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A Library Full of Empty Maps

By Nathan Payne | pablosmoglives | 2 Feb 2023

I grew up on 80s metal.  Maybe not.  Most likely, I grew up on radio pop, the most interesting figure of which was probably Prince (who was admittedly interesting), and discovering aggressive 80s guitar music was one of the ways I "found myself" in the adolescent heavy metal mallscape of the time.  Heavy Metal separated me from the mainstream culture, while also providing a cohesive social structure that affirmed my existence as a weirdo, or maybe a freak.  Possibly even a dork.  The metal kids accepted me.

I went to a private Lutheran school between 7th and 9th grade, and though my family was middle class, I was one of the poorest kids in the school.  In  hindsight, the other kids probably weren't really "rich," but relative to the time and place, they were definitely well off.  I never fit in, and 3 years around those kids taught me a distrust and disdain for upper-middle class people that I carried around for another 20 years.  Jocks, preppies, cheerleaders.... rats and idiots all.  I couldn't stand them.  Clean and smug and fancy.  What a bunch of douchebags.

Between Freshman and Sophomore year, I tried to live with my dad.  I went down to his place somewhere in the Atlanta area, but was literally chased out of the house by my verbally- and emotionally-abusive stepmother.  My dad's job kept him away from the house for days at a time, and when he was gone she would berate and deride me, at one point actually chasing me around the house, like a scene from some kind of weird, psycho-ridiculous horror movie.  I locked myself in the closet so she couldn't get to me, ignored her disdainful, abusive attempts to shame me into hanging out with the local yuppie douchebags, wondered what her problem was, and at the end of the summer returned to my post-industrial blue-collar "hometown" (where I grew up, but wasn't born) in the Midwest.

I told my mom there was no way I was going back to that preppy school on the north side of town, so she enrolled me in the public school.  I showed up for my first day of Sophomore year wearing the dress code to which I'd become accustomed:  khaki-type pants, a polo shirt, non-sneaker-type shoes.  I walked into the school full of ratty metalheads and even though I stuck out like a sore thumb, I felt more comfortable.

The metal kids accepted me.  All the blue-collar kids with ripped heavy metal T-shirts and torn jeans, who smoked cigarettes while showing off the engines of their cars in the parking lot at lunch, who skipped class and had hot girlfriends with huge 80s hair and pale, sickly drug-chick complexions, and who ripped their Metallica T-shirts to show off their cleavage, all took me in.  I was never entirely accepted by everyone, of course, and was never a "pillar" in any kind of scene (I've always been a loner), but I was accepted by a group of metal dudes, most of whom made up the lower-brass section of the high school band.

It was funny.  Our school spirit was so low, our morale so indifferent, that our band teacher would let us play the halftime show at football games in our street clothes.  Everybody hated the uniforms, and while we weren't hostile (it was the 80s), the teacher didn't push it.  So we'd march onto the field in our Megadeth T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, playing the school song and some American anthems as required, before walking back up to the bleachers to crack jokes and play "Am I Evil?," which sounds really funny played on lower brass instruments by amateur high-school kids.  The tuba player would play the rhythm guitar part, and me and the baritone guy would chime in with the power chords on top of it.  I played the trombone.

Here's a tablature I made of "Am I Evil?" in high school.  I transcribed 2/3 of Metallica's Kill 'Em All before Cherry Lane Publishing finally came out with the official book.  I didn't party in high school.  I played guitar.


80s metal is what made me pick up the guitar.  I had been interested in piano, and wanted to play like Bruce Hornsby in "The Way It Is," among whatever all else was available to my eardrums at the time.  Remember what I said about radio pop?  It was true.  There was no urbane, artistically-challenging musical experience to be had in Rockford, Illinois in the mid 1980s.  Maybe ZZ Top would come to town.  I did see Mötley Crüe about 1,000 times.  They played constantly.  But before that, there was Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, "Material Girl," and songs like this:

My first concert was John Cougar Mellencamp for the Scarecrow tour.  Which album I still like.  There was no Ramones, no post-punk, with maybe the exception of the one suicidal gay kid who liked Joy Division and The Cure.  I never had a problem with him, but that kid was really alone.  Also, the bass player of the high school jazz band was ridiculously accomplished, somehow.  I never understood where he came from, or why he was so great.  Rockford was a dying Midwestern industrial town full of middle- or lower-middle class white-trash metalheads.  Chicago is less than 100 miles away, but it might as well be on the moon, for all the cultural difference there is.  There was no Velvet Underground in Rockford, nothing experimental, no psychedelic anything.  We didn't even have The Beatles.  We did have Classic Rock, or what I refer to these days as "Beer-Belly Rock;" The Beatles probably got played on those stations, but those stations were for old people who drank Coors Light and listened to Bob Seger.  None of my thrash-metal friends were listening to them, and neither was I.  I'm not knocking it.  It just was.

