Gilad Elbom / Sign of the Devil

Sign of the Devil (printed in NDQ 84.1/2)

Gilad Elbom

A small record store. The address, an old edifice in a seldom-traveled thoroughfare in the center of London, wasn’t easy to find. In America, where things are constructed on a much larger scale, nobody would give a narrow alley that cuts through buildings, connecting one small street to another, a name. But here, in a city dedicated to preserving its own past, often at the expense of progress or convenience, this alley does have a name: Saint Anne’s Court. You locate it on the map, ask for directions, and suddenly you’re there, in front of an unmarked door. Nothing indicates that this is a business, that visitors are welcome, or that the shop is open. The walls around it are covered with shaky, poorly imitated, handwritten versions of official band logos, the most popular of which, judging by size and frequency, seems to be Venom. A man pops up behind you, taps your shoulder, and asks if you’re looking for something to smoke. You shake your head and thank him. The man asks if you’re sure. He can get you, or so he claims, the best stuff. The absolute best. Maybe later, you say. The man closes his eyes and offers a polite, almost imperceptible bow. The perfect businessman. This must be the place.

You push the door open. It leads you down a short, badly lit flight of stairs, at the end of which a small dungeon appears. A voice, barricaded behind piles of records, asks if you’ve come for the new Metallica, the much anticipated second album, then adds, without waiting for an answer, that it hasn’t been officially released yet. Due any day now. You’re ashamed to admit that you don’t even have the first album. A negligence that could be easily rectified, the voice says, and places a copy in your hands. Not a brilliant cover, the voice says, but what a record. These chaps will be as big as Purple, as big as Zeppelin, as big as Sabbath. Mark my words.

Nothing but a bunch of cheap, overrated, third-rate Diamond Head clones, says a deeper voice. Slowly, as if waiting for a smokescreen to dissipate, your eyes adjust to the darkness. Two clerks emerge from behind the counter. Both are long haired, in leather jackets, eager to impart information.

Come on, says Clerk A, and rolls his eyes.

I’m serious, says Clerk B. If you want the real thing, look no further than Diamond Head or Blitzkrieg. Faster, sexier, and more original.

Clerk A rolls his eyes again. We’re not looking for sexy, he says. We’re looking for heavy.

Speak for yourself, says Clerk B.

You might as well listen to all that electronic, experimental, or industrial garbage, says Clerk A, if you value originality so much. Metallica is all about taking a good formula and making it better. What, if I may ask, is wrong with that?

What, if I may ask, is wrong, says a soft new voice, with electronic, experimental, or industrial music?

You turn around. A fellow customer, too passionate about her musical preferences to observe local codes of politeness and refrain from interfering in the conversations of others. Her eyes are green, her face is pretty, accentuated by angular, dramatic, somewhat theatrical makeup. She touches your elbow, letting you know that if you really like it loud, and if you’re willing to consider broadening your musical spectrum, she might be inclined to help.

A predictable problem. Do you stay with the guys or do you go with the girl? Do you adhere to your original plan and try to benefit as much as you can from the knowledge and experience of astute record shop operators, or are you flexible enough to take a detour, a chance, a risk? Would you like to conduct thorough research, guided by a pair of experts, or do you prefer a more associative, nonlinear, adventurous approach? Do you buy music logically or capriciously? Can you be sold something that you had no intention of purchasing? And if so, is it merely because the salesperson is an attractive woman?

The guys, merely trying to help, encourage you to stay at the store. The girl, they tell you, as lovely as she may be, is obviously in the wrong place. The shop specializes in heavy metal, and this is a pivotal moment in the history of the genre. That famous band from California is about to release a follow-up to an impressive debut, and things, to employ a couple of overused truisms, will never be the same, for better or worse. The crisp production, excessively heavy sound, speed-of-light guitars, larger-than-life drums, aggressive vocals. Is it good or bad? Good, some will say. The heavier the better. Bad, others will argue, because the true sound of self-taught musicians will soon turn into something so flawless, so commercial, so overwhelmingly professional that the very essence of raw, unbridled, necessarily imperfect music will be compromised.

The girl says you could always go back to the store tomorrow, next week, some other time. Clerks A and B are bound to be there, ready to help, make recommendations, push their merchandise. You know that if she leaves the store without you, you might never see her again. Of course, you might not like the music she listens to, but this is your opportunity to expand your horizons, explore new directions, give other styles a chance. You decide to go with the girl.

