Take a journey back with me to 1977. Star Wars was the biggest thing that summer. I personally saw it 22 times that summer.
(Hey, now. I was six and the movie theatre had $0.50 matinees and let you stay there for the twilight show too, for free. So, twice a day for about two weeks.)
Not only was I geeking out on the most influential movie of my life, but I also spent a week with my cousin’s family that summer. My cousin is about three years my junior and we had a close bond from my earliest memories of him. Not that we saw each other more than maybe three times a year, but when we did, it was fun and intense and left us both wishing we had more time together.
But, at that point, with him only being three, I also enjoyed the company of his parents. His dad had the coolest, royal blue Corvette. His mom was so in-tune with current culture, there were so many things they introduced me to.
It was on a ride in said awesome Corvette that my cousin’s dad plunked an 8-track into the dashboard and revved the engine. He watched me as the music began: The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I was in love. Bouncing in my seat, squealing “It’s a gas gas gas!” as he took us on a flying ride, I was introduced to my very first favorite song.
When we got back to his house, his wife loved the story so much, she started playing records at me: Heart, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC. I was lucky that my spawn-people had left me with them and gone to visit other family (he and his wife would be named my godparents soon after. Heh. If only the people who spawned me had known…). They plied me with music and wonderful food. I was a happy kid.
A year later, in the same house, my now four-year-old cousin said those magic words to me: “You’re gonna love this.” He put a record on the player and again I fell in love, this time with Kiss’s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.”
From then on, my cousin introduced me to incredible music that I would never have heard in my house. My parents were squares in the hippie generation, hating rock ‘n’ roll, instead listening to such snooze-fests as Roger Whittaker and Anne Murray. When the radio went on in the car, it wasn’t to the rock or pop stations, it was to a radio station that played actual elevator music: slowed-down, instrumentalized, synthesized versions of songs that had been popular at least five years prior. I had to wage musical war, if only to save my sanity. And my cousin provided the ammuniation. Over the years, he gave me Megadeth, Marilyn Manson, Ghost, Motley Crue, In Flames, Anthrax, Scatterbrain, Alice Cooper, Annihilator, Ratt, Judas Priest, Frehley’s Comet, Metal Church, Death Angel, and dozens more that I can’t recall off the top of my head.
But there’s one whose situation and effect I will never forget.
It was Thanksgiving, 1987. We were sitting on the orange velveteen couch in my aunt’s house, watching football and waiting for the food. He leaned over to me, handed me his Walkman and the headphones and said, “You’re gonna love this.”
What emerged was a cross between Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Dio. The song was called “Chemical Euphoria,” and I listened to it three times in rapid succession before borrowing the cassette for the rest of our stay.
Armored Saint’s Raising Fear introduced me to this incredibly underrated metal band. I sat on that couch, headphones in place, burning through AA batteries, listening to the aural assault and staring at what I still consider to be the best cover artwork in metal.
From the logo to the giant armored dude to the swimming pool sailing through the air, I was captivated. Not to mention the music itself.
Straight up, no frills heavy metal. In a pinch, you might sub-categorize them towards the Power Metal end of things, but only in a pinch. I can’t break down their music more than that – it affects me on a reptilian level and defies my attempts to communicate beyond: “They’re awesome.”
There are only two bands who I can truthfully say that they don’t have a single track that I don’t like: Metallica and Armored Saint. I think that pretty much sums up the musical quality for me.
I call them underrated because, for some reason, their popularity seemed permanently rooted in Los Angeles. It would be thirteen years from the time I first heard them until the time I finally got to see them live. They’re a West Coast band and their tours often stayed there. Those of us who did know them out East pined for some local shows. Their label, Chrysalis, did them absolutely no favors because they didn’t know what to do with a metal band. They overproduced it, replacing the power with polish; their first three albums fared like Kiss’s first three and for the same reason: you couldn’t get the band’s true sound from the studio recordings. But if you saw them live…well.
As it happens, because they are so underrated, I’ve had incredible opportunities to meet them. Twice, I’ve been able to meet and interact with some of the band. The first time was at that show in 2000, on the Revelation tour. I took a friend along to the show and we got there as early as possible. Turned out, we didn’t need to, as we and a local music reporter were the only fans in the building while the first act went on stage. That act was pretty good, and we were headbanging and moshing (you have no idea how comical a three-person mosh is) when I looked behind us and saw Phil Sandoval enjoying the band on stage with us.
“It’s Phil!” I yelled, and we all went over and he high-fived us, a big grin on his face. We went back to our silly moshing with happy hearts.
Thanks to our punctuality and our enthusiasm for the opening band, we got free merch and were standing close enough to the stage to put our hands on it when the Saint finally opened their set. John Bush slapped hands with us, squatting and singing. Joey Vera played his bass solo right above us.
I will take time out here to note that headbanging while looking almost directly up at the band in question, with one’s hands on the stage, will put a serious crick in your neck. Like, I woke up the next morning unable to move my head at all. Totally worth it.
