This is a rough timeline of my relationship with the music and putative art of the band Tool, which began when I was thirteen and has basically been over for several years now, unless the affair can be said to live on through the occasional Googling, which I perform with the same faint curiosity that causes me to wonder where long-ago girlfriends and pals live today.
This little wanker caught my attention when I was thirteen.
It's after midnight in the springtime, and my friend GR's parents have finally gone to bed after an hour of walking back and forth through their townhouse in their underwear and fighting. It's been a long day of males playing video games, and GR's dad has drunk a lot of Busch Light. I forget the details of their squabble except for his dad saying, "Only if you service me," a phrase which I only half-understand. GR and I are still taking turns playing Crystalis on their spotless Nintendo machine, and his older sister's trying to convince her friend it's time to go sleep. Finally his sister goes upstairs alone. I'm lying on the couch watching GR's avatar shoot lightning bolts out of a sword, and I must doze off, because suddenly the game is paused and GR and his sister's friend are dry-humping heavily on the orange-brown carpet. This gives me one of those early puberty hard-ons that leaves me both ashamed and wildly excited. I pretend to sleep and watch through partially closed eyes. The high school girl's still-clothed ass pounds the floor so loudly I'm sure GR's parents will come down and do, well, something. I have never been drunk and have no conception of the depthless black of their current sleep.
They quit making out abruptly, or at least they do in my eyes. The girl stands with a smile, brushes the hair out of her face, and goes upstairs to sleep with GR's sister. The second she's gone, GR whacks me with a pillow and tells me to stop pretending. We're both thrilled by what's just happened. We turn on MTV and watch Headbanger's Ball. A song comes on we've never heard. The stop motion video features the grotesque puppet of an old man (pictured above) wandering around what looks like the lower level of a defunct paper mill. He goes into a dark mildewy chamber with a long pipe running along the floor and breaks open the pipe and holds his hands over what looks like raw sausage running past.
GR and I sit inches from the screen, as transfixed by the imagery in the video as by the music of the song. The song ends. We come back to our senses just in time to catch the band name and title. The group is Tool, the song "Sober."
At the mall that week I buy Undertow. I play it on the ride home, sitting shotgun in my family's Econoline van with my sisters and brother sitting in the back. My mom drives, and it goes well enough until I realize she also understands the lyrics of the second song, which is entitled "Prison Sex."
It turns out Tool has an EP called Opiate and none of the songs get airplay. I read about and download all the mysterious seeming lyrics from a private website designed and maintained by an apparent obsessive who goes by the name Kabir. I tell GR about it on the phone, but we go to different schools, and these days we rarely feel the same thing at the same time.
I buy the cassette of Opiate and listen to it on the headphones of my Sony Walkman, probably my second most prized possession, after the Super Nintendo my parents have given me this past Christmas. I'm a high school freshman with sparse body hair and highly improbable dreams of becoming a state championship wrestler. Older girls call me cute in a highly undesirable way, and being an honors student is a necessary evil. I turn crank the Walkman's volume to an ear-damaging volume and transcribe the lyrics from "Hush" into a notebook in jagged letters.
Tool releases AEnima, its second full studio album, just in time for wrestling season. By now I've metamorphosed into a knotty little brute who can bench-press twice his competition weight and do forty pullups in row. I've picked up the habit of buying tins of Kodiak from a solemn convenience store owner who wears clothes the color of dust, and this is the second source of pleasure in my life as I run each night following three hour practices in the ninety degree wrestling room. I live in a farming community, and my road is a mile long, and I run it back and forth all fall and winter, wearing a vinyl suit under my jogging sweats, stopping only to piss on a tree or change out my dip, until I've put in nine miles and feel hungry enough to know I'll wake up light in the morning.
There's not a song on the tape I don't like, though I'm not much interested in what I take to be goof tracks and will only later understand to be designed for highly stoned or tripping listeners with a specific demographic profile. My favorite songs are "H", "46 and 2", "Jimmy," which contains a reference to the winter sky in my state (the singer, Maynard James Keenan, grew up about a hundred miles from my hometown). I'm able to look past my dubious feelings about the band's continuing fixation on violent sex and rape ("Stinkfist", as well as Keenan's statement in an interview that he likes to dress like a woman in concert because their music "enters from the rear") and fixate on the longing, anger, and thrilling sense of desolation that comes through the music.
I have an okay season individually, winning a few tournaments and scoring more victories and points than any of my teammates, but nobody on the school team makes the state tournament for the first time in twenty years. Our coaches call a postseason practice and ambush us with a surprisingly physical ass-beating we complain about later to unsympathetic parents. One kid's got a black eye, and a few others have mat-burn on their faces, but nobody goes to the administration. We all agree to quit the following year.
For the first time since eighth grade, I go out for baseball. I'm an okay player, but the roster's filled out with guys returning for their third year, and I mostly ride the pine humming and singing along with the songs in my head.
Maynard James Keenan bridges the waking world with the realm of dreams with the help of pink pajamas and a manageable quantity of what's most likely LSD.
