In new book ‘Touchstones’, author Steve Mascord reviews his life through a series of ‘war stories’, centred around his two obsessions: rugby league and rock’n’roll. From being “conceived in an insane asylum” (revealed in the opening line of the book) to global gallivants from frosty footy games in Canberra to an AC/DC concert in Manchester (in the very same week), Mascord documents 52 weeks of games and gigs, alongside stories of Marty Bella, Bret Michaels and his own, often turbulent, life.
In this exclusive extract — entitled ‘Hard Rock’ — Mascord explains becoming the “archetypal KISS drone”, and how hair metal showed him an exit from his steelworks hometown.
It’s about time I answered this: why hard rock and hair metal?
Last year, I had someone on Twitter say my love of Spandex and Aqua Net (I don’t wear either, and haven’t since … oh, the first half of 2011) was damaging my credibility as a serious sports pundit. But I never set out to be a ‘serious sports pundit’ and certainly wouldn’t pretend not to love something I do to convince people I’m something I never set out to be.
A generation after I began writing about music, what I like to call my ‘Sunset Strip halcyon days’, it is now acceptable to analyse the era in a scholarly, earnest way. Writers like Chuck Klosterman (Fargo Rock City) and Seb Hunter (Hellbent for Leather) have sold many books by name-checking the brief stint in KISS of guitarist Mark St John or recounting the yarn about Slash auditioning for Poison.
I suspect the story of what drew me to cock rock, and still holds me there, is like that of Klosterman and Hunter and millions of others. And I wonder if disaffected teenage males today have anything — be it a musical genre, a television show, a pastime or an exotic fruit — that can perform the same function for them.
Growing up, I liked my parents’ — specifically my mother’s — music, which was pretty much Elvis Presley and … well, Elvis Presley. After watching The Partridge Family, I remember taking a bizarre interest in David Cassidy and asking Mum and Dad for some of his LPs. It was the lamest beginning to any campaign of teen rebellion.
Perhaps the start of it all was asking to see KISS at Sydney Sports Ground, home of the Eastern Suburbs Roosters, in 1980. At this point, KISS had become a pop act and merchandising entity rather than a band, and I didn’t want to go that much because I had no friends to go with (and hardly any to not go with). But after my mother conferred with my aunties, I was denied on the rather reasonable basis that I was just 12. Consequently, I became a KISS fan.
When I say ‘disaffected male’, I mean: I was unpopular at school, riddled with zits, regularly mocked and even attacked on the way home from the bus stop. I lived largely in a Walter Mitty-like fantasy world. I didn’t want out of my fantasy world — still there, folks — but I wanted a cooler one than Dr Who’s, notwithstanding his hot female assistants.
KISS was a perfect bridge from my childhood obsession with science fiction and fantasy to the adolescent pursuit of sex and sex. They encompassed both. By 1980, Gene Simmons, who wore gargoyles for boots, spat blood and breathed fire, had only slept with about 2000 women, a figure he has now comfortably doubled (actually, he’s slowed down). Trevor Marshallsea once remarked, ‘For him, it must be like sneezing.’ I subsequently purchased every magazine carrying even the slightest reference to the New York glam kings, blissfully ignorant that they were commercially floundering with their best days — back in the ’70s when I followed popular music by taping songs off Countdown but had hardly been aware of them — seemingly behind them.
I was the archetypal KISS drone: the sort of person who today unquestioningly accepts two stand-ins dressing as Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. I liked every single thing they released (with the sole exception, much later, of Peter Criss’ I Finally Found My Way, off Psycho Circus. Blrgh!)
There were other bands in American magazines such as Circus, Hit Parader (a friend at school pronounced it ‘Hit Parahda’ — we knew about the magazine before we even heard the term ‘hit parade’) and Faces Rocks: Mötley Crüe and Ratt and the Scorpions. But I can’t remember being hooked by any of them until I heard the single — or, more specifically, saw the video — from another act whose purist fans had recently abandoned them following the departure of a singer.
Van Halen’s Why Can’t This Be Love (why is there no question mark in this title?) was driven by synthesiser and, in truth, was most notable for its live video. The lighting and staging reminded me of what was not only my favourite band at the time but my only band, KISS. (It was 30 years before I learned that there were rooms under that stage where Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen would screw multiple groupies during instrumental breaks, hence Sammy re-emerging in a dressing gown.)
The next non-KISS song I remember being impressed by was She Don’t Know Me by a then unknown New Jersey act called Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi’s self-titled debut, backed with Dokken’s Under Lock and Key, was one of the first things I had taped by a friend onto a TDK D-90. (Remember when one of the most important things you needed to know about a new record was whether it fit on a D-90 or a D-60? Then there were the rare and special D-45s…) From here, an entirely new world opened up: Kix, Keel, Y&T, Whitesnake, Disneyland After Dark (or D-A-D), W.A.S.P. and much bigger names such as Poison, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. My own cousin, I learned, had choreographed the video for Dancin’ Queen by local metallers Boss.
