Nonfiction by Siân Griffiths
What I remember: a rock band roadie bragging. He claimed that he tested girls by the measure of a drumstick, asking them to insert it into their vagina to see if they could “take it to the logo.” I watched it on a basement TV in a room of boys who laughed and laughed and laughed. “That’s so sick,” one said, but their laughter read less like condemnation, more like respect, awe, applause.
Twenty-six years later, I am racking my brain, asking it to give up more details. Which boys were in the room? What was the goal of inserting the stick? To get backstage? To meet the band? What was the video? Who was the band? I post what I remember on Twitter, asking for leads, but no one seems to know what I’m talking about. The memory of the video seems mine alone.
I wonder if perhaps the clip was from a Metallica rockumentary, but that doesn’t seem right. The drumstick roadie seems more likely to be from the world of glam rockers and hair bands. The groups for whom women were nothing more than ever-present accessories, the groups who couldn’t make an album cover without a half-naked lady flung over a car hood, the groups whose videos featured band members dripping with girls who licked and petted them as they tried to drive, played their instruments, lived their lives. Metallica had always had a different focus: less sex, more fury.
I’ve thought about this roadie many times in the subsequent decades, but lately he’s become a daily thought. The Kavanaugh hearings are on, and in the wake of Weinstein, as we wrestle once again with perennial questions about whether women are really people, the entertainment that has always been part of my life provokes reflections on rock and roll, exploitation, and celebrity. “When you’re a star,” Donald Trump said as he bragged about sexual assault, “they let you do it. You can do anything.” I’ve thought about the “they” in that sentence, wondering whether this vague pronoun is meant to denote the women themselves or the passive people who witness or the nation as a whole and its silent complicity. I wonder about our creation of icons. I wonder about sex as a motivator for stardom. I watch how stories of silence and “implied consent” are used to rewrite assault as something more benign. Mostly, though, I’m thinking about laughter.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the laugh—the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
“I was, you know, underneath one of them while the two laughed, two friends—two friends having a really good time with one another.”
“…the laughter, the uproarious laughter, and the multiple attempts to escape, and the final ability to do so.”
- Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh Hearing Transcript
I went hunting for the clip to test my memory, to prove or disprove what I thought I knew. I googled phrases, looked for transcripts, and came up short. I tried to think of other bands, other documentaries. I turned again to Metallica, only it couldn’t be Metallica, could it? Vince Neil, Bret Michaels, Axl Rose—those guys specialized in looking indifferent/annoyed as women, seemingly unable to help themselves, ran fingers through the singers’ feathered hair. James Hetfield of Metallica was something different. He sunk into his thighs when he played; centering himself, weight in his feet, like a man prepared to take a hit and return one. He wore his guitar slung low, as if to block crotch shots, and belted lyrics from the gut, the words slugging out—jab, jab, uppercut, hook. His singing wasn’t there to prettify; rather, his voice roughed up the guitar a little, lacing growl in with melody. It wasn’t a woman-friendly band exactly, but Metallica gave voice to a rage that resonated with me. They seemed more ally than enemy. Even so, my mind kept turning back to them. It couldn’t be, but if not them, then who?
In the days before the 90th Academy Awards, street artists Plastic Jesus and Joshua “Ginger” Monroe created a golden statue of Harvey Weinstein sitting robed on his casting couch. “Everyone wants a selfie, everyone wants to be part of the experience,” Monroe said. “To be able to knock the monster down a peg and poke fun and ridicule it helps remove its power. That’s how you take these powerful people down. As Mark Twain once said, ‘Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.’”
They seem to assume that their art has accomplished this assault, this victory. They assume the casting couch has imploded under the weight of laughter.
What I remembered most from A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica was its length: two full VHS tapes of mostly dull footage of studio recordings and concerts in support of their sixth CD, the self-titled release we simply called the Black Album, the one that finally launched them to fame. Of course, I had owned A Year and a Half. Metallica had been my first rock concert. In 1992, I owned every CD, knew every lyric, could recite details of every band member, living or dead, but even then I couldn’t bring myself to love the documentary. I had long ago relegated it to a donation pile, a relic of my past.
