“For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.” -Luke 12:2
"You know what you get when you play Twisted Sister's 'Burn in Hell' backwards? 'Go to church and pray on Sunday.' " -Jay Leno
The kerosene heater had scorched the ceiling and faux wood paneling black, and the carpet was already a deep gray from years of cigarette burns and spilt beverages. Pentagrams appeared daily on every flat surface, graffitied with ashy fingers, mostly because the ceiling was caked in soot and we were stir-crazy and restless. All these fumes, which had not only blackened my walls and ceiling but also my body and soul, seem to have also redirected this downward trajectory into darkness.
Years of heavy immersion in all kinds of unsavory music had caught up with me; I began to write about it again after a five-year boycott. Everyday sounds started to take on anthropomorphized qualities- even when no record was spinning on the turntable, the tactile humming of the Kero-Sun heater, the static of decaying appliances, the roar of passing cars driven by crazed and twisted meth heads…they became an entropic choir in my increasingly unreliable brain, a backbeat to my hallucinations. Armies of steel-booted dwarves danced frenzied circles on the base of my skull. The fumes were getting to me.
I also began exploring other esoteric aspects of the music that surrounded me constantly. Developing a fascination with bogus rock artists, con men, and hacks, I sought out the no man’s land where petty crime, psychology, and music overlapped; I also started a band in tribute to my favorite musical hoax…but that’s another story, too. Let’s get down to business, and light the black candles…
The book The Devil’s Disciples, a screed on the True Evils of Rock N’ Roll, which I acquired for the price of a Cup of Coffee, contains a chapter about backmasking, or the practice of subliminally inserting messages into recorded sound backasswards. It opens with an account of North Carolina teenagers organizing a mass record- and- tape- burning in the parking lot of their church, led by a minister who was a reformed rock musician. The author himself was a similar case; he later includes a later chapter delineating his stint as a rocker, and his narrow escape from that fate.
Around the same time, I began to read accounts of the U.S. Army’s use of Heavy Metal as a weapon against Terrorism. The war was still in its early days, barely six months old, and the bulk of the conflict was in Fallujah. There was one story about U.S. troops blasting AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” out of huge speakers to bring stalemated battles to a satisfactory conclusion; this ugly racket was sufficient to drive hidden insurgents from their holes, the theory went.
I had woken up on April Fool’s Day that year in Chattanooga in the back of a Chevy Nova. Upon regaining consciousness I smashed my head violently into the hatchback window and blacked out again. When I came to my senses a second time, I realized that my hands were throbbing and stuck to the inside of my gloves. Still dazed and drunk, I peeled them off and gazed at the fresh tattoos on my knuckles: “LAST DAYS.” Shaken, I oozed out of the car and staggered to the nearest store to obtain coffee and lucidity. The front page of the newspaper showed a photo of two charred American corpses swinging over the river Euphrates, hung from a bridge as grim trophies. It also had a smaller photo of the locals dancing in the streets; the sign closest to the camera read “Fallujah is a Cemetery for Americans.” It was the most ominous morning of my life, up to that point, and, needless to say, I began to follow the news stories about Fallujah more closely.
Was rock n’ roll being used as a weapon of war by the same people who had, not two decades before, tried to hang Judas Priest for supposedly killing their fans with their music? Was the devil really sending signals though these vinyl grooves backwards, reaching from Hell into the hearts of humanity? My head spun, and I began to think that maybe it wasn’t just all the brain damage from the kerosene. The universe began to open itself yawningly wide the way acid casualties tell me it did for them after repeated trips. So I began to investigate further.
I started with “Hell’s Bells.” According to Jeff Godwin, author of The Devil’s Disciples, the words preached on its counterclockwise rotation were “I will mesmerize you/ But He is Satan/ Let me out/ Satan has me prisoner.” With some patience and imagination, and some altering of the mind, one can make it out, but only barely, and only with coaching. I explained the whole spiel to my roommates, showing them the passage, and we experimented, and (mostly) heard it. When I tried the same thing raw in rooms full of people, they consistently told me to sit down and quit fucking around.
The biggest success in these early experiments was “Another One Bites the Dust,” the Queen song. Backwards, the refrain translates as “Start to Smoke Marijuana” or, for some, “It’s Fun to Smoke Marijuana.” This one is easy to hear, especially if said weed has already been smoked. Interestingly, this is pretty much the most benign secret message of the first bunch we tried. No mention of Satan or Hell or Sacrifice or Suicide, just the humble plant that most music fans experiment with at one time or another anyway, whether they like James Taylor or Slayer.
