Part One: De Facto

My old blog’s subheading reads: “That state of being trapped in a mood of varying unreality, such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet come to pass.”

That’s the definition I came up with for subjunctivitis, a word I didn’t make up but have adopted. If your last grammar lessons were a long time ago, the subjunctive mood deals with lots of words like “if,” “ought,” “would,” and “should,” words that lend themselves to uncertainty and thoughts presented in contrast to reality.

I’ve been thinking my definition was a bit too vague for a while now, so I’ve written a short series of posts hoping to expound on it.

If I’m going to talk about what subjunctivitis is, first I have to talk about two of the formative factors of my childhood. I have to talk about the band that I listened to and the game that I played.

Let’s start by facing the music.

Cannot kill the family

My favorite band is Metallica.

That’s what I’ve told people from the time I was in third grade all the way up until the present. However there’s a difference in the way I’ll phrase my answer now as opposed to what I would have said in elementary school, or middle school.

“My favorite band is Metallica.” Past Me would have left it at that because it was the Truth. I would tell that to other kids at school and they wouldn’t even know who I was talking about. At my friend Brady’s house, I used Napster to download a few of their songs, so that he and some other friends could listen. They didn’t get it. (I’m not sorry, Lars, I had to try). Listening to Metallica made me feel cool, which is one of the first and last things that would ever have that effect on me, and there was a very good reason for that besides the music being badass.

My two older brothers, David and Sam, are responsible for getting me into the band. We must have all started listening to them roughly around the same time. They each heard about them separately. Sam got started with older albums (what we’ll all agree are the better ones), and David began with newer material (Reload (1997) was their most recent LP at that time), so they had the whole spectrum covered. Once both of them had picked up several CDs, they set up a stereo system in our playroom and blasted thrash metal over top of all our video game sessions. So that’s where I came in.

I probably wasn’t supposed to start listening to a legendary heavy metal band at such an early age. Tipper’s warning label be damned, I’m surprised that my mother let me get away with it. Likely I lucked into the privilege the same way I did anything else: by being the third child. Whatever stringent standards David and Sam were held to had slackened by the time I came around, six and seven years behind. It was either that, or she recognized that music was an experience I could share with my brothers that didn’t involve getting pummeled on the bottom of a dog pile.

If you had asked me then, I would have thought it was an experience we would share forever.

Master of Puppets cover art

We had Master of Puppets (1986) blasting nearly every day. All the albums made it into the rotation (except Kill ‘em All (1983) because Sam doesn’t like the quality of Hetfield’s vocals on that one), but it was Puppets that I remember hearing the most. That album was on repeat. Sam and David would always skip the instrumental track, “Orion,” even though I wanted to hear it (and I think it’s still one of my favorites to this day because of that). Days flew by and blended together into an endless riff, though we were often told to turn the volume down.

By the time I got to high school, I had assembled my own collection of Metallica’s discography (ripped from my brothers’ copies). David and Sam had long since gone off to college, leaving me alone in the house with just my mother and our dog and my grandparents most nights of the week.

As high school wore on, I expanded my tastes. It’s not like I was planning to listen to only Metallica my whole life. They were my favorite, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be others. The good thing about metal is that it branches in many different directions. I unearthed the heavy strides of Mastodon, realized a progressive disposition with Tool, and found a love for concept albums with Coheed and Cambria. There were some less stellar choices, too, superficial bands such as Slipknot, Dragonforce, and Disturbed, but getting “down with the sickness” is its own cure when heard too often.

By then, I had also developed something of a reputation for being a metalhead. Sure, the first thing people said after I told them “My favorite band is Metallica” was usually “Really?” But once they got to know me, it was expected. I’d be sitting on the bus with headphones in on the way to a football game and someone would say “Oh, Heathcote’s rocking out to some more Metallica.” When friends rode to lunch with me, I only got comments on the music that was playing when it was something other than the norm. “No metal today?” they’d ask, no doubt grateful. In an environment where I might have struggled to stand out, the band and music that my brothers introduced me to became a part of my identity.

During holidays, David and Sam returned, and they would often bring new music with them. Still, Metallica would come up. There were rumors circling about them putting out a new album. Usually we didn’t have to actually talk about the band, we could just listen. Sometimes when we were driving back from Thanksgiving, David would put on Ride the Lightning (1984) because it was exactly what we all needed to hear after a long day spent with our cousins.

It was my senior year that Death Magnetic (2008) dropped at last. Reload was released eleven years hence, and there had been nothing since then except for S&M (1999). Seriously, there was absolutely nothing else.