I go to Lollapalooza just to see Tool perform. Keenan comes out wearing a bikini and platform shoes, one half of his body painted red and the other painted black, and the crowd of thousands goes apeshit. He runs back and forth on the stage for more than an hour, alternating between two microphones he carries (one for each hand). It occurs to me (I'm beginning to grasp the druggie dimension here, thanks to repeated trials of smoking poorly rolled joints of brown ditch weed) that he's a marionette literally wired by the microphone cords into the band's act. This disturbs me for some reason, but not so much I don't jump into the mosh pit, which is located outside the seating area and too open to be safe. I have fun until one stranger breaks into a sprint and clotheslines another and then comes back to stomp on the guy's head, and the injured party has to be carried out in an ambulance while the band continues to play. Going home, my friends and I take turns driving, and at about five the girl at the wheel falls asleep, steers us into the path of a semi, only to be woken by the kid in the passenger seat in time to save us from probably dying.
Lateralus comes out. Maybe it's a big deal, but maybe not. I'm in college, haven't listened to Tool for a couple of years, and I have little sense of what's going on outside the city limits of my university's town. The band's existence is kind of embarrassing to me now, for a number of reasons, the main two being its exploitation of the young adolescent tendency to gravitate toward tawdry darkness and its phony representation of psychedelic experience. Still, I buy the album out of something like loyalty to my teenage self and give the thing a listen. The percussion is too loud (if technically superb), the chord progressions too crude and sharp. I don't bother to look at the so-called art or the lyrics, which sound like the same jumble of gnomic cookie fortunes. I get the sense Keenan and company are getting old, going deaf in their ears and hearts, that they're just out there making competent noise. Still, there's a useful anger in the music and sometimes I listen when I go running or hit the weightroom.
On Christmas day, while I'm home with my parents, GR and his dad stop by unannounced. I'm stunned but happy to see him. It turns out he's dropped out of college to pay child support for the daughter he has with a local girl. He tells me his dad just got out of some minimum security counseling jail for alcoholics about ten seconds before his dad comes up and scolds me for not offering him a beer, at which GR does not bat an eye. I then offer the beer, and GR's dad responds yes, please. GR and I sit in my backyard, talking about what we think of as our serious lives. At some point it becomes clear that they are spending Christmas driving around, visiting old haunts, trying to figure out how the word of his dad's jailing has spread. A few minutes before they leave for the next destination, he turns to me and asks what I think of the last Tool album.
I go with my younger brother to a Tool show at the Meadowlands in the dead of winter. I haven't given them much thought in years, especially since I discovered the band Isis (not to be confused with the terrorist army), which does what Tool does musically at a much more satisfying level while making forays into realms of structure and sound my old favorite band never even approached.
Tool has changed over the years, and I'm no longer even embarrassed: they've simply become another well-branded widget on the endless American shelf. Their last album, which I deigned to listen to at a beach rental with some friends in 2008, is not only boring musically, but it showcases Keenan's obnoxious tendency to preach to his audience (of course, American rock stars have long confused themselves with priests, shamans, and prophets). His side acts are also bad, pale imitations of early Tool. Most absurdly, the lead singer has become a bloated imbecilic caricature of his old self, actually fronting a winery identified under a medicinal conceit that could only hold sway with the anti-vaccination crowd.
All the same, I go, and all the same, I'm excited. I haven't been to a big corporate extravaganza-type concert since Bonnaroo in 2004, I'm looking forward to the show like some gray-haired college alumnus hoping to do a keg stand at his old frathouse while back in his college town for a football game. I get some great smoke and meet my brother at the Port Authority, where we drink nine dollar Coronas in bar that appears devoted to hustlers and drifters, then get into line for the bus to New Jersey.
The Meadowlands is packed. Tool has a distinct following, largely composed of guys with shaved heads, potbellies, and the smug, pseudointellectual air of Ayn Rand enthusiasts. They wear mostly black and, more often than not, have extremely hot, unhappy-seeming girlfriends. It's no surprise that almost all of them are white, but they seem especially pale, as if quietly dealing with liver damage from taking too many painkillers.
My brother and I get so high that walking to the bathroom and back feels like an adventure. From what I can discern, the rest of the audience is in the same boat. The band has anticipated this, darkening the stage and letting everyone's attention settle on the extraordinary light and graphics show on the large screen above them. The imagery is all psychedelic wallpaper with a heavy phallic motif, things like vividly nacreous closed eyes that become vaginal lips that are then turned inside out as if by the penetrating force of the crowd's attention. The crowd is wildly excited by the imagery, bellowing in startling pleasure at the strong visual references to their own experiences, imaginary and real, of their genitals. At one point, Keenan leaves the stage for twenty minutes, only to come back and taunt everyone.
The music is good, the production quality very high: these guys are old hands at what they do. And they play a great setlist, one comprising all the best songs from their early albums, including "Swamp Song," "4 Degrees," "Flood," "Opiate," and "Eulogy." Still, it's difficult not to leave feeling disappointed by the apparent fact that the band I loved as a kid has transformed itself into the Six Flags of alternative rock. For the next week or so, at home and at work, I make fun of the spectacle, and of myself for having voluntarily stood witness.
These days, Keenan rocks a vaguely lumbersexual look at Caduceus Cellars, in Jerome, AZ.
Writing this while my wife is out and my kid is taking a nap, I've considered playing a few of these old tracks. But I don't think I will. Tool is very much a band I grew up with, then alongside, and then far away from, and while some fans would say that's appropriate, given the band's fascination with the idea of transformation (which Keenan's lyrics erroneously refer to in terms of "evolution"), I can't quite bring myself to smile at the thought, particularly when the band members have come to look a lot like those California yuppies they ridiculed back in the early 90's. These days, listening is a lot like visiting my hometown, fun in the most limited doses. For the most part, it's more than enough to remember.