Figuring that since Godwin’s book was written in 1985, and was also out of print and disowned by its rabidly conservative Southern Baptist publisher, Chick Publications, I needed to update my research into the phenomenon, I inquired further. Most Christian organizations had seemingly given up the fight against heavy metal with the victory of Judas Priest in their 1990 case, in which the judge, Jerry Carr Whitehead, decreed that "The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude." Two of their fans had attempted suicide while listening to the song “Better By You, Better Than Me,” but only one, Ray Belknap, succeeded. The other, James Vance, survived the loss of his face to recount their alleged Heavy Metal suicide pact. Christianity had soon moved on to Gangta Rap and its Elvis figure, Eminem, in its search for an arch-enemy.
In the intervening years, the Nation of Islam had taken up the fight, and the bulk of my reading was from their literature. Rereading The Autobiography of Malcolm X was heavier and more illuminating a decade out of high school, obviously, but what I couldn’t help thinking about was their firm belief that the White Man was the Devil; all of their current material on the subject drew large triangles between Heavy Metal, Masonic Omnipresence, and the Basic Evil of the White Race. There has never been a more fitting opponent of rock n’ roll, even if their conception of Satanic, puppeteering monsters is still, in 2005, stuff like Styx and E.L.O.
It came full circle for me then, even though I hadn’t reached any kind of palpable conclusion about the whole sordid business. It was winter again by this point, and the Kero-Sun had mercifully been replaced by an elephantine space heater; the walls and ceiling had been repainted in noxious pastels, caking over the ashen pentagrams and goat skulls. My head was, I told myself, not spinning counterclockwise.
I would like to take a break here, and briefly list some experiments that the curious reader may try in the privacy of his or her own home:
*Black Oak Arkansas “Electricity Comes to Arkansas” from Raunch and Roll. Pipsqueak hillbilly poser frontman Jim Dandy, strutting like a stickman version of Dr. John, supposedly manages to incorporate the reversed phrase “SATAN! SATAN! SATAN! HE IS GOD! HE IS GOD!” towards the end of this song, an impressive feat on a live record.
*On the Official Worst Song Ever Written, “Hotel California,” by The Eagles, my own sworn arch-enemy Don Henley is said to spread the work of his master Anton LaVey thusly: “SATAN HAD HELP. HE ORGANIZED HIS OWN RELIGION.” See how many times you can bear this one, true believer.
*”THE MUSIC IS REVERSIBLE. TIME IS NOT. TURN BACK.” That one is Electric Light Orchestra, on the song “Fire On High.” This one is audible, and also appears to contain a warning about damaging the needle on your record player, which is sound advice, no matter how diabolical the source.
*Iron Maiden, “Still Life.” “WHAT HO SAID THE MONSTER WITH THE THREE HEADS? DON’T MEDDLE WID T’INGS YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. *BURP*” Again, this one is perceptible. It’s also on purpose, an obvious jab at the fools looking for Satan in record grooves and a treat for those others, like myself, who ain’t gotta stare too hard.
By this point Fallujah had been razed and leveled, and Rolling Stone was printing articles about Heavy Metal Mercenaries listening to Pantera while encased in the womb-like bellies of tanks, merely to get amped for their bloodthirsty and righteous war. The needles on all my available record players were worn and blunted. The tattoos on my knuckles had settled into a comfortable blue-gray, staring back at me as I typed.
Time-shift to the present day. I have ridden my bike home under threatening skies; I have heard the thunder and icy rain lash against the fragile windows of my quivering trailer. I have listened to many evil records backwards today, and I have stared God in the face, my inner furnace burning Old Crow and Entropy and Fear like it was Kerosene. I cough out black smoke, and my alarm clock moves back two seconds for every advancement of one.
That old standby, the Book of Revelations, says, “The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months.” Jeff Godwin advises you to make your own tapes and decide for yourself what you want to hear; it’s hard for me to disagree with him about that. Forty-two months is three and a half years, and the end of that span inches closer with each minute of this ferocious night, but the war is still on, and the morning is a long way off. Perhaps these quaking walls shall endure, if the ashes will hold them together.