Reception of the album aside, the most important thing about Death Magnetic is that it meant Metallica would be going on a world tour. David is the one who called at the start of that summer to tell me they were coming to Charlotte. The date of the show was October 18, 2009, a Sunday. It was going to be midway through the first semester of my freshman year at UNC. I hadn’t registered for classes, had no idea what I would be involved in at that time, didn’t know anything at all. I just knew I would be in Charlotte that night. It would be the first concert I had ever attended.

World Magnetic coffin lids wallpaper

Sam didn’t go with us. I don’t remember why, just that he had already begun to waver. Instead I remember David’s concert buddy Rodney, who met us at the show. He said to me, “Metallica, huh? Hell of a way to pop your concert cherry,” and later it was him who got David and I a copy of the concert’s audio.

I remember the people in front of us who stayed seated through the whole show, playing games on their phones, except for when the band played “Enter Sandman.” Then they left before the encore, and David dubbed them unforgiven (Actually he called them “fucking tools”).

World Magnetic laser wallpaper

I remember the first heartbeat at the start of the show, the way the lasers danced over James and Kirk during the “Master of Puppets” solo, the heat on my face as fire leapt from the stage during “One,” and the moment the lights came up during “Seek and Destroy.” James asked them to turn on the house lights so he could look everyone in the eye and make a deal: one last song in exchange for our energy.

I remember the long drive back, listening to Garage, Inc. (1998). I got back to my dorm past 2:00 in the morning and still got up to go to ECON 101 at 9:00.

That night was everything I could have hoped for, and it should have solidified in me that thought, that Metallica would be my favorite band forever. Our favorite band, even. The theme music and soundtrack to our brotherhood. But it’s played out more like the culmination of something, and things haven’t quite been the same since.

“My favorite bands are Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Tool, Mastodon, Metallica, Coheed and Cambria, Ensiferum, Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, The Protomen, Blind Guardian, Braden & Brother, Pink Floyd, Between the Buried and Me, The Tallest Man on Earth….”

You see now how Present Me’s answer differs from Past Me. Notice how I can’t pick just one favorite band. Listen to me vary the list, ‘cause it’s a little bit different each time, depending on who I’m talking to. See what a snob I can be about it.

Yet I still slip Metallica in there. Sometimes more prominently, sometimes hurried over and suppressed. They have a de facto spot on the list, but their standing is not absolute. What changed?

Even in high school, I couldn’t imagine a day when a Metallica song would come up on shuffle and I would skip it. Now, that’s most days. David has told me he’s the same, and Sam likely doesn’t find time for them either.

Expansion of tastes is certainly a factor. David found heavier music in college and the years afterward, and suddenly Metallica was lighter fare. Credit to the kings of thrash, they inspired some great bands to follow them, and those bands have had a way of supplanting Metallica in our hearts and in our playlists.

Sam went the other direction. He always had a level of tolerance for country and pop music. He had also always had girlfriends. Companionship is another factor, one that leads to compromises, from the stuff you get to keep in your house to the music you get to play in your car. It wouldn’t surprise me if the only metal Sam listens to these days is what he hears when he’s with me or David. Now even David is engaged, and I have been in the car with him and his fiancée when he, who never changed the music for anyone, has had the radio tuned to a Top 40 mix station.

“My favorite band is Metallica.” I was so convinced, so certain that this would always be the case. It was how people identified me, how I identified myself. If I no longer listened to Metallica, who was I? If I no longer shared that interest with my brothers, what would bind us together? If something that had mattered to me for so long no longer did, then how could anything else ever be that important?

This is an example of an actual train of thought I used to have before realizing how ludicrous it was. Honestly I don’t know whether it’s more alarming to think I couldn’t quickly summarize myself based on what I’m interested in or that I was ever trying to do so. I can’t define myself based on a laundry list of fleeting interests, or even by a singular passion. If I’m to be distilled or summarized, it has to be in terms of the people I surround myself with.

That’s why when I hear Metallica, I think of all those days spent gaming with my brothers. I think of how my grandfather would listen to their music while he played solitaire on our old desktop computer because we had left a CD in the disk drive when we gave it to him. I think of finishing my toast at Sam’s rehearsal dinner with the lyrics from “Nothing Else Matters,” and I think ahead to which song I might borrow from at David’s wedding.

So what if Metallica isn’t my be-all to end-all favorite band anymore? I still enjoy their music, regardless of how often I listen to it. What matters are the experiences I connect to that music and the people I’ve bonded with as a result.

Next I’ll talk about the games we played.

Part Two: Brothers >>