1995 - Heavy Metal Kids

1995 – Heavy Metal Kids

I was becoming a teenager and learning what that meant in all its terrors and glories. Hormones were high and I was exploring and interested in learning more about sexuality as I had already been doing naturally for the past few years. My crush on Emma continued unabated. Will I see her at the bus stop on the way to school?? Would I be able to say something to her? Probably not. Many mornings on the way to school I put my Walkman on and listened to heavy metal music. I was shy, but I accepted that this was how I felt at the time. I was still just a kid. I wouldn’t even have known what to do with a girlfriend if I had one. What little money I had I would rather have spent on music and hanging out with friends. What could I possibly speak to this beautiful blonde girl about anyway?

In January Mom took Bampa[1] for visits to the doctor as well as our dog Aragorn. Bampa’s health had been showing signs of failing for some time now. Aragorn was unfortunately losing his health at a rapid and undeniable speed. It was hard to witness. On Billy’s 10th birthday in late February our beloved Aragorn passed away. We had been watching him deteriorate rapidly and suffer in the preceding weeks. Mom had finally worked up the courage to drive him to the vet to be put down. Mercifully, he breathed his last breath in my arms as we sat in the back seat. His body was heavy for my 14-year old strength. A helper from the vet’s office came out and picked him up for us to take him in. I was relieved. The sadness had been building for weeks. I sensed Aragorn’s consideration in leaving his corporeal form without us having to have to ask the vet to have him put down. I felt grateful and blessed.

It would not be long before our house would be enlivened by the high-pitched yelps of a brand-new puppy. We named this youngster Strider with a nod to our former dear canine companion[2]. Strider filled the house that late winter and spring with excitement, joy and noise! We were happy to welcome this very lively little creature into our family.

I was finding my stride as a guitar player. My main axe[3] was a Gibson Epiphone Flying V or as Johnny G. called it, “a V-Shaped Flyer”. On this guitar, I wrote heavy metal riffs, played wailing solos, and practiced countless scales, licks, and finger patterns to sharpen and hone my skills. I had blank TAB music books[4] in which I would notate various musical ideas and riffs both of my own and from some of my favorite bands. I used these notebooks during my lessons with my second guitar teacher, Michael Alexandrini. Mike, as we called him, began teaching me guitar probably sometime in early 1995 for a very reasonable price. When Judd Diamond and I observed him playing guitar at our local Sam Ash Music store, where Mike worked, we were mesmerized and both of us asked him to give us private guitar lessons that same day. Mike offered us the phone numbers of other local guitar teachers, but we insisted that he be the one to teach us. He reluctantly agreed. This turned out to be a very good thing for our band. As both Judd and I were learning from the same teacher and then playing together several days a week, our styles were complimenting each other nicely and we were able to exchange musical ideas quickly. 

While I did spent significant time elsewhere in the house, the bulk of my time was spent in The BASEment. The BASEment was virtually covered wall to wall with posters and such. Most came from heavy metal and music magazines such as Rip, Metal Edge, Hit Parader, Guitar Player, and Guitar for the Practicing Musician as well as well as full-size posters bought individually at places like Spencer’s Gifts and Sam Goody in the mall. Posters featured members from Guns n’ Roses, Motley Crue, Iron Maiden, Megadeth among others. An entire long wall was dedicated to Metallica. Some of the equipment in The BASEment included a Crate amp, a Sing-a-Lodeon, a metal microphone stand with a concrete base, a reconfigured large old-school Baldwin amp, a Matrix amp and the orange-black-red Frankenstein drum kit amongst other things. Electric shocks were not uncommon while using this hodge podge of musical gear. There were bookshelves filled with books and magazines, and a large drafting table which I used as a music stand to read from and compose on. Of course there was the TV, VCR, Nintendo, and Super Nintendo. And let’s not forget the large clear blue bag hanging from the wall to collect bottles to recycle.

I was in the middle of freshman year at James Madison High School and beginning to acclimate to it, even like it. On the forefront of my priorities was our band Impact. We did not love our band name, but still hadn’t found a name we preferred. It was still just the three of us, Judd Diamond, Jack Lanza, and me. We were playing together as often as possible and getting better. In late March, Skid Row released their long-awaited 3rd full-length album, Subhuman Race. For fans, like myself, who were really into their previous material, this album was not very satisfying. While a few tracks grew on me, I didn’t love the change to a darker, grungier direction. My musical opinions were strong and clear to me.

