Saturday, January 25, 2014


Many times, during a run, I find myself talking to my body.
I am not talking to myself. I am talking to the vessel carrying me across the path.
I have had that kind of relationship with my body for years, decades, really, since I began climbing mountains and trying to find a way to work through the altitude sickness and reach the top. I treat my body as if it has a conscience. It works for me. If it makes me look a little New Agey, well, that's OK.
But before Arizona a week ago, since the Chicago Marathon in October, I'd been in a spat with my body. Cramps ravaged me in Chicago despite a wonderful first half, and I was pissed at it. This wasn't rational, but spats rarely are, even to the point where I refused to acknowledge that I pushed it too hard, too fast. I refused to acknowledge, in other words, that the fight was mostly my fault.
As a result, for the first time since I began running in 2005, I found myself having to push myself to get outside. I almost fell into a depression, and I probably would have, if depression wasn't a selfish luxury that my busy Dad life can't afford. I ran out of habit, or to get my golden retriever puppy out, or a way to escape the house for a half hour or so. I didn't run out of joy. And when I ran, I was silent. I didn't talk to my body at all. I was alone.
I even faked it on Twitter occasionally, tweeting that I was recovered from the marathon, ready to go, blah blah blah.
I now understand what was wrong. Something really is wrong. I've downplayed it a bit on Facebook and Twitter, but I'm dealing with a doozy here, and yet it's a doozy that doesn't sound like it should be a doozy. It sounds like something your 94-year-old grandfather should be battling.
My sinuses are a mess.
Years ago, I'd get a sinus infection with every cold. If you haven't had one, try pouring rubber cement and a razor blade in your nose, then do a lap around the track 20 times wearing a sweater. The Netti Pot took care of the chronic problem for a few years. But I got a cold in late August, while training for the marathon. Then the flood hit, and I worked two weeks into one, most of it under rain and in sewage and rivers, and all of it was emotionally draining. Did I keep training? Of course I did.
The sinus infection that came probably as a result hasn't gone away. In fact, after a brief time when I thought the drugs had worked, the infection's gotten worse.
There's been some pain, a near-constant stuffy head and a general feeling of being run down, like all I can do once my kids go to bed on most nights is go to bed after them. I have seen a specialist, and I'm getting a CT scan in a couple weeks. I wouldn't be surprised if surgery wasn't next.
The only thing that kept me running was Arizona. I was going to run the Rock and Roll Half on Jan. 19, and if I was going to travel to a place to run a race, I wasn't going to suck at it. I may not PR, and the chances of me even turning in a decent race were pretty slim, I thought, but I would not suck. That would be a waste of time and money and my Get Out Of Jail free card from the spouse.
At times, running sucked. My sinuses weren't draining, so all that poison went down my throat, not out of my nose. Fun. So at the start of every run, I choked to the point of nearly puking for at least two miles. After one especially tough run, I was on my knees for 10 minutes, spitting and coughing, at a park while others stared.
Three weeks before Arizona, though, just in the nick of time, my body seemed to rally. I could breathe. My legs, unburdened with speed workouts, seemed bouncy. My attitude improved. So did my outlook on running. I put in some good miles, and I even began to enjoy them.
This led me to the morning of the race. I was in the first corral, the badass corral, having no idea whether I belonged to be there. I always tell people to be thankful before the start of a race. It had been a tough few weeks, and I chose, instead, to wait to see what happened.
At mile 3, when I passed my running partner, I turned to her and said "today's going to be a good day."
I tell people to be thankful because you don't know when some shit's gonna go down and you won't be able to run any longer. One of my closest friends is going through that now. My partner, one of the toughest people I know, had some recurring back problems that day, even though she still finished strong. You just don't know.
This ending isn't perfect. I've felt pretty lousy the last couple of days, and I won't feel myself until doctors fix what's wrong. That could take another two months, and that may be best-case. But until then, I'll think back to that day in Arizona, when I ran my second-best half ever, at 1:36, and I thanked my body many times for responding the way it did.
I thanked my body as I talked to it continually throughout the race. And when I did, it felt to me like old friends sharing a pot of coffee.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Chicago Marathon

When I first started running, a marathon seemed like an impossible feat. But if you did it, if you somehow managed to run 26 miles, your time didn't matter. 
That changed when I started running them. 
As with any other race, it was never enough to finish. I had to beat them. I'm not exactly proud of that. But it was what attracted me to running in the first place. Every year I saw progress. That progress was intoxicating. I measured that progress by my times.
My first marathon didn't go well. I cramped up to the point where I couldn't run after mile 20. I had to do better, and next year, I did. I ran the whole way, with no cramping, and finished well. I began to think I could do even better. 
Last year, I ran a small marathon in South Carolina with some good friends. It was a wonderful experience. I ran a solid time, even PRd by a minute, but I believed it could have been so much better. Cramping, again, slowed me down. I didn't feel too bad about it, but there was an asterisk next to it.
That's why I targeted the Chicago Marathon. I thought I was finally ready to run fast and hard for a long time, just like I did in my half marathons. I wanted that perfect race. I even dreamed of qualifying for Boston.
The Boston Marathon is the crown jewel of marathons. I thought it about it a lot. I wondered how good it would feel to cross the finish line, and this is embarrassing to say, post on Facebook and see the accolades pour in. I wanted to shock people. I wanted to shock myself. I especially wanted to shock all those people who picked on me when I was much younger for, among other things, being a lousy athlete. 
I didn't approach the Chicago Marathon to qualify for Boston. But I wasn't afraid of trying. I told myself I would run what felt good, but that I would also push it. I knew, going in, that it was risky to run a hard first half, given what happened in South Carolina last year. But I wanted to try it.
I tried not to obsess about it. I was still a father, and a husband, and a guy with a job. For the most part, I didn't. I would think about it late at night, when everyone else was asleep. Or when I'd go on one of my frequent training runs. Everything seemed to point to a great marathon. My six half marathons all went well this year, and I PRd three times. I  knew the course was usually cool and flat almost the whole way. 
I really, honestly thought I was ready. I was wrong.
But this is not a sob story about another failed attempt at a perfect marathon. It is an examination of the human spirit - not my own - and how a little kindness can ease a painful situation and leave you with a smile on your face.
• • •
Marathons bring out the best in people, but I always thought it was the runners who benefitted, not the people watching. When the cramps hit in my first, other runners stopped to share pretzels, bananas and their drinks. A marathon, if you hadn't guessed by now, is unpredictable, and all you can do is plan for the worst and pray for the best. These runners had planned for the worst, meticulously, in fact, and at mile 20, when the worst was probably yet to come, they crumpled up and threw that planning and caution in the trash to help a fellow runner who they didn't know. Marathoners bond over the grueling training and distance of the race, and they cheer each other when they pass, talk about their plans and offer words of encouragement about their training.
I changed my mind a little bit about spectators after Boston, when it was the spectators, not the runners, who felt most of the bombs' wrath, and yet many others stepped forward to help the runners after the explosions. There were stories about neighbors bringing out water and juice and fruit for the trapped runners who wouldn't get to finish.
So I was excited to run Chicago because I'd never been in a race that attracted a lot of spectators. Chicago, I was told, had spectators three deep, all 26 miles of the course, for a total of 1.7 million. It seemed almost impossible to comprehend. Surely, I thought, those people had to be passive. There were 45,000 running the race. Wouldn't your hands hurt from clapping so much?
• • • 
It was a cool morning, almost too perfect, when me and a friend strolled out of our hotel to walk the mile to the race. It was dark, but I could sense the anticipation of the other runners as they swept past me. I was not the only one, it seemed, who had high hopes for the race. My friends, three of them who traveled with me, had the same high hopes. Everyone does before a race. 
By that point, I was already blown away by the enormity of it all. The race expo was big. HUGE. There were booths from every major apparel and shoe company. Hal Higdon, whose plan I followed for my marathons, was there. The walkway had to be the size of at least a football field, if not two, and it went five rows deep. 
The city, too, was massive. Think about the fact that I liked Denver, and enjoyed Denver, but considered Denver too big for my tastes. Chicago seemed three times as large as Denver. It probably is. 
I walked around the city with wide eyes, trying, at first, to avoid contact with anyone who came in my way. I had assumed that people in large cities were hurried, busy and, well, a little rude. Again, I'm not proud of that, but that was the mid-sized city in me. My fears seemed justified, too, when the first desk clerk at the hotel hissed at our request for a late check-out to grab a quick shower after the race. Too many people, she said, would want one.
I began to change my mind when strangers would look us over while waiting for a light at the street corner, then smile and ask if we were running. They didn't have to ask about the race. Just "are you running?" When we said yes, they would tell us good luck.
So my fears about Chicago had dissipated as we walked toward the race. But as the race began, I would be pleasantly surprised. 
Almost euphorically so.
• • • 
I felt good as the race began, but I always feel good the first few miles of a marathon. It's a deadly trap. I told myself, over and over, to slow down, and so I was careful about sticking to my plan. But even my plan was aggressive, and I was happy to realize it felt good. As soon as two years ago, my pace would have PRd my half by four minutes. But it had been two years. Again, I thought I was ready for it. I was barely breathing hard as my pace crept down to 7:35 per mile. I felt elated. Maybe this would be THE race.
By the time I crossed the halfway mark at 1:41, I was a little concerned. If I stopped now, I thought, I'd be tired. I'd consider that a pretty good race. I might even have a hard time making it back to my hotel without limping a touch. But I was confident, too, that I had run smart.
The thing was, yes, I ran well, and yes, I felt elated, but my stomach was a little crampy. I began to walk through the aid stations to try to get more fluids in my body, but that seemed to make it worse, and I was having trouble breathing. It was as if someone had inflated a balloon in my mid-section. Well, I thought, I'd just have to back off on fluids and nutrition for a bit. 
Well, that works in a half. I've ran whole halves without eating or drinking a damn thing. A marathon is two halves. And this would be a tale of two of them.
My calves began to twitch at mile 16. I knew that wasn't good. I changed my running style a bit, and it seemed to work, for a while, anyway. I threw down a 7:50 mile and prayed I'd be OK. 
Prayers don't work in a marathon. I'm sorry if that offends your religious nature. But they don't.
By mile 18, the road sloped down a touch, into a short tunnel, and when I came out the other side, my hamstring began tightening. OK, OK, I whispered to it, gently. We'll take it easy. But my hamstring froze, and I couldn't move my right leg. I was helpless. Pain radiated down my leg and into my foot. I felt like the tin man without his oil can.
A police officer approached me. "Are you OK?" he asked. "Yes," I said, and it was the truth. I was positive, lucid and had energy.
I just couldn't move.
"Cramps?" the officer said.
"Yeah," I said. "This is the marathon for you."
"Well," he said, "if you need me to support you, you just lean on my shoulder and let me know, OK?"
I almost began tearing up. Here was an officer who had a lot on his mind, like, you know, terrorism. Chicago was the biggest race since Boston. It was a natural target. And there's always crowd control. But he seemed more worried about me.
That's when I looked around me, and I saw a group of about 50 all cheering for me. "YOU GOT THIS COLORADO" many yelled, referring to my tank top with the Colorado flag out front. I smiled and gave a little wave, and they nearly burst my eardrums.
I"d never experienced anything like it in my life. 
I began to walk, to work out the cramp, but I had no hopes at that point of my best race. I knew I'd have to play cat and mouse with the cramps. I could run, but it would only be for a while, and then I'd have to stop to ward them off again. I hoped I could still run, say, 3:30 or 3:35. It seemed realistic. I'd only have to run a half slower than any time I'd run in five years.
I continued to walk, and then I jogged a bit and took a look around. The spectators were roaring at this point. It was almost unnerving. They were shaking signs, hilarious ones at that, stuff that read "You've done dumber things drunk."
A mile later, when I had to walk again, a spectator reached out to pat me on the back. Her hand lingered on my shoulder. "It's OK hun," she said. "It's a long way to the finish. You take your time."
That's when it hit me. These people were not only here to cheer me on. They were here to will me to the end. 
At that point, I dropped all my natural defenses and hesitations and let them wash over me. I gave thumbs up, high fives and cheered right along with them, even when I had to frequently walk. 
I had a smile on my face the whole time. But more than that, even when it was apparent I'd just miss the four-hour mark, a landmark that most marathoners consider a goal, I just shrugged my shoulders. I ran the last mile the whole way, even when I had to grit my teeth through it, and I didn't do it for myself. I did it for them.
The people who didn't know me did something amazing. They made me not care, at least not too much, about my time. They forced me to understand what a cool thing it is to be able to run a marathon in a big city. I preach all the time to my friends to be grateful for what they can do before they start a race. Chicago made me follow my own advice.
Later, dozens of people passed us on the street, and they continued to lift me up. Far too many congratulated us. I thanked them as best I could. But I prefer to think about when I crossed the finish line.
I didn't cheer, raise my arms or clap. I simply turned around and blew them all a kiss, before I turned around, joined the hundreds crowding around me, and reveled at how comfortable I was in their masses.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Helloween Show, Oct. 2

