Friday, Aug. 08, 2003

THE SHOW GOES ON, Column by DENISE SULLIVAN: College prof writes a hard rock memoir

IT'S A HARD ROCK summer. The Led Zeppelin triple live CD and double DVD opened up the season for some of us, while "St. Anger" and the long-awaited return of Metallica into the live arena are going to bring it on home.

There was Ozzfest (and repeated viewings of the Osbournes), while Lollapalooza and the terrorsome trio of Iron Maiden, Dio and Motorhead are still on the horizon. And tailor-made for the bookish suburban metal maniac, there's Donna Gaines' "A Misfit's Manifesto: The Spiritual Journey of a Rock & Roll Heart." It's a cut-to-the-bone account of a life and near-death in the rock 'n' roll fast lane. Raised on a healthy dose of East Bay '80s speed metal? Let's just say you'll probably relate.

Gaines, a doctor of sociology, former rock journalist and mega-metal fan, has made her life's work studying the habits of hard-rockers. Her documentation of the world of heavy metal parking lots, 7-Elevens, teen rage and suicide was published in 1991 as "Teenage Wasteland: Surburbia's Dead End Kids." A little like director Penelope Spheeris, who has chronicled the rock world in her "Decline" series of documentaries and in her big-screen feature "Wayne's World," Gaines is an insider among metal kids. She claims her ability to penetrate the
bubble of the metal misfit, an outcast among outcasts, was aided by her working knowledge of Metallica (she could identify "Ride the Lightning" and "Master of Puppets," and the metalheads let her run with them). But the fact that she was a rock 'n' roller with a troubled past is what really helped seal the deal: "If you've got it, you can spot it," she writes in "Misfit's Manifesto." "One humiliated child will always recognize another ... they knew who I was. I never had to explain."

Rock 'n' roll has saved Gaines' life, over and overagain, from the time she was an awkward hair-sprayed kid in Rockaway Beach, Queens, sniffing glue and praying at the altar of the Shangri-Las; during her life and times as an in-demand metal expert on talk shows and panels in the age of the PMRC; and on through her stint as a professor at Barnard College. All the while, she was nursing a drug and alcohol addiction and an eating disorder; the illnesses left a hole in her soul the size of a Chevy Impala.

Who knows how many lives of metal kids she'd saved or inspired? In the meantime, she was steadily losing a grip on her own. "Misfit's Manifesto" is her compelling tale of the highway from hell. Along the way, she loses some friends and relatives to rock 'n' roll heaven; most of the grisly details are assuaged by a good rockin' soundtrack provided by Johnny Thunders, the Ramones and a roster of Long Island metal bands, some of whom actually make personal appearances in the writer's life and dreams. The rest she's left to deal with, unaided by substances but fueled with a newfound spirituality.

That's when the truth comes out. So what made her decide to come clean, in life and in print? "It was in me gurgling up," she said by e-mail from New York. "But it started as the diary of an obsessed fan." Understood. In the course of reading Gaines, I'd become a bit obsessed myself with the rock 'n' roll of which she writes with a feverish and fiery passion in all its glory, from doo-wop days to Led Zeppelin nights.

"I realized my love of music was spiritual and that music was a higher power, a sacred practice I needed to survive. It didn't really come together in my mind until I had written out the first draft -- it was more intuitive than logical, I guess." Amen, sister.

"I'm not a big reader of anything," she says. "I don't even think 'Misfit's Manifesto' is a memoir. It's a personal narrative or, as one scholar put it, 'a personal ethnomethodology' aimed at understanding what I am -- at the root."

Did her route from fan to fanatic ever include having a crush on one of her subjects? (You gotta be a little crazy to be a woman and write rock. I mean, this is the type of question people ask of us! Who wants to deal with that?)

The scholarly Gaines answers with confidence and a little bit of rock flash. "James is gawgeeous," she says, referring to Metallica's Hetfield. "And Lemmy (Kilmister of Motorhead), and maybe Trent Reznor. But I'm not sure if it isn't narcissism. I identify with them and want to be them, not be with them. I could also have crushes on Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde and Sleater-Kinney. But I think it's asexual with all of them. My sex mind is all chemicals -- love at first sight. This is more abstract."

And with that, I leave the "Margaret Mead of heavy metal" to get back to her deep research (which includes a whole lotta surfing and rawk listening). This summer, she's into "Don't Worry About Me," the first and last Joey Ramone solo album. "I especially miss him in the summer 'cause he always came out to hang out with me at the beach. So I take him down to the ocean at sunset and blast his songs."

(Click to return to main Press page)