We were like the kids in River's Edge, without the homicidal edge and creepy Boomer friend played by Dennis Hopper.  We looked like that, with the feathered hair and jeans, the denim vests that smelled like cigarettes, the crappy sneakers.  We listened to Slayer, S.O.D., and Megadeth, and burned New Kids On The Block merchandise by the river to "Blackened" by Metallica.  I'm not knocking it.  It just was.

Actually, I am knocking it.  Not "it" as a cultural phenomenon that existed for a very short time in a very specific place; I'm not knocking that.  I am knocking the monochromatic, constipated guitar tone and the ridiculous technical perfection of the "guitar solos" of the period.  I have such a disdain for "guitar solos" that I can't even use the phrase without framing it in scare quotes.  The uptight, solid state tone, the ridiculous attention given to the technical mastery of the instrument, while leaving the actual sound of the music chained to an ugly post in a backyard with no foliage, is hard not to mock.  I mean, listen to it.  It's terrible, right?

One of my cool uncles gave me a cassette tape of Flying in a Blue Dream at the abusive nightmare house near Atlanta, and I was an instant Joe Satriani fan.  I'm not posting the song and saying it's terrible because I hate it from the position of some smug, self-important urbane scenester douchebag from Chicago who's going to compare it to every piece of esoteric vinyl ever pressed and dismiss it with an air of aloof superiority indicative of an artless control freak who likes obscure, mediocre 70s rock because it reminds him of that which he does not possess, namely talent (that guy is as much an enemy of art as the meatheads, in the opposite way); I'm saying it's terrible because I used to really like it, and in fact Flying in a Blue Dream is one of the reasons I picked up the guitar.  I used to own all Satriani's albums up to a certain point.  The first 4 or 5 at least.  

But listen to it.  Okay great, he can play.  So what.  How stupid are we?  Is it actually enough just to hear some guy run circles around a fretboard with tiresome exactitude?  Do we genuinely enjoy listening to a technical master run laps around himself on an empty track with struggle-proof, mechanical precision?  I mean, this is an art form and not a sport, right?  A means of expression, and not a math class we attend with our ears.  Right?  Good.  I thought so.  So, since it's a sonic form of artistic exploration, I have one simple, obvious question:  What Does It Actually Sound Like?

A bunch of mechanical bumblebees exposing themselves to horrified females on the subway of technical perfection?  Is this egomaniacal exhibitionism?

In other words, is this the sound of something already found?

Or is it the sound of something we are looking for?  Something sought after, hoped and yearned for, dreamed about, and maybe even gained?

Do we carry fireworks in our souls?  Snack food, firecrackers, idiot potato chips?

Or is our sound a library full of empty maps?  Blank pages upon which we scribble the incomprehensible notes of our would-be, wannabe, and maybe even actually-be discoveries?

The latter, I would hope.  It's certainly what I am aiming for.

And anyway, what are we looking for?  Mastery of the instrument?  A slippery tone like a clear, still lake?  

Or something different?

I bought Blood Sugar Sex Magik when it came out, and the way my friends reacted, you'd think I was listening to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.  What's that aberrant noise?  Where are the solos?  I don't understand the "guitar work."  Guitar work.  Ugh.  The phrase makes me shudder the way you might shudder if you were standing in front of an open refrigerator full of rotten meat.  "Guitar work."  UGH.  It's cool if you're impressed by Dave Lombardo's double-kick "drum work" on Slayer's latest solid-state, monochrome riff-fest about serial killers and war, or gush over Geddy Lee's bassline in an indecisive Rush song that changes its time signature every 2.32 bars, but God forbid you listen to something in which the guitar player tries something different, or perhaps simply complements the overall sound without drawing attention to himself.  I felt like Bill Hicks talking to a waitress at Waffle House, explaining why he's reading, just listening to a mainstream band like Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Which, though it's a quarter of a century later than Blood Sugar Sex Magik, I think this is probably one of the best music videos in the history of the medium.  I never liked the Jane's Addiction guitarist phase, the solid-state 80's metal-type guitar solo guy stage of the band, but this is a great song and video.  For going on a tangent's sake:

Because really, what would you rather listen to?  An artist searching for something different, even at the risk of committing the great 80s sin of being out of tune?  Maybe even losing his soul to depression, extreme anti-social neuroses, and heroin addiction.  Or would you rather hear some smiling guy pleasuring himself effortlessly from an ivory tower of phallic infallibility?

Give me the former, every time.