Sometimes, something happens that blows your mind. If your mind printed a newspaper, the headline would be 80-point type. Yet it would probably only sell one copy on the newsstand because no one else seems to care.
Granted, it doesn't happen too often. The marathon's world record was broken recently, and I thought that was awesome, and while I realize this was probably not front page news in most people's Brain Bugle, my Twitter feed was full of people saying, at least, "huh, look at that."
But it did happen to me many months ago. That's when Helloween announced they were coming to Denver.
Helloween, as you probably guessed, is a metal band. But they're a fascinating one, and they've always been one of my absolute favorites. They also almost never  come to the U.S.
Helloween came out as one of the leaders of the speed metal movement of the mid-80s, and for a while, they almost made it as big as the Big Four (Anthrax, Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth). They were a faster version of Iron Maiden. They were also weird. Their first big album featured a 13-minute opus, "Halloween," and it was titled "Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part I." What the hell? The title made it seem like a soundtrack for a "Dungeons and Dragons" movie. Yet I bought it because I read a review comparing them to Iron Maiden, and as a huge Maiden fan, that was enough back then. I was in high school. It's not like I had a girlfriend to spend the money on.
That name didn't help either. Helloween sounds like a demonic, thrashing band with a vocalist who swallowed a broken bottle. It is exactly the opposite. In fact, I can't think of a goofier band in metal. One of their biggest hits was "Dr. Stein." "Dr. Stein grows funny creatures, lets them run into the night. They become great rock musicians and their time is right." That sounds like a nursery rhyme, doesn't it? I think the band thought Helloween was a funny, ironic name that would make people laugh, but I have a feeling it scared more people off than made them laugh.
Anyway, this is already more than you wanted to know, but Helloween released Part II a couple years later. Both albums, in my mind, were metal masterpieces, a perfect blend of melody, whismy, terrific musicianship, songwriting and soaring vocals. The band had a hit, "I Want Out," from the album, in addition to "Dr. Stein," and MTV put them in heavy rotation on "Headbanger's Ball," which was big in the late 80s. By that point, Helloween was a top-5 band for me, just behind Iron Maiden and Metallica, and I desperately wanted to see them in concert. Only, as I said, the German band never came to America much.
And then Helloween fell apart. They released two albums after, and both of them emphasized even goofier lyrics and more of a commercial sound, and both were just terrible. Awful. I've never known a band to be so good, and then so bad. Yes, many bands come out with good debuts and fade away, but those bands were usually just enjoyable, not as epic as Helloween. It was as if Steely Dan decided to become a polka band.
So I gave up on them. Years later, I heard they got a new lead singer and were still putting out albums. I bought a couple and was underwhelmed, despite showing some promise with one, "The Dark Ride." So I gave up on them again. 
I'm not sure why I bought "Gambling With The Devil," Helloween's 2007 album. I can't remember. I guess I heard from the two or three other people I know who like Helloween that it was really good. And there was a basis for that. Helloween had a stable lineup and was releasing fast, hard and heavy songs again. Their lead singer had been with them a long time and had turned into not only a good vocalist but a good songwriter as well. The band's core was still there.
I loved the record. And the next, "7 Sinners," was nearly as good. When Helloween released its next in January, "Straight Out of Hell," I bought it without question, and I can name a handful of bands I'll purchase without hearing the album. Helloween is back in my top 5.
So a band with a revamped lineup has had two periods of releasing outstanding albums, including its current one.
So you can see why I geeked out. You can see why I'm geeking out now.
* * *
No one else would go with me to the show. I had a couple friends, some WPBT buddies, of course, who would go, but Colorado is too far. 
Helloween, as stated, is from Germany, and papers are a problem to tour for more than a few days. That's why you won't see them all over the U.S. I think the last time they made it out to Colorado was in 2003.
The other problem, as stated, is most, if not almost all, people don't share my infatuation with them. Helloween is a little too much for even my metal-loving friends back here. I'd argue less than 1,000 in Denver or northern Colorado ever owned one of their albums, and that was probably 20 years ago. I was worried that the band might think the trip wasn't even worth the trouble.
My fears seemed realized when I arrived at The Gothic in Englewood, after an hour drive from Greeley. There were 20 waiting in line, a half-hour before the show. Oh man. Would the band even get 100?
Three bands were opening. To show how things have changed from high school, this annoyed me because I really wanted to see Helloween and get home to bed. I also wore earplugs. Like I said, things have changed. I'm old now.
Even with my worries about getting to bed at a decent hour, I was pleasantly surprised to see Cellador on the bill as well. No, I'm not going to write 750 words on Cellador. The band is a part of the melodic speed metal resurgence and sounds a lot like late-80s Helloween. They played five songs, including one, "Leaving All Behind," that sometimes makes my 5K race playlists. They're fast, like Dragonforce, and kind of annoying like them too. But they're also great musicians, and I enjoyed their brief set.
The first band was local and horrible, and the third seemed to take all the bad qualities of Five Finger Death Punch and blend them together without bringing any of the good.
Helloween hit the stage at 9:30 p.m. after "For Those About To Rock" blasted over the soundsystem (awesome) and opened with "Eagle Fly Free," the opening track to part II. I was immediately enthralled. I wouldn't have been surprised if Helloween had ignored the late 80s. Even if that was the band's heyday, the breakup with their lead singer wasn't good, and there was a lot of strife at that time. So I was thrilled that I was getting to hear some of the songs I adored in high school live for the first time. Andi Deris couldn't hit the highest notes, but the band ripped through it, which was impressive for a bunch of older guys, as the song's HARD. Dani Loble's drumming was especially impressive, as Helloween couldn't perform the song live for years because they couldn't find a drummer who could pull it off. Loble had no trouble. 
I glanced around from my perch in the balcony, where I could sit and yet was practically on top of the band, and noticed I wasn't the only one enthralled. Suddenly the place seemed alive and full of maybe 300 people.
Helloween, as I expected, didn't scowl or drink blood or sacrifice goats the way their name implies. In fact, they avoided all the cliches. They didn't bang their heads in that way that makes their hair fly. 
Instead, Sascha Gerstner spent most of his time playing a game with bassist Markus Grobkopf, where he would toss a pic at the feet of Markus, and he tried to kick it into the audience. Michael Weikath looked bored until he made goofy faces to us in the balconies.
This show was no frills. Not much dry ice smoke, minimum lighting, that sort of thing. I always found that stuff distracting anyway unless Iron Maiden was doing it. 
Helloween then went right into "Nabataea," the first track off its latest, another fast, difficult song, and they crushed it. After a few more tracks from their latest, Loble launched into a drum solo that was, as they usually are, too long and too cliched to keep my interest.
I perked right up when I heard "I'm Alive" when the band came back out. "I'm Alive" is the title track to "Keeper of the Seven Keys part I." I used to listen to it in high school when I was depressed, which was more often than I'd like to admit, and the lyrics always perked me up a bit. It's a catchy, inspirational song, and it was fun to hear it 20 years later.
After that, the band played a terrific mix of old and new hits. They played a track from "The Dark Ride and a couple new ones and a couple classics, including "Future World" and "Dr. Stein." 
Those last two were encores. The band did two encores, and I know they are a concert tradition, but I've never been a fan. We shouldn't have to beg the band to come out, and on the second, we had to wait more than five minutes. Did one of the guys have to take a shit? Just get out there and play the songs. 
"Are You Metal," one of the band's best, wiped away any annoyance I had (and let's be honest, I was probably cranky because it was past my bedtime and I knew I had an hour's drive ahead of me). There were other tracks I wanted to hear that I knew weren't going to be played, but after that, I was satisfied. I got my money's worth, I thought. I heard what I could reasonably expect to hear. There's no better feeling when you know a concert's winding down.
* * * 
I did a little people watching while I let the crowd thin out. This is what amazes me about metal fans. It's pretty rare to see another or talk to another metal fan outside of a show. Hey, the music's abrasive, loud and hard to follow. I get it. It's even rarer to see a metal fan who is pronounced about being a metal fan, like someone with long hair or wearing a black concert T-shirt or headbanging in public. It's not like we're ashamed of it. But metal has to be the only music that seems to demand an identity as well as a preference for shredding guitars. You could argue that for hip-hop, too, but it's far too popular now. It attracts too wide a demographic. Dave Matthews fans are some of the most passionate in the world, one of the few bands that inspires the kind of loyalty that metal fans display, and yet, they look like everyone else too. Metal fans, when they are being metal fans, look like metal fans. They do not look like accountants going to Katy Perry. They stand out in huge crowds. They look like Al Can't Hang. 
Well, most of them do, anyway. I am a massive exception. In the throng attending the show, there was a guy who wore one of those Vegas-type button-down shirts and had short hair, and there was a guy who wore a bow tie, a pink button-down shirt and jeans the color of a 50-year-old woman who had a lifetime membership to a tanning salon (that guy, by the way, had to know what he was doing). And then there was me. I wore a Dream Theater long-sleeved, long-underwear looking concert shirt, but my short hair, thin jawline and nervous expression just can't pull off the metal look. I've even tried to have long hair, but it curls in several wrong ways and tends to frizz more than kick ass. I had to settle for a mullet with an earring in high school, and if I wore that now, I'd look creepy, not badass. I am far too Kohl's and not nearly enough Spencer's. 
My point, though it is drifting, is that although these people stand out in society, at a small show that only a tiny portion of the population would ever attend, we're all together. I stand out at these shows, but in society, I blend, probably far too much. There was a sea of black glorifying Masterplan and Gamma Ray and Slayer (of course) from both the guys and the girls. Long hair, tattoos, piercings, you name it. I loved it. I loved it because they share a love for metal, and knowing that makes me feel less weird about being so passionate about a form of music that most people find scary.
It turns out I wasn't the only one excited about Helloween coming to Colorado. I just had to wait to stand with them.