Between John Bush’s stint in Anthrax and the rest of life, Armored Saint didn’t put out another full studio album until 2010’s La Raza; in my opinion, their best, most musically complete album. When I’m compiling lists of albums to listen to all the way through and often, La Raza is always on those lists.
And, of course, they finally came back east. I absolutely love the tour shirt I got from that concert: it has five dates on it: 1 – Band practice, 2 – NYC, 3 – Allentown, PA, 4 – NYC, 5 – Go home. They called it “Conquering The East.” Priceless.
I had to drive three hours to see them and, of course, I got there early enough to get right up front again. This time, they were doing a little bit of fan service. They posted a survey on Facebook (Yeah. Looooong time ago. I was still on Facebook. Yikes.) and the top ten songs from their catalog that were selected on the survey would go to a couple of lucky fans at each show. The fan would get to request one of those songs.
Only, it got better.
Once on stage, they announced that there would be three lucky fans. The first was a shrieking woman from a few rows back. She wasn’t going to be pushy and just held up her hand for the list. Instead, the band pulled her up on stage and let her strut and wave and go nuts before picking a song. She was going to jump back into the crowd, but the band kept her up there, interacting with her during the song. We all went nuts and shrieked.
When the time came for the second guest, I did my fair share of getting nuts. I was even luckier. The couple of guys I was up front with made each other (and me) a promise: we would all try to get each other noticed and, if one of us got up there, we’d request “The Pillar” and the rest of us would take pictures. This was well before I transitioned and I’d recently started shaving my head. As it happened, so had John Bush. He pointed to me with a grin and said, “Yeah, you. ‘Cause you’re going nuts and you look like me.”
And, just like that, I was on stage with Armored Saint.
From their list of ten – “The Pillar” wasn’t on the list – I chose “Raising Fear” for them to sing (I dare you to listen to it live and determine the lyrics without looking them up). Bush looked at the rest of the guys and said, “Oh, sure. You had to pick the one we didn’t practice.” But they were game. As was I.
Again, they let the fan stay on stage. I tried to stay out of their way and just headbang or something, but Joey Vera came over and let me strum his bass. Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan played their respective solos on either side of me, headbanging along, high-fiving me when the song was done. And, honor of all, when John Bush realized I actually knew the lyrics and was singing them, he put his arm around my shoulders and stuck the microphone in my face.
I had a momentary duet with John Bush.
Now, from the buildup to this point, I’m sure you can imagine that those four minutes on stage with Armored Saint rank as four of the best minutes of my life. And they are. Aside from the fan factor, these guys are just awesome. They value their fans: they don’t gouge on prices, they have senses of humor, they listen to us, and they show genuine human interaction with us.
And now, the Saint is back.
They’re touring the whole country, forty-one years after their founding, supporting their latest effort, Punching The Sky. They’re touring with one of the few bands I didn’t get to see in the 80s or 90s, W.A.S.P. And you’d better believe I already have my tickets.
Including the tickets for the VIP experience. Meet and greet. That’s right: I’m going to get to meet them again. Just as before, I’m super stoked. Ever since I got wind of the meet and greet opportunity, I’ve been listening to their catalog end-to-end, pretty much to the exclusion of all other music I own. Yeah, I know it’s three months until I get to see the show, but screw that, I’m stoked!
If my fan-rant hasn’t inspired you, I really do recommend you take a listen to their music. Start with La Raza. If it grabs you, move on to Punching The Sky. If you still can’t get enough, then dig through their other albums. You can’t go wrong.
And, should you become a fan, take heart: these guys are awesome.
P.S.: I have to say that my favorite song of theirs is one that some snarky critics have panned: “For The Sake.” I don’t care what they’re saying beyond “Make a believer/out of you,” because the music in that song is by far my favorite. I would have asked for that one when I got on stage, but, alas, it wasn’t on their list of ten either. I still wouldn’t change a thing.
Forgive the repetition. I get like that when I’m being a total fangirl. You can’t see me bouncing in my chair like I did when I first heard “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But I am.
And, to my cousin: I owe you my life, my sanity, and the greatest passion I have. You were generous, loaning me your cassettes knowing I wouldn’t be able to return them for months, until the next time our families gathered. You came with me to umpteen concerts, keeping me company and being my friend. Even when our lives diverged, you were still there for me. Love you, cuz.
P.P.S.: A quick list of Armored Saint songs that have been vital to my life (and you wondered why I added “Mental Health” as a category on this one).
- “Isolation” and “No Reason To Live” – Helped carry me through the second-worst year of my life, 1988.
- “Upon My Departure” – Helped me through more than one very ugly breakup.
- “Unstable”, “Tainted Past”, and “Madhouse” – Like “Isolation”, these songs have helped me deal with my own mental health issues. Sometimes it helps to revel in it. Sometimes it brings acceptance.
- “Last Train Home” – On repeat-play during my sophomore year of college as I wandered around campus and around the city into the wee hours of the morning.
- “Lone Wolf” – Theme song for the main character in a novel I’m working on.
- “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide” – Awesome to see Armored Saint in The Decline Of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years as well as a perfect driving song.
- “Book Of Blood” – Read the lyrics to this one. Perfection.