There is a book of heavy metal. No one wrote it. It exists in the ether, in the songs and albums and album art and performances and memories of we who read it. It is filled with stories. Sabbath, Priest, Motörhead, Maiden. Like Hercules and Perseus, the stories are the tales of great heroes.
Metal, if we can agree to make its birth year 1969 (and for the purposes of this piece, let’s) is roughly three years my junior. This means there has never been a time I was listening to music where there was not metal to be heard. Practically speaking, this means a lot of my metal heroes are around 20 years older than me, at least. Sabbath, Priest, Deep Purple, Motörhead, Maiden all have or had members that are my senior. I have been around to see some heroes leave us, heroes in their prime: Burton, Rhoads, Burr… When we lost Dio and Lemmy, though, it felt like a nail to the gut. These were not just heroes, but honest to god… gods. They seemed to have always existed, and it seemed they could never die.
But of course they could. And in fact, assuming I don’t catch some death of my own in the next few years, I can expect to see many more of my metal heroes pass before I go. As I have watched their heroes pass. Harrison, Bowie, Prince… another list that fills another book.
We metalheads are about to live through a great dying. I say great in the massive sense, like the Permian/Triassic extinction. We will bear witness to our heroes coming to their ends. Everything in metal is epic, so it is fitting that the passing of the elders should be regarded as an epic tragedy, but also as an epic inevitability. The heroes are reaching the end of their lives. Valhalla or Hel, Hades or Heaven calls them as surely as it calls me. The gift and curse of life is that it ends.
Manilla Road was not a band I listened to very much. I just didn’t. They never caught my ear. A lot of metal bands haven’t. There may have been a time I would have laughed them off. That would be hubris and arrogance born of youth and exuberance.
But here at Last Rites, Manilla Road are something of a sorcerer’s familiar. If not for me, certainly for the rest of the crew. They come up often and incessantly, and again I listen and do not get the magic and carry on without them. But I no longer scoff. Manilla Road persisted; they were goddamned warriors. And Mark Shelton was a standard bearer for their cause. The crew talks about the band with reverence that is free of irony. They fucking love Manilla Road.
And I, no longer exuberant or youthful, have come to understand something about our community or cult or whatever metalheads call ourselves. I have come to understand the book of metal. That epicness I spoke of earlier? That is our hearts. We keep being metalheads, whether it is trendy or not. We have endured, like Manilla Road endured, because we have a craving for the epic in our bones. We infuse our love for this music with our own passion for the epic, the grand, the massive, even when that becomes dark and twisted. Our horror has to be epic; our death has to be, and that is a kind of passion that transcends style or time or even life.
When I was a newly minted teen, my mother asked me if I really, really liked bands like Iron Maiden, or if deep down I knew it was just a phase. I told her that I wasn’t sure, but that Maiden and Saxon and Sabbath all talked to me. All told me things I needed to hear. Not literally, but in a deeper way. In a way that nothing else did. I said if it was a phase, I felt like I would die with it.
Now I am a newly minted pentagenerian, and I just heard the newest Binah and I want to tear this room apart moshing to it. I was right. My phase will live at least as long as I do. Metal is in my soul.
The heroes I live to see die, each one of them tears a piece off my soul when they go. And I will rejoice each time because, motherfuckers, I got to see and hear them in their prime. And I got to watch them light the fires, see the molten iron poured into the molds, see it pounded and shaped. And I got to sample the steel, unmarked and pure. I got to see them pass the torch to my generation—death and thrash and speed. And then to the next—black and grind and brutal. And to the next and the next. I got to see the fads come and go. And I see metal endure.
Mark Shelton is a chapter in a story. He fought until he died. His was not the luxurious 80’s arenas, nor was it the supernova flash of grunge or nu metal. It wasn’t even the darkness of death metal or coldness of black metal. His instead was the glory of picking up a fucking guitar with some friends and just letting it happen. The glory that comes from just wanting to be a part of this epic story called heavy metal. He was a soldier’s soldier, never winning the brightest medals, but his campaign badges filling his uniform with no room to spare. He died a hero.
Heroes are stories. Stories are forever. Epic stories have epic heroes. And metal is epic, therefore our heroes are epic and their stories are epic. They are all immortals. They die, as must we all. But they live forever in their glorious stories.
It would be disingenuous of me to mourn the passing of Mark Shelton as though I was a part of the Manilla Road story. But it is not disingenuous of me to raise a glass and praise his part in the book of metal. Because that book is bigger than I am, by far. And anyone who has written their name in its pages is worthy.
Hail the victorious dead.