Starter list:

Here's a starter list of albums, with key tracks, in case you're actually interested in Helloween after reading this screed.

• "Walls of Jericho" — "Ride The Sky," "Guardians" and "How Many Tears." 

(Look for "Judas" and "Starlight," a couple rare tracks, on iTunes as well).
• "Keeper of the Seven Keys" Part I — "I'm Alive," "Future World" and "Halloween."
• "Keeper of the Seven Keys" Part II — "I Want Out," "Eagle Fly Free," "Save Us," "March of Time" and "Keeper of the Seven Keys."
• "The Dark Ride" — "Mr. Torture," "The Dark Ride," "If I Could Fly," "Salvation" and "We Damn The Night."
• "Gambling With The Devil" — "Paint a New World," "Kill It" and "Bells of the Seven Hells"
• "7 Sinners" — "Are You Metal?," "Where The Sinners Go."
• "Straight Out Of Hell" — "Nabataea," "Burning Sun," "Waiting for the Thunder" and "Church Breaks Down."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cheering out the ugly

It's not often, but there have been times, during a race, when I wasn't sure I was going to make it.
It happened more often earlier in my running "career" than it has of late. I've learned a few things.
I've learned how to enjoy running more, and I've learned that with that enjoyment comes pain. If you think about it, lots of fun stuff hurts, and that goes for things that are bad for you and good for you.
I learned how to deal with the pain by repeating mantras, falling in love with lowering my times and pushing myself far beyond what the guy in my 20s thought was possible. But there was something else I learned too. I learned how to accept encouragement.
I once thought I should be able to get through whatever was thrown at me on my own. You can get through life that way, but only if life is fairly easy. My life was pretty easy until I started running.
Running brings the pain. I've never been as miserable as I've been during a bad race, even on my worst days of mountaineering. I've fantasized about many things in my life, many wonderful things, and yet nothing left me as longing as much as deep, easy breathing, a calm stomach and toes without blisters when I'm in the throes of a tough race. Yes, there are times when you feel superhuman, and those times are why you run, because more often than not, you feel inhuman.
You want nothing more than to be done. And then you look up and see someone you usually don't know smiling at you. Holding a funny sign for you. Clapping for you. Cheering for you.
This is why God made spectators.
Sometimes they say stupid things. I've heard "you're almost there" two miles from the finish, which is fine, unless you're running a marathon and your legs are cramping. But many times they don't. They say "you're looking strong" or "nice work" or, best of all, they just yell and cheer and clap.
It always amazes me. Running, unless you love it, is not a spectator friendly sport. I agree with the signs: It really is the worst parade ever. Besides, we runners can be an annoying bunch. We talk too much about it, or at least I do. We post about it too much, too, or at least I do. There's a joke that surfaces on Twitter occasionally, and every time I see it, I laugh a knowing laugh. Unfortunately I'm paraphrasing, but here goes: How will you know when someone is training for a marathon? Don't worry. They'll tell you.
Yet I wrote a story that ran in today's paper about four runners who ran Monday's Boston Marathon, and all of them said, without a doubt, the spectators were wonderful. I've heard that from others as well. It's one of many reasons why, one day, I want to run there.
Monday, as you know, was a terrible day. It was one of the worst I've had, and while I wasn't there, I had close friends there, including one who is a training partner, someone I run with pretty often. A few friends and I had no idea if she was safe for almost an hour after we learned the bombs went off.
The Boston Marathon is one of my favorite days of the year. It's a lifetime goal. It's simply special. Someone could not have hurt me more, at least not symbolically, by attacking it.
And yet when I talked to those runners today for my story, they talked a little bit about the bombing. They talked a lot more about the crowds.
I thought about that, and many times, those same crowds cheering me and my fellow runners lifted me up too during a race. Sometimes they even brought me out of the darkness.
I've been cheered by friends, and there's no doubt it means a little more. But during a painful race, there isn't that much distinction between the cheers from a friend or a stranger. It all helps. It's all wonderful.
There's been lots of brave talk about not letting terrorism defeat us, and I agree with all that, but you know, this shook me pretty hard. It probably did you too. Monday we all may have felt a little bit like we weren't going to make it. Maybe you still feel that way.
I'm already feeling a little better, though, and here's why. I've been lifted by this country's reaction to our running community. People wore race shirts to work, and they talked about our runners' spirit in stories and tweets and posts. It's been wonderful. The last time a huge news event clashed with a race, it was New York, and runners were treated like pariahs in some ways. That marathon created divisive debate. Boston seems to be healing a lot more old wounds, even if an attack opened some new ones.
It makes me think we can all lift each other, still, despite lately feeling the exact opposite about our country. A pat on the back, a smile, even a little hoo-rah can go a long way. All that can get us through the day. They can get us through the next mile.
Those runners I interviewed did mention how loud, how angry, the explosion was. But they kept going back to those cheers. Those wonderful cheers. They simply must have been louder than the bomb.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