The miracle and curse of the Internet, though, is that pasts don’t disappear. YouTube supplied what I had discarded. Better still, I could control its speed, bumping the footage up to time and a half, chipmunk metal heads racing through their riffs.
“Fowley invited other guys to have sex with Jackie before removing his own pants and climbing on top of her. ‘Kim’s fucking someone!’ a voice shouted from the door of the motel room to the partygoers outside, calling them in to watch. Arguelles returned to the room to see if this was all a big joke.
On the bed, Fowley played to the crowd, gnashing his teeth and growling like a dog as he raped Jackie. He got up at one point to strut around the room before returning to Jackie’s body.”
-Jason Cherkis, “The Lost Girls: One Famous Band, One Huge Secret, Many Lives Destroyed”
I’m midway through footage from what had been the second tape when I see him: the roadie, just as I remembered. Or not just. He’s a little younger, a little leaner. His name is Eddie, perhaps like Van Halen’s famous lead guitar, perhaps like Iron Maiden’s cover ghoul. He works on the sound crew—“I fly the P.A.,” he says. He calls the area below stage the Underworld and welcomes us in.
Immediately, he’s talking about girls, flipping through Polaroid after Polaroid, the trophies he’s kept from each conquest. “I figure, if they can take the stick up to the logo,” he says, “they get to keep the stick. If not, they’ve got to give it back and try again.”
I stop the video and back it up. I slow it now to three-quarter time. Taking it to the logo isn’t a ticket to meet the band, as I thought. Taking it to the logo wins them only the stick. I think of bacteria, of pain, of our soft insides, of the danger of penetration.
Eddie has moved on. He brags about the mother he fucked so her daughter could get backstage. He insists she would have done anything, and “Me, being the type of guy I am, asked 'em and they said yeah.” He flips to another photo, another girl. “This one here, she was a trooper. Everybody shot a wad on her—I mean, in the crew.” He refers to one after another as a “nice girl.” Nice, for Eddie, means compliant.
At my husband’s office, the receptionist is flashed by a man outside the plate glass window. She’s shaken. She reports the incident. “Just laugh at it,” the male boss advises. “He wants a response. Don’t give it to him.” She can take control over the situation, her boss insists, and take the flasher’s power away, as if her laughter could erase the act itself.
I can’t make this logic work. I try to extend it: If a woman laughs at assault, is it no longer assault? If she laughs during rape, is it no longer rape? Exactly how does this give her power? She has substituted the response suggested by one man’s actions with the response suggested by another man’s words. Nothing changes the assault itself.
Refusing a man’s delight is the power historically assigned to women going back to Lysistrata, but refusal is not the same as power. It makes nothing happen, nothing change. It cannot instigate. It cannot create.
“Laugh at him,” a man advises, and his advice is kindly meant. The boss is, in fact, a wonderful and warm human being who tries to make the world—or at least the world of their office—a better place. He imagines himself in the receptionist’s chair, but he has forgotten to check and stow his male confidence, his physical presence, his power. There is no way for a woman visually assaulted at a window to not be visually assaulted at a window, regardless of how she responds. Her reaction is hers alone—to look away, to laugh, to report, to cringe, to vomit, to gossip, to relive and relive and relive, to know that any moment the man may be back at the window, to know that he might not stay at the window, to know that, if he charges in, nothing will stop him in time to help her.
Here’s another thing I didn’t remember: Eddie’s return to the video. In what is now minute fourteen of part seven of part two in the series of self-perpetuating YouTube clips, he’s on screen and the band is watching his footage. Kirk Hammett jokes about how this video is launching Eddie’s career, their roadie having his moment of celebrity. Lars Ulrich, the drummer, is red-faced with laughter next to a grinning Jason Newsted as Eddie flips through the photos of girls he’s fucked under their stage. Kirk Hammett is laughing too, but as Eddie’s monologue hits the drumstick test, the video cuts to Kirk exiting the room. He scowls back at the camera as he shoves the door open, a man on a mission. He throws a wad of something at a kind of shed door in the bowels of the arena. It all feels a little staged.