This period, the second half of the 1980s, was the only time in my life the zeitgeist and I even remotely shared the same real estate. The bands I raved about, almost inevitably, became huge. After leaving high school, I wrote news stories about Poison having a groupie computer; it was mentioned in Queensland parliament and made them the biggest story in Australia when they came to town. In 1988, working as a cadet on AAP Sydney’s general news desk, I asked fundamentalist Christian minister Fred Nile what he thought of a touring Christian metal band called Stryper. He slammed them, saying churches who had been sent promotional copies of their records should send them straight back. Suddenly, Stryper were big news.
In fact, in both cases, the bands were fringe acts before my stories for AAP were sent to every media outlet in the country. Suddenly, the bands were on every current affairs program, and I ponder how successful I could have been as a PR man, and about how enthusiasm for a subject really can be infectious with commercial rewards if you maintain enough perspective to appeal to the reference points of others, something most people are unable to do.
But there is a question at hand: what is it that I liked about hair metal and hard rock?
The biggest misunderstanding about ’80s hard rock and heavy metal is that it was almost entirely misogynistic. There have been some glaring exceptions — Skid Row’s Get the Fuck Out comes to mind — but heavy metal lyricists generally liked women more than those in any other genre.
You might argue that metal lyrics of that time objectified women but popular culture generally objectified women in the ’80s. Metal was obsessed with women and sex, with goblins and dragons a fair way back in third and fourth place respectively. If I was a girl, I would have been a groupie, and I would not have seen it as demeaning.
But that’s not what I liked about it. The things that parents and much of the media overlooked were that hard rock and heavy metal in the ’80s was aspirational and individualistic. The hits were normally love songs or party songs, but the album tracks preached positive re- enforcement and ambition. I’m talking about Van Halen’s Best of Both Worlds, KISS’s I, Keel’s Right to Rock and dozens and dozens more. When you are used to being marginalised socially, a long-haired guy in leather pants giving the short-haired no-eyeliner world the finger is incredibly empowering.
There was also a blueprint of the way life could be, welcome assistance for someone looking for ideas. You didn’t have to marry your childhood sweetheart and have kids by the time you were 25. You didn’t even have to be accepted by the other members of your geography class. ‘Here I go again on my own,’ David Coverdale crooned. L.A. Guns’ Phil Lewis told us he didn’t need anyone to tell him to settle down. The ‘fast lane’, he insisted, suited him to the ground.
(The greatest anecdote in rock history surrounds the former’s song, Here I Go Again, which most famously appeared on Whitesnake’s eponymous platinum album in 1987, but had previously appeared on Saints and Sinners in 1982. The line after the one quoted above originally went, ‘Like a hobo, I was born to walk alone.’ When time came to re-record it, the American producer insisted on a change to ‘like a drifter …’ Why? He thought most Americans would mistake the original lyric for ‘like a homo I was born to walk alone’.)
If you were captain of the football team and banging the prettiest girl in school, you probably didn’t need heavy metal the way I did. But I wasn’t, and I did.
Hard rock and heavy metal were responsible for me ringing newspapers and magazines and hassling them for work. These preening rock gods taught me anything was possible, that there was an alternative to toiling at the steelworks. At Port Kembla High School, the most precocious ambition any of my fellow students had was to be an engineer, and that was considered borderline elitist. When, in Higher Ground, Thunder sang that they didn’t want to spend their ‘whole life’ in their hometown, how that town was driving them away, they could have been singing for me.
While I can’t sing and the market for triangle players is limited, I heeded these lessons to such an extent that rock’n’roll filled the role religion plays in the lives of others. And as Lemmy said, rock’n’roll is a religion that gives much and takes little, particularly if you download illegally.
One more quote, though, from the sublime Drive-By Truckers (Sublime, however, are not drive-by truckers): ‘Rock’n’roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies.’
These lies take years to reveal themselves. One is, you cannot spend your entire life approaching love as ‘EZ Come EZ Go’. You will not live long if you rock’n’roll all night and party every day. If I am sleeping my day away, I am not making any money. You will not always be the youth gone wild. Discovering these things does not make me a rock’n’roll atheist. It just makes me less of a fundamentalist rock’n’roller. Age hasn’t caused me to lose my religion.
Anyway, it’s time to stop writing this unforced entry. You can’t be king of the world if you’re slave to the grind.
‘Touchstones’ is available now via Stoke Hill Press.