The kickball hung in the air, and I stationed myself under it. I had one thing going for me. No one was paying attention.
I caught it, slapping my arms against the grooved rubber, and gave a glance to first to keep the runner honest. Then I rolled it back to the pitcher.
"Did you see THAT?" one of the kids yelled.
He said it in surprise, like he figured there was no way I'd have a chance to complete even a routine play. I let it go, just like I let the other thousands of derogatory comments go before them. By then, all those comments had taken root.
"He's right," I thought to myself. "I was lucky. I'm just glad no one was paying attention."
• • • 
By the time I reached seventh grade, my place had been well established. I was a bottom feeder, someone the crows sought out when they needed to nibble on some roadkill. Part of that, of course, meant that the bullies assumed I was not an athlete, and that, because I was sort of a loser, that I was lucky to be able to walk through the hallways without tripping. 
This was the 1980s, when bands were macho (even the hair metal bands who put on lipstick and used hairspray leered at hot chicks in 97.3 percent of their videos), movies like Rambo and Rocky and Red Dawn killed the box office and bullies could call us "fags" without worrying about a sensitivity meeting with the principal. Sports, and the ability to play them, ruled my junior high school. There wasn't much room for individualism, and no group hung together to encourage it. There was no perk to being a wallflower. I was in band. I was a good player, too. The only people who cared were other band people. Not many of us fit in.
Here's the thing. It may not seem like it, but I'm over it.
I had a good time in high school, and I had enough friends in college that I could even be considered kinda popular. I blossomed like the second half of an ABC afterschool special.
Besides, they were right, in a way. I'm not a natural athlete. I've never swung a club, but I doubt I could ever hit a fairway. I'll never dunk. I'll never return a kick for a touchdown. I'm not sure I could even catch the football. I played basketball in a rec league with the newspaper, and my only flaw was I couldn't run and dribble at the same time. I played soccer as a kid and, well, um, same thing.
So I'm over it.
Just not completely.

• • • 
When I first turned to running, I did it to stay in shape for the mountains. I chose the mountains because they weren't really a sport. They were an activity. They were scenic, and I loved them for the simple fact that I wasn't much different from my golden retriever: I loved to be outside.
I moved out to Colorado to be close to them after years of spending almost every day of my vacation from the Salina, Kan. paper every summer climbing them with my father. When I did make the move, I spent five years doing something only a few thousand have achieved. I climbed all 54 14ers in the state.
I fell in love with them in junior high school for another reason. My taunters weren't around when I was climbing them. And my climbing partners, even my father, were much older and knew nothing about the emotional battering I absorbed in school. They simply encouraged me. They even said things like how they wished they had my ability to climb rock.
I've talked about my running journey before. I've talked about it enough. It was, initially, a way to keep in shape for the mountains, but I got hooked on it, and I became a runner.
It was, at times, hard to wrap my head around that transformation. Running was not only a sport, it was one of the hardest, and remember, I had been convinced that I was not an athlete. That famous T-shirt is right: My sport is your sport's punishment. It hurts in so many different ways. It burns and aches and fatigues. I had to start using an inhaler for exercise-induced asthma: Even with all the mountain climbing, I never knew I had it until I started running.
It fit me, though, because determination mattered, not skill, and the peaks taught me how to be determined. Running is tough, but it is also generous. It gives you back what you put into it.
Running also meant I began hanging around people who possibly would have made fun of me in junior high school. They were definitely athletes, real studs, some of them. When I went to my 20th high school reunion, I spent as much time with the guys on the cross-country team as my old friends, even though I had exchanged maybe a half-dozen words with them when I went to school.
Some had even come out to race the Pikes Peak Ascent, they told me, and though they did better than me — my school's cross-country team was a state champion — we all laughed over stories about wanting to puke as the trail climbed above 12,000 feet.
I took it a step further when I began to offer a few tips. I recently wrote about that here. It turned out to be one of the more amazing and encouraging experiences of my life.
The running's gotten better every year, despite me turning 41. And I think I know one reason why.
We have a local running club here. We like to think it's pretty special, but you probably have one like it at your running store. Anyway, more than 25 gather once a week to run intervals together. Intervals are what we do to remind ourselves how much running can hurt. I guess they help you improve, too. Anyway, there are always new people, but it's a pretty loyal group, and there are many who still run who were there years before I joined them in 2005.
Many are great runners, people who have qualified for the Boston Marathon or run 50-mile races or won their age groups in big races.
I love the group because these are great athletes, and as such, they don't like being passed. They will challenge you. They will push you. But they will also tell you when you're doing well, and you know they're not bullshitting you.
These first two weeks, I know my running is going better than ever because I'm passing some of the better runners in the group. At first I thought it was because I was just pushing it a little harder than I should. But it's felt good. It feels like I'm flying, and it's easier than it should be.
It's not just the training. That's part of it to be sure. I've worked hard. But it's their voices in my head as I pass them, or as they work to keep up with me: Nice. You're looking FAST. Strong work.
Last week, after one interval, I overheard one running talking about me, and it reminded me of the kickball years: "Did you see THAT?" Then she smiled at me.
People can tear you down and make you believe in your limitations. They want to set your ceilings for you because that way you can't rise above them. You can believe in those ceilings for your whole life. It's hard to completely shake them.
But there are others out there who want to lift you up.
It's taken me a long time to figure out that those voices are the ones you should listen to.
It's taken me my whole life, really, but I have started to believe them.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rock You To Hell (and 24 of the other greatest metal songs of all time)

Growing up in high school, I was not a U2 guy, even when everyone else was ga-ga over The Joshua Tree.
I distinctly remember sitting in the band room before school and arguing, vehemently, about why Helloween was a better band than U2. (No, I didn't get many dates in high school.)
The thing is, I still believe that, and I'm a reasonably normal human being these days. I just believe that heavy metal is probably the greatest popular music ever created. 
If you agree, you can keep reading. If you don't, you can keep reading, too, if you're looking to expand your horizons. If you think that's just about the funniest thing you've ever heard, you can keep reading, too, only keep your U2 comments to yourself. Here's 25 of the best heavy metal songs ever.
Just like last time — and I'm not gonna link it since all you have to do is scroll down like a few feet to see my last entry — there are some rules:
• I tried to include only one song per group. This was difficult, since honestly I could fill a list of 25 with Metallica, Iron Maiden and, yes, Helloween, but that's not the idea. The idea is to give some pretty great bands their due, and maybe get you to download one or two on iTunes. I had no trouble finding 25 signature songs.
• This is a heavy metal list, so I stayed away from hair metal songs or groups I've previously mentioned in the last list. I plan on doing a thrash list, since that genre holds a special place in my heart, so RELAX SLAYER/ANTHRAX/ETC FANS I WILL GET TO YOU I PROMISE.
• Almost all of these songs are 20 years old. That's sad to me. My last list, the thrash list, will have some new (NOT Nu) metal in it, but in terms of good heavy metal, power metal, whatever, it's just not made much any longer. There are some good bands out there, such as Hammerfall, but they're not producing classics.
• This is MY list, so it's not like some Hall of Fame list of the Greatest Metal Songs Of All Time. It's a geeky, fun list and a chance for me to write about some bands I've loved, OK? These aren't in order either. 
• Seriously, relax, Slayer fans. I know that's hard for you.
Here we go:

