Sunday, November 02, 2014
Blood so real: Samhain live / Danzig devotion
For me, Samhain was always the weird, shadowy middle chapter of the Glenn Danzig saga. There's an immediacy to basically the entire Misfits discography, and to the cream of the Danzig one (essentially albums one through four, plus odds and ends afterward), that seemed to skip over Samhain. I've often come across passionate Misfits and/or Danzig fans who haven't heard a note of, say, the classic November-Coming-Fire.
So to me, it was a strange and intriguing decision for Glenn to bring Samhain back out on the road this year, for an appearance at Riot Fest and a subsequent mini tour, which I saw at Best Buy Theater last night. A few years back, I attended a show billed as Danzig Legacy, in which Glenn and assorted sidemen played three short sets focusing on each of his bands in turn. In some ways, the Samhain portion was the most intriguing—both because the songs are less iconic than the Misfits and Danzig classics, and because the lineup (unlike that of the Danzig segment, which featured no vintage-era members, or the Misfits one, which featured only guitarist Doyle) included two actual old-school Samhain-ers, Steve Zing and London May, trading off on bass and drums.
Last night's set was a chance to focus exclusively on Samhain, and I have to hand it to Glenn for keeping the parameters tight. The band played only three Misfits songs, and two of those ("Horror Business," a.k.a. "Horror Biz," and "All Hell Breaks Loose," a.k.a. "All Hell") showed up in their subtly but effectively rearranged Samhain versions; the third, "Halloween II," always sounded like a Samhain song to begin with, so it fit right in. Having not met a whole lot of die-hard Samhain fans in my peer group, I was surprised to see how passionate the crowd response was. People were singing along to every word of even the obscure Initium songs, like "Macabre" and "The Shift," and the pit was raging more or less the whole show.
The experience of seeing Glenn Danzig live in 2014 is complicated. I've seen him several times in recent years, so I knew what to expect, but last night, his age, and his bitter, out-of-touch demeanor hit home even more. To put it mildly, his onstage persona, which I gather is not too different from his offstage one, is not a pleasant one. He's developed an obsessive loathing for fans filming his shows on their phones, and he has a habit of aggressively calling out specific members of the crowd. There were several distracting instances of same last night, as well as an utterly absurd episode where a roadie apparently handed Danzig an out-of-tune guitar (Danzig played some sparse rhythm guitar on the strangely uplifting Initium closer "Archangel") and Danzig proceeded to make a laughingstock of the poor guy in front of the whole crowd. (I don't recall the entire rant, but he definitely employed the term "Einstein" in the classic sarcastic-’80s-jock way, and said something like "What is this, Ethiopia?" when the same roadie forgot to set up a mic stand for him.) There was also this classic rhetorical question posed to the audience: "Does anyone else out there fucking hate hipsters?" I could go on, but you get the point.
The odd thing is that another bit of banter was one of the most endearing moments of the set. You always hear artists give these "Thanks for your support—it means a lot" speeches near the ends of shows, but the one Danzig gave last night was one of the most sincere-seeming I've ever heard. In so many words, he thanked the audience for supporting him all these years (keep in mind that Glenn Danzig is 59, and has been performing since the late ’70s), and made the point that fan loyalty is the driving force behind underground art forms like punk and metal. Again, we've heard all this before, but Glenn Danzig is someone who has lived this dream basically his entire life, willing three bands into worldwide icon-hood (and inspiring countless others) through the force of his own vision, conviction and, it must be said, talent. You can't do that without a passionate and devoted fan base.
I'm proud to call myself a member of same. At this point, I've been obsessed with Danzig's body of work for more than two decades. For a few years during my adolescence, I plastered one entire wall of my bedroom with Danzig/Misfits/Samhain memorabilia. (Another friend and I competed to see who could construct the grandest Danzig Wall, as we called it.) The music of these projects has never lost its resonance for me, and to me, it's some of the best-made—and most soulful, intense, dark, tough, sensual, smart, atmospheric, idiosyncratic and sheerly enjoyable—rock I've ever heard. In recent years, I've seen my teenage idol turned into a caricature—with the Henry and Glenn comic, the infamous backstage punch-out, the kitty-litter pic, the admittedly hysterical bricks anecdote—and I'll admit that I'm a little defensive about it. But when you see the man onstage, willingly giving detractors all the ammo they need to ridicule him, you realize that defending Glenn Danzig as a guy is a losing battle.
