Hopeful Monsters of Rock

This is Metallica, performing “Enter Sandman”, at the Monsters of Rock concert in Moscow, 1991. Moscow, 1991. A meaningful date. One of the things that has always struck me about this particular clip, one of the most exhilarating things I have ever seen, is that the world – the historical events taking place in Russia and the Soviet Empire at that time, is present in the clip. It’s in the air. Part of this has to do with how it is filmed. There is a feeling of real chaos, and danger. The crowd is endless. The sun is setting, which makes it seem like the sky is on fire, or as though the concert is taking place in a post-apocalyptic world. Nothing left, no civilization, except the structures that the dead race left behind: the stage, the giant sound-tower facing the stage, erupting out of the crowd like a living creature. Helicopters circle the sky, almost ominous. It is hard to comprehend a crowd so enormous. The way it is filmed gives a sense of military containment, with the line of soldiers and cops at the edge of the stage, and the crowd pushing against them. But then you see a couple clips of the one soldier, who has joined the crowd, sitting on someone’s shoulders it looks like, hat off, going nuts for the music. Boundaries blurred, roles blurred, the rigidity shattering. I have seen a lot of concert footage, but this particular clip shows the strange danger and vulnerability of rock stars as famous as these guys. Their presence is giant, watch their stances, and the way they whip their heads around … It is a gorilla pounding his chest, asserting his size and dominance. But look how small and wide-open their positions are. In a sense, they are irresistible targets. I think of the end of Nashville. Those up onstage are loved by those in the crowd, but often that love is indistinguishable from rage. Metallica taps into that with their music, certainly. I listen to them alone in my apartment and I want to crack some skulls.

It’s filmed, too, in a way that makes the crowd as central as the band. Look at the faces. They are mad with hysteria, a blind freedom and power that of course frighten the cops. The empire has just crumbled. These people have, of course, been listening to Metallica all along. This is already a long time ago, although I remember those heady days as well, Mitchell and I watching the whole thing unfold on his couch in his apartment – the Berlin Wall coming down, Yeltsin standing on the tank, all of the extraordinary events of that incredible time in history.

Into the middle of that stepped Metallica.

This is not just a concert. This is a new world being born. A world that was full of horrors already being unleashed in the Balkans and elsewhere. But there is beauty too. A fierce clenching at freedom and possibility. Rage indistinguishable from love. The great unknown has arrived. The unknown has been unleashed.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That’s what I see in some of those faces. People whose “hour has come round at last”. It almost brings me to tears, but they are not just tears of gladness. It’s fear, too.

Something is going ON at this concert. It is sheer expression, unthinking and physical, and is one of the reasons why I love Metallica’s music so much – those songs that can be quite rigid in their structure, long and symphonic with many movements (as my brother says, “It’s metal for math nerds”), but when they take the stage, they claim it like warriors. They are ferocious. They are a part of that energy out in the crowd, they are in its current, they help create it.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of hopeful monsters, the theory of there being creatures born perhaps too early but represent evolutionary leaps. A sudden spontaneous mutation that pulls the species forward. It’s a theory. It is also the title of one of my favorite books of all time, Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley. A book of enormous scope, it is really a personal story between two people: a German girl named Eleanor and a British boy named Max – whose encounters span the course of the Second World War up until the 1950s. They spend most of their time apart, but the connection is intense. It seems that they are “about” the same things. She is an anthropologist and he is a biologist. They try to make sense of the world. Together. When Max was a small boy, his father was a scientist on the faculty at a university in England, and Max set up an aquaterrareum with two salamanders in it, hoping to see if it was true, if he created an “alpine” condition in the terrareum, that the lowland salamanders would “decide” to breed like alpine salamanders, representing a huge leap, a possibility for change, based on context (the main theme of the book: can we, as human beings, once we realize our predicament – the human condition – can we not change?)

I had set up my aquaterrareum in my bedroom: I wanted it here rather than in the room with my chemistry set next door because I wanted to be with my salamanders at night. I do not know why I felt particular about this. Perhaps I felt – What strange influences, chances, flit about beneath the moon at night.

My salamanders sat or stood or lay sometimes parallel, sometimes apart, something with their noses close together like an arrow. I hardly ever saw them move. They would be, yes, on the silver sand, by the stones like gold or diamonds, like things made immortal by a painting.

My mother came up to look at my aquaterrareum. She had that expression on her face that my father sometimes had when it was as if he could not make up his mind whether to be deprecating or impressed. She said ‘That’s beautiful!’

I said ‘Yes.’

‘What are they called?’

‘Adam and Eve.’

‘What good names!’

I said ‘I think they might also be what are called “hopeful monsters”.’

She said ‘What are hopeful monsters?’

I said ‘They are things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it’s not known if the environment is quite ready for them.’

She said ‘So you have made an environment that might be ready for them.’

I said ‘Yes.’

She put her arms round me and hugged me. She said ‘You are my hopeful monster!’

I thought I might say – But hopeful monsters, don’t you know, nearly always die young.

That’s what comes to mind when I watch this clip.

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3 Responses to Hopeful Monsters of Rock

  1. Paul says:

    Finally got around to watching this clip – awesome! I have never heard the term ‘hopeful monsters’ – will have to check out the book. It does strongly remind me of a great fiction series by Julian May [Intervention] that posits similar concepts [also very influenced by the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin]. Highly recommended..

  2. sheila says:

    Paul – thanks for the recommendation. Is “Intervention” the name of the series you mention? Would like to check it out.

    Hopeful Monsters has been (I am told) a tough read – but I didn’t find it tough at all. I DEVOURED that book.

  3. Paul Gunn says:

    Hi Sheila,

    Intervention has two books [Surveillance and Metaconcert]. The concept is that a few people around the world are starting to manifest metapsychic abilities and the books are largely based on the somewhat messy consequences of this [some people become criminals, some are feared, some are used as weapons, etc]. She wrote a number of other related books which were also very good, but these two particularly came to mind as they focus on the transition period [where some people have abilities and others don’t]- a key theme here is that evolution isn’t a tidy process :-)


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