• "I'm Alive" — Helloween
Metal bands sure have some stupid band names. Savatage? Leatherwolf? Megadeth? Really? But no name probably misrepresented itself more than Helloween. People snickered in a sort of scared way when I named them among my favorite bands in high school. HELL-o-ween? Can't you just hear SNL's church lady? SATAN? 
Yet Helloween never did take itself too seriously. WAY less seriously than many other heavy metal bands, especially those that leaned to the speed metal side (Slayer, for instance, could not find a spoonful of irony in itself despite the fact that the guitarist wore a wristband with spikes long enough to barbecue a turkey).
No, Helloween was funny. They wrote about Charlie Brown and a prince who couldn't get it up and "Dr. Stein," a scientist who let his funny creatures run into the night. They also wrote this inspiring number. It's the first song I heard from Helloween, an album I bought simply because it got good reviews and there was an advertisement in Hit Parader that made them sound like an Iron Maiden-type band. Their goofiness, just like Anthrax's, never took away from the fact that this band could shred and yet include more catchy melodies than Def Leppard. 
There haven't been many more consistent metal bands in the last 25 years than Helloween. Their last three albums, starting from the mid-2000s, were all outstanding, and I can't even say that about Iron Maiden. 
P.S. I'm making three exceptions to my thrash metal list. Iron Maiden, Metallica and Helloween all could be considered speed or thrash metal bands in one form or another, but in many ways they are also heavy metal bands. Besides, they are so great they deserve to be on two lists.

• "Future World" — Pretty Maids
Remember what I said about stupid band names? 
Anyway, Pretty Maids was even stranger than its name. Their lead singer had two voices, a silky classic rock-kind of voice that was nothing special, and some sort of growl that sounded like Joey Tempest of Europe trying to act tough. He shifted from one to another depending on how aggressive the music was behind him. Somehow it worked, especially on this song, because his vocals matched it perfectly. You had a great piano riff, then a guitar, then piano again, and all together, this mess became a great song, one of my favorites of all time. Their whole album, "Future World," was really pretty good, and against all odds, they had a great song, "Savage Heart," on their next album.
This is exactly the kind of band that would crack non-metal fans up, but you guys thought Erasure was a great group, so that makes us even.

• "Electric Eye" — Judas Priest
Yes, I know "You Got Another Thing Comin'" is a great song. I agree. Yet I love the tone this song sets for "Screaming For Vengeance," Priest's best album (even better than the fantastic "British Steel") and easily one of the best metal albums of all time. "Electric Eye" is fast and hard and driving and ominous, especially with that majestic opener (which the band, for some reason, called "The Hellion" but really is just an extension of this track). "Riding on the Wind" follows, which is a great running song and one of my favorites, too. God this band had some great songs. Why isn't Priest in the Hall of Fame again? Well, at least Depeche Mode isn't either. 

• "Rising Force" — Yngwie Malmsteen
I really wanted to put "You Don't Remember, I'll Never Forget" on here, and if you want to switch the two songs around, I'm cool with that. But this is the best track from what I consider to be Yngwie's best album. He had actual songs on this album and an actual singer, Joe Lynn Turner from Rainbow (who was not Rainbow's best singer but still was OK), rather than just an excuse to play scales like really, really fast over and over. To be honest, even "You Don't Remember" is that. I always had a soft spot for guitarists who could play really fast, and so Yngwie makes this list even if he's the Dave Kingman of metal.

• "We Must Carry On" - Chastain
Speaking of flashy guitarists, welcome to my favorite of the 80s. I don't know if I would put him there any longer, but as I said, in high school, I had a serious crush on guitarists who could rip it. I loved instrumental albums too, and so I listened to Tony MacAlpine and Joe Satriani as well as Yngwie. I discovered David T. Chastain by chance.
I bought a ton of tapes in high school, and sometimes I would buy an album because it was in the metal section at Musicland and I liked the cover. That's seriously all it took. That's why I bought this Chastain tape, and I remember popping it in and being blown away.
Chastain, as it turns out, had one of the most aggressive vocalists for a power metal band at the time. A lot of it was screaming, the kind Hetfield did in his "Ride the Lightning" days. It took me a year after wearing out this album, "The 7th of Never," to figure out the vocalist was, in fact, female. She was fantastic and probably responsible for my love for female metal vocalists even to this day (Doro Pesch was another reason).
David T. had another band, CJSS, which was more of a hair metal band, though it was still far heavier than Poison or White Lion. I preferred Chastain because it was almost thrash but not quite and David T. played about as fast and almost as well as even the flashiest guitarists. He also put out a few mediocre instrumental records. I went back in Chastain's catalouge, as was my habit if I loved a record, and found that Chastain put out two other great records. If you want, head to iTunes. I'd also recommend the songs "There Will Be Justice," "Voice of the Cult," "One Day To Live," "Black Knight" and anything off the 7th of Never, including the title track. These songs, surprisingly, have aged well and could hold their own against many of the modern metal bands.
Had you even heard of Chastain? I'm curious.

• "Shot in the Dark" — Ozzy
Was Ozzy a hair metal group or a heavy metal group? I'm not sure. But I didn't give Ozzy his due last time, and so I figure I need to mention him here. "Crazy Train" is too overplayed for me to recommend it any longer, despite its brilliance, and so I'm going with one of Ozzy's lesser-known but still great hits. This one is catchy, far catchier than most of the hair metal hits, and yet it's heavier, too.
It's too bad Ozzy is seen as this goofy guy now, the way most people see Stevie Wonder, or at least those who don't know his earlier catalogue. In this case, it's Ozzy's fault, as the drugs have punched too many holes in his brain. Yet Ozzy, like Stevie, was a badass at his peak and a talented one at that.

• "Rise or Fall" — Leatherwolf
Leatherwolf sounded like a tough metal band. It's a WOLF. In LEATHER. RAWR! But they were a gimmick. They had three guitars. THREE! Wow! Triple the POWER.
OK, seriously. It was a little weird, but it worked, especially since they could really play. Their sound wasn't as crunchy, and it was painfully obvious that at times they just got in each other's way, which was inevitable. But they could also sing, and this was one of those huge, vocal tunes that made them sound like a choir (Metal really has serious roots in classical and opera music), in the "Flight of Icarus" vein. Leatherwolf had a much better career than it deserved. Its follow-up album was solid, too, and in some ways heavier and more consistent than its self-titled debut. They still release songs today, but they're not worth buying, save for one, "Behind The Gun." Unfortunately I don't see them on iTunes, and Amazon sells their CDs for about, oh, $50 for an import. I did love my Leatherwolf, but it's not worth that.

• "The Trooper" — Iron Maiden
A half-dozen Iron Maiden songs could, and really should, make this list. "Hallowed By Thy Name." "Aces High." "Two Minutes To Midnight." "Moonchild." "Wasted Years." On and on and on, as Bruce himself has sang once or twice. "The Trooper" may not even be my favorite track on "Piece of Mind," and "Powerslave" is probably my favorite album by Iron Maiden. But this song is so iconic. And it's the first Iron Maiden song I heard that made me reconsider the band, which I had ignored for some time in high school (I always thought they were a little weird before I realized how amazing they are). Iron Maiden is my second favorite band of all time. If they don't make the Hall of Fame I'm gonna be pissed, and yet I get this feeling that they won't. I don't think enough people took them seriously enough, which is a shame. Iron Maiden probably was hurt by the heavy metal label more than most, if not THE most, since they had one of the best singers in history and really, really great players and longevity and influence. All the pieces are there. I guess people just can't look beyond Eddie.

• "Bring Me To Life" — Evanescence
Remember what I said about female metal vocalists? I know this song probably doesn't deserve to be on the list, and I'll probably take some crap for it, but this is not just a great song, it's a classic. Amy Lee has a powerful voice, one of the best I've heard, male or female, and this song is far heavier than many of the pop metal classics. I think it qualifies, despite the fact that it is a tad overwrought and dramatic.

• "Rock You To Hell" — Grim Reaper
Grim Reaper was a goofy metal band known for one minor (very minor) hit, "See You In Hell," before they released this album. The vocalist, Steve Grimmett, sang in a high pitch, as if he was in a hair band, only it had an edge to it, like a wolf's howl. And the guitarist, Nick Bowcott, was actually a great player. So they were good. And then this album hit the shelves. Wow. The album just DESTROYED my speakers. RCA probably wondered what the hell hit them. Great production turned this into one of the heaviest records that wasn't thrash in the 80s, and this song is probably the best of the bunch, although three or four others come close. It compares well with today's metal too. Give it a try.
Grimmett later sang for Onslaught, a middling speed metal band that got lucky enough to hire him, and as a result, the one album with him as a frontman turned out to be a great one. You'll see a song from that record on my next list.