What I will do, though, is defend Glenn Danzig as an artist and, just as importantly, entertainer. The Misfits songbook is straight-up Beatles-worthy in its density of brilliance per capita. We're talking about buckets' worth of perfect songs—true anthems. The first four Danzig records are almost as good in terms of sheer swagger and baddassery and vibe cultivation. And the Samhain catalog is a creepy, esoteric wonder unto itself. You see Glenn Danzig perform these songs—not talk between songs, or otherwise make an ass of himself, but actually perform them—and you feel how much he wants you, the audience member, to feel, to embrace the liberating power of dark, punishing, violent and—paradoxically, but maybe not at all—fun music.
"All Murder, All Guts, All Fun," one of the most rousing songs Samhain played last night, says it all. Yes, Danzig's all about the tough-guy posturing—the snarls, the air-punching. But what he really is, is an entertainer in a classic escapist-minded mode. He dreamed up a character, that of "Glenn Danzig," and has spent his life embodying it to the fullest. When he's in the midst of that embodiment, performing a brilliant punk song like the urgent "Let the Day Begin" (last night's set closer) or the gothy "Black Dream," or a stirring proto-Danzig (i.e., the band) dirge like "To Walk the Night," he is 100% believable. You go along with him on this possibly cartoonish, but ultimately transporting and empowering journey. In short, you believe. Or at least I do.
The spell might break as soon as a song ends, but for those several minutes, you're in that alternate world that he's created—one that's not just sonic but also visual. The band took the stage splattered in fake blood à la the Initium cover, and at one point Danzig made a comment to the effect of "How many other bands would come out here and put on all this blood for you?" This is the man who told his audience way back when, "I want your skulls." (I saw a band cover "Skulls" on Halloween, and it united the entire audience in Danzig worship; like I said, classic songs.) And the sentiment feels reciprocal: I want your skulls, essentially your loyalty, and I'll give you back total commitment in my performance. At certain moments during the show, I saw Danzig wipe fake blood out of his eyes and lapse momentarily into an "I'm too old for this shit" slouch. But then he'd snap right back into the sneering, the headbanging, the giving of himself unto the fans, the keeping of the faith, the embodiment of his own shock-rock anti-hero-hood. (And I should say that the rest of the band—Zing, May and Baroness guitarist Peter Adams—all abetted the Danzig vision with total commitment. I believe that they believe.)
Glenn Danzig appears to me to be, despite all his bitter lashings-out, a man in love with what he does, what he's created, and what he brings out in those who share that love for what he does. I wouldn't want to be him, but I respect the sacrifice he's made—essentially, apparently, trading his own, like, development as a decent human being for the blessing/curse of metamorphosing into the ultimate fantasy character. Like a pro wrestler, or something? Perhaps, but pro wrestlers don't write transporting, immortal, impossible-not-to-sing-along-to songs like "Unholy Passion." And they don't put on shows as galvanizing and true and passionate as the one I saw last night.
Yes, I came away from the show, as any sensible thinking person would, recounting Danzig's various between- or intersong absurdities with my friend. But in my heart, I knew that I still believed. It takes a little effort, but really not that much at all, to separate the myth from the man—to set your feelings about the latter aside out of respect for your love for the former. That's what art, and just as importantly, entertainment, are all about. Glenn Danzig is a master entertainer, in part because he is a master artist. He has made so many things that resonate so widely: songs, yes, but also an entire worldview, a collection of imagery, a persona, a unified space where the emotions he has worshiped all his life—basically evil, violence, passion, anguish, lust, what have you—can rise to the surface and boil over in this kind of communal exorcism. It's the same principle behind a great horror movie, but in the case of the Danzig brand, and specifically a concert over which he presides, it's a real group ceremony. Superficially, I don't feel like I have much in common with the average Danzig fan, but the goosebumps I frequently found myself getting during last night's show let me know that I'm going to be a member of this brother-/sisterhood for the rest of my life.
"And that blood's so real," Glenn Danzig sings in "Bloodfeast," one of my favorite Misfits songs, "Because I just can't fake it." I know exactly what he means, and I take him at his word.