotional, and lifelong bond.) I really do appreciate the nerdy sci-fi reference when people do this. My coworkers usually stifle a chuckle when a dread-locked woman asks if she can Avatar me. And I don’t blame them. I laugh too.

Sometimes it’s just the usual drunken flirty comments like, “Are you single?” To which I smile and reply, “Nope. But I appreciate you asking.”  Or a woman puts her arm around me in a very intimate way and says something nice like, “This handsome bouncer right here will make sure that we’re safe all night.” Again, I just smile and say, “Yep.” A woman walking by me outside asked, “Oooooh, what is that cologne you’re wearing?” (It was probably a mixture of sweat and spilled beer, honestly.) One regular patron liked to call me Thor. I’ve been told that I look like the wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. And one rocker dude asked me if I was the lead singer of Morbid Angel, the Florida death metal band. One woman made a b-line to me from across the bar and said with dramatic pause, “What is your name? You……….are just………beautiful.”
Of course I smiled and thanked her. She asked my name and we chatted for a minute. She had enjoyed a few drinks, of course. And she was there with her fella.

That’s another consideration. Some people are trying to make the person that they are there with jealous by flirting with the bouncers. Some women like to see guys fight over them. Some people are just trying to make the big mean bouncers break a smile. Maybe even a bet was involved. “If I can make that bouncer smile in under 30 seconds you buy my next drink.” Some just honestly like teasing bouncers, or are showing off for their friends. I’ve had some people come in and say that their friends advised them that it’s always a good idea to befriend the bouncer on your way into the establishment. And that’s true. If you were nice to me coming in, and you come to me later about a disagreement, or that someone was rude to you, it is likely that I’ll side with you. Human nature. We are there to keep you safe, and kick out anybody that isn’t being safe.

I was outside the front doors on break and a woman who I already carded came back outside to talk to me. It was still daylight, and she had seen the Gonzo tattoo on my forearm from inside the bar. I am a huge fan of the author Hunter S. Thompson, and I have his symbol tattooed on my right arm. The one with the knife blade and the fist clutching a mushroom cap with his nickname “GONZO” as the hilt of the knife. It turns out that she has the same tattoo and wanted to show me, which was on her lower back right above her butt. Some folks call this the ‘tramp stamp’ area. So she turns around and bends over slightly to expose her tattoo. She was in the classic pin-up girl pose, where you bend over from your hips and look behind you. I’m bent over looking at her tattoo, which is indeed the same as mine. Then three coworkers walked outside and saw this strange sight. It probably looked like she was blatantly flirting by wagging her ass at me, with me bent over checking it out, close enough to grab it. They all smirked and quietly laughed at the scene. The woman and I went on to innocently talk about Hunter and which of his books were our favorites. My coworkers were skeptical when I told them that she and I had the same tattoo. Literature, people!

It’s the more specific and unusual compliments that I always remember and appreciate more. I’ve heard variations of this one a lot, “You’re the nicest bouncer here.” One guy said that I won the “Nicest bouncer ever” award. I loved it when a woman told me, “You have the most sincere smile of anybody in here.” I suppose a lot of bouncers don’t smile. I like to smile at people and attempt some sort of connection with everybody coming through that wants to connect. A particularly awesome compliment came from a red-haired woman wearing a willowy green and white dress. We chatted a few times throughout the night when she would pass through my area. I got the distinct feeling that she was Wiccan, or at least into magic and Goddess energy. At the end of the night she asked my name and said, “You have the kindest eyes.” I thanked her and chatted about the concert that just ended. I wished her a good night and she sort of spun circles out the door making her dress flare and said, “If the fates wish us to meet again then we will meet again.” Yes indeed, witchy woman, this is true.  I was tempted to say, “Blessed be,” but I held back.

After working in security in music venues for about a year and a half, I’d thought I’d heard it all. I was proven very wrong. A guy wearing tie-dye and John Lennon glasses walked past me and smiled and asked, “Have you ever done porn?” For once I was speechless. I started to laugh and he smiled. I said, “You got me with that one, buddy. That’s a first.” He walked into the music venue to see the show and I didn’t see him again. I did wonder exactly what he was asking though. Did I look like somebody he’d seen in a porn film? Or was he a porn director fishing for new talent? Was he wondering if I already was a porn actor, or if I would consider being a porn actor? Or was he just trying to embarrass me? I suppose I will never know. But he gave me the best laugh of the night.

