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ROBERT HILBURN

Heavy-metal Syndrome--what's A Parent To Do?

June 21, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

A 22-year-old man dies of a broken neck following a fall at a rock concert.

For parents who are convinced that rock 'n' roll is a corrupting influence, the above sentence alone is enough to generate even more anxiety about all the hours their kids listen to the dreaded stuff.

But most adults--who survived all the darkest hours of the Rolling Stones and the Doors during their own youth--are sophisticated enough to realize that there are different styles of rock and that they need more information before they can put this most recent death into perspective.

If, for instance, last weekend's death had occurred during Amnesty International's nationally televised concert at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., most parents probably would have looked upon it as merely a tragic accident.

After all, the 55,000 fans at that concert represent the hope of the future: Young people who are responding to the socially conscious themes of inspiring musicians like U2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Bob Geldof, Steve Van Zandt, Ruben Blades and Joan Baez.

However, the fact that the death took place at the Long Beach Arena during a concert headlined by Ozzy Osbourne invited even the most liberal parents to suspect that rock 'n' roll itself was responsible--at least that reckless division of rock known as heavy metal. (Four other fans were injured at the concert when they apparently tried to jump from the arena balcony to the ground-level seats.)

Osbourne is not most people's idea of a comforting role model. The British heavy-metal hero is best known for once biting off the head of a bat on stage, and his current tour is titled "The Ultimate Sin."

(Osbourne has often said he was biting into what he thought was a toy animal the night he bit the bat's head, but the myth persists that the bat was a regular part of his show.)

In the wake of the Long Beach death, a parents group (titled Back in Control) is calling for Southern California concert halls to stop booking heavy-metal shows, a ban that would presumably include such controversial acts as Osbourne, AC/DC, Iron Maiden and Motley Crue.

What about heavy metal?

How should parents react to this music?

The first thing to understand is that the majority of fans at the Osbourne show--maybe as many as 80%--were interchangeable in terms of outlook and temperament with the audience at the Amnesty International show. They were going to the concert with friends to have a good time. If the Amnesty concert had been held at the Long Beach Arena instead of Osborne that night, they most likely would have still been on hand.

The difference between the audiences is that heavy-metal shows also attract a hard-core fringe, whose thoughtless acceptance of the "live fast, love hard and die young" credo of many heavy-metal bands sets a tone for the evening. This is where you really find the expression "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" lived out.

Part of the lure--and danger--of the heavy-metal ritual is the sense of reckless abandon, and this fringe tries to act out many fantasies suggested by the bands' macho- accented themes. A quintessential heavy-metal song title would be: "Racing Through Hell With Pills in My Pocket and an Oversexed Dame at My Side."

Fortunately, there's an archangel that must look over these fans, because most of them make it through the night without harm. You can tell they are survivors because they like nothing better than to wear souvenir T-shirts from past heavy-metal extravaganzas. If they weren't at the concert, they'd be walking on the rebellious wild side somewhere else. Mostly, however, the fans at a heavy-metal show see through the cartoonish bravado of the bands and take the evening no more seriously than they do the latest horror movie.

In fact, most of the audience at the last heavy-metal show I attended (Judas Priest last month at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre) were spectators, not participants in the heavy-metal ritual. They spent much of the evening gawking at the hard-core fans, much like tourists in London continue to be fascinated by punks and skinheads. My impression was that many of them seemed fairly bored with the whole scene. Perhaps, at 17, they had outgrown it.

Some heavy-metal bands are irresponsible on stage, going out of their way to glorify the self-destructive elements of the music. But many others--including Osbourne--are surprisingly tame thematically. They rely on the music's energy and the genre's imagery to satisfy the audience's appetite for adventure. Some of these bands' songs, which seem at first glance to be promoting reckless behavior, actually even warn against it.

So how should parents deal with the heavy-metal syndrome?

The answer isn't to ban heavy-metal shows.

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