“Hard to believe that it’s fifteen years to the day.” A text from Gav. “Hard to believe,” I reply and add that we must meet soon. We both know this will not happen but perform the ritual dance anyway. We were band mates once, back in the fuggy mists of adolescence. It ended badly and we drifted. Look, now that you’re here I’ll tell you about it.
It was hotter than Satan’s haemorrhoids the first day we rehearsed together. That’s where our name came from, Satan’s Haemorrhoids. Summer of ’95. One of those blazing blue-skiers when you felt like your eyelids might melt under the strain of shucking the beady sweat that rolled from your brow.
Satan’s Haemorrhoids. Gav scrawled the words in black marker across his bass drum. I Tipp-Exed them across the body of my Epiphone guitar.
Our final appellation emerged from a shortlist of five. The others were Napalm Valentine, Carnival of Skulls, Overlords of Phlegm and Lucifer’s Blisters. Gav lobbied hard for Carnival of Skulls.
“It’s more commercial, man. What DJ’s gonna play a song by a band called Satan’s Haemorrhoids? We’ll need a website too, when this Internet thing gets big. Who can spell haemorrhoids?”
He had a point about the spelling. It’s that second silent ‘h’ that does for people. Insidious, that h.
We started to play music because we didn’t play hurling. Try growing up in Kilkenny ungifted with stick and sliotar. Or worse, indifferent to the game. A reckless heresy. We were angry, at nothing in particular and everything, and most of our clothes were black. Three quarters of us had long hair, and had taken a few slaps for it from the local rednecks. They had hurling groupie girlfriends who could sneer for the county. They were champions of the short-back-and-sides. They were evangelists of conformity.
“Look at the hair on ye, ye queer. Does yer mammy brush it for ye in the morning?” “No, but I let yours run her hands through it. Only after we’ve finished, though.”
You’d ship a few extra belts for that, maybe a bonus kick in the balls, but it was worth it. Sometimes they would furnish you with musical recommendations which they felt would enhance your listening pleasure. Just prior to gobbing copiously on your Pantera t-shirt.
“Listen to some Prodigy, queer.” “Yeah, and Oasis. That’s real music. None of your metal shite.”
It was Joey who started it. He’d been suckling from the teat of heavy metal since primary school. Inevitable, really, with parents like his. When not licking the church altar rails clean, they were to be found distributing religious publications or presiding despotically over the parish council, which they regarded as their personal Politburo.
Joey was into death and thrash metal – Pantera, Sepultra, Carcass - anything that came in staccato bursts of grinding rage. He would press cassettes into our hands like he was entrusting us with some secret scroll. “This is animal, man. It’s animal. You have to hear it.”
I didn’t like the music at first. It generally conveyed a sound picture of a man vomiting in the vicinity of a running chainsaw. I suppose it grew on me, or I let it grow on me. Like my hair. It was Joey’s thing, so Gav and Niall and I hitched ourselves to our own four-man bandwagon.
Joey would play us demos of his songs, recorded when his parents were out. They were ignorant of his musical taste. He wore no t-shirts, hung no posters, listened through headphones, sifting his passion through a funnel of secrecy. Joey was the short-haired one. His involvement in the group was kept from pater and mater familias through the benign connivance of Niall’s and my parents.
The band gave us a focal point, something to huddle around. We could headbang and swing our hair and melt into sound. We were slash and growl guitar and a slamming tattoo of drums and a black rumble of bass. And Joey’s vocals. Visceral is the word. Christ, yes. Visceral. He screamed like a man possessed. Like he was chasing down every last demon, hurling everything out, purging all the way from the gut up.
We found a place to rehearse, a disused barn on Niall’s granny’s farm. We fumbled and sweated through the swelter-haze that first day. The mood was giddy. It felt dizzying to belong.
A consensus soon emerged that more guitar volume was required. Otherwise, how could we ever expect to develop tinnitus, badge of honour of the rock god. Gav demurred. “But what about Niall’s granny, lads?” “It’s all right, Gav. She’s deaf.” “Already? We’ve only been playing ten minutes.” “Wow, that must be a record. We rock so hard we’ve already deafened an old woman. We’re on our way to stardom!” I made the universal metal sign, hand aloft, extending my little finger and forefinger whilst holding the two middle digits down with my thumb.
Niall and Gav laughed. Joey sliced me with a glare. “Don’t joke about that. ‘We’re on our way to stardom’, all jokey like it’s never going to happen. You think my songs are crap, is that it?” I was jolted by the force of his fervour. “Of course I don’t. Your songs rock, man.”
Later that day he refused to take my phone call. I had trodden on a nerve, dragged clumsy feet over tender skin. Joey nurtured grudges like they were swaddled newborns. When we next practised I apologised. It was fine, he said. Let’s just play. Fine. It was the first time I’d heard the word used in its adult sense. A signifier of just about anything other than fineness.
So we played. To my surprise, over the months as that burning summer frayed and darkened to autumn, we became quite competent practitioners of the dark arts of metal. There was talk of a demo tape. This would be our calling card to record companies, radio stations, gig bookers - the gatekeepers of the glittering world of the music business.
Word was that our classmate Henry ‘Helmethead’ Walsh’s elder brother P.J. was in possession of a four-track tape recorder. Gav, being the most loquacious and least socially inept of us – he had once had a girlfriend for two whole weeks - was despatched to convince Helmethead to arrange a loan. Nope, came the word back. His brother couldn’t be handing out sophisticated audio equipment willy-nilly.
Gav was sent again with instructions to wheedle, deceive or demand with menaces. Okay, came the response, P.J. might not be averse to releasing the four-track for a short period if we were to grease his wheels to the tune of fifty quid. None of us paused to think. We had pittance-paying part-time jobs. Shelling out meant fewer smokes, less vodka, no second-hand cassettes for a while. See, we were buying into something. It was cheap at the price.