Are you hungry? As a matter of fact, you are. Good, she says, and takes you to a nearby fish and chips place. This is before the age of globalization, before prefabricated restaurants, before universal chains of standardized food. You sit and eat. Her name, by the way, is Katherine, but she goes by Kaz. She asks about your favorite musicians. She seems to be genuinely interested. Uriah Heep, Judas Priest, UFO, Yesterday and Today, Graham Bonnet, Robin Trower, Ronnie Montrose, Lee Aaron, Triumph, Anvil, Headpins, Hellion, Girlschool, Riot, Raven, Tygers of Pan Tang, Wild Dogs, Rock Goddess, Mercyful Fate. She’s impressed with the fact that you like quite a few all-female or female-fronted bands. And your favorite movies? The Killing, Contempt, The Phantom of Liberty, Day for Night, Stardust Memories, Idaho Transfer. Once again, she compliments your taste. Powerful female characters, unconventional narrative structures, a strong emphasis on the beauty and mystery of design rather than the marketable aspects of coherence and clarity. You must also like Liquid Sky, she says.

Unfortunately, you’ve never seen Liquid Sky.

Perfect, she says, and gets up. They’re showing it this afternoon at the Classic Royal. If we hurry, she says, we might be able to catch it. She’s already seen it twice, but she wouldn’t mind watching it again.

Hard to refuse. You dash to the nearest underground station, hop from one line to another, and make it just in time for the opening titles. You’ll love the soundtrack, she says. Surprisingly, you do. The music is harsh, disturbing, delightfully obnoxious. Cacophonous, monotonous, simultaneously colorful and morbid. It drills a hole in your head, poisons your bones, assaults your nervous system in a variety of relentless ways, and boils to a crushing, strident, magnificent crescendo that leaves you utterly breathless. It’s exactly what you like, except it’s all done electronically, without a single guitar, without a single drumbeat, without any sort of singing. You find it hateful and captivating.

The plot, a disorienting collage of fantasies and nightmares, is more frightening than any horror movie, murder mystery, or rape-and-revenge story you’ve ever seen. With the help of a nebulous alien life form lodged inside a small flying saucer that somehow lands on the roof of her cheap penthouse apartment in New York, an androgynous fashion model, slender and alluring, kills, mostly indirectly, the people who sexually assault her during the course of twenty-four hours: a young stranger she meets at a nightclub, her lecherous drama professor, a misogynistic drug addict determined to dispel allegations of impotence, her own girlfriend, and a gay model, a permanent expression of disgust on his face, who pronounces her the ugliest woman in the world. Himself a victim of ridicule, he uses every opportunity to degrade her, and the frequent encounters between the two are marked by gradually escalating verbal and physical abuse. Both, as the closing credits reveal, are played by the same actress. At the end, she also kills, rather tragically, a visiting scientist who tries to help her. The alien, according to the scientist, is interested in a rare substance produced in the human brain at the moment of sexual ecstasy, particularly when the people experiencing it use opiates. In other words, the alien, through a series of hands-free, remote-controlled, lethal neurological invasions, destroys her rapists exactly when they climax. Since the ordeals that she endures are marked by the kind of satisfaction that is never mutual, she is spared. But for how long? Despite his genuine concern, the scientist fails to convince her that her life is in danger. Frightened and skeptical, she stabs him. It is men, she seems to say, not extraterrestrial aliens, who pose the greatest threat to women. In an act of mock betrothal that can only be interpreted as suicide, she injects herself with heroin, replaces her postmodern, punk-rock, do-it-yourself clothes with a traditional wedding dress, climbs on top of her apartment building, and offers herself to her heavenly savior, begging it to take her away.

Yes, you’re enjoying the movie, but putting the pieces together is a bit of a challenge. Kaz helps, offering perceptive observations in carefully constructed sentences and a sweet voice that strikes you as natural, intelligent, and far from didactic. You like her more and more.

Outside, as if on cue, she runs into a man with a mustache. She gives him a big smile, opens her arms in what looks like genuine excitement, embraces him for just a little longer than necessary, and kisses him on both cheeks, her eyes glowing. You hope with all your heart that he is just an old acquaintance, a former classmate, or a distant relative. She introduces you as her American friend. The mustache shakes your hand and claims it’s a pleasure to meet you. He has a slight accent, but he is not, in case you were wondering, French. He is, long live the difference, from Belgium. Kaz continues to impress you by reciting your favorite musicians with remarkable accuracy, and her Belgian friend says, no offense, that the list is interesting but predictable. With the exception of a very promising act from Denmark, all the bands you admire are from Britain or North America. Have you ever heard Belgian metal?