The footage cuts to three girls outside, sweaty but self-confident. “We’re trying to get backstage,” they say, “but we’re not having any luck because the roadies are being assholes.” Another cuts in: “They want favors.” Another, maybe the first: “They want a blowjob for a backstage pass.” The girls are out of luck. “We’re not going to degrade ourselves like that,” they say.
That’s the word: degrade. They were asked and they refused. They had a choice, and they stayed classy. I hear the subtext whispering that all of this has been consensual. The girls whom Eddie fucked were fucked because they allowed it. It’s not rape but sex. And I suppose it is, depending on your definition of consent and of assault, depending on how you want to weigh celebrity and power, depending on whether age matters, depending on whether you mind the need ringing in the voice of the loveless girl who recounts her life of being “locked up,” of floating from foster home to foster home until no one wanted her anymore, depending on whether you view a girl exchanging sex for a backstage pass as a kind of assault or prostitution or simply an opportunity for someone to meet their favorite band.
We’re back to Kirk, a shirtless Eddie at his side. Eddie says, “I’m not going to go into any post offices with my gun anymore.”
“That’s good,” Kirk nods. “That’s a positive step forward. I like that. I like that.”
“No more wiping people out at McDonald’s.”
“I like that, too,” Kirk says, but his eyes are darting around.
Between the lines, I imagine I am supposed to see a moral lesson having been imparted, but the violence sworn off on-screen is not the violence he’s committed. We feel Eddie’s tongue in his cheek, his performance designed to evoke laughter once again. His response is to joke. Though I can’t confirm this, he appears to have kept his job on the sound crew. I wonder how much of this footage is meant simply to make us feel that something’s been done, even as we watch nothing done.
The film rolls on. Before the documentary ends, we’ll watch footage of girls flashing the camera alongside footage of a girl’s bikini being pulled aside by someone near her, as if the girl’s consent was never an issue because, let’s face it, it never was.
The Guns N’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction was named for the artwork that was to be its cover before the studio objected to the band’s choice. In Robert Williams’s graphic, a girl slumps against a wall, shirt open and naked breast exposed and cut, panties around her ankles. We are to suppose the robot in the picture committed the assault. We are to forgive the band for its choice in art, relegated now to the inner sleeve of the record or tape or CD, and for the subsequent promotional art (in which the robot boozes or barbecues) that aligns the rapist/robot with the band. It’s all in good fun.
From 1981 to 1994, Lars Ulrich played with Calato Regal Tip sticks, size 5B. These are the sticks Eddie would have had in stock. Searching online, I learn they are sixteen inches long. The logo is just shy of halfway down the stick.
How much counted as taking it “to the logo?” Six inches? Seven? It’s not an impossible length, but rather a test of their willingness to comply. Were the sticks he offered dirty or clean? How dull or sharp was that nylon tip? Were the ends already wrapped, performance ready? How easily did they splinter? How easily did they break? What did Eddie do with the sticks from the girls who failed his metric?
1093 Lars Ulrich - pristine unused, wrapped signature model Regal Tip drumsticks, Metallica.
“…both the Kavanaugh accusations share certain features: There is no penetrative sex, there are always male onlookers, and, most importantly, there’s laughter. In each case the other men—not the woman—seem to be Kavanaugh’s true intended audience. In each story, the cruel and bizarre act the woman describes—restraining Christine Blasey Ford and attempting to remove her clothes in her allegation, and in Deborah Ramirez’s, putting his penis in front of her face—seems to have been done in the clumsy and even manic pursuit of male approval.”
-Lili Loofbourow, “Brett Kavanaugh and the Cruelty of Male Bonding”
When I read about assault, when I write about it, I take a killjoy’s stance. The truth is, I love to laugh. Laughter is contagious, human, fun. Laughter brings us together and solidifies our sociality, confirming us as part of a group, as friends. Laughter can be an instrument of change. With it, we acknowledge absurdity and contradiction.