It later transpired, of course, that Helmethead had simply stolen the machine and pocketed the cash.
Joey took possession of the four-track, manipulating faders and dials with nervous priestly reverence. What was it, really? A chunky block of Korean engineering, a hundred square inches of dust and plastic and stillborn dreams. But that’s a view from above, looking down from the barren slopes of Grown-Up. Then, we were looking up and the future had a faint glow. You had to squint, but it was just there. We were squinting hard.
We committed five original songs, of whose genius we were convinced, to a TDK cassette labelled ‘Satan’s Haemorrhoids FIRST DEMO’. The capitalisation of the final two words to alert the collectors of the future to the seminal nature of the recording, you understand. We were a proper band, preserved for posterity, our faces set to the future.
We were on an upward trajectory. Yes, we allowed ourselves to believe this. We were young and we were clambering for a foothold. We were comprised largely of hormones.
Joey and I walked home together after our recording session. There was a bite in the night. Winter was just limbering up, yawning and baring its fangs. The rain arrowed in sadistic slants. The weather couldn’t touch us. We fizzed with possibility. We were Seltzer on legs.
Joey turned to me, a huge guileless grin hoisted cheek to cheek. It was uncharacteristic. It’s scored inch-deep into my memory. “The tape sounds savage, doesn’t it? Apart from the hiss, I mean. The songs, like?” “Savage.” “You’re gonna think I’m a eejit, but there’s something about playing in the band… Ah…” He shook his head, hesitated, the words propped on a ledge and just about to drop. “Go on. Something about playing in the band?” “Ah, nothing.” “Jesus, do I have to pull it out of ye with a pliers?” He exhaled a little fist of fog, flung his hands up. “All right. It’s just that, I don’t know, it just feels all right or something. When we’re playing, like. It’s like all the shit that floats around your head kinda just settles. It’s like the music is all there is. It kinda crowds the other stuff out – school and girls and parents. Ah, I told ye it was rubbish.” “It’s not. I know what ye mean.” I did, but I felt it less intensely. Joey inhabited the music with the hypnotic intensity of a whirling dervish.
We posted tapes off to local promoters. Soon we had a gig. A dive in Kilkenny city - walls sweating grime onto ripped upholstery, ceiling a fetching shade of nicotine yellow, naked bulb stark. We were on a bill with three other bands. When not vomiting from nerves, and vodka drunk to calm our nerves, we soaked in the delicious terror of our first live performance. I remember little of the gig itself. My memory is of its adrenaline buzz afterglow. There could be no doubt; we were the finest teenage thrash metal band in Kilkenny.
Another gig was arranged in the same venue a few weeks later. A local newspaper wanted to profile the band as part of a feature. Gav, Niall and I met the young reporter, who smelt of February cold and coffee, and made plain her distaste for the pustular unkemptness of her interviewees. And so she jadedly asked and we eagerly answered to the click-whirr-click of her Dictaphone. It was getting to feel good, this setting down of ourselves on magnetic tape. One more question, she said. There’s another member of the group, right? Yes, I said. Joey. Joey Brennan. He couldn’t be here.
We never thought.
We had forgotten and by the time we remembered it was too late. The article appeared two days later, hunched apologetically in a corner of a left-hand page.
Word got around, as word does in its circular small town way. Their Joey was in a heavy metal band. Heavy metal, I ask you. And the name of this group. Unconscionable. Utterly wanton.
I would like to report on the dramatic scene, as Joey’s mother and father descended upon a rehearsal, muttering passages from the Book of Revelation whilst ripping leads from amps and scattering holy water on our instruments. There was nothing like that. They simply banned their 16-year-old son from playing in this Satanic abomination of a heavy metal group. He would thank them in time, they assured him.
They actually broke his guitar. Removed the strings and acquainted it with the business end of a chainsaw. They made him watch. A form of expiation, they said. He would thank them in time.
He was allowed to remain in school till the summer break. From September he would be boarding four counties away at a venerable institution with a good strong Catholic ethos and a healthy emphasis on Gaelic games. He raged and refused. For a while. Then he went.
He didn’t want to speak to us after that and I can’t say I blamed him. He’d trusted us with precious cargo and we’d let it crash to earth through careless fingers. The fault was all ours and the cost all his. The other three of us spent that summer picking our way through the broken shards of friendship at our feet.
Then autumn arrived, days thinning to twilight ever-quicker. Joey quietly left his dormitory one October night with a rope and a single purpose. The news whipped through town, pass the parcel with a Molotov cocktail, dangerous and thrilling. I saw it before sleep for a while, though not for so long as I thought the propriety of grief demanded: the goalposts and the rope and the dangle of limbs and the collapsed pile of schoolbooks on the mud.
Oh, there was the usual emotional litany of shock and anger and guilt, hastily arranged perfunctory counselling provided by the school, hot funeral tears.
There was a lot of talk after. Frenzies of hushed speculation, huddled tribunals in kitchens and shop doorways and bars. The absence of a note proved a great boon. There was scandal-mongering dressed up in its best Sunday clothes to look like compassion. People would tut and sigh and say isn’t it just awful?
“D’ye think was he interfered with in that new school?” “Was he on drugs, I wonder?” “D’ye know the type of music he listened to, that awful heavy metal stuff. Sure, ye wouldn’t know what kinda messages they put in those songs. Don’t they bite the heads off bats, those fellas?”
We knew, Gav and Niall and I. We knew, but nobody was asking.
We swore, of course, that the band would continue in defiance and in remembrance. We swore, and perhaps we meant it then. November fell like dirty sleet, and then December. We all had short hair by Christmas.