The past decade has been loaded with tragic deaths for metalheads. We’ve lost some of the greats, among them Ronnie James Dio, Pete Steele of Type O Negative, Joey LaCaze of Eyehategod, Paul Gray of Slipknot, Dave Brockie of GWAR, Warrel Dane of Nevermore, Jeff Hanneman of Slayer, Malcolm Young of AC/DC, Jason McCash of The Gates of Slumber, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, and fucking Lemmy, whose former partner in crime Wendy O. Williams also left us way too soon. That’s not even counting the metal-adjacent icons like horror director Wes Craven and, most recently, outsider celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Every time one of them dies, social media blows up with praise, memories, and heartfelt condolences. And lately, the catchphrase of the hour that comes with it is, “Rest in power.”
“Rest in power.” Man, fuck that. What an unnecessary toughening of death. What an obvious attempt to not sound like a weakling, and try to make death all about kicking ass. “Rest in power,” as though all that matters when you die is toughness and influence and all the other bullshit you’ve been forced to care about during this long, tiresome life.
Why do we do it? How do we spend so much time listening to music about death, only to gussy it up in a muscle suit when life’s tiresome battle comes to a close?
Culturally, “rest in power” is a more loaded term than most people on the Internet might think. These days, the term is heavily used in reference to those who died unjustly, and their inability to truly find peace while the system that unfairly killed them remains in power (it’s currently the name of a book about the murder of Trayvon Martin). This has extended out to other icons whose legacies of action and energy seem at odds with eternal sleep. As such, it almost feels like a term for ghosts, lost souls who cannot rest until things have been made right.
But that’s not the “Rest in power” that crosses my Twitter and Instagram feeds every time some tattooed riff lord dies. I don’t get the feeling metalheads are saying, “Ralph Santolla of Obituary and Deicide cannot rest until we cure cancer.” The vibe I get is that heshers want their musical idols to be standing on some stone dais killing demons with guitars that shoot lightning. And hey, if you want to see that, go put something up on Deviantart. But in the face of actual death, that feels so much smaller than the truth. It’s the obvious defense mechanism of a culture whose engine runs on skull tattoos.
The size of the asterisk metalheads put next to their love of death is astounding. Songs about vicious battles and chainsaw mutilation are fucking rad, but discussing actual murder and execution is uncalled for. This became clear to me when I briefly wrote a column for Metalsucks called ‘Metal Ways To Die’, focusing on brutal and dramatic methods of death throughout history. I expected metalheads to get it, to understand that death is both ugly and fascinating. Instead, the comments section was full of people calling me sick and casting me as some psycho jacking off to torture porn.
When death is a fantasy happening to hypothetical victims, metalheads love the idea of impalement or decapitation—but the harsh realities of death either never cross their minds or are too real to consider. All the Metalocalypse-ish talk about brutality is just another wall erected between the listener and the truth, like hair metal’s unrealistic sex or power metal’s sword-and-honor warfare. When it comes time to really talk about death, the people whose T-shirts read “Only Death Is Real” are the first ones to wear the kid gloves of the religions they so often rally against.
It’s especially weird how often fans of a genre that proudly spits in the face of the afterlife want to believe there’s an afterlife. Lyrically, metal usually focuses on two post-mortal themes: a) there’s nothing, and this life is Heaven or Hell depending on what we make of it; or b) there’s Hell, which’ll be full of fire and awesome Boschian demons with flamethrowers for cocks (the common Door #3 is Valhalla, the eternal mead hall of Viking warriors killed in battle, but let’s be real, that’s just Heaven with booze and punching).
The minute their idols die, though, metalheads paint this rosy picture of some cosmic reward for rocking so hard. Randy Rhoads and Cliff Burton must be jamming with Chuck Schuldiner in some arena on Fiddler’s Green, right? But didn’t those dudes rock enough in life? Should they now have to live out the cliché of winking down at us from the clouds? Or are we so scared of our own lives ending that we have to imagine the musicians we admire living on forever? Come on, guys, after all this talk about death and darkness, I thought we’d be better than that.
This doesn’t mean it’s metal to be callous towards death, which is its own display of weakness. It’s about confronting death for what it is, both a physical reality and an emotional tragedy. Some high-profile metalheads have done this right: Randy Blythe of Lamb of God had the stones to visit the parents of the Czech fan for whose death he was put on trial, and though I find their PR tactics corny as fuck, Ghost showed real class by stopping their show upon discovering an attendee had died and helping to raise money for his family. But notice how none of these musicians painted their dead fan as some ass-haulin’ demigod. They just laid ‘em to rest.
Because let’s be honest, that’s what a lot of these guys wanted. I never got the feeling that Pete Steele made music to conquer the world, and one look at Lemmy’s apartment told you that he wasn’t trying to show off. Like most artists, the metal gods made music because it completed them. It gave them purpose. Now that they’re dead, I hope they never have to worry about anything again, and I doubt they care about their names echoing throughout eternity.
That, I get. All I ever do is fight for what little control I can get. I work my ass off and try my best to help those I love. But usually, the world around me feels like the tide, moving according to rhythms I can’t control and always ready to sweep away any progress I make. And yet my dream isn’t that when all this is over, I get to be the one in charge. I don’t want a fucking speedboat to crash through the tide with. That sounds exhausting. The point of life, I’ve always thought, is that after it’s over, I get to go to bed. No service fees, no hangnails--bam, I’m out. I wish the same for everyone, but especially for those dudes who spent their lives sweating and screaming so I could feel less alone.
I know metal is all about going bigger and louder than most of us get to be in our boring lives. But that’s why death is special. It allows us to look inwards rather than stretch outwards, because it reminds us of truths bigger and louder than anything we can imagine. We’re all made of meat, and we’re all going to die. And yeah, that sucks. But what’s worse is struggling against the reality of it by trying to make it cool. This is the one honest moment anyone ever gets to have in this world. Don’t ruin it by telling them how swole they look.
Christopher Krovatin is dead alive on Twitter.