• "Enter Sandman" — Metallica
There are two Metallicas. There's pre-Black album and post-Black album. I seem to be one of the few who loves both. I prefer pre-Black, of course, like most hardcore metal fans, but the Black album is one of the better metal albums of all time, and this song is one of the best tunes. Great, crunchy, catchy riff from a band that still manages to be heavier than any other mainstream rock act in America.

• "Hall of the Mountain King" — Savatage
Savatage had two lead singers, and both were great, but I prefer the Jon Olivia era, though the song "Edge of Thorns" almost made the list. Why? Well, this album and its title track are classics, the perfecg balance of heavy crunch and melody. Savatage wasn't afraid of the fact that metal bands owe a lot to classical music, and the real "Hall of the Mountain King" plays on guitar as a perfect lead-in to this song, which contains one of the best metal riffs you'll ever hear. This album also had "24 Hours Ago" and "Strange Wings," and the later on band also recorded the classic "Gutter Ballet" and "When The Crowds Are Gone" and the interesting concept album "Streets" before Olivia left.
Fun Fact: Savatage's song based on "Carol of the Bells," Christmas Eve/Sarajevo, on its concept album "Dead Winter Dead," is that song you hear all the time at Christmas by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

• "March of the Saint" — Armored Saint
Before John Bush became Anthrax's lead singer for a time, he led this band (and I believe he does again), and while Bush was overrated and underrated as a metal singer at the same time, his band did produce this whopper, a hard-driving, somewhat underground metal classic. I almost put Anthrax's "Only" here because I wanted a song sang by Bush, but this one wins out, and like others on this list, holds up well today.

• "Pull Me Under" — Dream Theater
Picking my favorite Dream Theater song is really hard. When Dream Theater releases a new album, I'll buy it, no questions asked, and I can say that about only a handful of groups. I love their technical yet melodic songs, even if some are 18 minutes or longer, and their last two albums were outstanding. I have so many other favorites — "In the Name of God," "Panic Attack," "Nightmare To Remember," "Lines in the Sand," plus the whole Metropolis concept album — that picking this one seems almost unfair. It's the band's only real hit, and it's also their least complicated number, something a lot of bands could have done, which you can't say about many other of their songs. But it's also their catchiest and was the reason I discovered Dream Theater, as I heard it on Headbanger's Ball one night.
I would honestly want to hang out with Dream Theater one day, and it would be in the studio, not backstage, to see their sheet music and watch them play it. I guess Dream Theater brings out the band geek in me.

• "Eyes of a Stranger" — Queensryche
Yes, I like "Queen of the Ryche" as well as anyone, but Queensryche had only one truly great album, and it's so great it's one of the best ever, and so I wanted to honor "Operation: Mindcrime," and this is probably the group's best song anyway. Geoff Tate wails on this, and I doubt any other vocalist could have done this song justice, given the highs and lows a singer has to tackle for it to work as well as it does. I refuse to put "Silent Lucidity" on here since it's a great song but also a Pink Floyd ripoff and it's been way, way overplayed.

• "Rainbow in the Dark" — Dio
Speaking of epic vocalists...
I could put 15 Dio songs on here, and a few from his work with Black Sabbath, and no one would blame me for it. Dio would have been a great thrash vocalist, a great hair metal singer and a great hard rock singer, but he did his best work on the kind of grandiose heavy metal songs like the one here. I'm picking this one because it's off his best album, "Holy Diver," and I think it's the best example of how Dio wasn't afraid to use melody almost on a pop music level (this song, after all, has keyboards as a main instrument, not just for flourishes). But he also turned those songs into metal classics because of his fantastic, soaring and sandpaper voice. Dio really needs to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The metal world misses him.

• "Chop Suey!" — System of a Down
System of a Down is one of the few modern metal bands that would fit in fine with many of the bands listed here, and yet they don't sound like any other band I've ever heard. At times speed metal, melodic Nu metal and good 'ole hard rock, this song represents them more than any other, though it may not even be their best. All of their albums were excellent, and Serj, one of the better metal vocalists in recent times, had a nice solo career as well.

• "Rusty Cage" — Soundgarden
I don't hate the grunge era as much as most hardcore metal fans. There was some great music made, and much of it was harder and more ferocious than most of the hair metal era. Nirvana and Pearl Jam were two of my (obvious) favorites, but I can't put them in the metal category, not really even close. Alice in Chains comes closer, and so does Stone Temple Pilots, if for no other reason than Scott Weiland teamed up with Slash and the Guns guys to make a great Velvet Revolver record. But I can't do it. I like the bands, but I can't do it.
Soundgarden, though, seems to fit, and this song, which seems born to inspire, not depress me, hangs just fine with the others in this group. Chris Cornell was a badass singer before he cheesed out. The grunge era was not good for metal, but it did produce some good music.

• "Badlands" — Metal Church
If there was one band that seemed to straddle the line between heavy metal and thrash better than any other, it was Metal Church. The band toured with speed and thrash metal bands, played it (very) occasionally and never recorded a sappy love ballad (in fact much of its subject matter was as thought-provoking or disturbing, depending on who you were, as other thrash bands). But Metal Church was at its core a heavy metal band, not a one-dimensional thrash band. As a result, it released some pretty brilliant albums. The band, like Savatage, didn't lose a step and may have gained a couple when it lost its original lead singer, David Wayne, who was good, for the great Mike Howe. I chose this song because it's catchy, hard and complex, much like the rest of its excellent work.

• "Am I Evil?" — Diamond Head/Metallica
Metallica's remake of this classic is probably why I started to truly love Metallica. I thought they wrote it until I read some interviews about their influences and they mentioned this band called Diamond Head. The original is just as good, though I don't think it's better.

• "Painted Skies" — Crimson Glory
If you can get past the terrible name (which shouldn't be too much of a problem given half the band names on this list) and the fact that the lead singer sounds like a much cheesier version of Geoff Tate, Crimson Glory put out a KILLER album called "Transcendence." The album had this song on it as well as "Lonely," and I honestly had a hard time deciding which one to put on here.

"War Pigs" — Black Sabbath gets on here by default. I probably should put Led Zep on here too but I don't consider them heavy metal per se, just a killer hard rock band, maybe the best band of all time. Black Sabbath, though, is probably the first true metal band and remains an influence for most bands today. Doom Metal, Black Metal, Speed Metal, Heavy Metal and, yes, even hair metal owe their left nuts to Black Sabbath. I think this is their best song but there are many others that could have made the list, both with Ozzy or Dio.

"Highway to Hell" — AC/DC
AC/DC made the hair metal list, but I never really considered them a hair band, just the song I chose. So I'll put them on here, too, with their finest track, though about 20 others could have made it (including a close second, "Long Way To The Top," because they were ballsy enough to use bagpipes). Probably the only band to have lasted as long as they did without really changing one lick of who they were or their sound. This band, like Slayer, never really experimented, but it's proof of the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" cliche. Quite frankly other bands should have followed that lead (ahem, Metallica).

• "Sober" — Tool
Tool's probably the only band that emerged out of the NuMetal/Grunge era that most metal fans respect and even like. Tool seems to attract a different audience. You probably wouldn't find many casual Tool fans at a Slayer concert. But you might find a Slayer fan at a Tool concert. I'm a big Tool fan, both for the musicianship — drummer Danny Carey is one of the best in history, and Maynard's vocals are top-notch — and for the long, complex songs with great lyrics. The album that carries this song is my favorite, though "Aenima" almost made this list for its funny yet fierce lyrics and gut-punching music. Plus no other band sounded like Tool, and that's truly amazing.

• "In The Fallout" — Fifth Angel
Fifth Angel probably had no real shot at big commercial success, given its power metal preference, but that's a big reason I liked this band. Ken Mary, the drummer for Chastain, was the drummer here, too, and Ted Pilot's vocals were as good as many bands. This song was my favorite. The lyrics helped feed my apocalyptic fetish as well.

• "Death to All But Metal" — Steel Panther
No explanation needed.

