This may be surprising to some of you, but there was a brief time in the late 1990s when I was a bit of a metalhead. It spanned a couple of years when we lived in Germany and then a year in Saudi Arabia — from about 7th to 10th grade. My 9th grade year was probably the peak of that phase and the time I felt the strongest sense of belonging. I was mostly still too young to go to many actual concerts, but I went to the record store with friends almost every weekend and spent countless hours listening to head-banging, ear-splitting heavy metal at friends’ houses, occasional parties, and in my own bedroom. The angsty, visceral music, the wild full-body thrashing it induced, the thrill of rebelliousness and genuine male camaraderie that surrounded it all helped me get through a difficult period in early adolescence and gave me an unforgettable feeling of belonging and almost-spiritual emotional release.
Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I have spent much of my life outside cultural centers looking in. I’ve had the classic upper-middle-class Third Culture experience, moving from one country to the next, learning to find satisfaction and some diffuse semblance of community without ever putting down roots. It’s a life that I would not trade for anything, but it has also sensitized me to the need for belonging and the importance of investing in people and communities, even when you may not stay forever.
I think this pandemic has made all of us acutely aware of how much we need deep connection — simply by giving us this long, slow, exceedingly dull opportunity to observe what happens to our health and happiness when most social contact is abruptly stripped away. Lockdown is not entirely unlike life in a kind of high-security prison — interacting with friends and loved ones for months on end through screens instead of glass.
Anyway, it’s in this context that I found Ian Marcus Corbin’s recent article in Plough Magazine — “In Search of Lost Tribes: The Raptures of Belonging, and What Is Left Behind” — incredibly fascinating and timely. Corbin, now 40, describes in rich detail the rapturous sense of belonging and almost spiritual euphoria that he often felt as an adolescent punk-rocker in the 1990s. What he had in terms of tribal belonging goes well beyond anything I ever experienced, but I found moving and relatable both his description of those feelings of belonging and the wound that the memory of it has left on his psyche. Ultimately, he admits that it’s unrealistic to expect that we can somehow go back (or would want to go back) to the adolescent tribalism we tasted before, and instead suggests that, as adults, we might find a deeper but much quieter and gentler kind of communion in a daily attentiveness to the moments of connection we do experience with those around us, while still seeking out new forms of belonging wherever we can find them. Here’s a slightly abridged version of the article:
I couldn’t have told you at the time, but one of the central sounds of my late adolescence was the heavy thunk of dirty metal doors in grimy back alleys. Every all-ages club, bar, VFW hall, church basement, or regular basement had some approximation. If you were close with one of the bands performing that night, or in one yourself, most times you could make a call, or bang your fist, and get someone to hip-check the door open – a wide, creaking swing of surrender. This inner sanctum, vast expanses of knowing styles, fearless postures, and tribal recognition, would open itself and urge you in. …
Stepping in from filthy pavement to cool air and dusty concrete floors, you’d generally see some guys you knew… The tougher they looked, the softer they tended to be.
After the contents of your drummer’s mom’s minivan was piled in from the alley… the door would swing closed and lock itself behind you with a loud, hard bang. And that settled it. Now a long night of loud, glorious posturing, dissolving eventually into a miasma of bruised up singers-along, sweaty and blissfully self-emptied in the controlled chaos of the mosh pit.
I had occasion recently to pine for these old nights while subjecting my kids (eldest twelve, youngest two) to YouTube videos of some high-school heroes – Rancid, MxPx, Jimmy Eat World, a few others. … I’d put on a video of a live club performance by The Juliana Theory, a nebulously Christian emo/rock/power pop band that formed in 1997, my sophomore year of high school, and was big with my friends at the time.
My kids humored me with bored bemusement, but the dim, shaky video wrapped itself around me. I felt a hard pang of vestigial awe, like I had felt in dozens of similar rooms, the erotic gnaw to be that good, that real, that big. The whole pageantry was completely familiar – the affected grandeur of the lead singer’s Christ pose, the exaggerated gestures of passion inflicted on beautiful instruments, the ear-wrecking volume of thick, astringent guitars, the sweat on everyone, saturating and tying together several hundred young people who had haircuts and clothes and wild emotions that insisted: something new and important is happening here. It reaches far. It changes everything.
Of course, I now saw, they were mistaken. It was some small club in some city. … The Juliana Theory still exists. It has a Twitter account, where it retweets expressions of band-related nostalgia. It followed me recently, after I mentioned that I had been listening again. I felt sad when it did – I used to be nothing to this band, and I still should be. How the mighty have fallen.
