Image by Dylan Balliett
When I went to prison, Tool was my favorite band. Their debut album, Undertow, came out in 1993, and, as far as I was concerned, it was the creme-de-la-creme for metal at the time. The band seemed to redefine what heavy meant. They were alternative. The rhythms they played were mesmerizing, like tribal beats brought to life through a full band. Their melodies were full of soft texture, thanks to Maynard James Keenan’s distinctive voice. They were like a new Led Zeppelin. I was hooked.
That year, I saw Tool play the side stage of Lollapalooza, and Undertow was in regular rotation on my CD player. I had just found out about their first EP, Opiate, when I got locked up.
It’s been almost a year since I was released from prison, and I’ve been catching some concerts, but waiting for Tool last week at Saint Louis University’s Chafietz Arena felt different, like I had come full circle. Being there felt natural: I wasn’t the same giddy 22-year-old anymore, but I was more of a fan than ever. My relationship with the band had deepened and evolved. Tool’s music had stuck with me, even though I’d hardly been able to listen to it for decades.
Most federal prisons are in bumfuck: the mountains of West Virginia, the hills of Pennsylvania, the peaks of Kentucky. No radio stations. Well, yes, they have radio stations, but no metal or punk or alternative ones. No cool radio stations. I used to get magazines like Rolling Stone and VICE, but Tool were kind of reclusive and didn’t do many interviews. We didn’t have many metal magazines in prison, but the ones we got we would pass around.
What we did have in prison was band equipment: guitars, drums, PA, bass, amps. The prison recreation department ran a band program. I used to find like-minded dudes, and we would form bands. I made sure we always covered “Sober.” Everybody knew it and liked it. I couldn’t sing like Maynard, but I could sing the song. We would have band practice once or twice a week if we were lucky. The guitarists would get the sheet music in and we would figure it out. I knew the vocals from memory. They were locked in my brain.
For a while that’s what my relationship with Tool consisted of. Even though I couldn’t hear the music that much, the feelings of the songs stayed with me. I like Tool because they’re powerful and loud and rhythmic, but they’re also vulnerable. In prison I had to keep up a hard front 24/7. I can go hard. But it’s nice to relax, too, to not have to keep up the tough guy charade.
I did hear new Tool songs every now and then. With elaborate wiring in our cells, sometimes we could catch radio station waves in the middle of the night and rock out to some big city’s modern rock station. One time I was in transit at MDC Brooklyn, being held there while awaiting my transfer to another joint. I borrowed a guy’s radio and listened to a two hour show devoted to Tool in the middle of the night, gorging myself. It was pure gluttony—all the songs I had missed or rarely heard. Tool wasn’t the only band I liked—I was also a fan of Nine Inch Nails and The Pixies—but instances like this kept me tied to them.
Finally I transferred to a prison in West Virginia, FCI Gilmer, that had a decent CD listening program. It was a brand new prison, and I was one of the first 500 inmates or so there. I got them to order Undertow. Now not only could I play in a band and sing “Sober,” I could actually listen to it, along with the rest of the CD.
During my bid, Tool had released the albums AEnima and Lateralus, and they were on their way to putting out 10,000 Days. I’d read in one rock magazine or another that they’d won a bunch of critical acclaim. I wanted to listen to the new albums and immerse myself in the songs, but after I got the rec cop to order that one Tool CD I could never get him to order any more.
A couple of years before I got out they started offering MP3 players in the feds. I bought one and downloaded a bunch of songs. Tool was among the first bands I looked for when I was granted access to the TRULINCS system that lets federal prisoners purchase and download songs onto their MP3 players. But because of Tool’s licensing policies, or lack thereof, their music wasn’t available. I remained shut off from their music.
I was in for a surprise at the prison I was transferred to in Arkansas. This was my lay down joint, the last prison I would do time at. I’d been in going on two decades, and all the rowdiness had run its course. I was just trying to do my time and go home. FCC Forrest City has an awesome music department up in recreation, and it just so happened that the inmate running the program was a big Tool fan. He had all of their CDs, but, keeping to Tool’s exclusivity, very few inmates were allowed to listen to them. Dude was the music clerk, and he knew if you let a lot of dudes listen to the CD it’s going to get fucked up. So only a certain few got to listen to it. I worked my way in, though.
I spent many afternoons in rec listening to those CDs, finally hearing the full albums and even the full songs all the way through as they were supposed to be listened to. I found out about “The Pot” and “Forty Six &2” and “Stinkfist” and more. I had heard these songs fleetingly at one time or another, but this was my first time to really devour them. This was in 2010. To think that I had waited so many years to hear an album. But it was worth it. The songs permeated into my psyche. They were powerful and decisive; I didn't have much choice but to like them.
At Forest City, I became a member of a cover band devoted entirely to Tool. We started out with “Sober” and other material from Undertow, but we quickly progressed to more exquisite stuff like “Jambi,” “Vicarious,” and “Schism.” It was challenging music, but the dudes I was playing with were very competent. I was no match for Maynard, but we made it work, jamming out two times a week. Playing in that Tool cover band was a big prison highlight for me. We had 11 songs perfected, and we even played a concert before I went to the hole. I channeled Maynard to the Tool fans on the yard, screaming my lungs out. Covering Tool was exhausting.
When I got back out from my SHU trip two months later, the band had replaced me with another singer. I let it go because the guy really sounded better singing the songs than I did. But it was bittersweet listening to a different singer play with my dudes after we had jammed together for over a year and built a set list of Tool songs. Still, I used to go watch them sometimes just to get in my fix of the music.
I thought about the past as I waited for Tool to take the stage in St. Louis. Seeing the band live was a wholly different experience from belting my own renditions to prison Tool fans on the yard. At Lollapalooza, Maynard had been in a dress with the back open, writhing around the stage like a snake. He’d seemed like a demon. I’ll admit I was tripping on acid, but I swore I saw his vertebrae move as he slithered. Yet I’d read a lot in the preceding years about him hiding behind speakers while he was singing and stuff like that. He is now notoriously stage shy. I don’t know why he changed. The pressures of fame? I guess the years took a toll on Maynard.
When the band finally came on and played “No Quarter,” Maynard was nowhere to be seen. The drummer, guitarist, and bass player were all spotlighted, but not Maynard. Finally I spotted him on the extended drum riser, singing in darkness, stuck in the shadows. I could barely make him out. He was wearing what looked like riot gear, either a cop’s SWAT uniform or a soldier’s equipment. Either way, Maynard was in full battle mode, gesticulating wildly at times, but hiding in the darkness.
It was a bit of a disappointment, but that’s Maynard’s MO, that air of exclusivity. He keeps himself separate and aloft from others. Even though he does it to be an anti-rock star, he is really playing the rock star role to the T. This emanates to the rest of the band, and it’s made them a commodity with a passionate fan base. I wished Maynard would put on more of a show. The band didn’t play “Sober,” “Prison Sex,” or anything from Undertow at all. But they played a bunch of awesome songs—“Parabola,” “Schism,” “Jambi.” I remembered the band practices where I could escape from the monotony and politics of prison life. Being at the concert was great. It was like being back in that band room, but I was free.
It’s been a long journey for Tool and me, but I have access to them now: to the sonic blast of their music and the constant rhythm in my head. To the songs’ melodies filling the empty spaces. Their music is stark, honest and brutal, a refreshing crescendo assaulting my ears.