Kaz suggests that you go back to the store. She feels guilty for having dragged you out of there. The guy from Belgium says it’s an excellent idea. He would be happy to show you all those criminally ignored bands from the exotic Benelux.

You’re not sure. It’s getting late.

Come on, says Kaz. The night is young.

Come on, says the man from Belgium. It would be his honor to introduce you to Killer, Crossfire, Acid, Ostrogoth.

Why is this Belgian person so eager to take you back there? Is this his secret strategy? Show the girl that he has no objection to the presence of a competitor, then eliminate you toward the end of the night? What exactly lurks behind this friendly façade? You need to find out. You go back to the store.

Look who’s here, Clerk A greets you.

Good to have you back, Clerk B says. Too much electronic music is bad for your health.

Kaz laughs. Leave him alone, she says. He’s made some new discoveries today.

Another brainwashed victim, says Clerk A.

Half an hour with our new arrivals and you’ll be completely deprogrammed, Clerk B says. Good as new.

The store feels much more comfortable now. Things look familiar, it all makes sense, you begin to feel like a regular. And all those Belgian bands, despite your initial skepticism, are not bad, not bad at all.

If we jumped a few decades into the future, Kaz would probably tell you that there is no substitute for the brick-and-mortar record store, a social environment that has traditionally thrived on the dynamic and polyphonic exchange of expansive, digressive, and inherently subjective information. In other words, music lovers motivated by a sense of exploration and discovery, she would explain, do not necessarily know what they’re looking for. Many of them do not have a specific product in mind when they enter a record store. The problem, Kaz would say, is that most of the statistical algorithms used by digital download outlets or other online music marketplaces fail to replicate the familiar experience of prospective clients whose musical preferences are necessarily challenged and modified by constant interferences from store clerks, fellow shoppers, staff selections, in-store attractions, and other agents or factors present at the site. The basic assumption is that fans of Janis Joplin, for example, will be looking for comparable or related music. In an attempt to provide quick results, standard statistical algorithms, whose recommendations usually remain within the generic, geographical, or generational boundaries of predictable profiles, would probably suggest records by Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, Stevie Nicks, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and other American folk, soul, or psychedelic icons from roughly the same time period. But if we admire the uninhibited qualities of Janis Joplin, her over-the-top performances, her electrifying energy, her hypnotic vibe, or just the fact that she screams, would such algorithms recommend Memphis Minnie, Faye Adams, Wanda Jackson, Koko Taylor, Patti LaBelle, Betty Davis, Betty Wright, Marva Whitney, Esther Phillips, Lyn Collins, Lynn Carey, Ruth Copeland, Jenny Haan, Dawn Muir, Dawn Crosby, Danielle Dax, Sarolta Zalatnay, Leonor Marchesi, Gwen McCrae, Minnie Riperton, Candi Staton, Loleatta Holloway, Amii Stewart, Precious Wilson, Ullanda McCullough, Evelyn Thomas, Tasha Thomas, Inga Rumpf, Robin Sinclair, Nina Hagen, Nina C. Alice, Mona Soyoc, Eve Libertine, Poly Styrene, Margie Joseph, Azucena Dorado, Wendy O. Williams, Ann Boleyn, Jody Turner, Darby Mills, Chrissy Steele, Betsy Weiss, Maryann Scandiffio, Leather Leone, Kate French, Sabina Classen, Melanie Bock, Brenda Marín, Marcela González, Lori Bravo, Nicole Lee, Mika Kawashima, Hanin Elias, Linn Achre Tveit, Anja Natasha Lindløv, Erica Stoltz, Uta Plotkin, Sonja Kristina, Sonia Sepulcral, Emily Kopplin, Christine Davis, Stacey Peak, Carla Green, Karryl Smith, Clara Smith, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, or other equally wild and outrageously spellbinding female singers that belong to such various, improbable, and dissimilar categories as rockabilly, gospel, grindcore, funk, punk, noise, hip-hop, minimal wave, underground disco, dark ambient, digital techno, Hungarian pop, Argentinian progressive rock, jazz-inspired krautrock, German thrash metal, Bolivian death metal, American doom metal, Mexican speed metal, Norwegian black metal, Japanese avant-garde metal, classic blues, country blues, or early 1920s cabaret? Probably not. We would probably end up, despite our best intentions, with the usual limited roster of popular contemporaries. What we need, Kaz would say, is a virtual record store that simulates some of the fundamental elements of video games, particularly the idea of users who must navigate through a cumulative labyrinth of tangents, encroachments, wrong turns, dead ends, false clues, hidden doors, and other hurdles and hindrances before the target is reached, the task is accomplished, and the desired record is found and bought.