The young people like me, who felt like they might live forever on those nights, are for the most part settled into approximately the same banal adult life that I am now: work, perhaps meaningful; relationships, difficult but fruitful; children, burdensome and miraculous; money, endlessly stressful. It’s okay, and even good, on balance. Those nights of Dionysian dissolution and unity, though, keep fading and fading. …
My own religiosity [during my adolescence in the 1990s] was intense, achingly sincere, and very often tortured. I was the son of Pentecostal ministers, who’d met playing reggae, and then fled to the most extreme religion they could find, lest they destroy themselves and their children. I knew euphoria and self-forgetfulness in that setting too: our church services would stretch for long hours…
I saw, and to some extent my bandmates saw too, our music as an alternate route to the same deep reality. What the nights in grubby rock venues added was a tribal style, a way of being down to the choice of belt and shoelaces, manners of greeting and tastes in just about everything. My Christian music friends took the story of a self-donating God made man in a sandal-footed carpenter, a lover of the outcast and flipper of money-changing tables, and set it alongside a rebel culture of authenticity, romantic feeling-following, community, and anti-materialism. For a time, the parts worked together…
I can’t live for that self-forgetting now. I have people who need me, and I live for them. A father is a workhorse, among other things. Thankfully, I do write and pursue work that matters to me; I have friends over and we have some drinks and argue and open our thoughts to each other; I have a woman who shares her bed and life with me; I have many good things. But that intensity – the thrill of belonging to a whole culture that hems me in just so and hands me what I need to live – that’s in the past. …
Perhaps the intensity of adolescent belonging, when the metal door opens for you and then clamps shut to keep out the uninitiated, is a chimera of youth, dangerous to desire in adulthood. Still, the community I felt in those sweaty crowds during those nights can remain a goal. In my relative cultural homelessness now, I still find some version of it in little pockets when I really connect with other people – they need not share my taste in music or clothing to make connection possible, though now as ever, these commonalities make it easier.
Is it cruel to have the experience of total belonging for a short time, and then have to settle into wider worlds where treaties must be made and maintained one by one, where commonality and strangeness intermingle even in the person of our closest partners? What is the lasting effect of such intense but transient communion?
On one hand, maybe it sets us up to ask too much. A few hours in a music-saturated room is like the erotic thrill you have early in a relationship, before children enter the picture and then only sporadically afterward. You wouldn’t want to trade those things away. They set a standard that serves to bound the range of our experience, some ideal that makes sense of the realities we live with more regularly. We can and should desire to have more of them; ecstatic self-abandon should be a recurring feature of our lives. We need to lose ourselves now and then.
But of course, these are peak experiences, oases in the desert. No politics – God help us – should be aimed toward that kind of belonging. No family life or romantic relationship will consistently exist in that haze. To demand it is to court resentment, failure, and the deformation of the community and its members. It is to remain an adolescent far past when one should.
T. S. Eliot … writes:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment …
Adults who are able to take their place amongst the fantastic diversity of real life, who are able to make and remake the thousand daily treaties without losing contact with the home that they began in, will have won a very good thing. If it is not possible (pace the idealistic Mr. Eliot) to let lifetimes burn in every single moment, I’m confident it is possible to live a life where many moments do so burn. The rich heat of consciousness in a body is inexhaustible. Driving the kids to summer camp in the morning, doing the dishes tonight, in my apartment, after the rest of the family is in bed, waking yet again with the two-year-old to comfort him back to sleep, laying a hand on a familiar waist in bed, these also can burn, even if no observer could detect it.
I make these belongings, these burning lifetimes, insofar as I do, through quiet, willed, dogged attention, by refusing to demand that the people and things around me be other than they are, and most especially by refusing to demand that they be me. Eliot closes “East Coker” with this advice for the aspiring attender:
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
As I approach a kind of end, the not-at-all punk-rock age of forty, it increasingly seems to me that the careful custody of vast waters, the patient waiting for fire even through seasons of desolation, is the task we must take up if we care to live well as adults. Eliot suggests it is here, in the abandonment of earlier intensities, that we might actually begin to find deeper communion.
That’s beautiful stuff. I love the idea that we can carry a memory of that belonging — and that euphoria — with us as a kind of token of a home from which we are now, by necessity, exiled, and yet, that a different kind of communion, of home-making, is possible in the exiled space we now inhabit.
As an amusing follow-up, I recently came across a 2018 article entitled “Study Finds Mosh Pits Mimic Ancient Tribal Rituals of Papua New Guinea”. It turns out, some researchers view “the pits as a form of ‘controlled chaos’ where participants can release tension. An important step in this ritual is the generational learning curve… Older fans take the youth under their wing to teach them the unspoken rules of mosh etiquette, including the intentional withholding of harm to others, a group effort to pick up any fallen comrades, and the knowledge that the pit exists firmly in the realm of consent and boundaries.” Sounds about right!
Anyway, for the record, and in case anyone was curious, my go-to favorite head-banging music of the 1990s was and will always be: Rage Against the Machine. You just can’t beat that shit. I just listened to the song below and almost immediately threw out my arm and strained my neck…