We were now hanging out with a new friend from high school Marco Baranov. Marco was sharp-witted, funny, sarcastic, a guitarist, video-gamer, amateur martial artist, and a staple of The BASEment Crew. Many afternoons and evenings after school were spent hanging out with The BASEment Crew consisting of members such as Marco Baranov, Judd Diamond, Jack Lanza, Yae, Yie, and Billy. Occasionally other friends such as Freddy Galligan, Donny Loughlin, Johnny Guglielmino, and others would blend in. The BASEment Crew would hang out in The BASEment and goof off. We would play video games, watch horror movies, playfight, play guitar, create home movies, and sometimes engage in sport-like-activities. 

The theme of sports was drifting away from my focus. Joining friends on the block in playing football, baseball, or hockey in the street had been more of a thing I did out of peer pressure (or fear of missing out) rather than something I was genuinely interested in of my own accord. Through participation, I became a halfway decent player and benefitted from it as it toughened me physically, mentally, and emotionally. However, left to my own devices and as Mainstream Crew peer pressure slackened with the new energies of high school, the only “sports” I cared to engage in were handball and perhaps a bit of roller blading and biking. There were other physical activities which we enjoyed: climbing and jumping over various obstacles in parks, playgrounds and on the streets, as well as the occasional foot race and arm-wrestling match. I would often win foot races as I could reserve energy for a turbo push toward the end. And somehow despite my lack of size and formal working out, I often won arm-wrestling matches. Annoyingly however I could not beat Judd Diamond in an arm-wrestling match. 

At this stage of Impact’s development, we still had no official singer. I was filling the role for the time-being, but we were open to find a singer. We had one funky guy from high school, Aron K. come down for an audition. He was cool but not the right fit. He was excited about Pearl Jam’s new album Vitalogy which the rest of us had very little interest in. The quest for a bass player led us to discover local rocker Billy Rocket. What a great name! Billy was fun to hang out with. However, his taste in music and his chops as a player were not on the same page as what we were looking for. One great thing Billy brought to our band was telling us about the local rehearsal studio Ace London just several blocks away on E. 36th St. and Quentin Rd. He was friendly with another heavy metal crowd in the neighborhood – the Connolly clan! The Connolly brothers and their clan of outcasts hung out together either on the front porch of the Connolly family house a few blocks up from us or in The Creek[5]. They looked cool with long hair, patched-up jackets, denim and leather clothes, earrings, and other accoutrements of 80’s rockers. Word on the street was they were “Devil Worshippers”. On occasion we would see the Connolly Clan with their misfit rocker friends streaming down our block as we marveled at their eerie yet cool atmosphere. We could tell they were a little older than us. And occassionally there were pretty girls amongst their number.

By now the East 35th Street kids-on-the-block had pretty much split into at least two camps. There was the The Mainstreamers comprised of Joe Lanza, Chris Arce, and others who were more interested in other non-musical activities. And there was my own newer high school heavy metal crowd The BASEment Crew. Jack, Yae, and Yie kind of floated in and out of both crews. Even though the vibe of The Mainstreamers was often out-of-sync with The BASEment Crew we tolerated each other and enjoyed the energetic switch up as much as we could without fighting (basically). One day we even went so far as to co-create a song together. It turned out to be a sort of Beastie Boys style rock jam titled “Beer Today, Bong Tomorrow”. I was quite straight-edge as a young teen but others in my environment were already familiar with drinking and smoking. This outburst of cooperative energy between the disparate youthful energies of The BASEment Crew and The Mainstreamers was perhaps our local watered down version of a rap-metal collaboration as seen in pop culture similar to the likes of “Bring the Noise” between Anthrax and Public Enemy.

Both The Mainstreamers and The BASEment Crew regularly went across the street to “U Park” to play handball, climb playground equipment and generally hang out. One day we discovered a recently deceased cat just beyond the fence outside the handball courts. The smell and appearance were naturally disturbing. We kids took an interest in this deceased cat even giving him an appellation of his own, Cat Cohen. He would be searched for every time we went there until one day weeks later he was gone.

Sometime around the beginning of the new school year there was exciting news. Judd had been hanging out with some new metal dudes for several months and it seemed like one of them might be a good fit to fill the role as our bass player. Jeremy Batchelor came over for an initial jam and hangout session one warm late summer day. He had long hair, dressed in all black wearing a metal band t-shirt and he owned a bass and amplifier! While he was somewhat new to his instrument, he was willing to learn the parts and give it a go. Jeremy joined the band, and now we finally had a bass player. We had settled on a new band name for the time being, Grim Reality.

Pope John Paul II visited the USA in October. I was a practicing Catholic and regularly attended Sunday morning mass at St. Columba Catholic Church going there alone by foot. Every night before bed I knelt on the fuzzy brown carpeting of my bedroom floor to say my prayers before the crucifix of Jesus Christ hanging on the wall over my desk. I prayed for harmony between band members, family members, and generally for peace and happiness. I also prayed for what I didn’t want to happen … Dear God, please don’t let Nana or Bampa die anytime soon… I was influenced by what seemed to be the unfairness of the real world. Praying came natural to me. However, praying in the Catholic style as I was taught at school and at church did not resonate with me on the deepest level. I did not think I had other options though, so I kept on in this manner. Essentially I believed living a prayerful life was better than not.