I know, too, that laughter can be an instrument to silence and shut down. Good things are not always good.
I wonder where Eddie is now. More than a quarter of a century since the black album, Eddie has surely moved on to some other job. We have shamed so many celebrities, but I see them returning quietly to their work. Kavanaugh has been confirmed to the Supreme Court. Harvey Weinstein is likely to be cleared. The country has delivered a verdict.
I, too, have laughed at inappropriate times: the news of a friend’s death, the attack on the Twin Towers. I heard in my laughter the tinge of panic, the completeness of my ignorance of how to respond, and the horror at what my body was doing in the vacuum of that knowledge. That sound was not the sound of the boys’ laughter as we watched the video, nor is it the sound of Lars Ulrich’s or Kirk Hammett’s or Jason Newsted’s laughter. In all that male laughter, what I hear first is delight. The laughter acknowledges that a man is behaving badly, but I can also hear the appreciation of his daring, just as they appreciate The Who for destroying hotel rooms; only, in this case, it is a person who is being destroyed, or who is resisting being destroyed.
What do I do with the music I grew up with? I turned to it once because it contained the rage I felt, but now I can’t unhear its complicity in so much of what I rage against. It taps against my eardrum, its pitch lower than the bass. In “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” the sex always comes first. Rock and roll is the means to an end, and that end is permission to behave badly and fuck broadly. In my own professional community, male writers are being outed for their sexual crimes, but most are quietly forgiven. It seems to have always been the deal—if you’re a star, you get away with it. They let you. "They" meaning us.
The boys I watched with laughed because they could, because they were more aligned with Eddie than they were with the girls in the photographs. I sat silent, absorbing. I knew I should smile; that is the rule. To do otherwise would make me a downer. I wish I could remember whether I forced my lips to curl.
I have never been raped. My first boss used to rub his body against my backside while I rolled out biscuit dough for the morning rush, no matter how often I told him to knock it off. I’ve been cat-called and whistled at more times than I can recount. On at least two occasions, while I was running, strange men have asked me to get in their cars so I could “give them directions.” Even after I became a professor, a male colleague used to regularly stand in my door and vigorously rub his penis through the pocket of his pants as he spoke to me on another invented pretext. But I have never been raped. I am lucky.
“Victory Tischler-Blue was Jackie’s replacement on bass, and one of her main memories from her time as a Runaway was how some of the other members made fun of what happened to Jackie. 'I heard about that nonstop,' she says now. 'They would talk about Kim fucking Jackie like a dog. It was kind of a running joke.'
"Oftentimes during soundchecks, Tischler-Blue says that Smythe would play his secret recording of Jackie’s breakdown in Japan. He made listening to it part of the band’s pre-show ritual. 'He was taunting her and she started screaming, "I’m sick of being sick,”' Tischler-Blue remembers. 'It became a catchphrase with the band. She was shrieking it. It shook me to my core—and everybody would laugh.'”
-Jason Cherkis, “The Lost Girls: One Famous Band, One Huge Secret, Many Lives Destroyed”
The experience of watching a roadie brag on screen is not remotely on-par with the experience of a woman surviving attempted rape, yet in the topography of small assaults we may sometimes trace the topography of large assaults.
As a nineteen-year-old girl, I bought a documentary. It came on two cassettes, which even in the height of my fandom was too long. There’s a perfect length for everything; this was not that length. They could have cut many things: the reckless car rides, the stripper in the studio, the band members on couches flipping through porn. They could have cut Eddie. Because they did not, a truth was caught on camera. Of course, we all knew the mythology of roadies, and rock bands themselves have never been shy about their love of sexual gratification. I knew that high school guys picked up guitars in the hope that they could become gods, and that sometimes this fantasy came true. Their success was measured in women. Their crimes were masked in laughter.
Twenty-six years later, I know the drumstick penetrated; I took it inside me, stabbing straight up through the vagina and into the heart of my matter. It lodged. If I laugh now, I will choke on it. It long ago ossified into vestigial bone. It is useless. It is knowledge.