So. . .
Nothing is quite so certain to inspire introspection in a headbanger as the Wacken Open Air Festival. Every year in August, the sleepy little hamlet of Wacken, north Germany, enjoys a ten-fold population boom , blossoming into a small metropolis populated entirely by long-haired, spike-laden, chain-bearing, denim-clad skids[i]. Rockers. Metelheads. My kinda people.
The fanciful notion of Heavy Metal fandom as some trans-national tribe is probably nowhere better exemplified than in Wacken. Because during that three-day period, that’s exactly what we are. Thousands of like-minded people not just worshiping (ie: Rockin’ out) together, but actually living together. It has its own postal code and police department.
For Germans, Wacken is a kind of annual party getaway, I suppose not dissimilar to invading Wasaga beach every May Two-For. But for us in North America, it has always represented something much much deeper. During those dark years of the mid to late nineties, when their labels and their media puppets were trying to tell us with a straight face that Limp Bizkit were the natural inheritors of the Sabbath/Purple legacy, Wacken held an almost mystical allure. Somewhere, far across the sea was an enchanted place where Metal never died. Where guitarists could still play, where singers could still sing, and Rolling Stone critics didn’t exist. It only materialized for three days, before fading back into the mists until next year. Getting there wasn’t just a bucket-list project: it was a pilgrimage.
I made my pilgrimage in 2003. It’s difficult to describe what a magical experience it was. I mean, how is a nerdy loner supposed to describe arriving in a city populated entirely by people like himself? To be suddenly surrounded by people who shared his passions?
When you’re accustomed to indulging your passions alone, and are commonly denigrated for having them – being told how unhip, uncool, unfashionable, undesirable, unattractive, unwise and out-of date they make you – arriving in such an environment is an affirmation our lonely nerd never dared hope for. It brings one close to tears.
I spent the better part of the year slinging recycled cardboard and sheet metal to pay for the trip. I arrived with my backpack and nothing else. No tent, no sleeping bag, no blankets nothin’. Just a little maple-leaf flag I attached to a sapling which I decided would be my totem. I had not considered how cold it got that close to the North Sea; not considered anything except that I was there. I was befriended by a party of Germans – Karl, Manuel, and their girlfriends – who invited me to their camp, shared their food, and let me sleep in their tent. They even gave me a lift back to Hamburg when the festivities were done. This kind of camaraderie existed everywhere I looked, on a massive scale.
Those songs about the “Brotherhood of Metal” aren’t just singing through their ass.
(And I’m well aware of the irony of all those songs about violence and anger inspiring such hippy-like friendliness).
These days, the miracle of live-streaming allows us to catch a glimpse of that world again, this time from the comfort of our living rooms. Everything at the festival is recorded, and professional-quality videos are readily available on Youtube (officially or not is anybody’s guess; as far as I know neither promoter nor label have made any great effort to take them down). The footage is great, but now as then, my main interest is in the experience – watching the people, and gauging the state of the scene. Back then, I must have seen dozens of bands, but there are only a handful I remember in any detail (seven off-the top of my head, and five more when I stop to think about it). The atmosphere and environment are what stand out for me today. I can catch glimpses of it in the crowd shots – naturally, you can’t relive the moment through a screen, but you can sort of imagine it.
It’s amazing how broad the umbrella has grown, how many styles it encompasses, how many aesthetic philosophies it accommodates. There’s now a sub-genre to suit just about every taste or temperament, and some barely have a thing in common. It is entirely possible for two people with polar opposite preferences to attend the festival and leave perfectly satisfied, having seen none of the same acts. It is entirely possible to go the entire time without seeing a single British or American band, or hear a word of English spoken on stage. (Though this probably has as much to do with licensing for German television as anything else – Anglo-American bands are certainly not under-represented in the festival line-up). It’s amazing to see how many young people and how many women are in the crowd.
The scene has evolved – and oneself has evolved. While nostalgia cannot help but romanticise the place, time cannot help but demystify it. The Metalhead is no longer quite so-embattled in North America. Most of the great bands have made it over here after all[ii]. The scene is small, but healthy, attracting a good number of youth[iii]. Iron Maiden sell out stadiums, Rush are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame[iv], and so-called Nu Metal is nowhere to be seen. Call yourself a Metalhead, and no one laughs. Perhaps most importantly, things that bothered you a great deal in your mid-twenties matter so much less in your late-thirties.
Ah, but here’s the rub: a big reason they don't matter, is that Wacken exists.
[i] These days, sheep-skin jerkins are just as likely.
[ii] In 2003, part of the Wacken allure were all those bands playing over there we thought would never make it over here. Since then, many of them have.
[iii] Indeed, at the pagan shows, I feel like a bloody grandpa (with back-pain to boot). At least it won’t die out with me.
[iv] This does not mean Rush have finally “made it”: it means the hall of Lame has finally caught-up with reality.