The lyrics I was writing reflected some of what I had absorbed growing up as a Roman Catholic. Song titles included: “Savior”, “Redemption”, “Apocalypse”, “Armageddon”, “Unwhole”, among others. While I was simply writing what I was inspired to write at the time, it took me a while to recognize that basically no one else in the band could relate to the religious undertones which I would kind of unconsciously put into the lyrics. It wasn’t long before the more faith-based religious-toned songs were wiped out of our repertory. “Armageddon” and “Unwhole” were darker however and we kept playing those. 

After Bruce Dickinson left Iron Maiden in the summer of 1993, I, along with fans the world over, were very curious as to what Iron Maiden would sound like with a new singer. I practically ran to the nearby Nobody Beats the Wiz to pick up Iron Maiden’s latest album The X Factor when it came out. I got home from the store on a dreary day in early October, expectantly tearing off the plastic shrink wrap of the CD jewel case. I popped the CD into my tall early 90’s stereo system and sat down to have a listen as I perused the album insert admiring the more modern approach to mascot Eddie the Head as I read along with the lyrics. It still sounded like Maiden albeit somewhat less exciting. 

Right around Thanksgiving, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest was released for the SNES. It was in our household by Christmas if not earlier. While this was another mesmerizing game (much like the original Donkey Kong Country) my interest in new video games was drawing to a close. From here on in I would only be vaguely aware of new games through the influence of my brother and friends, but no longer really excited by them with few exceptions. 

Thanksgiving at our house was filled with people. We celebrated a traditional American Thanksgiving with turkey, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, stuffing (two varieties: Mom’s and Grandma’s), some canned vegetables, cranberry sauce, and gravy. There would be decorative salt and pepper shakers on the table and always some discussion about who preferred to eat dark meat and who light. Wine would start to flow at dinner and continue into dessert time. Desserts were over the top: cherry pie, apple pie, blueberry pie, amongst others, cookies, perhaps cakes and of course coffee, cider, soda, and more wine (for those so inclined). And not to mention cigarette smoke filling the house throughout the festivities. Welcome to 1990’s America in residential Brooklyn.

So while there was some disappointment lingering from the new Iron Maiden and Skid Row albums I was quite pleasantly surprised when I first put on Helloween’s latest release Master of the Rings, which I received for my birthday or Christmas. Yes! The replacement of beloved and iconic frontman Michael Kiske somehow did not prevent Helloween from taking an awesome leap forward as a band. I loved the new sound and while I did miss the classic Helloween lead vocals, after a few listens I was sold that their new vocalist Andi Deris was an awesome addition and the CD spun endlessly in my stereo in the following months.

The Fear Factory song “Zero Signal” which appeared in the blockbuster movie Mortal Kombat earlier in the year had blown us away with its precise and striking aggressive edge rounded out with a haunting melodic chorus. Jack Lanza received the Fear Factory album Demanufacture for Christmas. One evening just before New Year’s, several of us were hanging out in The BASEment goofing off. Freddy Galligan had a video camera capturing the hangout session. The camera plus the presence of several guys led to there being a performance of some kind. It was a fight between my brother Billy and myself. We put on Fear Factory to get pumped up and proceeded to energetically and hopefully good-naturedly beat each other up. I had an unfair advantage being newly 15 and Billy being just 10. He was however a sizeable boy for his age and could fight. This was an era where physical bullying was not uncommon. I felt the better of two evils was to fight publicly with my brother to dissuade others from picking on either me or him by showcasing our willingness to slug it out. Not only was I tough on Billy I was protective of him too. When others messed with him, I had my grim eye on them.


[1] Our name for my mother’s Uncle John, who was a grandfather figure.

[2] Aragorn had been named after the character of the same name in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. While Aragorn happened to hold the status of a king, throughout much of the book he embodies the role of a wanderer who is known by commoners as Strider. 

[3] “Axe” is another word for “guitar”

[4] TAB refers to sheet music written specifically for guitar (or a fretted instrument). It’s basically easier to read but has its drawbacks.

[5] The Creek is the name we used for the nature preserve of Marine Park on the south side of Avenue U, which at that time was quite unkempt and had a reputation for being a bit dangerous. If you walked in the The Creek you might have found garbage, abandoned cars, broken bottles, evidence of fires and perhaps wild animals. Kids would drink and drug down there at keg parties and the like. But worst of all, were the alleged “devil worshippers”! The Connolly’s Outcast Clan were suspected of being amongst the Devil Worshippers.