But anyway, back to 1984. The music is loud, the headphones blocking all outside sounds. Kaz exchanges whispered pleasantries with her Belgian friend. You observe their conversation, trying to convince yourself that nothing truly intimate transpires between them, just polite small talk, but you suspect, your inherent optimism notwithstanding, that this mustached metal maniac might be a former or prospective lover. They are, if you’re not mistaken, standing very close to each other, although as far as you can see, there is no physical contact between them, which you find encouraging.

You sample the latest releases by Angel Witch, Praying Mantis, Cloven Hoof, Hollow Ground, Grim Reaper, Brands Hatch, Bashful Alley. Kaz, the Belgian by her side, approaches you and hints, ever so politely, that it might be time to go. She’s getting hungry again. And so are you, to tell the truth. Does she have dinner plans with her continental companion? Does that mean it’s time for you to say goodbye, procure a take-away sandwich, and repair to your affordable bed-and-breakfast room in nearby Covent Garden? She waits for you to make your final selections and pay for the records you’re absolutely sure you couldn’t do without, then leads the way up the stairs and out into the evening air.

You’re almost out of the alley, and you begin to accept the fact that this might be the point where you call it a day and cease to perform your role as the proverbial third wheel, when someone whistles behind you. It’s our hardworking narcotics merchant, a territorial fixture. What you intend to do, especially considering the fact that you’ve always found the very idea of illegal drugs juvenile, somewhat pathetic, and altogether boring, is simply walk away. Kaz, however, stops, asks you to wait for her, promises to be back in a second, and walks over to the other end of the alley. In your imagination, she’s a smart girl who knows better than to get herself in trouble. But who knows, she might not be the image of perfection you’ve constructed in your mind.

You look at her Belgian friend, who shrugs. You can’t hear the conversation between the lady and the supplier, but after what looks like preliminary negotiations, she hands the man, and this you can see very clearly, a folded banknote. In return, she receives a small envelope, which she puts in her purse. She seals the transaction with a handshake, and saunters back to meet you with an enigmatic smile. It would be terribly indiscreet to ask her about the deal. You resolve to act like a gentleman, respect her privacy, and remain silent. If she chooses not to provide an explanation, you’re not going to demand one.

At the corner of Carlisle Street, right in front of Soho Square, she stops, kisses the Belgian, and tells him that she will, with a little bit of luck, see him around. She would have loved to prolong this fortunate meeting, but her American friend is staying at her apartment, and it is, she’s afraid, getting late. Flabbergasted, you clear your throat and make an effort to corroborate her statement as quickly and as convincingly as you can.

The mustache understands. He says that it was very nice to have made your acquaintance, wishes you a very good night, and walks away, stopping one more time to wave a final farewell. As soon as he disappears around the corner, Kaz retrieves the envelope from her purse, opens it, and reveals two tickets to Judas Priest at Hammersmith Odeon. A present, she says, and may God, not to mention the king of Belgium, forgive her.

You share a cheese and pickle sandwich on the way to the venue. You will eat something more substantial after the show. You have no idea how much she paid for those tickets, but it soon becomes clear that they were worth every penny. The concert exceeds your expectations, combining the raw sound of the roots of the genre with the depth, maturity, and variety that have made the band one of the most exciting, most accomplished, most potent forces in heavy metal history. Kaz says that this is not her cup of tea, although she does like the singer.

Of course. He is, and this is just your personal opinion, the best. The guitars, too, are tight and wild, the rhythm section rough and solid, and the unique rendition of familiar classics is perfectly balanced with the stellar deliverance of new material. In a world that anticipates the imminent domination of commodified music, there is something very comforting about the reliable mixture of structure and spontaneity, aggression and melody, anger and passion, and so on, and so forth.

Kaz is happy you enjoyed it. Dinner?

Why not. Your treat.

