Memoir

85. Between The Velvet Lies There’s A Truth That’s Hard As Steel

Back in 1970 when Black Sabbath merged horror films and heavy music on their debut album they were without peer.  It took a little over a decade for their aesthetic to hit the mainstream, but by the mid-eighties no self-respecting heavy metal band was without their own county fair artwork.

Iron Maiden’s mascot, Eddie, was every bit at home airbrushed on the side of the Cyclone as he was terrifying God-fearing parents from his rightful place on Maiden tee shirts and album covers.  After much deliberation and test marketing the band Grim Reaper chose as their mascot the Grim Reaper.  His scythe and evil countenance graced each of their albums.  Motley Crue went for the classic pentagram on the cover of their album Shout At The Devil.  Even a brief glimpse of Huey Lewis and the News’s Sports guaranteed total devotion to The Dark Master (note:legally Huey Lewis and Satan are separate entities, though they share a joint checking account).

Evil was the prevailing heavy metal fashion, and no one did it better than Ronnie James Dio.  After splitting with Black Sabbath in 1982, Rhea Perlman’s evil twin released the back to back classics Holy Diver and The Last In Line.  The albums were cool — it doesn’t get much better than “Rainbow In The Dark” — but the album covers were the business.  Both covers feature Murray, the horned, muscle-bound beast with expressionless face and fingers forever frozen in metal’s most lasting symbol: the index and pinkie finger devil horns, or maloich as Dio referred to them in interviews.

Gene Hunter’s cover painting for Holy Diver was particularly controversial.  His depiction of Murray apparently beating and drowning a Catholic priest was a bit much for the baseball moms of the era (fun fact: soccer wasn’t invented until the 1996 presidential campaign).

Religion is a big deal in American life in general, and in the Deep South in particular: embracing it, rejecting it, lampooning it, destroying it (when “it” is defined as any religion other than the only true one, which is defined as the one I believe in).  Often I wonder if atheism isn’t so much about faith as it is rejecting the crushing societal pressure to worship a big, omniscient daddy.

It’s not easy being the odd man out in a religious community.  Even the Sabbath dudes with their attempts to conjure Satan believed in something, or at least they made a stoned effort to that effect.  It was spookier than goin’ visitin’ on a Wednesday night, but it was something.

But this story isn’t about Murray the Maloich-Waving Beast.  It’s about me over here in the corner.  I’m the one in the spotlight, and I lost my religion long before Murray chain-whipped that bespectacled priest.  All it took was watching our leisure-suited Southern Baptist preacher drain my mother’s wallet years earlier, not to help the needy but in an egomaniacal attempt to launch a televangelism career.  It didn’t matter at all to Dr. Fred that his greed created friction between my mother and father.  All that mattered to him was that all three offering plates were filled each Sunday.  That was enough of a peek behind the curtain to reveal the Great Oz as a charlatan, but that is not to say that I was without metaphysical questions.

Just a few short years after Dr. Fred emptied my mom’s wallet and angered my father,  Perry Farrell screamed:

Had a dad
Big and strong
Turned around
Found my daddy gone
He was the one
Made me what I am today
It’s up to me now
My daddy has gone away

That’s the real rub for an adolescent raised with a Children’s Bible and surrounded by zealotry and religious iconography.  Whether those images are pious or heretical is irrelevant — God is all-pervasive in that environment.  So where does a kid turn when he gets that funny feeling He’s not there at all?

The realization that there was no big daddy in the sky watching out for me was intellectually simple but emotionally difficult.  It was not an overnight epiphany, or even an over-fortnight one.  Years of struggle and introspection, hope, fear and disappointment follow this story.  But at age seventeen in the buckle of the Bible Belt those first feelings that He wasn’t there felt like drowning.

I handled the situation the only way that I knew how:  I doodled.  I ignored whatever assignment our bunny-faced art teacher gave us and grabbed a heavy piece of watercolor paper, taped it to a board and started sketching.  My mulleted hero looked upward yearningly, his massive arms crossing his striated chest as if he was lying in state, each hand flying the devil horns.

But he wasn’t dead.  He was chain bound like Murray’s battered priest, the chains leading to weights that in a nod to Dali were arranged into an exploded crucifix.  Over the next few days I painted the tragic fellow, and then covered the whole thing with several washes of thin blue watercolor.  My own little Holy Diver.   I named it “Twelve Deep In Troubled Waters,” just in case my religious iconography was too subtle.

“Can I take this, Jim?” the art teacher asked.

“Take it where?”

“The show.”

“What show?”

She looked at me with her bunny eyes and pursed her bunny lips and twitched her bunny nose.  I’d never seen an angry bunny prior to meeting her.  “The Spartanburg County Youth Art Exhibit?  The thing we’ve been working on all week?”

“Yeah, sure.”

My first actual show.  The whole world was going to glimpse not only my immense talent  but also the limitless depths of my profundity. Women would weep and men’s lives would change course.  One glance at “Twelve Deep” and Dr. Fred was bound to hang up his televangelist cleats.  That’s just how I feel, he’d cry.

I have a large gap in my memory here, likely because I was so full of myself that there was no room for new memories.  Whether the big show was a day or a month later is lost to me, but I do recall feeling certain that this was my first step out of Boiling Springs, South Carolina.  This show would pave the road to the School of Visual Arts or the Rhode Island School of Design or to hell with school I’ll just be a working artist right out of the gate.

Anyway, the big night eventually arrived and my parents agreed to go to the show.  We piled into my mother’s Chevy Celebrity and drove to downtown Spartanburg in absolute silence.

Inside the exhibit hall the walls were plastered with bad drawings of horses and celebrities, awkward Nagel copies, wooden still lifes, and countless tributes to heavy metal album covers.  We walked the aisles, my parents and I, looking for my watercolor.   My mother stopped occasionally to admire a well done piece.  “Come on,” my father sighed.  “Let’s go.”  We finally found my masterpiece hanging roughly at knee height, surrounded by horses, celebrities and faux Nagels.

“There it is,” I said.  “That’s my painting.”

“Can we go now?” my father replied, and he walked toward the door.

There was no big daddy looking after me, and I hated that stupid, ugly, amateurish fucking painting.

11 replies »

  1. I wasn’t raised in a religious household, but no need to ask too many questions. Just go along. That was the philosophy.

    I wish I could see that painting.

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  2. So much going on here, I cannot begin to focus my thoughts and post a coherent comment. Except that you blasted it out of the park, again. I am pretty sure every emotion got knocked around on this one. Nobody got left out.

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  3. I was raised in an extreme religious household and town and it took me a lot longer than 17 years to break away from that controlling mind numbing culture. I agree with Laura, it would be interesting to see that painting you did. I’m sure we both would have taken the time to look upon it and smiled.

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      • I don’t know that it really mattered at that time, do you? Meaning I assume those early stages of creativity feels like more like processing out what one is dealing with than it is creating a masterpiece. Besides don’t all teenagers think/assume that what they have done something that will change the world?

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