Even though it's the point of this article, I won't bother posting my own work here, which is rife with examples of intentionally-underplayed guitar parts, layers of incomprehensible noise comprised of 3 or 4 guitars (or bass guitars) stepping on each other's feet in a bid for sonic dominance (or perhaps to intentionally muddy things up), or stretches of straight-up empty and boring plains upon which no visible structures exist, and across which it is possible to see for miles.  I have spent my entire discography distancing myself and/or attempting to break free from the technically-precise material I grew up on.  The playlist of "Greatest Hits" albums is a good place to start.  I've had hundreds of songs to get out of my face, and unfortunately haven't had as much opportunity to go spelunking into the unknown like John Frusciante, since, like children, the songs demand to be heard and, since I am a doting, protective father, they have been the center of my world for decades.  But...  I haven't written a song in a long time.  Maybe this is why.  Maybe I should get a new recording program and start making non-linear excursions into the spontaneous abstractions of noise on a more regular basis.  Cuz I have done it.  More than twice.  But not like this.  Not an entire album's worth.  Or period, even.  Hundreds of recordings of the sound of a weird, unsightly little submersible scraping the sides of the abyss, descending paradoxically into a state of elevated, if hopefully not lofty, bliss that comes with actual discovery.  At least, discovery for me.  Forget the linear guitar songs.  Let's do something fun, for a change.

Heavy Metal is why I picked up the guitar, but I'm prejudiced against it.  Meaning, I'm against it because of what it is.  Not because I hate it.  I'm prejudiced against it because I used to like it, and even though I'm not in contact with any of those guys anymore, all my friends from high school have never even tried to listen to another kind of music.  Ever.  Going back to Rockford, you'd think it was still Heavy Metal Parking Lot 1989 (unless you're one of the younger Millennials who have changed the cultural landscape of the town, probably for the better).  It's Heavy Metal Parking Lot with mortgages, IT jobs, and less hair.  I'm not a foodie, but those guys from high school are like the kid who decides he likes hot dogs and mac & cheese at the age of 13 and never tries any other kind of food for the rest of his life.  No other food of any kind.  Hot dogs and mac & cheese ad infinitum, in a loop, like a donut eating its own tail, around and around in circles, forever.  It's ridiculous.

To their credit, Metallica has evolved somewhat over the years.  Still within the confines of their chosen oeuvre, but that's okay.  Social Distortion hasn't reinvented their wheel either.  Most people don't.  I haven't listened to Metallica for over 30 years, but I'm glad they're still kicking.  As a superfan of their old-school stuff, I wish them well.  Even the old stuff doesn't really do it for me anymore, mostly, but of course, it doesn't have to.  Some kid will find it, and maybe it will turn his interest away from the fake sound product in "this era of fake demonic idiot-pop, monosyllabic children's strip-club music, retro-progressive cultural devolutionism, and Kanye West," and on to something else.  Maybe it will make him want to play guitar, and he and his scrappy neo-River's Edge peers will start a band, and one of them will be the Zoomer-plus Lemmy from Motörhead, and another one will be some strange artistic mutation of John Frusciante, or John Keats, or Nico.  Maybe there will even be a suicidal gay kid hanging around, for whom they can play the occasional Joy Division cover.  And maybe they won't kill themselves, as a result of belonging to some neolithic gang of car-mechanic metalheads.  However technically precise.

I know those lower-middle class white-trash metal kids saved me, back in the day.  They saved me from the yuppies, the jocks, the cheerleaders, the rich kids.  The lyrics of the genre might be ridiculously serious, humorless, and pretentious for the most part, the extreme technical precision of the playing might be distracting, and the guitar tone might sound like a synthetic, constipated bumblebee, but none of that will ever sway me from the opinion that Metallica's "Orion" is one of the best pieces of music ever written.  By anybody, anywhere.  Ever.

Life is just a phase, anyway.  If some of it is spent on some overdriven, solid-state guitar music, so be it.  Or maybe you choose to spend your entire life in episode 42 of Heavy Metal Parking Lot 1986 (Old Guys Rule).  Why not.  Knock yourself out.  If musical minimalism has no value for you, and you prefer your library to be full of maps that have technically-accurate directions on them (as opposed to blank, empty sheets), and you really like music played to perfection (which Nels Cline admits in one of the videos above, is not entirely without beauty or value), go for it.  There's not really anything better or worse about any of it.  It's just music.  If I pop the hood and you find some ants crawling around some weird, senseless guts of incomprehensible noise and tasteful anti-playing that serves the material instead of itself, and you wonder how I can get around since your engine operates with well-oiled technical precision, hey, it's cool.  More power to you.  It doesn't matter.  It's just music.

I'm not prejudiced against you anymore.  I just wrote my way through that minefield.  You won't see me at the show, but it doesn't matter.  

You did save my life once, and for that I will always be grateful.

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Nathan Payne
Nathan Payne

I am a songwriter and bandleader who travels the world in search of the golden ticket.


Replacing my blog at

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