She takes you to an Indian restaurant, small, authentic, and quite delicious, where she finally gets a chance, in response to your request, to tell you about herself. She’s originally from Newcastle, moved to London a few years ago to study painting, sculpture, photography, cinema. Her favorite musicians are Throbbing Gristle, The Lemon Kittens, The Flying Lizards, The Creatures, The Normal, Crass, Discharge, This Heat, Cabaret Voltaire, Fatal Microbes, Migraine Inducers, Severed Heads, Ceramic Hello, Pseudo Code, Logic System, Snowy Red, Section 25, SPK, Clock DVA, The Neon Judgement. She says you might appreciate this kind of music. Harsh, crude, and largely improvised, it often resembles the raunchy sensibilities of heavy metal. And what she really likes about these artists is that they never strive for an official seal of approval. Does she care if this music rarely gets played on the radio? Does she care if it fails to win the recognition it deserves? Not at all. She plays a homemade mellotron, writes cut-up poetry, and takes black-and-white pictures of unimportant people and places. You can’t expect society to accept you, subscribe to your aesthetic vision, or otherwise acknowledge your existence. Unless you’re willing to please audiences, chances are you’ll always be ignored. Widespread legitimacy is guaranteed only for those who operate within the boundaries of the official national narrative or the current economic system. The rest are better off investing in what they really want to do, even if it means staying in the margins.

Does that mean that the art she values and creates is ignored for ideological reasons? No, she says. It’s ignored because nobody knows it exists. Some of her high school friends were into birdwatching. They walked around with binoculars, professional literature about nesting and migration, and carefully laminated notebooks in which they recorded their observations. They would get together on weekends, travel to remote locations, scan the sky for two days straight, and talk about larks and swallows with the same excitement that characterizes music fanatics who visit the local record shop daily and make annual pilgrimages to music festivals. Ultimately, these are precious, intimate, essentially subversive activities, which would be quickly destroyed if their devoted practitioners were foolish enough to embark on a campaign for large-scale legitimacy. Besides, the public and the press will always confuse image with substance. People are surprised when they find out that Woody Allen, for example, is not an insecure, confused, neurotic little man but a focused, hardworking, successful film director. People fail to realize that the image an artist or performer adopts and projects is an accurate reflection of neither lifestyle nor personality. After all, it sounds a lot more thrilling to believe that rockers drink all day, that movie stars party all night, and that the typical teenage metal fan worships the devil, slaughters black cats, drinks human blood, and commits suicide twice a week.

Personally, you don’t believe that the devil exists, but Kaz says that if heavy metal is a sign, Satan is the signified. Have you heard the story about Deely and the bridge?

You’re not sure.

Following an unsuccessful application for a travel grant to an international semiotics congress, John Deely decides to rob a bank. He desperately needs the money. After careful research, he finds the perfect location: a peaceful little town, nestled at the foothills of a small mountain, with a new and inexperienced police force. He robs the local bank and speeds up the mountain. The police chase him. He reaches the top of the mountain and goes down the other side. The road bifurcates. The police are far behind, going uphill, and Deely is completely out of sight. He takes the right fork of the road and stops the car. He has a sign in the trunk that says: BRIDGE OUT. He places the sign in the middle of the road and keeps driving at full speed. By the time the police reach this spot, Deely is gone. All they see is the sign. Naturally, they take the left fork of the road, and Deely gets away. And there is no bridge at all. A good example of a sign-object relation, and the object doesn’t even exist. The object doesn’t exist, but it’s definitely part of reality.

Is the devil an imaginary bridge? There is no question that the diabolical exists: in sacred texts, in the minds of believers, in human language. And especially in heavy metal. Do we really need to prove that Satan is alive outside a purely mental realm, outside our manmade sphere of cultural artifacts?

Another version of the story: Deely had a son who died in a car crash. His son is no longer in existence, but Deely is still a father.

But why dwell on morbid subjects? If you don’t mind throwing away your nonrefundable lodging deposit at that cheap hotel in Covent Garden, and if you would like to help her turn a recent fabrication into an honest truth, you’re welcome to ride the bus with her to Kentish Town, a nice and quiet neighborhood, and spend the night, or whatever is left of it, in her flat. You might have to share a bathroom, not to mention a bed, but breakfast, she assures you, will be served.

Gilad Elbom is a graduate of the University of North Dakota. He is currently employed by Oregon State University, where he teaches American literature, Middle Eastern literature, the Bible as literature, science fiction, detective fiction, and other kinds of fiction. His first novel, Scream Queens of the Dead Sea, was published in 2004 and has been translated into German, Russian, and Hebrew. He is indebted to Amir Langer for his help in the development of the original idea for this issue’s “Sign of the Devil.”