HAYWARD, Calif. — Members of the new underground gathered here late one afternoon in a metal-walled room padded with dirty yellow carpet. Singer Dennis Conant, sweat spitting off the tips of his frizzy locks, pressed a microphone against his lower lip and screamed the lyrics to a song called "Oblivion."
A groupie watching him appeared to be enchanted. "The lyrics have a lot of pain," she observed. "Death is intriguing--I don't care what anybody says."
The metal-walled room is a unit in a mini-storage warehouse. Hayward, and the nearby factory towns south of Oakland, have become the heartland of speed metal, an underground music that has bubbled up in the last two years to fill the void left when heavy metal--formerly the music of choice for angry youth--went commercial.
'Dark,' 'Ugly,' 'Brutal' Sound
Characterized by its frantic pace and desolate lyrics, it's sometimes called caffeine metal, or thrash metal. Critics use adjectives like "dark," "ugly" and "brutal" to describe the sound.
Along with the music has arisen a speed-metal culture that is fascinated by death. Some young people appear to have gravitated to speed metal simply for its shock appeal, say those familiar with the scene. But for others, the music speaks of the way they feel about their own lives and futures.
Speed metal is too new to have been much analyzed by sociologists or psychologists. But Los Angeles psychologist Michael Peck, who has specialized in working with suicidal adolescents for 24 years, says he has counseled a few youths who are into speed metal. They tend to be the most troubled of his clients, he said.
"The kids that we're talking about are heavy drug users, they have no positive orientation, and they're angry," he said. "Some of these kids are suicidal, some of them are homicidal, but I don't think you'll find many that are happy."
Irene Goldenberg, a professor of psychology at UCLA, who said she is not specifically familiar with speed metal, said she considers it a natural development in a death-obsessed society that craves violence on the evening news and in movies. "The death theme reiterates what's going on in the culture," she said.
Goldenberg, a child psychologist who specializes in family issues, said parents and teachers should be less concerned with the music--which is the expression, not the cause of the problem--and more with "the kids in trouble, who are the problem. We need to look to the fact that there are a lot of kids unattended to and who are not being observed."
Speed-metal fans Jennifer Smith and Lorraine Brugette sat smoking cigarettes in a friend's living room and told how they met:
Some of the kids in Union City, where the two live, agreed that Jennifer needed to be beaten up for the crimes of being too blonde, too tan and too cute. The assailant was to be dark-haired Lorraine, four years Jennifer's elder. The confrontation was set for the day of Jennifer's Sweet 16 party.
Instead of scrapping, the pair ended up sitting on the curb together, drinking whiskey. The thing that forestalled a fight, they explained, was the discovery that they had a common love of local speed-metal bands like Violence and Forbidden Evil.
Since that day, their lives have revolved around the Hayward warehouse where the bands rehearse. Friends say they often party till the early hours of the morning, causing Jennifer to miss school on occasion.
Lorraine, who dropped out of high school, says she has no permanent home but sleeps at various friends' apartments. She has a 2-year-old son, Jesse, whose name is tattooed on her right shoulder.
Lorraine's mother--who does not approve of her daughter's life style--looks after the child. Once in a while Lorraine is allowed to visit. "When I'm around my kid, I'm different," she said. "That's a whole other world. I never combine the two (speed metal and motherhood.)"
The young women are typical of speed-metal fans encountered by Venice writer Judy Wieder, who frequently reports on heavy metal and its variations for rock magazines. Speed metal, she said, "is a place for those who don't belong, kids who are on the wrong side of absolutely everything.
"What I feel when I go into these places (speed-metal clubs) is a lot of anger--and what they're mad at is all confused. In certain ways, the music is a good thing. It gives them a place to go and counteracts some of the rejection and lack of love."
Director Penelope Spheeris, known for her film on punk culture, "The Decline of Western Civilization," said speed-metal followers she interviewed for a new film tend to come from lower-income families. Many don't get a lot of attention or love at home.
"They're kind of blanked out," she said. "but that's not to say they're going to go out and kill people." Spheeris said the scene can be positive for those who delve into death as a way of "trying to define life."