Friday, January 18, 2013

A member of the hair nation picks the best songs ever

Hair metal is a loose term, as loose as the women in your average hair metal video (this kind of wit is prevalent throughout this blog, so pat yourself on the back, wise reader, for choosing to read this).
But it's a term that usually garners at least a giggle from those who remember back in the day. These are the same giggles reserved for skyrocketing bangs, mullets, pink suit jackets with the sleeves rolled up, hoop earrings and thinking "Knight Rider" was a great show.
Hair metal deserves better. I'm here to give it to you. We shouldn't have to be embarrassed about it. Take me. I have some culture in my music tastes. I've played Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart in symphony orchestras and Miles Davis in jazz bands. I've listened to many of the kings and queens of jazz and own many of their records. I have the box sets of Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and Led Zeppelin.
And yet I'm an unabashed fan of metal. Metal forever and metal for life and whatnot. That includes hair metal, which, despite its wild success at its peak,  probably gets teased more than any other era of music except perhaps disco. And as a result I expect exactly two people to read this until the end, including me.
But here you go. The top 25 hair metal songs of all time.
I did have to leave out Hall Of Fame bands such as Iron Maiden, Dio, Dream Theater, Helloween, Queensryche, Metallica, Grim Reaper, Armored Saint, Judas Priest, Chastain (obscure band but one of my favorites, probably worth a blog post at some point) and Savatage because they're not really hair metal. They're not glam metal. They're not even hard rock. They are metal, and even if I preferred those bands growing up, that's not the point of this post. If there's any point to this post at all.
I tried not to repeat bands. That probably means leaving out a lot of great songs, but I was able to find a signature hit, at least in my opinion, from many key bands from the Spandex Era.
I also didn't put them in order. Maybe I should, but just to make this list is an honor. About as big an honor as a Grammy, I'm pretty sure.
Speaking of Grammy, er, grammar, I have made the bands plural even though a band is a single entity. It's much easier to read that way. I apologize in advance.
Let's get to it:
"Live Wire" By Motley Crue — Motley Crue was the first hard rock/metal/hair metal band I ever got into. My neighborhood kid friends brought me a tape one day, and I listened to it with a sense of wonder, excitement and fear. The tape was "Shout at the Devil." It seemed kinda evil, and I remember, late at night, becoming a little scared at what bringing this group into my life could mean (I was, unfortunately, kind of a deep kid who overthought far too many things. You MAY be able to see the resemblance to the adult me now.) In fairness, I was in like fifth grade, and this group at the time had just opened for Ozzy Osbourne, who bit the heads off doves and bats and drank their blood like lemonade (at least that's what I heard). My parents didn't take us to church, but that pentagram and the lyrics "Shout at the DEVIL" still made me worry that I was going to want to sacrifice small, cute animals after listening to the tape.
Of course, I also remember thinking Metallica, when I first heard "Ride The Lightning," was just various recordings of coyotes. Fortunately I got over my pansy ways. Motley Crue was my first step.
I discovered "Live Wire" later, when you fall in love with a band and check out its older albums. Motley Crue has had many great songs. The first track off their first album remains their best, especially the remix that helped take out some of the sludgy production of the original.
Shit, this may be a long post. That was a lot of description.
"Foolin'" By Def Leppard — Def Leppard's "Pyromania" was one of my first hair metal albums, after the Crue's "Shout at the Devil." I got it in a six-pack of tapes I got from those music clubs that gave you 12 for a penny if you agreed to buy six more at regular (inflated) prices and sacrifice small, cute animals. My other tapes were The Police, Duran Duran and a bunch I can't remember, so you can see where my mindset was at the time. I think "Pyromania" is a nearly perfect hard rock album, and it's by far Def Leppard's best. Def Leppard was at one time a band that sounded like AC/DC, only with catchier melodies and a better singer, and it's a shame that they castrated themselves a bit with "Hysteria," a fine record with far too many ballads and the most overplayed song in history, "Pour Some Sugar on Me." The fact that I've heard that song approximately 40 billion times and my parents' radio station (KUDL, pronounced "cuddle") could play it because it was soft enough and catchy enough not to offend the menopause crowd and yet hard enough to make the station seem "edgy" eliminates the song from my top 25. It was hard to pick between "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages" and this one, but I remember adoring this song when I was younger, and so it wins, even if the other two songs are probably better.
Yep, this post will be long. Sorry.
"You Shook Me (All Night Long) By AC/DC — The OTHER most overplayed song in history, besides "Sweet Home Alabama," and there are many other AC/DC tracks I personally like better, including "Hells Bells," "Highway to Hell" and "It's A Long Way To The Top," but I believed this was the one song I could not leave off the list regardless of my personal feelings for it. It's proof that "hair metal" is a loose term because these guys were pretty much the OPPOSITE of a hair metal band. They were ugly guys who dressed like factory workers, save for Angus, who wore a schoolboy outfit that would probably get him arrested if he went anywhere but a concert hall. Yet this song helped kick off the catchy, radio-friendly-yet-hard-edged hair metal era because of its wild success. Basically every band tried to copy it. The band also featured a smoking hot blonde in the video. I can STILL see her riding that mechanical horse. 
As an aside, KISS' "Rock and Roll All Nite," which compares favorably with this song in many ways (classic band, overplayed song loved by everyone, catchy as hell), is NOT on the list. It's a great song, but it's really not from the era. And the hair metal era, which boosted the careers of many older bands that actually got their start in the 70s (such as the Scorpions, Van Halen, Sammy Hagar, AC/DC and perhaps even Judas Priest and Iron Maiden) almost destroyed KISS. The band took off its makeup and made mostly forgettable records filled with songs like "Crazy Crazy Nights" and "God Gave Rock and Roll To You" that really sounded like a desperate uncle trying to fit in at one of his nephew's fun parties. Still...
"Heaven's On Fire" By KISS — This song was a glorious exception. It's my favorite song by KISS, and I really do love KISS. It's stupid as hell but even catchier.
"We're Not Gonna Take It" By Twisted Sister — I was trying to think of perhaps the worst hair metal band in the era simply in terms of ability. I came up with Krokus, Danger Danger and Britney Fox, but I still think Twisted Sister was probably the worst. "Stay Hungry" sounds as if it was played by a bunch of fifth-graders. And yet it's not only a good record, it's a classic. Why? The power of songwriting. Dee Snider was simply a great songwriter. He wrote "I Wanna Rock" and "Stay Hungry" and "The Price," and he wrote this insanely catchy number too, filled with attitude and one of the best choruses ever for a rock song. My DAD liked this one for God's sake. Dee was also a great metal singer. He didn't resort to the "balls in a vice" falsetto that so many other singers had to abuse to fit in. They had a good look, and their videos were hilarious. They didn't take themselves too seriously, a lesson I wish more metal bands learned.
"Rock Me" by Great White — A nightclub fire, as horrible as it was, shouldn't mean we overlook this band. Yes, Great White was a ripoff of many better classic rock bands, and yes this song took pieces of a half-dozen Led Zeppelin songs and glued them together, but that still makes for a great song. This band was a bit more no-nonsense than most in the era and would have fit comfortably in the 70s. It has a solid greatest-hits collection, including three off "Once Bitten," the band's biggest album, and that's far more than most hair metal bands. I also liked "Desert Moon" a lot.
"Rock You Like A Hurricane" by The Scorpions — The Scorpions are proof that hair metal or pop metal could be really good if a great band played it and wrote it. The Scorpions didn't need the hair metal era to be popular, though there's no doubt they benefitted from it, and here's exhibit A: This song is one of the best songs of the 80s, with perhaps the best opening riff of all the hair metal songs. It's so simple, too: Da-da-da, dudu, dududa, dadaaa. It's also heavier than you remember, and the video is almost kinda scary, not just the band writhing around a hot girl. The centerpiece from "Love At First Sting," a classic album. The Scorpions weren't flashy, attractive guys, but they had at least a dozen great songs, were a great live band (they were the best, I thought, when I saw "Monsters of Rock" with Van Halen and Metallica) and deserve a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"Out of Love" by Blue Murder — Who? Yeah, I know. Blue Murder was a trio led by John Sykes, who actually played guitar on Whitesnake's monster album, not the pretty boys in the videos. This album shows just what a good guitarist (and singer) he was, and it, quite frankly, rocked. This is a sappy ballad, but it's probably my favorite hair ballad ("Still Loving You" and "Home Sweet Home" are the only ones that come close; I really wasn't much of a fan of ballads). This band put out two albums (that I know of), but the self-titled one, the debut, is still worth owning.
"Modern Day Cowboy" by Tesla — Tesla opened for Def Leppard on the Hysteria tour, and it was one of those glorious, rare times when I got my socks knocked off by a band I didn't know. They kicked Leppard's butt, and I bought the album the next day. It's still one of my favorites, and it ranks up there with "Appetite for Destruction" as a debut album by a hard rock band. This is the best track on an album full of great ones, including "Little Suzy" and "Comin' Atcha Live".
"Down Deep Into The Pain" by Stevie Vai — Marginal hair metal, but Vai played on Whitesnake's "Slip of the Tongue" and David Lee Roth's debut and therefore had a big role in the hair metal era. This is Devin Townsend's debut as well, as far as I can tell, and he's a big name in metal today. I always liked Vai's "The Audience Is Listening" too.