Another valuable skill I’ve learned is dodging a kiss. People are just so happy, drunk, high, buzzed on seeing their favorite band, or all of the above that they want to kiss you. I have become adept at turning my body away from them, stabilizing them by holding their waist (side-hug), then moving my face away so they kiss my cheek instead of the intended mouth. I know other bouncers who don’t have this skill (or are single), and have been kissed full-on by a drunken patron. It’s a bit unprofessional as well. I was working a dance party one night and five women walked behind me to the exit. I felt a hand slip around my waist. It was the way you would grab your lover and only your lover, very intimate. This short young woman moved into kiss me and I turned so she only got my cheek. She smiled slyly and said, “I’m from Seattle.” I responded, “Welcome to Portland.” She followed her four friends out of the dance hall onto the next place.

Sometimes women flirt with me because they want something. Something like me overlooking an expired ID, letting them into a show without a ticket, or allowing them into the green room or backstage area without credentials. I can usually tell when it’s about to happen. The big exaggerated smile comes out, she sashays towards me, and pushes her breasts together with her arms. She might get really touchy and put her hands on my leg as she leans in super close to me. Often she pushes her breasts against me and asks me something like, “What would it take for you to let me backstage?” Having a steel will, a stubborn streak, and boundaries as clear as on world maps, I say, “A backstage pass laminate.” Seconds go by. Did she really think I was going to say, “Twenty bucks and a kiss?”  Hoping that I might be the person who can issue those, she says, “So how do I get one of those laminates?”  Like a teacher explaining how erosion works, I answer, “Well, the band members or tour personnel would have issued you a pass earlier today. It’s usually for family members and crew. You can’t purchase them.” She makes the sad pouty face and purses her lips and then slinks away. Lady, it isn’t 1982 at a Motley Crue concert. You don’t just get to go backstage because you’re hot.

One woman intentionally mashed her ample breasts into me while interrupting and asking me for some sort of favor. She didn’t pull away or act like it was an accident. She just kept them pushed against my chest and bicep awkwardly. My brain started playing The Police song “Don’t Stand so Close to Me.”  She’s so close now. This girl is half his age.
I was busy talking to another person and checking their ID or scanning their concert ticket while she did this. I had already been dealing with rude people and putting out fires all night. So I said loudly, “Ma’am could you please get your breasts off of me so I can do my job here?” The other people within earshot made wide-eyed expressions and the breast-masher looked embarrassed and moved away.

Most of these stories are relatively funny (I hope), but imagine if the gender roles were reversed. Imagine a man asking a woman in public if she has done porn? Picture a man making provocative but vague offers to a woman in return for a favor.  Picture a man trying to kiss a woman without consent, or pushing his body parts against a woman intentionally. All of that would be creepy at the very least and sexual harassment or sexual assault at the worst. And if it happened like that I would intervene and physically bounce the guy out of the venue. It gives me pause, and gives me issues to think about during the occasional boring moments at work. Double standards. Male privilege. Becoming numb to people’s drunken behavior and violating my personal bubble. Considering people’s increased awareness and dialogue about respect and consent and sexual harassment, it’s interesting that I brush this off and shake my head for the most part when it happens to me. Perhaps I should be more angry when this happens? I don’t feel like I’m being sexually harassed at the time. But perhaps I am? I certainly have more work to do around this. We all evolve. I know that I would be pissed if a man touched any of my female friends in the ways that some of these women touch me and my co-workers. But as bouncers we sign on for a job in which we know we could be punched, spit on, kicked, attacked, or even stabbed or shot. So I guess we know that we are in harm’s way for violence, or sexual harassment. It’s not right though. It’s an intriguing facet of the job that I will be giving some more thought to.

But in the meantime, I’ll keep writing down the funny shit people say to me. And by the way, I’ve never been single while I’ve worked in security. I’ve happily been with the same woman since 2015, and we got married in early 2018. So all this silly flirting is for naught, these women are barking up the wrong tree.
But if you have dreads, come by and maybe we can Avatar each other.