"Lights of Heaven" by Joe Satriani — Speaking of instrumental guitarists, here's the best, ever. He performed in this era, so I put him here. Satriani is famous for "Surfing with the Alien," but I think the album that spawned this track is better, and this is his best song.
"Wild Child" by W.A.S.P. — I love W.A.S.P. Blackie Lawless was a strange dude, almost too strange, as the band's antics and acting as Tipper Gore's thorn overshadowed the fact that Lawless not only had a terrific metal voice, he wrote a TON of catchy, hard tunes. This is my favorite track, but there are many other great ones, including a song, "Helldorado," that the band released in 1999 (!).
"Panama" by Van Halen — One of my best friends who enjoys this kind of music and is probably the biggest Rush fan ever says Van Halen was a hair band. I have passionately disagreed, but I'll give him this point: "1984" was basically a hair metal album, and so I've included what I think was the best track here. Man, "1984" was a great album: "Jump," "Hot For Teacher," "I'll Wait" and this song. Was "1984" Van Halen's best album? I think so.
"Cherry Pie" by Warrant — I was not a fan of Warrant, just like I wasn't a fan of many of the marginal glam hair bands that played pop metal more watered down than a free casino drink. But Warrant redeemed itself with this outrageous, horrible hunk of cheese that just happens to feature one of the catchiest choruses in the history of hair metal. One of the best videos, too. I mean, at one point, the band hoses down the incredibly hot blonde. You know, cause she's SO HOT. Get it? I thought you might.
P.S. I just watched the video. Yeah, it holds up even less than I thought. I really didn't think that was cool at one point, did I?
"In My Dreams" by Dokken — If you overlook the fact that magazines loved to focus on the fact that George Lynch and Don Dokken hated each other, and if you maybe ignore the fact that Don Dokken had the personality of a moldy sponge, you'd be left with a pretty damn good hair metal band. Dokken was a terrible live band. You really could see why the guys hated each other, as there was no chemistry at all. Don, who I think was a lot older than he let on, came out for Dokken's Monsters of Rock gig, the same one I saw in Kansas City, and said "Hey, I smell some DOOOOOBAGE," and it went downhill from there.
Even so, Jeff Pilson, the bass player, could sing, Don had a good hair metal voice and Lynch could really play. They also wrote some great songs. They would have a nice greatest hits collection. "Kiss of Death" is a close second.
"Youth Gone Wild" by Skid Row — Skid Row holds a special spot somewhere in my cold metal heart not only for this killer, killer, killer song but for the fact that the band was set up to have a nice, long, cheesy career. The opening track of their debut was "Big Guns," a song about a woman's...never mind. Anyway, the band followed up with a second album, and it was the heaviest I'd ever heard from a supposed hair metal band. Seriously, some pretty fierce power metal bands couldn't match that guitar crunch, and Bach could always scream with the best of them. I'm convinced it destroyed their career, but I admire them for sticking to their roots and not putting out a featherweight product because that's what the label (and unfortunately probably the public) wanted.
"The Final Countdown" by Europe — Abused by many sports teams now, this song featured the best keyboard riff in a hair metal song, like, ever. It's a good example of a riff really acting as the chorus, since there wasn't much of a chorus. They just sang the song's name over that sweet riff a few times. It worked, just as it did for "Layla." Unbelievably, Europe, not a great band by any stretch, did have another great song, this one on their first album, called "Wings of Tomorrow." Check it out.
• "All We Are" by Warlock — Warlock was heavier than most hair metal bands, but I still count it because the video for this song is candy-corn corny. Here's a secret: I really have a thing for metal chicks, and Doro was the metalist chickiest of all. Her pipes were as amazing as her blonde hair that went down to her waist.
"Addicted to that Rush" by Mr. Big — Mr. Big hit it big with "Be With You," a pretty awful hair metal ballad that sounded like a ripoff of "More Than Words," Extreme's big one (which is a much better song, but it won't make this list either).  But this song leads off their lesser-known debut album, and it's a shredder, something Racer X might have played (and I just looked it up, and sure enough, the band's guitarist, Paul Gilbert, played in it). Mr. Big also had Billy Sheehan and therefore had more chops in the cushions of their couch than even most power metal bands.
"Cryin' in the Rain" by Whitesnake — I was a bigger fan of Whitesnake than the band probably deserved, though David Coverdale could really sing, and they had some good songs even before the monster self-titled album was released ("Slide It In," "Slow 'N' Easy" and "Love Ain't No Stranger" are three of the best). Yes, this album had many whoppers, but I always thought "Still of the Night" was too much of a Zep rip-off, and I never really forgave Whitesnake for releasing a remixed, poppier version of "Here I Go Again." So this is my pick, which features an incredible solo by John Sykes and some tour-de-force vocals from Coverdale. I really would have liked to have seen Tawny slither (see what I did there?) to this one. Whitesnake gets a lot of derision these days, and I have two theories as to why. The first is simple: The band name sucks. The second, I think, comes from the fact that many people love to make fun of this era, as I've said before. I can't blame them. This era, like Disco, really makes you wonder what the fuck we were all thinking. But like Disco, this era put out a lot of great music that's unfairly judged because of all the costumes and hair and overall silliness. Whitesnake absorbs quite a bit of that today because they weren't quite Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Guns and Roses or Motley Crue, bands that people still love today without shame. But Whitesnake was bigger than most other bands such as Quiet Riot, Cinderella and probably even Ratt. They already were a fairly established band when "Whitesnake" was released, and that album sold millions and was huge. HUGE. So people remember them as much as Def Leppard, but they don't carry the same nostalgia as Leppard does and therefore people don't mind throwing darts their way. Whitesnake is probably the Village People of the hair metal era. We can be honest, though: Rudy Sarzo probably didn't need to lick the neck of his guitar in those videos quite that much either.
P.S. After Tawny kinda wigged out and beat up her baseball husband, it took away a bit of the luster of her on that car, didn't it? Bowling For Soup's "1985" video nailed the parody.
"Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns and Roses — I honestly couldn't decide between this one and "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Paradise City" and "Rocket Queen" and...I think you get the point. What an amazing album. It still holds up today: Pull out the CD (oh don't lie, you do TOO still have it) and give it a whirl. I chose this song because Slash's solo is one of the best on any song, ever. Slash was hair metal's Jimmie Page, a guitarist who could play solos that matched the songs rather than tossing some fast scales and tricks around for 30 seconds.
"Cum On Feel The Noize" by Quiet Riot — Yeah, it's a cover, but really, does anyone associate Slade with this song? (Slade had a big hit of its own. Remember "Run Runaway"? I do.) Quiet Riot proved it could write their own song with "Metal Health," but this by far their best single. Even the verses sounded as good as the chorus. I remember seeing them on the TV show "Solid Gold," and to their credit, they actually chose to play their song live, rather than just lip synch it like 95 percent of all the other groups.
"You Give Love A Bad Name" by Bon Jovi — I didn't really get Bon Jovi, even if I thought "Runaway" was a good song. Bon Jovi seemed like a bunch of pretty boys that had zero good songs (besides "Runaway"), and yet all these girls wore their shirts and thought Jon Bon Jovi was dreamy. Then I heard this song and instantly loved it, and I could not BELIEVE it was Bon Jovi. So I sighed, bought the album, popped in the cassette, ticked off the hits, one by one. Sure enough, "Livin' On A Prayer," "Wanted Dead or Alive" and "Never Say Goodbye" (yuck) followed. Classic record. Easily one of the best from the era, and eventually that alone will put this band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one day. I was sorely tempted to put "Livin' On A Prayer" in this list too but I wanted to follow my rule.
I find it interesting that this band still seems to have major credibility. I realize Motley Crue and Def Leppard still tour, but I don't think there's any doubt that most people who go to those shows are there to see them sing their classic hits. Most other hair metal bands only tour small clubs or package themselves with other hair metal bands to land bigger concerts. But Bon Jovi is still seen as more than a nostalgia act and draws big crowds on its own. It had a big hit, "It's My Life," many years after this era (even though the song sounded like it came from the band's hair metal days).
"Prime Mover" by Zodiac Mindwarp — What a name, right? Sometimes a band that has no business even making a record drinks some really good gin or smokes a magic mushroom and writes an incredible song that is far catchier than it should be. This is that song, a messy masterpiece that even manages to avoid many of the trappings of the hair metal era and therefore could honestly be on the radio today without too many giggles.
"Round and Round" by Ratt — If you forced me to pick a favorite song out of this whole list, this might be it. There's some serious nostalgia here, as this was the first hair metal song that truly hooked me after I discovered Motley Crue and became more comfortable with listening to heavy metal, and the video STILL cracks me up. But it's still an incredible riff, terrific chorus and a great duel guitar solo. Perfect song. Ratt, like W.A.S.P., was a touch underrated. They had almost as good a catalogue as Def Leppard. Seriously. "Lay It Down" is another monster, and there are a dozen others, like "Way Cool Jr.," "Wanted Man" and "You're In Love." But Ratt never had one of those sappy ballads that drew in the girls, and the guys in the band had a bit of a creepy look to them. It seemed to me only the more serious hardcore metal chicks (and I dated a couple) really liked Ratt, whereas everyone, even the cheerleaders, liked Def Leppard.
Whatever. That's what made me like Ratt even more.